THURS: Abortion Rights Bill Vote Approaching, State Progress Against COVID-19 + More

Feb 11, 2021

Abortion-Rights Bill Approaches Decisive Vote In New Mexico - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

An effort to shore up abortion rights in New Mexico was poised Thursday for a decisive vote in the state Senate.

Female senators took the lead in presenting the Democratic-sponsored bill that would repeal a 1969 ban on most abortion procedures. The ban could go into effect if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion ruling.

"I am supporting this bill because we need to leave individual health care decisions to a woman and her doctor," said Democratic Sen. Carrie Hamblen of Las Cruces.

New Mexico's move to ensure future abortion access provides a counterpoint to 10 states where outright abortion bans have been proposed this year, as Republicans vow to test where the Supreme Court stands after the appointment of three conservative justices by former President Donald Trump.

Efforts to overturn the abortion ban are supported by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and a broad majority in the Democrat-dominated state House.

The partisan dividing line on abortion has become more pronounced in New Mexico in recent years.

Five incumbent Democratic senators who joined with Republicans to uphold the dormant state abortion ban in 2019 were ousted in last year's Democratic primary election.

Among Republicans, state Rep. Phelps Anderson of Roswell was compelled last week to leave the state GOP after casting a vote favorable to abortion rights in committee. He could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

New Mexico's 1969 abortion statute allows medical termination of a pregnancy with permission of a specialized hospital board only in instances of incest, rape reported to police, grave medical risks to the woman and indications of grave medical defects in the fetus.

The law has been dormant since 1973, when the nation's highest court issued the Roe v. Wade decision, overriding state laws that banned or severely restricted access to abortion procedures.

Anti-abortion legislators say a repeal would drive away from New Mexico valued medical professionals who are conscientious objectors to abortion procedures.

Republicans including Sen. Gregg Schmedes of Tijeras pushed for an amendment to the bill that would preserve a "conscience protection clause" in support of health professionals who oppose abortion on religious or moral grounds.

Democratic Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque said other provisions of state law provide conscience protections for physicians with moral or religious objections to abortion — and that opponents of the bill were engaging in lies and scare tactics.

Democratic Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe noted that a conscience protection clause on abortions was added to a similar bill in 2019 in the spirit of compromise — and that abortion opponents still voted the bill down.

The abortion debate was broadcast by webcast from a Statehouse building that is closed to the public as a precaution against the pandemic and encircled by fencing and police patrols because of security concerns linked to the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

New Mexico GOP Calls On Lawmaker Who Disaffiliated To ResignAssociated Press

The Republican Party of New Mexico has called on a state representative who disaffiliated with the party to resign.

State Rep. Phelps Anderson earlier this month left the Republican Party after voting in favor of a Democratic-backed abortion bill.

Anderson, who represents portions of the Chaves, Lea and Roosevelt counties, sided with seven Democrats in repealing a 1969 abortion law that bans and criminalizes the procedure. He then changed his party voter registration to "decline to state."

The executive board of the state GOP voted unanimously on Tuesday to request Anderson's resignation.

"Rep. Anderson should step down immediately," said Steve Pearce, the chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, in a statement. "He has betrayed the people of his district. He ran as a Republican and he's chosen to leave those who had trusted him to represent them in Santa Fe."

Anderson declined to comment to the Roswell Daily Record on Wednesday. He was first elected as a Republican to the New Mexico House of Representatives in 1977 and served through 1980. He had also served as chair of the Republican Party of Chaves County and in 2002 unsuccessfully ran for the state's 2nd Congressional District as a Republican.

Anderson was elected to the state House of Representatives again in 2018 and won reelection in 2020 to represent his staunchly Republican district.

The decision to change his party means Democrats now hold an advantage over Republicans in the House.

Republican state Rep. Candy Ezzell will fill the Republican seat on the House Appropriations and Finance Committee vacated by Anderson.

It is currently unclear whether Anderson will retain his committee assignments as a member of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee and the House Health and Human Services Committee.

Navajo Nation Reports 38 More COVID-19 Cases, 11 More DeathsAssociated Press

Navajo Nation health officials on Wednesday reported 38 new COVID-19 cases and 11 more deaths.

The latest figures raised the totals to 29,041 cases and 1,086 known deaths since the pandemic began.

Tribal officials said additional federal personnel are beginning to arrive to support vaccination efforts on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The Navajo Department of Health has identified 44 communities with uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 from Jan. 22 to Feb. 4, down from 75 communities in recent weeks.

