Los Angeles, Aug 4 (AP/UNB) — Rosita Lopez said armed gang members demanded money from her and her partner at their small grocery store on the Guatemalan coast and threatened to kill them when they couldn't pay. When her partner was shot soon afterward, they sold everything and fled north.
Lopez was eight months pregnant when the couple arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border last year with their 1-year-old daughter. Just over a year later, an immigration judge in Los Angeles heard her case, denied her asylum and ordered her deported.
"I'm afraid of going back there," she told the judge.
The decision for 20-year-old Lopez — who now has an American-born baby — was swift in an immigration court system so backlogged with cases that asylum seekers often wait years for a hearing, let alone a ruling on whether they can stay in the country.
But her case is one of 56,000 in a Trump administration pilot program in 10 cities from Baltimore to Los Angeles aimed at fast-tracking court hearings to discourage migrants from making the journey to seek refuge in the United States. The administration selected family cases in those cities from the past 10 months.
Immigration lawyers who often complain that it takes too long to get a court date said the new timetable is too fast to prepare their clients to testify and get documents from foreign countries to bolster their claims.
"The families that are all ready to go and desperate, ready with counsel, have survived multiple atrocities can't seem to get before the judge, and others who seem to need time to get their cases together, they're pushing through without due process," said Judy London, directing attorney of the immigrant rights' project at Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm in Los Angeles.
The program is one way the Trump administration is seeking to curtail the arrival of tens of thousands of Central American families each month on the U.S.-Mexico border, many seeking asylum. Federal courts have blocked several efforts to limit asylum for the families, including rules that would prevent most migrants from seeking asylum in the U.S. if they passed through another country first .
Speeding up court hearings aims to prevent migrant families from setting down roots while they wait to find out whether they qualify for asylum.
Immigrants can get permits to work legally in the United States once their asylum applications are pending before a judge for six months, which many with fast-tracked cases won't get to do, lawyers said.
The goal is to "disincentivize families — where an overwhelming majority of cases don't qualify for relief, but instead end with removal orders — from making the treacherous journey to the United States," Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement.
Immigration courts aim to complete the fast-tracked cases within a year, James McHenry III, director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, wrote in a November memo.
From September to June, the Department of Homeland Security tracked 56,000 cases it wants heard more quickly, according to data from the office, which runs immigration courts. Most cases are pending, but about one in five of those immigrants failed to show up for a hearing and was ordered deported, the data shows.
That was more common in some places. Only 4% of immigrants on the so-called family unit docket in San Francisco didn't show up for court and got deportation orders, compared with a third of immigrants on that docket in Atlanta, the data shows.
A recent immigration enforcement operation announced by President Donald Trump aimed to track down and arrest families facing such deportation orders. While agents targeted about 2,100 people, they arrested about three dozen.
The families' cases are moving much quicker than usual through immigration courts, which have nearly 900,000 cases that have been pending for an average of two years, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Immigrant advocates have long complained the backlog prevents asylum seekers from starting their lives in the U.S. and bringing family to join them.
It wasn't immediately clear how the immigration courts could hear the fast-tracked cases so quickly. But the U.S. has hired more immigration judges in recent years to try to reduce the backlog.
In Los Angeles, some immigration judges who used to hear cases of immigrants held in now-shuttered detention facilities are assigned to family cases.
At a recent hearing, Judge Tara Naselow-Nahas gave families filing asylum claims three months until their final court dates.
At another, Judge Frank Travieso urged immigrants appearing for the first time to find an attorney for their next court date in a month. He went over the parents' names and addresses and those of their children squirming beside them — a smiling 7-year-old boy, a 9-year-old girl with a red hair bow, and half a dozen others.
He then reviewed the rest of his 46-case calendar. A few families who didn't receive a hearing notice were sent another. Fourteen people who didn't attend court — half of them children — were ordered deported.
Bernal Ojeda, an immigration attorney who represented Lopez, said he doesn't know if more time would have helped her case. Lopez presented photos of her partner's gunshot wounds, and the judge questioned why he didn't tell Guatemalan authorities about the gang.
Ojeda said Lopez won't appeal and will return to Guatemala, where her partner was already deported, and resettle far from the town where they were threatened.
