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)

Portland police use tear gas after declaring riot for second night

By Kanishka Singh

(Reuters) – Police in the city of Portland said they fired crowd control munitions and tear gas on Wednesday night to break up a gathering of about 200 people who threw rocks, lit fires and vandalized a U.S. immigration agency building.

Law enforcement officials had declared a riot for a second successive night, calling a protest near the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office an “unlawful assembly”.

Federal officers fired pepper balls and set off a few smoke devices, the Oregonian newspaper reported earlier.

Protests against racism and police brutality have swept the United States since the death on May 25 of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

The Portland protests are among those that have erupted occasionally in arson and violence, with federal officers sent into the northwestern city repeatedly clashing with crowds targeting its federal courthouse.

Wednesday’s protest began in the Elizabeth Caruthers Park before demonstrators marched toward the ICE building.

“All persons near SW Bancroft St and SW Bond Ave must disperse,” police had said on Twitter, warning the marchers they faced arrest and the use of tear gas, crowd control agents and impact weapons if they did not comply.

Two arrests were made on charges of “interfering with a peace officer and disorderly conduct”, police said in a statement. The arrested men were booked into the Multnomah County Detention Center.

Police officers sustained minor injuries, the statement added, without specifying how many were injured.

Police had also declared a riot on Tuesday after protesters lit fires, threw rocks and smashed windows at county government offices in another location, in violence that also led to two arrests and a minor injury for an officer.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr drew fire from Democratic lawmakers this month for sending federal officers to disperse protesters in the city.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Tom Hogue, Clarence Fernandez and Alex Richardson)

U.S. immigration officials spread coronavirus with detainee transfers

By Mica Rosenberg, Kristina Cooke and Reade Levinson

NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Public health specialists have for months warned the U.S. government that shuffling detainees among immigration detention centers will expose people to COVID-19 and help spread the disease.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has continued the practice, saying it is taking all necessary precautions.

It turns out the health specialists were right, according to a Reuters review of court records and ICE data.

The analysis of immigration court data identified 268 transfers of detainees between detention centers in April, May and June, after hundreds in ICE custody had already tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Half of the transfers Reuters identified involved detainees who were either moved from centers with COVID-19 cases to centers with no known cases, or from centers with no cases to those where the virus had spread.

The Reuters tally is likely just a small fraction of all transfers, former ICE officials said. ICE does not release data on detainee moves, and court records capture only a smattering of them.

At least one transfer resulted in a super-spreading event, according to emails from ICE and officials at a detention center in Farmville, Virginia, court documents and interviews with more than a dozen detainees at the facility.

Until that transfer, only two detainees had tested positive at the Farmville center — both immigrants transferred there in late April. They were immediately isolated and monitored and were the only known cases at the facility for more than a month, court records state.

Then on June 2, ICE relocated 74 detainees from Florida and Arizona, more than half of whom later tested positive for COVID-19. By July 16, Farmville was the detention center hardest-hit by the virus with 315 total cases, according to ICE data.

`THE WALKING DEAD’

Serafin Saragoza, a Mexican detainee at Farmville, said he and another detainee – who confirmed Saragoza’s account to Reuters – had contact with the transferees when they first arrived. His job was to distribute shoes and clothing to the new arrivals.

The new group was kept in a separate dormitory, but about two weeks after their arrival, dozens of other detainees began falling ill, 15 detainees said in interviews. The Centers for Disease Control says COVID symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure to the virus.

“There are people with fevers, two guys collapsed on the floor because they fainted,” Saragoza said. “There is one guy who has a really high fever. He looks like the walking dead.”

Faced with an outbreak, Farmville tested all detainees in the first few days of July. Of 359 detainees tested, 268 were positive, according to an ICE statement in response to questions from Reuters. While the majority are asymptomatic, it said, three detainees are hospitalized.

The ICE statement said the agency was committed to the welfare of all detainees and continued some transfers to reduce crowding. ICE did not respond to a request for comment on Reuters’ analysis.

Former ICE officials and immigration attorneys say the agency regularly transfers people in custody for myriad reasons, including: bed space, preparing migrants for deportation, and security reasons. With the pandemic still raging in the United States, lawmakers have called on ICE to halt the practice.

Carlos Franco-Paredes, an infectious disease doctor studying COVID-19 outbreaks in correctional settings, said it is not possible to transfer detainees safely in the current environment.

