THURS: Northern NM wildfire reignites residents' fears and frustrations, + More
New Mexico wildfire reignites residents' fears, frustrations from record-setting fire in 2022 - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
The thick plume of smoke rising up from the forested hillsides sent a tinge of panic through northern New Mexico. It was dry and windy — just like last year.
It was April 2022 that a record-setting wildfire sparked by the federal government had ripped across more than 530 square miles, destroying hundreds of homes and livelihoods along the way.
And now, firefighters were racing again to catch a new blaze.
This one started Wednesday afternoon on private property near the burn scar left by last year's historic wildfire and had grown to an estimated 1,000 acres by nightfall.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Nervous residents posted photos on social media showing the plume of smoke, as seen from their front porches. Others choked back tears as they left the area in their vehicles, capturing photos and videos of trees along the roadside and homes in the distance engulfed in fire.
Many questioned how there was anything left to burn.
Crews on Thursday worked to keep the flames from reaching more homes while many of the 400 or so residents who had scattered throughout the area remained evacuated. Children were excused from school, roads in the area remained closed and neighboring communities opened temporary shelters.
"State, local and federal resources are responding and fire managers have implemented a full suppression strategy," George Ducker, a spokesperson with the State Forestry Division, said in an update issued Thursday.
Forecasters called for another round of wind and red flag conditions through the evening.
Two elite firefighting crews were getting help Thursday from other hand crews, bulldozers, engines and a helicopter. Officials said more resources that could mount an attack from the air were on order.
Ducker said emergency responders were on the ground assessing damage and trying to tally how many homes and other structures had burned.
While above-average snowpack in the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountain foothills have helped, forecasters say the region is still feeling the effects of a long-term drought — and that there were many pockets of unburned fuel left within the footprint of last year's Hermit's Peak-Calf Canyon Fire.
That fire — the largest in New Mexico's recorded history — started on national forest land when two prescribed burn operations went awry, fueled by relentless spring winds. Private landowners had far more acres burned, with the majority seeing moderate burn levels.
While wildfires are a necessary part of many forest ecosystems, experts with the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute have said that the scale of damage from the 2022 fire will leave its mark on the area for decades.
It also has left an emotional mark on residents whose families have ties to this landscape going back generations. Many were praying Thursday that the flames could be corralled soon.
Nationally, the fire season is off to a slower start, with about one-third the number of acres burning compared to this same time last year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Thousands surrender to Border Patrol as Title 42 ends - By Danielle Prokop, Source New Mexico
Under the shadow of Gate 42, Elizabeth Ramirez repeated “I didn’t want it to be like this,” as she crossed over the Rio Grande, low and sluggish over algae.
She was one of a group of two dozen people surrendering to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol on Wednesday. The people crossing would say where they were from – Colombia, Peru, Venezuela – children waved, people threw thumbs up or made hearts with their hands to the cameras and members of the media.
Ramirez walked nearly last, crying. She said that coming to the U.S. was a shared dream, between herself and her 13-year old daughter. She told reporters that her daughter was killed in Hermosillo, Sonora, where Ramirez was from.
“I’m holding her right here,” she said, carrying her daughter’s ashes in a bag to the bus waiting below the embankment.
Ramirez is one of the thousands of people to surrender to the border patrol in recent days, as a massive shift in immigration policy looms on the U.S. Southern border.
Title 42, a policy enacted in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, ends midnight Eastern time on May 11, expiring with the federal emergency order. It refers to a section in a 1994 public health law that allows curbing migration in the name of public health. Initially ordered under the Trump administration, it continued under President Biden.
The policy allowed authorities to immediately expel people seeking asylum at the border into Mexico, or to their country of origin, billing it as a way to limit the spread of the coronavirus. National medical experts joined with human rights groups to object to the policy, saying it has no basis in public health.
Over three years, authorities expelled people more than 2.8 million times. Unaccompanied children were exempt from the rule.
After the policy expires, the U.S. returns to federal immigration code Title 8, which restarts the legal processes to remove or deport people from the United States for entering the country illegally. Seeking asylum, like what Ramirez others are attempting, in the United States is a legal method of entering the country.
