Last summer, Solace, a community group that helps oversee immigrant detention, warned US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) about alleged sexual assault, harassment, and neglect at the agency's Otay detention facility in San Diego. But instead of working with the organization to address its concerns, ICE is now blocking its access to the center.
In August, ICE told Solace that it would no longer be able to continue its visitation program at the facility unless its volunteers agreed to sign a confidentiality agreement. The confidentiality agreement is "extremely confusing," says Carl Takei, a staff attorney with the ACLU's National Prison Project. "It's vague enough that it could be used as a cover for inappropriate termination of visitation rights based on advocacy or other free-speech activities." The form also requires volunteers to "defend" and "indemnify" ICE and Corrections Corporation of America, which runs the detention facility, from any liability "arising" out of the volunteers' work, meaning that if a volunteer tells a detainee she has the right to sue Otay for sexual abuse, the volunteer would be required to defend Otay if the detainee were to bring a lawsuit against the facility. Takei says that this type of language would "chill" volunteers from raising concerns about detention conditions.
For six months, Solace tried unsuccessfully to persuade ICE's San Diego field office to reinstate the visitation program and to modify the language in the confidentiality form to comply with ICE's national detention standards, which merely require volunteers to sign an acknowledgment that they understand the rules of the facility and a waiver that releases ICE from responsibility in case of volunteer injury.
Civic, an umbrella network of visitation programs that includes Solace, sent a formal request to ICE's national office last week requesting that the agency force its San Diego field office to modify the application form and reinstate Solace's visitation rights. Civic asked for a response by Monday but has not received one. On Tuesday, when Civic told ICE it was going to publicize the issue, the agency said it was willing to meet with the immigrant visitation organization. "We hope to have a collaborative resolution," says Kristen Kuriga, who helps run Solace. "But it has already taken six months." ICE did not return a request for comment. Neither did the Department of Homeland Security.
This is not the first time that ICE has suspended visitation after volunteers criticized the agency. Last July, in response to an editorial penned by Civic's co-executive director, Christina Fialho, which slammed the lack of oversight at immigrant detention facilities, ICE suspended Civic-affiliated visitation programs at three ICE detention centers in California. Fialho says that there have been other instances around the country in which individual Civic volunteers have participated in vigils outside of detention facilities and then been denied visiting privileges.
ICE detains about 34,000 people every day. It's a big system and there is "very, very little oversight," says Grisel Ruiz, a law fellow at the nonprofit Immigrant Legal Resource Center. Oversight of ICE detention facilities, which are often run by counties or private prison companies, has improved over the past half decade, Takei says. But unlike the federal prison system run by the Bureau of Prisons, there is no third-party overseer built into the ICE immigrant detention system, which is housed within the Department of Homeland Security. Most oversight of immigrant detention comes from civil-society groups, including groups like Solace.
Now, ICE "is asking us to choose between our First Amendment rights and visiting our friends in detention," Fialho says. "This is not a choice any democracy should ask its people to make."
After we published this article, ICE sent this response:
"US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is committed to an immigration detention system that prioritizes the health and welfare of detainees. The agency welcomes visits to its facilities by members of community groups and encourages constructive feedback for improving conditions of immigration detention. In the interest of ensuring the safety of facility staff and detainees, ICE policy [as detailed in the agency’s 2011 Performance-Based National Detention Standards] requires that members of community service organizations seeking to participate in voluntary detainee visitation programs undergo background checks prior to being admitted to these secure facilities."
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the watchdog agency conceived of and established by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in the wake of the financial crisis, had a hard time getting on its feet. The GOP tried everythingit could to hobble the bureau, but to no avail. Over the past couple of years, the CFPB has issued dozens of protections shielding consumers from shady practices by mortgage lenders, student loan servicers, and credit card companies. Here are ten things the CFPB, which was created in 2011, has done to protect the little guy:
1. Mortgage lenders can no longer push you into a high-priced loan: Until recently, lenders were allowed to direct borrowers toward high-interest loans, which are more profitable for lenders, even if they qualified for a lower-cost mortgage—a practice that helped lead to the financial crisis. In early 2013, the CFPB issued a rule that effectively ends this conflict of interest.
