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Trump admin readies rule to send asylum-seekers back to dangerous countries they passed through

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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is preparing to publish a rule that would send migrants who pass through Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras before seeking asylum in the United States back to those dangerous Central American countries to claim asylum there instead.

A copy of the rule, which was made visible online for “public inspection” Monday, would give asylum officers the authority to determine if one of the three agreements the U.S. has recently signed with those countries applies to the immigrants they vet.

If so, the asylum-seekers could be fast-tracked for deportation back to Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras to claim asylum there. Previously, it was unclear how the agreements would be implemented.

Immigration advocates have sharply criticized the agreements with the three countries, claiming that they do not have the capabilities to process asylum-seekers and should not be deemed “safe third countries.”

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“The administration has bullied the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras into signing agreements that will be deadly for people seeking asylum and is now carrying out their fatal application,” said Charanya Krishnaswami, advocacy director for the Americas at Amnesty International USA.

The new rule comes on the heels of two other tough asylum policies implemented over the past six months. One, known as “Remain in Mexico” or MPP, sends asylum-seekers back into Mexico until they are allowed to return for their court date before a U.S. immigration judge. The other makes immigrants ineligible for asylum— and on the fast track for deportation — if they failed to claim asylum in any of the countries they passed through on their way to the U.S.-Mexico border.

An official from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the part of the Department of Homeland Security responsible for providing benefits to those seeking asylum, said many inside the agency are quietly incredulous that the U.S. will be removing asylum-seekers to countries like Guatemala.

“Just as with MPP, there will be people who will die as a result of these policies,” the official said, due to the conditions vulnerable asylum-seekers will face in these countries. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the opinion contradicted the administration’s message.

The DHS and the Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.

In the rule, the administration says processing asylum claims from Central America “consumes a tremendous amount of resources with the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security.” The DHS must detain many asylum-seekers until their cases are adjudicated and, for the Justice Department, more than 476,000 asylum cases remain pending in immigration court.

The agreements between the U.S. and Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras were negotiated this summer by the former acting Homeland Security secretary, Kevin McAleenan. In return, the countries received assistance to increase law enforcement and regional security, according to DHS statements following McAleenan’s trips to the countries.

McAleenan also met with representatives in the region from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which would play a critical part in helping asylum-seekers who have been deported to a country that is not their own and most likely does not have the infrastructure to review large numbers of asylum claims.

The new rule, which is expected to be officially published in the federal register Tuesday, can be found here. It is not clear when the rule will go into effect after publication.

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Democrats’ Southern victories could affect redistricting

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The re-election victory by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards over the weekend has assured Democrats of an all-important place at the table when political maps are redrawn after the 2020 census for future elections to Congress and the state Legislature.

Edwards’ narrow triumph on Saturday marked the third significant win in a Southern state in two weeks for Democrats, following their takeover of both legislative houses in Virginia and the defeat in Kentucky of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin by Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear.

The recent Southern state elections provided a preview of the battle over redistricting power that is to come next year in many states. Although about one-quarter of the states use independent commissions or nonpartisan staff in their redistricting procedures, state lawmakers, governors and other elected officials have key roles in redistricting in most other states.

If one party controls all pivotal state offices, that party can draw districts to the advantage of its candidates — a practice known as gerrymandering that can help lock in a party’s political power for the next decade to come.

In Louisiana, Republicans who already controlled the state House and Senate had hoped to consolidate power by defeating Edwards, or else obtain a two-thirds majority in both legislative chambers that would allow them to override his vetoes. Neither occurred.

The “election was a huge victory for Louisiana Democrats,” Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “By protecting Governor John Bel Edwards’s veto power, Democrats can keep moving Louisiana forward, block extreme Republican policies, and fight for fair maps after the 2020 census.”

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In Kentucky, Beshear’s election also will give the veto pen to a Democrat when the state Legislature draws new districts. The Kentucky House and Senate currently are controlled by Republicans, who are expected to maintain their majorities in next year’s state legislative elections.

Beshear’s veto power is not as strong as Edwards’ is in Louisiana, because the Kentucky Constitution requires only a basic majority vote by each legislative chamber to override a veto. Any redistricting plan passed by Kentucky lawmakers would be defended in court by newly elected Attorney General Daniel Cameron, the first Republican to hold the office in 70 years.

As a result of those circumstances, “we still view Kentucky as full Republican control for redistricting purposes,” said Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, which coordinates the party’s data and legal efforts for redistricting.

Yet Beshear still will have the gubernatorial bully pulpit during redistricting, just as Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan will against a legislative body with Democratic supermajorities.

“If Governor-elect Beshear makes an issue of it, it could potentially force them to draw a fairer map than otherwise they might have,” said Patrick Rodenbush, communications director for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

Elections this month in another Southern state played out as expected in favor of Republicans, when they held on to the governor’s office and both legislative chambers in Mississippi.

