Dan Frosch

Un-Housing the Poor

In December 1998, Tarrah Leach's life finally hit rock bottom. She was barely 17 years old, already a mother of two small infant daughters, and hiding out in a domestic shelter. She'd been married only a year, a difficult year that the teenage couple spent first in a homeless shelter and then in a small public housing apartment in Lancaster, Ohio, a town some 32 miles southeast of Columbus. And though Leach still loved her childhood sweetheart, she could no longer tolerate his abuse and beatings. So she took her kids and walked out the door without a dollar to her name.

"By the time, I’d left him, I had this new family with no money and no home to help me raise them," Leach says.

Help, however, was around the corner. Leach received a fresh start in life courtesy of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program. The federal assistance program enabled Leach to rent an affordable apartment in a safe neighborhood, a decision that she says saved her life. After waiting for two months, her family was able to move into a quiet two-bedroom trailer, which she rented for a reasonable $100 a month thanks to the HUD voucher, as opposed to the market rate of $425.

The Section 8 program, created in 1974 during the Nixon years, offers poor families a housing voucher to rent an apartment or home put on the market by participating landlords. With the voucher, a family only has to pay 30 percent of their adjusted income toward the rent, with the local housing authority paying for the balance with HUD money. Under HUD regulations, 75 percent of a housing authority’s vouchers must go to families making 30 percent or less of the median income in their area.

The program represents a vital lifeline for families with extremely low incomes who get the opportunity to move their family out of public housing in poor and often dangerous neighborhoods. Currently, more than two million families use Section 8 vouchers to pay a subsidized rent.

The Department of Housing, however, is planning to cut that lifeline.

Last month, Congress began hearings on two bills -- one each in the House and Senate -- that threaten to reorient federal assistance away from the families that need it most. Specifically, the legislation would double Section 8’s existing median income cap to 60 percent, thereby allowing families who earn more to qualify for these vouchers.

It also removes rules which ensure that families in serious need receive the most assistance. Under the new measure, local housing authorities are free to award up to 90 percent of their vouchers to applicants that qualify under the raised income cap -- allowing them to dole out the majority of vouchers to families who earn more and therefore pay more of the rent.

HUD, which drafted both pieces of legislation, is framing this reorientation as a response to the rising costs of a program that has jumped from $11 to $15 billion over the past three years. Last year, HUD cut millions in Section 8 funding but restored some of it after an outcry from housing authorities who said they were being asked operate the program but deprived of the funding required to do it.

If HUD is successful in its latest bid, success stories like Tarrah Leach will likely become a faraway memory. Thanks to Section 8, Leach was able to get her GED even as she worked at WalMart, and later attended nursing school on her days off. She eventually graduated with honors and got her nursing license.

"I still would have been struggling, I wouldn’t have been able to go to school, to get the nursing job I have now�not to mention paying rent, the bills and taking care of my kids," she says. "It wouldn’t have happened without that voucher."

Low-income housing advocacy groups and some members of Congress say that HUD’s proposals will essentially decimate its own program and unduly target the very people it’s supposed to help most. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), the impacts of the changes would be enormous: low income families in need of vouchers will invariably be passed over by cash-strapped housing authorities who will tend to horde their funds by giving the vouchers to families who make more money. Housing authorities have lost $2 billion in HUD funding over the past four fiscal years and are in the midst of a serious budget crunch.

"It’s as if HUD figured out the worst possible solutions to low income housing problems and crammed them into one bill," says Linda Couch, NLIHC’s deputy director. "The administration’s goal here is clearly to save cash. And it’s at the expense of the people who need housing the most."

The people most in need of HUD's assistance are often black and Hispanic families, who account for 53 percent of all vouchers a year, according to a recent Poverty and Race Research Action Council (PRRAC) study. Executive Director Philip Tegeler says the proposed legislation could create a scenario where housing authorities are denying vouchers to poor minorities while giving them to slightly better off white families in order to preserve their already depleted coffers. If the legislation moves forward, PRRAC predicts that the 131,000 families of color served by Section 8 could quickly be cut in half, and over the next decade, hundreds of thousands of vouchers would be shifted away from poor black and Hispanic applicants to less impoverished whites.