Asylum seekers who appeal wind up staying much longer while their cases are reviewed. But the timeline means little to those seeking protection in the U.S., said Joshua Greer, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles.
"They're not looking at how long was it between the first hearing and the pleadings and the individual hearing," Greer said. "Their question is detained, or not detained, and sent back or not sent back — and that's it."
El Paso, Aug 4 (AP/UNB) — Twenty people were killed and more than two dozen injured in a shooting Saturday in a busy shopping area in the Texas border town of El Paso, the state's governor said.
Among the possibilities being investigated is whether it was a hate crime, the police chief said. Two law enforcement officials who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity identified the suspect taken into custody as 21-year-old Patrick Crusius. El Paso police haven't released his name, but confirmed the gunman is from Allen near Dallas.
Police said another 26 people were injured and most were being treated at hospitals. Most of the victims were believed to have been shot at a Walmart near the Cielo Vista Mall, they said, adding that the store was packed with as many as 3,000 people during the busy back-to-school shopping season.
"The scene was a horrific one," said El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen, who described many of those hurt as having life-threatening injuries. He also said police found a post online that may have been written by the suspect — one reason authorities are looking at whether it was a hate crime.
El Paso, which has about 680,000 residents, is in West Texas and sits across the border from Juarez, Mexico.
Residents were quick to volunteer to give blood to the injured after the shooting, and police and military members were helping people look for missing loved ones.
"It's chaos right now," said Austin Johnson, an Army medic at nearby Fort Bliss, who volunteered to help at the shopping center and later at a school serving as a reunification center.
Adriana Quezada, 39, said she was in the women's clothing section of Walmart with her two children when she "heard shots."
"But I thought they were hits, like roof construction," she said.
Her 19-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son threw themselves to the ground, then ran out of the store through an emergency exit. They were not hurt, Quezada said.
She said she saw four men, dressed in black, moving together firing guns indiscriminately. Police later said they believed the suspect was the "sole shooter" but were continuing to investigate reports that others were involved.
El Paso police Sgt. Robert Gomez said the suspect, who used a rifle, was arrested without incident.
The shooting came less than a week after a gunman opened fire on a California food festival. Santino William Legan, 19, killed three people and injured 13 others last Sunday at the popular Gilroy Garlic Festival, and died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Ryan Mielke, a spokesman for University Medical Center of El Paso, said 13 people were brought to the hospital with injuries after the Texas shooting, including one who died. Two of the injured were children who were being transferred to El Paso Children's Hospital, he said. He wouldn't provide additional details on the victims.
Eleven other victims were being treated at Del Sol Medical Center, hospital spokesman Victor Guerrero said. Those victims' ages ranged from 35 to 82, he said.
Gov. Greg Abbott, who confirmed the number of victims at a news conference, called the shooting "a heinous and senseless act of violence" and said the state had deployed a number of law enforcement officers to the city. President Donald Trump tweeted: "Reports are very bad, many killed."
Presidential candidate and former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke appeared a bit shaken as he appeared at a candidate forum Saturday in Las Vegas shortly after news of the shooting in his hometown was reported. The Democrat said the shooting shatters "any illusion that we have that progress is inevitable" on tackling gun violence.
He said he heard early reports that the shooter might have had a military-style weapon, saying we need to "keep that (expletive) on the battlefield. Do not bring it into our communities."
"We have to find some reason for optimism and hope or else we consign ourselves to a future where nearly 40,000 people a year will lose their lives to gun violence and I cannot accept that," O'Rourke said.
El Paso has become a focal point of the immigration debate, drawing Trump in February to argue that walling off the southern border would make the U.S. safer, while city residents and O'Rourke led thousands on a protest march past the barrier of barbed wire-topped fencing and towering metal slats.
O'Rourke stressed that border walls haven't made his hometown safer. The city's murder rate was less than half the national average in 2005, the year before the start of its border fence. Before the wall project started, El Paso had been rated one of the three safest major U.S. cities going back to 1997.
Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, also said the El Paso shooting suspect wasn't on her group's radar screen prior to the shooting.
"We had nothing in our files on him," Beirich wrote in an email.
The shooting is the 21st mass killing in the United States in 2019, and the fifth public mass shooting. Before Saturday, 96 people had died in mass killings in 2019 — 26 of them in public mass shootings.
