Trump administration will formally end opposition to Texas voter ID law

Justice department says administration won’t challenge the strict law, in a shift from Obama-era opposition to such discriminatory laws

An attorney for a voting rights group said Monday that Donald Trump’s administration will no longer challenge a strict Texas voter ID law, signaling a dramatic change in the government’s approach to civil rights under its new attorney general Jeff Sessions.

The justice department told plaintiffs in the case against the law that the government will formally end its opposition to the law, according to Danielle Lang, the deputy director of voting rights for the Campaign Legal Center.

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Jewish centers and schools cope with another wave of bomb threats

Fifth wave of threats against community centers and institutions since January is being investigated after headstones were vandalized at another Jewish cemetery

Jewish centers and schools around the country are coping with another wave of bomb threats as officials in Philadelphia begin raising money to repair and restore headstones that were vandalized at a Jewish cemetery over the weekend.

Jewish Community Centers and day schools in at least a dozen states received threats, according to the JCC Association of North America. No bombs were found. All 20 buildings – 13 community centers and seven schools – were cleared by Monday afternoon and had resumed normal operations, the association said.

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Chair of House intelligence panel sees no evil in claims of Trump-Russia links

Echoing Trump administration tactics, Republican Devin Nunes warns against ‘witch hunt’, saying ‘I’ve been told by many folks … that there’s nothing there’

The House intelligence committee chairman, Devin Nunes, on Monday said calls for an independent investigation into alleged contacts between aides to Donald Trump and Russian intelligence sources could amount to a “witch hunt”.

Related: Trump White House scrambles to check scandal over FBI inquiry into Russia ties

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After ICE Stakes Out a Church Homeless Shelter, Charities Worry Immigrants Will Fear Getting Help

Two dozen homeless men and women filed out of Rising Hope United Methodist Church, where they had found sanctuary the night before from the wind and brutal cold.

Each winter for more than 15 years, the church has acted as an overnight homeless shelter along the decaying Route 1 corridor in Alexandria, Virginia. Volunteers serve the visitors a hot meal and unroll sleeping bags for them on the church floor.  The visitors have to leave the next morning by 7, when the church starts its daytime operations.

That morning in early February, as the men and women gathered in the church parking lot, a few of them noticed three unmarked cars parked across the street. Then a group of seven or eight Latino men split off from the group and headed for the shopping center across the street.

As soon as the men stepped onto the opposite sidewalk, a dozen federal agents burst out of the cars, forced them up against a wall, handcuffed them, and interrogated them for at least half an hour.

Multiple witnesses described the events to The Intercept. “They just jumped out,” said Ralph, one of the homeless men had spent the night in the church. “Then [the men] were lined up on the wall.”

“They just looked like regular cars,” said Ashley, who witnessed the raid from across the street. “Then the agents just jumped out. It looked like regular police, but the vests said ICE.” Ashley and Ralph both said they were afraid to give their last names.

A brick wall where ICE was said to have waited before detaining six men as they allegedly left a hypothermia shelter at Rising Hope Mission Church, in Alexandria, Va. on Feb. 8, 2017.

A sign is displayed on a brick wall on Feb. 26, where ICE allegedly waited before detaining men as they left a shelter at Rising Hope Mission Church, in Alexandria, Va. during a Feb. 8 raid.

Photo: Greg Kahn/GRAIN for The Intercept

Oscar Ramirez, one of the men who was interrogated, was released after he convinced agents he had a green card. He told the community newspaper that the agents used portable fingerprint scanners on his hands, then let him go.

Witnesses said the other six or seven Latino men were taken away and shoved into in a van, already half-full with other arrestees.

A spokeswoman for ICE told The Intercept that the ICE agents had “conducted consensual interviews,” and “identified two criminal aliens.” She refused to say how many people were arrested, or explain why agents were waiting across the street from a church.

But to the longtime pastor of Rising Hope, the message was chilling: His church is now a target.

