News Roundup: Remain in Mexico’s Harmful Effects and Trump’s Dangerous Impatience

This week, the Los Angeles Times published a searing look at the devastating effects of the Trump administration’s Remain in Mexico policy. Under the policy, also referred to as the Migrant Protection Protocols, more than 37,000 asylum-seekers have been sent back across the border to dangerous cities, without any proper address for letting the migrants know about changes to their cases or upcoming court dates.

The LA Times also reported on documents obtained by American Oversight that show that Immigration and Customs Enforcement isn’t always providing language interpretation for asylum-seekers who don’t speak English or Spanish. The records also include an email from a DHS official that says there were “allegations about children with disabilities being separated from their parents without proper care being in place to take care of them.”

Other documents we’ve obtained revealed that in the lead-up to the implementation of Remain in Mexico — which many officials and advocates say has led to serious violations of immigration law — officials cut a question asking asylum-seekers whether they would be afraid for their safety if they were to be sent back to Mexico. Authorities have also confiscated possessions like shoelaces, jewelry and clothing, and failed to return the items before sending migrants to Mexico — we filed a Freedom of Information Act request for information about any guidance or directives related to these personal effects.

But the administration’s efforts to deter immigration are not limited to its handling of asylum cases. More than two and a half years into his term, President Donald Trump’s signature campaign promise of a wall along the southern border has remained one of his favorite rhetorical rallying cries. Our report on the administration’s preparation during the early months of 2017 revealed that agencies had failed to take critical steps that would make the wall more than merely an anti-immigration talking point. But according to a report published this week in the Washington Post, President Donald Trump, in his eagerness to complete the wall before the 2020 election, has told aides to fast-track construction contracts, to seize private lands, and to ignore environmental regulations — and that he would pardon them if they were to break laws in the process.

Aside from the potential abuse of presidential pardon powers, it’s clear that the opportunity for corruption and self-dealing — misconduct that the administration avoided in 2017 thanks to its own inaction — has increased with the president’s desperation for a wall to be built. 

One construction company that the president has reportedly been trying to steer contracts to is the North Dakota-based Fisher Industries, helmed by Republican donor and Trump supporter Tommy Fisher. According to Politico, the company has been working with the crowd-funded We Build the Wall group, an organization that has claimed that its construction design incorporates input from Border Patrol agents in charge of patrolling private land.

In July, We Build the Wall held a symposium at a portion of their wall in Sunland Park, New Mexico, and we filed a FOIA request for Customs and Border Protection communications with We Build the Wall organizers and supporters like Kris Kobach and Stephen Bannon. Last week, we asked the Department of Homeland Security and the Army Corps of Engineers for communications with Fisher Industries.

Here’s what else has been going on this week:

Azar’s Drug Industry Connections: Prior to joining the administration, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was an executive with pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. We know that Azar has had multiple meetings with conservative health-care groups working to undermine the Affordable Care Act — we also want to know if he’s been working with the pharmaceutical industry, and are suing for his communications with companies like Eli Lilly and Johnson & Johnson, which was ordered this week to pay $572 million for its role in the opioid crisis.

Personal Email Use — Again: Last month, Politico reported that U.S. Ambassador to Canada Kelly Craft, who is awaiting confirmation to serve as ambassador to the United Nations, is yet another administration official who has used personal email for official business. As we’ve done for many other officials, we’ve asked for all her emails sent or received from a non-governmental account about official State Department work.

… And Again: Last month, the Education Department’s inspector general found that Secretary Betsy DeVos had used four different personal email accounts for agency business, without properly preserving the records. We’re suing the department for all emails related to government work that were sent or received by DeVos over a personal account.

Craft, McConnell and Pompeo: Kelly Craft is from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, and is a longtime GOP fundraiser, including for McConnell. The senator has reportedly urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to consider running for a Senate seat in Kansas — as part of our investigation into Pompeo’s outside political influences, we’re asking the State Department for records of Craft’s or Pompeo’s communications with McConnell or his office.

Mar-a-Lago and CMS: American Oversight has uncovered documents showing the extensive influence that three members of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club have had over official Department of Veterans Affairs policies, specifically over the department’s operations related to electronic health records. Given that the work of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also focuses on electronic health records policies, we’ve filed a FOIA request for communications between CMS officials and the Mar-a-Lago trio.

Barr’s $30,000 Holiday Bash: Attorney General William Barr has booked the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., for his annual holiday party — a $30,000 affair. As we noted, federal ethics rules prohibit most federal employees from giving their supervisor gifts of more than $10, but thanks to Trump’s failure to financially divest from his personal businesses, it looks like the attorney general is going to be giving the president a $30,000-plus holiday gift.

Climate Change Assessments: In late May, the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, James Reilly, ordered that scientific assessment models only project climate change impact through 2040 — not through the end of the century, as before. We want to know whether and to what extent outside organizations opposed to climate change science influenced this change.

ALEC Annual Meeting: The American Legislative Exchange Council — a conservative nonprofit that supplies state governments with model legislation — held its 46th Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas, last week. As part of our State Accountability Project, we’ve filed public records requests with the Florida House of Representatives and state Senate for any records of requests to attend the conference.

Peter Wright: Prior to Peter Wright’s confirmation as the assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, the Office of Government Ethics reported that Wright had failed to fully divest his stock from DowDuPont. We’re investigating whether DowDuPont — Wright’s former employer — has influenced environmental policy.

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