2. New homeowners are less likely to be hit by foreclosure: In the lead-up to the financial crisis, lenders also sold Americans "no doc" mortgages that didn't require borrowers to provide proof of income, assets, or employment. Last May, the bureau clamped down on this type of irresponsible lending, forcing mortgage lenders to verify borrowers' ability to repay.
3. If you are are delinquent on your mortgage payments, loan servicers have to try harder to help you avoid foreclosure: During the housing crisis, loan servicers—companies that collect payments from borrowers—were permitted to simultaneously offer a delinquent borrower options to avoid foreclosure while moving to complete that foreclosure. New CFPB rules force servicers to make a good faith effort to keep you out of foreclosure. That's not all: Loan servicers will now face civil penalties if they don't provide live customer service, maintain accurate mortgage records, and promptly inform borrowers whose loan modification applications are incomplete.
5. Borrowers with high-cost mortgages get an outside eye: Lenders who sell mortgages with high interest rates are now required to have an outside appraiser determine the worth of the house for the borrower. If a borrower is going to be paying sky-high prices for a fixer-upper, at least she'll know it beforehand.
6. Fly-by-night financial players will be held accountable: Part of the CFPB's mandate is to oversee debt collectors, payday lenders, and other under-regulated financial institutions that profit off low-income Americans. The bureau is preparing new restrictions on debt collectors, and considering new regs on payday loan industry. In the meantime, the bureau is cracking down on bad actors individually.
7. Folks scammed by credit card companies get refunds: In October 2012, the CFPB ordered three American Express subsidiaries to pay 250,000 customers $85 million for illegal practices including misleading credit card offerings, age discrimination, and excessive late fees. This past September, the CFPB ordered JPMorgan Chase to refund $309 million to more than 2.1 million Americans for charging them for identity theft and fraud monitoring services they didn't ask for.
8. Student lenders face scrutiny: The CFPB oversees private student loan servicing at big banks to ensure compliance with fair lending laws. In December, the agency announced that it will also start supervising non-bank student loan servicers, which are companies that manage borrowers' accounts. Many of these servicers have been accused of levying unfair penalty fees and making it hard for borrowers to negotiate an affordable repayment plan.
9. Service members get extra protection: In June, the CFPB ordered US Bank and its non-bank partner Dealers' Financial Services to refund $6.5 million to service members for failing to disclose fees associated with a military auto loan program. In November, the CFPB ordered the payday lender Cash America to pay up to $14 million for illegally overcharging members of the military.
10. Consumers get a help center: If your bank or lender does anything you think is unfair, the bureau has a division dedicated to fielding consumer complaints. The agency promises to work with companies to try to fix consumers' problems.
Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen at a House hearing in February.
Between 2007 and 2009, the Federal Reserve—the US central bank tasked with regulating unemployment and inflation—handed out an unprecedented $20 trillion in super-low interest loans to failing Wall Street banks. The 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law required the Fed to restrict its emergency lending powers so that too-big-to-fail banks don't expect the central bank to dole out easy money again in the event of another financial crisis. The Fed waited overthree years to craft regulations to comply with the Dodd-Frank provision, and now it has finally drafted rules to limit its bailout powers, financial reform advocates say the restrictions are far too weak.
"The rule mostly reiterates the language of [Dodd-Frank]," Stanley says. "And the drafters take advantage of every opportunity to interpret the statute in ways that minimize limits on emergency lending authority."
Instead of limiting the Fed's emergency lending powers to temporary cash assistance as it is supposed to, the draft rule imposes no clear time limit on how long a big bank may remain dependent on Fed largesse. And the draft regulation defines "solvency" with far too broad a brush, according to AFR. The proposed rule does not require the Fed to assess if a potential borrower's liabilities exceed the value of its assets.
While the emergency lending rule would ban loans to a single institution, it would still allow the creation of loan programs that lend to, say, three or four of the largest banks, while allowing smaller banks to flounder.
The Fed's draft emergency lending rule does not even set an interest rate at which loans will be extended, a provision that would help to limit the "moral hazard" of easy money, AFR notes. And the rule is unclear as to how it would value borrowers' collateral.
The Fed declined to comment. But last year, former Fed chairman Ben Bernanke dismissed concerns that the central bank had not yet drafted a rule limiting its emergency lending powers, insisting that the language in the Dodd-Frank law was sufficient. "I think that [Dodd-Frank] is very clear about what we can and cannot do. And I don't think that the absence of a formal rule would allow us to do something which the law prohibits," including bailing out an individual firm, or lending to an insolvent bank, he said at a House hearing in July.
