Monday, March 27, 2017

A Climate of Hate: How Border Militarization Is Getting Deadlier

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By Maurice Rafael Magaña and Michelle Téllez

The impact of President Trump's anti-immigrant policies is already being felt far and wide. His presidency raises acute concerns for US-Mexico border communities, communities that have been experiencing what sociologist Timothy Dunn has described as a "low-intensity conflict" since the late 1970s.
Those who would be among the most affected by President Trump's proposed border wall are the people who live, work, go to school and build families and community along the 2,000-mile-long stretch. We must remember that the border is not just a site of passage but also a place of residence. These are communities that have already witnessed the growing technologies and weaponry, border agents and buildup of the last 20 years -- realities that impact their everyday lives.
Two Decades of Increasing State Violence
In what may be the biggest contradiction of the global market, just as capital and goods were able to freely cross national borders with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, migrant bodies became increasingly policed under the Clinton administration's "Operation Gatekeeper" along the San Diego/Tijuana corridor and "Operation Hold the Line" in Texas.
In 2010, border agents at the San Ysidro Port of Entry beat and discharged a Taser multiple times on Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, a long-time San Diego resident, which led to his untimely death. In 2012, a border agent standing behind the border fence in Nogales, Arizona, shot and killed 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, who was walking along a sidewalk in Nogales, Sonora. The agent claims he acted in self-defense against rock throwers on the other side. When Trump supporters chant "Build the wall, build the wall," are they imagining the heightened tensions that will affect the lives of border dwellers?
While politicians and bureaucrats in Washington attempt to draw up support for the $25 billion wall and further militarization of the border with Mexico, researchers have shown that since the Great Recession, more Mexicans are leaving the US than arriving.
From a human rights perspective, the border wall and the actions of the US government surrounding its construction have been criticized for violating several international norms, including the rights of Indigenous peoples, the right to private property and the right to non-discrimination. Moreover, the wall has serious long-term environmental effects that were neither investigated nor addressed properly by the US government. In 2008 alone, 36 federal laws were waived thanks to the REAL ID Act of 2005, "to ensure the expeditious construction" of border barriers and roads. Of course, the public does not hear about this in the national or international mainstream media, nor does it recognize the wall itself as illegal due to these violations.
Furthermore, the "unintended" consequences of border militarization along previously heavily trafficked areas in Southern California and Texas have funneled migrants into the deadly Sonoran Desert. This has led to an increase in deaths, with statistics showing that migrant deaths have doubled in the last 20 years. In fact, advocates accuse the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) of using the desert as a weapon against migrants, as well as sabotaging humanitarian aid efforts and discriminating against migrants during emergency responses.
Border Policing Is Becoming Even More Militarized Under Trump
The CBP is already one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the world -- and the current administration's pledge to gut social services and other domestic programs in order to fund another massive infusion of money into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other law enforcement agencies. This has set off red flags for advocates worried about an increase in the well-documented human rights abuses committed by agents. DHS Secretary John F. Kelly is doing little to temper fears with his ill-conceived plan to separate children from their parents in order to deter would-be migrants and asylum seekers.
It is clear that the CBP is already being rewarded for its early endorsement of a presidential candidate who made national headlines for his anti-Mexican rhetoric after he described Mexican immigrants as rapists "bringing drugs" and "bringing crime." The remark was just one of many examples of the toxic rhetoric he used during the campaign to garner support, spread misinformation and paint himself as the only man capable of "saving" the US from the perceived invasion of Brown bodies swarming across allegedly porous borders. 
Since becoming president, Trump has not only orchestrated financial concessions to CBP, but also has paid the agency back by giving agents greater leeway in determining priority for deportation. They have done so, in part, by broadening the definition of "criminal aliens" to include those whose sole transgression is their immigration status. During the first five years of the Obama administration, immigration agents were given similarly low bars to clear in determining priority, but that eventually changed thanks to the immense pressure put on the administration by youth activists and their allies.
The story of Guadalupe García de Rayos, the Phoenix-area mother of two US citizen children who had lived in the US for 22 years, was one of the first signs of what immigration enforcement will look like under the new administration. García de Rayos was detained and deported in February, torn from her family and community, because President Trump's executive order on immigration made her into "the worst of the worst" due to a conviction for using a fake Social Security number in order to gain employment nine years ago.
Not even President Trump's supposed "soft-spot" for DREAMers has kept recipients of Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals from being detained -- like Daniela Vargas, Josué Romero and Daniel Ramirez Medina. Although Vargas' release from detention on March 10 was welcomed news, Vargas remains in legal limbo in what researchers call the "nightmare of abjectivity." The immigration raids terrorizing immigrant communities across the country remind us of the fear and terror of the repatriation of the 1930s and "Operation Wetback" -- moments of a not so distant past.
The Tohono O'odham Nation has vowed to resist President Trump's border wallArtistsactivists and faith-based communities throughout the country have similarly declared resistance by creating spaces of love, humanity and defiance by welcoming those persecuted by President Trump's policies and rhetoric. The question remains: How will people of good conscience continue to support and grow the resistance to the fear-mongering and unrelenting attacks on immigrant, refugee and Indigenous communities? How will we respond with urgency to these attacks, but also strategize for the long haul and in ways that make connections among the many communities under attack by the current administration and the growing climate of hate in the United States?