The tribe has extended its stay-at-home order with a revised nightly curfew to limit the virus' spread on the reservation.

The Navajo Nation also is lifting weekend lockdowns to allow more vaccination events.

Tribal officials said there have been nearly 238,000 COVID-19 tests administered and almost 16,000 people have recovered.

New Mexico Touts Progress Against COVID-19 InfectionsAssociated Press

New Mexico officials on Wednesday said they would be ending mandatory self-quarantine requirements for visitors and residents arriving in the state while more counties have reported less spread of the virus over the last two weeks.

More than half of the state's 33 counties have emerged from strict lockdown — earning favorable yellow and green ratings on a color-coded map — as test positivity rates decline. That opens permission for limited indoor dining at restaurants, though movie theaters, bars and contact recreational facilities remain closed statewide.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham sounded an optimistic note about progress against COVID-19 during an online news conference, noting that average daily deaths, infections and hospitalizations were declining.

"Today is a day to really feel good about the collective efforts of the state," Lujan Grisham said.

She acknowledged a one-day surge in virus-related deaths of 31 on Wednesday.

Health officials also confirmed that the state's allotment of vaccine doses from the federal government will increase next week to about 61,000, marking a more than 8% increase from last week.

"We're showing that you can efficiently get this vaccine out," Lujan Grisham said, acknowledging frustrations among people on the state's waiting list. "New Mexico Just needs more vaccine."

State health officials pointed to testing efforts and high vaccine distribution rates for the recent suppression of the virus in parts of New Mexico.

Nearly 5% of the population has been fully vaccinated, and state officials have been pushing for more doses to be delivered as the number of residents who have registered to receive a shot topped 605,000 on Wednesday.

The Biden administration plans to have the federal government administer vaccines directly through community health centers as a way to distribute vaccines more equitably. It's also planning to have 100 federally run vaccination centers operating by the end of February. Some states are worried that the vaccines going to the community health centers and the federal vaccination centers would be subtracted from the allotments normally going to the states.

In New Mexico, Lujan Grisham said the most important thing the Biden administration has done is increase vaccine shipments. She said the state will be submitting paperwork to federal officials with the goal of creating mobile vaccination clinics to increase access. She's hopeful the program can serve as a model for other states.

New Mexico has recorded 178,790 COVID cases since the pandemic began, with some of the lowest daily case totals since October being reported over the last week. The death toll stands at 3,461.

As for the travel restrictions, beginning Thursday visitors from anywhere outside of the state will instead be advised to self-quarantine for a period of 14 days and to seek out a COVID-19 test upon their arrival in or return to New Mexico.

Previously, visitors or arrivals from "high-risk" states were required to physically separate from others for at least 14 days from the date of their entry into New Mexico or for the duration of their presence in the state, whichever is shorter.

In Biden's Early Days, Signs Of Trump-Era Problems At Border - By Nomaan Merchant, Associated Press

The day after she gave birth in a Texas border hospital, Nailet and her newborn son were taken by federal agents to a holding facility that immigrants often refer to as the "icebox."

Inside, large cells were packed with women and their young children. Nailet and her son were housed with 15 other women and given a mat to sleep on, with little space to distance despite the coronavirus pandemic, she said. The lights stayed on round the clock. Children constantly sneezed and coughed.

Nailet, who kept her newborn warm with a quilt she got at the hospital, told The Associated Press that Border Patrol agents wouldn't tell her when they would be released. She and her son were detained for six days in a Border Patrol station. That's twice as long as federal rules generally allow.

"I had to constantly insist that they bring me wipes and diapers," said Nailet, who left Cuba last year and asked that her last name be withheld for fear of retribution if she's forced to return.

Larger numbers of immigrant families have been crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in the first weeks of President Joe Biden's administration. Warning signs are emerging of the border crises that marked former President Donald Trump's term: Hundreds of newly released immigrants are getting dropped off with nonprofit groups, sometimes unexpectedly, and accounts like Nailet's of prolonged detention in short-term facilities are growing.

Measures to control the virus have sharply cut space in holding facilities that got overwhelmed during a surge of arrivals in 2018 and 2019, when reports emerged of families packed into cells and unaccompanied children having to care for each other. U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Wednesday that its enforcement encounters at the southwest border rose 6% in January from the previous month, part of a steady rise since crossings plummeted at the beginning of the pandemic.

Most of the Border Patrol's stations aren't designed to serve children and families or hold people long term. To deal with the new influx, the agency on Tuesday reopened a large tent facility in South Texas to house immigrant families and children.

