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MON: Grand Jury Indicts Ex-Lawmaker, Balloon Fiesta Could Require Vaccine Proof, + More

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta


Grand Jury Indicts Ex-Lawmaker In Alleged Kickback Scheme - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

A former high-ranking Democratic state legislator and Albuquerque public school administrator has been indicted by a grand jury on charges of racketeering, money laundering, fraud and ethics violations in connection with an alleged kickback scheme, prosecutors said Monday.

The charges against former state Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton were filed in state District Court in Albuquerque and confirmed by the state attorney general's office.

A defense attorney for Stapleton was not immediately available to respond to the charges. The indictment lists 28 charges, including 10 counts of using an official act for personal financial gain as well as a tax evasion charge.

Stapleton previously denied related allegations enclosed in a warrant, even as she resigned her legislative post in July as the second-ranking Democrat in the state House of Representatives.

She was fired in late-August by the Albuquerque public school system from her position in vocational education amid administrative and criminal probes into her ties to a private contractor for the state's largest school district.

Authorities for months have been investigating Stapleton's possibly illegal connections to the company Robotics Learning Management that received more than $5 million in contracts to do business with the school district, and whether she received financial kickbacks.

The school district's review extends to activities dating back to 2006. At least 11 employees were initially placed on administrative leave.

New Mexico has witnessed a string of criminal convictions against high-level public officials in recent years.

Last week, former state Taxation and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla was fined and sentenced to community service over embezzlement and illicit computer access.

Jail sentences were handed down on convictions in 2018 against former state Sen. Phil Griego for using his position as a legislator to profit off the sale of a state-owned building and in 2015 against ex-Secretary of State Dianna Duran for using campaign funds to fuel a gambling addiction.

New Mexico School Districts To Gain Funds For Mental HealthSanta Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

Three New Mexico school districts have been awarded funding to bolster mental health services over the next several years.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports the state Public Education Department was bestowed earlier this month with a five-year, $8.9 million federal grant.

The state has selected districts in Santa Fe, Farmington and Socorro to get grants to help students struggling mentally.

The districts were chosen partly because of they serve many low-income students and students who speak English as a second language.

The funds come from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The program, dubbed Project AWARE, will cover mental health trainings for staff.

Santa Fe Public Schools hopes to bring culturally specific mental and behavioral health services for Native American students, according to Sue O'Brien, a district student wellness coordinator.

Farmington Municipal Schools Superintendent Eugene Schmidt says they intend to hire a behavioral health clinician.

Educators say students have had to adjust to being back to in-person learning after a year of being isolated by the pandemic. Several have also suffered deaths in the family due to COVID-19.

In January, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported increases in children going to the emergency room for a mental health crisis.

Albuquerque Man Accused Of Fatally Shooting PanhandlerAssociated Press

Albuquerque police say an 18-year-old man shot and killed a panhandler in an unprovoked attack.

Authorities say Isaiah Luna was booked into Metro Detention Center on suspicion of murder several hours after the Sunday morning shooting.

According to police, Luna and his mother returned to the intersection where the killing happened. His mother then informed investigators her son was behind the shooting and the gun used was in his car.

During questioning, Luna said he was acting in self-defense. He said the male transient had punched him in the face.

Police say surveillance video of their interaction before shooting showed the victim at no time hit Luna or try enter his car.

It was not immediately known Monday if Luna had an attorney who could speak on his behalf.

Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta Still May Alter COVID-19 Protocol KOAT-TV, Associated Press

City officials say they have not ruled out requiring proof of vaccination at next month's Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

The annual hot air balloon festival is back after being canceled last year because of COVID-19.

City officials say they are watching how the New Mexico state fair plays out as they weight last-minute changes.

Mayor Tim Keller tells KOAT-TV that organizers are nevertheless ready for the 100,000 attendees expected to converge for the event, which starts Oct. 2. He says he is encouraged as the number of cases statewide appears to be plateauing.

Officials say there are ample safety measures in place. Sam Parks, festival director of operations, says masks and social distancing will be required. Tables and chairs will be cleaned constantly. Sanitation stations will be set up throughout the park.

Still, visitors should be prepared for changes even during the week-long event.

Inflation Forces Homebuilders To Take It Slow, Raise Prices - By Alex Veiga, AP Business Writer

Even in the hottest U.S. housing market in more than a decade, new home construction has turned into a frustratingly uncertain and costly proposition for many homebuilders.

