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Human Rights Watch accuses Alabama of violating constitution December 14, 2011

Alabama is systematically violating US and international conventions by depriving undocumented immigrants of equal protection under the law, according to Human Rights Watch.

HB56, the controversial immigration law that came into effect in Alabama in September, has driven a wedge between Latino residents who lack authorisation papers and the courts that are supposed to afford them equal treatment. In a survey of the impact of the legislation, Human Rights Watch found that discrimination was creeping into both criminal and civil law.

Under the legislation, known as the Beason-Hammon Act, section 27 says that “no court of this state shall enforce the terms of, or otherwise regard as valid, any contract between a party and an alien unlawfully present in the US”. That provision has already been invoked in at least one lawsuit by defendants accused of defrauding undocumented immigrants over the sale of cars – the defendants argued that they could not be sued because their victims were “illegal residents”.

In that case the judge found in favour of the plaintiffs, but only on the grounds that the fraud happened before HB56 was passed.

The watchdog recorded evidence of several cases of unauthorised immigrants who had wages withheld by employers and felt they were unable to take their grievance to court because of the new provision. One man, Alejandro, sought the advice of a lawyer but was told tha because of the new law he could not use the courts to retrieve the wages.

Human Rights Watch said this sent a clear message to employers that they did not need to fear legal redress from employees they had abused. That, the watchdog has pointed out, is a clear breach both of the US constitution and of international law.

In both the constitution and the international covenant on civil and political rights, all individuals must be treated equally before the law irrespective of their status. The 14th amendment of the US constitution says that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”.

Other aspects of HB56 have started to disturb the sacrosanct relationship between lawyer and client. Human Rights Watch said it had been told some lawyers were questioning whether they had a duty to inform on their clients should they lack proper papers.

The law prohibits “an officer of a court of this state” – a catch-all phrase that presumably includes lawyers as well as judges and court officers – from doing anything that would restrict the new legislation from being implemented. Human Rights Watch heard a case in which a criminal defence lawyer was confused about whether she was obliged to pass on the unauthorised status of her client. A judge advised that yes, she was obliged.

“Where does this law leave people if they can’t even trust their own lawyer?” said Grace Meng, the survey’s author.

Section 19 of the law denies bail to all undocumented immigrants charged with an offence, no matter how minor in nature. That in itself, the watchdog says, introduces unlawful discrimination into the legal process.

There are signs that the Latino community in Alabama – both documented and undocumented – has sharply reduced its reporting of crime for fear of being harassed by police under the new law even though they were the ones seeking assistance. The number of Latino people presenting themselves at court has plummeted, even to pay parking tickets, with individuals risking far greater punishments later on by allowing their fines to go unpaid.

Alabama’s all-out assault on undocumented Hispanic people has led to widespread criticism and ridicule, particularly after two foreign car executives working for Honda and Mercedes-Benz were apprehended under HB56. In recent days there have been moves to soften some of its provisions.

The courts this week stepped in to prevent undocumented immigrants losing their mobile homes, and the state attorney general Luther Strange has issued guidance saying that the law should not be used to withhold basic amenities from families such as water and electricity.

The Republican governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, who signed HB56 into law in June, has made assuaging noises to foreign car companies that have been inconvenienced by it.

But so far the impact of the law on the legal system itself has passed largely unnoticed. Human Rights Watch warns that it could have a “serious chilling effect on undocumented immigrants seeking justice in the courts … By enacting this law Alabama has already sent a message to unauthorised immigrants that their right to equal protection of the law will not be respected.”

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EPA finds toxic chemicals in water supply near fracking sites in Wyoming December 11, 2011


December 10, 2011

by legitgov

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EPA finds toxic chemicals in water supply near fracking sites in Wyoming 10 Dec 2011 The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced on Thursday it found chemicals used in the process of hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas in water supplies in Wyoming. The EPA’s findings are based on two deep wells drilled to monitor water in the aquifer located in Pavillion, Wyoming. The EPA says that sampling turned up compounds “likely associated with gas production practices” in the monitoring wells in addition to private and public drinking wells.

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Senate Republicans Block Obama Pick to Lead Consumer Panel December 9, 2011


December 8, 2011

by legitgov

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Senate Republicans Block Obama Pick to Lead Consumer Panel 09 Dec 2011 The Senate blocked President Obama’s nominee to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as filibustering Republicans who oppose the very powers of the new agency successfully challenged one of the administration’s main responses to the [GOP-created] financial crisis. The nomination of Richard Cordray was rejected after Democrats failed to achieve the 60 votes they needed to move his nomination forward. The vote was 55 yes, 45 no.

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Hillary Clinton’s world tour brings brickbats, but more bouquets

Hillary Clinton knows it’s been a good tour when the US secretary of state’s critics deride her as a “radical scold” trying to turn the world into gay-friendly San Francisco. Or claims that she is wrong to meet Burma‘s “military thugs” as the US presses for continued political reform in that long closed country.

Then there are the Russians and Israelis, upset with her for stating the obvious.

Clinton’s recently completed foreign tour took her on a controversial visit to Burma, where the country’s leading dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, praised her for “careful and calibrated” engagement with a country moving from brutal military rule toward tentative civilian control.

A few days later, Clinton gave a historic speech that committed Washington to putting the protection of gay rights at the centre of US foreign policy, drawing astonished praise and virulent criticism.