In a statement last week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said some of its facilities had reached "maximum safe holding capacity" and cited several challenges: COVID-19 protocols, changes in Mexican law and limited space to hold immigrants.

"We will continue to use all current authorities to avoid keeping individuals in a congregate setting for any length of time," said the agency, which declined an interview request.

Meanwhile, long-term holding facilities for children who cross the border alone — some sent by parents forced to wait in Mexico — are 80% full. U.S. Health and Human Services, which runs those centers, will reopen a surge facility at a former camp for oil field workers in Carrizo Springs, Texas, as early as Monday. It can accommodate about 700 teenagers. Surge facilities have an estimated cost of $775 per child per day, and Democrats sharply criticized them during the Trump years.

There's no clear driving factor for the increase in families and children crossing. Some experts and advocates believe more are trying to cross illegally now that Biden is president, believing his administration will be more permissive than Trump's.

Many have waited for a year or longer under Trump's "Remain in Mexico" program that forces asylum-seekers to stay south of the border while a judge considers their case. The White House isn't adding people to the program but hasn't said how it will resolve pending cases. It's also declined to expel unaccompanied children under a pandemic-related public health order issued by Trump.

Others cite the fallout of natural disasters in Central America and turmoil in countries like Haiti.

The U.S. also has stopped sending back some immigrant families to parts of Mexico, particularly areas of Tamaulipas state across from South Texas. The change in practice appears to be uneven, with immigrants being expelled in other places and no clear explanation for the differences.

A law has taken effect in Mexico that prohibits holding children in migrant detention centers. But Mexico's foreign ministry said in a statement that agreements with the U.S. during the pandemic remain "on the same terms." The statement noted "it is normal that there be adjustments at the local level, but that does not mean that the practice has changed or stopped."

Some pregnant mothers, like Nailet, who have been refused entry to the U.S. cross again while in labor. Their children become U.S. citizens by birthright. The Border Patrol generally releases those families into the country, though reports have emerged of immigrant parents and U.S.-born children being expelled.

In Nailet's case, CBP said an unforeseen spike in the number of families crossing the border near Del Rio, about 150 miles (241 kilometers) west of San Antonio, led to her prolonged detention.

Advocates say officials should have released Nailet quickly, as well as other families with young children, and should speed up processing to avoid delays. Authorities have long resisted what they refer to as "catch and release," which they say inspires more immigrants to try to enter the country illegally, often through smugglers linked to transnational gangs.

Still in pain from giving birth, Nailet nursed her newborn in the cold cell. When she told border agents that the hospital said to return on Feb. 1, she says they refused to take her.

CBP says Nailet and her son passed a health check Wednesday evening.

She was released Thursday and taken to a hotel with help from a nonprofit group, the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition, which is one of several organizations receiving larger numbers of immigrant families after they leave government custody.

Dr. Amy Cohen, a child psychiatrist and executive director of immigration advocacy group Every Last One, described how border detention can traumatize a newborn: the cold, the constant light, the stress emanating from their nursing mother.

"That is a tremendously vulnerable time," she said. "He is consuming the stress that she is experiencing. This is his first exposure to the world outside the womb. This is extraordinarily cruel and dangerous."

A previous rise in illegal border crossings combined with delays in processing families led to horrendous conditions in several border stations in 2019, with shortages of food and water and children in many cases fending for themselves.

The year before, when the Trump administration separated thousands of immigrant families under its "zero tolerance" policy, many people were detained at a converted warehouse in South Texas. Thousands of children taken from their parents went into government custody, including surge facilities in Tornillo, Texas, and Homestead, Florida.

___

Associated Press journalists Christopher Sherman and María Verza in Mexico City contributed to this report.

New Mexico Touts Progress Against COVID-19 Infections - Associated Press

New Mexico officials on Wednesday said they would be ending mandatory self-quarantine requirements for visitors and residents arriving in the state while more counties have reported less spread of the virus over the last two weeks. 

" class="wysiwyg-break drupal-content" src="/sites/all/modules/contrib/wysiwyg/plugins/break/images/spacer.gif" title="<--break-->">More than half of the state's 33 counties have emerged from strict lockdown — earning favorable yellow and green ratings on a color-coded map — as test positivity rates decline. 

That opens permission for limited indoor dining at restaurants, though movie theaters, bars and contact recreational facilities remain closed statewide.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham sounded an optimistic note about progress against COVID-19 during an online news conference, noting that average daily deaths, infections and hospitalizations were declining.