"This lifting of the current income targeting is not race neutral. And so the bill ends up having serious civil rights consequences," Tegeler says. He also points to the serious implications of another aspect of HUD’s proposal which would give housing authorities more power in determining whether Section 8 families can move out of a particular neighborhood -- a process called "portability." The proposed restrictions will make it much harder for black and Hispanic families to move from ghettoes into areas with more opportunity, further entrenching segregation in cities that are already carved up by color lines.

HUD spokeswoman Donna White does not agree that the proposal will push lower-income folks out of the program.

"The bottom line is now they have options. If you make 32 percent of the median income in your area, why should you be cut out of the program?" she says. "We think that by giving the housing authorities more options, more flexibility, as opposed to having follow strict guidelines," housing authorities will be better able to help the families in their area. White also claims that this increased flexibility could help cut down on waiting lists for vouchers, which can last up to five years in major cities according to HUD.

HUD's argument, however, does not impress a number of members of Congress who are opposed to the bill. A May 17 Congressional hearing before the House Financial Services Committee provoked decided and bipartisan opposition from numerous members, including Barbara Lee (D-California), Julia Carson (D-Indiana) and Christopher Shays (R-Connecticut). Shays was one of 20 members of Congress who wrote a letter on Apr. 29 urging the House Appropriations Committee to boost funding for Section 8.

"While it is clear we need to take steps to reform the Section 8, we can’t forget how successful the program has been," Shays said in an email response to AlterNet. "I’m eager to work with the Financial Services Committee to craft responsible legislation, but am concerned [the bill] simply passes the buck to the local housing authorities."

Among those testifying in front of Congress was Leach, now 24 and a nurse at a convalescent home. She came all the way from Ohio because she couldn’t stand the thought of another single mother having to endure what she went through without any help.

"If it had not been for the Housing Assistance, I, as a single mother, would not have been able to put a roof over my children’s heads. My children would have suffered because I would have had to work all of the time just to make ends meet to pay rent and utilities," she told the committee. "I ask that you consider my story."

Land of the Detained

Another Thursday night at the Hudson County Correctional Center in northern New Jersey and everyone knows the routine. It starts with the line of people--overwhelmingly black and Hispanic--snaking out of the jail's front doors all waiting for an hour to clear the one metal detector. Then there's the half hour stuffed into a drab waiting room, before visitors are brought in shifts to an adjacent series of booths where inmates and loved ones laugh and cry over a phone for 30 minutes--separated by a thick glass partition clouded with years' worth of dust and parting kisses.

It's here that Wolff Marsan sits, tall and quiet at 30, with dark skin, a tightly trimmed goatee and tired black eyes. Unlike the other inmates, nobody close to him has come visiting tonight. They're all either back in Port Au Prince, Haiti where he was born, or Cambridge, Mass. the city to which he moved when he was a boy. Yet he's here, retelling a story he's told countless times to friends, lawyers, even himself.

"I can't believe I'm still locked up, son." Marsan says in a soft tumble of Haitian patois and standard hip-hop speak, his voice muffled by the half-broken phone and the clamor of wives, girlfriends, sisters, mothers and children. "Twenty-eight months and I'm still in this place. And now they're trying to send me back."

"Back" for Marsan is Haiti, his home before age 13, when he and his sister and father came to Cambridge. It was in Cambridge that Marsan made a mistake that has cost him dearly for the rest of his life.

In 1996, at the age of 21, Marsan was arrested for selling about $20 worth of cocaine to a plainclothes detective. Marsan plead guilty and received probation. "I just got caught up in a bad situation," he says about the bust.

A year later, Marsan was arrested after a late night brawl. He was charged with possession of a knife he says wasn't his. Though Marsan was acquitted, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) began deportation proceedings against him based on his 1996 drug conviction. The INS could do this under new federal regulations passed in 1996 that allowed the agency to deal harshly with immigrants with criminal records. Marsan, a green card holder, was sent back to Haiti and ordered never to return.

"They had me on this plane with all these other Haitians they were sending back," he says. "I couldn't believe it. I was crying."

In Haiti, Marsan was thrown in the notorious National Penitentiary in Port Au Prince for six months and forced to live in a cramped cell with 25 other men and a single toilet. He says he was regularly beaten and given "the sun treatment," where guards would tie him to chair and use a mirror to reflect the mid-day tropical sun's searing rays on his shaved head.

"The prison in Haiti makes where I am now seem sweet, and this is tough too so imagine what that was like," he says with a rueful grin.

