Mojo - June 2011

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 23, 2011

Thu Jun. 23, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Staff Sgt. Matthew Easly prepares to plot a waypoint during the Land Navigation event at the Army Reserve Best Warrior competition at Fort McCoy, Wis., Tuesday, June 21, 2011. Easly, a native of Sacramento, Calif., is representing the 807th Medical Deployment Support Command at this year's competition. A driving rain and strong winds added an additional element of difficulty to the event that started at 3 a.m. and finished six hours later. Photo via US Army.

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Kansas: The First Abortion-Free State?

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

If new guidelines from the Kansas health department are enforced, the last three abortion clinics in the state could be forced to shut their doors this summer.

Back in April, the state legislature passed a law directing the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to author new facility standards for abortion clinics, which the staunchly anti-abortion GOP governor, Sam Brownback, signed into law on May 16. The law also requires the health department to issue new licenses each year, and it grants additional authority to health department inspectors to conduct unannounced inspections, and to fine or shut down clinics.

The department wasted no time in drafting the new rules, issuing the final version on June 17 and informing clinics that they would have to comply with the rules by July 1, as the Associated Press reported Wednesday. Peter Brownlie, president of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, told the AP that inspectors were expected at their clinic in Overland Park, Kansas, on Wednesday. There are only three clinics left in the state: Planned Parenthood's, a clinic in Overland Park, and the Aid for Women clinic in Kansas City.

The new requirements require facilities to add extra bathrooms, drastically expand waiting and recovery areas, and even add larger janitor's closets, as one clinic employee told me—changes that clinics will have a heck of a time pulling off by the deadline. Under the new rule, clinics must also aquire state certification to admit patients, a process that takes 90 to 120 days, the staffer explained. Which makes it impossible for clinics to comply. And clinics that don't comply with the rules will face fines or possible closure.

Women seeking abortions already have a tough time in Kansas, where providers face death threats and evictions. Earlier this year, the state  approved one law banning abortion after 20 weeks gestation, and another restricting private insurance coverage for abortions.

The state's latest approach—with its remodeling requirements and so forth—is often referred to as "Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers." TRAP laws are intended to make it difficult, if not impossible, for clinics to operate, and they have become increasingly common around the country.

"Enactment of this type of legislation discourages health care providers from offering abortion care and can make provisions very burdensome and/or expensive for smaller providers," says Sharon Levin, vice president of the National Abortion Federation, the professional group representing abortion providers. The laws, Levin says, "do not make abortion safer; they just make it more difficult for abortion providers to remain open, and for women to access the abortion care they need."

A court fight over the rules is almost inevitable. But anti-abortion groups like Operation Rescue are already claiming success in making Kansas "the first abortion-free state."

A Twice as Fast Draw-Down in Afghanistan?

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 9:05 PM EDT

Get-out-now foes of the Afghanistan war will hardly be satisfied by President Barack Obama's announcement on Wednesday night that he is withdrawing 33,000 troops from that war-torn country on a gradual slope: 10,000 by the end of this year, the rest by the end of summer 2012. This glide path seems designed to thread the needle and allow Obama to credibly claim he is moving toward ending the war and to avoid sparking any rebellion in the Pentagon (or right-wing charges he is a soft-on-national-security wimp). But could he have adopted a steeper draw-down? Sen. Carl Levin, who chairs the Senate armed services committee, quickly sent out a statement saying that Obama should be calling back more troops on a faster pace. And Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank run by the Obama-friendly John Podesta, issued a statement that might well represent the position of Democrats who desire quicker-but-not-immediate war-ending from the president. It essentially calls for a twice-as-fast withdrawal:

President Obama took a step in the right direction this evening by announcing the start of U.S. troop reductions in Afghanistan. This follows ten years of U.S. and NATO investment, which has severely degraded Al Qaeda capabilities in the region, and led to the successful tracking and killing of Osama bin Laden. Yet many important questions about Afghanistan, including our core objectives, future costs, how military operations will support the political and military transition between now and 2014, and our relations with Pakistan, remain unanswered.

The Obama administration made an important move to shift resources from Iraq to Afghanistan in 2009. As a result, the United States military has achieved security gains in parts of Afghanistan, and the intelligence community has been relentless in its disruption of the Al Qaeda terror network. The resources were a key part of the successful mission to bring Osama bin Laden to justice.

