In GOP Immigration Battle, Factions Split Over Citizenship

Divisions over whether to provide a conduit to citizenship for young “Dreamer” immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally loomed as the pivotal sticking point Wednesday as House Republicans searched for a solution to their campaign-season standoff over an issue that has split them for years.

GOP leaders, moderates and conservatives bargained anew, with some saying the talks were productive. But there was no evidence an agreement was at hand, while there were signals the party’s long-standing chasm over whether to help immigrants here illegally become citizens remained unresolved.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., a leader of moderates trying to force leaders to hold votes on the issue, told reporters that of all his immigration priorities, permanent status for Dreamers was “most important” and “essential.” But Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., leader of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, said that “no special pathway to citizenship” would be acceptable to conservatives.

“Why would we give blanket waivers to people who came here illegally?” Meadows said to reporters.

Middle ground

Curbelo and Meadows both said it was possible to find middle ground between their positions. But compromise has eluded party leaders for years, and it remained unclear how they would resolve the impasse by next month, when House leaders have promised showdown immigration votes.

Leaders set a pivotal closed-door meeting on immigration among House Republicans for June 7, days after lawmakers return from a weeklong recess. Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., said he and other moderates would see if that session could produce an accord among Republicans before pressing ahead on a petition drive that could force votes on the issue.

“If they come to a good agreement, great. If they don’t we’re going forward,” he said.

Bills backed by moderates would give hundreds of thousands of Dreamers a way to become permanent U.S. residents, a status that can later lead to citizenship. Dreamers were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and have been temporarily protected by an Obama-era program that President Donald Trump has terminated, though courts have kept alive for now.

Conservatives want legislation that would let those immigrants stay in the U.S. in renewable but temporary increments. They have opposed creating a new way for them to move toward citizenship and would instead limit them to existing pathways, such as marrying a U.S. citizen.

​Moderates push for votes

Curbelo and other moderates gained their 21st Republican signature Wednesday on a petition that would force a series of votes on immigration bills that House leaders are trying to avoid. With all 193 Democrats expected to sign, the moderates need just four more Republican names to reach 218, a House majority, and moderate leaders say they have enough commitments to reach 25.

The moderates want votes on four bills, including measures by conservatives and liberals.

Under that process, the measure likeliest to prevail would let Dreamers stay in the U.S. permanently and bolster border security, but not finance the border wall with Mexico that Trump wants. Since that bill would be backed by virtually all Democrats but just a smattering of Republicans, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has tried to derail the drive.

Instead, GOP leaders plan for the House to vote on immigration the third week in June, a week before the votes moderates want could be held. Republicans say the only measure leaders have committed to consider is a conservative package that would reduce legal immigration, help Trump build his wall and punish “sanctuary cities” that hinder federal authorities pursuing immigrants here illegally.

Under House rules, if the chamber votes on that measure first, it would force the moderates to begin their petition drive all over again, Republicans say.

That would be a blow to moderates because many face difficult re-election races in pro-immigration districts and want to show voters progress before November’s elections.

California’s Feinstein No Longer Supports Death Penalty

California U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein says she no longer backs the death penalty, a reversal of decades-long support that comes during a primary campaign where her stiffest challenge is from a fellow Democrat who is trying to outflank her with the party’s base.

“It became crystal clear to me that the risk of unequal application is high and its effect on deterrence is low,” she said in a Wednesday statement, adding that the change came “several years ago.”

But she hasn’t publicly discussed it until now, just weeks before the June 5 primary in her bid for a fifth full term in Washington. Feinstein’s toughest challenger is Democratic state Sen. Kevin de Leon, who argues she is out of touch with California values.

Denied party endorsement

The two candidates with the highest number of votes in the primary advance to November regardless of party, and there are no prominent Republicans in the contest.

De Leon blocked Feinstein from receiving the California Democratic Party’s endorsement at its annual convention in February, a window into her troubles with some of the activist base. De Leon seized on her death penalty shift as further evidence that Feinstein is worried about her base of support.

“This latest flip on the death penalty is yet another appeal to California voters who have outgrown her centrist bent,” de Leon spokesman Jonathan Underland said.

​Still holds an edge

Still, Feinstein remains popular and has a significant edge on de Leon in name recognition and money, two critical elements for a successful statewide campaign. She’s run successful campaigns in the past by picking up Democrats as well as California’s independent voters, who now make up almost as large a share of the electorate as Republicans.

Her prior support for the death penalty is a prime example of her willingness to shun the party’s base in favor of capturing wider support.