After six months in jail, Marsan finally thought he'd caught a break. A politically connected cousin aligned with then Haitian president Jean Aristide bribed prison authorities to let Marsan out. But the good fortune was short lived. These were dangerous times and upon his release, Marsan was caught in the middle of the bloody battle for political power which had enveloped the country.

As the violence careened out of control, Aristide fled into exile and Marsan's cousin took off for Florida. Even worse, a rival political faction singled out Marsan's family as being disloyal--his mother still lived in Haiti--and began threatening them. One night, the Marsan home was peppered with gunfire. Fearing for his life, Marsan fled Port Au Prince and sneaked across the border into the Dominican Republic. From there, in January of 2003, Marsan hopped a flight for Montreal.

Marsan had hoped to finally start a new life. But his flight stopped in Newark, New Jersey for a brief layover and Marsan was detained by INS officers for illegally re-entering the U.S.

Even though he insisted he was simply trying to reach Canada, Marsan found himself behind bars once more, this time at the Hudson County jail in a special section for immigrant detainees. It's been his home for the last 28 months, as he fights the deportation orders against him.

"Marsan's situation is a living, breathing example of someone who has been wrongfully denied his rights," says Aarti Shahani, co-director of Families for Freedom, a New York based non-profit that deals with deportation issues.

Marsan's story reveals how hopelessly mangled the U.S. deportation system has become over the last decade, particularly for immigrants in this country legally. It's a system which has long been complicated but has now, ostensibly, morphed into a twisting labyrinth of legal technicalities all seeming to lead to the same brick wall-deportation. Much of the current mess revolves around a special legal waiver known as 212(c) which once existed for non-citizens with criminal convictions as a way to avoid deportation and has recently been brought back by the federal government.

Less than ten years ago, Wolff Marsan's fate might have turned out differently. Though federal immigration law has long stipulated automatic deportation for legal non-citizens convicted of serious crimes, individuals convicted of lesser, non-violent felonies were often granted a waiver of deportation called 212(c).

The waiver allowed a hearing where a detainee had the chance to prove to an immigration judge that they should be allowed to stay in the U.S. Lawyers advised their non-citizen clients to plead guilty, serve a reduced sentence and then file for 212(c) as soon as INS started deportation proceedings against them.

In the spring of 1996, everything changed. Riding a sudden tide of anger over crimes committed by non-citizens, Congress drastically tightened immigration law and in the process, wiped 212(c) off the books. Even worse for non-citizens, INS, buoyed by its new power, began deporting people retroactively. If a non-citizen was arrested before 1996, served their time and was released after 212(c) was eliminated, INS could now deport them unconditionally, despite the fact that the waiver had been available at the time of the initial conviction.

The INS continued to deport immigrants retroactively until 2001, when the law changed again. Ironically, the impetus this time was the case of another Haitian immigrant, Enrico St. Cyr. In 1996, St. Cyr was arrested for selling approximately $100 worth of cocaine and served three years in a Connecticut prison. Upon completing his sentence, he was seized by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services and locked up again on orders of deportation. Because of INS's new retroactive policy, St. Cyr could no longer file a motion for 212(c) even though he committed his crime when the waiver was still being granted. Represented by the ACLU, St. Cyr sued the federal government on the grounds that he was lawfully eligible for the waiver. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2001. The court ruled that Congress never intended for INS to apply its new rule retroactively. That meant St. Cyr and other immigrants facing deportation because of a pre-1997 conviction were allowed to file a waiver.

St. Cyr was eventually freed, and immigrants' rights groups initially hailed the decision as a landmark victory. But irreparable damage had already been done. Thousands of immigrants had been kicked out between the 1996 and 2001 laws. Immigrant rights groups had asked that 212(c) eligibility be expanded to include those people already given the boot. Many of these individuals' family members were still here and wanted their loved ones back. Others, able to skip out on deportation orders, had vanished into the shadow world of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Still others had been deported only to sneak back into the country illegally.

"The Supreme Court had clearly ruled that the laws by which this group of people was deported was wrong," says Zachary Nightingale, an attorney for the San Francisco immigration law firm Van Der Hout, Brigagliano & Nightingale. Rights groups felt it only made sense then, to allow redress for the people wrongfully deported. Instead, the Justice Department laid out an unflinchingly narrow set of eligibility requirements, the most restrictive being the denial of the waiver to those who were already gone or had re-entered the U.S. illegally.

Immigrants' rights groups were aghast. In their eyes, these were the very people who needed the wavers most.