“They were not here because they were doing a routine community sweep. They were clearly targeting,” said Rev. Keary Kincannon. “They were waiting until the Hispanic men came out of the church. And they rounded them all up. They didn’t question the blacks. They didn’t question the whites. They were clearly going after folks that were Latino.”

Members of the community gather for a soup kitchen at Rising Hope Mission Church in Alexandria, Va. on Feb. 26, 2017. Recently, six men leaving the shelter at the church were stopped by ICE and handcuffed and taken away.

Members of the community gather for a soup kitchen at Rising Hope Mission Church in Alexandria, Va. on Feb. 26, 2017.

Photo: Greg Kahn/GRAIN for The Intercept

“I don’t know their names. I don’t know where they’re being held. I don’t even know how many there are,” immigration attorney Nick Marritz told me. “That does make it very hard for us to put a case together.”

Marritz works for the Legal Aid Justice Center, which serves low income communities in Northern Virginia. Two weeks after the church stakeout, Marritz was still working with witnesses to figure out who was taken and where they are – information he needs to legally challenge the arrests.

To members of the church community, the men have effectively been disappeared, and ICE officials are still refusing to provide them with any answers.

ICE maintains a public database online that allows anyone to search detainees by name, date of birth, and an alien — or “A” — number. But the database is often crippled by processing delays and clerical errors, and is useless to searchers who don’t know exactly who they are looking for.

It can also be difficult for homeless and low-income people to contact someone on the outside. “In the case of people who are experiencing homelessness like this, it’s hard for us to say how big the support network is,” said Marritz. “Who they know to contact? Whoever might know about [them], they haven’t let me know.”

Marritz, Kincannon and other United Methodist Church leaders walked into ICE’s regional office in Fairfax on Feb. 17th and demanded the names and whereabouts of the people arrested. “We went to have a vigil and to try with talk with them to find who did they ask, who did they take, what were their charges. Not only would they not meet with us, they wouldn’t tell us the names of anybody,” said Kincannon.

“They just said: ‘We’re not going to meet with you, we’re not going to give you the names. Please leave,” said Marritz.

It is not uncommon for homeless and low-income immigrants to virtually disappear into the U.S.’s immigration detention system. Prisoners are frequently shuffled around between more than 200 detention facilities, the majority of which are run by private companies.

Lawyers and families members often face obstacles in reaching detainees. Audits by the Government Accountability Office have found that officers in immigration prisons frequently deny detainees phone calls, or prevent them from making phone calls during business hours. Some detainees have reported that prison phones drop calls before they can leave voicemails. In many Customs and Border Protection facilities, prisoners have to purchase calling cards to use the phone – which puts a call beyond the financial means of many.

A week after the arrests, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe and Sen. Tim Kaine, D.-Va, both sent letters to ICE inquiring about the raid and their enforcement policies near churches. ICE has not publicly responded to either one.

Pastor Keary Kincannon, gives a sermon at Rising Hope Mission Church in Alexandria, Va. on Feb 26, 2017. Kincannon will be present during President Trump's next address to the session of congress, a guest of Virginia Senator Mark Warner.

Pastor Keary Kincannon delivers a sermon at Rising Hope Mission Church in Alexandria, Va. on Feb 26.

Photo: Greg Kahn/GRAIN for The Intercept

Rising Hope was chartered in 1996 as a mission church to serve homeless people, and to this day between 70 and 80 percent of its congregation is homeless. It occupies a modest, two-story building right off the Route 1 corridor, an impoverished area just south of a wealthy D.C.-area suburb. There’s a tattoo parlor around the corner, and a Goodwill and payday loan agency a few blocks away.

According to Rev. Jeff Mickle, the Alexandria district superintendent for the United Methodist Church, ICE hasn’t targeted any other churches in his district. There are 54 – all far more affluent than Rising Hope.

Kincannon founded Rising Hope out of his car more than 20 years ago, and since then the church has grown into one of Northern Virginia’s most effective charities. Last year, the church’s pantry gave out $1.2 million worth of food, and its soup kitchen served 16,000 hot meals. Its winter shelter program opens every night from December to March.