Running for governor in 1990, she aggressively touted her support for capital punishment at the ire of Democratic activists, who booed her at the party’s annual convention.

She ran a television ad declaring that she was “the only Democrat for governor for the death penalty.”

She won the party’s nomination but lost the general election. She maintained the position in her successful 1992 campaign for U.S. Senate and in subsequent campaigns.

Shift on marijuana

California has since become a more heavily Democratic state.

Feinstein gave a nod to the state’s changes earlier this year when appearing to shift her stance slightly on marijuana. She vehemently opposed a state proposition to legalize recreational marijuana in 2016, but said in early May that she would consider legislation granting protection to states that have legalized the drug.

Her office did not offer a clear answer on whether she broadly supports legalized recreational marijuana.

De Leon similarly pointed to that change as evidence that Feinstein is out of touch with today’s voters.

Trump Wants Aid Cut to Nations Not Helping US Stem Illegal Immigration

President Donald Trump called Wednesday for a “radical change” to the structure of U.S. aid to countries deemed not sufficiently assisting the United States in keeping violent illegal immigrants from heading here.

“We’re going to work out something where every time someone comes from a certain country, we’re going to deduct a rather large amount of money from what we give them in aid,” promised Trump. “We may not just give them aid at all, because despite the reports I hear, I don’t believe they’re helping us one bit.”

Trump did not specify any countries.

The president’s remarks came at an event, held inside a homeland security center in Bethpage on New York’s Long Island, which the White House said was intended to be “a call to action for legislative policy changes.”

Focus on MS-13

Much of the conversation among the president and others, including family members of victims of gang violence, at the round-table event focused on MS-13 — a criminal gang that originated in Los Angeles and has spread to much of North and Central America. It draws many of its members from El Salvador.

The Central American country, plagued with drug gang violence, is estimated to have the fifth-lowest per capita income in the Western Hemisphere.

Overall, according to authorities, MS-13 is blamed for 25 killings on New York’s Long Island in the last two years.

Long Island is home to some of the wealthiest communities in the United States. But other areas of the expansive and densely populated island are less affluent and ethnically diverse, with one out of every five residents considered to be Latino.

At the event, 60 kilometers (37 miles) east of the skyscrapers of Manhattan, Nassau County Police Chief Patrick Ryder said, “We know we have a president who has our back and supports us every day.” Ryder explained that his department had identified 250 active members of MS-13 and that last year, in his jurisdiction, “six kids” were slain by the gang.

Children ‘afraid to go out’

“It’s unthinkable. It’s almost like an occupied territory where your children are afraid to go out,” Trump said of Long Island, an area he said he knew well from growing up in nearby Jamaica Estates in the Queens borough of New York City.

It was Trump’s second visit to Long Island during his presidency to speak about immigration. 

Participants at Wednesday’s event defended Trump’s initial comment last week referring to MS-13 members as “animals.” 

“They are animals in how they kill, get these kids and torture them,” said Evelyn Rodriguez whose 16-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old friend were slain by MS-13 in 2016.

During the round-table, Trump again emphasized that the gang members are “not people, these are animals.”

The acting director of U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, Thomas Homan, asserted that MS-13 followers are even worse than animals.

“Animals kill for survival,” he said. “MS-13 kills for sport.”

Many immigration rights activists interpret the invocation of such dehumanizing language as an attempt to degrade the majority of immigrants, legal or undocumented, who are not involved in crime.

Also of special focus during the round-table was the issue of children who are detained for being in the country illegally.

Hearing first

U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein explained that under the law, all unaccompanied alien minors, even if they are gang members, have to go before a federal judge and cannot be expeditiously extradited.

“Most of them, once they’re released, they’re here to stay,” because they don’t show up for subsequent legal hearings, according to Rosenstein.

Some of those children who do not have gang ties then end up developing them, he said.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen complained that “we still cannot bar known gang members from coming into our country.”

She vowed to “close those loopholes, and we will take our communities back under President Trump.”

A local Republican congressman, Lee Zeldin, told Trump that he favored revoking naturalization of those found to be involved in gang violence before becoming U.S. citizens. 

“We need those laws to change,” responded Trump. “The laws are horrible.”

The president has accused the leader of the opposition Democrats in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, of defending MS-13.

“Finally, they’re starting to break up,” said Trump of Democratic lawmakers, who he contends have been unified in opposition to his immigration policies.