Customs and Border Patrol Agent Fidel Baca called the return to Title 8 a return to normalcy.
“We’ll be seeing an implementation of consequences for entering illegally,” he said. The consequences can be steep including a five-year ban on reentry and the possibility for prosecution for repeated attempts.
CBP agents at Gate 42 estimated that between 1,500 to 2,000 people were expected to enter Wednesday. More than 300 people were waiting to turn themselves into border patrol agents at 6:30 a.m.
Thousands of people have been sleeping on the streets of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez in recent weeks. In that time, people have been making the crossing. Tensions are high between migrants and authorities after a detention center fire in Juárez caused the deaths of 40 people left behind locked doors by guards.
Area shelters have been serving higher numbers of people since August 2022, organizers said, and that they’re focused on maintaining day-to-day operations
“We are just trying to keep our shelter open and care for people,” Father Rafael Garcia told Source NM in a sidewalk interview before the Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
The city announced a plan last week to open temporary shelters at vacant schools. Three Texas border cities – El Paso, along with Brownsville and Laredo – declared a state of emergency in the lead up to Title 42’s expiration.
LESSONS FROM 2019
Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima said local groups and officials made policy changes around people entering the country after hundreds of people were essentially stranded in towns near the border.
In 2019, the Department of Homeland Security dropped off more than 1,000 people and the city was partially involved in sheltering them. Now that responsibility lies with local nonprofits, he said such as El Calavario United Methodist Church or Border Servant Corps.
“For the most part, they have replaced the city and the county in taking care of migrants,” Miyagishima said.
A lot has changed in intervening years, said El Calavario Pastor George Miller in a phone interview, saying that people from all over the world, not just Central and South America, need accommodations.
He said the nonprofit now receives some reimbursement for shelter and food from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and appliances from parent organization Church World Services, rather than purely through donations.
El Calavario allows people to stay overnight and for two days, offers food, clothing and arrangements for transportation to meet with family or other sponsors. Staff includes legal advisor and a social worker.
The capacity for the shelter is 50 to 60 people a day, five days a week. While the numbers fluctuate, the past week immigration authorities brought five busloads, totaling about 250 people.
“Everybody is anticipating that we are going to probably be at full capacity for over the next month or two,” Miller said.
Border Servant Corps did not respond to requests for comment.
Local nonprofits are not driving the emergency plan, said Stephen Lopez, the emergency manager for Doña Ana and Las Cruces.
Since he said the shelters in Las Cruces are voluntarily receiving people, and El Paso has more capacity, there’s no need to enact emergency measures, which could include building a temporary shelter at the Doña Ana fairgrounds.
“Right now, there are no indicators that the capacity for processing in El Paso will be overwhelmed,” Lopez said.
Lopez said he is in contact sometimes daily or weekly with emergency officials in El Paso, and federal agencies.
El Paso officials at the Office of Emergency Management did not respond to requests for comment.
The federal government made assurances in recent meetings that people were not just going to be dropped off in area cities, such as Deming or Las Cruces, said Doña Ana County Sheriff Kim Stewart.
Stewart echoed the sentiment that El Paso nonprofits are expected to provide the services to people crossing the border.
“We believe the NGO setup in El Paso will handle this quite well,” Stewart said.
The state ends daily monitoring of COVID-19 data – Santa Fe New Mexican, Santa Fe Reporter
As of Thursday, the State of New Mexico is stopping daily reporting of data on COVID-19 cases hospitalizations and test results.
The Santa Fe New Mexican reports the decision coincides with the end of the federal pandemic emergency. The New Mexico Department of Health will still monitor trends in infections, hospitalizations, and deaths week-by-week.
The state is also shutting down NM Notify, its COVID exposure alert system. The app allowed New Mexicans to receive notifications if they had sufficient exposure to COVID-19 to become infected.
