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‘No comment’: Emails show the VA took no action to spare veterans from a harsh Trump immigration policy

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The VA’s approach differs sharply from the Pentagon’s, which won an exemption for active-duty members of the military.

Top officials of the Department of Veterans Affairs declined to step in to try to exempt veterans and their families from a new immigration rule that would make it far easier to deny green cards to low-income immigrants, according to documents obtained by ProPublica under a Freedom of Information Act request.

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The Department of Defense, on the other hand, worked throughout 2018 to minimize the new policy’s impact on military families.

As a result, the regulation, which goes into effect in October, applies just as strictly to veterans and their families as it does to the broader public, while active-duty members of the military and reserve forces face a relaxed version of the rule.

Under the so-called public charge regulation, which became final last week, immigrants seeking permanent legal status in the U.S. will be subject to a complex new test to determine if they will rely on public benefits. Among the factors that immigration officers will consider are whether the applicant has frequently used public benefits in the past, their household income, education level and credit scores.

Active-duty military members can accept public benefits without jeopardizing their future immigration status; veterans and their families, however, cannot.

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The rule, which could reshape the face of legal immigration to the U.S., is one of the highest-profile changes to the immigration system undertaken by the administration of President Donald Trump. An initial proposed version of the rule received over 266,000 public comments, the vast majority in opposition. Three lawsuits challenging the policy were quickly filed: one by a coalition of 13 states and filed in Washington state, one by San Francisco and Santa Clara County in California, and one by a coalition of nonprofit groups in California.

Because the new rule creates a complex and subjective test, it’s impossible to predict precisely how many veterans and their families who otherwise qualify for green cards will now be rejected. (The Department of Homeland Security told reporters last Monday that it hasn’t analyzed how many people would most likely be denied green cards under the new rule.)

However, documents tracking the regulation’s development show that the DOD was concerned enough that the rule would harm military families that it worked with DHS to limit the regulation, ultimately securing the benefits exemption for active-duty military members.

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The reasons for the VA’s inaction are unclear. The agency referred all questions to the White House, which did not respond to a request for comment. During the six months officials had to weigh in on the new regulation, the VA lacked permanent leaders in several top positions while juggling several major initiatives, which fell behind schedule or failed.

“They should be the foremost government agency that’s fighting for protections for veterans,” said Jeremy Butler, chief executive officer of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “If they have a ‘No Comment,’ that says to me that it wasn’t given the time and attention and research necessary to understand how it would affect the veteran community.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who sits on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a statement to ProPublica, “It’s despicable that the Trump Administration is punishing veterans who sacrificed for our country simply for using the support services they’ve earned.”

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He added, “Instead of tearing down military families, the President should be working to support those who’ve done so much for our country.”

In practice, the exemption the DOD won for active-duty military members is a narrow one. While the frequent use of public benefits is a “heavily weighted negative factor” in determining whether to block an immigrant under the new rule, members of the military and their families are still subject to the other factors weighed by immigration officers when applying for green cards.

But narrow as it is, no such exemption exists for veterans and their families, so using public benefits — as well as other factors like having meager savings — will count against them if they or their families apply for green cards.

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“If they care about the active-duty people, I don’t know why they don’t care about military veterans who aren’t doing very well,” said Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney with many military clients. Stock helped create a special program called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI, which created a pathway for military enlistment for refugees, undocumented young people, foreign students and others who lack green cards.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the DHS agency that is implementing the rule, declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

The new policy is a signature effort of the Trump administration and builds on a long-standing law that bars immigration by people deemed to be “public charges.” But the law does not define the term. In 1999, the Clinton administration narrowly defined it to mean someone who “primarily” depends on the government for subsistence, either through cash welfare or long-term care funded by the government.

The new regulation lowers the bar to be considered a “public charge” by redefining it as an immigrant who receives certain types of public benefits for more than 12 months in a three-year period. If an immigrant receives two benefits in a single month, that would count as two months.

