March 28, 2013
By Julie Pace
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama challenged Congress Monday to “finish the job” of finalizing legislation aimed at overhauling the nation’s immigration system.
With members of the House and Senate away on spring break, Obama made his most substantive remarks on the difficult issue in more than a month, saying he expects lawmakers to take up debate on a measure quickly and that he hopes to sign it into law as soon as possible.
“We’ve known for years that our immigration system is broken,” the president said at a citizenship ceremony at the White House. “After avoiding the problem for years, the time has come to fix it once and for all.”
The president spoke at a ceremony for 28 people from more than two dozen countries, including Afghanistan, China and Mexico. Thirteen of the new citizens are active duty service members in the U.S. military. The oath of allegiance was administered by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
While Obama has hosted citizenship ceremonies in previous years, Monday's event was laced with politics, given the ongoing debate over immigration reform on Capitol Hill. A bipartisan group of eight senators is close to finishing draft work on a bill that would dramatically reshape the U.S. immigration and employment landscape, putting 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship. The measure also would allow tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country.
The president applauded the congressional effort so far, but pressed lawmakers to wrap up their discussions quickly.
“We’ve got a lot of white papers and studies,” Obama said. “We’ve just got to, at this point, work up the political courage to do what’s required.”
Immigration shot to the forefront of Obama's domestic agenda following the November election. Hispanics made up 10 percent of the electorate and overwhelmingly backed Obama, in part because of the tough stance on immigration that Republicans took during the campaign.
The election results spurred Republicans to tackle immigration reform for the first time since 2007 in an effort to increase the party’s appeal to Hispanics and keep the GOP competitive in national elections.
Obama and the bipartisan Senate group are in lockstep on some key principles of a potential immigration bill, including the need for a pathway to citizenship, strengthening the legal immigration system, and cracking down on businesses that employ illegal immigrants. But they’re at odds on other important areas, including whether to link border security with starting the citizenship pathway, which the Senate supports.
The White House has largely backed the Senate process, but says it has its own immigration bill ready if the debate on Capitol Hill stalls.
Obama touted the benefits of immigration at Monday’s ceremony, saying it keeps the U.S. vibrant and prosperous.
“It is part of what makes this such a dynamic country,” he said at the event in the White House East Room.
Among those being sworn in as a new citizen was Nikita Kirichenko, who came to the U.S. from Ukraine at age 11 and later joined the Air Force. The president also singled out Kingsley Elebo, who pursued a master's degree in information technology after coming to the U.S. from Nigeria at age 35. Elebo is now studying for his doctorate.
The president then read a quote from Elebo about what it means to become a citizen.
“What Kingsley said is, ‘What makes this country great is that if you’re a citizen you’re part of something bigger than yourself’,” Obama said.
March 21, 2013
By Julie Pace and
Eager to reassure an anxious ally, President Barack Obama on Wednesday affirmed Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself from any threat and vowed to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. He said containment of a nuclear-armed Iran was not an option and said the United States would do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from getting “the world’s worst weapons.”
Meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his first visit to the Jewish state as president, Obama offered his personal commitment that the U.S. would stand by Israel in any circumstances that required it to act to protect its people. He said the U.S. and Israel would start talks soon on a new, 10-year security cooperation package to replace one that expires in 2017.
Obama also pledged to investigate whether chemical weapons were used this week in neighboring Syria's 2-year-old civil war, something he said would be a “game-changer” for current U.S. policy. In addition, he said he would continue to urge Israel and the Palestinians to re-launch the moribund peace process.
Speaking at a joint news conference, Obama and Netanyahu, who have sparred on numerous occasions in the past, presented a united front on Iran.
They stressed repeatedly that all options — including military ones — are on the table to keep Iran from acquiring an atomic weapon if the diplomatic track fails. And they brushed aside apparent differences over when the Iranian nuclear program might reach the point that military action is required.
“We will do what is necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining the world’s worst weapons,” Obama said, calling a nuclear-armed Iran a threat to Israel, the greater Middle East and the world.
Although Obama did not promise that the United States would act militarily against Iran if Israel decided that must be done, he offered an explicit endorsement for Israel to take whatever unilateral measures it deems necessary to guard against the threat.