“If you’re moving people, particularly from an area where there is an ongoing outbreak, even though you sequester them for two weeks or so, there is contact with people,” said Franco-Paredes. “You’re basically spreading the problems.”

In an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19, ICE halted detention center visits in mid-March and has slowed arrests. U.S.-Mexico border crossings have also fallen, leading to smaller detained populations overall.

RISING CASES

Prisons and detention centers have been disproportionately affected by coronavirus outbreaks. Large numbers of people confined in close quarters with insufficient access to medical care and poor ventilation and sanitation all create a breeding ground for viral infections, infectious disease doctors say.

As of July 16, ICE had reported 3,567 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in its detention centers. The actual number of infected detainees is almost certainly higher, Franco-Paredes said, since not all centers are doing widespread testing.

About 22,000 detainees are in ICE custody now, and about 13,500 tests have been done, but that likely includes some immigrants who have since been released.

To be sure, detainee transfers are not the only means of introducing the virus to a detention center. Employees with the disease are another main source of transmission, public health specialists said. Nearly 1,000 detention center employees have tested positive for the virus.

Before it transfers detainees, ICE policy is to screen them for fevers and other symptoms, but not to test for the disease. Those with positive or suspected cases of COVID-19 are isolated from other detainees, ICE says.

MASS TRANSFER

But the case of Farmville shows that efforts to keep sick and healthy detainees separate don’t always prevent the spread.

A week after the out-of-state transferees arrived at the Farmville center, three of them tested positive for the virus while still quarantined from the general population. In response, center officials decided to test the entire group of new arrivals, according to an email from ICE deputy field office director Matthew Munroe to immigration attorneys. Fifty-one tested positive.

ICE data shows that the day before the transfers, two of the three centers where the detainees came from had reported cases. ICE’s Krome North Service Processing Center in Florida had 15 confirmed COVID cases, and Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Arizona had one.

The Reuters review of immigration court records identified 195 transfers to or from detention centers where ICE had reported confirmed cases. These include:

–A May 6 transfer from New Mexico’s Otero County Processing Center, which at the time had 10 confirmed cases, to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, which had no known cases until two weeks later on May 19.

–A transfer on May 7 from the Bluebonnet Detention Center in Anson, Texas, which at the time had 41 confirmed cases, to the Johnson County Jail in Dallas, which had no known cases until May 19.

–Four transfers in late May from a detention center in Glades County, Florida, which at the time had no known cases, to the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, Florida, which at the time had 19 known cases.

Immigration court data notes when the government notifies the court that it has moved a detainee in its custody to another location. Reuters only counted transfers if the data showed a detainee having a hearing in a new, known detention facility, prison or jail. The news agency then compared those records to ICE counts of infections at detention centers.

Saragoza, the Mexican detainee in Farmville, lived in the United States for 21 years before his arrest. He has diabetes and high blood pressure – two conditions that the CDC says puts coronavirus patients at higher risk of falling seriously ill. He said he started feeling ill in late June but was not as sick as some others in his dormitory.

On July 9, he got bad news. He and almost all the men in his dorm had tested positive for coronavirus.

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York, Reade Levinson in London and Kristina Cooke in Los Angeles. Editing by Ross Colvin and Janet Roberts.)

Harvard, MIT seek temporary halt to Trump administration rule on international students

By Mimi Dwyer

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued the Trump administration on Wednesday, seeking to block a new rule that would bar foreign students from remaining in the United States if their universities move all courses online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The two universities filed a lawsuit in federal court in Boston asking for an emergency temporary restraining order on the new directive issued by the government on Monday.

“We will pursue this case vigorously so that our international students – and international students at institutions across the country – can continue their studies without the threat of deportation,” Harvard President Lawrence Bacow wrote in a statement addressed to the Harvard community.

The lawsuit filed by Harvard and MIT, two of the most elite U.S. universities, is the first to challenge the order that could force tens of thousands of foreign students to leave the country if their schools switch fully to remote learning.

Harvard had announced it would hold all classes online in the coming fall term.

The U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

U.S. President Donald Trump is pushing schools across the country to re-open in the fall.

The Trump administration announcement blindsided academic institutions grappling with the logistical challenges of safely resuming classes as the coronavirus pandemic continues unabated around the world, and surges in the United States, especially among young people.

There are more than a million foreign students at U.S. colleges and universities, and many schools depend on revenue from foreign students, who often pay full tuition.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency rule said most students on F-1 and M-1 visas could stay if their programs were in person or offered a mix of online and in-person instruction.