Deputy Health Secretary Dr. Laura Parajon said the end of the public health emergency signals a shift to a new phase of COVID-19. DOH recommends people stay up to date on flu and COVID vaccinations, get tested if you have COVID symptoms, stay home if you or your child are sick and wash your hands frequently.
As of yesterday/Wednesday the state had 139 new COVID cases, 75 hospitalizations and five people on ventilators, according to the Santa Fe Reporter. Since the start of the pandemic, the state has lost more than 9,200 people to COVID-19.
Chama is under a boil water advisory — By Nash Jones, KUNM News
The New Mexico Environment Department announced Thursday that Rio Arriba County’s Chama Water System is under a boil water advisory.
The agency says the water system notified the state Wednesday that its water was cloudier than standards allow — what’s called “turbidity.” The system was then required to issue the advisory and notify its more than 1,500 customers. No surrounding systems are impacted by the advisory.
The Environment Department says turbidity is a gauge for the quality of water and its filtration. It can also provide an environment for microbes to grow.
While no contamination of the water has yet been confirmed, the agency says haziness like this can mean there’s organisms like bacteria, viruses or parasites in it.
It’s recommended that users of the Chama Water System boil their water for three minutes before ingesting it — including by making ice or washing food with it — or using it to brush their teeth. The water should also be boiled before pets are allowed to drink it.
New Mexico woman accused in January death of her newborn son, who was found in a hospital trash can - Associated Press
A New Mexico woman has been arrested on suspicion of first-degree murder and tampering with evidence in the January death of her newborn son, according to authorities.
Artesia police said Alexee Trevizo, 19, was taken into custody Wednesday after a lengthy investigation.
Treviso gave birth Jan. 27 in an Artesia hospital bathroom before she allegedly put the infant in a trash can, investigators said.
They said Trevizo had gone to the hospital's emergency room for back pains and was told that lab tests showed she was pregnant and in labor.
Police said Trevizo allegedly locked herself in a bathroom, where she gave birth to a baby boy, tied him up in a trash bag and hid him underneath trash in the can.
Trevizo left the scene. By the time the baby was found, authorities said he had died from lack of oxygen.
An autopsy stated the cause of death as a homicide.
Police presented the case to the district attorney's office before a criminal complaint was issued and Trevizo was arrested.
It was unclear if Trevizo has a lawyer yet who can speak on her behalf.
On Monday, a 19-year-old woman was sentenced to a 16-year prison term after being convicted of throwing her newborn baby into an outdoor trash receptacle in January 2020 in Hobbs, New Mexico. In that case, the child survived.
'Now or never': Migrants seek to beat the end of pandemic-related asylum restrictions - By Valerie Gonzalez Associated Press
Migrants rushed across the border hours before pandemic-related asylum restrictions were to expire Thursday, fearing that new policies would make it far more difficult to gain entry into the United States.
In a move to clear out overwhelmed holding facilities, Border Patrol agents were told Wednesday to begin releasing some migrants with instructions to appear at an immigration office in the United States within 60 days, according to a U.S. official. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter and provided information to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
The Biden administration has been unveiling measures to replace Title 42, which suspended rights to seek asylum since March 2020 on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19.
On Wednesday, the Homeland Security Department announced a rule to make it extremely difficult for anyone who travels through another country, like Mexico, to qualify for asylum. It also introduced curfews with GPS tracking for families released in the U.S. before initial asylum screenings.
In Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas, migrants arrived steadily on Wednesday, stripping down before descending a steep bank clutching plastic bags filled with clothes. They slowly waded into the river, one man holding a baby in an open suitcase on his head.
On the U.S. side, they put on dry clothing and picked their way through concertina wire. Many surrendered to authorities, hoping to be released to stay legally while pursuing their cases in backlogged immigration courts, which takes years.
William Contreras of Venezuela said Title 42 was favorable to people of his wracked South American country, having heard that many before him were released in the United States.
"What we understand is that they won't be letting anyone else in," said Contreras' friend, Pablo, who declined to give his last name because he planned to cross the border illegally. "That's the reason for our urgency to cross through the border today."