“Each country has to make its own decisions when it comes to the awesome decision to engage in any kind of military action and Israel is differently situated than the United States,” he said. “I would not expect that the prime minister would make a decision about his country’s security and defer that to any another country any more than the United States would defer our decisions about what was important for our national security.”
Netanyahu seized on the remarks, saying they were an important demonstration of America’s steadfast alliance with Israel and part of making the carrot-and-stick approach a credible option to avoid the use of force.
“I am absolutely convinced that the president is determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons,” he said. “I appreciate that. I appreciate the fact that the president has reaffirmed, more than any other president, Israel’s right and duty to defend itself by itself against any threat.”
Netanyahu said the carrot-and-stick approach now being employed to cajole Iran into proving that’s its nuclear intentions are peaceful had to be bolstered by “a clear and credible threat of military action.” Obama’s recognition of Israel's right to act alone appeared to satisfy him on that score, and the prime minister beamed with delight in response to the new security pact talks.
On another issue of critical importance to Israel’s security, Obama said the U.S. is investigating whether chemical weapons were deployed in Syria earlier this week. He said he was “deeply skeptical” of contentions by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government that rebel forces were behind any such attack.
Both the Assad government and Syrian rebels have accused each other of using chemical weapons in an attack on Tuesday.
Obama said the U.S. policy not to intervene militarily or arm Syrian rebels thus far is based on his desire to solve the problem with world partners. He rejected as “inaccurate” suggestions that the United States had done nothing to stop two years of bloodshed that has claimed more than 70,000 lives.
“It’s a world problem when tens of thousands of people are being slaughtered, including innocent women and children,” Obama said.
Obama’s three-day visit to Israel, from its start earlier Wednesday, is designed to send a message of reassurance to a key ally.
At an extravagant welcoming ceremony, Obama declared that “peace must come to the Holy Land” and not at Israel’s expense. U.S. backing for Israel will be a constant as the Middle East roils with revolution and Iran continues work on its nuclear program, he said.
“The United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend,” Obama said after landing at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport.
“Across this region the winds of change bring both promise and peril,” he said, calling his visit “an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our nations, to restate America’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security, and to speak directly to the people of Israel and to your neighbors.”
Seeking to alter a perception among many Israelis that his government has been less supportive of Israel than previous U.S. administrations, Obama declared the U.S.-Israeli alliance “eternal.”
“It is forever,” he said to applause as Israeli and U.S. flags fluttered in a steady breeze under clear, sunny skies.
Before leaving the airport for Jerusalem, Obama offered a vivid display of the U.S. commitment to Israeli security by visiting a missile battery that is part of Israel’s Iron Dome defense from militant rocket attacks. The United States has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in developing the system with Israel.
Obama and Netanyahu toured the battery, which Israel relocated to the airport for the occasion. They met and chatted with soldiers who operate the system that Israel credits with intercepting hundreds of rockets during a round of fighting against Gaza militants last November.
In his comments to reporters with Netanyahu, Obama also took note of the difficult way forward in the broader quest for Mideast peace, acknowledging that in recent years “we haven't gone forward, we haven’t seen the kind of progress that we would like to see.”
The president said he came to the region principally to listen, and hoped to return home with a better understanding of the constraints and “how the U.S. can play a constructive role.”
Netanyahu, for his part, said he was willing to set aside preconditions in future talks with the Palestinians, adding that it was time to “turn a page in our relations.”
Obama is to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank this week to assure him that an independent Palestinian state remains a U.S. foreign policy and national security priority — even though he is bringing no new plan to restart negotiations with Israel.
Although many Israelis warmly greeted Obama, Palestinians held several small protests in the West Bank and Gaza. Demonstrators in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip burned posters of Obama and U.S. flags, accusing the U.S. of being biased toward Israel.
In the West Bank, about 200 activists erected about a dozen tents in an area just outside of Jerusalem to draw attention to Israel’s policy of building settlements. The tents were pitched in E1, a strategically located area where Israel has said it plans on building thousands of homes. The U.S. has harshly criticized the plan.
