Border Patrol struggles to recruit agents amid immigration crackdown

‘We’re already behind. We’re not hiring fast enough to keep up with the attrition.’ Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown has a problem: not enough Americans are willing to carry it out.

The Border Patrol is losing agents faster than it can replace them, putting a question mark over the president’s plan to ramp up the force.

Air and Marine Operations, a separate agency, is also struggling to find pilots and other employees.

“If you know people who are enthusiastic about border security please send them to Customs and Border Protection (CBP),” Ronald Vitiello, the Border Patrol chief, said in an appeal this week. “We’re already behind. We’re not hiring fast enough to keep up with the attrition.”

Trump has ordered the agency to add 5,000 agents to beef up patrols and surveillance in advance of his proposed border wall. But its current 19,000-strong force is already 2,000 shy of a target set during the Obama administration.

Officials said tough screening, especially a lie-detector test, rejected many qualified candidates, and that tough conditions such as living in remote, rugged areas prompted more than 1,000 agents to quit every year.

“Some people just don’t want to live there,” said Randolph “Tex” Alles, acting deputy commissioner of CBP, a 60,000-strong agency that includes Border Patrol. “Hiring challenges are not new. Attracting and recruiting high quality individuals is a challenge for us.”

Border Patrol officials are especially nervous that a planned expansion of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) – Trump has ordered it to add 10,000 agents – will precipitate a stampede to the sister organisation. “There’s a real concern that a lot of that will come from Border Patrol,” Huffman said.

Vitiello, his boss, was even bleaker: “[They] could get them all from CBP.”

Ice looks for undocumented people in the US, so its agents live in cities, not desert outposts, and the agency offers more overtime opportunities.

It has another recruitment advantage: no lie-detector test. About two-thirds of CBP applicants fail the polygraph, the Associated Press reported in January.

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper web site.

 

The Great Barrier Reef, a problem for the planet

How did the Great Barrier Reef reach ‘terminal stage’?

Back-to-back severe bleaching events, caused by warming oceans, have affected two-thirds of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, new aerial surveys have found. Climate change is not the only challenge – runoff-affected water quality, reef-killing crown of thorns starfish and the destruction of Cyclone Debbie also threaten the reef’s health. Scientists are warning that Australia has little time left to act on climate change and save the world’s largest living structure.

Inherently democratic in its size and closeness to the shore, the Great Barrier Reef is truly the people’s reef. Looking back on the first great struggle for the reef between the Australian people and the fossil fuel industry, Wright wrote thatif disasters in the shape of weather, accident and climate change lie ahead, the work done already has shown what can be done to shield it from such dangers and has proved that people will agree, in the event, to supplying the help it needs”.

Unhappily, those disasters are now upon us. Global warming brought the great bleaching of 2015-16 and the dreadful and unprecedented sequel over the summer that has just finished. Our reef is in dire trouble.

But while the people’s reef is grievously wounded, it is still very much alive. And life fights for life. Innumerable animals are now doing what creatures do, navigating the hazards of life as best they can to survive and reproduce in the warming waters. Given time and the right conditions, the people’s reef can recover and life will flourish again.

Two-thirds of Great Barrier Reef hit by back-to-back mass coral bleaching.

The big lie propagated by Australian government and big business is that it is possible to turn things around for the reef without tackling global warming. As scientists have made clear, it isn’t – we have to stop climate pollution to give our reef a chance.

It is true that Australia can’t save the reef alone because climate change is a global problem. But that does not mean we are powerless to act and we should not be deterred. Because when you love something deeply – as we Australians cherish our people’s reef – then you do all that is within your power to save that thing which you hold so dear. And there is much that is within our power to do.

So what is to be done? The answer does not lie in false techno-fixes or the faux-democratic farrago of the government-business funded Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef. Australia’s greatest contribution to global warming is through our coal, exported and burned in foreign power stations. So our most determined Australian efforts to save the reef must be directed to closing down the coalmining industry, while ensuring decent new jobs and fair transitions for all affected workers and communities.

Again, the balance of power seems loaded against us. First the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, and now the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, have betrayed both the reef and the trust of the Australian people by snivelling across the seas, pledging allegiance to the Carmichael coalmine. All too often, the rest of big business is complicit in the crisis by explicitly or tacitly supporting the coal industry. Financial institutions such as CommBank continue to invest in the fossil fuel projects that are bringing disaster to the reef.

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper web site.

