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WED: New Mexico legislature approves payments to offset inflation, US nuclear agency sued over public records requests, + More

Inflation Rebates-New Mexico
Morgan Lee/AP
Democratic state Rep. Christine Chandler, of Los Alamos, with microphone, fields questions from legislators in the New Mexico House of Representatives in Santa Fe, N.M., on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, about a bill that would provide tax rebates and payments to offset the rising consumer prices. The House voted 51-13 to endorse the legislation that was cosponsored by Chandler and Democratic colleagues. More than a dozen states are considering or implementing payouts to the public in response to raging inflation and budget surpluses. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

New Mexico legislature approves payments to offset inflation - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico will provide new payments totaling $500 for individual adults or $1,000 per household to offset steep prices for fuel and raging inflation, under a bill approved by the state Legislature.

A decisive 35-1 Senate vote sent the Democratic-sponsored bill for consideration to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who supports the initiative. The House voted 51-13 with broad support from Democrats and some Republicans.

In all, the aid package would distribute nearly $700 million to adult residents of all income levels, including elderly people with little or no income who don't ordinarily file taxes and undocumented immigrants.

More than a dozen states are considering or implementing payouts to the public in response to raging inflation and budget surpluses, with some tax reductions also under consideration. Gas prices have surged to record highs in the U.S. amid the war in Ukraine and a ban on imports of Russian oil.

Fuel prices are taking a bite out household finances at the same time that New Mexico state government is experiencing a financial windfall linked to record-setting oil production in the Permian Basin. New Mexico last year surpassed North Dakota to become the No. 2 oil producer in the nation behind Texas.

Supporters of the proposed payments including the governor say it is incumbent on the state to help people experiencing financial hardship due to inflation.

Some Republicans legislators warned that rebates might only stoke inflation further. They also questioned the timing ahead of the November general election as Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, seeks a second term in office.

Republican state Rep. Randal Crowder of Clovis said the payments could backfire in the long run.

"It's going to be a good boost, but it's going to add to inflation," Crowder said. "It's going to put more pressure and pain on people who are not going to be able to deal with it. ... We're pouring gas on a roaring fire."

Democratic Rep. Christine Chandler of Los Alamos, cosponsor of the rebate plan, says state payments would be staggered across several months to avoid predatory price hikes.

Voters aren't necessarily swayed by tax rebates, said Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf.

"I really don't think that the voters are going to decide whether or not someone should be elected governor on the basis of a tax rebate," said Egolf, who is not seek reelection. "We're going to make the right decision for the people of the state given the economic circumstances."

Democratic state Rep. D. Wanda Johnson, a Navajo tribal member from Rehoboth, endorsed the inflation payments by invoking the vast driving distances between communities on the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico – and the expense of abrupt changes in fuel prices.

"Those are a lot of miles," she said. "The price tag begins to add up."

Most New Mexico taxpayers already were due to receive a separate $250 rebate from the state in July, with the exclusion of upper-income individuals. Legislators in February approved an annual per-child tax credits of between $25 and $175 depending on household income.

The new initiative sets aside $20 million in payments on a first-come, first-serve basis for people who don't file tax returns because they don't make enough money. That provision is aimed largely at the elderly, but is open to all adults who can demonstrate residency.

State tax officials noted that the proposed tax rebates would be available not only to U.S. citizens but also undocumented immigrants who file taxes using a substitute tax identification number from the IRS.

Legislators also rebooted a vetoed bill containing $50 million in pet projects ranging from food banks to uranium mine cleanup and domestic violence shelters. Lujan Grisham has called for greater transparency in spending requests by legislators.

US nuclear agency sued over public records requests - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A watchdog group is suing the National Nuclear Security Administration over its failure to release public records related to the U.S. government's plans to manufacture key components for the nation's nuclear arsenal.

The complaint filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., covers more than a dozen records requests made since 2017 by the Los Alamos Study Group. The nonprofit is seeking more transparency about what it calls one the largest warhead-related programs since the end of the Cold War.

The lawsuit alleges that the agency has a policy and pattern of violating the Freedom of Information Act in a way that "shields its activities and multibillion-dollar plans from public scrutiny and congressional oversight."