In the wake of the announcement, students, professors, and universities were scrambling to figure out exactly who would be affected by the rule and come up with ways to comply without having to leave the country. On Twitter, professors across the country offered to teach outdoor in-person independent study courses for affected students.

The ICE policy change marked an unexpected reversal of exceptions to the rules limiting online learning for foreign students when colleges and universities in March rushed to shutter campuses and move to virtual classes as the pandemic forced lockdowns.

ICE “proceeded without any indication of having considered the health of students, faculty, university staff, or communities,” the complaint said.

The suit alleges the government skirted the proper rule making process and is asking the court to strike it down.

Judge Allison Burroughs, appointed by former President Barack Obama, is assigned to hear the case. In 2017, she ordered a halt to Trump’s travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries, a policy that was eventually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

(Reporting by Mimi Dwyer in New York; Additional reporting by Dan Burns and Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Bernadette Baum)

U.S. to ramp up rapid deportations with sweeping new rule

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicle parks near the border fence between Mexico and U.S. as seen from Tijuana, Mexico July 22, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Tom Hals

(Reuters) – The Trump administration said on Monday it will expand and speed up deportations of migrants who enter the United States illegally by stripping away court oversight, enabling officials to remove people in days rather than months or years.

Set to be published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, the rule will apply “expedited removal” to the majority of those who enter the United States illegally unless they can prove they have been living in the country for at least two years.

Legal experts said it was a dramatic expansion of a program already used along the U.S.-Mexican border that cuts out review by an immigration judge, usually without access to an attorney. Both are available in regular proceedings.

“The Trump administration is moving forward into converting ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) into a ‘show me your papers’ militia,” said Vanita Gupta, the president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, on a call with reporters.

It was likely the policy would be blocked quickly by a court, several experts said. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed suit to block numerous Trump immigration policies in court, has vowed to sue.

President Donald Trump has struggled to stem an increase of mostly Central American families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, leading to overcrowded detention facilities and a political battle over a growing humanitarian crisis.

The government said increasing rapid deportations would free up detention space and ease strains on immigration courts, which face a backlog of more than 900,000 cases.

Nearly 300,000 of the approximately 11 million immigrants in the United States illegally could be quickly deported under the new rule, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said 37%, or 20,570, of those encountered by ICE in the year to September, had been in the country less than two years.

People in rapid deportation proceedings are detained for 11.4 days on average, according to DHS. People in regular proceedings are held for 51.5 days and are released into the United States for the months or years it takes to resolve their cases.

Legal experts said the rule shreds basic due process and could create havoc beyond immigrant communities.

“ICE has been detaining and deporting U.S. citizens for decades,” said Jackie Stevens, a political science professor at Northwestern University. That policy came at a great cost to U.S. taxpayers in terms of litigation and compensation, she added.

    ICE in 2003 became a successor agency to Immigration and Naturalization Services.

U.S. citizens account for about 1% of those detained by ICE and about 0.5% of those deported, according to Stevens’ research.

“Expedited removal orders are going to make this much worse,” she said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco in March ruled that those ordered deported in the sped-up process have a right to take their case to a judge.

Previously, only those immigrants caught within 100 miles of the border who had been in the country two weeks or less could be ordered rapidly deported. The policy makes an exception for immigrants who can establish a “credible fear” of persecution in their home country.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Richard Chang and Rosalba O’Brien)

Freak hailstorm engulfs trucks in Mexican city

A street covered in ice is pictured after a heavy storm of rain and hail in Guadalajara, Mexico June 30, 2019, in this picture grab obtained from a social media video. Picture taken June 30, 2019. Jorge David Arias Flores/via REUTERS

GUADALAJARA, Mexico (Reuters) – Drifts of hail from a freak storm partially buried tractor-trailers and cars in the Mexican city of Guadalajara, bringing families out on to the streets to play in ice piled high despite the summer heat.

Ice is seen on a street after a heavy storm of rain and hail in Guadalajara, Mexico June 30, 2019, in this picture obtained from social media. Picture taken June 30, 2019. Jorge David Arias Flores/via REUTERS

Ice is seen on a street after a heavy storm of rain and hail in Guadalajara, Mexico June 30, 2019, in this picture obtained from social media. Picture taken June 30, 2019. Jorge David Arias Flores/via REUTERS

The storm on Sunday blanketed parts of Mexico’s second largest city in 5 feet of white, Reuters images show. Soldiers and police who took to the streets to help the clear-up operations slid and slipped knee deep into the drifts.

