During a meeting with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, President Obama said he had ordered the Department of Homeland Security to review deportation procedures and see if they can be made more humane.
The AP reports:
"Obama said he was deeply concerned about the pain that families feel when they are separated because of a broken U.S. immigration system. He told the lawmakers he's asking Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to perform an inventory of current practices 'to see how it can conduct enforcement more humanely within the confines of the law,' the White House said in a statement.
"The announcement comes as immigrant rights activists, frustrated by the lack of progress in Congress, have been pressuring Obama to halt all deportations. Obama had said he doesn't have the power to take that step unilaterally, although he has previously moved to ease deportations for some children brought into the U.S. illegally.
"The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill last June with strong bipartisan support that would create a pathway for citizenship for the 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally, tighten border security and establish new visa and enforcement programs. The measure has languished in the House despite calls from Republican Party leaders, business groups, religious organizations and labor for lawmakers to act."
If you remember, the National Council of la Raza, which is normally an Obama ally, stepped up its criticism of Obama earlier this month.
As we reported, the advocacy organization's president Janet Murguía called Obama the "deporter-in-chief."
Buzzfeed reported earlier that under that same pressure, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus was set "to vote on a resolution Thursday to ask the president to slow deportations and increase his use of prosecutorial discretion."
NBC News reports the caucus put off the vote "out of courtesy to the president, to meet with him first and and to await the outcome of the meeting before proceeding."
"Most members left the meeting declining to comment, including Texas Democratic Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, the caucus chairman," NBC News adds.
A Colorado judge ruled on Thursday that some people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana could have their convictions overturned.
The ruling has to do with the state's legalization of recreational marijuana in 2012.
Judge Gale T. Miller, writing an opinion for the three-judge panel, found that the constitutional amendment legalizing possession of less than one ounce of pot "applies retroactively to defendants whose convictions under those provisions were subject to appeal or postconviction motion on the effective date of the amendment."
In English, that means this is a fairly narrow ruling that affects those who fought charges in court and whose appeals were in process when the amendment went into effect.
"A spokeswoman for Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said the office is reviewing the decision but would likely appeal.
"'The impact of this ruling is very limited given that possession of an ounce or less of marijuana was already a petty offense subject to a $100 fine,' Suthers said in a written statement. 'No one could be incarcerated for such a petty offense.'"
When Congress passed a farm bill earlier this year, it expected to save $8.6 billion over 10 years by tightening what many say is a loophole in the food stamp, or SNAP, program. But it's not going to happen.
You see, Congress left states an opening to avoid the cuts. And so far, nearly half of the states participating have decided to take that option - a move that could erase the promised savings.
So many states are rebelling against the cuts that House Speaker John Boehner is urging his fellow members of Congress to act.
"Since the passage of the farm bill, states have found ways to cheat, once again, on signing up people for food stamps," Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told reporters Thursday. "And so I would hope that the House would act to try to stop this cheating and this fraud from continuing."
The cuts were related to a program known as "heat and eat." In the past, it had allowed the participating states to give low-income residents as little as $1 a year in home heating aid so they'd qualify for more food stamps.
States said it made the program easier to administer and got help to those who needed it. But the maneuver was called a loophole by both Republicans and Democrats. So last month, Congress agreed to raise the amount of utility assistance states would have to pay to trigger the provision — to more than $20 a year.
The idea was that many of the states that use "heat and eat" would decide it wasn't worth their while. The expected result? Some 850,000 food stamp recipients would have their benefits cut an average $90 a month, which is where the savings would come in.
Turns out, Congress was wrong.
The "heat and eat" program covers 16 states, plus the District of Columbia. Six states — Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Oregon, Montana — have already declared that they will boost home energy benefits to avoid the food stamp cuts. Two other participants — Vermont and D.C. — are actively working to do the same thing.
Last week, Pennsylvania's Republican governor, Tom Corbett, announced he would spend an additional $8 million in heating assistance this year to prevent $300 million cut in food stamp benefits for state residents.
"Gov. Corbett took the appropriate steps to make sure that Pennsylvania's children are fed, and that families in need are not impacted by what is one of the most substantial federal cuts to food benefits," said Kait Gillis, a spokeswoman for Pennsylvania's Department of Public Welfare.
Gillis says it's kind of a win-win for the state, because the "$300 million that individuals receive in SNAP assistance is then spent in Pennsylvania."
A spokeswoman for Washington, D.C.'s Department of Human Services told NPR that the agency is planning to do the same.
And the head of Vermont's Department of Children and Families, Dave Yacovone, told Vermont Public Radio this week that the state also wants to avoid hurting food stamp recipients who already had their benefits cut by Congress last November.
"This is real important," Yacovone told VPR, "because if we don't make this change, that's on top of an actual $10 million reduction."
Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow — who shepherded the farm bill through the Senate — told NPR Wednesday that she and her fellow lawmakers will have to evaluate what states are doing and whether it will indeed eliminate the expected savings.
"I don't know yet what that all means," Stabenow said.
Rachel Sheffield of the conservative Heritage Foundation says she's not completely surprised.
"I mean, this is, you know, a way that states can draw down greater federal dollars, and they're not accountable for those dollars, so why not?" Sheffield says.
Needless to say, anti-hunger advocacy groups are thrilled. Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, says the whole debate over whether heat and eat is a loophole just missed the point.
"Food stamps are not enough to get the vast majority of recipients through the month," Weill notes. "The farm bill should have had a debate about how to improve benefits, not how to cut benefits."