The AP/USATODAY/Northeastern University mass murder database tracks all U.S. homicides since 2006 involving four or more people killed, not including the offender, over a short period of time regardless of weapon, location, victim-offender relationship or motive. The database shows that the median age of a public mass shooter is 28, significantly lower than the median age of a person who commits a mass shooting of their family.
Since 2006, 11 mass shootings — not including Saturday's — have been committed by men who are 21 or younger.
Encinitas, Aug 3(AP/UNB) — A popular surfing beach was closed Saturday after a cliff collapsed, sending tons of sandstone onto beachgoers and killing three people.
A 30-foot-long slab of the cliff plunged onto the sand near Grandview Beach north of San Diego. A KNSD-TV helicopter captured footage of beach chairs, towels, surf boards and beach toys strewn about the sand.
Other beachgoers and lifeguards at a nearby tower scrambled to the towering pile of debris, which was estimated to weigh tens of thousands of pounds, to help dig out victims.
"I saw first responders, and I saw lifeguards frantically digging people out of the debris," Jim Pepperdine, who lives nearby, told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Pepperdine said he saw people trying to resuscitate a woman before her body was covered.
A woman died at the scene, and two more people later died at hospitals. Another person was taken to a hospital, and a person who had minor injuries was treated at the scene, according to statements from the city.
Their names and ages were not immediately released. All the victims were adults, authorities said.
Search dogs were brought in to hunt for other possible victims, and a skip loader was brought in to move the dense, heavy debris. No other victims were found by late Friday night.
The beach is reached by wooden stairs from a parking lot above. Homes atop the cliff were not in any danger, Encinitas Fire Chief Mike Stein said.
The cliff remained unstable and complicated the search effort, Stein said.
Suburbs north of San Diego have contended with rising water levels in the Pacific Ocean, pressuring bluffs along the coast. Some bluffs are fortified with concrete walls to prevent multimillion-dollar homes from falling into the sea.
Long stretches of beach in Encinitas are narrow strips of sand between stiff waves and towering rock walls. People lounging on beach chairs or blankets are sometimes surprised as waves roll past them and within a few feet of the walls.
Grandview Beach is fairly narrow, with tides high this week. Surfers lay their boards upright against the bluff.
Cliffside collapses are not unusual as the ocean chews away at the base of the sandstone, authorities said. Some beach areas were marked with signs warning of slide dangers.
Several people have been killed or injured over the years in bluff collapses. The Tribune reported that Rebecca Kowalczyk, 30, of Encinitas died near the same area on Jan. 16, 2000, when a 110-yard-wide chunk of bluff fell and buried her.
Bluffs give way four to eight times a year in Southern California, but "nothing of this magnitude," said Brian Ketterer, southern field division chief of California State Parks.
"This is a naturally eroding coastline," Encinitas Lifeguard Capt. Larry Giles said. "There's really no rhyme or reason, but that's what it does naturally. .... This is what it does, and this is how are beaches are actually partially made. It actually has these failures."
Washington, Aug 3 (AP/UNB) — With the scrapping of a landmark arms control agreement Friday, the U.S. announced plans to test a new missile amid growing concerns about emerging threats and new weapons.
U.S. officials said they are no longer hamstrung and could now develop weapons systems previously banned under the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia, a Cold War-era agreement that both sides repeatedly accused the other of violating. The treaty was also criticized because it did not cover China or missile technology that did not exist a generation ago.
The end of the treaty comes amid rising doubts about whether the two countries will extend an agreement on long-range nuclear weapons scheduled to expire in 2021. President Donald Trump said he has been discussing a new agreement to reduce nuclear weapons with China and Russia.
"And I will tell you China was very, very excited about talking about it and so was Russia," Trump told reporters. "So I think we'll have a deal at some point."
The Trump administration, which gave its six-month notice on Feb. 2 of its pending withdrawal from the INF, had repeatedly said Russia was violating its provisions, an accusation President Barack Obama made as well.
"The United States will not remain party to a treaty that is deliberately violated by Russia," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in announcing the formal withdrawal, calling a Russian missile system prohibited under the agreement a "direct threat to the United States and our allies."