"Today is a day to really feel good about the collective efforts of the state," Lujan Grisham said.

She acknowledged a one-day surge in virus-related deaths of 31 on Wednesday. 

Health officials also confirmed that the state's allotment of vaccine doses from the federal government will increase next week to about 61,000, marking a more than 8% increase from last week. 

"We're showing that you can efficiently get this vaccine out," Lujan Grisham said, acknowledging frustrations among people on the state's waiting list. "New Mexico Just needs more vaccine."

State health officials pointed to testing efforts and high vaccine distribution rates for the recent suppression of the virus in parts of New Mexico.

Nearly 5% of the population has been fully vaccinated, and state officials have been pushing for more doses to be delivered as the number of residents who have registered to receive a shot topped 605,000 on Wednesday.

As for the travel restrictions, beginning Thursday visitors from anywhere outside of the state will instead be advised to self-quarantine for a period of 14 days and to seek out a COVID-19 test upon their arrival in or return to New Mexico.

Previously, visitors or arrivals from "high-risk" states were required to physically separate from others for at least 14 days from the date of their entry into New Mexico or for the duration of their presence in the state, whichever is shorter.

Navajo Nation Reports 38 More COVID-19 Cases, 11 More Deaths - Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials on Wednesday reported 38 new COVID-19 cases and 11 more deaths. 

The latest figures raised the totals to 29,041 cases and 1,086 known deaths since the pandemic began. 

Tribal officials said additional federal personnel are beginning to arrive to support vaccination efforts on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. 

The Navajo Department of Health has identified 44 communities with uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 from Jan. 22 to Feb. 4, down from 75 communities in recent weeks. 

The tribe has extended its stay-at-home order with a revised nightly curfew to limit the virus' spread on the reservation. 

The Navajo Nation also is lifting weekend lockdowns to allow more vaccination events.

New Mexico State Senate Approves Economic Relief Package - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

The New Mexico Senate pressed forward Wednesday with pandemic-related financial relief measures, including minimal-interest loans to small businesses that have been battered by the virus and emergency health restrictions.

The Democrat-led chamber overwhelmingly approved a trio of bills that also would offer tax breaks for restaurants and a temporary waiver on liquor license fees.

The bills now move to the state House for consideration. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signaled her willingness to approve broad relief measures amid aggressive public health restrictions placed on businesses by her administration.

A centerpiece bill from state Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque would authorize loans of up to $150,000 to small businesses at sub-prime rates of less than 2% annual interest. It passed on a 35-3 vote with several senators recusing themselves from a vote because of ties to businesses that might apply for relief.

The bill allows a state trust fund to invest up to $500 million in loans to businesses with ownership ties to New Mexico — forsaking some traditional investments based on risks and returns.

The proposed policy builds on a more limited small business loan program last year that provided a total of about $40 million in loans of as much as $75,000 each. The new program would allow the loans to be refinanced at more favorable terms.

"The best thing we can hope for in terms of our recovery is that firms across the state begin to grow again, take risks, taking out loans, taking out credit to build, to invest, to grow, to employ more people, to make capital investments," Candelaria told a Senate panel earlier this week.

The Legislature is racing against the clock during its 60-day session that ends March 20 to enact economic relief measures, amid uncertainty about a possible new round of direct federal aid to state and local governments. 

A pending decision from the state Supreme Court could allow businesses to pursue compensation from the state in response to emergency health orders. In separately proposed legislation, lawmakers from both parties are calling for checks on the governor's emergency powers during pandemics.

Abortion-Rights Bill Approaches Decisive Vote In New Mexico - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

An effort to shore up abortion rights in New Mexico is poised for a decisive vote in the state Senate. 

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth scheduled deliberations for Thursday on a bill that would repeal a 1969 ban on most abortion procedures. 

The ban could go into effect if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion ruling. 

New Mexico's move to ensure future abortion access provides a counterpoint to 10 states where outright abortion bans have been proposed this year, as Republicans vow to test where the Supreme Court stands after the appointment of three conservative justices by former President Donald Trump.

Efforts to overturn the abortion ban are supported by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and a broad majority in the Democrat-dominated state House.

The partisan dividing line on abortion has become more pronounced in New Mexico in recent years.

Five incumbent Democratic Senators who joined with Republicans to uphold the dormant state abortion ban in 2019 were ousted in last year's Democratic primary election. 