Why Washington was a no show at human rights hearings

By sitting out IACHR hearings, the Trump administration signals its contempt for international accountability.

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By Lauren Carasik

The Trump administration's failure to appear at hearings at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on March 21 telegraphs its disregard for international institutions generally and human rights in particular.
Trump officials notified the Commission, which is the independent human rights organ of the Organization of American States, a day before the scheduled hearings that it would not attend. State Department official contended that it would be inappropriate to participate since several of the hearings addressed issues under judicial review: the administration's executive actions on immigration and its greenlighting of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which are winding their ways through the courts.
But that explanation failed to assuage critics, who argued that Washington's absence erodes its legitimacy, emboldens authoritarian leaders in the hemisphere to shrug off their own accountability and dodge dialogue and presages broader disengagement with international human rights institutions.

International criticism

The move represented an abrupt departure from past practice. The United States has a long, bipartisan history of engaging with the Commission, even when the topic is being litigated. Further undermining the administration's stated excuse, among the hearings scheduled were the country's failure to respect the rights of asylum seekers - grievances that predate the Trump administration but endure under his watch - and a case about Peruvian-Japanese detention during World War II that is not the subject of pending litigation.
State Department official sought to offer reassuring words, claiming that the refusal to participate "does not have any bearing on current or future US engagement with the Commission".  But if ongoing litigation were really the driving force behind Washington's absence, officials could have signalled their respect for the process and the participating parties by attending the meeting and rebuffing questions they deemed inadvisable to answer.
Human rights groups were outraged. Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union human rights programme, noted: "This is another worrying sign that the Trump Administration is not only launching an assault on human rights at home, but is also trying to undermine international bodies charged with holding abusive governments accountable."
And according to Clara LongUS Programme researcher at Human Rights Watch: "In pulling out of this hearing, the United States is offering a negative example for the rest of the countries in the Americas, who show up and engage in the Inter-American system." The refusal to participate puts the US in the company of other countries whose human rights records it disdains.
Some observers have suggested that the administration's decision may be more reflective of lax attention to protocols and its staffing of the State Department than outright hostility to the Commission and its mission. But whether the result of intentional snub, dysfunction or different priorities, the move damages US leadership.
"This reduces a lot of the Trump administration's credibility and legitimacy on human rights issues," Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, told the Miami Herald.  "In addition to it being a symbol of arrogance, [the US] risks not being taken seriously when they criticise other countries for not showing up at these hearings," Vivianco said. 
The administration's absence didn't thwart the proceedings, during which groups offered testimony amid the spectacle of empty chairs administration officials were expected to fill, while Commission officials expressed dismay at Washington's intransigence. Commission Vice President Margarette May Macaulay called the administration's refusal to show up "a pity", while Commissioner Paulo Vannuchi lamented the refusal to attend, "which is what would have made it possible for there to be a democratic exchange of opposing views being aired".