It is from this position of strength that we can now rebalance our investment in Afghanistan. American military, intelligence and diplomatic personnel serving in the region have shouldered the burden for the past ten years. The United States still spends $10 billion a month in Afghanistan, at a time when it cannot invest in its own infrastructure at home. This expenditure – six times Afghanistan’s own GDP – has fostered a dysfunctional culture of dependency.

Completing the mission in Afghanistan must now shift to Afghan leadership. At this time, U.S. strategy must focus on balancing internal Afghan reconciliation, obtaining support from regional powers, and setting critical benchmarks that measure the civil and military transitions to Afghanistan and its government. If these benchmarks are not met, U.S. officials must prepare for a more accelerated drawdown. Fighting the insurgency on behalf of a government that is unwilling to reform will not work, and will not advance the security interests of the United States or of our allies.

The Center has argued that a significant drawdown of at least 15,000 troops this year is necessary to balance our priorities and send the message to Afghanistan’s leaders that they must take on greater responsibility for their country. This would allow us to withdraw 60,000 troops over the next 18 months, leaving 40,000 remaining in the country by the end of 2012. We believe that while the administration could be more aggressive in terms of troop reductions, the president’s announcement to move 33,000 troops out by September 2012 is wholly justified by America’s national security interests.

Serious challenges and significant questions remain on the transition of responsibility to the Afghan government. To honor the service and sacrifices of those serving in Afghanistan, the Obama administration needs to fill in these gaps in the current strategy.

With CAP adopting this stance, Democrats and others who want a more dramatic draw-down have plenty of cover, if they need it.

90% of Americans Aren't Expecting a Raise

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 8:15 PM EDT

In keeping with MoJo's latest cover story, here's a new stat to piss you off: 9 out of 10 Americans aren't expecting a pay raise this year. So, with gas averaging $3.74 per gallon and skyrocketing food prices, that means 89.9% of you will essentially have to do more with less.

American Pulse recently asked 5,000 Americans about their best penny-pinching strategies to cope with the grim financial forecast, and here's what they said:

  • 70.5% will only buy the necessities
  • 63.4% will drive less
  • 58.9% will spend less on clothing
  • 53.1% will comparison shop
  • 50% will stick to a strict budget
  • 49.9% will opt for generic products
  • 42% will spend less on groceries
  • 6.6% will do nothing

That's not to say no one is getting pay raises; it's just that they're ending up in the wrong hands. Case in point: Miami's interim school superintendent will receive a $16,000 bump for three months of work despite a $170 million budget shortfall. And the incoming CEO of the Chicago Teachers Union is getting an extra $20,000 to round out his $250,000 salary, even though teachers there can't convince the school board to give them a 4% raise. Plus, five top county officials in Orange County have received a 33% pay raise in the past six months, while hundreds of lower level employees are being laid off.

These stories all too familiar, and consistent with the "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" theme. What to do other than heed Peter Finch's advice and yell outside your window? Well, read more and find out.

Donations Dry Up for Planned Parenthood Indiana

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 8:13 PM EDT

Planned Parenthood may have been spared on the federal stage, but its state-level situation continues to deteriorate. Today, the majority of Planned Parenthood's clinics in Indiana are shuttered; the organization has been forced to take a one-day mandatory furlough in order to scrimp and save in the wake of brutal state funding cuts.

On May 10, Governor Mitch Daniels signed a law that stripped the state's Planned Parenthood clinics of any Medicaid funding (none of which, by the way, was ever used to pay for abortions), compromising the care of 93,000 Indianan Planned Parenthood patients who rely on it. Since then, private donations have funded patient care, but that well is about to run dry—as of Tuesday, Medicaid patients in the state need to come to Planned Parenthood armed with alternate funding.

"The one-day furlough should allow us to save enough money to keep our doors open during this brief window between now and the expected ruling," said Planned Parenthood Indiana (PPIN) President and CEO Betty Cockrum in a press release. "We know this is a personal hardship for our employees and our patients, and we had so hoped to avoid it."

The ruling Cockrum refers to is to be handed down by a federal judge by July 1. She is hearing Planned Parenthood’s challenge to the law, and will decide whether to suspend its enforcement during the case. The Obama administration voiced its support for PPIN, but a final resolution will still take time, so the provider is desperately trying to keep its funding in the interim. "If we receive a favorable ruling, we would be restored as a Medicaid provider as we continue to fight our lawsuit. At that point, we would not be facing center closures," PPIN spokesperson Chrystal Struben told me. "If we ultimately win the case—we are hopeful that we will—then there would be no need to look at closures."