Rising costs and shortages of building materials and labor are rippling across the homebuilding industry, which accounted for nearly 12% of all U.S. home sales in July. Construction delays are common, prompting many builders to pump the brakes on the number of new homes they put up for sale. As building a new home gets more expensive, some of those costs are passed along to buyers.

Across the economy, prices having spiked this year amid shortages of manufactured goods and components, from cars and computer chips to paint and building materials. The Federal Reserve meets this week and officials' outlook on when they might start raising interest rates could indicate how worried the Fed is about inflation.

The constraints on homebuilders are unwelcome news for homebuyers, already facing historically low levels of resale homes on the market and record prices. Economists worry many first-time homebuyers are getting priced out of the market. The erosion in affordability is one reason the pace of home sales has been easing in recent months.

At Sivage Homes in Albuquerque, N.M., the builder's efforts to keep its construction on schedule are undercut almost daily by delays for everything from plumbing fixtures and windows, to bathtubs and appliances.

"Nowadays, we literally could be sitting waiting 30 days, maybe even 60, for one thing or another," said CEO Mike Sivage. "I've been doing this since 1986 and I have to say I've never seen anything like this before."

The pandemic set the stage for higher prices and shortages of construction products. Factories went idle temporarily and are now trying to catch up on production at the same time that demand has intensified due to an unexpectedly hot housing market and a surge in home remodeling.

Lumber futures jumped to an all-time high $1,670 per thousand board feet in May. They've since dropped to $634, about 10% higher than a year ago. Still, wholesale prices for a category of homebuilding components that includes windows, roofing tiles, doors and steel, increased 22% over the last 12 months, according to an analysis of Labor Department data conducted by the National Association of Home Builders. Before 2020, it was typical for such aggregate prices to rise a little over 1% annually.

Those conditions are likely to persist. Robert Dietz, chief economist at the NAHB, said he's heard from builders that "there are ongoing challenges, and in some cases growing challenges, with flooring, other kinds of building materials."

Meanwhile, any savings on lumber have yet to filter down to many builders, including Thomas James Homes, which operates in California, Washington state and Colorado.

"The price we're paying for lumber today is the same price we were paying 90 or 120 ago," said Jon Tattersall, the builder's president, who noted his company's overall building costs have increased about 30% since November.

Homebuyers shouldn't expect to see any discounts from falling lumber prices, either, because builders set their prices based largely on overall demand in the housing market.

A signed contract for a home yet to be built typically includes an allowance for unexpected construction costs, but generally builders will have to eat big increases and then pass them on to the next buyer.

"On our future ones, those are the ones we're having to raise the costs on," Tattersall said.

Higher building materials prices aren't the only factor driving up builders' costs. A chronic shortage of skilled construction workers has worsened during the pandemic, forcing builders to factor in higher labor costs.

Inflation is being felt across the economy. Consumer prices rose 5.3% in August from the same month a year ago. At the producer level, inflation jumped an even steeper 8.3%, the biggest annual gain on record.

The Federal Reserve has said it believes the surge in inflation will be temporary. For now, though, the rise in building materials costs and the lingering supply crunch are making everything from houses and apartments to commercial buildings more expensive.

To manage, many builders are slowing the rollout of new homes. Zonda Economics, a real estate data tracker, estimates some 85% of builders are intentionally limiting their sales.

"They're trying to make sure they have the land ready, the workers ready and the materials ready to be able to actually delver the homes that they've sold," said Ali Wolf, Zonda's chief economist.

Even with inflation, builders are benefiting from the hottest housing market in years. Demand for new homes has strengthened, while the number of previously occupied U.S. homes up for sale has fallen to historic lows, pushing prices higher.

The median price of a new home sold in July climbed 18.4% from a year earlier to $390,500, an all-time high, according to the Commerce Department. For existing homes, the median price jumped 17.8% in July to $359,900, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Builders typically hire contractors who handle framing, electrical, plumbing and other facets of construction. As these firms have faced higher costs to secure skilled labor or source the materials they need to do their job, they've had to pass those increases onto builders.

Tri Pointe Homes, which builds homes in 10 states, including California, Texas and Maryland, has faced higher labor costs. It's been working through those increases, at times moving beyond its core group of contractors, said CEO Doug Bauer.

