Maddie Oatman

Maddie Oatman

Research Editor

Maddie worked as a travel guide in Argentina and a teacher at several educational nonprofits in San Francisco before joining Mother Jones. She’s also written for Outside, the Bay Citizen, and the Rumpus. A proud Boulder native, she makes time for mountain climbing, stargazing, and telemark skiing.

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Obama Plan Will Cut Out Grueling Journey for a Small Number of Central American Refugees

| Thu Oct. 2, 2014 9:06 PM EDT
A boy steps out of a bus full of families deported from Mexico back to Honduras in July of this year.

Escaping rampant violence in parts of Central America, tens of thousands of child migrants made a treacherous journey up to the United States border this year. To help dissuade such a vulnerable population from taking such risky treks in the first place, Obama announced Tuesday that he plans to roll out a new program to allow children to apply for refugee status from their home countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

The program is still in the planning stages, and it remains unclear how old the kids must be and what circumstances they must be caught in to successfully apply for asylum. But at least it's a move in the right direction, says Michelle Brané of the Women's Refugee Commission. "They are laying the groundwork and designating an avenue—it's a good starting off point," she says.

"That's not even close to enough. We saw 60,000 kids arrive from Central America this year."

White House spokesperson Shawn Turner told the New York Times that the initiative is meant to "provide a safe, legal, and orderly alternative to the dangerous journey children are currently taking to join relatives in the United States." The point made in the last part of this statement has caught the attention of human rights advocates including Brané, as it suggests that only children who already have a relative in the US will qualify for asylum under this new program, leaving out thousands who are trying to escape newly developing unrest and gang violence.

Advocates also worry about the number of applicants that will be granted asylum. The White House's announcement projects that 4,000 people total from Latin America and the Caribbean could be granted refugee visas in fiscal year 2015. (Let's not forget that region includes troubled countries like Cuba, Venezuela, and Haiti). The children who would be allowed to apply for refugee status from their home countries appear to be a subcategory of that 4,000. "That's not even close to enough," says Brané. "We saw 60,000 kids arrive from Central America this year."

"Kids have a threat against their lives. They don't have time to stand in line, file an application, come back later, stand in line again. They have to leave immediately."

One study by the UN High Commissioner of Refugees revealed that 60 percent of recent child migrants interviewed expressed a targeted fear, like a death threat, which is the type of experience that can qualify you for asylum. If you use that statistic, that means 36,000 of the kids who crossed the border this year should qualify for refugee visas—nine times the total number Obama is promising.

But Brané says an even bigger concern with the program is its potential to eclipse or replace protections given to targeted migrants who arrive at the Mexico/US border. "A program like this is fine as a complementary approach," she says, "but it cannot replace protection at the border; it should not impede access to asylum in the US." Ironically, it's the children whose lives are most threatened that could have the hardest time applying for refugee status from their home countries. "In some of these cases, kids have a threat against their lives," says Brané. "They don't have time to stand in line, file an application, come back later, stand in line again. They have to leave immediately."

It's Now Illegal to Kill Wolves in Wyoming

| Wed Sep. 24, 2014 1:24 PM EDT

For the past two years, killing a wolf in Wyoming was pretty simple. In a trophy game area near the border of Yellowstone, licensed hunters were allowed to take a certain number of gray wolves. In the rest of the state, or about 80 percent of Wyoming's land, anyone could kill a limitless number of them on sight.

But that's about to change. A judge ruled Tuesday that the animals' delisting in 2012, which handed management of the species over to the Wyoming government, was "arbitrary and capricious," and that the state isn't ready to manage wolf populations on its own. The move has wolf activists breathing a sigh of relief; Wyoming's management plan, as Sierra Club's Bonnie Rice put it, could have potentially taken wolves "back to the brink of extinction." Judge Amy Berman Jackson did not challenge the previous finding that wolves had recovered and that the species "is not endangered or threatened within a significant portion of its range." But even so, her ruling means that Wyoming's wolves will again enjoy protections under the Endangered Species Act and can no longer be hunted—at least in the short term.

"The court has rightly recognized the deep flaws in Wyoming's wolf management plan."

While as many as 2 million gray wolves once roamed North America, the carnivores were nearly wiped out by humans by the early 1900s. Roughly 5,500 remain today, though an uptick in laws permitting wolf hunting in states like Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana, and Idaho all threaten to keep the animals scarce. Wyoming's hunting and "kill-on-sight" policies, for instance, meant 219 wolves were gunned down since 2012, according to Earthjustice.

In part because wolves were reintroduced in Wyoming, whether to kill or protect this predator remains a very polarizing issue in the state. Wolves kill farm animals and pets, pissing off ranchers and rural landowners alike and feeding into the attitude that the canids are just a deadly nuisance. A Facebook photo posted last year by hunting outfitters, for instance, shows a group of hunters posing with a dead wolf with blood covering its paws and mouth. The caption reads "Wyoming is FED up." Commenters responded with notes like "the only good Canadian gray wolf to me is a dead Canadian gray wolf" and "Keep on killing guys!"

But scientists and conservationists have fought hard to restore this species into the North American ecosystem. Studies have shown that wolves maintain balance in the environment: they prey on other large mammals like moose and elk, whose populations (and eating habits) can get out of control without a predator to keep them in check; their hunting helps feed scavengers like wolverines, bald eagles, and mountain lions; their predation can force elk to hang out in smaller groups, thereby reducing the spread of diseases; and they've even been found to be good for the soil.

By restoring protections to gray wolves, states Rice in a press release, "the court has rightly recognized the deep flaws in Wyoming's wolf management plan." She argues that the state needs to reevaluate how it treats the animal and develop "a science-based management plan that recognizes the many benefits wolves bring to the region."

The conservation groups that sued after the wolves were delisted in 2012 include Earthjustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, and the Center for Biological Diversity. Though yesterday's news comes as a victory to these groups, a bigger hurdle lies ahead: The US Fish and Wildlife has proposed to remove the gray wolf from the federal Endangered Species list altogether based on the animals' perceived recovery. A final decision is expected later this year.

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