U.S. extends restrictions at Mexico, Canada borders through Jan. 21

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. land borders with Canada and Mexico will remain closed to non-essential travel until at least Jan. 21 with coronavirus cases spiking to record numbers across the country, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said on Friday.

Canada has shown little interest in lifting the restrictions as the virus runs rampant across the United States. U.S. officials had previously sought some revisions especially for restrictions impacting residents along the Canadian border.

The United States recorded more than 200,000 COVID-19 cases per day for four straight days, according to a Reuters tally of official data. The U.S. also reported a record 3,253 deaths on Wednesday.

The United States has reported about 15.6 million cases and 292,642 deaths since the start of the pandemic. By contrast, Canada has had about 442,000 confirmed cases with just over 13,100 deaths.

Statistics Canada said in October that August visits to Canada by car by U.S. travelers were down 95.7%, and the number of U.S. travelers to Canada by plane fell by 97.9%.

U.S. President Donald Trump has been considering lifting restrictions that ban most non-U.S. travelers from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil, and the 26 countries in the so-called Schengen border-free area of Europe.

Reuters first reported on Nov. 25 the White House was considering rescinding the European and Brazilian entry bans.

The plan won the backing of White House coronavirus task-force members, public health and other federal agencies.

Trump may still opt not to lift the restrictions, given the high number of coronavirus infections in Europe. One potential hurdle is the fact that European countries are not likely to immediately allow most Americans to resume visits, officials said.

(Reporting by David Shepardson, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Bill Berkrot)

FBI investigating robocalls urging people to ‘stay home’ on Election Day

By Christopher Bing, Elizabeth Culliford and Raphael Satter

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The FBI is looking into a spate of mysterious robocalls urging people to stay home on Election Day as the nation remains on high alert to ensure voting is not compromised, a Department of Homeland Security official said Tuesday.

U.S. state and local officials have been raising the alarm over at least two separate automated call campaigns as million of Americans cast their votes on Tuesday to decide between President Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden.

Experts who spoke to Reuters say they are mystified by one of the campaigns, which tells people to remain home but does not explicitly mention voting.

“There’s a little bit of confusion about this one across the industry,” said Giulia Porter, vice president at RoboKiller, a company that fights telemarketers and robocalls and has been tracking the campaign.

Audio of the calls, which RoboKiller shared with Reuters, features a synthetic female voice saying: “Hello. This is just a test call. Time to stay home. Stay safe and stay home.” Porter said the call had been placed millions of times in the past 11 months or so but had on Tuesday shot up to No. 5 or No. 6 in the list of top spam calls.

“This robocall is being sent at a very high volume,” she said.

Porter said her company was still in the process of compiling figures on the campaign’s intensity on Tuesday but estimated that “thousands or tens of thousands” of people had received it.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

One of them was Hashim Warren, a 40-year-old Democratic voter who lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, and works in marketing at a web development company.

Warren, who is Black, said the call triggered anxieties he and his wife already had about potential violence around the election from far-right supporters of President Donald Trump.

“Instead of saying like, Election Day is not today, the fact that it said ‘stay safe’ felt both vile and prescient as if they knew there were other things, real things happening in the world, not robocalls, that were making myself and my wife feel anxious,” Warren said in a telephone interview.

Janaka Stucky, 42, a Democratic voter who lives in Medford, Massachusetts, also received the robocall this morning.

“My first thought was that actually it was a municipal test call for a COVID lockdown thing,” he told Reuters.

“The more I thought about it I was like, oh this actually feels really off and weird and then started to feel like it was some sort of, maybe, voter suppression effort,” he added.

He said he voted weeks ago. “Joke’s on the robocalls. I’m stocked up on Halloween candy and I already voted,” he said.

Robocalls with similar or identical messages urging people to stay home were reported in series of battleground states including Florida and Iowa.

In Michigan, officials said they had reports of a separate batch of robocalls urging residents in the heavily Black city of Flint to “vote tomorrow” due to purported long lines.