One way Tri Pointe and other builders are dealing with product delays is to ask contractors to install temporary fixtures and appliances, for example, so that buyers can move in as quickly as possible.

"Then, as soon as the original item becomes available, we are returning to install it," Bauer said.

To stay ahead of rising costs, Tri Pointe has raised its home prices and reduced buyer incentives when necessary. Even so, the builder has raised its guidance on the number of homes it expects to deliver this year from 6,000 to 6,300.

While the big, publicly traded builders have the means to buy building materials and warehouse them until needed, smaller builders that make up the majority of the industry are at the mercy of suppliers.

Sivage, whose company builds homes priced from $250,000 to $1 million, used to be able to lock in the price of lumber with suppliers a year in advance. That changed in recent years as demand for lumber increased. Now, Sivage doesn't know what it will cost him until it's ready for delivery.

"We've had to grin and bear it," he said.

Drought Tests Centuries-Old Water Traditions In New Mexico - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

At the edge of a sandstone outcropping, Teresa Leger Fernández looks out on the Rio Chama. The river tracks a diverse landscape from the southern edge of the Rocky Mountains through rugged basalt hillsides, layers of volcanic tuff, and the red and yellow cliffs made famous by painter Georgia O'Keeffe. 

Here marks the genesis of New Mexico's centuries-old tradition of sharing water through irrigation systems known as acequias.

It's also one of the many spots in the arid West facing more pressure as drought stretches into another decade and climate change piles on with warmer temperatures.

Once an acequia commissioner and now a U.S. congresswoman, Leger Fernández knows how hard it is to tell farmers they won't get all the water they need — or maybe none at all.

She talks about the annual limpia, or cleaning of acequias in preparation for planting season.

"There was always a sense of accomplishment but now what we're witnessing is we can't do it all the time anymore because we don't have the water," she said during a tour with acequia officials. "And what you all are facing is not of your making, right? But you are having to work through the struggle of making whatever water is available work for everybody in the community."

Some earthen canals didn't get a drop of water this year, another example of parched Western conditions. Like many parts of the world, the region has become warmer and drier over the last 30 years, mainly due to rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases resulting from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas development and transportation.

Boat docks are high and dry at reservoirs around New Mexico, and Lake Powell along the Utah-Arizona line has hit a record low this year. A key Northern California reservoir that helps water a quarter of U.S. crops is shrinking.

For mayordomos — those who oversee acequias and ensure equitable water distribution — it has become a scramble.

Less snow falls, and warmer temperatures melt it sooner. Dry soil soaks up runoff before it reaches streams and rivers that feed acequias. 

Paula Garcia, New Mexico Acequia Association executive director, shuns the phrase "new normal" because she said that implies stability in weather patterns the community's ditches rely on.

"We're trying to be quick on our feet and adapt as much as we can, but it tests what we can really call resiliency," she said, standing in shade at Santa Cruz Farm and Greenhouses in Espanola, where rows of chile, corn and blackberries bake in the sun. "We think we're resilient, but resilient to what point? We're bumping up against what those tipping points are."

Federal water management policies have complicated matters as needs of cities and other users overshadow these Hispanic and Indigenous communities.

Their traditions are rooted in Moorish ingenuity first brought to Europe and then to North America via Spanish settlers. Those water-sharing ideas were blended with already sophisticated irrigation culture developed by Indigenous communities in what is now the southwestern U.S. 

What developed were little slices of paradise, with gardens and orchards that have sustained communities for generations.

Roughly 640 New Mexico acequias still provide water to thousands of acres of farmland.

Darel Madrid, Rio Chama Acequia Association president, didn't grow a garden this year. He wanted to lead by example. 

"It's going to get worse before it gets better," said Madrid, who would love nothing more than to grow watermelons again. "As long as we have reduced snowpacks and warmer springs, there's going to be a certain point where we're going to only be able to rely solely on rainwater and the monsoon season. That's going to be bad."

After back-to-back record dry summer rainy seasons, some Southwest areas enjoyed above average rain this year. But maps are still bleak, with nearly 99% of the West dealing with some form of drought. 

Madrid said some parciantes — or acequia members — grow crops to supply regional farm-to-table programs and farmers markets. Others do it to subsidize income in a region where many live close to poverty.