“Think about it: they’re coming here to keep from freezing to death. They’re coming here to find support and help. By sweeping them up after they left here, [ICE is] putting fear into other people. There may be folks now that may be afraid to come in out of the cold,” Kincannon told me in his office. “It’s real cruelty.”

Parishioners at Rising Hope are afraid the church will be targeted again. Bulletin boards advertised free “know your rights” trainings in English and Spanish. Volunteers have noticed a marked decrease in the number of Latino men and women coming to the winter shelter.

During a Sunday sermon 11 days after the raid, Kincannon told the congregation about a Latino woman and U.S. citizen who frequents the church food pantry. “She is so frightened she will be picked up and deported before she can prove her citizenship,” he said, “she has started carrying her birth certificate with her.”

Members of Rising Hope Mission Church in Alexandria, Va. wish peace upon one another on Feb. 26, 2017. Recently, six men allegedly leaving the cold weather shelter at the church were stopped by ICE and handcuffed and detained.

Members of Rising Hope Mission Church in Alexandria, Va. wish peace upon one another on Feb. 26.

Photo: Greg Kahn/GRAIN for The Intercept

In 2011, ICE adopted a “sensitive locations” policy that is meant to prevent agents from terrorizing important community sites. It prevents ICE agents from making arrests “focused on” schools, churches, or hospitals without an emergency or prior approval from a high-level department official.

ICE released a statement following the Rising Hope arrests saying it complied with the policy. “The Department of Homeland Security is committed to ensuring that people seeking to… utilize services provided at any sensitive location are free to do so without fear or hesitation,” it read.

But the raid not only impacted the church’s mission, it sent shockwaves throughout the area. After Mickle sent a letter notifying local clergy about the raid, many have reported back about seeing fear in their own communities. “I have already received phone calls from people who are very upset about the situation,” said Rev. Ileana Rosario, a United Methodist pastor who works with Hispanic and immigrant communities. “We have no guarantees that this will not happen again.”

Rosario founded a predominantly Hispanic church in Arlington in 2001, and later that year, President Bush invited her to the White House and recognized her for her ministry. In 2007, she became the United Methodists’ director of Hispanic and Latino ministries for Virginia.

“What is so troubling for them is that it can happen at any time and at any moment,” said Rosario. “Church for them was the sanctuary. It was the safe place. For them, in their culture, church is the place that no one can touch. Where are we going to go if we cannot go to the House of the Lord?”

Francisco Alvarado waits for the soup kitchen at Rising Hope Mission Church. Alvarado, who was born in the US, said he's been stopped by police officers and was asked to show his papers despite that he's a citizen. He said he worries about friends that are undocumented.

Francisco Alvarado waits for the soup kitchen at Rising Hope Mission Church. Alvarado, who was born in the U.S., says he has been stopped by police officers and asked to show his papers despite being a citizen.

Photo: Greg Kahn/GRAIN for The Intercept

Churches are playing a big role in resisting emboldened immigration enforcement across the country. Church leaders have trained volunteers, led demonstrations, and even offered sanctuary to people with outstanding deportation orders. Their resolve could signal a coming showdown with a president who already has the tools to dramatically accelerate deportations.

Trump inherited a deportation machine of enormous power: President Obama pumped billions of additional dollars into immigration enforcement, and deported more people than any of his predecessors. During the final months of Obama’s presidency, administration lawyers argued before the Supreme Court that the federal agents should be able to imprison immigrants for years on end without a bond hearing.

In his first weeks in office, Trump has begun to unleash the full force of that deportation system. The Department of Homeland Security released memos on February 18 that outline Trump’s vision: They call for hiring thousands of agents, building new detention facilities, deputizing state and local law enforcement, and expanding the categories of people who are “priorities for removal” to possibly include millions of immigrants.

While ICE’s “sensitive locations” policy on targeting churches technically remains in place, it could be modified or revoked. In his letter to district clergy, Mickle asked them to “keep this matter in your prayers,” and “be prepared to stand up when the time comes.”

