Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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Dirt bikes and riot helmets are not humanitarian aid

Photo source: CBP.

A year ago, the U.S. Border Patrol and its parent agency, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), came under fire amid revelations of miserable and unsanitary conditions in holding cells overcrowded with apprehended children and families.

At the time, the U.S. Congress was considering legislation to provide more resources to deal with an influx of asylum-seeking migrants. Legislators included about $112 million for “consumables and medical care” to improve conditions for migrants being held for processing. Over opposition from progressive Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) agreed to approve a bill diminished by the Republican-majority Senate “in order to get resources to the children fastest.”

We’ve now learned that much of these resources didn’t reach the children at all.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a June 11 decision finding that instead of medicines, food, diapers, blankets, and other humanitarian needs, CBP diverted this “consumables and medical care” money into:

  • detention guard services;
  • boats;
  • all-terrain vehicles (ATVs); 
  • motorcycles;
  • dirt bikes; 
  • small utility vehicles;
  • passenger vans for moving detainees;
  • printers;
  • security camera systems;
  • speakers;
  • HVAC upgrades for CBP facilities;
  • sewer system upgrades for CBP facilities;
  • janitorial services;
  • canine supplies and services like dog food;
  • computer network upgrades “to analyze factual information in support of CBP’s border operations;”
  • the CBP-wide vaccine program for CBP personnel; and
  • “tactical gear and law enforcement equipment, such as riot helmets, and temporary portable structures.”

This is a stunning example of an agency defying the will of the legislative branch and its constitutional powers. The “consumables and medical care” outlay resulted from a long process of negotiation within Congress, and between Congress and the administration—but CBP just ignored it anyway. 

That it even sought, in the first place, to portray the items in the list above as meeting humanitarian needs indicates an agency that either doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, what “humanitarian” means. That’s a huge problem, because much of CBP’s duties over the past several years have been humanitarian. Most of the undocumented migrants its agents have encountered have been children or families seeking refuge in the United States. These spending decisions evidence a lack of basic human empathy that call into question CBP’s management, training, and organizational culture. 

GAO reports that “CBP plans to adjust its account for several of these obligations.” It should do so for all of them, or its management should be held in violation of the Antideficiency Act for so nakedly defying the will of the American people’s representatives in the U.S. Congress. 

WOLA Podcast with Rep. Jim McGovern: “What if I was in Colombia? Would I have the courage to say what I believe?”

It’s not every day you get to record a podcast with a member of Congress. I enjoyed sitting down virtually this morning with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), a longtime advocate of human rights in Colombia. He was fired up about the outrageous recent scandal involving U.S.-aided army intelligence units spying on Colombian reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, and others.

He calls here for a suspension of U.S. military aid and a much clearer U.S. commitment to implementing Colombia’s 2016 peace accords and protecting its threatened social leaders.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file. The text from WOLA’s website is after the photo (from 2017 in Cauca).

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), the co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the U.S. Congress, is a longtime advocate of human rights, worldwide and in Latin America.

McGovern joins WOLA in this episode for a conversation about Colombia, a country to which he has traveled several times, and where he was one of the House of Representatives’ leading advocates for the negotiations that ended with a peace accord in 2016.

We’re talking weeks after new revelations that U.S.-aided Colombian military intelligence units had been spying on human rights defenders, journalists, judges, politicians, and even fellow officers. The Congressman calls for a suspension of U.S. military assistance to Colombia while the U.S. government undertakes a top-to-bottom, “penny by penny” review of the aid program. “If there’s not a consequence, there’s no incentive to change,” he explains.

He calls for the Colombian government and the international community to do far more to protect the country’s beleaguered human rights defenders, to change course on an unsuccessful drug policy, and to fulfill the peace accords’ commitments. Human rights, Rep. McGovern concludes, should be at the center of the U.S.-Colombia bilateral relationship.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyiHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

The 26 Republicans who’ve voted against Trump’s border wall “emergency”

Last week, with a 53-36 vote (59.6 percent), the U.S. Senate failed to get the two-thirds necessary to override President Trump’s veto of a resolution reversing his February 15 “national emergency” declaration. That declaration, coming after Trump failed to force Congress to pay billions for his “border wall” demands, would take more than $6 billion from the Defense Department budget and Treasury seized-asset funds, and plow it into border wall construction.

A quick rundown:

  • 2019 started with much of the U.S. government “shut down” because Congress would not pass a budget giving Trump the $5.7 billion he wanted for his border wall.
  • Finally, after a 35-day shutdown, Trump caved and signed a budget with far less wall funding.
  • On February 15, using power he claimed that the 1976 National Emergencies Act gives him, Trump declared an “emergency” at the border requiring him to move money out of defense accounts and into wall-building.
  • Court challenges to this emergency declaration are ongoing. In July, the Supreme Court allowed wall-building to proceed while judicial deliberations continue. In mid-October, though, a federal judge in El Paso froze much of the Defense Department money.

The National Emergencies Act gives Congress the ability to challenge the emergency declaration every six months, by passing a joint resolution. A 1983 Supreme Court decision allows the President to veto this resolution; the emergency declaration would then remain in place unless two thirds of both houses of Congress vote to override the presidential veto.