When water-sharing compacts involving some of New Mexico's largest cities were first negotiated decades ago, Madrid said communities along Rio Chama were left out. Now, as supplies are scarce, acequias around Abiquiu have been forced to seek state funding to buy water from downstream users. If none is available, they go without. 

As long as Rio Chama flows above 140 cubic feet per second, water can be diverted by acequias. The flow usually nosedives in May, and rationing starts when it drops below 50 cfs. Aside from isolated spikes from storm runoff, the flow is now less than half that.

Madrid said acequias would benefit from permanent water storage in an upstream reservoir, which would need federal approval. 

"The bottom line is we want to be self-sufficient," he said. "We want to be able to take care of ourselves."

Since 2017, more than $5.3 million has been funneled to dozens of community irrigation projects through New Mexico's Interstate Stream Commission. Another $15 million in state capital funds have been earmarked for acequia projects since 2018.

Madrid said state and federal officials are starting to take notice as more acequias organize and speak out.

Leger Fernández noted that acequias represent some of the earliest forms of government that predate the U.S.

"What we're trying to do now is preserve something that the parciantes and the mayordomos and commissioners have been able to do for 400 years," she told the group gathered along Rio Chama.

Part of that means reimagining acequias without giving up the sense of community they command.

At Santa Cruz Farm, owner Don Bustos is growing crops in greenhouses in fall and winter when less water is needed and evaporation is reduced, he said.

In Taos, acequia leaders have bumped up annual cleaning to the fall so they don't miss out on early runoff.

Madrid recalls a futuristic comic book storyline where an elaborate system of pipes and ration cards are used to control water. He's hopeful that will never come to pass, but he and others acknowledged that acequias need upgrades to last another 400 years.

Garcia said she believes farmers, masters of soil health and seed savers always will be in New Mexico's rural valley, they'll just have to innovate.

"There's still a lot of adaptations that we haven't touched yet. We're just barely seeing the beginning of it now," she said. "We're dealing with centuries-old ditches and in another century they might look very different, but I do think we're still going to be here."

Acequias have overcome periodic environmental crises, rivalries among water users and profound historical changes, Spanish historian and anthropologist Luis Pablo Martínez Sanmartín noted in a 2020 research report. He said survival has hinged on a common-good design based on cooperation, respect, equity, transparency and negotiation.

Leger Fernández kept coming back to ideas of community and mutual respect as she walked through rows of blackberries at Bustos' farm, never missing a chance to pick another berry. She also talked about gathering capulin — or chokecherries — and roasting blue corn to make atole — a traditional beverage — to share during the holidays.

"To me, acequias are the most perfect symbol of what we should be about: a community," she said.

New Mexico Ethics Commission Dismiss Complaint Against Legislator - Associated Press

The New Mexico Ethics Commission has dismissed a complaint against a state lawmaker that accused him of violating the Governmental Conduct Act.

In its ruling, the commission said the allegations of misconduct lacked factual support.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas filed the complaint in July after state Rep. Daymon Ely asked the state Auditor's Office to investigate Balderas' handling of a civil case against a solar company.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that the case resulted in a roughly $1.9 million settlement but didn't compensate many customers. 

The newspaper also says Ely, a Democrat who represents Corrales, criticized Balderas for his use of outside counsel and for allowing the solar company to seal records in the case. 

Balderas argued Ely violated the Governmental Conduct Act by "attempting to interfere with a law enforcement prosecution" and that Ely misused his legislative authority by threatening to use his position to "constrict the authority of the Attorney General in similarly situated cases."

Judge's Refusal To Block Vaccination Requirement Appealed - Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

The lawyer for two women who challenged New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's order requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for certain workers is appealing a judge's denial of their request for an injunction blocking the mandate.

Attorney A. Blair Dunn filed a notice of appeal with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday, a day after U.S. District Judge Martha Vazquez upheld Lujan Grisham's authority to impose a vaccine mandate in a public health order to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Dunn told the Santa Fe New Mexican that he believes his clients have chance of eventually winning, particularly if the case reaches the U.S. Supreme Court.

The governor's order requires health care employees, teachers and other "high risk" workers to be immunized unless they qualify for a medical or religious exemption. The lawsuit also contested the governor's order requiring that people 12 and older to be vaccinated before attending the New Mexico State Fair.