The group believes most of the money authorized for building and operating facilities at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to manufacture plutonium cores for use in nuclear weapons is being wasted.

"What, after all, is NNSA hiding? Why doesn't NNSA want to discuss its plans openly, legally redacted as necessary?" asked Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group.

The National Nuclear Security Administration did not immediately respond Wednesday to questions about the complaint or the records requests seeking information on cost overruns, delays and site expansion plans.

Officials for years have pushed for plutonium core production to resume, saying the U.S. needs to ensure the stability and reliance of its nuclear arsenal. The National Nuclear Security Administration has said most of the cores in the stockpile were produced in the 1970s and 1980s.

With the modernization project comes more jobs and billions of federal dollars to upgrade buildings and construct new facilities. Members of New Mexico's congressional delegation are supportive, but watchdog groups have concerns.

The NNSA is required by law to manufacture no fewer than 80 cores by 2030. While testifying before congressional committees, top officials have acknowledged over the past year that the deadline will likely get missed as construction of the factory in South Carolina is behind schedule by as many as five years and Los Alamos won't be able to make up the difference.

According to the lawsuit, the records requests involve officials' public testimony to Congress on plans to increase production, the hiring of new workers and budget estimates. The information sought also pertains to the need to have the factories running around the clock to meet the federal government's goals.

The lawsuit states that the NNSA has yet to release many of the main planning documents, official studies or reports that the Los Alamos Study Group says are needed to conduct policy analysis, participate in comment opportunities, or otherwise monitor the agency's activities.

Mello said the plutonium core plans are competing with other NNSA programs for key personnel, equipment, funding and management attention.

"We want a principled, truthful discussion about this program right now — in public and in Congress — before more billions are squandered, more workers are hurt and the environment is damaged further," Mello said. "For that to happen, NNSA has to reveal its plans as the law requires."

Wind energy company kills 150 eagles in US, pleads guilty - By Matthew Brown Associated Press

A wind energy company was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay more than $8 million in fines and restitution after at least 150 eagles were killed over the past decade at its wind farms in eight states, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

NextEra Energy subsidiary ESI Energy pleaded guilty to three counts of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act during a Tuesday court appearance in Cheyenne, Wyoming. It was charged criminally in the deaths of nine eagles at three of its wind farms in Wyoming and New Mexico.

In addition to those deaths, ESI acknowledged the deaths of golden and bald eagles at 50 wind farms affiliated with ESI and NextEra since 2012. The birds died in eight states, prosecutors said: Wyoming, California, New Mexico, North Dakota, Colorado, Michigan, Arizona and Illinois.

The birds are killed when they fly into the blades of wind turbines. Some ESI turbines killed multiple eagles and because the carcasses are not always found, officials said the number killed was likely higher than the 150 birds cited by prosecutors in court documents.

NextEra's plea deal comes amid a push by President Joe Biden for more renewable energy from wind, solar and other sources to help reduce climate changing emissions. It also follows a renewed commitment by federal wildlife officials under Biden to enforce protections for eagles and other birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, after criminal prosecutions were halted under former President Donald Trump.

It's illegal to kill or harm eagles under federal law.

The bald eagle — the U.S. national symbol — was removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2007, following a dramatic recovery from widespread decimation due to harmful pesticides and other problems. Wildlife officials say more than 300,000 bald eagles now occupy the U.S., not including Alaska.

Golden eagles have not fared as well, with populations considered stable but under pressure from wind farms, collisions with vehicles, illegal shootings and poisoning from lead ammunition. There are an estimated 31,800 golden eagles in the Western U.S., according to a study released last week by leading eagle researchers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other entities.

More than 2,000 golden eagles are killed annually due to human causes, or about 60% of all deaths, the researchers said. The study concluded that golden eagle deaths "will likely increase in the future" because of wind energy development and other human activities.

Companies historically have been able to avoid prosecution under the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty if they take steps to avoid bird deaths and seek permits for those that occur. ESI did not seek such a permit, authorities said.