Ice is seen on a street after a heavy storm of rain and hail in Guadalajara, Mexico June 30, 2019, in this picture obtained from social media. Picture taken June 30, 2019. Jorge David Arias Flores/via REUTERS

Ice is seen on a street after a heavy storm of rain and hail in Guadalajara, Mexico June 30, 2019, in this picture obtained from social media. Picture taken June 30, 2019. Jorge David Arias Flores/via REUTERS

Jorge David Arias, who was visiting family, said he and his relatives had never seen a storm like it. Arias shot photos showing cars pushed against trees by the force of the ice.

Guadalajara, in western Mexico, usually sees average temperatures in June of around 31 Celsius (88 Fahrenheit).

(Reporting by Fernando Carranza; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Trump says U.S. agency will begin removing millions of illegal immigrants

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees arrive at FCI Victorville federal prison in Victorville, California, U.S. June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Monday that U.S. authorities would begin next week removing millions of immigrants who are in the United States illegally.

“Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States,” Trump tweeted, referring to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. “They will be removed as fast as they come in,” he said. He did not offer specifics.

There are an estimated 12 million immigrants who are in the United States illegally, mainly from Mexico and Central America.

Under a deal reached earlier this month, Mexico has agreed to take Central American immigrants seeking asylum in the United States until their cases are heard in U.S. courts.

The agreement, which included Mexico pledging to deploy National Guard troops to stop Central American immigrants from reaching the U.S. border, averted a Trump threat to hit Mexican imports with tariffs.

Trump also said in the tweet that Guatemala “is getting ready to sign a Safe-Third Agreement.”

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence suggested last week that Guatemala could receive asylum seekers from its neighbors as a so-called safe third country.

Details of the plan have not been made public, and Guatemala has not publicly confirmed talks that the U.S. State Department said were taking place in Guatemala on Friday.

U.S. rights group Human Rights First said, however, it was “simply ludicrous” for the United States to assert that Guatemala was capable of protecting refugees when its own citizens are fleeing violence.

Mexico has agreed that if its measures to stem the flow of migrants are unsuccessful, it will discuss signing a safe third country agreement with the United States.

(Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Peter Cooney)

Mumps, other outbreaks force U.S. detention centers to quarantine over 2,000 migrants

FILE PHOTO: A vial of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and an information sheet is seen at Boston Children's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts February 26, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

By Mica Rosenberg and Kristina Cooke

(Reuters) – Christian Mejia thought he had a shot at getting out of immigration detention in rural Louisiana after he found a lawyer to help him seek asylum.

Then he was quarantined.

In early January, a mumps outbreak at the privately run Pine Prairie U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Processing Center put Mejia and hundreds of other detainees on lockdown. “When there is just one person who is sick, everybody pays,” Mejia, 19, said in a phone interview from the Pine Prairie center describing weeks without visits and access to the library and dining hall.

His attorney was not allowed in, but his immigration court case continued anyway – over a video conference line. On Feb. 12, the judge ordered Mejia deported back to Honduras.

The number of people amassed in immigration detention under the Trump administration has reached record highs, raising concerns among migrant advocates about disease outbreaks and resulting quarantines that limit access to legal services.

As of March 6, more than 50,000 migrants were in detention, according to ICE data.

Internal emails reviewed by Reuters reveal the complications of managing outbreaks like the one at Pine Prairie, since immigrant detainees often are transferred around the country and infected people do not necessarily show symptoms of viral diseases even when they are contagious.

Mumps can easily spread through droplets of saliva in the air, especially in close quarters. While most people recover within a few weeks, complications include brain swelling, sterility and hearing loss.

ICE health officials have been notified of 236 confirmed or probable cases of mumps among detainees in 51 facilities in the past 12 months, compared to no cases detected between January 2016 and February 2018. Last year, 423 detainees were determined to have influenza and 461 to have chicken pox. All three diseases are largely preventable by vaccine.

As of March 7, a total of 2,287 detainees were quarantined around the country, ICE spokesman Brendan Raedy told Reuters.

Ten Democratic members of Congress sent a letter on Feb. 28 to ICE acting Director Ronald Vitiello seeking more information about viral diseases at immigration detention centers in Colorado, Arizona and Texas. Lawmakers did not mention the Pine Prairie outbreak.

Pablo Paez, a spokesman for the GEO Group, the private prison operator that runs Pine Prairie under government contract, said its medical professionals follow standards set by ICE and health authorities. He said medical care provided to detainees allows the company “to detect, treat and follow appropriate medical protocols to manage an infectious outbreak.”