Trump and human rights

The move occurred against the backdrop of other indications that the Trump administration has little interest in embracing a multilateral approach to human rights and institutions.  
Earlier last week, UN ambassador Nikki Haley announced that the US was boycotting a UN Human Rights Council session because of perceived anti-Israel bias. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson previously threatened to withdraw from the Human Rights Council altogether, given what he says is unfair treatment of Israel, as well as the inclusion of countries with blemished human rights records among its ranks.
In a letter obtained by Foreign Policy, the top diplomat said that the human rights body required "substantial reform" if the US is to remain involved. Tillerson also provoked consternation when he skipped the release of the State Department's annual human rights report, which reviews the record of all other nations but abstains from assessing its own shortcomings.  
Critics are wary of other administration efforts to undermine transnational accountability, such as its effective withdrawal from Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. President Donald Trump is reportedly planning to cut billions from UN funding, which could usher in a "breakdown of the international humanitarian system as we know it".
Under ordinary circumstances, Washington prefers not to be named and shamed for violating international norms. But Trump's contempt for multilateralism and accountability is hardly surprising. After all, this president previously expressed no qualms about promoting torture, filling up Guantanamo Bay prison and killing the families of terrorists. 
To be sure, Washington's human rights record has been far from perfect, both at home and abroad, but at least the Obama administration promoted the architecture of internationalism and the human rights principles and protections it sought to uphold. While the Trump administration has given occasional, anemic lip service to these ideals, its actions speak far louder than words.

Top US coal boss Robert Murray: Trump 'can't bring mining jobs back'

The founder and chief executive of Murray Energy supports Donald Trump’s move to roll back Obama’s clean power plan but cautions the president to go easy on talk of a jobs revival

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America’s biggest coal boss is hopeful that his industry will soon be freed of “fraudulent” green legislation that has hampered his industry, but warned Donald Trump to “temper” expectations about a boom in mining jobs.

Robert Murray, founder and chief executive of Murray Energy, the largest privately held coalminer in the US, is confident Trump will follow through with campaign plans to reinvigorate the coal industry and will start by scrapping Barack Obama’s clean power plan (CPP), Obama’s signature climate change plan.
The CPP was designed to cut the power sector’s carbon emissions by 32% by 2030, and Trump may move as soon as this week to overturn it. Murray blames it for shuttering coal-fired power plants and freezing new constructions during the Obama presidency. Repeal would be a major victory for Murray Energy, which filed a lawsuit against the CPP in 2015 that is now backed by more than two dozen states.
Murray, who met with Trump last month, also expects the president to end the classification of carbon dioxide as a pollutant in the US, a classification brought in under the Obama administration. “We do not have a climate change or global warming problem, we have an energy cost problem,” Murray told the Guardian.
Murray met Trump in February when the president signed repeal of the Stream Protection Rule, Obama-era legislation that prevented coal companies from dumping mining debris in streams and which Murray called an “unlawful and destructive” attempt to “destroy our nation’s underground coalmines and put our nation’s coalminers out of work” .
It was the 77-year-old Murray’s first visit to the White House and, he hopes, the first of a series that will help push coal’s agenda.
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 Why the poorest county in West Virginia has faith in Trump
Trump pledged to bring back coal jobs during his presidential bid and repeated those promises last week. “As we speak, we are preparing new executive actions to save our coal industry and to save our wonderful coalminers from continuing to be put out of work. The miners are coming back,” Trump told a rally in Louisville, Kentucky. 