The company was warned prior to building the wind farms in New Mexico and Wyoming that they would kill birds, but it proceeded anyway and at times ignored advice from federal wildlife officials about how to minimize the deaths, according to court documents.

"For more than a decade, ESI has violated (wildlife) laws, taking eagles without obtaining or even seeking the necessary permit," said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division in a statement.

ESI agreed under a plea deal to spend up to $27 million during its five-year probationary period on measures to prevent future eagle deaths. That includes shutting down turbines at times when eagles are more likely to be present.

Despite those measures, wildlife officials anticipate that some eagles still could die. When that happens, the company will pay $29,623 per dead eagle, under the agreement.

NextEra President Rebecca Kujawa said collisions of birds with wind turbines are unavoidable accidents that should not be criminalized. She said the Juno Beach, Florida-based company —which bills itself as the world's largest utility company by market value — is committed to reducing damage to wildlife from its projects.

"We disagree with the government's underlying enforcement activity," Kujawa said in a statement. "Building any structure, driving any vehicle, or flying any airplane carries with it a possibility that accidental eagle and other bird collisions may occur."

First pope, now US churches face boarding-school reckoning - By Peter Smith Associated Press

As Native Americans cautiously welcome Pope Francis' historic apology for abuses at Catholic-run boarding schools for Indigenous children in Canada, U.S. churches are bracing for an unprecedented reckoning with their own legacies of operating such schools.

Church schools are likely to feature prominently in a report from the U.S. Department of the Interior, led by the first-ever Native American cabinet secretary, Deb Haaland, due to be released later this month. The report, prompted by last year's discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites in Canada, will focus on the loss of life and the enduring traumas the U.S. system inflicted on Indigenous children from the 19th to mid-20th centuries.

From Episcopalians to Quakers to Catholic dioceses in Oklahoma, faith groups have either started or intensified efforts in the past year to research and atone for their prior roles in the boarding school system, which Native children were forced to attend — cutting them off from their families, tribes and traditions.

While the pontiff's April 1 apology was addressed to Indigenous groups from Canada, people were listening south of the border.

"An apology is the best way to start any conversation," said Roy Callison, a Catholic deacon and Cherokee Nation member helping coordinate the Oklahoma Catholic Native Schools Project, which includes listening sessions for those affected by the boarding school legacy. "That's the first step to trying to get healing."

In his meeting with Canada's Indigenous delegations, Francis asked forgiveness "for the role that a number of Catholics ... had in all these things that wounded you, in the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values."

Francis "did something really important, which is name the importance of being indignant at this history," said Maka Black Elk, executive director of truth and healing for Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

That history "is shameful, and it is not something we should accept," said Black Elk, who is Oglala Lakota.

Red Cloud, affiliated with the Catholic Jesuit order, was for generations a boarding school for Lakota children. It's now a day school incorporating Lakota leadership, language and traditions. Black Elk is guiding a reckoning process that includes archival research and hearing the stories of former students.

Canada underwent a much-publicized Truth and Reconciliation process in recent years. The issue gained unprecedented attention last year after a researcher using ground-penetrating radar reported finding about 200 unmarked probable burial sites at a former school in British Columbia.

That discovery, followed by others across Canada, prompted Haaland to commission her department's report.

"This history in the United States has not been addressed in the same way it has been addressed in Canada," Black Elk said. The Interior report "will be an important first step about the work that needs to happen in this country."

Church leaders are getting ready. The report "will likely bring to light some very troubling information," said a letter circulated last fall to members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from two colleagues who chaired committees related to the issue. The letter urged bishops to build relationships with local Indigenous communities and engage "in a real and honest dialogue about reactions to the report and what steps are needed to go forward together."

Conditions varied at boarding schools in the United States, with some described as unsafe, unsanitary and scenes of physical or sexual abuse. Other former students recall their school years as positive times of learning, friendship and extracurricular activities.

Indigenous groups note that even the better schools were part of a project to assimilate children into a predominately white, Christian society and break down their tribal identities, customs and languages — what many Indigenous groups call a cultural genocide.

"The very process of boarding schools is violent and damaging," said Bryan Rindfleisch, an expert in Native American history at Marquette University who is helping Catholics in Oklahoma research their school legacy.