‘UNPRECEDENTED NUMBERS’

The first cases at Pine Prairie were detected in January in four migrants who had been recently transferred from the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Mississippi, according to internal emails.

Tallahatchie, run by private detention company CoreCivic Inc, has had five confirmed cases of mumps and 18 cases of chicken pox since January, according to company spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist. She said no one who was diagnosed was transferred out of the facility while the disease was active.

Tallahatchie houses hundreds of migrants recently apprehended along the U.S.- Mexico border, ICE said.

On Tuesday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told reporters that changing demographics on the southwest border, with more immigrants from Central America traveling long distances, overwhelmed border officials and raised health concerns.

“We are seeing migrants arrive with illnesses and medical conditions in unprecedented numbers,” McAleenan said at a press conference.

However, vaccination rates in the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are above 90 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ICE detainees come from countries all over the world, with varying degrees of vaccination coverage.

‘HIGH-PROFILE REMOVAL’

At Pine Prairie, staff members were at times at odds with the warden about how to manage the mumps outbreak, internal emails show. The warden decided not to quarantine 40 new arrivals from Tallahatchie in February despite concerns raised by the medical staff, one email showed.

The warden, Indalecio Ramos, who referred questions about the outbreak to ICE and the GEO Group, argued that quarantining the transfers would keep them from attending their court hearings, the facility’s health service administrator wrote in a Feb. 7 email.

In a Feb. 21 email, ICE requested that medical staff members at Pine Prairie clear a detainee quarantined for chicken pox and mumps for travel, calling him a “high-profile removal scheduled for deport.” In an email to staff later that day, warden Ramos wrote that medical staff had wanted to exclude the detainee from transfer but “ICE wants him to travel out of the country anyway … Please ensure he leaves.”

ICE spokesman Raedy said that travel is restricted for people who are known to be contagious but those exposed to diseases who are asymptomatic can travel.

Since January, the 1,094-bed Pine Prairie facility has had 18 detainees with confirmed or probable cases of mumps compared to no cases in 2018, according to ICE. As of mid-February, 288 people were under quarantine at Pine Prairie. Mejia said his quarantine ended on Feb. 25.

Detention centers in other states also have seen a rise in outbreaks.

There have been 186 mumps cases in immigration detention facilities in Texas since October, the largest outbreak in centers there in recent years, said Lara Anton, the press officer for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

In Colorado, at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility near Denver, run by the GEO Group, 357 people have been quarantined following eight confirmed and five suspected cases of mumps detected since February, as well as six cases of chicken pox diagnosed since the beginning of January, said Dr. Bernadette Albanese from the Tri County Health Department in Colorado.

Civil rights attorney Danielle Jefferis said court hearings for quarantined immigrants at Aurora were largely canceled.

At Pine Prairie on Feb. 12, Mejia said he felt confused and hopeless during his video hearing, with no attorney by his side.

After Mejia’s lawyers complained, attorneys were allowed to visit quarantined detainees on Feb. 13 – one day too late for Mejia.

While he is appealing his case, his lawyers say he could be deported at any time.

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Julie Marquis, Paul Thomasch and Lisa Shumaker)

Late winter snow hammers U.S. northeast, icy conditions ahead

A worker cuts away a tree that fell across Riverside Drive during a snow storm in upper Manhattan in New York City, New York, March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Segar

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York faced its biggest snowstorm of the winter on Monday as snow spread across the northeastern United States, infuriating commuters who juggled canceled planes and trains and faced icy travels ahead as temperatures plunge.

A band of winter weather stretching from Maryland to Maine dumped 15 inches (38 cm) of snow overnight on downtown Boston and 5 inches (13 cm) on New York’s Central Park, said meteorologist Marc Chenard of the National Weather Service.

A woman makes her way through the snow on cross country skis during a winter storm in Pallisades, New York March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Segar

A woman makes her way through the snow on cross country skis during a winter storm in Pallisades, New York March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Segar

That was enough for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to take the rare step of shutting the nation’s largest public school system and for New Jersey Transit, the largest statewide public transportation system in the United States, to cancel about a dozen commuter trains.

“This is horrible!” said Steve Wesley, 56, as he shoveled snow from his driveway in Maplewood, New Jersey, a New York City suburb.

Wesley’s two-mile local commute by car was delayed nearly two hours by the four to six inches of snow. 