Members of Congress Take to the Soccer Field in Annual Washington Charity Match

Members of the U.S. Congress and former professional athletes took to the soccer pitch Tuesday in Washington, as Republicans and Democrats fought for bragging rights during the annual Congressional Soccer Match. All to benefit charity. From Washington, VOA’s Jill Craig has more.

US House Passes 1st Major Criminal Justice Reform Measure in 8 Years

The rate of incarceration in the U.S. is the world’s highest, leading to what many lawmakers and policy analysts say is a nationwide imprisonment epidemic. But the beginning of the end of that epidemic started Tuesday, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York, told VOA.

A bipartisan prison reform bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a 360-59 vote “strikes an opening blow against the overcriminalization of the nation,” Jeffries, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said.

U.S. President Donald Trump said “the strong bipartisan vote paces the way for action by the Senate.” Last week, Trump endorsed the bill at a White House summit on prison reform, saying, “Our whole nation benefits if former inmates are able to reenter society as productive, law-abiding citizens.”

If the bill reaches the president’s desk for a signature, it would provide $50 million in funding for five years to provide job training, education and substance abuse treatment for prisoners as well as a number of quality-of-life measures aimed at reducing chronically high rates of recidivism among former inmates.

Contentious issue

But the contentious issue of criminal justice reform has split Democrats and Republicans within their own parties, possibly jeopardizing the bill’s chances of passage as it heads to the U.S. Senate.

In a letter to colleagues last week, Democratic Senators Kamala Harris, Dick Durbin and Cory Booker joined two House Democratic colleagues, Representatives John Lewis and Sheila Jackson Lee, in saying the bill could not be implemented effectively and could possibly lead to prison privatization.

Jeffries told VOA many of the arguments against the First Step Act “were anchored in falsehoods.”

He added the legislation passed today “is a first step towards eradicating the cancer of mass incarceration”  a move also welcomed by many House Republicans.

“Rather than allowing the cycle of crime to continue, this legislation takes a practical, intelligent approach to rehabilitation,” House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, said, speaking of the bill’s reform measures on the House floor Tuesday.

The bill represents the first significant criminal justice reform effort since the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, a measure that reduced the disparity in the amount of crack cocaine and powder cocaine required to trigger mandatory sentences for drug offenders.

But the First Step Act faces tough odds in the Senate, where a bipartisan group of senators is pushing for more comprehensive criminal justice reform.

The rival Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, championed by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, a Republican, promises lower sentences for nonviolent, low-level offenders and gives judges greater discretion at sentencing, among other provisions.

Nearly two dozen senators have signed on to the bill, but the White House opposes the measure.   

“We need a more strategic approach to drug sentencing that focuses law enforcement resources on violent career criminals and drug kingpins instead of nonviolent, lower-level offenders,” Grassley wrote in a recent op-ed for Fox News.

Sentencing laws

Mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, instituted in the 1970s and 1980s, are widely blamed for a sharp rise in the number of U.S. prisoners in recent decades.

Though the number of U.S. prisoners has fallen in recent years, nearly half of the 184,000 inmates currently held in federal correction facilities are serving time for drug offenses, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

The divide in Congress over prison reform mirrors an unusual schism among longtime advocates of overhauling America’s criminal justice system.

At one end of the spectrum is a coalition of more than 100 advocacy groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who say the bill falls short of bringing about “meaningful” criminal justice reform.

In a letter on Monday, the group urged House members to vote down the bill, saying it fails to address “racial disparities, draconian mandatory sentences, persistent overcrowding, lack of rehabilitation, and the exorbitant costs of incarceration.”

At the other end of the divide is an unlikely grouping of more than 70 other organizations that support the legislation, ranging from Koch Industries, headed by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that opposes mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Kevin Ring, the group’s president, says the prospect of sentencing reform under the Trump administration is slim, leaving prison reform as the only viable alternative.

“What we don’t want to do is make the perfect the enemy of the good: kill a bill that has modest reforms that will help real people just because we’re waiting for something that’s not likely to happen in this administration,” Ring said.

Ring said he hopes negotiations in the Senate can lead to a compromise between the First Step Act and the bill advocated by Grassley.

At the White House summit last week, Trump urged lawmakers to “work out their differences” and send him a reform bill to sign.

Trump Mum on Status of Deputy AG Rosenstein

President Donald Trump declined to say Tuesday whether he had confidence in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, escalating pressure on the Justice Department as his White House negotiated rare access to classified documents for his congressional allies.

Asked before a private meeting with the president of South Korea if he had confidence in Rosenstein, who is overseeing the special counsel’s Russia investigation, he asked reporters to move on to another question.