The women sought an injunction to block the vaccine requirements from being enforced.

Vazquez's ruled that arguments claiming the vaccine is unreliable and the mandate infringes on personal liberty did not outweigh the state having to take measures to protect public health.

Police Detain Possible Suspect In Albuquerque Homicide Case - Associated Press

A possible suspect has been detained in a homicide case Sunday in Albuquerque, police said.

They said officers responded to a call of a shooting about 10 a.m. When officers arrived, they reported finding a man dead in an intersection. 

Homicide detectives were investigating the scene.

Police said they have identified a suspect, but were not immediately releasing any details.

North Dakota Oil Production Slips To No. 3 Behind New Mexico - Associated Press

North Dakota regulators say the state has officially lost its status as the nation's second-biggest oil producer to New Mexico.

North Dakota produced just over 1 million barrels of oil per day in July, the most recent month for which data is available from the state Oil and Gas Division. The July production marks a 56,000-barrel-per-day or 5% drop from June, the Bismarck Tribune reported.

Texas continues to lead the nation in oil production. The Permian Basin spans parts of New Mexico and Texas, and it's arguably the biggest competition for North Dakota's Bakken oil patch. The southern oil-producing region is closer to major refineries and export terminals, and it attracts significant drilling and investment within the oil and gas industry.

North Dakota ranked second, behind Texas, in oil production for nine years. It lost that status to New Mexico in July. The two states had been neck and neck for several months.

New Mexico had 82 rigs drilling Friday, far more than the 27 operating in North Dakota. 

Aside from bragging rights, a state's position holds other implications. Rankings can affect an oil company's ability to find investors to fund a project in a state, North Dakota regulators have said. 

North Dakota became the nation's second-biggest oil producer early in the Bakken oil boom as horizontal drilling and fracking technology sent the state's oil production skyrocketing. It surpassed Alaska to take second place in 2012.

Pandemic Safety Plays Role In New Mexico Films - By Adrian Gomez Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico's film industry has come roaring back to life this year and it has so far managed to avoid significant COVID-19 outbreaks.

Many credit the stringent protocols put in place by the industry, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

Film and TV productions in New Mexico got the green light to resume in September 2020.

According to the New Mexico Film Office, from Sept. 1, 2020, through Sept. 1, 2021, there have been 176,598 COVID tests administered throughout the various productions. Of those, 183 were positive.

"This is a testament to the film industry as they want to mitigate and remain safe," said Amber Dodson, New Mexico Film Office director. "There have been less than eight productions that have paused for their own safety during the last year."

As of Aug. 31, there were 18 film and 24 TV productions in various phases currently in the state.

When the film industry paused in March 2020, leaders spent months developing protocols that would be put in place when it resumed.

In June 2020, the White Paper was created by a Task Force of the Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee describing health and safety guidelines to resume film and TV production.

It outlines protective measures to be used, including regular screening, diagnostic testing, use of personal protective equipment, cleaning and disinfecting work sites and appropriate response should an employee contract COVID-19 or be exposed to it.

The New Mexico Film Office also created Back2One, which promotes increasingly safe and healthy work practices and workplaces for the film/TV community, specifically in regard to the spread of infectious diseases. It also ushers in a smart and safe return to production and help ensure sustained success.

Dodson said one example of a protocol put in place for a New Mexico production is that each production has to give the Film Office its test results and if someone tests positive, the state has to be notified within four hours.

Heather Shreckengost is a health and safety manager for Tareco S/4 and works daily to ensure that productions are following the rules.

"The studios are the ones who write and develop the protocols," Shreckengost said. "They do vary by production. My main role is to ensure that all on set are wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) properly."

Being on set has changed in the last year.

When the cameras are rolling, masks don't have to be worn, Shreckengost explains.

"Once filming stops, the masks have to come back on," she said. "Everyone also has to maintain a safe distance of at least 6 feet. It can be difficult with small shooting locations, but that's when size limitations are put into effect."

Shreckengost's job varies from day to day, though the one constant is ensuring everyone's safety on set.

"I have to make sure we have enough PPE, as well as training anyone on set with how to properly wear a mask," she said. "I order specialty items such as commercial grade air purifiers. As we move locations, the logistics have to be done in advance before anyone starts filming."

Dodson said COVID-19 has changed the way productions operate.