Norway to build world’s first tunnel for ships

Norway plans to build the world’s first tunnel for ships, a 1,700-metre (5,610-ft) passageway burrowed through a piece of rocky peninsula that will allow vessels to avoid a treacherous part of sea.

The Stad Ship Tunnel, which would be able to accommodate cruise and freight ships weighing up to 16,000 tonnes, is expected to open in 2023.

It will be 37 metres high and 26.5m wide, according to the Norwegian Coastal Administration, and is estimated to cost at least 2.7bn kroner (£250m).

Norway’s transport minister, Ketil Solvik-Olsen, said that sea currents and underwater topography in the country’s south-western coast “result in particularly complex wave conditions”.

Plans for a ship tunnel in Stad had been floated over the years, but now a project with financing was ready, he said.

“We are pleased that the ship tunnel will now become a reality,” Solvik-Olsen said, adding that travel time between Norwegian cities and towns in the area would be reduced.

The tunnel is expected to be located at the narrowest point of the Stadlandet peninsula, where the weather has for decades been considered an obstacle for shipping.

It will be free for vessels measuring less than 70 metres .

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper web site.

Trump discovers politics isn’t like business

Donald Trump listens to a speaker in the East Room of the White House on Friday. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump is used to running private companies with him as President, and enjoying the Presidential power private companies provide. Now he finds being President of the United States isn’t the same as being President of Trump Organization.

Republicans, who voted more than 60 times to repeal or alter Obamacare over the past few years only to be vetoed by Obama, had got their big chance and blown it. The party’s deep ideological and factional divisions, temporarily papered over amid the euphoria of last November’s surprise win, were back with a vengeance as it struggled to go from opposition to governance.

In Trump’s rambunctious election campaign, the 70-year-old novice promised to repeal and replace the ACA “immediately”. It was a bad choice for an opening offensive. Healthcare reform is to American presidents what the Russian winter was to Napoleon.

Trump has said tax reform is next, and years of Republican planning might allow for that legislation to pass more easily. But his ability to work with Congress is in grave question. His unique selling point, as a dealmaker, has taken a huge hit.

Gwenda Blair, a Trump biographer, said of Trump’s supporters: “They voted for a guy who could fix it, the CEO, on The Apprentice for 10 years, who could make a deal with anybody.”

But the tactics that served Trump so well in business – playing the alpha male, holding one-on-one meetings – did not translate to politics, she said.

“Now he’s up against 535 other people [in the House and Senate], other people who have their own independent power base and are not really interested in rolling over. The model of taking one person in a room and beating up on them doesn’t work with 535.”

But as the health care bill negotiations gathered steam, it was clearly not going to be plain sailing. Last month, Trump admitted: “Now, I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated.” The bill was, in the eyes of many, rushed and deeply flawed, falling well short of Trump’s campaign pledge to provide insurance for everyone.

Grassroots protests erupted across the country, citizen activists hitting the phones and constituents berating congressmen at town hall events. Groups representing hospitals and medical professionals derided the legislation. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the AHCA would lead to 24 million fewer Americans having health insurance over the next 10 years. The bill achieved the rare feat of uniting the far left and far right in opposition.

Friday’s failure was a fillip for the anti-Trump “resistance” but it was hardly grounds for complacency. The president looks set to press ahead with his agenda on everything from rolling back Obama-era protections on the environment to building a wall on the Mexican border to firing off tweets that alienate allies and embolden enemies.

He may also ensure that his prediction of Obamacare’s explosion becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Move fast and break things” will continue, even it if means breaking his own party.

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper web site.

US immigrants make sub-zero trek for slim chance at asylum in Canada

A man who claimed to be from Sudan illegally crosses the US-Canada border into Hemmingford, Quebec, in Canada. Photograph: Christinne Muschi/Reuters

His wet clothes frozen stiff and feet sinking into the deep snow, Mamadou allowed himself a shred of hope when he glimpsed a faint light in the distance.

Many hours earlier, he had set out for the border just as the sun was setting, trudging through thick woods near Plattsburgh, New York, towards Canada.

Temperatures plunged to -15C and a bitter wind whipped snow-laden tree branches into his face. Several times, he was forced to wade through rivers or lakes.

“I was so cold. I was soaked. I didn’t think I was going to make it,” said the 46-year-old, choking back tears as he recalled his ordeal earlier this month. “I didn’t know where I was going – I had no map, no lamp, no light – nothing.”

What he did know, he said, was that he had no other option. “Because I’m no longer safe in the United States, and in my country – I’m going to be killed.”

