Border Wall Going Up in National Monument, Wildlife Refuge

The U.S. government plans to replace barriers through 100 miles (161 kilometers) of the southern border in California and Arizona, including through a national monument and a wildlife refuge, according to documents and environmental advocates.

The Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday again waived environmental and dozens of other laws to build more barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Funding will come from the Defense Department following the emergency declaration that President Donald Trump signed this year after Congress refused to approve the amount of border wall funding he requested.

Barriers will go up at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a vast park named after the unique cactus breed that decorates it, and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, which is largely a designed wilderness home to 275 wildlife species. The government will also build new roads and lighting in those areas in Arizona.

Environmental advocates who have sued to stop the construction of the wall say this latest plan will be detrimental to the wildlife and habitat in those areas.

“The Trump administration just ignored bedrock environmental and public health laws to plow a disastrous border wall through protected, spectacular wildlands,” said Laiken Jordahl, who works on border issues at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment but has typically not said much about construction plans.

Crossings, drugs dwindle at national monument

At Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, row after row of cactuses decorate 516 square miles (1,336-square kilometers) of land that once saw so much drug smuggling that over half the park was closed to the public. But illegal crossings in that area dropped off significantly in the past several years, and the government in 2015 reopened the entire monument for the first time in 12 years.

While Arizona has seen an increase in border crossers over the last year, most are families who turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents. The number of drugs that agents seize in the state has also dropped significantly.

But the government is moving forward with more border infrastructure.

The waivers the department issued Tuesday are vague in their description of where and how many miles of fencing will be installed. The Center for Biological Diversity says the plans total about 100 miles (160 kilometers) of southern border in both Arizona and California, near Calexico and Tecate.

​From waist-high fence to 30-foot barriers

In Arizona, construction will focus on four areas of the border and will include the replacement of waist-high fencing meant to stop cars with 18- to 30-foot (9-meter) barriers that will be more efficient at stopping illegal crossings.

The government has demolished refuge land in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and construction is set to begin any day. On one section of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, crews have used heavy construction equipment to destroy a mix of trees, including mesquite, mulberry and hackberry. Those trees protect birds during the ongoing nesting season.

According to plans published last year, the cleared land will be filled in and a concrete wall will be installed, with bollards measuring 18 feet (5.5 meters) installed on top.

​One refuge off limits

After months of public outcry, Congress forbade U.S. Customs and Border Protection from building in the nearby Santa Ana wildlife refuge or the nonprofit National Butterfly Center. But it didn’t stop money from going to wall construction in other refuge lands, nor did it stop the government from building in otherwise exempted land because of the emergency declaration, said Marianna Trevino Wright, the butterfly center’s director.

“They’re going to have to protect us in every single spending bill going forward, and they have to protect us against the state of emergency,” Wright said. “And this administration has made it clear … that they don’t want any exemptions.”

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Voice of America

US House Democrats Probe Justice Department’s Handling of Police Shootings

The Democratic-led U.S. House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday unveiled a probe of the Trump administration’s moves to curtail the federal government’s role in scrutinizing police shootings.

In a letter to Attorney General William Barr, Chairman Jerrold Nadler and other committee Democrats requested documents and updates on how the Justice Department has addressed shootings and other cases of excessive police force since President Donald Trump took office in early 2017.

The lawmakers cited statistics, including media reports, that show nearly 1,000 people were shot and killed by police in 2018 and that at least 265 others have met with the same fate this year. The numbers include cases of unarmed shooting victims that have drawn international criticism.

“Despite continuing concerns from civil rights and community-based organizations, the department has sharply curtailed its statutory role in identifying and eradicating civil rights abuses by law enforcement,” the lawmakers’ letter said. Justice Department officials were not immediately available to comment.

Among the documents sought by the Democratic lawmakers are memos written by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who implemented policies that critics say sharply curtailed the ability of Justice Department civil rights attorneys to rein in unconstitutional policing.

The lawmakers gave Barr until June 5 to comply with their request.

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Voice of America

Mexico: Deal to Repeal US Steel Tariffs Could Be Close

Mexico is closing in on a deal to repeal U.S. President Donald Trump’s punitive tariffs on steel and aluminum, a senior Mexican official said Tuesday, potentially moving a step nearer to the ratification of a major trade deal struck last year.

“We are, I think, close to negotiating the lifting of the tariffs,” Mexican Economy Minister Graciela Marquez told Canadian broadcaster CBC after meeting with Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland in Toronto.

“We’re having very fruitful conversations on lifting the tariffs not only in the U.S. but also here in Toronto.”