Twice now—in February-March and September-October—Congress has passed joint resolutions to take down Trump’s emergency declaration. Both times, Trump has vetoed the resolutions. Both times, a strong majority, but not the necessary two-thirds, has voted to override the veto.

There have now been six votes on passage and override of these joint resolutions: three in the House and three in the Senate. Not a single Democrat has voted “no” against these resolutions. Any two-thirds override vote, though, also requires a significant number of Republican votes.

Even in this polarized time, some Republicans have defied the president and voted to undo the emergency declaration. To be exact, 14 in the House and 12 in the Senate. That’s 7 percent of House Republicans, and 23 percent of Senate Republicans.

The rest of the Republican Party’s congressional delegation seems to be unconcerned about the constitutional ramifications of a president unilaterally acting in direct opposition to the clearly expressed will of a Congress that, supposedly, has “the power of the purse.”

Here are the GOP legislators who have voted to undo this authoritarian and wasteful measure. In the Senate, half are members of the Appropriations Committee, whose power to assign funds is directly challenged by the emergency declaration. Many are among the party’s few remaining moderates. Most of their votes are more about preserving Congress’s constitutional power to appropriate funds than about the wisdom of building a border wall. That’s still a principled position, and I wish more GOP legislators would take it.

Senate

  • Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee, voted “yes” twice, did not vote once): member of Appropriations; said “I cannot support this national emergency declaration and be faithful to my oath to support the Constitution at the same time”
  • Roy Blunt (R-Missouri, voted “yes” three times): member of Appropriations; said “Those decisions should not be made without congressional action.”
  • Susan Collins (R-Maine, voted “yes” three times): member of Appropriations; said “while there is some discretion that he has to move money around, I think that his executive order exceeds his discretion”
  • Mike Lee (R-Utah, voted “yes” three times): concerned about ceding congressional power
  • Jerry Moran (R-Kansas, voted “yes” twice, did not vote once): member of Appropriations; said “The declaration of an emergency under these circumstances is a violation of the U.S. Constitution”
  • Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska, voted “yes” three times): member of Appropriations, said “This is about the administration overstepping Constitutional authority, forcing Congress to relinquish power that is fundamentally ours”
  • Rand Paul (R-Kentucky, voted “yes” three times): a libertarian; said “I can’t vote to give extra-Constitutional powers to the president”
  • Rob Portman (R-Ohio, voted “yes” three times): a relative moderate, said “the emergency declaration circumvented Congress and set a ‘dangerous new precedent’”
  • Mitt Romney (R-Utah, voted “yes” three times): a frequent Trump critic, concerned about ceding congressional power
  • Marco Rubio (R-Florida, voted “yes” twice, did not vote once): member of Appropriations, said “We have a crisis at our southern border, but no crisis justifies violating the Constitution”
  • Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania, voted “yes” three times): said he supports the wall, but “the emergency declaration undermines the constitutional responsibility of Congress to approve how money is spent”
  • Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi, voted “yes” three times): said he supports the wall, but “I have serious reservations as to what the Emergency Declaration might do to the Constitutional principle of checks and balances.” (Fun fact: as a member of the House in 2000, Wicker was one of few Republicans to oppose the mostly military aid package known as “Plan Colombia.”)

House

  • Justin Amash (I-Michigan, voted “yes” twice, then left the Republican Party): said “I think the President is violating our constitutional system”
  • Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania, voted “yes” three times): said “I think this decision should be made by Congress”
  • Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin, voted “yes” three times): said “we can’t continue to expand executive authority just because our party now controls the White House”
  • Jamie Herrera Beutler (R-Washington, voted “yes” three times): member of Appropriations; said “He [Trump] literally contradicted the Constitution to use this money for something other than which it was intended”
  • Will Hurd (R-Texas, voted “yes” twice, did not vote once): member of Appropriations; represents a border district and has been a consistent border wall critic
  • Dusty Johnson (R-South Dakota, voted “yes” three times): said “I spent eight years under President Obama fighting ever-expanding executive authority. I remain committed to that principle”
  • John Katko (R-New York, voted “yes” twice, did not vote once): said “Presidents, from either party, should not legislate from the executive branch”
  • Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky, voted “yes” three times): said “The appropriations process belongs within Congress according to the Constitution”
  • Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington, voted “yes” three times): said “Article I of the Constitution gives the legislative branch the exclusive power to make laws and set funding priorities”
  • Francis Rooney (R-Florida, voted “yes” three times): said “My vote to override a veto of the resolution to rescind the national emergency declaration was based on the U.S. Constitution and had nothing to do with President Trump.” Recently made headlines by saying he is “open” to impeaching Trump
  • Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin, voted “yes” three times): said “It is imperative that no administration, Republican or Democratic, circumvent the will of Congress”
  • Elise Stefanik (R-New York, voted “yes” three times): said “No matter what Party is represented in the White House, I will stand up against executive action that circumvents Congress”
  • Fred Upton (R-Michigan, voted “yes” three times): said “declaring a national emergency and reprogramming already appropriated funds without the approval of Congress is a violation of the Constitution”
  • Greg Walden (R-Oregon, voted “yes” three times): said the “Constitution grants Congress the power of the purse, not the President”

Here are the votes:

Huge archive of congressional hearing audios about Latin America and the border

I can only rarely attend congressional hearings, and during a week like this one, when several hearings are happening at the same time, I can’t view them on video either. And anyway, who has the time to sit through hours of videos, which require you to stop what you’re doing to both watch and listen?