“Excuse me, I have the president of South Korea here,” Trump said. “He doesn’t want to hear these questions, if you don’t mind.”

The comments came just before White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced that a meeting to allow House Republicans to review highly classified information on the Russia probe would happen Thursday.

Sanders said FBI Director Christopher Wray, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats and Justice Department official Edward O’Callaghan would meet with House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes of California and House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina. 

Push by Nunes

Nunes, an ardent Trump supporter, has been demanding information on an FBI source in the Russia investigation, according to the Justice Department. And Trump has taken up the cause as the White House tries to combat the threat posed by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Trump said Tuesday it would be a “disgrace” to the country if it’s shown that the FBI had spies in his campaign, and that would “make probably every political event ever look like small potatoes.”

In a tweet on Sunday, Trump demanded that the Justice Department investigate whether the FBI infiltrated his presidential campaign and “if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!”

Trump’s demand alarmed some observers, who felt it not only violated presidential protocol but also could have a chilling effect on federal law enforcement or its use of informants.

Expansion of open probe

In response to Trump’s tweet, the Justice Department said it would expand an open, internal investigation into the ongoing Russia probe by examining whether there was any politically motivated surveillance. The White House then said Monday that Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly would organize the meeting to review the documents. But Sanders said no White House staffers — including Kelly — would be present at Thursday’s meeting.

With the demand, Trump entered into the realm of applying presidential pressure on the Justice Department regarding an investigation into his own campaign — a move few of his predecessors have made. He made it amid days of public venting about the special counsel investigation, which he has deemed a “witch hunt” that he says has yielded no evidence of collusion between his campaign and Russia.

In response, the Justice Department moved to defuse the confrontation by asking its watchdog to investigate whether there was inappropriate surveillance.

“If anyone did infiltrate or surveil participants in a presidential campaign for inappropriate purposes, we need to know about it and take appropriate action,” Rosenstein said in a statement announcing the move.

The Justice Department had originally rejected the request from Nunes, saying his request for information “regarding a specific individual” could have severe consequences, including potential loss of human life.

The department said then that the White House had signed off on its letter, but Nunes wasn’t satisfied, and continued to pressure DOJ officials.

FBI informant

The New York Times was the first to report that the FBI had an informant who met several times with Trump campaign officials who had suspicious contacts linked to Russia.

The Justice Department’s internal probe began in March at the request of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and congressional Republicans. Sessions and the lawmakers urged Inspector General Michael Horowitz to review whether FBI and Justice Department officials abused their surveillance powers by using information compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British spy, and partly paid for by Democrats to justify monitoring Carter Page, a former campaign adviser to Trump.

Horowitz said his office would look at those claims as well as communications between Steele and Justice and FBI officials.

Sunday was not the first time that Trump accused his predecessor of politically motivated activity against him.

Without substantiation, Trump tweeted in March 2017 that former President Barack Obama had conducted surveillance the previous October at Trump Tower, the New York skyscraper where Trump ran his campaign and transition and maintains a residence.

Former FBI Director James Comey later testified to Congress that internal reviews found no information to support the president’s tweets. Trump fired Comey over the FBI’s Russia investigation.

Trump Steps Up Attacks on Russia Probe

The U.S. Department of Justice is expanding an internal probe into whether there was any political motivation when the FBI first began investigating Russian meddling in 2016 during the presidential election. President Donald Trump met with top Justice Department officials Monday following his claim via Twitter that the FBI used an informant to spy on his campaign. It was Trump’s latest in a series of escalating attacks on the Russia probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

Trump Praises New, Berates Former CIA Director

Former CIA officer Gina Haspel has become the first woman to head the U.S. spy agency after a swearing-in ceremony Monday. Haspel has overcome the criticism by lawmakers of both parties for her involvement in the torture of terror suspects after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. U.S. President Donald Trump praised her ability to overcome what he called “a lot of very negative politics” and said no one was more qualified the job. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

Commemorative Coin Struck for Trump-Kim Summit

A commemorative coin featuring U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has been struck by the White House Communications Agency ahead of their planned summit next month.

In a statement, deputy spokesman Raj Shah insisted that “the White House did not have any input into the design and manufacture of the coin.”

The coin depicts Trump and Kim, described as North Korea’s “Supreme Leader,” in profile facing each other in front of a background of U.S. and North Korean flags.

At the top of the front, the words “Peace Talks” are emblazoned, with the date “2018” beneath.

The back of the coin features a picture of the White House, Air Force One and the presidential seal.