"It's a discouraging interpretation of the law, because the majority of people who should have been affected are no longer here," says Dan Kesselbrenner, director of the National Immigration Project, part of the National Lawyers Guild.

When asked about the refusal to allow deportees to apply for 212(c), Elaine Komis, spokeswoman for the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review, referred AlterNet to a 2002 Justice Department document which says the government took steps to avoid deporting non-citizens retroactively during the five years St. Cyr was being litigated.

Such claims mean little to those trying to figure out who exactly is eligible. Benita Jain, a legal staff member for the Immigrant Defense Project in New York City, says the majority of people who've been calling to inquire on behalf of loved ones about 212(c) are out of luck because their family members have already been deported.

"The government is not really doing justice to what the Supreme Court clearly puts forth in the St. Cyr case, that deporting people retroactively is illegal," Jain says.

To make matters more confusing, in October of last year, the Justice Department announced that anyone who wished to apply for 212(c) waiver had only until April 26, 2005. Then, the window of opportunity would be closed. Legal groups decried the deadline as arbitrary and argued that many immigrants had no idea it existed. The Justice Department has held firm.

Back at the Hudson County jail, Wolff Marsan has already submitted his motion for 212(c) and is waiting to see if a judge will grant him a hearing. Like so many others, it would seem he is ineligible because technically, Marsan has already been deported.

On April 22, Aarti Shahani wrote a letter to the Justice Department explaining Marsan's story and making the case for his release. In the letter, Shahani promises to give Marsan a paid internship with Families for Freedom if the government lets him go. Both she and Marsan know full well there's a good chance he'll be shipped back to Haiti, a country with a reputation for tossing deportees in jail no matter the circumstances. Marsan's application to avoid expulsion under the United Nations Convention Against Torture has already been denied by the government.

As he waits, Marsan often finds himself thinking back on everything that's happened: Could the $20 bag of dope he pushed to the undercover cop back in Cambridge really have led to all this? Has he actually been behind bars for the last 28 months for mistakenly re-entering a country that had kicked him out under an illegal policy?

"It just doesn't make sense. Marsan is literally rotting in jail," says Shahani, who's been visiting Marsan for two years and sometimes brings her mother along to keep him company.

As for Marsan, he waits and hopes, and strokes his goatee he's been growing since he was jailed.

"I didn't have this when I went to jail for the first time," he manages a chuckle.

Marsan's smile vanishes, and his eyes look tired again. He pushes a clenched fist up against the glass window separating him from a world that grows farther and farther away with every day.

It's a world he might not see again anytime soon.

Border Brouhaha

The way the lawsuit tells it, Jose Rodrigo Quiroz Acosta had been walking for one day and two nights before the group he was traveling with ran out of water and food in the high desert of Cochise County, Ariz., just north of the Mexican border.

It was the winter of 2003, and Quiroz and four other Mexican nationals were trying to cross into Arizona, just as thousands of other undocumented immigrants do every year, choosing the 82-mile swath of border which spans Cochise County because it's thought to be patrolled less efficiently by the United States Border Patrol than other popular crossing spots in Texas and California.

Though Quiroz's group had made it into Arizona safely, that meant relatively little. Weather can be treacherous here � with searing heat during the summer and freezing temperatures throughout the winter. Over the past two years, the Cochise County sheriff's department has found more than 40 bodies of undocumented immigrants, most of them dead from either dehydration or hypothermia, depending on the season. And as the biting air bore down this particular January, one of Quiroz's group wandered off in search of help.

After another day, and with no sign of their comrade, Quiroz decided to set off on his own, walking through the night nearly eight hours before finally reaching a highway at daybreak, where he began trying to flag down cars for help.

Luckily, it seemed, a pick-up truck soon spotted Quiroz and pulled over along side of the road. But when Quiroz approached the truck, a man stepped out of the vehicle and opened up the back of his camper, unleashing two growling dogs. Terrified, Quiroz fled down the highway, but the dogs were too fast, knocking him to the ground and biting him, he says. Quiroz claims the man then walked towards him screaming in English, before grabbing Quiroz's hair and shaking and smacking him repeatedly on his face, head and neck. The man then walked back to his car and took out what appeared to be a two-way radio; two Border Patrol officers soon appeared and took Quiroz into custody.