The Border Patrol stopped about 10,000 migrants on Tuesday, one of its busiest days ever, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. That's nearly double the daily average of about 5,200 in March, the latest publicly available data, and close to the 11,000 that U.S. officials have predicted is the upper limit of a surge they anticipate after Title 42.
More than 27,000 people were in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody, the official said, well above capacity. In March 8,600 were in custody.
Border Patrol agents were ordered Wednesday to begin releasing migrants in any border sector that reached 125% of its holding capacity with instructions to report to an immigration office within 60 days. They were also told to start the releases if the average time in custody exceeded 60 hours or if 7,000 migrants were taken into custody across the entire border in any one day.
In Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, some migrant shelters had empty beds as migrants abandoned them to cross into the U.S. Enrique Valenzuela, who coordinates migrant relief efforts for Chihuahua state, said the city's migrant shelter population was half the nearly 3,000 staying there a few weeks ago.
On Thursday, about 400 migrants huddled in strong winds whipping up the sand on the Rio Grande river bank east of El Paso between groups of Texas National Guard soldiers constructing concertina wire barriers. A couple from Colombia approached the concertina wire asking if they could start a fire because a 10-year old was shaking in the desert cold. Most migrants huddled together under thin blankets. Major Sean Storrud of the Texas National Guard said his troops have built 17.4 miles (28 kilometers) of wire barriers in that area in an effort to reduce massive crossings and have explained to migrants the consequences of crossing illegally.
"The migrants don't really know what's going to happen," Storrud said.
While Title 42 prevented many from seeking asylum, it carried no legal consequences, encouraging repeat attempts. After Thursday, migrants face being barred from entering the U.S. for five years and possible criminal prosecution.
At the same time, the administration has introduced expansive new legal pathways into the U.S. Up to 30,000 people a month from Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela can enter if they apply online with a financial sponsor and enter through an airport. Processing centers are opening in Guatemala, Colombia and elsewhere. Up to 1,000 can enter daily though land crossings with Mexico if they snag an appointment on an online app.
In San Diego, more than 100 migrants, many of them Colombian families, slept under plastic tarps between two border walls, watched over by Border Patrol agents who had nowhere to take them for processing.
Albino Leon, 51, bought chicken from Tijuana vendors through slats in the wall bordering San Diego because the cookies that agents gave him, his wife and daughter left them hungry. News that Title 42 was ending prompted the family to make the journey now.
"With the changes they are making to the laws, it's now or never," said Leon, who flew to Mexico from Colombia and got past a first border wall to reach U.S. soil.
While U.S. officials predict more crossings after Title 42 ends at 11:59. p.m. EDT Thursday — President Joe Biden said Tuesday that the border will be "chaotic for a while" — some were unsure. Soraya Vasquez, deputy director of Al Otro Lado, an advocacy group active in Tijuana, said crossings might fall immediately but migration would persist.
Miguel Meza, head of migrant programs for Catholic Relief Services, which has 26 migrant shelters in Mexico, estimates there are about 55,000 migrants in border cities across from the United States. More arrive daily from the south, as well as migrants expelled by the U.S. back to Mexico.
Carmen Josefina Characo, a Venezuelan woman who arrived in Matamoros with her adult daughter, said she was determined to keep trying on a U.S. government mobile app to win a spot to enter the U.S. at a land crossing. Demand has far outstripped supply, exasperating many new arrivals.
"People who just arrive start hearing the stories of others who have been here longer and they start getting alarmed. 'Oh, you've been here for four months. Well, I just got here and I'm going to cross,'" Characo said.
Migrants have strained some U.S. cities over the last year.
Denver began seeing well over 100 migrants a day arrive on buses last week, activating an emergency operations center. The city is scrambling for shelter space.
"The numbers are overwhelming," said Alan Salazar, chief of staff to Mayor Michael Hancock.
Salazar estimated about 9,000 migrants have passed through Denver since late fall, when the city suddenly became a popular stop for Venezuelans and others.
Elías Guerra, 20, came to Denver last week after hearing it was a welcoming place where he could get a free bus ticket to his final destination. After four nights in a church shelter, Denver provided a $58 bus ticket to New York City. He left Wednesday night.