There were at least 367 boarding schools across the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a Minneapolis-based advocacy group.

Most were government-run; many others were run by Catholic and Protestant churches.

The national healing coalition called Pope Francis' comments a historic first step, but urged the Vatican to repatriate Indigenous artifacts in its museum collections and called on religious organizations to open their school archives.

In listening sessions held through the Oklahoma Catholic Native Schools Project, many participants told positive stories of school experiences, Callison said, though the church is committed to documenting the traumatic ones too. "You're going to hear things you don't want to hear," he said.

The project will also include archival research and individual interviews with those affected. At least 11 Catholic boarding schools operated in Oklahoma.

"We need to get to the truth before we can deal with whatever hurt or celebrate whatever success" the schools achieved, Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul Coakley said.

Several church groups — including Quakers, Methodists and some Catholic religious orders — are backing pending legislation in Congress that would go beyond the Interior report. It would create a truth and healing commission, modeled on Canada's, to investigate the boarding school legacy.

The New England Yearly Meeting of Friends — a regional group of congregations — issued an apology last year for Quakers' historic sponsorship of such schools, acknowledging they were undertaken with "spiritual and cultural arrogance."

"We are deeply sorry for our part in the vast suffering caused by this system and the continuing effects," the New England group said.

It's important for Quakers to accept such responsibility, said Paula Palmer, a Quaker from Colorado whose research has identified about 30 Native American boarding and day schools that were run by Quakers.

"The yearly meetings voted to support, operate and finance" the schools, she said. "So it's really the yearly meetings who have the responsibility to respond. They were the ones who also participated in the whole project of forced assimilation of Indigenous children."

The Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States has hired an archival researcher to document its own boarding school history.

The order is "committed to examining and sharing the truth of our history, even where that is difficult," said the Rev. Ted Penton, secretary of the Jesuit conference's Office of Justice and Ecology.

The Episcopal Church's General Convention in July is expected to vote on a statement that would "acknowledge the intergenerational trauma caused by genocide, colonialism" and the operation of boarding schools and "other systems based on white supremacy."

The convention will also consider authorizing a "comprehensive and complete investigation" of the church's operation of such schools. The proposals came from a group appointed by denominational leaders.

Such measures are strong, but local dioceses also need to research their own histories and advocate for Indigenous peoples, said the Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Everett, Washington. Taber-Hamilton, whose heritage includes the Shackan First Nation of Canada, is an Episcopal Church representative to the worldwide Anglican Indigenous Network.

"It's not enough to say, 'I'm sorry, and here's some money,'" she said. "We first have to do some very hard work of listening to the pain."

GOP blocks Senate COVID bill, demands votes on immigration - By Alan Fram Associated Press

Republicans blocked a Democratic attempt to begin Senate debate on a $10 billion COVID-19 compromise, pressing to entangle the bipartisan package with an election-year showdown over immigration restrictions that poses a politically uncomfortable fight for Democrats.

A day after Democratic and GOP bargainers reached agreement on providing the money for treatments, vaccines and testing, a Democratic move to push the measure past a procedural hurdle failed 52-47 Tuesday. All 50 Republicans opposed the move, leaving Democrats 13 votes short of the 60 they needed to prevail.

Hours earlier, Republicans said they'd withhold crucial support for the measure unless Democrats agreed to votes on an amendment preventing President Joe Biden from lifting Trump-era curbs on migrants entering the U.S. With Biden polling poorly on his handling of immigration and Democrats divided on the issue, Republicans see a focus on migrants as a fertile line of attack.

"I think there will have to be" an amendment preserving the immigration restrictions "in order to move the bill" bolstering federal pandemic efforts, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters.

At least 10 GOP votes will be needed in the 50-50 Senate for the measure to reach the 60 votes it must have for approval. Republicans could withhold that support until Democrats permit a vote on an immigration amendment.

Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., want Congress to approve the pandemic bill before lawmakers leave in days for a two-week recess. Tuesday's vote suggested that could be hard.

"This is a potentially devastating vote for every single American who was worried about the possibility of a new variant rearing its nasty head within a few months," Schumer said after the vote.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, "Today's Senate vote is a step backward for our ability to respond to this virus."