“Obviously this is FALSE and an effort to suppress the vote,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a message posted to Twitter. “Don’t fall for it.”

It’s unclear what relation, if any, the Michigan calls have to do with the “stay home” calls.

Robocalls have long been a problem in the United States, which has struggled for years to put a lid on unwanted or scammy messages.

AT&T Inc, one of America’s leading telecommunications providers, did not return a message seeking comment. Verizon Communications Inc referred questions to USTelecom, an industry association.

USTelecom did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

(Reporting by Christopher Bing, Raphael Satter, and Elizabeth Culliford; Additional reporting by Jack Stubbs in London.; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Explainer: Can Trump call in troops to quell Election Day unrest?

By Jan Wolfe

(Reuters) – There have been pockets of unrest in battleground states ahead of the showdown between President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, in Tuesday’s election.

On Saturday, peaceful participants at a rally in North Carolina to turn out the vote were pepper-sprayed by law enforcement officials. The Biden campaign canceled two events after a caravan of vehicles with Trump campaign flags swarmed a bus carrying campaign workers in Texas on Friday.

Trump, who previously declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he decides Tuesday’s election results are fraudulent, could bring in the military or federal agents to quell civil unrest on Election Day.

Here is a look at the laws that give Trump authority in this area, and the limitations on his power.

WHAT IS THE INSURRECTION ACT?

Under the U.S. Constitution, governors of U.S. states have primary authority to maintain order within state borders. The 1878 Posse Comitatus Act bars the federal military from participating in domestic law enforcement.

The Insurrection Act, an exception to the Posse Comitatus Act dating back to 1807, permits the president to send in U.S. forces to suppress a domestic insurrection.

The Insurrection Act has been invoked dozens of times in U.S. history, but rarely since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

It was last invoked in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush when the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Black motorist Rodney King led to deadly riots. California’s governor supported Bush’s use of the law.

The act gives a president “awesome powers” and should be used as a last resort, said retired Army Major General John Altenburg, now a Washington lawyer.

DID TRUMP INVOKE THE ACT IN RESPONSE TO THIS YEAR’S ANTI-RACISM PROTESTS?

Trump considered invoking the act in response to violence and looting at mostly peaceful anti-racism protests in June. Trump dropped the idea after public pushback from Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Instead, Trump sent U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents to cities like Washington and Portland, Oregon.

Those agents had military-style equipment but they were civilians and not members of the armed forces.

In the event of unrest on Election Day on Tuesday or in the ensuing days, Trump is more likely to activate those federal agents than the military, said Jimmy Gurulé, a University of Notre Dame law professor and former Justice Department official.

To do so, Trump would need to cite some violation of federal law that the agents are policing against. The DHS agents sent to Portland earlier this year were charged with enforcing a law against vandalizing federal property like courthouses.

CAN TRUMP ACTIVATE THE NATIONAL GUARD?

Yes, the U.S. government could activate, or “federalize,” the Army National Guard, a reserve force of part-time soldiers. Those civilian soldiers are usually activated by governors, but federal law also allows the U.S. government to mobilize them.

Once federalized, National Guard soldiers are under the full command and control of the defense secretary until they are returned to state status.

This year, many state governors have activated the National Guard to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and support local law enforcement in quelling disturbances.

SO TRUMP NEED NOT HAVE A GOVERNOR’S APPROVAL FOR SENDING IN TROOPS?

Right. Under the Insurrection Act, if a president determines that a rebellion has made it “impracticable” to enforce U.S. law through ordinary judicial proceedings, he may activate the armed forces without a governor’s approval “to enforce those laws or to suppress the rebellion.”

Historically, presidents and governors have generally agreed on the need for troops.

Trump can activate DHS agents, who are federal government employees, or the National Guard, without state approval.

There are limits, however, on the president’s power. Federal law makes it illegal for the military or other federal agents to interfere with an election. Deploying the military or DHS to polling places is illegal, for example.

CAN A COURT BLOCK A PRESIDENT’S USE OF FORCE?

Yes, but courts have historically been reluctant to second-guess a president’s military declarations, said Robert Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas.