He's hoping even more states will now use the "heat and eat' option to boost benefits even higher than they are today.
Kelis hadn't taken the stage in America since 2010. But from her opening notes — in which she took on the standard "Feeling Good," as popularized by Nina Simone — the singer never shied away from the most lavish possible spectacle on stage at NPR Music's SXSW showcase, held at Stubb's BBQ. Backed by a 12-piece band, complete with horn section and backup singers, Kelis reintroduced herself to the world as a transformed artist whose sound looks forward and backward without losing its focus on the present.
The singer most frequently identified with the 2003 smash "Milkshake" — "My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard" remains one of the most quotable lines in '00s pop — has evolved and experimented in the decade since. On Food, a new album due late next month, Kelis is fully recast as an inventive and unpredictable soul singer, aided significantly by the production work of Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio. In taking some of its songs to the stage Wednesday night, she presided over a full-fledged soul revue with the confidence and gravitas of a decorated soul veteran.
Still, this phase of Kelis' career is about liberation and rebirth rather than a desire to escape past successes; the fizzy playfulness of old has given way to an audacious intensity. Naturally, past hits like "Milkshake" and 2010's "Acapella" make memorably grandiose appearances here. But, like the singer herself, they're reinvented, buoyed by the graceful gravity of a star reborn.
- "Feeling Good"
- "Trick Me"
- "Friday Fish Fry"
- "Forever Be"
- "Jerk Ribs"
- "Rumble" (audio-only)
Bitter cold has returned to parts of the Midwest, mid-Atlantic and Northeast, following another heavy snowstorm that left 1 to 2 feet of snow from Ohio to New England.
And when all this snow finally melts, it'll expose the physical toll of this brutal winter: potholes, broken water mains, collapsed catch basins and other infrastructure problems.
"This winter's crazy, crazy busy," says John Polishak, a foreman for the Chicago Department of Water Management. "Everybody's been working 16 hours a day, seven days a week. It's exhausting."
Polishak is supervising a small crew digging up a snow-covered, frozen parkway in front of a house on Chicago's northwest side. They create a trench more than 5 feet deep to find where a water pipe is leaking.
This is a common problem this winter. Most water pipes in Chicago are buried 5 feet deep, which is usually below the frost line, but record-cold temperatures caused the ground to freeze much deeper than normal.
As the ground freezes, it expands, causing the frozen soil to shift and push against the aging water pipes. That movement can cause the pipes to bend and crack. The same thing has been happening in natural gas pipes, causing a huge increase in gas leaks under city streets this winter.
After removing the rusting piece of water pipe and joint called a "buffalo box," Polishak shows the damage.
"You see how this was supposed to be straight?" he asks, pointing to a slight bend in the pipe. "It literally pulled this thing up, and it broke the joint."
Tom Powers, a Chicago Department of Water Management commissioner, says the biggest problem is that the cold weather "has not let up."
"We've had a very challenging year," he says. Cold and snow have just continued "for another week, and another week, and another week. Here we are in March, and we've had almost three full months of some of the worst weather I've seen in my years with the city of Chicago."
This week's snowstorm, which dumped another several inches on the city, has made this winter the third-snowiest on record. It is also one of the coldest winters ever recorded.
That's led to more frozen water services than any other winter in recent memory, Powers says. "In 2013, we had roughly at this time, round numbers, about a thousand calls. This year it's over 5,200."
As weather starts to warm, another problem develops. The pipes are old — really old — and they can break as the temperature fluctuates back and forth. "We've got 4,400 miles of water main across the city of Chicago; about a quarter of that is 100 years or older," he says.
It's not just water pipes. Aging catch basins and sewer lines are crumbling, too — some of which are so old they're made of brick.
And, of course, potholes are opening up on roads and bridges everywhere.
Already A Problem
This isn't happening just in Chicago. The northern half of the country, and even some parts of the South that were hammered by the rare polar vortex, are feeling it too.
"The infrastructure has taken a beating as a result of this winter, and it was already in a somewhat fragile state before the cold and snow hit," says James Brooks of the National League of Cities. "The general deficit in infrastructure investment existed long before" this winter's harsh weather.
He says the cost of fixing up what the heavy snows and bitter cold have wrecked will be hefty, at a time when many cities' budgets are just as fragile as their infrastructure.
"They had begun to stabilize their financial health only to now be whacked again very hard by the weather — at a time when they do not have the personnel in place, they do not have the equipment in place, and obviously they don't have the resources in place to really be able to address this fully," says Brooks.
The American Society of Civil Engineers agrees that energy, water and transportation infrastructures are in poor shape. Before this brutal winter, the group graded the condition of the nation's infrastructure as a D+. The effects of repeated freeze-thaw cycles, heavy plowing and corrosive road salt exacerbated infrastructure problems, says Andrew Herrmann, a former society president.
"The salt, the chlorides, they just accelerate deterioration," says Herrmann. "They cause the steel [on a girder on a bridge] to rust at a faster rate, they cause it to expand and pop out the concrete if it's in rebar. ... It can cause everything to deteriorate faster."
But, Herrmann says, the chilly clouds that brought all this misery this winter may have a silver lining of sorts: "Though I don't wish a pothole on anyone, I hope it does open [the public's] eyes that, yes, we need to do something about our infrastructure."
Herrmann and others say this is a critical time to make greater investments in infrastructure, because climate change will likely bring more extreme weather and more violent storms.
"We have to make sure that we design our infrastructure ... [to be] more resilient," says Herrmann. "That means, unfortunately, more investment, more dollars put into it."