Quiroz was deported back to Mexico the next day, but with the help of local immigrants' rights groups, he decided to sue local rancher Roger Barnett � the man he says attacked him � for battery, false imprisonment and intentionally inflicting emotional distress. He's not alone. Three other lawsuits are currently pending against Barnett, his wife Barbara and brother Donald who often accompany Barnett as he patrols on or near his 22,000-acre ranch, alleging a litany of charges � from impersonating Border Patrol officers to assaulting and violating the rights of undocumented immigrants or Mexican-Americans whom the Barnetts came upon.

The lawsuits have piled up largely without notice, as the national media has instead riveted its attention on the now infamous Minutemen � the vigilante border protection group who earlier this month fanned out across this expansive southern Arizona county in armed patrols, vowing to secure the border if the federal authorities couldn't. But up until now, at least, it's the Barnetts who have troubled immigrants' rights groups the most.

"[The Barnetts] like to play cowboy. They like to think of themselves as Wyatt Earp and go after Mexicans to essentially reinforce their images as macho men. It's despicable," says Jesus Romo, Quiroz's lawyer.

Aside from Quiroz's suit, filed late last year, Cochise County resident Donald Makenzie is suing over an October, 2003 incident in which Makenzie came upon Roger and Donald Barnett, armed with guns and marching approximately 30 Mexican nationals through the property on which Makenzie works. Barbara Barnett was present as well, according to the suit.

Makenzie, who is vice president of Summerland Monastery Inc, a local non-profit that gives humanitarian aid to migrant families who often traverse the monastery's 1,240 acres just after crossing the border, thought Barnett was a federal officer because he says Barnett was wearing a U.S. Border Patrol hat. Makenzie, who's also represented by Romo, is now seeking damages for trespassing and impersonating a federal officer.

Another suit filed last year against the Barnetts by Arizona resident, Ronald Morales and his family, represented by Romo as well, is also pending. The Morales family claims Barnett, who again was with his wife and brother, threatened them, including daughters Angelique and Venese (ages nine and 11), with a loaded AR-15 automatic rifle after they'd wandered unknowingly onto his property during a deer hunting trip in October of last year. The Morales family is Mexican-American and U.S. citizens.

"Barnett mistreats both Mexican nationals and Mexican-American citizens equally," says Jennifer Allen, executive director of Border Action Network, a Tucson-based immigrants' rights group, which has been working with Romo on the lawsuits.

Most recently, on March 4, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) filed suit against the Barnetts, alleging, among other things, that Roger Barnett, accompanied by Donald and Barbara, assaulted and violated the civil rights of 19 undocumented immigrants they'd found trekking though the Barnett ranch a year ago. According to the lawsuit, Barnett approached the group with his dogs, and waved his gun at them, calling them "fucking Mexicans" and ordering them to move.

The lawsuit also charges that Barnett told one of the women, 23-year-old Ana Maria Vicente, who was hiding in some underbrush, "Levantate perra" (Get up bitch), before kicking her in her leg. Barnett eventually called the Border Patrol, who took the group into custody before deporting them.

"They feared for their lives," says Araceli S. Perez, the MALDEF lawyer handling the case. "It was clear Barnett's actions were motivated by racial animus."

MALDEF has also named Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever in its suit, claiming he's done nothing to stop Barnett despite the fact that 20 incident reports were filed by his office between 1999 and 2002 regarding Barnett's detention of immigrants.

Cochise County sheriff's spokeswoman Carol Capas confirmed that her department had investigated and filed "numerous" reports on Barnett's alleged abuse of undocumented immigrants but that it was up to the Cochise County Attorney to decide whether or not to prosecute.

In a March 7, 2004 sheriff's report obtained by AlterNet regarding Barnett's run-in with the undocumented immigrants MALDEF is representing, law enforcement officers point out that Barnett had been avoiding them, despite several attempts to interview him about the incident.

Cochise County Attorney Ed Rheinheimer says his office had considered prosecuting Barnett in the past, but ultimately decided his actions were within Arizona state law, which allows the use and threat of deadly force to protect one's property.

"If we get a set of reports from the sheriff's office we review them," says Rheinheimer, who noted that his office had interviewed Ana Maria Vicente. "We take these reports seriously. I can't say we're looking to prosecute, but we're not looking not to prosecute either."

Certainly, Barnett's actions are nothing new in Arizona � over the past five years, he's drawn the ire of immigrant's rights organizations and been lauded by vigilante rancher protection groups alike. Barnett has publicly claimed to have turned over 10,000 undocumented immigrants to the authorities, and insisted all along that he's simply protecting his property from an illegal invasion of people who litter his land with waste.