The new omicron variant, BA.2, is expected to spark a fresh increase in U.S. COVID-19 cases. Around 980,000 Americans and over 6 million people worldwide have died from the disease.

The $10 billion pandemic package is far less than the $22.5 billion Biden initially sought. It also lacks $5 billion Biden wanted to battle the pandemic overseas after the two sides couldn't agree on budget savings to pay for it, as Republicans demanded.

At least half the bill would finance research and production of therapeutics to treat COVID-19. Money would also be used to buy vaccines and tests and to research new variants.

The measure is paid for by pulling back unspent pandemic funds provided earlier for protecting aviation manufacturing jobs, closed entertainment venues and other programs.

Administration officials have said the government has run out of money to finance COVID-19 testing and treatments for people without insurance, and is running low on money for boosters, free monoclonal antibody treatments and care for people with immune system weaknesses.

At the 2020 height of the pandemic, President Donald Trump imposed immigration curbs letting authorities immediately expel asylum seekers and migrants for public health reasons. The ban is set to expire May 23, triggering what by all accounts will be a massive increase in people trying to cross the Mexican border into the U.S.

That confronts Democrats with messy choices ahead of fall elections when they're expected to struggle to retain their hair-breadth House and Senate majorities.

Many of the party's lawmakers and their liberal supporters want the U.S. to open its doors to more immigrants. But moderates and some Democrats confronting tight November reelections worry about lifting the restrictions and alienating centrist voters.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who faces a competitive reelection this fall, declined to say whether she would support retaining the Trump-era ban but said more needs to be done.

"I need a plan, we need a plan," she said in a brief interview. "There's going to be a surge at the border. There should be a plan and I've been calling for it all along."

Shortly before Tuesday's vote, Schumer showed no taste for exposing his party to a divisive immigration vote.

"This is a bipartisan agreement that does a whole lot of important good for the American people. Vaccines, testing, therapeutics," he said. "It should not be held hostage for an extraneous issue."

Jeff Zients, head of White House COVID-19 task force, expressed the same view.

"This should not be included on any funding bill," he said of immigration. "The decision should be made by the CDC. That's where it has been, and that's where it belongs."

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which initiated the move two years ago, said earlier this month that it would lift the ban next month. The restrictions, known as Title 42, have been harder to justify as pandemic restrictions have eased.

Trump administration officials cast the curb as a way to keep COVID-19 from spreading further in the U.S. Democrats considered that an excuse for Trump, whose anti-immigrant rhetoric was a hallmark of his presidency, to keep migrants from entering the country.

Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., said she supported terminating Trump's curb and questioned GOP motives for seeking to reinstate it.

"I find it very ironic for those who haven't wanted to have a vaccination mandate, for those who did not want to have masks in the classroom, for them to suddenly be very interested in protecting the public," she said.

But Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he would support a Senate COVID-19 aid bill if it included the GOP effort to retain the Trump immigration restrictions.

"Why wouldn't I?" he said in a brief interview.

New Mexico inmates outline abuse in civil rights lawsuit - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

More than a dozen inmates who were transferred following a riot at a New Mexico lockup in 2020 were allegedly abused and terrorized by correctional officers while being processed at another prison, marking what a watchdog group said Tuesday is the latest example of excessive force within the criminal justice system.

The allegations were outlined in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by the New Mexico Prison & Jail Project and civil rights attorney Matthew Coyte.

The inmates claim their rights to due process and to be free from cruel and unusual punishment were violated by a deputy warden and others at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility.

The case comes as the federal government faces pressure from members of Congress to reform its own prison system after Associated Press investigations exposed widespread problems that included serious misconduct involving correctional officers and rampant sexual abuse at a California women's prison.

In New Mexico, inmate populations have declined significantly over recent years, and the state is resuming control of what were previously private-run prisons. But advocates argue that things haven't necessarily improved and a lack of independent oversight doesn't help.

"If we could create a robust system of oversight like other states have, then this type of abuse wouldn't happen as much," said Steven Robert Allen, director of the New Mexico Prison & Jail Project. "Would it completely solve the problem? Of course not. But it would be a big step in the right direction and an obvious step."