She said most days are shorter because testing takes up more time.

"I've actually heard from producers that because of COVID, it's made for longer production schedules," Dodson said. "Each production is hiring extra staff. Productions are shooting for more days."

Dodson also credits the film industry's ability to pivot quickly for its success in having a low transmission rate.

"Productions are nimble and efficient," Dodson said. "It serves each production well to be as safe and as stringent as possible. They don't want to miss a single moment of their time because it costs money to shut down a production."

Shreckengost also keeps track of the COVID variants that pop up in the state.

"We do adjust to keep everyone safe," she said. "We have to treat everyone as if they are an exposure risk. If we get shut down, it costs productions a lot of money. Then there's the health aspect of it too. It helps to have a team that is committed to implement and execute the protocols."

Haitians On Texas Border Undeterred By Us Plan To Expel Them - By Juan A. Lozano, Eric Gay And Elliot Spagat Associated Press

Haitian migrants seeking to escape poverty, hunger and a feeling of hopelessness in their home country said they will not be deterred by U.S. plans to speedily send them back, as thousands of people remained encamped on the Texas border Saturday after crossing from Mexico. 

Scores of people waded back and forth across the Rio Grande on Saturday afternoon, re-entering Mexico to purchase water, food and diapers in Ciudad Acuña before returning to the Texas encampment under and near a bridge in the border city of Del Rio. 

Junior Jean, a 32-year-old man from Haiti, watched as people cautiously carried cases of water or bags of food through the knee-high river water. Jean said he lived on the streets in Chile the past four years, resigned to searching for food in garbage cans. 

"We are all looking for a better life," he said.

The Department of Homeland Security said Saturday that it moved about 2,000 of the migrants from the camp to other locations Friday for processing and possible removal from the U.S. Its statement also said it would have 400 agents and officers in the area by Monday morning and would send more if necessary.

The announcement marked a swift response to the sudden arrival of Haitians in Del Rio, a Texas city of about 35,000 people roughly 145 miles (230 kilometers) west of San Antonio. It sits on a relatively remote stretch of border that lacks capacity to hold and process such large numbers of people.

A U.S. official told The Associated Press on Friday that the U.S would likely fly the migrants out of the country on five to eight flights a day, starting Sunday, while another official expected no more than two a day and said everyone would be tested for COVID-19. The first official said operational capacity and Haiti's willingness to accept flights would determine how many flights there would be. Both officials were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Told of the U.S. plans Saturday, several migrants said they still intended to remain in the encampment and seek asylum. Some spoke of the most recent devastating earthquake in Haiti and the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, saying they were afraid to return to a country that seems more unstable than when they left.

"In Haiti, there is no security," said Fabricio Jean, a 38-year-old Haitian who arrived with his wife and two daughters. "The country is in a political crisis."

Haitians have been migrating to the U.S. in large numbers from South America for several years, many having left their Caribbean nation after a devastating 2010 earthquake. After jobs dried up from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, many made the dangerous trek by foot, bus and car to the U.S. border, including through the infamous Darien Gap, a Panamanian jungle.

Jorge Luis Mora Castillo, a 48-year-old from Cuba, said he arrived Saturday in Acuna and also planned to cross into the U.S. Castillo said his family paid smugglers $12,000 to take him, his wife and their son out of Paraguay, a South American nation where they had lived for four years. 

Told of the U.S. message discouraging migrants, Castillo said he wouldn't change his mind. 

"Because to go back to Cuba is to die," he said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection closed off vehicle and pedestrian traffic in both directions Friday at the only border crossing between Del Rio and Ciudad Acuña "to respond to urgent safety and security needs" and it remained closed Saturday. Travelers were being directed indefinitely to a crossing in Eagle Pass, roughly 55 miles (90 kilometers) away.

Crowd estimates varied, but Del Rio Mayor Bruno Lozano said Saturday evening there were 14,534 immigrants at the camp under the bridge. Migrants pitched tents and built makeshift shelters from giant reeds known as carrizo cane. Many bathed and washed clothing in the river.

It is unclear how such a large number amassed so quickly, though many Haitians have been assembling in camps on the Mexican side of the border to wait while deciding whether to attempt entry into the U.S. 