John Norris, director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Centre for American Progress, said the tour has added to Clinton’s standing in the US, where she has consistently high approval ratings, and abroad, where she has done much to reverse hostility.

“I have a hard time thinking of a secretary of state in recent memory who inherited a portfolio that was more of a mess. She had wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a very troubled relationship with Pakistan, and a full-blown economic crisis on her watch,” he said.

“Her ability to reconstruct the United States as a player on the multilateral stage is some of the most important and least acknowledged work. If you look at the broad architecture of US foreign policy, she really has done a pretty remarkable job of helping us emerge from what was something of a smouldering train wreck when she took office.”

Clinton’s groundbreaking visit to Burma was widely questioned, including by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican member of Congress, who said it “sends the wrong signal to the Burmese military thugs”.

“Secretary Clinton’s visit represents a monumental overture to an outlaw regime whose DNA remains fundamentally brutal,” she said.

But Norris describes the visit as “an interesting culmination of idealism and realpolitik”.

“Certainly the idea of opening up the relationship with Burma is not uncontroversial in some quarters, but I think people also recognise that there has been some significant change on the ground and it makes sense for the United States to respond positively to encourage further change as well as not wanting Burma to see itself as a Chinese client state,” he said.

Clinton moved on to Geneva, where she said that protection of human rights for gay people will now be “a priority of our foreign policy”. She also took on myths prevailing in parts of the world, particularly some parts of Africa and the Middle East, that discrimination and even persecution of gay people is justified because homosexuality is a white, western phenomenon and against local culture.

“Being gay is not a western invention; it is a human reality. And protecting the human rights of all people, gay or straight, is not something that only western governments do,” she said.

Clinton swiftly came under attack from the American right. Rick Perry, the Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate, said that the speech was part of “this administration’s war on traditional American values”.

The rightwing American Spectator called Clinton a “radical scold” and accused her of trying to turn the world in to San Francisco.

But Norris argues that Clinton’s speech is in line with the US’s claim to defend individual and minority rights across the globe.

“The best comparison there – although it’s one that folks on the left and right here would find unusual – is the US’s long history of protecting religious rights around the globe,” he said.

Clinton has also drawn criticism in recent days from Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, for criticising the conduct of Russia’s election, and from Israel, for comments about the threats to democracy there by political moves to stifle the work of human rights organisations.

Clinton’s diplomacy is not always so assured. She contibuted to the White House’s inertia at the beginning of the Arab spring when the State Department initially backed the view that Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt could be saved to the recognition that he had to go. But Clinton was instrumental in pushing for Washington to back military force in support of Libya’s rebels.

Contrast that with Obama’s more hesitant approach on healthcare, Afghanistan and Congress. That has given rise once again to speculation that Clinton may yet make a move on the White House.

Two Democratic party pollsters, Patrick Caddell and Douglas Schoen, last month said in the Wall Street Journal, in an article called The Hillary Moment, that Obama is politically doomed and Clinton should step in to the breach.

They said Clinton is “the only leader capable of uniting the country around a bipartisan economic and foreign policy”.

“[Obama] should abandon his candidacy for re-election in favour of a clear alternative, one capable not only of saving the Democratic party, but more important, of governing effectively and in a way that preserves the most important of the President’s accomplishments. He should step aside for the one candidate who would become, by acclamation, the nominee of the Democratic Party: secretary of state Hillary Clinton,” they wrote.

That remains unlikely, but not impossible.

Others favour Clinton to replace Joe Biden as vice-president because she remains popular with many liberal voters who are disenchanted with Obama, including a not insignificant number who are questioning their support for America’s first black president over the woman who would have been its first female president in the 2008 Democratic party race.

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Republicans block Obama appointee

Mr Obama told reporters that Republicans have held up multiple appointments ‘for no reason’

Senate Republicans have blocked the appointment of Richard Cordray to head a new US consumer protection agency.

A majority of Republicans have pledged to block any appointee to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) until the administration agrees to decrease the agency’s powers.

The CFPB has existed since July but cannot fully act without a director.

The agency was created as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, bitterly opposed by many Republicans.

Mr Obama has not ruled out appointing Mr Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general, on a temporary basis when Congress is in recess.

He has also signalled that he will veto any attempt to change the structure of the CFPB or defund the agency.

‘Fair play’

Republicans said they had no qualms on Mr Cordray’s qualifications, but voted against the measure that would have brought his nomination to a vote.

With one Republican voting in favour, the measure failed to reach 60 “aye” votes necessary to move forward.

Mr Obama said he would not give up on the appointment.

“We have a Congress right now, Republicans in Congress right now, who seem to have entirely forgotten how we got into this mess,” Mr Obama said on Thursday.

“And part of the reason was because we did not empower our regulators to make sure that they were ensuring fair play.”

Senate Republicans are asking that the CFPB’s directorship should be replaced with a bipartisan board of directors and that the agency should be subject to the congressional appropriations process.

“This has nothing to do with Mr Cordray,” said Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican. “It has everything to do with accountability for how money is spent in government.”

Administration officials dispute that the agency has no accountability.

Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin told reporters at the White House that the CFPB must consult with other bank regulators before issuing rules, and can also have its rules overturned by the Financial Stability Oversight Council, a Treasury department board largely made up of heads of other financial agencies.

Mr Wolin said the new agency, which falls under the supervision of the Federal Reserve, follows other federal bank regulators in not being subject to congressional appropriation.

“The reason for that is we want to make sure that our bank regulators are free of political influence.”

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