Allen said individual instances of abuse happen frequently in New Mexico but are often hard to prove. The difference is this case involved a large number of people at the same time with a corresponding story, he said.

While not named as a defendant, the New Mexico Corrections Department would be responsible for paying any damages that might result. The department declined to comment on the specific allegations, but spokesman Eric Harrison said Tuesday that the department is committed to the safety of all inmates in its care.

"We maintain a zero tolerance policy regarding any and all forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment," he said in an email to The Associated Press. "Please let me be clear — we absolutely will be investigating these allegations thoroughly and will take action to make certain that any staff involved in any kind of abusive or inappropriate behavior are held accountable to the highest level."

Deputy Warden Joe Lytle at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility could not be reached for comment Tuesday as the phones went unanswered. Lytle is among the defendants.

Many of the inmates listed as plaintiffs have extensive criminal records. About half of them remain in custody and others are now on parole.

New Mexico's history includes one of the nation's deadliest prison riots, when a dozen guards were held hostage in February 1980. Some were brutally beaten and sexually assaulted as rioting prisoners killed 33 of their fellow inmates during a clash that included beheadings, amputations and burned bodies.

Fueled by a combination of overcrowding and poor conditions, the riot lasted 36 hours. It led to extensive reforms within the state's prison system.

Still, New Mexico is one of many states without an independent oversight program for its corrections system. Legislation aimed at creating an ombudsman stalled in 2021.

About 15 states have independent mechanisms for dealing with complaints from inmates or for assessing conditions within the prisons. New Jersey has what supporters call one of the strongest oversight structures in the U.S., while similar programs have been established in recent years in Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Washington.

Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, said abuses continue to be widespread in jails and prisons across the U.S. because "these facilities operate behind closed doors and closed walls" and it usually takes public records requests from investigative journalists, lawmakers or advocates to get information.

"Prisons and jails just oftentimes operate in a complete black hole. It's important to have the transparency and spotlight on the problems and the abuses," she said.

According to the lawsuit, the first group of plaintiffs was taken to the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas in March 2020 following a riot at a state lockup about 80 miles (129 kilometers) away that followed the death of an inmate. One inmate was injured during the uprising and the prison was damaged. The second group was transported a couple weeks later.

The complaint states that the inmates were subjected to "an abusive welcome committee" that included name-calling and threats of physical violence by guards.

Some of them endured strip searches that the lawsuit described as abusive and punishing. Certain inmates also had their heads forcibly shaved, which left some with bloody wounds on their scalps.

"The use of sexually humiliating strip searches coupled with the forcible shaving of plaintiffs' heads while on their hands and knees with their heads in a trash can was designed to sexually humiliate, intimidate and terrify plaintiffs," the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit goes on to detail accusations of excessive force despite no active security threat. It described the actions by prison authorities as malicious and cruel, saying the inmates suffered physical and psychological injuries in violation of their constitutional rights.

Allen and Coyte described the behavior by the guards as sadistic, saying a lawsuit was filed a decade ago over similar conduct involving some of the same defendants so corrections personnel should know better.

"This sort of behavior does cost the taxpayer enormous amounts of money litigating a lawsuit like this," Coyte said, "so that's disappointing to see it happening again."

* The story has been corrected to show the 2020 riot followed the death of one inmate and that the uprising resulted in one inmate being injured.

Navajo Nation eases COVID restrictions; mask mandate remains - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation loosened coronavirus pandemic restrictions Tuesday to allow more people into businesses, including casinos, and for social and other gatherings.

Tribal casinos, restaurants, movie theaters, campgrounds, museums, movie theaters and other businesses now can operate at 75% capacity, up from 50% capacity that had been in place since last summer. Businesses must submit a plan to the tribe's Division of Economic Development before they can implement the new limits.

Up to 25 people now can gather in person for traditional ceremonies, church, youth programs, training events and holiday gatherings — up from 15 previously.

Outdoor events, such as organized races or walks, and bicycle rides now can have up to 50 people.