Trump is scheduled to hold a landmark summit with the North Korean leader in Singapore on June 12, but Pyongyang has recently threatened to pull out over U.S. demands for “unilateral nuclear abandonment.”

The White House Communications Agency regularly issues commemorative or challenge coins to present to foreign guests, diplomats and members of the military.

A number of the coins are available for sale through the White House Gift Office.

“Since 2003, White House Communications Agency members have ordered a limited number of commercially designed and manufactured souvenir travel coins for purchase,” Shah explained.

“These coins are designed, manufactured and made by an American coin manufacturer. These souvenir coins are only ordered after a trip has been publicly announced.”

Watchdog Report to Fault FBI for Clinton Probe Delay

An upcoming report from the Justice Department’s internal watchdog is expected to criticize senior FBI leaders for not moving quickly enough to review a trove of Hillary Clinton emails discovered late in the 2016 campaign, according to people familiar with the findings.

The FBI’s timing has been a sore point for Clinton supporters, who say then-director James Comey’s announcement of the new review less than two weeks before the Nov. 8, 2016, election contributed to her loss. The agency’s findings affirming its decision not to pursue criminal charges against Clinton were disclosed two days before the vote — too late, her supporters say, to undo the damage.

Some FBI officials knew in September 2016 of the emails on former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s laptop but the bureau did not obtain a warrant to review them until the following month. Clinton allies say the candidate’s name could have been cleared much faster if the FBI acted on the emails as soon as they knew of their existence.

An inspector general report examining a broad range of FBI actions during the Clinton email investigation will criticize officials, including Comey, for not moving fast enough to examine the email trove and for a weekslong delay in getting a warrant, according to people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to discuss it publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press.

A lawyer for Comey and spokespeople for the inspector general and the FBI all declined to comment Monday.

The report will likely revive scrutiny of the FBI’s handling of the Clinton case and the extent to which it helped shape the outcome of the presidential election. Its conclusions may cut against President Donald Trump’s repeated assertions that the FBI was working against him during the campaign and instead revive allegations that the bureau broke from protocol in ways that ultimately harmed Clinton.

The nonpolitical watchdog has been repeatedly pulled into the partisan arena amid demands to investigate FBI actions in the early stages of its probe of possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. 

On Sunday, the Justice Department asked the inspector general, Michael Horowitz, to expand his existing investigation to look into whether Trump associates were improperly monitored during the campaign for political reasons.

The report dealing with the Clinton emails arises from a wide-ranging investigation launched in January 2017. It has been examining actions including Comey’s decision to announce his recommendation against criminal charges at an FBI headquarters news conference and his decision months later to alert Congress that the probe had been reopened because of the discovery of email messages on Weiner’s laptop.

The report is also expected to criticize two FBI officials who exchanged derogatory text messages about Trump during the course of the Clinton investigation.

A draft of the report has been completed, and officials whose actions are scrutinized in it have been permitted with their lawyers to review it and respond to the findings. The final version is expected out next month.

A separate inspector general report from last month faulted former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe for misleading investigators about his role in a 2016 news media disclosure about an investigation into the Clinton Foundation. 

McCabe, who has denied wrongdoing, was fired because of those findings, and the inspector general has referred the matter to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington for possible criminal prosecution.

Weiner is the former husband of top Clinton aide Huma Abedin. His laptop was being analyzed by FBI investigators as part of a separate sexting investigation involving a teenage girl. Weiner, a former Democratic congressman from New York, is serving a 21-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to sending obscene material to a 15-year-old girl.

In his book released last month, “A Higher Loyalty,” Comey writes that he learned in early October — probably from McCabe — that Weiner’s laptop might hold a connection to the Clinton email investigation. He said he did not recall the conversation clearly and that it seemed like a “passing comment and the notion that Anthony Weiner’s computer might connect to … Hillary Clinton made no sense to me.”

Comey said it wasn’t until the morning of Oct. 27 when FBI officials asked his permission to seek a warrant for the Clinton emails, having determined that “hundreds of thousands of emails” from Clinton’s personal email domain existed on the computer and that there was no way Weiner would consent to a search of his entire laptop given the legal trouble he was in.

Some of the emails on the laptop had been forwarded by Abedin to Weiner to be printed out while others had been stored there after being backed up from personal electronic devices.

The FBI subsequently obtained a warrant, and though Comey said he was told there was no chance the email review would be done before the election, he announced on Nov. 6 that, “Based on our review, we have not changed our conclusions that we expressed in July with respect to Secretary Clinton.”

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