Paraphrasing the remarks of a United Methodist theologian, Mickle wrote: “If the choice is between honoring a president’s campaign promise, or honoring the commands of Jesus, the Church has no choice but to follow Jesus, even if it leads us to stand up against the actions of the government.”

“They’re not coming in unless they have a warrant,” Kincannon said. “If they try and come in without a warrant, I’ll stand in the way.”


Top photo: Members of Rising Hope Mission Church in Alexandria, Va. pray for their pastor, Keary Kincannon, during Sunday service on Feb 26. Kincannon will be present during President Trump’s next address to the session of congress, a guest of Virginia Senator Mark Warner.

The post After ICE Stakes Out a Church Homeless Shelter, Charities Worry Immigrants Will Fear Getting Help appeared first on The Intercept.

Kansas shooting: Indian victim says attack does not reflect state’s ‘true spirit’

  • Alok Madasani says he wishes killing of his best friend was a dream
  • Tech worker deplores ‘senseless crime’ at vigil for Srinivas Kuchibotla

An Indian man who was shot and wounded at a bar in suburban Kansas City last week says he wished the killing of his best friend during the attack had all been a dream, but that the incident, apparently fueled by racism, “doesn’t reflect the true spirit of Kansas”.

Related: Kansas shooting: injured man says suspect asked victims about visas

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Los Angeles Mayor Flirts With Sanctuary Movement While Collaborating With ICE

On February 2, the American Civil Liberties Union held a press conference at the Terminal 2 arrivals gate of Los Angeles International Airport. The occasion for the press conference was the return of Ali Vayeghan, an Iranian lawful permanent resident of the United States who had been deported a few days before as a result of President Trump’s Muslim ban, to American soil. The ACLU had secured a court order that rejected the ban and called for Vayegahn to be allowed back into the country. It was a moment of triumph for advocates of immigrant rights.

Earlier that day, the ACLU had received a call from the office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. The mayor, they had been told, wished to participate in the press conference. Hector Villagra, the executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, stepped up to the bevy of microphones to introduce the mayor. “We need to know that this city will be a sanctuary city,” he said, with Garcetti standing at his side. “That’s right,” said someone in the audience. “Thank you,” said another. Garcetti himself gave the remark a few hearty claps.

When Garcetti stepped up to the podium, he echoed the “sanctuary city” line. “We are a city of sanctuary, of refuge,” he said, “and also of defense of our Constitution.”

The next speaker was Ameena Qazi, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild of Los Angeles. Wearing a sweater and a hijab, her short stature barely exceeding that of the podium, she blasted Customs and Border Protection, comparing their conduct to CIA black sites. Then she praised the mayor, or, perhaps, damned him with faint praise.

“I’d also like to thank Mayor Garcetti for being here today,” Qazi told the crowd of reporters and demonstrators, “and for finally declaring that Los Angeles is a sanctuary city for all people.” Cheers broke out; it was one of the biggest applause lines of the event.

“This is a bit overdue,” she went on, “but as we say, ‘better late than never.’”

Since Trump’s election, Garcetti has resisted the term “sanctuary city” as an appellation for Los Angeles, a city with one of the largest undocumented populations in the country. In an interview with National Public Radio a week after the inauguration, he said, “We’ve never declared ourself a sanctuary city; I’m still not sure what one is.”

It has become a routine line for the mayor. He sometimes follows it by explaining that the police do, in fact, routinely cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement — when it’s done constitutionally, he emphasizes, with a warrant from a judge.

The common understanding of a “sanctuary city” is one in which local police are prohibited from collaborating with immigration authorities. By that definition, technically, Garcetti is correct: Los Angeles is not a sanctuary city. Throughout the Obama administration, the Los Angeles Police Department routinely engaged in joint operations with ICE. LAPD officers have historically shared intelligence with ICE through the CalGang database system, and ICE agents are in the county jails on a near-daily basis.

L.A.’s main qualification as a sanctuary city is Special Order 40, an LAPD directive from 1979 that prohibits officers from detaining or questioning people solely on the basis of their immigration status. Special Order 40 sets a floor for the separation of local law enforcement from federal immigration enforcement. But it’s a pretty low standard. It was under Special Order 40 that all of the aforementioned direct collaboration with ICE took place.