Mamadou, whose full name is not being published for his protection, decided to cross into Canada after more than a decade of living legally in the US.

He had fled from the Ivory Coast in 2006 soon after rebels killed his father and burned down his family home.

American authorities denied his request for asylum, but a judge allowed him to stay in the country on the grounds that deportation would endanger his life. Mamadou found work – legally – as a taxi driver in New York: “I worked hard and paid taxes.”

But when Trump was elected president of the US, Mamadou, a Muslim, wondered nervously what the news might mean for him. The answer came swiftly: in early March, immigration officials visited his apartment in the Bronx.

After their third visit – each time Mamadou was out working – he decided to seek refuge in Canada.

Days later he took a taxi to a border crossing near Plattsburgh, and explained his situation to Canadian immigration officials. They denied his asylum request, pointing to the Safe Third Country Agreement, which prohibits most people who have already sought asylum in the US from making a refugee claim in Canada.

But the agreement only applies at official border crossings; if refugees can slip into the country elsewhere along the 5,500-mile frontier, they are eligible to make a claim. He decided to slip across elsewhwere.

“But I didn’t know if it was Canada or the United States,” he said. The clue was in a street sign that read arrêt – or “stop”, in French. Relief overcame him as he realised this was the end of his nine-hour trek. Seconds later, he collapsed.

A police officer on patrol found him on the side of the road, clinging to life. As Mamadou lay unconscious, paramedics cut his frozen clothes and shoes off with scissors. Four hours later, he came to in a local hospital. He was still shivering and unable to speak, and his feet were swollen from frostbite.

His ordeal hints at the extreme risks being taken by some to make an asylum claim in Canada, said Mamadou’s lawyer, Éric Taillefer. “We found him,” he said. “But what if there’s someone we haven’t found? I really hope we’re not going to find a body in the spring.”

For months, advocates on both sides of the border have been urging the Canadian government to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement, arguing that doing so will allow asylum seekers in the US to simply apply at official border crossings rather than making hazardous journeys.

So far the Canadian government has said it has no plans to suspend the agreement.

In Mamadou’s case, the agreement has resulted in a cruel twist. In Canada, asylum seekers are only allowed one chance to make a claim – a chance that Mamadou used up when he was first denied refugee status at the border crossing.

If he hadn’t applied first through proper channels and only crossed through the woods, he would now be eligible to make a refugee claim. Instead, he now faces deportation to the Ivory Coast, said Taillefer. His lawyers are pushing for him to be granted the right to stay in Canada on humanitarian grounds, hoping he might be the exception in a program with a success rate of around 3%.

Read the complete article on The Guardian web site.

Trump’s commerce secretary oversaw Russia deal while at Bank of Cyprus


Wilbur Ross was previously vice-chairman of the Bank Of Cyprus. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Wilbur Ross, the Trump administration’s new commerce secretary, presided over a deal with a Russian businessman with ties to Vladimir Putin while serving in his previous role as vice-chairman of the Bank of Cyprus.

The transaction raises questions about Ross’s tenure at the Cypriot bank and his ties to politically connected Russian oligarchs. It comes amid confirmation by the FBI that it is investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow to influence the outcome of the presidential election.

In 2015, while he served as vice-chairman of the Bank of Cyprus, the bank’s Russia-based businesses were sold to a Russian banker and consultant, Artem Avetisyan, who had ties to both the Russian president and Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank. At the time, Sberbank was under US and EU sanctions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Avetisyan had earlier been selected by Putin to head a new business branch of the Russian president’s strategic initiative agency, which was tasked with improving business and government ties.

Avetisyan’s business partner, Oleg Gref, is the son of Herman Gref, Sberbank’s chief executive officer, and their consultancy has served as a “partner” to Sberbank, according to their website. Ross had described the Russian businesses – including 120 bank branches in Russia – as being worth “hundreds of millions of euros” in 2014 but they were sold with other assets to Avetisyan for €7m (£6m).

Ross has not been accused of wrongdoing and there is no indication the Russian deal violated US or EU sanctions. Ross resigned from the Bank of Cyprus board after he was confirmed as commerce secretary last month.

Ross, who had made billions of dollars years earlier by betting on bankrupt steel mills, was known for taking risky bets. But his decision to inject €400m into the bank with other investors encompassed a different kind of risk. It put him at the centre of the biggest financial institution in a country that was widely considered to be a tax haven for Russian oligarchs, even as the US and EU were imposing sanctions on Russia. In 2014, the year he made his investment, the US State Department considered Cyprus an area of “primary concern” for money laundering (pdf), according to its official assessment.