Adam Austen, a spokesman for Freeland, said the minister noted on Tuesday that it was unwise to predict how long a negotiation would take. He declined to comment further.

Mexico and Canada imposed tariffs on various U.S. products last year in response to Trump’s metals duties. The Mexican government says it could soon swap out some goods from its list for others to spread the pain across the U.S. economy.

Earlier, Marquez said a new target list of U.S. products had been completed, and only needed approval from other officials, including President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. That process would likely take at least two to three weeks, she said.

U.S. Democrats

Her remarks, and those of a business leader involved in efforts to lift the tariffs and secure passage of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), suggested there may be scope to resolve the spat before fresh tariffs are imposed.

Mexico’s push to have the metals tariffs lifted has become bound up with its efforts to secure U.S. ratification of USCMA, which was signed by the three countries’ leaders on Nov. 30 to replace the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement.

Mexicans lobbying for USMCA approval have focused their attention more on Democratic lawmakers since Democrats took control of the U.S. House of Representatives in January.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Mexican official said any revised retaliatory tariffs would lean more than before toward Democrats’ districts to impress on them the need to lift the metals duties, and pave the way for USMCA ratification.

When asked in a news conference if Mexico would target Democratic constituencies to encourage more U.S. lawmakers to argue for an end to the metals duties, Marquez said the new measures included economic and political components.

Democrats have said they will not ratify USMCA unless Mexico delivers on a pledge to enact stronger labor provisions.

Mexico’s Congress passed a law that strengthens the rights of trade unions near the end of last month.

U.S. Republicans

U.S. Republican lawmakers have already signaled that Trump will need to drop his metals tariffs to pass USMCA.

U.S. Republican Chuck Grassley, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said last month there was no chance of ratifying the new trade pact until the tariffs were gone.

Participants in the process see progress.

Moises Kalach, a leader of the CCE business lobby, which represented Mexico’s private sector in the USMCA talks, told Reuters the original retaliatory tariffs were having the desired effect and saw no need to apply a new round of measures yet.

“You don’t want to … make a major change to retaliatory tariffs only to end up reaching a deal a couple of weeks later,” he said, adding he saw signs of “light” in breaking the impasse.

Canada’s Freeland said she would hold talks in Washington on Wednesday with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, as well as Grassley.

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Voice of America

Are Coastal Home Values Feeling Drag of Climate Change?

For sale: waterfront property with sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean. Waves erode beach regularly. Flooding gets worse every year. Saltwater damage to lawn.

Asking price: anyone’s guess.

Some research suggests rising sea levels and flooding brought by global warming are harming coastal property values. But other climate scientists note shortcomings in the studies, and real estate experts say they simply haven’t seen any ebb in demand for coastal homes.

So how much homeowners and communities should worry, and how much they should invest in remedies, remains an open question.

Nancy Meehan, 71, is considering putting her coastal condo in Salisbury up for sale this year, but she worries buyers will be turned off by the winter storms that churn the seas beside the summer resort town. Her home has been largely spared in the nearly 20 years she’s lived there, she said, but the flooding appears to be worsening along roads and lower properties.

‘My life savings’

“All my life savings is in my home,” Meehan said of the four-bedroom, two-bathroom condo, which she bought for $135,000. “I can’t lose that equity.”

Nearby, Denis Champagne can’t be sure that rising seas are hurting his waterfront home’s value. The three-story, four-bedroom home has views of a scenic marsh, has been renovated and is blocks from the ocean — yet was assessed around $420,000.

“Do I feel that it should be worth more than that?” Champagne said recently in his sun-soaked living room. “I mean, I’m biased, but where can you find this for that price — anywhere?”

Community relies on real estate taxes

A drop in home values could shatter a community like Salisbury, which relies almost exclusively on beachfront real estate taxes to fund schools, police and other basic services, researchers warn. And, they say, families could face financial ruin if they’ve been banking on their home’s value to help foot the bill for pricey college tuitions or retirement.

“People are looking at losing tens of thousands of dollars of relative value on their homes,” said Jeremy Porter, a data scientist for the First Street Foundation, which describes itself as a “not-for-profit organization of digitally driven advocates for sea level rise solutions” on its Facebook page. “Not everyone can sustain that.”

Still, home prices in coastal cities have been rising faster than those of their landlocked counterparts since 2010, according to data provided by the National Association of Realtors.

And waterfront homes are still generally more expensive than their peers just one block inland, said Lawrence Yun, the association’s chief economist.