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The public charge test applies to people entering the country or those trying to become lawful permanent residents, commonly known as green card holders. It does not apply to those who already have green cards and are seeking citizenship.

Noncitizens have long served in the U.S. military, often contributing specific needed skills such as sought-after foreign language fluency. Census data shows that about 100,000 noncitizen veterans live in the U.S., according to a ProPublica analysis of data provided by the University of Minnesota’s IPUMS, which collects and distributes census data. Most of them already have permanent status, Stock said.

It’s not clear exactly how many veterans do not have green cards or have spouses who don’t. Since 2008, about 10,000 people have joined the military through the MAVNI program, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan immigration research group. But the program is currently not accepting applications.

In practice, the public charge rule is more likely to affect veterans’ families — such as spouses who are undocumented or on temporary visas — rather than veterans themselves. Under federal law, undocumented immigrants and temporary visa holders are generally not eligible for public benefits.

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“A lot of veterans end up marrying women or men that don’t have green cards; that happens very often,” said Hector Barajas, who leads an advocacy group called Deported Veterans Support House. “There is a population of people that will be affected.”

The White House began seeking agency comments on March 29, 2018. An official at the Office of Management and Budget emailed officials from 19 agencies, including the VA, attaching a draft of the regulation and asking for comments. The email was sent one day after the VA secretary at the time, David Shulkin, was fired by Trump in a tweet. One week after the White House’s email, a VA official in the secretary’s office responded: “VA submits a ‘No Comment’ response.”

The White House again asked for agencies’ comment in July and September 2018, and each time, a VA official sent the same response.

The White House’s Sept. 4, 2018, email stated that the newest draft included “exemptions for service-members.” In an initial proposed version of the regulation released to the public later that month, DHS made clear that it decided on the exemption “following consultation with DOD.”


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REVEALED: Russia carried out ‘stunning’ operation that hurt FBI’s ability to track its spies during 2016 election

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Yahoo News is reporting that Russia carried out what is being described as a "stunning" operation in the United States that hampered the FBI's ability to track Russian spies during the 2016 presidential election.

According to Yahoo, Russia in 2016 made a technological breakthrough that allowed it to compromise the FBI's encrypted radio systems used by mobile surveillance teams who keep tabs on suspected Russian spies operating in the U.S. Russia even managed to compromise these teams' backup systems that consisted of cellphones with push-to-talk capabilities, thus further hindering the surveillance teams' ability to do their jobs.

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There are some surprising reasons to be optimistic about America’s future

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If stagnant wages, near-record inequality, climate change, nuclear buildups, assault weapons, mass killings, trade wars, opioid deaths, Russian intrusions into American elections, kids locked in cages at our border, and Donald Trump in the White House don’t at least occasionally cause you feelings of impending doom, you’re not human.

But I want you to remember this: As bad as it looks right now – as despairing as you can sometimes feel – the great strength of this country is our resilience. We bounce back. We will again.

Not convinced?

First, come back in time with me to when I graduated college in 1968. That year, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Our cities were burning.

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The Republican Party is a ‘cult’ that isn’t even letting its own voters have a say anymore: Joe Walsh

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On CNN Monday, former Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL) blasted the GOP for shutting down state primaries to block him from mounting a challenge to President Donald Trump.

"Look, we can’t be numb to this," said Walsh. "I know it’s difficult because this president seemingly every day attacks our democracy, but we have to be outraged. I always want to pinch myself and remind myself that this isn’t Russia. I do not live in Russia. I refuse to live in Russia. We can’t just cancel elections in this country. That’s what Donald Trump is doing. He’s literally canceling elections, and it’s very easy to be pissed off at Trump, but we’re used to this with Trump. He is a would-be dictator. He would like this to be Russia. I’ve got to tell you, I’m blown away in my disappointment with the Republican Party who is in cahoots with this president, and again, literally eliminating elections."

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