March 21, 2013
By JOHN ROGERS Associated Press
Five former elected officials in a small, blue-collar California city who became a national symbol of municipal greed were convicted Wednesday of stealing taxpayer money by serving on a panel that evidence showed was created only to boost their annual salaries to nearly $100,000.
Former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez and onetime City Council members Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, George Cole and Victor Bello were all convicted of misappropriating public funds.
Former Councilman Luis Artiga was acquitted of all charges. The pastor of Bell Community Church broke down in tears and pointed heavenward as the not guilty verdicts were read.
"I said, 'Thank you, Lord,'" a beaming Artiga, surrounded by his wife and four children, said outside court. "I never lost faith. I knew it, I just knew it."
After the four-week trial, the other defendants were convicted of illegally taking money for sitting on Bell's Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, an entity they could not prove had been legally established or did any work.
Records showed it met only one time between 2006 and 2010.
After the verdicts were read, Judge Kathleen Kennedy noted there were 10 deadlocked counts and asked the foreman if the panel had exhausted efforts to reach decisions.
He said that was correct, explaining the jury had split 9-3 on each of those counts. He did not reveal if the panel favored conviction.
Kennedy polled all 12 jurors, and four said they believed a verdict could be reached if they received more direction. Kennedy ordered them to resume deliberations then sent them home later in the day. The panel will return to court on this week.
At the heart of the case was whether the six officials broke the law by paying themselves annual salaries of up to $100,000 to govern only part-time in the city of 36,000 people where one in four residents live below the poverty line.
An audit by the state controller's office found the city had illegally raised property taxes, business license fees and other sources of revenue to pay the salaries. The office ordered the money repaid, which for a time put Bell in danger of filing for bankruptcy.
The defendants, many of whom took the witness stand during the trial, insisted they earned their salaries by working around the clock to help residents. Their lawyers blamed Bell's disgraced former city manager, Robert Rizzo, for creating the fiscal mess.Rizzo and his former assistant, Angela Spaccia, are expected to face trial later this year on similar charges.
City records have revealed that Rizzo had an annual salary and compensation package worth $1.5 million, making him one of the highest paid administrators in the country.
His salary alone was about $800,000 a year — double that of the president of the United States.
To fund salaries of officials, Rizzo masterminded a scheme to loot Bell's treasury of $5.5 million, prosecutors said.
Witnesses at the trial of the former council members depicted Rizzo as a micro-manager who convinced the city's elected officials that they too deserved huge salaries.
He was said to have manipulated council members into signing major financial documents, particularly Hernandez who does not read English and, according to his lawyer, was often unaware of what he was signing.
After the scandal was disclosed, thousands of Bell residents protested at City Council meetings and staged a successful recall election to throw out the entire council and elect new leaders.
Current Mayor Ali Saleh, a leader of the recall, hailed the guilty verdicts on Wednesday but said residents won't be truly satisfied until Rizzo and Spaccia are tried.
"Our community will rest when the legal process has come full circle and justice has been served," he said.
Hernandez, whose family members wept after the verdicts, was convicted of five counts of misappropriating public funds, as were Jacobo and Mirabal. Bello was convicted of four of the same charges and Cole of two.
Prosecutors declined to comment on possible sentences for the defendants until all the charges have been resolved.
Prosecutors brought an extensive, complicated case against all six defendants that totaled about 100 counts.
The jury had deliberated since Feb. 28 after one member of a previous panel was replaced and the judge told the reconstituted group of 12 to start over.
The trial was the first court proceeding following disclosures of massive corruption in the hardscrabble town of modest homes and few businesses.
The defendants' lawyers told jurors their clients had no idea what Rizzo was doing or that what they were doing was illegal.
Jacobo testified that when Rizzo told her that he was increasing her salary enough that she could quit her job selling real estate, she asked the former city attorney if that was legal and he assured her it was.
Hernandez's lawyer said the once popular mayor, who ran a small grocery store in Bell, was unschooled and not one who understood the city's finances.
"We elect people who have a good heart. Someone who can listen to your problems and look you in the eye," attorney Stanley Friedman had told jurors.
March 14, 2013
By FELICIA FONSECA | Associated Press
American Indian tribes have tried everything from banishment to charging criminal acts as civil offenses to deal with non-Indians who commit crimes on reservations.
Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that tribal courts lack criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians, tribes have had to get creative in trying to hold that population accountable. They acknowledge, though, that those approaches aren’t much of a deterrent, and say most crimes committed by non-Indians on tribal land go unpunished.
Tribal leaders are hoping that will change, at least in part, with a federal bill signed into law Thursday March 7. The measure gives tribes the authority to prosecute non-Indians for a set of crimes limited to domestic violence and violations of protecting orders.
Implementation of the Violence Against Women Act will take time as tribes amend their legal codes and ensure defendants receive the same rights offered in state and federal courts. But proponents say it’s a huge step forward in the face of high rates of domestic violence with no prosecution.
“For a tribal nation, it’s just absurd that (authority) doesn’t exist,” said Sheri Freemont, director of the Family Advocacy Center on the Salt River Pima Maricopa reservation in Arizona. “People choose to either work, live or play in Indian Country. I think they should be subject to Indian Country rules.”
Native American women suffer incidents of domestic violence at rates more than double national averages. But more than half of cases involving non-Indians go unprosecuted because Indian courts have lacked jurisdiction and because federal prosecutors often have too few resources to try cases on isolated reservations.
Still, the tribal courts provision was a major point of contention in Congress, with some Republicans arguing that subjecting non-Indians to Indian courts was unconstitutional.
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said after its passage that the bill denies basic protections and will be tied up in court challenges for years.
“It violates constitutional rights of individuals and would, for the first time ever, proclaim Indian tribes’ ‘inherent’ authority to exercise criminal jurisdiction over non-Indian citizens,” Hastings said in a statement. “The Supreme Court has ruled multiple times that tribes do not have this authority.”
The U.S. Department of Justice met with tribal leaders last Wednesday to discuss implementing the provisions, which will take effect two years after the law is enacted. A pilot project would allow any tribe that believes it has met the requirements to request an earlier start date.
To ease concerns that the new authority would violate the constitutional rights of a non-Indian or that jurors in tribal court would be unfair, the bill allows defendants to petition a federal court for review. A tribe would have jurisdiction over non-Indians when that person lives or works on the reservation, and is married to or in a partnership with a tribal member.
About 77 percent of people living in American Indian and Alaska Native areas are non-Indian, according to a recent Census report. Roughly half of Native American women are married to non-Indians, the Justice Department has said.
Although tribes have civil jurisdiction over non-Indians, they often are reluctant to go forward with a case when the penalty amounts to a fine and offenders have little incentive to pay it. The hope in taking on criminal cases is that incidents of domestic violence will be quelled before they lead to serious injury or death, and that victims won’t be afraid to report them.
“Having the ability to do it local and have the prosecution start soon after the offense, that’s just going to be great for our victims,” said Fred Urbina, chief prosecutor for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in southern Arizona.
Officers there are certified under state and federal law, which allows them to arrest non-Indians, but the cases aren't handled at the tribal level. The Pascua Yaqui Tribe also has banished some non-Indians from the reservation for criminal activity.
“It’s almost like a patchwork of things we’ve been able to employ to fix that jurisdictional void,” Urbina said. “It’s not satisfactory in all cases.”
Under the new law, a non-Indian defendant would have the right to a jury trial that is drawn from a cross-section of the community and doesn’t systematically exclude non-Indians or other distinctive groups. The protections would equal those in state or federal court, including the right to a public defender, a judge who is licensed to practice law, a recording of the proceedings and published laws and rules of criminal procedure.
“This is not scary. It’s not radical,” said Troy Eid, former U.S. attorney in Colorado. “It’s very much in keeping with what we have as local governments.”
The safeguards are similar to those in the federal Tribal Law and Order Act, passed in 2010 to improve public safety on tribal lands.
About 30 tribes across the country are working toward a provision that allows them to increase sentencing from one year to three years, leaving them well-positioned to take authority over non-Indians in criminal matters, Eid said.
Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said in a statement that much work remains to be done to ensure tribal members are protected from domestic violence. But he said last Thursday’s bill signing represents a “historic moment in the nation-to-nation relationships” between tribes and the federal government.
“Today is a great day, because it marks the beginning of justice and the end to injustice that has gone unanswered for too long,” Keel said.