“This is not what I want to be doing,” said Wesley, a sales representative for a power equipment distributor. “I’m usually the first one into the office. And if I get there and the parking lot is not plowed, I’ll be shoveling that too.”

Nearly 1,000 U.S. flights were canceled, most at Boston Logan International and New York area airports, according to FlightAware.com.

Government offices and libraries in Boston were closed. In New Jersey, where Governor Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency ahead of the storm, state workers had a two-hour delay.

Commuting challenges may mount over the remainder of the work week as snows melt and then temperatures drop, icing over roadways.

“Each day is a little bit cooler,” said Chenard, noting the week’s highest temperatures for the Northeast will be in the low 30s. “You’ll get some melting during the day, especially when the sun is hitting the snow, and then at night, it’s going to be cold enough to refreeze. Any road surfaces that aren’t treated certainly could get icy at night into the morning.”

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Scott Malone and Steve Orlofsky)

Talks collapse on border deal as U.S. government shutdown looms

FILE PHOTO: Construction fencing surrounds part of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, U.S. November 2, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Richard Cowan and Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Talks on border security funding collapsed after Democratic and Republican lawmakers clashed over immigrant detention policy as they worked to avert another U.S. government shutdown, a Republican senator said on Sunday.

“The talks are stalled right now,” Republican Senator Richard Shelby told “Fox News Sunday.” He said the impasse was over Democrats’ desire to cap the number of beds in detention facilities for people who enter the country illegally.

Efforts to resolve the dispute over border security funding extended into the weekend as a special congressional negotiating panel aimed to reach a deal by Monday, lawmakers and aides said.

Democratic Senator Jon Tester played down any breakdown in talks. “It is a negotiation. Negotiations seldom go smooth all the way through,” he told the Fox program. Tester, one of 17 negotiators, said he was hopeful a deal could be reached.

But Shelby put the chances of reaching a deal by Monday at 50-50. No further talks were scheduled, a source told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The lawmakers hoped to have an agreement by Monday to allow time for the legislation to pass the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate and get signed by President Donald Trump by Friday when funding for the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies expires.

Trump agreed on Jan. 25 to end a 35-day partial U.S. government shutdown without getting the $5.7 billion he had demanded from Congress for a wall along the border with Mexico, handing a political victory to Democrats.

Instead, a three-week spending deal was reached with congressional leaders to give lawmakers time to resolve their disagreements about how to address security along the border.

One sticking point has been the Democrats’ demand for funding fewer detention beds for people arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. Republicans want to increase the number as part of their drive to speed immigrant deportations.

Since he ran for president in 2016, Trump has pledged to stop the influx of undocumented immigrants by building a wall on the border and crack down on immigrants living in the United States illegally by aggressively conducting more deportations.

‘DESPERATELY NEEDED’

Democrats proposed lowering the cap on detention beds to 35,520 from the current 40,520 in return for giving Republicans some of the money they want for physical barriers, the source familiar with negotiations said.

But Democrats would create a limit within that cap of 16,500 beds at detention facilities for undocumented immigrants apprehended in the interior of the country. The remainder would be at border detention centers.

By having the interior cap, ICE agents would be forced to focus on arresting and deporting serious criminals, not law-abiding immigrants, a House Democratic aide said on Sunday.

Republicans balked at the Democrats’ sub-cap offer, the source said.

Trump weighed in Sunday, saying the Democratic proposal would protect felons. “They are offering very little money for the desperately needed Border Wall & now, out of the blue, want a cap on convicted violent felons to be held in detention!” Trump said on Twitter.

“Claims that this proposal would allow violent criminals to be released are false,” the Democratic aide said.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who is close to Trump, warned against limiting beds. “Donald Trump is not going to sign any legislation that reduces the bed spaces. You can take that to the bank,” he said on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures.”

Lawmakers working on a border deal also have not yet nailed down the amount of money to go for physical barriers along the southern U.S. border, the source said.

While a growing number of Republicans in Congress have made it clear they would not embrace another shutdown, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said he could not rule it out.

“You absolutely cannot,” Mulvaney, who is also Trump’s acting chief of staff, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “Is a shutdown entirely off the table? The answer is no.”

Lawmakers, however, were working to avoid it.

On Friday, some of the negotiators said that if Congress could not pass a border security bill by Friday, they would move to pass another stop-gap funding bill to avert a shutdown and allow more time to reach a border deal.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan, Doina Chiacu, Howard Schneider; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)