"Here it's comfortable, it's safe, there's food, there's shelter, there's restrooms," Guerra said as he waited with dozens of other migrants in a parking garage where the city processed new arrivals.
New Mexico constitution focus of legal fight over oil and gas drilling - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
New Mexico and its Democratic governor are being sued over alleged failures to meet constitutional provisions for protecting against oil and gas pollution, a challenge that comes as the nation's No. 2 oil-producing state rides a wave of record revenue from drilling in one of the most prolific collection of oil fields in the world.
A coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday in state district court, marking the first time the state constitution's pollution-control clause has been the basis of such a legal claim. The 1971 amendment mandates that New Mexico prevent the despoilment of air, water and other natural resources.
The challenge comes as New Mexico rides a wave of record revenue from development in the Permian Basin, currently one of the world's most productive oil-producing regions. Oil-related revenue collections have surged passed five-year averages to fund a considerable amount of the state's budget, including education and social programs.
Meanwhile, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's administration is policing the industry with regulations that target methane and other emissions. The goal is capturing 98% of all natural gas waste by the end of 2026, and drilling permits could be denied if operators fail to meet targets.
But the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups say these efforts are not enough and that the state is failing to enforce existing pollution-control measures.
They want oil and gas permitting to be suspended until the state implements "a statutory, regulatory and enforcement scheme that ensures the protection of New Mexico's beautiful and healthful environment," the lawsuit reads.
Lujan Grisham's office said Wednesday that her administration was proud of its record on the environment.
"Frankly, this is a misguided lawsuit that will only serve to distract the state from conducting additional work on environment and climate solutions and from enforcing the nationally leading regulations this administration fought hard to get on the books," said Caroline Sweeney, the governor's spokesperson.
The plaintiffs include the groups Indigenous Lifeways, Pueblo Action Alliance, Youth United for Climate Crisis Action and WildEarth Guardians.
The Pueblo Action Alliance is among the Native American groups that have been pushing for the U.S. Interior Department to stop drilling across a wide swath of land beyond the borders of Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico. Energy industry organizations have argued that the group is not in good standing with the Secretary of State's Office.
Efforts to stop oil and gas development in the Chaco area and in southeastern New Mexico have mostly been fought in federal court, with U.S. land management policies being the focus. Recent claims have centered on the Bureau of Land Management and whether the agency has been taking a cumulative look at the potential effects of permitting more wells.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday details the experiences of Navajo families in northwestern New Mexico, reciting many of the complaints that have been leveled previously in the fight over development outside of Chaco.
Concerns about the preservation of lands considered culturally significant by some Navajos and more distant pueblo communities are outlined in the lawsuit.
The groups and individual plaintiffs claim that the gathering of medicinal and ceremonial herbs is at risk from ground disturbance by developers and subsequent erosion. They also say the ability to enjoy their ancestral homelands is being compromised.
In southeastern New Mexico, plaintiffs point to truck traffic and poor air quality from the emissions of trucks, generators, compressors and other equipment running continuously in the oil fields.
New Mexico's pollution-control clause was adopted after voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1971, the same year state lawmakers adopted other environmental protection measures. At the time, the modern environmental movement was taking shape nationally.
While New Mexico's clause has been on the books for nearly 50 years, lawyers for the plaintiffs say it has never been tested.
Gail Evans, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity and lead counsel on the case, called it a fundamental human right to have clean air, land and water.
"If concern for our environment and public health won't push New Mexico's leaders to control the reckless oil and gas industry, we hope legal action will," she said.
Technical error forces delay in announcing NM community solar program project winners - By Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico
A technical error discovered this week caused another delay to the state’s community solar program that aims to establish community solar facilities around the state and give New Mexicans a break on their utility bills.
On Tuesday, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission responded to a complaint filed by Massachusetts-based Lightstar Renewables, one of hundreds of entities seeking permission to build and operate solar farms in the state as part of the community solar program.