“The price differential is still there,” he said. “Consumers are clearly mindful that these climate change impacts could be within the window of a 30-year mortgage, but their current behavior still implies that to have a view of the ocean is more desirable.”

One $16 billion estimate

A nationwide study by the First Street Foundation suggests climate change concerns have caused nearly $16 billion in lost appreciation of property values along the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast since 2005.

The study singles out Salisbury as the hardest-hit community in Massachusetts. Coastal homes there would be worth $200,000 to $300,000 more if not for frequent tidal flooding and powerful coastal storms, the study suggests. Champagne’s property, for example, would be worth about $123,000 more, according to Flood iQ, a property database the group has developed.

In another recent study, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Business found coastal properties most exposed to sea level rise sold, on average, for 7% less than equivalent properties the same distance from shore but not as threatened by the sea.

And in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, higher-elevation properties are appreciating faster than lower ones as companies and deep-pocketed buyers increasingly consider climate change risks, a study in the publication Environmental Research Letters found last year.

​Studies laudable, but may be flawed

The three studies are laudable because they attempt to quantify what the insurance industry and federal government had long suspected: that climate change is having tangible harm on home values, said S. Jeffress Williams, a scientist emeritus with the U.S. Geological Survey in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, who wasn’t involved with any of the research.

But Williams and other researchers note the First Street Foundation study uses sea-level rise predictions from the Army Corps of Engineers that are more dire than figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which usually provides the go-to numbers for such studies.

The decision to use Army Corps projections has “minimal impact” on the study’s assessment of current property values since those figures are based on where flooding is already happening, but it does factor into the study’s future estimates, said Steven McAlpine, a data scientist for the foundation.

“We feel it is a reasonable projection,” he said.

The other two studies largely rely on data from Florida, which is so low and highly developed that in many ways it is an outlier, unaffiliated researchers point out. They also focus only on single-family homes, leaving out huge numbers of condos, high-rises and other multifamily properties.

Just build a seawall

In Salisbury, real estate broker Thomas Saab insists something is happening with home prices but is not sure whether climate change is behind it.

Two clients in the otherwise strong real estate market, he said, were recently forced to lower their asking prices by tens of thousands of dollars when prospective buyers voiced concerns about storm damage and risks.

“Do I worry prices are coming down? Sure,” Saab said. “Fewer buyers are willing to take the risk. People don’t want to live through nor’easter after nor’easter with no protection.”

He argues there’s a simple solution: Invest in sturdy seawalls as Hampton Beach, the lively resort town just over the border in New Hampshire, did generations ago.

“We can overcome any kind of rising seas if you just let us protect our properties,” Saab said. “Who cares about the climate change? You build a seawall and this whole discussion goes away.”

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Voice of America

Court Ruling Moves Temer Closer to Leaving Jail

A four-judge panel voted unanimously Tuesday to release former President Michel Temer from being detained while he faces an investigation into alleged corruption, the latest development in a series of contradictory rulings.

Justices on the Brazilian Superior Court of Justice in Brasilia found that the circumstances did not justify the use of preventative custody for the 78-year-old politician, who has been detained twice since leaving the presidency Jan. 1. 

 

Although the decision was provisional, with the four justices to deliver a final verdict later, their vote will allow Temer to return home. A judge at a criminal court in Rio de Janeiro has to sign off on the decision before Temer can leave the Sao Paulo police headquarters, where he has been detained for nearly a week.

Temer is being investigated for allegedly taking bribes from the Engevix construction company in exchange for a government contract to build a nuclear power plant in the city of Angra dos Reis, in the southern part of Rio de Janeiro state. He denies any wrongdoing.

In the superior court deliberations, Justice Antonio Saldanha Palheiro argued that the seriousness of the alleged crimes — corruption, money laundering and criminal organization — “is not an argument in itself to justify” holding someone before a trial.

Justice Rogerio Schietti Cruz said the presumption of innocence “assured the defendant the right not to be treated in the process as if already convicted.”

Temer, who was president in 2016-2019, was first arrested March 21, but released five days later. He was detained again May 9 under an order from another court. 

 

The judges on Tuesday also freed a close Temer associate, Col. Joao Baptista Lima Filho, from detention. In March, prosecutors said an Engevix executive had claimed in a plea bargain testimony that he paid more than $300,000 in 2014 to a company owned by Lima.

The investigation is part of the wider “Operation Car Wash” probe that began in 2014 and has ensnared many of Brazil’s top politicians and business executives. Another former Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is currently serving a sentence of eight years and 10 months.

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