“When a president claims that the facts on the ground warrant invocation of the Insurrection Act, courts ordinarily would not second-guess this,” Chesney said. Judges, however, could break with precedent if they believed Trump had relied on false claims to justify the use of force, he said.

If Trump sends in DHS or other federal agents, they must respect the constitutional rights of civilians. Advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union accused the agents in Portland of making arrests that violated the constitutional rights of protesters and journalists.

But the Trump administration had the lawful authority to use the agents, legal experts said.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Howard Goller and Peter Cooney)

U.S. watchdog investigating immigration detention center tied to allegations of improper hysterectomies

By Ted Hesson and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said at a congressional hearing on Wednesday that the department’s internal watchdog is investigating a Georgia immigration detention center tied to allegations of improper hysterectomies and other gynecological procedures.

Wolf said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inspector general would interview people at the facility on Wednesday and Thursday, but cautioned that “some of the facts on the ground” did not back up the allegations.

“At this point, they are allegations, and we need to make sure that they fully investigate them so that all sides have a chance to be heard,” Wolf said during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The claims were made by Dawn Wooten, a former nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center, in a complaint filed to the inspector general last week.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has denied the allegations, which have shocked people across Latin America, from where many U.S. immigrants hail, and caused an outcry among Democratic lawmakers.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Homeland Security chief says department is reviewing complaints excessive force used in Portland

By Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is reviewing “a number” of complaints that its agents used excessive force against anti-racism protesters in Portland, Oregon, though so far no one has been disciplined, the department’s acting head said on Thursday.

Acting Secretary Chad Wolf testified to the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs about the federal response to long-running protests in Portland, where state and city officials complained that the presence of federal officers inflamed protests.

He did not say how many complaints were being reviewed or provide any specifics of what had been alleged.

Largely peaceful protests have been held across the United States since the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in Minneapolis police custody. Protests in cities, including Portland, have at times erupted into arson and violence, and federal officers sent into the Northwestern city have repeatedly clashed with crowds targeting the federal courthouse there.

Wolf denied that federal officers had cracked down on peaceful protesters, saying they had faced repeated overnight violence around a federal courthouse that became the focus of protests. Officers reported 277 injuries, he said.

“In no way are we doing anything on peaceful protests,” Wolf said.

He said that DHS believed there was “some coordination” between participants in Portland protests, who he said included “violent opportunists,” anarchists and members of the far-right Boogaloo movement, and he said Antifa activists had used online messaging to encourage violence. He said federal agencies had “very, very little” intelligence from inside the violent protest movement.

The House Intelligence Committee this week launched its own investigation into DHS’s intelligence office, including its actions in Portland, and its involvement in other anti-racism protests across the country.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by Scott Malone and Matthew Lewis)

U.S. House panel investigates DHS office over Portland, other protests

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House Intelligence Committee launched an investigation on Monday into the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence office, including its actions in Portland, Oregon, and its involvement in other anti-racism protests across the country.

“The reporting regarding the monitoring of peaceful protesters, creating and disseminating intelligence reports about journalists and protesters, and potential exploitation of electronic devices is deeply troubling,” Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a Democrat, wrote in a letter to top DHS officials.

The United States has seen largely peaceful protests nationwide since the death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in Minneapolis police custody in May. Protests in cities, including Portland, have at times erupted into arson and violence, and federal officers sent into the Northwestern city have repeatedly clashed with crowds targeting the federal courthouse there.

The probe shows that Democrats will use congressional authority to investigate efforts by the Trump administration to demonize protesters and deploy federal personnel in law enforcement operations in several cities despite opposition from local mayors and governors.

In his letter to acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf and acting department intelligence chief Horace Jen, Schiff requested detailed intelligence reporting documents that informed a recommendation by the then-chief of the DHS intelligence operation on July 25 requesting that DHS reports on anarchist-related Portland protesters refer to them as “Violent Antifa Anarchists Inspired.”

The official who wrote the memo, acting DHS intelligence chief Brian Murphy, was subsequently transferred to a different job over the weekend.