Lightstar Renewables filed a complaint to the PRC about an error it found caused by the company InClime — the party responsible for ranking project requests from those who want to build out community solar infrastructure.
The PRC received Lightstar’s emergency complaint one day before InClime intended to announce who gets to set up and run solar farms, as decided by the company’s review process.
The PRC responded by ruling that there was a technical error in the proposal application.
That issue caused InClime, which has reviewed more than 400 project proposals and bids since February, to incorrectly score some of the entities that applied and bid to be part of the community solar program, potentially making them lose out on the opportunity.
PRC spokesperson Patrick Rodriguez said InClime has to rescore 32 applications by May 16, which is when the company said it’ll announce awardees, a week after the original date.
Miana Campbell is InClime’s community solar lead for New Mexico. During Tuesday’s special PRC meeting, she explained the technical error stemmed from InClime ranking applicants based off of two different measures that a licensed engineer approved proposed permitting plans.
Only one approval measure was necessary, according to Lightstar’s complaint. The PRC agreed, forcing InClime to delay the award announcement.
“Although the final scores are delayed, we are thrilled to announce that we expect awards for its program to go out next week,” Campbell said.
She said InClime’s goal is to announce what organizations get to participate as quickly as possible.
“We understand that many of you are eagerly awaiting the results and we appreciate your patience,” she said.
The process to set up New Mexico’s community solar program has been stalled since Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the act, partly due to utilities fighting in court community solar rules that the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission set up.
Litigation is still ongoing.
The latest delay comes after months of back-and-forth between the PRC and utilities. The PRC repeatedly found issues with the investor-owned utilities’ involvement, and former commissioner Joseph Maestas voiced frustration at utility companies’ attempts to seemingly “obstruct and delay community solar.”
HOLDING THE SOLAR OPERATORS ACCOUNTABLE
Entities that applied and bid through InClime to be part of New Mexico’s community solar program proposed commitments that would be beneficial to the nearby communities, like working with local or minority-owned businesses or offering workforce training or educational opportunities.
PRC Commissioner Patrick O’Connell asked how InClime would hold the chosen solar operators accountable to these commitments. He questioned if the commitments the applicants proposed are unambiguous and easy to measure, and Campbell said most of them are pretty black and white.
For example, she said, applicants who would be committed to working with a local or diverse business clearly laid out how they would do that, so it would be pretty straightforward for InClime to track that.
However, not everything will be that simple, she added.
She said other commitments could be less objective.
She brought up another example, where an operator committed to creating educational opportunities and developed something like program materials for local universities, which could be interpreted subjectively.
“That’s something we did try to distill as much as possible too — this is what they’re committing to, and this is the timeline that they’re committing to,” she said.
O’Connell also had questions about what would happen if the chosen solar operators can’t meet the commitments they said they would.
“Hopefully this process works fantastically and the projects that we pick are all delivered exactly along the commitments,” he said. But, he continued, what if it doesn’t work out perfectly?
Campbell said concrete disciplinary measures still need to be worked out. She said the rules now do lay out that InClime can take disciplinary action if commitments aren’t being adhered to, including kicking operators out of the program, but it’s still pretty vague.
“I think that’s something that we’ll have to think about a little bit more in-depth,” she said.
She also said that it would be unfortunate if operators built their solar farms just to get kicked out of the program.
‘Our communities cannot wait any longer’: NM delegation rips FEMA on delays in fire payments - By Patrick Lohman, Source New Mexico
Three members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation on Wednesday sent a letter to top officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, criticizing the agency for delays in distributing several billion dollars to those who are still struggling to recover from the biggest wildfire in state history.
FEMA has opened field offices and is reaching out to victims of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, ignited by the United States Forest Service as two botched prescribed burns. FEMA is tasked with paying out $3.95 billion in aid approved by Congress late last year.
But the agency has missed several self-imposed deadlines in making the payments, which are intended to fully compensate victims for the federal government’s errors more than a year ago. And FEMA has not yet established final rules that will govern what compensation will cover.