Murray has presented Trump with a plan, part of which would overturn many of the protections brought under Obama in by the EPA, including the 2009 classification of carbon dioxide as a pollutant – a ruling known as ‘the “endangerment finding”.While Trump did not provide specific details, he did reiterate plans to defang the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), now led by Trump appointee and longtime EPA critic Scott Pruitt, the former attorney general of Oklahoma. Trump said this week he would transform the EPA from “a job killer into a job creator”.
“Carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act of 1971 was never a pollutant,” said Murray. “That endangerment finding needs to be overturned. It’s on my list of what needs to be done, because carbon dioxide is not a pollutant.”
During the campaign Trump, who has called climate change a “hoax”, said Obama’s regulation of carbon dioxide was “an overreach that punishes rather than helps Americans”.

Trump’s election has been a boon to coal, said Murray, after what he sees as Obama’s attempts to destroy the industry. But he has also warned the president he should “temper” expectations for jobs growth in the industry.
“I would not say it’s a good time in the coal industry. It’s a better time,” he said.
“Politically it’s much better. Barack Obama and his Democrat supporters were the greatest destroyers the United States of America has ever seen in its history. He destroyed reliable electric power in America, he destroyed low-cost electric power in America, and he attempted to totally destroy the United States coal industry.”
Murray said Democrats had failed to defeat Trump because they had failed to listen to people like his workers. “I live among these people. These are the people who fought the wars and built our country and they were forgotten by Democrats who had gone to Hollywood characters, liberal elitists and radical environmentalists. That’s all they represent today. They lost these quiet Americans. This was a victory for the working people,” he said.
When Obama came to power, coal provided 52% of US electricity; now it is closer to 30%. The fall is down to competition from cheap, shale gas and the closure of 411 coal-fired power plants under Obama’s administration as more than 50 coalmining companies went bankrupt.
While Murray said new plants using “clean coal” technologies could soon be built, he doesn’t expect that coal’s share of the market will rise significantly in the future.
Coalmining employed 98,505 people in 2015, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, down from 127,745 in 2008, the year Obama was elected president, and about 250,000 in the 1970s. Trump has consistently pledged to restore mining jobs, but many of those jobs were lost to technology rather than regulation and to competition from natural gas and renewables, which makes it unlikely that he can do much to significantly grow the number of jobs in the industry, said Murray.
“I suggested that he temper his expectations. Those are my exact words,” said Murray. “He can’t bring them back.”
But Murray is confident that Trump will move to “level the playing field” with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar by eliminating subsidies. “Get the government out of picking winners and losers,” he said. “We have to get the government out of the manipulation of the energy markets.”
Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said Murray was right to think coal had a champion in Trump, but she said she doubts the industry can overturn all the regulations Obama has put in place, or that Trump can significantly revive the industry.
“I live in West Virginia and I understand that there is a lot of optimism among some that coal will make a comeback,” Hitt said. But she added that Trump would be unable to turn the tide for coal. “The industry likes to point to pollution standards for the decline in jobs, but the reality is the market has markedly changed.
“Friends of the coal industry now populate the highest perches of our agencies and they will do their best to unwind clean air and water regulations and we will fight them every step of the way,” she said. “But even if all their wishes come true, I don’t think there will be a big boost to the coal industry.”
However, Murray remains confident that life is getting better for coal. “With the election of Donald Trump, my daily reading went down 100 pages. For eight years I had to read everything that the Democrats and Obama were putting out because I am the CEO and I had to guide the company while seeing where they were going to try and destroy us next. And eliminate us,” he said. “Now I don’t give a damn what they are say or do now because they are not in power.”