The number of Haitian arrivals began to reach unsustainable levels for the Border Patrol in Del Rio about 2 ½ weeks ago, prompting the agency's acting sector chief, Robert Garcia, to ask headquarters for help, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. 

Since then, the agency has transferred Haitians in buses and vans to other Border Patrol facilities in Texas, specifically El Paso, Laredo and Rio Grande Valley. They are mostly processed outside of the pandemic-related authority, meaning they can claim asylum and remain in the U.S. while their claims are considered. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement makes custody decision but families can generally not be held more than 20 days under court order.

Homeland Security's plan announced Saturday signals a shift to use of pandemic-related authority for immediate expulsion to Haiti without an opportunity to claim asylum, the official said.

The flight plan, while potentially massive in scale, hinges on how Haitians respond. They might have to decide whether to stay put at the risk of being sent back to an impoverished homeland wracked by poverty and political instability or return to Mexico. Unaccompanied children are exempt from fast-track expulsions. 

DHS said, "our borders are not open, and people should not make the dangerous journey."

"Individuals and families are subject to border restrictions, including expulsion," the agency wrote. "Irregular migration poses a significant threat to the health and welfare of border communities and to the lives of migrants themselves, and should not be attempted."

U.S. authorities are being severely tested after Democratic President Joe Biden quickly dismantled Trump administration policies that Biden considered cruel or inhumane, most notably one requiring asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while waiting for U.S. immigration court hearings.

A pandemic-related order to immediately expel migrants without giving them the opportunity to seek asylum that was introduced in March 2020 remains in effect, but unaccompanied children and many families have been exempt. During his first month in office, Biden chose to exempt children traveling alone on humanitarian grounds.

Nicole Phillips, legal director for advocacy group Haitian Bridge Alliance, said Saturday that the U.S. government should process migrants and allow them to apply for asylum, not rush to expel them.

"It really is a humanitarian crisis," Phillips said. "There needs to be a lot of help there now."

Mexico's immigration agency said in a statement Saturday that Mexico has opened a "permanent dialogue" with Haitian government representatives "to address the situation of irregular migratory flows during their entry and transit through Mexico, as well as their assisted return."

The agency didn't specify if it was referring to the Haitians in Ciudad Acuña or to the thousands of others in Tapachula, at the Guatemalan border, and the agency didn't immediately reply to a request for further details. 

In August, U.S. authorities stopped migrants nearly 209,000 times at the border, which was close to a 20-year high even though many of the stops involved repeat crossers because there are no legal consequences for being expelled under the pandemic authority.

Navajo Nation Reports 18 More COVID-19 Cases, But No Deaths - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Sunday reported 18 more COVID-19 cases, but no deaths for the second time in the past three days.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's totals to 33,531 confirmed COVID-19 cases from the virus since the pandemic began more than a year ago. The death toll remained at 1,429.

The tribe had reported 54 more cases and two deaths Thursday, 55 cases with no deaths on Friday and 63 cases with one death on Saturday.

Navajo officials are urging people to get vaccinated, wear masks while in public and minimize their travel. 

Officials said all Navajo Nation executive branch employees will need to be fully vaccinated against the virus by the end of September or submit to regular testing.

The new rules apply to full, part-time and temporary employees, including those working for tribal enterprises like utilities, shopping centers and casinos. 

Any worker who does not show proof of vaccination by Sept. 29 must be tested every two weeks or face discipline.

The tribe's reservation is the country's largest at 27,000 square miles and it covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Courthouse Canine Starts New Job In Santa Fe - By Robert Nott Santa Fe New Mexican

The new judge you may see in the First Judicial District courthouse downtown is about 2 feet tall, weighs less than 70 pounds and has expressive, loving eyes.

He also has four legs and a tail, which he lightly wags in a manner that says, "I'm here to help."

Judge is a 3-year-old yellow Lab and the first courthouse facility dog to be employed by District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies' office in a collaborative effort with Assistance Dogs of the West.

Yes, Judge is his real name, and neither he nor his role is a gimmick.

An assistance dog who underwent nearly two years of training, Judge has a serious job: His presence is meant to provide a sense of calm, support and love for adults and children who are victims or witnesses of traumatic and violent crimes as their cases move through the court system.

"It is the compassionate way of helping them go through this," Aimee Brown, a trainer for Assistance Dogs of the West in Santa Fe, said of the courthouse facility dog program, one gaining popularity around the country.