The Fed is currently accepting public comment on its emergency lending rule, so it is possible that reformers may win some victories before a final rule is put in place. Though the lobbying clout of the financial industry vastly outweighs that of pro-reform groups.
Before the Fed finally drafted its emergency lending rules, financial reformers said the central bank was likely dragging its feet because it didn't want to cede some of its authority over the financial world. This latest lukewarm effort to rein in its bailout abilities makes it seem like that may be the case.
"There are two ways to keep the economy on an even keel," AFR's Stanley told me last July. "Through clear, transparent rules that treat everyone the same—which is pretty challenging, and involves taking on a lot of interests." Or, he says, "you get to create a whole bunch of money out of nothing and you can hand it out wherever the problem is… It's easier to have this magic power."
Anti-gay graffiti on a home in the Gishiri neighborhood of Abuja. "Park and live" is intended to mean "pack and leave."
Around midnight on February 13, a young Nigerian man named Femi* was jolted out of his evening prayer by shouting outside his window. A crowd of some 40 people had gathered around his house. "No more homosexuals in Gishiri!" they yelled, referring to Femi's neighborhood within Nigeria's capital city, Abuja. The mob broke down his door and dragged him outside in his boxers. They beat him and about 13 other gay men that night with broken furniture, machete handles, sticks, and a garden rake, vowing to kill them if they didn't clear out of the neighborhood.
The attack, and other actsof vigilante violence targeting gays and lesbians around the country, was motivated by a new anti-gay law that Nigeria's president signed January 7. The measure, modeled off the one that Uganda enacted in late February, levies harsh prison sentences on anyone who makes a "public show" of a "direct" or "indirect" same-sex relationship or supports an LGBT organization (10 years), and anyone who attempts to enter into a same-sex marriage (14 years), even though this would be virtually impossible in Nigeria. The anti-gay backlash the law has provoked in Nigeria has led not just to violence, but to homelessness, unemployment, harassment, and a steep drop-off in HIV/AIDS treatment.
John Adeniyi narrowly escaped the attack in Gishiri and has been recording accounts of the violence that night. He's a human rights program officer at the International Center for Advocacy on Rights to Health (ICARH), an HIV intervention organization based in Abuja. To find out what life is like for Nigeria's gay community under the country's new law—and what gay Ugandans are starting to face—I visited with Adeniyi during a recent trip to Nigeria.
On Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called on her colleagues in the Senate to reduce interest rates for Americans crushed by student loan debt, and pay for it by closing tax loopholes for the rich.
Last summer, after a rancorous debate, Congress passed a law setting interest rates for new student loans for undergrads at 3.86 percent for the coming year. (Rates were set to double to 6.8 percent.) However, the legislation did not cut interest rates for those who took out the same type of loan before July 1 of last year. Americans who financed their education earlier than that are paying off debt with interest rates of 7, 8, or 9 percent. On Wednesday, Warren joined Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in a speech on the Senate floor to highlight her plan to introduce legislation that would allow Americans with high-interest student loan debt to refinance their loans at the new rates being offered to first-time borrowers this year.
"Refinancing those old loans would lower interest rates to 3.86 percent for undergraduate loans," Warren said. "This is real money back in the pockets of people who invested in their education. Real money that will help young people find a little more financial stability as they work hard to build their futures. Real money that says that America invests in those who work to get an education."
Warren proposed that the rate cut be paid for by closing tax loopholes for the rich. "Right now, this country essentially taxes students—by charging high interest rates that bring money into the government—while at the same time we give away far more money through a tax code riddled with loopholes and let the wealthiest individuals and corporations avoid paying a fair share," Senator Warren said. "We can close those loopholes and put the money directly into refinancing student loans."
Last year, during the debate over what to do with skyrocketing student loan rates, Warren introduced her own bill that would have cut need-based undergrad loan interest rates to the same low 0.75 percent interest rate that banks pay to the Federal Reserve for short-term loans. The bill was never brought up for a vote. Warren voted against the compromise plan that Obama signed into law in August, which allows interest rates on undergrad loans to fluctuate all the way up to 8.25 percent.