The end of the INF, which comes as world powers seek to contain the nuclear threat from Iran and North Korea, is another milestone in the deterioration of relations between the U.S and Russia.
"The denunciation of the INF treaty confirms that the U.S. has embarked on destroying all international agreements that do not suit them for one reason or another," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "This leads to the actual dismantling of the existing arms control system."
A senior administration official downplayed the upcoming U.S. weapons test, saying it was not meant to be a provocation. The official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the test flight, said the U.S. is "years away" from effectively deploying weapons previously banned under the agreement.
But the U.S. might eventually want to base such weapons in Europe as a counterbalance to Russia, or in Asia to counter China.
The central issue with the INF was that both Russia and the U.S. had long accused the other of cheating on the treaty, which banned land-based missiles of ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (310 and 3,410 miles).
The U.S. said the noncompliant missile systems the Russians fielded gave Moscow an advantage over NATO forces in Europe.
The Obama administration in 2014 first publicly accused Moscow of violating the INF by testing a treaty-busting cruise missile, and the Trump administration pressed the accusation. Russia denies it has cheated, and counters with a contention that America's armed drones and missile defense system in Europe are violations.
U.S. military officials have said 95% of China's ballistic and cruise missiles would have violated the treaty.
"Since the strategic environment has changed rapidly since the end of the Cold War, we need to find ways to use arms control to address the rise of China's nuclear arsenal, the increase of Russia's non-strategic weapons stockpiles, and the emergence of new technologies like hypersonic weapons," said Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Chinese U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun on Friday challenged what he said were efforts to make his country "an excuse" for the demise of the treaty: "You know, the United States is saying China should be a party in this disarmament agreement, but I think everybody knows that China is not at the same level with the United States and the Russian Federation."
The point of arms control is to limit or stop a competition in weapons that, if left unconstrained, could endanger not just the big powers but much of the rest of the world. Nuclear weapons are the clearest example of this, but advances in technology, the rise of China and the spread of nuclear capabilities to smaller countries like North Korea have complicated the problem.
That is one reason many in the Trump administration argue that extending the New START agreement with Russia, which is set to expire in February 2021, might not make sense. It is the only remaining treaty constraining the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.
New START imposes limits on the number of U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear warheads and launchers. The deal was made in 2010, but the limits didn't take effect until 2018.
Trump has called New START "just another bad deal" made by the Obama administration, and Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, said in June it is unlikely the administration will agree to the five-year extension to New START that the treaty allows and which can be done without legislative action in either capital.
David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said if Trump doesn't extend or replace New START it will be first time since 1972 that the U.S. and Russia will be "operating without any mutual constraints on their nuclear forces."
Some U.S. military leaders also doubt the wisdom of extending New START.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has publicly expressed doubt about arms agreements with Russia in light of what he calls Russian violations of the INF treaty.
Dunford's view is at odds with that of many private arms control advocates, including Thomas Countryman, a former senior State Department official and now chairman of the Arms Control Association.
In congressional testimony last month, Countryman, who retired from diplomatic service in 2017, said it would be "national security malpractice" to allow New START to expire in 2021. He said the Trump administration is engaged in a "dangerous fantasy" by thinking Russia needs the New START treaty more than the United States does.
San Juan, Aug 3 (AP/UNB) — Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló resigned Friday as promised, clearing the way for veteran politician Pedro Pierluisi to be sworn in as his replacement, a move that threw the U.S. territory into a period of political uncertainty.
Rosselló had promised to step down in response to weeks of popular protest over mismanagement and a series of leaked chats in which he and advisers denigrated a range of Puerto Ricans. Because of problems with the qualifications of members of Rosselló's administration in the constitutional line of succession, it was unclear until the last minute who would become governor.
Pierluisi was named secretary of state, the next in line to be governor, in a recess appointment this week. In an emailed announcement from his office, Rosselló said Pierluisi would succeed him. He was sworn in by a judge at 5 p.m., the hour Rosselló had set to leave office.
The territory's House of Representatives confirmed Pierluisi as secretary of state Friday, but the Senate has not yet voted on his appointment. Rosselló said confirmation by both houses was unnecessary for a recess appointment, an assertion that appeared certain to generate legal challenges.