Ross was appointed vice-chairman at the bank after his investment in 2014, a post he shared with a deposit holder-turned-shareholder, Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, referred to in Russian media as a former KGB official and Putin ally. According to the bank’s annual reports, the two attended two board meetings together in 2014 and as many as five together in 2015 before Strzhalkovsky’s May 2015 resignation from the board. One of the questions that has been posed to Ross by Democratic senators is whether he ever had contact with Strzhalkovsky.

One of Ross’s first big decisions at the bank was the appointment of former Deutsche Bank chief executive Josef Ackermann as chairman, whom he chose in part because of Ackermann’s “huge Rolodex”, according to a 2014 Bloomberg interview.

Ackermann’s ties to Russia were especially strong, including a warm relationship with Putin and Herman Gref of Sberbank.

In a separate management decision under Ross’s watch, Bank of Cyprus gave Alfa Bank, Russia’s largest private bank, until 2019 – four more years than originally planned – to pay back a €100m debt it owed in connection to Alfa’s purchase of the bank’s Ukrainian assets. Alfa Bank still owed Bank of Cyprus €57m as of the end of September. Bank of Cyprus said the extension was provided because of the “worsening geopolitical situation in Ukraine”.

John Koenig, former US ambassador to Cyprus, told the Guardian he did not believe Ross had ever gone out of his way to favour Russian investors or the Kremlin. At the time, he recalled, officials were actively seeking investments from big US and European banks but nobody was interested until Ross came along.

Read the complete article on The Guardian web site.

Trump-Russia inquiry in ‘grave doubt’

The top Democrat on one of the congressional committees investigating ties between Donald Trump and Russia has raised “grave doubt” over the viability of the inquiry after its Republican chairman shared information with the White House and not their committee colleagues.

In the latest wild development surrounding the Russia inquiry that has created an air of scandal around Trump, Democrat Adam Schiff effectively called his GOP counterpart, Devin Nunes, a proxy for the White House, questioning his conduct.

“These actions raise enormous doubt about whether the committee can do its work,” Schiff said late Wednesday afternoon after speaking with Nunes, his fellow Californian, before telling MSNBC that evidence tying Trump to Russia now appeared “more than circumstantial”.

Two days after testimony from the directors of the FBI and NSA that dismissed any factual basis to Trump’s 4 March claim that Barack Obama had him placed under surveillance, Nunes publicly stated he was “alarmed” to learn that the intelligence agencies may have “incidentally” collected communications from Trump and his associates.

Nunes, who served on Trump’s national security transition team, said the surveillance “appears to be all legally collected” and masked the identities of Americans, but did so in such a way that Nunes could hazard a guess as to whom the intercepted communications discussed. Nunes added that the alleged intercepts did not actually concern Russia.

“Details about persons associated with the incoming administration, details with little apparent foreign intelligence value were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting,” said Nunes, who has shifted the focus of the inquiry onto leaks that Trump blames on the intelligence agencies.

Nunes went to the White House to brief the president, who seized on the chairman’s comments as vindication, even though there is little evidence even in Nunes’s vague and often conditional remarks that they revive Trump’s claim that Obama had Trump Tower wiretapped.

“I somewhat do. I must tell you I somewhat do. I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found, I somewhat do,” Trump said Wednesday afternoon.

Nunes took whatever material he had acquired to Trump before sharing it with the committee – a decision that represented nearly a final straw for Schiff, who called for an independent commission to investigate ties between Trump and Russia.

In language that stripped away any pretense of cordiality remaining on the committee, Schiff said Nunes would have to decide whether to helm a credible inquiry or whether to operate as a White House adjunct, complicit in what Schiff intimated was a “campaign by the White House to deflect from the [FBI] director’s testimony”.

Asked if Schiff was considering pulling out of the inquiry, Schiff said he would have to “analyze what this development means”, suggesting a potential Democratic departure from one of the most internationally watched congressional investigations in recent history.

“If you have a chairman who is interacting with the White House, sharing information with the White House, when the people around the White House are the subject of the investigation and doing it before sharing it with the committee, it puts a profound doubt over whether that can be done credibly,” Schiff said.

Schiff reiterated that from what he had gleaned from his conversation with Nunes, “there is still no evidence that the president was wiretapped by his predecessor”.

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper website.