Defensible though his position may be, Garcetti’s casual disregard nevertheless irks immigrant rights activists. That’s because “sanctuary city” isn’t just a term to describe existing policy; it’s meant to articulate a moral aspiration.

“When he says things like, ‘I don’t even know what a sanctuary city means,’ we’re upset by his refusal to share that aspiration with us,” Qazi told me.

“I would hope that for a city as terrified as it is now, that he would just say it’s a sanctuary city,” said Villagra. “That’s the language people understand; that’s what would give comfort at this moment.”

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 02: (L-R) Hossein Vayeghan raises his arms with his brother, Iranian citizen Ali Vayeghan and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti as he arrives at Los Angeles International Airport on February 2, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. Iranian citizen Ali Vayeghan was detained and sent back to Iran after arriving in the United States on the day that U.S. President Donald Trump's travel ban was implemented. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Hossein Vayeghan raises his arms with his brother Ali Vayeghan, an Iranian national and U.S. lawful permanent resident, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti at Los Angeles International Airport on Feb. 2, 2017.

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Other mayors have gone much further than Garcetti in openly confronting the president’s attacks on immigrants. Martin Walsh, the mayor of Boston, invited immigrants to move into his office. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has shown none of Garcetti’s squeamishness over using the term “sanctuary city.” San Francisco, which has done more than possibly any other city to enforce its noncooperation policy with ICE, has sued the Trump administration over its threats to sanctuary cities. Immigration hardliners, including the president, have made San Francisco the whipping boy of their campaign against sanctuary cities ever since the high-profile killing of Kate Steinle in 2015 by an undocumented immigrant. That didn’t stop Mayor Ed Lee from asserting, “Our city is still a sanctuary city and we are going to remain a sanctuary city” in response to Trump’s executive order.

Qazi said she was genuinely excited that day at the airport when Garcetti pronounced the phrase — or a close variation of it — in public. A few days later, however, he backtracked.

Julia Wick, editor-in-chief of the LAist, followed up with the mayor’s office after the LAX press conference, asking what he meant by “city of sanctuary” and whether it constituted an official designation of L.A. as a sanctuary city. She received a statement in response that argued that “our city’s commitment to immigrants is measured by our actions, not labels.” It pointed out that the mayor had opened a new Office of Immigrant Affairs and pledged that L.A. would “continue to be a city of protection and refuge.” The statement included the word “sanctuary” nowhere within it. (When I asked the mayor’s office about his avoidance of the term, I was sent the exact same statement.)

Wick passed the mayor’s statement along to the ACLU for their comment. They were taken aback by the about-face.

“He’s been doing this dance between refusing to call the city a sanctuary city, because he says he doesn’t know what it means, because he worries it might expose the city to legal liability,” Villagra told me. “But on the other hand, he’s running around calling the city ‘a city of sanctuary.’ By that he intends to draw some distinction. I don’t know what it is.”

Garcetti’s rhetoric around sanctuary cities isn’t the only thing that has left immigrant advocates in Los Angeles frustrated and disappointed in his leadership since Trump took office. They also complain that he is in the process of watering down a major local initiative to provide due process to the targets of Trump’s deportation regime, and in the process, reinforcing a “good immigrant” versus “bad immigrant” worldview that they are eager to leave behind.

Last December, the city established a $10 million legal defense fund to provide attorneys to indigent defendants in immigration courts (unlike in criminal courts, there is no right to a court-appointed public defender in immigration proceedings). The coalition of community groups that championed the effort (and its statewide counterpart) conceived of the L.A. Justice Fund as a way to provide universal representation to immigrants in removal proceedings, and to move beyond the policy framework that characterized much of Obama’s second term.

In 2014, President Obama made a major address to the nation on his immigration policy. He pledged to “keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.”