Two hours after taking the oath, Pierluisi emerged at the governor's residence to address the press and said he would only promise to serve as governor until Wednesday, when the Senate has called a hearing on his nomination. If the Senate votes no, Pierluisi said, he will step down and hand the governorship to the justice secretary, the next in line under the constitution.
Nothing more was heard from Rosselló.
Pierluisi said he was "fully capable and authorized to act, but the Senate will have its say."
Depending on the Senate's action, his tenure "could be very short-lived," he said. He did not plan to move into the governor's mansion until after the vote. He also he would avoid any major changes and concentrate on meeting with top government officials.
The down-to-the-wire maneuvering risked political chaos and sowed bitterness and pessimism among Puerto Ricans about the fate of their island, which has been battered by years by bankruptcy and Hurricane Maria in 2017, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.
Only days ago, there was jubilation over the success of the popular movement to force Rosselló out of office. On Friday, Puerto Ricans bemoaned the confusion that left them not knowing who would be their next governor.
"People are disgusted with the government in general, not just Ricardo Rosselló, everyone," said Janeline Avila, 24, who recently received her degree in biotechnology.
Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, a member of Rosselló's party seen as a possible future governor, criticized Rosselló for naming Pierluisi and appeared to hint at fighting the succession plan.
"He never regretted anything," Schatz said of Rosselló. "He did not respect the demands of the people. In fact, he mocked them, using new accomplices."
Schatz said that order and morals will prevail: "No one should lose faith."
Hundreds of protesters marched to the governor's residence, the Fortaleza, banging pots and drums and singing the national anthem. Protesters had not been highly critical of Pierluisi before Friday but expressed disgust with the succession process and Pierluisi's ties to the federal control board that has promoted cutbacks on the island.
Bryan Carhu Castro Vega, a 21-year-old university student, said he was disappointed.
"It's obvious that the constitutional setup that we have isn't working for the people," he said. "None of the options is one the people chose or want or deserve."
Rosa Cifrian, a 47-year-old professor of nursing, said Pierluisi would not be a good governor "for the people."
"He'll keep promoting policies of austerity, cutbacks, everything that the board says," she said.
The legislature, which is controlled by Pierluisi's New Progressive Party, erupted into cheers when the House voted 26-21, with one abstention, to confirm Pierluisi as secretary of state.
One constitutional amendment states that everyone in line to become governor has to be confirmed by both House and Senate, except for the secretary of state.
Constitutional law professor Carlos Ramos and other legal experts questioned the validity of that amendment and believed Pierluisi must be confirmed by the House and Senate because the amendment contradicts the intent of the constitution and its statement of motives.
Lawmakers and Pierluisi himself expressed concern that the continuing political uncertainty would damage Puerto Rico's efforts to get federal funds to recover from the hurricane and confront the economic crisis.
Several legislators have accused Pierluisi of a conflict of interest because he worked for a law firm that represents a federal control board overseeing the island's finances, a body that has repeatedly clashed with local officials over demands for austerity measures.
Pierluisi, whose brother-in-law is the board's chairman, tried to dispel those concerns in his opening remarks.
"Who better than me to advocate for our people before the board? Who better than me to facilitate the process that will force the board to leave? That is what we all want," he said.
The board was created by Congress to oversee the restructuring of more than $70 billion in public debt after Puerto Rico declared a form of bankruptcy.
Pierluisi told lawmakers he is against several austerity measures demanded by the board, including laying off public employees and eliminating a Christmas bonus.
He said he supports public-private partnerships and the privatization of the island's public power company.
"The people want a change, and I don't blame them," he said.
A key obstacle for Pierluisi has been Rivera Schatz, who wants to run for governor himself next year. Several legislators have said they prefer Rivera Schatz over Pierluisi, but the Senate leader is a powerful figure deeply associated with Puerto Rico's political and business elite, and his elevation to the governorship could re-ignite popular outrage.
Pierluisi was Puerto Rico's non-voting representative in Congress from 2009 to 2017 and then ran against Rosselló in the 2016 primaries and lost. He also served as justice secretary under Rosselló's father, Pedro Rosselló, when he was governor.
Rosselló joined more than a dozen government officials who have resigned in the wake of an obscenity-laced chat in which they made fun of women, gay people and hurricane victims.