In his letter to DHS, Schiff also requested that Jen, Murphy and several other DHS officials, including intelligence officials, give interviews to the committee this month.

Schiff said that if the department did not produce the witnesses and documents he requested, he would consider issuing subpoenas.

The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Mary Milliken and Jonathan Oatis)

Portland has night without tear gas as feds withdraw

By Deborah Bloom

PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) – Portland had its first night in weeks without tear gas after state police took over from federal agents guarding a courthouse that has been the focal point of violence between protesters and tactical officers.

The agents withdrew under a deal between Oregon’s governor and U.S. officials to end a deployment that sparked a standoff between Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic mayors over the use of federal officers in their cities.

A few hundred people demonstrated outside the federal courthouse until around 2 a.m. when they left of their own accord, according to a Reuters reporter. On previous nights they had been dispersed with tear gas and other munitions fired by federal agents.

“Things went a lot better last night, last night was the first night in about two months that our officers and agents inside the federal court building there in Portland didn’t come under a direct and immediate threat of being burned alive,” said U.S. Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott, whose Border Tactical Unit officers have been among Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents in Portland.

Oregon State Police said around 100 of its officers took over security at the courthouse with some regular Federal Protective Service agents remaining.

DHS agents remain on standby in the city and National Guard troops could be sent in should state police be overrun, DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf told Fox News after Trump threatened such action on Thursday

Separately, a DHS spokesman said Wolf had ordered an intelligence unit to stop collecting information on American journalists covering protests in Portland, Oregon, after a media report on the practice.

The Washington Post on Thursday reported that the department compiled “intelligence reports” on journalists using a government system meant to share information about suspected terrorists and violent actors.

(Reporting by Deborah Bloom, Andrew Hay and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler)

Trump says sending federal agents to more U.S. cities to fight violent crime

By Jeff Mason and Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump announced a plan on Wednesday to send federal agents to more U.S. cities to crack down on violent crime as he emphasizes a “law and order” mantra going into the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Trump, joined by Attorney General William Barr, unveiled an expansion of the “Operation Legend” program to include cities such as Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a further effort by federal officials to tackle violence.

“Today I’m announcing a surge of federal law enforcement into American communities plagued by violent crime,” said Trump.

Trump said “we have no choice but to get involved” with a rising death toll in some major cities.

“This bloodshed must end, this bloodshed will end,” he said.

The program involves deploying federal law enforcement agents to assist local police in combating what the Justice Department has described as a “surge” of violent crime.

A Justice Department official said the initiative is not related to the use of federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security to quell unrest in Portland, Oregon.

The Republican president has sharply criticized Democratic leaders for presiding over cities and states that are experiencing crime waves, using the issue as part of a “law and order” push he hopes will resonate with his political base. Trump is trailing Democrat Joe Biden in national opinion polls.

It is not unusual for federal law enforcement to work alongside local partners. The Justice Department official said “Operation Legend” would provide additional resources to cities suffering from “traditional” violent crime.

Trump has emphasized a robust policing and military approach to the protests across the United States about racial inequality after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis police custody.

The White House has sought to focus on city crime even as Trump’s approval numbers plummet in response to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The “Operation Legend” program involves federal agents form the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service and other agencies, partnering with local law enforcement.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said federal intervention was not required to help with violence in New York City, and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has also urged Trump not to send unidentified federal agents to her city.

“Operation Legend” is named for LeGend Taliferro, a 4-year-old boy who was shot and killed while he slept early June 29 in Kansas City, Missouri, according to the Department of Justice’s website.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Sarah Lynch; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Trump to send federal forces to more ‘Democrat’ cities

By Steve Holland and Lisa Lambert

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Monday said he would send law enforcement to more U.S. cities, as a federal crackdown on anti-racism protests in Oregon with unmarked cars and unidentified forces angered people across the country.

Trump, a Republican, cited New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland, California, as places to send federal agents, noting the cities’ mayors were “liberal Democrats.” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot frequently blasts Trump on Twitter.