FEMA initially said it expected the claims office to be “fully operational” in early 2023. But the agency has so far not issued a single payment to households affected by the fire or ensuing floods, and it has declined to say publicly when it expects the rules to be finalized.
The delays have frustrated members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation who secured the $3.95 billion late last year. U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez and Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján sent a letter urging FEMA to move faster and to provide an update to the delegation on where the claims office stands.
“Our communities cannot wait any longer,” the members of Congress wrote in the letter. “Every day that passes without compensation to the victims delays their ability to begin rebuilding after losing so much. We ask that you put yourself into the shoes of those who’ve waited more than a year after the fire started.”
FEMA officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the letter. But the agency previously announced that it will make partial payments to fire victims while awaiting the approval of final rules, and it has hired a team of navigators from New Mexico to assist people making claims.
Claims Office Director Angela Gladwell told a packed lecture hall in Mora last month that federal rulemaking is difficult and time-consuming. The rules must be approved by FEMA, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Management and Budget, she said.
“And they need to prioritize it across all of the rules in the federal government,” she said at the meeting April 19. “We are working with those partners as much as possible to expedite that process.”
The letter said FEMA has told the New Mexico delegation that delays are due to bureaucratic wrangling on a couple of rules that have sparked anger among fire survivors, including one that caps payments for destroyed trees at 25% of their pre-fire value.
That rule was copy-pasted from the last time a federal agency botched a prescribed burn in New Mexico and then sought to compensate those who lost their homes. The Cerro Grande Fire Assistance Act in 2001 was enacted after an escaped National Park Service prescribed burn near Los Alamos destroyed hundreds of homes, many of them in suburban neighborhoods.
FEMA officials have acknowledged that the cap on payments for trees is not well-suited for victims of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon wildfire, who rely on trees and timber for income and heat, and often comprise the biggest losses for many rural families with hundreds or thousands of acres of private forest. They’ve also suggested the cap will be lifted in the final rules.
They included the cap on tree payments as they rushed to meet the congressional deadline of 45 days to publish interim rules, FEMA officials said. It would have taken months, they explained, to write a completely new set of rules and so chose to use the previous set as a template.
The delegation’s letter to FEMA asked the agency to eliminate the cap on payments for trees, as well as a limit on payments to households who spent money reducing future risk of floods and wildfires on their property. And to do it quickly.
“It is a holdover from a different catastrophe impacting suburban homes, not an economy based on forest,” the members of Congress wrote. “We reiterate the importance of removing these caps.”
FEMA did not respond to a question about whether any specific interim rules are to blame for delays in final rule approval.
The agency received at least 300 public comments and held six meetings between mid-November and early January to solicit feedback on the interim rules. Dozens of those comments took issue primarily with limited payments for trees.
Delays have “deepened mistrust” with the agency, the letter states. Many residents are already frustrated by FEMA delays and denials in its immediate response to the disaster, including with the rollout of its program to house survivors in FEMA trailers or mobile homes.
“The victims don’t have permanent homes,” the members of Congress wrote. “Their economic livelihood is destroyed, and the floods will begin making matters worse.”
US will let in at least 100,000 Latin Americans to reunite with families - By Julie Watson Associated Press
As President Joe Biden's administration prepares for the end of asylum restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is offering some new legal options for people — especially families — to come to the United States.
The administration said it will admit at least 100,000 Latin Americans seeking to reunite with family members in the United States, but it has released almost no details. The plan was announced as restrictions tied to a public health law, known as Title 42, were set to expire Thursday.
A look at the new legal pathway for Latin Americans to join their relatives in the United States:
HOW WOULD PEOPLE APPLY?
During a recent visit to the border city of Brownsville, Texas, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas said people would apply for permission to join their families in the United States at regional processing centers. The government plans to open 100 such hubs across the Western Hemisphere, with the first ones starting in Guatemala and Colombia.
The centers will handle requests for family reunification parole, Mayorkas said, along with applications for the U.S. refugee program and humanitarian parole for those deemed to be particularly vulnerable, which is decided on a case-by-case basis.