Among Republicans, state Rep. Phelps Anderson of Roswell was compelled last week to leave the state GOP after casting a vote favorable to abortion rights in committee. He could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

New Mexico's 1969 abortion statute allows medical termination of a pregnancy with permission of a specialized hospital board only in instances of incest, rape reported to police, grave medical risks to the woman and indications of grave medical defects in the fetus.

The law has been dormant since 1973, when the nation's highest court issued the Roe v. Wade decision, overriding state laws that banned or severely restricted access to abortion procedures.

Anti-abortion legislators say a repeal would drive away from New Mexico valued medical professionals who are conscientious objectors to abortion procedures. 

Republicans including Sen. Gregg Schmedes of Tijeras have pushed for a "conscience protection clause" in support of health professionals who oppose abortion on religious or moral grounds.

New Mexico Lawmakers Support School Funding In Native Areas - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press

A bill that would undo an education funding formula that disproportionately deprives Native American communities of school funds earned support Wednesday from members of the New Mexico House Education Committee.

School districts surrounded by tribal lands, as well as federal lands like military bases, rely on federal education Impact Aid instead of the traditional land taxes that other communities can raise.

New Mexico's education funding formula has for decades deducted federal Impact Aid from state education funding. In recent years, 75% was withheld under this formula, depriving affected school districts of around $60 million in the 2020 fiscal year.

Chronic underfunding of education for Indigenous students and other vulnerable group was ruled unconstitutional by a state court in 2018. The ruling was upheld last summer after a motion to dismiss by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was rejected.

Instead of deducting the 75%, schools would be able to use the funding on things like language education or capital improvements — items deemed to be deficient in the state lawsuit. 

The bill, which passed the committee on a 14-0 vote, has the support of Democratic leadership.

Audit Raises Concerns About Wildfire Risks At US Nuclear Lab - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

An audit says one of the nation's premier nuclear laboratories isn't taking the necessary precautions to guard against wildfires. 

The finding by the U.S. Energy Department's inspector general comes as wildfire risks intensify across the drought-stricken U.S. West.

Los Alamos National Laboratory is the birthplace of the atomic bomb and has experienced hundreds of millions of dollars in losses and damage from previous wildfires. 

That includes one that threatened a stash of radioactive waste stored on lab property in 2000. 

Watchdog groups say the federal government needs to take note of the latest findings and conduct a comprehensive review before the lab ramps up production of key plutonium parts used in the nation's nuclear arsenal.

"The threat and risks of wildfire to the lab and northern New Mexico will continue to increase because of climate warming, drought and expanded nuclear weapons production," said Jay Coghlan, director of the group Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

The audit released this month found that cutting back vegetation along power lines and other measures to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires were not always done, increasing the potential for another devastating fire like the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000. 

Federal auditors said not all fire roads were maintained to ensure safe passage for firefighters and equipment responding to blazes on lab property.

The audit also cited federal policy that requires a comprehensive, risk-based approach to wildfire management — something the inspector general's office said had not been developed by the contractor that manages the lab for the U.S. government. It also pointed to a lack of oversight by Energy Department field staff.

It was not immediately clear how many acres were thinned during the last year or whether the lab had any major projects planned for 2021.

New Mexico Sheriff Embraces Body Cameras After Resistance - KOB-TV, Associated Press

A county sheriff's office in New Mexico says a sheriff who has previously resisted the use of deputy-worn body cameras is now embracing the technology. 

KOB-TV reported that Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales said on Tuesday that he is looking forward to what the cameras have to offer. 

The Bernalillo County sheriff's office outfitted deputies with police body-worn cameras last month. 

Gonzales unveiled the device on Jan. 22 that each of the 310 deputies are now wearing after a newly approved state law requiring law enforcement to have body cameras. 

Gonzales said he is now "embracing" the technology.

Bernalillo County, which includes Albuquerque, has agreed to a more than $3 million, five-year contract for the BodyWorn camera by Utility, Inc. The contract covers two cameras in each vehicle, Wi-Fi hot spots for the cruisers, uniform tailoring to hold the devices and a holster that will automatically activate the cameras when a gun is drawn. 

Albuquerque Woman Accused Of Trying To Abduct 2 Young Sons Arrested - Associated Press

Police in Albuquerque say a woman has been arrested for allegedly trying to abduct her two sons. 

They said the boys — ages 3 and 6 — were found safe at a motel Wednesday.

Police issued an Amber Alert on Tuesday after Clorisa Renee Covington took the two boys without permission after their dental appointment despite the children being in a state protective care program.

Covington doesn't have custody of the two boys and will be facing criminal charges, police said. 

It was unclear Wednesday if she has a lawyer yet.

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