Still, hearings are a critical way to get information about U.S. policy toward Latin America. You learn a lot from officials’ responses to questions (some of which we’ve suggested). And you learn a lot about what legislators’ priorities are, and what it might be worth following up with their offices about.

So for the past couple of years, I’ve saved mp3 audio of every congressional hearing I’ve found relevant (thanks, youtube-dl, for making that easy). I can listen to an mp3 while doing something else that doesn’t require a lot of concentration, like driving, exercising, or doing the dishes.

At this point, I have quite an archive: 54 hearing audios since 2017, all of them with metadata following the same format. Here they are in one Google Drive folder, going up to last Friday.

They’re all mp3 files—just drop them on iTunes, Overcast, or your preferred audio player. (Tell iTunes that they’re “audiobooks” and it’ll remember your place.) I try to keep this folder reasonably up to date.

I suspect that if you’re geeky enough to find this useful, you may already have a similar system for keeping up with this information. Still, I hope it’s helpful to someone else out there.

Here’s a Better Way to Spend $5.7 Billion at the Border

I wrote this yesterday while watching the House-Senate Conference Committee meet to discuss a border spending package that might keep the government open after February 15 (and avoid a disastrous presidential “national emergency” declaration to build a border wall).

The gist: border security isn’t “solved,” but what’s needed now is adjustments, not a sweeping, pharaonic project like a border wall. If Congress is going to send a bill to the president with $5.7 billion in new border-security spending, there are so many things that the money could be better spent on. I list some in this commentary that WOLA posted today.

And what about a wall? I think this is one of the clearest ways I’ve put it so far:

Trump is pushing for a “border wall,” or at least steel fencing—354 miles of which already exists along the border. Fences have a purpose: they slow down border-crossers for a few minutes. That doesn’t matter if the border-crosser is an asylum seeker who simply wants to climb over and get apprehended by U.S. authorities (perhaps after being turned away from an overwhelmed port of entry). It also doesn’t matter in rural areas, where a few-minute head start makes little difference since populated areas and main roads are hours’ walk away. Meanwhile, most densely populated areas along the border now have high pedestrian fencing.

In a normal presidential administration, we’d have a rational conversation about areas along the border where law enforcement professionals might say “some more barrier there would make my job easier.” Then, there would be orderly discussions with border communities, in which all stakeholders (property owners, Native American communities, local government, businesses, environmental organizations, migrant rights advocates) work out the design and placement.

But we’re not in a normal administration. Instead, this president’s rhetoric has made “the wall,” in the words of New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, “a lasting reminder of the white racial hostility surging through this moment in American history.” We cannot support building even a mile of new barrier under these circumstances—denying a voice to border communities and characterizing the “wall” as a means to keep out “rapists” and “animals” from Latin America.


Read the whole thing here.

Elements of the House Democrats’ border security proposal

In advance of the February 15 shutdown deadline, as an alternative to Trump’s border wall, here’s what the House Democrats are proposing. This is as summarized by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-California) in today’s House-Senate conference committee meeting:

  • Ports of entry: 1,000 additional CBP officers; imaging technology; southbound scans
  • Border Patrol stations infrastructure repair / improvement backlog
  • Border security technology between ports of entry
  • Mail processing facilities
  • Aircraft and vessels for CBP and Coast Guard
  • Humanitarian aid and improved facilities
  • Alternatives to detention
  • New HSI agents
  • Fewer detention beds
  • Detention facility inspections and healthcare
  • TSA and FEMA support

Response to the White House’s letter to Congress on the border

As the government shutdown drags on, the White House sent a mass mailing to Congress today making its case for a border wall and a crackdown on asylum seekers.

A letter and a slideshow PDF present a lot of data and statistics. But nearly all of them tell only part of the story, leaving out important context.

I quickly threw together this annotated version of the White House’s main slides, and shared it as widely as possible. This was a rush job—such is “rapid response”—but I think it came out OK.

Here it is as a PDF, and here are the individual images:

Gigantic 116th Congress spreadsheet

Below, here as a Google Sheet, and here as an Excel file, is a very detailed spreadsheet of all U.S. representatives and senators who were sworn in today.

I made it by mashing up the data I found useful from the unitedstates/congress-legislators database on GitHub and the freshly updated spreadsheet of member and demographic data compiled by DailyKos. Shortly I’ll add it to a web resource on the Congress that I created in early 2017 but haven’t kept up lately. Time to revive it.

Information here includes:

  • Legislators’ names, states, parties, districts, address and phone info.
  • Legislators’ genders, birthdays, religions, race/ethnicity, and lgbt data.
  • How people voted in legislators’ districts/states during the past few presidential and legislative elections.
  • Demographic information about legislators’ districts and states (ethnicity, education level, income).

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.