Following the 2010 census, Republicans who had swept to power in many statehouses used their newfound majorities to draw districts that increased their odds of winning future elections. Democrats had done the same thing historically when they had power.

But a backlash has grown against such gerrymandering over the past decade. In 2018, voters in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Utah approved ballot measures designed to diminish legislative partisanship in redistricting — in some cases, by giving power to independent commissions.

Activists are backing a new batch of potential redistricting initiatives for the 2020 ballot in Arkansas, Nevada, Oklahoma and Oregon.

Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear speaks at his election night party in Lousiville on Nov. 5, 2019. Beshear defeated the Republican incumbent for in the gubernatorial race.Bryan Woolston / AP

In Virginia, congressional and state legislative districts have been drawn by lawmakers, subject to a gubernatorial veto.

But earlier this year, Virginia lawmakers overwhelmingly gave initial approval to a proposed constitutional amendment to create a redistricting commission with 16 members split equally between lawmakers and citizens, with no role for the governor. At the time that vote was taken, Republicans held a slim majority over Democrats in both legislative chambers.

A second vote on the amendment will be required in early 2020 to place it on the November 2020 ballot. This time, Democrats control both chambers.

Democrats could renege on the plan and try to keep the redistricting powers for themselves, but that would risk alienating voters and could backfire in the long run, said John McGlennon, a professor of government and public policy at the College of William & Mary in Virginia.

“The Democrats need to keep one thing in mind, which is that the political alignment of the state changed very quickly, and it can reverse quickly,” McGlennon said.

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House investigating whether Trump lied to Mueller, lawyer tells court

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WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives’ top lawyer told a federal appeals court Monday that the House is investigating whether President Donald Trump lied to special counsel Robert Mueller, and the attorney urged the judges to order the release of still-secret material from Mueller’s investigation.

Two of the three judges who heard arguments at the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit — Judith Rogers, a Clinton appointee, and Thomas Griffith, an appointee of George W. Bush — seemed prepared to order at least some of the material sought by the House to be turned over.

House General Counsel Douglas Letter told the judges that the need for the still-secret material redacted from the Mueller report is “immense” because it will help House members answer the question, “Did the president lie? Was the president not truthful in his responses to the Mueller investigation?” in his written responses to the probe.

The House Judiciary Committee is seeking grand jury testimony and other details redacted from the public version of Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Last month a judge ordered the Justice Department to turn over the redacted material, but the Trump administration appealed. Whatever the appeals panel decides, the case is likely headed to the Supreme Court.

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Griffith suggested that the House had a particular need for the material since the Mueller report ultimately left it to Congress to decide whether Trump had obstructed the Mueller probe.

But a third judge, Trump appointee Neomi Rao, seemed more sympathetic to the Justice Department’s arguments against releasing the information. She questioned whether the courts should get involved in any way in a dispute over impeachment between the legislative and executive branches.

Justice Department lawyers say they are barred from releasing the redacted material, in part because an impeachment inquiry does not qualify as a “judicial proceeding” under the federal law governing release of grand jury materials. Trump has called the impeachment inquiry “a witch hunt.”

Griffith, in his questioning, raised the possibility of releasing less material than what U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell called for in her Oct. 25 order. Griffith asked whether it made more sense for a judge to hold a hearing and go through each redaction in the Mueller report and hear arguments on whether Congress could articulate a particularized need for that information.

He also asked whether the information could perhaps be released on a limited basis to House staff and lawyers while the courts continue to hear arguments on the broader question of what can be fully provided to Congress.

Democrats believe the redacted information could shed light on key episodes of the investigation, including discussions Trump is reported to have had with associates about the release of stolen emails during the campaign and conversations about a 2016 Trump Tower meeting at which Trump’s eldest son expected to receive damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

In court papers, House lawyers cited one redaction that “appears to relate to grand jury evidence indicating that President Trump sought or obtained advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’s plans during the campaign” to release damaging emails related to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. In his written testimony, Trump said he had no recollection of any particular conversations about the hacked emails.

The questions about whether Trump lied in his written testimony to Mueller come as Trump tweeted Monday he might be willing to offer written testimony as part of the House impeachment inquiry.

Other redactions cited in the court papers relate to contacts members of the Trump campaign met with Ukrainian officials “and therefore may be relevant to the House’s examination of whether the President committed impeachable offenses by soliciting Ukrainian interference in the 2020 Presidential election.”

In public proceedings last week in front of the House Intelligence Committee, the impeachment inquiry focused on whether the president withheld aid from Ukraine to pressure the government there to launch a public investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

At the court hearing Monday, Griffith asked Letter whether the material sought was still relevant, given the apparent recent focus on Ukraine as opposed to the Mueller report.

“Don’t believe everything you’ve read in the press,” Letter responded.

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