Schools also have capacity limits for orientations and other gatherings not related to instruction and for sporting events. Indoor arenas can be at 50% of maximum capacity, and outdoor seating areas at 75%.

The Navajo Nation, which is largest reservation in the U.S. at 27,000 square miles (69,930 square kilometers), has been more cautious with the pandemic than the states that surround it. Utah, New Mexico and Arizona do not have mask mandates, and businesses there have been fully reopened for months.

A mask mandate in public places on the reservation remains, and tribal officials reemphasized a safer-at-home order.

Tribal President Jonathan Nez said the new guidelines are based on what has been a consistent decline in daily coronavirus cases since a large spike in January after the holidays. A spike in the number of deaths reported by the Navajo Nation in late March was due to delayed reporting and reconciliation of data, tribal spokesman Jared Touchin said.

The tribe reported one new confirmed case of the coronavirus on Tuesday, bringing the total since the pandemic began to 53,089. Three more deaths reported Tuesday brought the total to 1,737.

Albuquerque council nixes veto of repeal of plastic bag ban - Associated Press

The Albuquerque City Council has voted to uphold a previous decision to repeal an ordinance banning grocery stores and other retailers from distributing single-use plastic bags.

The council voted last month to eliminate the ban, prompting a veto by Mayor Tim Keller, but the council's 6-3 vote Monday night overrides Keller's veto.

Supporters of the ban cited environmental reasons. Opponents said it inconvenienced shoppers.

The ban took effect Jan. 1, 2020 after being approved by the council in 2019 following extensive public debate and comment, but enforcement was suspended during much of the pandemic.

The council also authorized creation of marijuana smoking lounges though public consumption of marijuana would remain illegal. A state law legalizing recreational marijuana took effect Friday.

In other action, a move to override Keller's veto of legislation preventing the city from requiring its employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 failed. Keller's administration hadn't imposed a vaccination mandate.

Agency: New Mexico pot legalization doesn't change US law - Associated Press

The U.S. Border Patrol says agents at checkpoints in New Mexico will continue to enforce a federal law making possession of marijuana illegal even though the state has legalized recreational marijuana.

Carlos Rivera, a spokesman for the agency's El Paso Sector, said Tuesday that means agents will still regard marijuana as contraband and seize it.

New Mexico's legalization of recreational marijuana took effect Friday, but a Border Patrol statement explained that marijuana remains a prohibited drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

The El Paso Sector includes New Mexico and the two most western of Texas' counties, including El Paso.

Afghan evacuees mark first US Ramadan with gratitude, agony - By Giovanna Dell'orto And Mariam Fam The Associated Press

Sitting cross-legged on the floor as his wife and six children laid plates of fruit on a red cloth in front of him, Wolayat Khan Samadzoi watched through the open balcony door for the sliver of new moon to appear in the cloudless New Mexico sky, where the sun had set beyond a desert mountain.

Then, munching on a date, the bushy-bearded former Afghan soldier broke his first Ramadan fast in the United States – far from the Taliban threat, but also the three dozen relatives he would be marking the start of the Muslim holy month with if he was still home in Khost, Afghanistan.

A few minutes after naan was dipped into bowls of stewed okra and beans, Samadzoi, his wife and the two oldest children retired to worship on their prayer rugs. On Saturday evening, the two-bedroom apartment filled with the murmurs of their invocations.

"I pray for them, and they pray for me, they miss me," he said of his relatives back home. His cousin Noor Rahman Faqir, who is also now in Las Cruces, translated from Pashto to the simple English he learned working with American forces in Afghanistan.

As they adjust to their new communities, Afghan families evacuated to the United States as the Taliban regained power last summer are celebrating Ramadan with gratitude for their safety. Yet there's also the agony of being away from loved ones who they fear are in danger under a Taliban leadership crafting increasingly repressive orders.

From metropolitan areas with flourishing Afghan diasporas to this desert university community less than 40 miles (64 kilometers) from the Mexican border, tens of thousands of newly arrived Afghans share one predominant concern that's amplified in what should be a celebratory time: With only temporary immigration status and low-paying jobs, they feel helpless to take care of their families here and back home.