“We’re sending law enforcement,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “We can’t let this happen to the cities.”

State and local leaders in Oregon, as well as members of Congress, have called for Trump to remove Department of Homeland Security secret police forces from Portland, Oregon, after videos showed unidentified federal personnel rounding up people and whisking them away in black minivans.

“Not only do I believe he is breaking the law, but he is also endangering the lives of Portlanders,” the city’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, tweeted, having previously called the federal presence “political theater” in an election year.

Trump, trailing in opinion polls behind Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, in June declared himself “president of law and order” and threatened to send the U.S. military into cities after sometimes violent protests and looting in the aftermath of African American ‘s death in police custody in Minneapolis.

Federal agents last week began cracking down on Portland protests against police brutality and systemic racism, using tear gas to defend federal buildings and taking some activists into custody without explanation.

“They grab a lot of people and jail the leaders. These are anarchists,” Trump said of federal agents sent to the historically liberal city to quell often unruly protests.

Despite a national outcry over the tactics, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials on Monday said they would not back down and would not apologize.

The state of Oregon and the American Civil Liberties Union have sued the Trump administration for unlawfully detaining Oregon residents, and some Republicans spoke out against its tactics on Monday.

“There is no place for federal troops or unidentified federal agents rounding people up at will,” tweeted U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

The Chicago Tribune reported that Homeland Security was making plans to deploy around 150 agents in the city this week where police defending a statue clashed with protesters on Friday.

The DHS did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Doina Chiacu and Lisa Lambert in Washington, additional reporting by Maria Caspani in New York, Deborah Bloom in Portland; Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. officials defend Portland crackdown: ‘We’re not going to apologize’

By Doina Chiacu and Lisa Lambert

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Top Homeland Security officials said on Monday they had no intention of pulling back in Portland, Oregon, and defended the federal crackdown on anti-racism protests, including the use of unmarked cars and unidentified officers in camouflage.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sent law enforcement units to Portland to back up the Federal Protective Service responsible for guarding U.S. government facilities after receiving intelligence about planned attacks around July 4, the DHS officials said.

“DHS is not going to back down from our responsibilities. We are not escalating, we are protecting,” Chad Wolf, acting secretary of Homeland Security, told Fox News.

President Donald Trump condemned protests in Portland and violence in other “Democrat-run” cities on Sunday as his Republican administration moves to intervene in urban centers he says have lost control of demonstrations. Protests began across the country after the police killing of African American George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May.

In Portland, federal officers last week started cracking down on crowds, using tear gas to disperse protesters and taking some into custody in unmarked cars.

Portland Police early on Monday provided details on another tense night between protesters and federal law enforcement in the city, saying federal agents used tear gas to disperse a crowd that had gathered outside a federal courthouse downtown.

Wolf said federal law enforcement was doing its job.

“We’re not going to apologize for it,” he said. “We’re going to do it professionally and do it correctly.”

The clampdown in the liberal city has drawn widespread criticism and legal challenges as videos surfaced of officers without clear identification badges using force and unmarked vehicles to arrest protesters without explanation.

Ken Cuccinelli, the acting Department of Homeland Security (DHS) deputy secretary, said the federal officers wore the same uniforms every day and the crowds knew who they were. He also defended the use of unmarked cars as routine.

“Unmarked police vehicles are so common it’s barely worth discussion,” he told CNN.

Cuccinelli said if federal authorities receive the same kind of intelligence threat in other places, they would respond the same way. “It’s really as simple as that,” he said.

On Sunday, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives demanded internal investigations into whether the Justice and Homeland Security departments “abused emergency authorities” in handling the Portland protests.

Portland’s mayor called the intervention an abuse of federal power and said it was escalating the violence. Oregon’s attorney general filed a lawsuit against the federal agencies, saying they had seized and detained people without probable cause.

Cuccinelli dismissed local leaders’ calls to leave the city.

“We will maintain our presence,” he said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Lisa Lambert in Washington, additional reporting by Maria Caspani in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)