Following that speech, “felons, not families” became the guiding principle of his administration’s immigration bureaucracy, at least rhetorically. But “felons” turned out to be a remarkably malleable label. About two years after the president’s speech, an investigation by the Marshall Project showed that out of 300,000 deportations that had occurred since the new policy was announced, about 60 percent of them involved immigrants “with no criminal conviction or whose only crime was immigration-related, such as illegal entry or re-entry.” Immigrants with convictions for violent crimes comprised less than a fifth of the total. Under “felons, not families,” immigrants have been deported for decades-old drug charges for which they’d already served time, or for baseless allegations of gang membership.

The criminal label, advocates argue, has been more effective as a rhetorical cover for indiscriminate deportations than as a tool for separating those who threaten public safety from those who do not. Those advocates are eager to see California, as the nation’s epicenter of anti-Trumpism, abandon the “felons, not families” dichotomy in favor of guaranteed due process for anyone swept up by ICE.

But Mayor Garcetti, along with City Attorney Mike Feuer, has been pushing in the opposite direction. Immigrant rights advocates believe that City Hall is devising “carve-outs” from the fund — exemptions from eligibility for those who have run afoul of the criminal justice system at any point in their tenure in the United States.

“He’s been apparently advocating for this carve-out,” Villagra said. “We’re very concerned about any effort to dole out fairness that decides that some are deserving of it and some are not. Fair is fair and doesn’t recognize any exception.”

Villagra continued: “It’s also really disturbing for a progressive leader in a progressive city to essentially be reinforcing the Trump frame of good and bad immigrants, and buying into that rhetoric.”

When I asked the mayor’s office if they were planning to exclude people with prior felony convictions from accessing the L.A. Justice Fund, I was told that “the city council is still reviewing the process for using these public funds.”

“The purpose of the L.A. Justice Fund is to assist immigrants who are facing deportation proceedings without a lawyer,” George Kivork, the mayor’s press secretary, emailed me. “The mayor believes very strongly that people who have built their lives in America deserve all of the protections that our judicial system provides.”

At an immigrant rights march earlier this month, thousands of protesters swarmed the steps of City Hall, filling up the street and the park behind it. One speaker after another took the stage and expressed their fury and defiance against the ICE raids that have swept through Southern California in recent weeks. This wasn’t the first immigration rally in Los Angeles since the election, but this time, Trump was not the only object of the protesters’ scorn.

The first speaker to take the stage asked the crowd to help her make a new hashtag trend: #OneTermGarcetti. After a dozen other speeches, many of them littered with derision of the mayor, Andrés Kwon, an ACLU attorney who is also an Argentine immigrant of Korean ancestry, took the microphone.

“To all those politicians, and Garcetti in particular,” he hollered to the crowd, “let us say: Just be real, dude, be honest. When you say you don’t want us to represent bad immigrants, you might as well come out and say you don’t want us to represent ‘bad hombres.’”

After sitting through close to an hour of speeches, the audience exploded at the sly comparison between the mayor and Donald Trump. Among this crowd of hard-core pro-immigrant activists, the mayor’s name had become a line for booing and hissing.

On Tuesday, March 7, Garcetti will face the voters in an election for a second term. Nobody expects him to lose. He faces no real opposition, and voters in L.A. are barely aware the election is happening at all. He will coast into City Hall in spite of the growing anger from his adversaries in the immigrant rights movement. So far, he has not had to pay a steep political price for sidelining their demands. The political path he has taken has been bumpy, but safe.

Villagra suspects that may not last. “They haven’t realized just how strong the feeling is among their constituents that they need to be doing more,” he told me. “The frustration is widespread, and growing. I think that people are getting fed up.”

“He has had so many opportunities to step forward and be a real leader, and he has just refused to,” Ameena Qasi said. “He seems to be more in it for his political career. That’s what he’s been showing us so far.”

Top photo: Marjan K. Vayghan, left, gives a kiss to her uncle Ali Vayeghan as he arrives at the international terminal at Los Angeles International Airport on Feb. 2, 2017.

The post Los Angeles Mayor Flirts With Sanctuary Movement While Collaborating With ICE appeared first on The Intercept.