Will the Feds Deport Jose Antonio Vargas?

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 7:50 PM EDT
Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-prizewinning reporter who recently admitted being an undocumented immigrant, speaks to a group of student journalists.

What will happen to Jose Antonio Vargas, the journalist who has written a dramatic story outing himself as an undocumented immigrant? Some anti-immigrant conservatives have already called for him to be deported, but they may be out of luck. I talked to two immigration experts, both of whom concluded that the federal government is not likely to deport Vargas simply for coming to this country without papers as a child.

"I don’t think he'll be detained, and he's unlikely to be deported," concludes David Leopold, a Cleveland-based immigration attorney and president of the American Immigration Law Institute. "Under immigration law, he could be exposed to deportation and detention," Leopold notes. But in the past, federal authorities—facing limited resources—have used prosecutorial discretion, and the Obama administration has repeatedly emphasized that it prioritizes deporting those convicted of violent crimes.

Like Vargas, supporters of the DREAM Act—which would give legal status to some immigrant youth and students—have outed themselves as undocumented in the past year, and federal authorities haven't pursued deportation, notes Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. "Vargas' very public profile helps inoculate him from that kind of retributive act." 

But, Leopold says, Vargas may have subjected himself to both civil and criminal prosecution due to some of the actions he's taken to conceal his immigration status. "Looking as an attorney, I see admissions as to very specific conduct that's troubling to me...The use of fraudulent documents, a fake passport, false Social Security Number, claiming citizenship I-9 form, falsified documents—some of these could lead to criminal investigations." And if Vargas' employers knowingly hired him as an undocumented immigrant, they would have violated federal law as well, he points out.

To be sure, prosecutorial discretion could be applied here as well. "A lot of people in this country came in on a false passport," says Leopold, yet ''the government will decline to prosecute in many cases." More likely is an extended period of uncertainy for Vargas, adds Fitz: "The exposure does put him in a potential legal limbo," he says. "It's uncharted territory."

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Nikki Haley’s Arizona-Style Immigration Crackdown

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 9:37 AM EDT

South Carolina is poised to become the latest state to enact an anti-immigration bill modeled on the drastic law in Arizona that ignited a national debate. The Wall Street Journal reports that on Tuesday, the South Carolina legislature passed a bill that "requires police in South Carolina to check suspects' immigration status" if they are stopped for a traffic offense or arrested otherwise, mirroring one of the most controversial provisions in the Arizona law. Governor Nikki Haley's spokesman confirmed to the Journal that she will sign the bill.

Before Arizona passed its law last year, South Carolina was considered to have some of the country's strictest laws against illegal immigrants. The states's new law will also require that all businesses check the immigration status of new hires through a federal online database called E-Verify.

Though Haley is the daughter of Sikh immigrants, she has maintained a hardline immigration stance, in line with her other hard-right views. "My parents are immigrants, they came here legally, they put in the time, they put in the money, they did what they were supposed to. It makes them mad when they see illegal immigrants come into this state," Haley declared in a 2010 campaign video. Having praised Arizona's immigration law, Haley was long expected to support a similar effort in her own state.

With Haley's backing, South Carolina will soon join a handful of states that have passed sweeping anti-immigration laws since Arizona, including Alabama, Georgia, and Indiana. Though a federal court prevented Arizona from enacting some of the most controversial parts of its law, states have continued to follow Arizona's lead, despite the legal challenges they're likely to face. Stay tuned for my in-depth account of these new immigration battles later this week.

Got A Problem? Blame It On Illegal Immigrants

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 7:30 AM EDT
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she / With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" | Or, you know, don't.

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) took some heat this weekend for blaming wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico on illegal immigrants. McCain has since recanted (sort of), claiming that he was merely repeating what an unnamed Forest Service official told him in a briefing.

McCain's comments are just the latest example of our country's habit of blaming all manner of problems on immigrants. Let's take a look at a few recent instances of illegal immigrants becoming scapegoats for... well, you name it:

  • Car Accidents: Thank Arizona's senior senator for this one, too. McCain told Bill O'Reilly (who else?) that Arizona's highways were plagued by illegal immigrants who intentionally crash into other drivers. No word on how doing so could possibly be to their benefit.
  • Swine Flu: Remember this? While everyone was running around buying face masks and speculating on Swine Flu's origin, CNN's Jack Cafferty suggested that illegal immigrants—not just anyone traveling from Mexico—might be at fault.
  • The Mortgage Crisis: Conservative pundit Michelle Malkin argued that banks specifically targeted illegal immigrants for shady home loans, and when they couldn't pay up... well, you know what happened.
  • America's Drug Problem: The majority of illegal immigrants coming from Mexico are "drug mules," according to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer.
  • Litter: Some officials think border crossers need to brush up on their "Leave No Trace" etiquette.
  • California's Budget Deficit: Forget about mismanagement and overspending: some argue that California ran out of money because of illegal immigrants, who used services like hospitals and schools without paying for them. (Actually, many undocumented immigrants pay taxes.) Immigrants had a friend in the Governator, though, who said they were an "easy scapegoat" and not the real source of the problem.
  • Bad Traffic: The American Immigration Control Foundation ran ads accusing immigrants (illegal and otherwise) of worsening gridlock and pushing urban sprawl
  • Various Episodes of Violence: Something scary happened in your neighborhood and you can't find the criminal? No problem! It was probably illegal immigrants (this rule applies internationally, too).

Immigrants must be exhausted after leaving their foreclosed homes in pot-laden cars, crashing in standstill traffic on their way to the ER, hacking and wheezing, and then tossing their used Kleenex out the window!

Newt Gingrich's Tiffany Troubles Get Worse

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 6:58 AM EDT

Things just got even worse for Newt Gingrich, whose presidential campaign has imploded in recent weeks with the bulk of his staff jumping ship. The latest blow to his campaign is the revelation that the Gingrichs had not one but two lines of credit at the luxury jewelry store Tiffany. As the Washington Post reports, Gingrich must file a personal financial disclosure form within a month of declaring his candidacy, and that form will show that Gingrich enjoyed a $500,000 to $1 million line of credit at Tiffany, which has been closed with a zero balance. Here's more from the Post:

[Gingrich spokesman Joe] DeSantis added that all debts to Tiffany had been paid in full. He offered no details about when the second line of credit was taken out, what it was used for or when it was closed.

This revelation comes roughly a month after personal financial disclosure forms for Gingrich’s wife, Callista, showed that the family had carried a line of credit ranging between $250,000 and $500,000 at Tiffany’s during 2005 and 2006.

Gingrich’s campaign has struggled since its inception. After formally entering the race on May 12, he weathered widespread staff departures earlier this month amid allegations that the campaign was running low on cash even as the candidate insisted on taking chartered planes to and from events.

That jet-setting has left the Gingrich campaign more than $1 million in debt, with fundraising dollars coming in at a trickle. That probably explains the departure of top fundraising aides Mary Heitman and Jody Thomas last week, dealing yet another blow Gingrich's flailing campaign. The question now is: How long can Newt keep his presidential bid afloat with only himself and his big ideas?

2011: The Year of the Natural Disaster

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

From NOAA's National Climatic Data Center, here's a chart that shows the number of disasters, and their cost, for every year since 1980:

As you can see, we're just halfway through 2011, and already eight extreme weather events in the United States have each caused more than a billion dollars in damage—a record since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began keeping tabs in 1980. The US has faced 99 weather-related disasters that cost at least $1 billion in the past 31 years, totaling $725 billion (when adjusted for inflation). But even though it's only halfway through, 2011 ranks second overall in total number.

There have been $32 billion in damages caused by extreme weather events this year, which have included blizzards, tornados, floods, and wildfires, National Climatic Data Center director Tom Karl said last week. The NCDC, a division of NOAA, released a released these stats last week in the wake of this spring's tumult.

Hurricane season—which tends to yield some of the costliest weather events—just started on June 1. And we've barely seen the beginning of the summer heat.

While the economic costs are high, so, too, are the human. There have been 575 deaths from this year's weather events, the majority of them in the tornadoes in the Southeast and Midwest. The damage in Joplin, Mo. is a testament to the power of the most extreme among extreme weather events.

The weather-related disaster that people recall most immediately is Hurricane Katrina, which caused 1,833 deaths and caused $133.8 billion in damages. But drought and heatwaves have accounted for the two most catastrophic events to date: 10,000 deaths and $55.4 billion in damages in 1980 and another 7,500 deaths and $71.2 billion in damages in 1988.

Of course, we've always had severe weather events. And this year so far has been more extreme than most. But scientists have now warned repeatedly that we should expect extreme events more often in the future as the climate changes. It's safe to say we can expect more billion-dollar events down the line.

The front page photo of tornado devastation in Joplin, Missouri was taken by Andy Kroll.