Facial recognition database used by FBI is out of control, House committee hears

Database contains photos of half of US adults without consent, and algorithm is wrong nearly 15% of time and is more likely to misidentify black people

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Approximately half of adult Americans’ photographs are stored in facial recognition databases that can be accessed by the FBI, without their knowledge or consent, in the hunt for suspected criminals. About 80% of photos in the FBI’s network are non-criminal entries, including pictures from driver’s licenses and passports. The algorithms used to identify matches are inaccurate about 15% of the time, and are more likely to misidentify black people than white people.
These are just some of the damning facts presented at last week’s House oversight committee hearing, where politicians and privacy campaigners criticized the FBI and called for stricter regulation of facial recognition technology at a time when it is creeping into law enforcement and business.
“Facial recognition technology is a powerful tool law enforcement can use to protect people, their property, our borders, and our nation,” said the committee chair, Jason Chaffetz, adding that in the private sector it can be used to protect financial transactions and prevent fraud or identity theft.
“But it can also be used by bad actors to harass or stalk individuals. It can be used in a way that chills free speech and free association by targeting people attending certain political meetings, protests, churches, or other types of places in the public.”
Furthermore, the rise of real-time face recognition technology that allows surveillance and body cameras to scan the faces of people walking down the street was, according to Chaffetz, “most concerning”.
“For those reasons and others, we must conduct proper oversight of this emerging technology,” he said.
“No federal law controls this technology, no court decision limits it. This technology is not under control,” said Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the center on privacy and technology at Georgetown Law.
The FBI first launched its advanced biometric database, Next Generation Identification, in 2010, augmenting the old fingerprint database with further capabilities including facial recognition. The bureau did not inform the public about its newfound capabilities nor did it publish a privacy impact assessment, required by law, for five years.
Unlike with the collection of fingerprints and DNA, which is done following an arrest, photos of innocent civilians are being collected proactively. The FBI made arrangements with 18 different states to gain access to their databases of driver’s license photos.
Last year, the US government accountability office (GAO) analyzed the FBI’s use of facial recognition technology and found it to be lacking in accountability, accuracy and oversight, and made recommendations of how to address the problem.“I’m frankly appalled,” said Paul Mitchell, a congressman for Michigan. “I wasn’t informed when my driver’s license was renewed my photograph was going to be in a repository that could be searched by law enforcement across the country.”
A key concern was how the FBI measured the accuracy of its system, particularly the fact that it does not test for false positives nor for racial bias.
“It doesn’t know how often the system incorrectly identifies the wrong subject,” explained the GAO’s Diana Maurer. “Innocent people could bear the burden of being falsely accused, including the implication of having federal investigators turn up at their home or business.”
Inaccurate matching disproportionately affects people of color, according to studies. Not only are algorithms less accurate at identifying black faces, but African Americans are disproportionately subjected to police facial recognition.
“If you are black, you are more likely to be subjected to this technology, and the technology is more likely to be wrong,” said Elijah Cummings, a congressman for Maryland, who called for the FBI to test its technology for racial bias – something the FBI claims is unnecessary because the system is “race-blind”.
“This response is very troubling. Rather than conducting testing that would show whether or not these concerns have merit, the FBI chooses to ignore growing evidence that the technology has a disproportionate impact on African Americans,” Cummings said.
Kimberly Del Greco, the FBI’s deputy assistant director of criminal justice information, said that the FBI’s facial recognition system had “enhanced the ability to solve crime” and emphasized that the system was not used to positively identify suspects, but to generate “investigative leads”.
Even the companies that develop facial recognition technology believe it needs to be more tightly controlled. Brian Brackeen, CEO of Kairos, told the Guardian he was “not comfortable” with the lack of regulation. Kairos helps movie studios and ad agencies study the emotional response to their content and provides facial recognition in theme parks to allow people to find and buy photos of themselves.
Brackeen said that the algorithms used in the commercial space are “five years ahead” of what the FBI is doing, and are much more accurate.
“There has got to be privacy protections for the individual,” he said.
There should be strict rules about how private companies can work with the government, said Brackeen, particularly when companies like Kairos are gathering rich datasets of faces. Kairos refuses to work with the government over concerns about how his technology could be used for biometric surveillance.
“Right now the only thing preventing Kairos from working with the government is me,” he said.