The dogs, who often sit next to victims or witnesses as they testify in court, can give a child or adult who feels alone on the stand a sense of security, Brown told The Santa Fe New Mexican.

"You have a buddy on the stand who is not judgmental," Brown said of the dogs. "They're there for you."

Long an organization that has trained dogs to give emotional and physical support for clients with disabilities, Assistance Dogs of the West began placing dogs in judicial districts in New Mexico, Arizona and California in 2010.

The organization also has placed dogs with police and fire departments to provide emotional, mental and physical support to vulnerable victims and others involved in stressful situations and cases.

To date, Assistance Dogs has trained and placed 35 dogs, including Judge, in courtrooms around New Mexico, said Linda Milanesi, CEO and president of the nonprofit. Her team puts incoming dogs in the program through temperament tests to see what job would best fit them.

A dog best suited to the job Judge earned must be patient and calm, plus display a connection to children and vulnerable people.

Biddability is another talent such dogs must display — the ability to work for others than just the trainer, so a courtroom handler like Irene Melendez, a victim advocate who handles Judge for the District Attorney's Office, can guide Judge through the necessary paces in the courtroom environment.

Melendez went through weeks of training with Brown and Judge, learning the many commands — 90 in all — needed for the job. She said Judge will start working in courtrooms Monday.

Last week, he went through his first "meet and greet" with a child and her mother involved in an upcoming case.

The young girl got to pet and talk with Judge for about 45 minutes, she said.

"He has to build a relationship with them without me being there," Melendez said of Judge.

If a judge allows it, Judge can sit in the witness box with a victim or witness who may be frightened — easing their anxiety as dogs can do when someone is simply petting them, Melendez said.

Otherwise, Judge will sit with Melendez within view of the witness.

Milanesi said dogs like Judge may work with a particular victim or witness for years, accompanying them through the early stages of collecting forensic evidence to pretrial interviews to the actual trial period.

The dog's presence can help those victims and witnesses open up and talk about what they have experienced, Milanesi said.

Carmack-Altwies wrote in an email Friday that her office's goal is to "center the safety of victims and witnesses, including emotional safety, and Judge is an important piece of that commitment. It is my hope that this is only the beginning of the program and that we will be able to build an even more robust system of support."

Her office has agreed to abide by the Assistance Dogs of the West Dog's Bill of Rights. That bill includes a promise to be aware of the dog's perception of its work and the world, take action to reduce the dog's stress, protect it from overwork, and find ways to help it relax and exercise.

Judge lives with Melendez and her other dog, Athena, in Albuquerque. He likes to tug, chew on a stuffed piglet and fetch balls when he is not working, she said.

Melendez, who said she responded to Carmack-Altwies' call for staff members to take part in the courthouse dog program, said Judge is well suited to his new job.

"He's very mellow, very calm," she said.

She said no matter how you look at it, he's bound to provide support in an environment that can be intimidating to some.

"A dog is a person's best friend, whether you are a man, a woman or a child," she said as Judge curled up under her legs, as he is trained to do with witnesses and victims in the courtroom.

Incidentally, the dog earned the name Judge long before he was headed into training for this job. Milanesi said his breeder named the pup Judge early on because "he was such a quiet puppy. He was sober as a judge."

New Mexico State Holds Off South Carolina State Rally, 43-35 - Associated Press

Dino Maldonado threw for three touchdowns and Juwaun Price ran for two more as New Mexico State rolled to a 30-point lead in the third quarter, then held off a late rally to beat South Carolina State 43-35 on Saturday night.

Price ran 14 yards for the game's first touchdown, then added an eight-yard run to start the second quarter to give the Aggies a 22-0 lead. Maldonado threw touchdown passes of 37 and 41 yards in the second quarter to put New Mexico State up 36-13 at intermission, then added his third scoring pass early in the third quarter to make it 43-13.

Corey Fields Jr. threw four touchdown passes to bring the Bulldogs (0-3) back, connecting on 30 of 47 pass attempts for 352 yards, but he was intercepted three times. Will Vereen had nine catches for 118 yards. 

Maldonado finished with 321 yards on 24-of-32 passing. Price finished with 62 yards on 13 carries. 

The win snapped a three-game losing streak to start the season for New Mexico State, which lost to UTEP, San Diego State and New Mexico.