Abdul Amir Qarizada repeats several times the exact moment, 4:30 p.m., when he was ordered to take off from Kabul's airport during the chaos of the evacuation – with no time to get his wife and five children, who are still in Afghanistan more than seven months later.

"My concern is the aircraft is safe, but my family is not safe," the former flight engineer says after Friday prayer at Las Cruces' only mosque, where he goes by bike to find some "peace."

So does Qais Sharifi, 28, who says he can't sleep with worry for his kids left behind, including a daughter born two months after he fled Afghanistan alone.

Both men break into smiles when the mosque's education director, Rajaa Shindi, an Iraqi-born professor at nearby New Mexico State University, invites them to register for the free iftar dinners held nightly in the meeting hall decorated with gold balloons spelling "Ramadan kareem" — an Arabic greeting often used to wish people a happy Ramadan.

Local congregations like the mosque and El Calvario United Methodist Church in Las Cruces, as well as the Jewish and Christian-based organizations that resettle refugees across their national networks, have been helping Afghans find housing, jobs, English-language classes, and schools for their children.

They decry the fact that most displaced Afghan families don't have permanent legal status in the United States, despite their services for the U.S. government, military or their Afghan allies during the post-9/11 Afghanistan war. That would give them access to many government benefits and an easier path to work and family reunification.

While Afghanistan's decades of war and current food shortage mean far less extravagant feasts than in many countries where Ramadan is celebrated, the familiar tastes of home are top of mind for many displaced this year. Qarizada recalls his mother's signature festive dish of bolani, a stuffed fried bread like a giant samosa.

The mother of Shirkhan Nejat still cries every time the 27-year-old makes a WhatsApp video call home from Oklahoma City, where he was resettled with his wife and the couple's baby was born. Missing his close-knit extended family at Ramadan brings "bad emotions," Nejat said, despite his gratitude for being safe.

It's such bonds, the warmth of large family gatherings around the iftar meal and the cacophony of familiar sights, sounds and smells marking the end of a day's fast that many are yearning for in America.

In Texas, Dawood Formuli misses his family's typical pre-iftar routine: His hungry father irritably asking for his food. His mother asking her husband to calm down, and Formuli, 34, telling a joke to lighten the mood and make his father laugh. His children, in another room with their many cousins, sometimes playing, sometimes fighting. "Allahu akbar," the call to prayer, spilling over from the mosque down the street.

"Every day, it's like Christmas," the former translator at the U.S. embassy in Kabul said of past Ramadans in the three-story house his family used to share with his parents, siblings and their families.

In his new apartment in Fort Worth, the call to prayer now comes from an app, not a minaret.

The transition has been especially hard for his pregnant wife, who is still learning English. Yet there are traces of the familiar in their new community: Muslim neighbors, mosques for the special Ramadan prayers, known as "taraweeh," and halal food markets.

Khial Mohammad Sultani, who the day before Ramadan was still living in an extended stay motel on the outskirts of El Paso, Texas, had to ride nearly 80 miles (128 kilometers) round trip into New Mexico in a taxi to go buy and slaughter a lamb for Ramadan.

The 37-year-old former soldier, his wife Noor Bibi, and their six children broke the second day's fast with pieces of that lamb stewed in an aromatic sauce around the one table in their duplex, newly built on a barren foothills lot unlike their house in Gardez, with its apple and pomegranate trees.

Right after iftar, four of the children got ready for their first day of school ever the next morning, another new thrill for their parents who never received a formal education.

But when it comes to faith, Sultani will continue to teach his children at home, as his father did for him.

The three oldest children – a boy, 11, and two girls, 9 and 8, with red headscarves loosely arranged over their long braids – pray in turn on a green rug that is among the family's most treasured possessions.

The family's Quran came from the military base in New Jersey where they first landed in the United States. But Sultani's father brought this rug from his pilgrimage at Mecca after another son was killed by the Taliban, a possible fate they escaped, crossing many checkpoints as they fled Afghanistan last summer.

"We are Muslim, and a part of our faith is to thank Allah for everything," Sultani says in Dari through a volunteer translator. "As appreciation for him, we're doing this."