Scientists Hack a Human Cell and Reprogram It Like a Computer

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CELLS ARE BASICALLY tiny computers: They send and receive inputs and output accordingly. If you chug a Frappuccino, your blood sugar spikes, and your pancreatic cells get the message. Output: more insulin.
But cellular computing is more than just a convenient metaphor. In the last couple of decades, biologists have been working to hack the cells’ algorithm in an effort to control their processes. They’ve upended nature’s role as life’s software engineer, incrementally editing a cell’s algorithm—its DNA—over generations. In a paper published today in Nature Biotechnology, researchers programmed human cells to obey 109 different sets of logical instructions. With further development, this could lead to cells capable of responding to specific directions or environmental cues in order to fight disease or manufacture important chemicals.
Their cells execute these instructions by using proteins called DNA recombinases, which cut, reshuffle, or fuse segments of DNA. These proteins recognize and target specific positions on a DNA strand—and the researchers figured out how to trigger their activity. Depending on whether the recombinase gets triggered, the cell may or may not produce the protein encoded in the DNA segment.
A cell could be programmed, for example, with a so-called NOT logic gate. This is one of the simplest logic instructions: Do NOT do something whenever you receive the trigger. This study’s authors used this function to create cells that light up on command. Biologist Wilson Wong of Boston University, who led the research, refers to these engineered cells as “genetic circuits.”
Here’s how it worked: Whenever the cell did contain a specific DNA recombinase protein, it would NOT produce a blue fluorescent protein that made it light up. But when the cell did not contain the enzyme, its instruction was DO light up. The cell could also follow much more complicated instructions, like lighting up under longer sets of conditions.
Wong says that you could use these lit up cells to diagnose diseases, by triggering them with proteins associated with a particular disease. If the cells light up after you mix them with a patient’s blood sample, that means the patient has the disease. This would be much cheaper than current methods that require expensive machinery to analyze the blood sample.
Now, don’t get distracted by the shiny lights quite yet. The real point here is that the cells understand and execute directions correctly. “It’s like prototyping electronics,” says biologist Kate Adamala of the University of Minnesota, who wasn’t involved in the research. As every Maker knows, the first step to building complex Arduino circuits is teaching an LED to blink on command.
Pharmaceutical companies are teaching immune cells to be better cancer scouts using similar technology. Cancer cells have biological fingerprints, such as a specific type of protein. Juno Therapeutics, a Seattle-based company, engineers immune cells that can detect these proteins and target cancer cells specifically. If you put logic gates in those immune cells, you could program the immune cells to destroy the cancer cells in a more sophisticated and controlled way.
Programmable cells have other potential applications. Many companies use genetically modified yeast cells to produce useful chemicals. Ginkgo Bioworks, a Boston-based company, uses these yeast cells to produce fragrances, which they have sold to perfume companies. This yeast eats sugar just like brewer’s yeast, but instead of producing alcohol, it burps aromatic molecules. The yeast isn’t perfect yet: Cells tend to mutate as they divide, and after many divisions, they stop working well. Narendra Maheshri, a scientist at Ginkgo, says that you could program the yeast to self-destruct when it stops functioning properly, before they spoil a batch of high-grade cologne.
Wong’s group wasn’t the first to make biological logic gates, but they’re the first to build so many with consistent success. Of the 113 circuits they built, 109 worked. “In my personal experience building genetic circuits, you’d be lucky if they worked 25 percent of the time,” Wong says. Now that they’ve gotten these basic genetic circuits to work, the next step is to make the logic gates work in different types of cells.
But it won’t be easy. Cells are incredibly complicated—and DNA doesn’t have straightforward “on” and “off” switches like an electronic circuit. In Wong’s engineered cells, you “turn off” the production of a certain protein by altering the segment of DNA that encodes its instructions. It doesn’t always work, because nature might have encoded some instructions in duplicate. In other words: It’s hard to debug 3 billion years of evolution.