WHO WILL BE ELIGIBLE?
The new family reunification parole program is for immigrants from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Colombia who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents and who have gotten approval for their petitions to bring over immediate family members.
The U.S. government said eligible people will receive an invitation to participate. The government will provide advance travel authorization for individuals who are approved and people will be eligible to apply for authorization to work in the United States while they wait for their immigrant visas.
The administration said more information will be released in mid-June.
It's unclear if there will be age restrictions. Generally immigrants and refugees in the U.S. have been allowed to petition only for immediate family members, such as a spouse or child. To be considered a child, the person must be unmarried and under 21 years of age. All other family members such as siblings, cousins and adult children are not eligible for family reunion.
Immigration attorneys say some immigrants have been waiting for years to be reunited with their spouses and children.
It's unclear why the administration has said it intends to welcome as many as 100,000 people from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador under the family reunification parole processes.
Julia Gelatt of the Migration Policy Center said U.S. State Department data shows at least 284,000 Latin Americans have filed family sponsorship petitions. That includes 78,000 Salvadorans, and up to 57,000 Hondurans, 58,000 Guatemalans, and 56,000 Colombians.
But it's unclear if those waiting have since found other options, she said.
Immigration attorney Sarah Gavigan, who works at the Central American Resource Center or Carecen in San Francisco, also wondered if the 100,000 reflects the actual number of backlogged family petitions from those countries.
Gavigan applauded the creation of a new family reunification program, while criticizing other Biden administration rules that she says penalize people fleeing harm who go to the border to apply for asylum.
WILL IT MIRROR OTHER HUMANITARIAN PROGRAMS OFFERED RECENTLY?
Immigration attorneys believe the new family reunification parole program is the latest effort of a model that started when the United States brought in 100,000 Ukrainians following Russia's 2022 invasion of the country.
The program required Ukrainians to apply online, have a financial backer and enter through an airport, while officials turned back Ukrainians who arrived on foot at the U.S. border.
After that effort was successful, the administration in January extended humanitarian parole to other people fleeing their homelands and who were showing up at the U.S. border in record numbers. In January, the government announced it would bring in up to 30,000 people each month from four nations: Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba and Haiti.
Mayorkas said after those legal options were put into place, the government saw a 95% drop in the number of encounters U.S. border officials had with migrants of those four nationalities.
Most of the parole programs allow in people for a limited time, but attorneys say people permitted to come to the U.S. for family reunification can apply for permanent residency.
ARE PLANS UNDERWAY TO HELP MORE FAMILIES REUNITE?
Yes. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has announced it is restarting and broadening family reunification parole programs for Haitians and Cubans to allow vetted individuals with already approved family-based petitions to be allowed into the United States, on a case-by-case basis. The government said the program would be for the immediate family members of Haitian and Cuban immigrants in the United States. The government will invite people to participate.
It's unclear if the government plans to eliminate the need for a consular interview. Allen Orr Jr., who has worked extensively with Haitians applying for parole, said that would be key since most Haitians cannot get to interviews at the U.S. embassy due to the country's instability and widespread violence.
Orr called the efforts an important step in the right direction. But he said comprehensive immigration reform from Congress is ultimately needed to solve the problem.
"It's wonderful, but it's very much a bucket emptying the ocean," he said. "It's not a sweeping thing that is going to modify the amount of people showing up at the border. It gives the administration another lever, but it isn't going to overall change the immigration system."
WHAT DO CRITICS SAY?
Immigration attorney Curtis Morrison said only time will tell if the administration makes good on its promise.
His firm represents 3,000 people who have have applied for similar family reunification parole programs in the Middle East and Asia, and have ended up waiting years. The process was supposed to take six to nine months, he said.
Part of the problem, he said, is a lack of government staff able to process the applications.
"I have a hard time taking the Biden administration seriously when they talk about expanding family reunification programs," he said.
Under the current wait time, a father who is a U.S. citizen or green card holder and is trying to bring over his wife and baby from a country like Pakistan might not be reunited with them until the child is entering kindergarten, he said.