Barnett says his lawyers were reviewing the recent spate of lawsuits. "I don't have nothing else to comment," he says.

Rob Griffin, spokesman for the Tucson sector of the U.S. Border Patrol would not comment on the Barnett situation either but says the Border Patrol does not support anyone taking the law into their own hands. According to Griffin, the Tucson sector of the Border Patrol apprehended 491,771 undocumented immigrants trying to cross from Mexico into Arizona last year.

Meanwhile, Border Action Network and Jesus Romo are strongly considering filing suit against Cochise County Attorney Rheinheimer for failing to rein in Barnett. They're also planning on lodging a complaint with the Organization of American States' International Commission on Human Rights, as there's no evidence Barnett plans on modifying his approach anytime soon.

"The lawsuits are critical in that we're putting pressure on elected officials who should be prosecuting someone who's clearly breaking the law," says Jennifer Allen. "Barnett has no regard for people's basic dignity, just because of the color of their skin, language they speak, where they're from or where their family is from."

Sudden Death

The night before Herbie Tolman took the electrician's test at Gary Works, the steel plant in Gary, Indiana, he was up all night vomiting.

It wasn't just that this was a chance at a secure full-time job, and that ever since high school, Herbie always seemed to be bouncing around – one year as a bartender, another running his own crane repair business, yet another working in some of the other local steel mills. Nor was it simply the money, though the $75,000 starting salary would triple the income from odd jobs that he was bringing in to support his wife, Randa, and their two young children, Sydney and Cameron.

More than anything else, a job at Gary Works meant being part of U.S. Steel, the legendary Pittsburgh company founded in 1901 by J.P. Morgan, Charles Schwab and Andrew Carnegie, and America's most prolific steel producer ever since. Gary Works, as it happened, was U.S. Steel's largest plant, a mammoth 3,000-acre facility on the southern shore of Lake Michigan, belching out some 7.5 million tons of steel products ever year to make cars, buildings and home appliances.

Most people in the city of Gary and the surrounding blue collar steel towns, the soul of this part of Indiana for over a hundred years, knew that it was hard to do better than Gary Works, especially if, like Herbie Tolman, you didn't have a college degree. It was the kind of job where, if you were lucky enough to get hired, you were proud to remind neighbors and relatives where you worked; the kind of job where you'd throw on a U.S. Steel T-shirt every time you drove into town, slap company bumpers stickers on your car and join the ranks of one of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) local unions; the kind of job where you'd most likely have food on your family's table until the day you died.

Randa's father, Randall, had worked as a crane repairman at Gary Works for over 30 years fixing the overhead cranes which could span four stories and were used to hoist steel coils around the plant. And he had put in the good word for his son-in-law with the company. Now it was up to Herbie to take the electrician's test and make it in.

And Herbie wanted to pass the test so bad, wanted the job so bad, that he ended up being sick all night, throwing up.

Herbie felt better the next day, took the test and made it. "His whole world changed when he found out about the job," Randa says. "He was so proud."

Over the next five years, Herbie would talk about how much he loved his work to anyone who'd listen – Randa, the kids, even his mother, who he'd call from the plant to talk about what he'd been fixing that day. He especially liked to chat cheerfully about work with Pete Shaffer, his close friend and crane repair crewmate, as they'd change brushes and tips and repair motors on the old cranes. Pete would sometimes joke about how he couldn't shut Herbie up, but Herbie would just laugh. At 39, this was what Herbie had always dreamed of doing, and he was glad everyone knew it.

"Herbie talked about his job around the clock, and he was good at it too," Shaffer remembers. "He was just really a charismatic guy. Everyone liked him."

And then came that fateful autumn day last September. Randa woke with Herbie at 4 AM as she always did, to see him off to work. She'd made him a cup of coffee as usual, knowing he'd likely leave most of it and grab a second cup from the gas station down the street as was his ritual.

As Randa readied herself for a school field trip with Sydney to a farm outside of town, Herbie told her he'd be cooking the steaks and vegetables out on the grill that night. Randa smiled to herself. Herbie loved to cook, especially when he could grill outside in their backyard. Truth be told, he did more cooking than she did, which was fine with her because she always said that if Herbie hadn't been a steel man, he would have been a gourmet chef.

"Have a great time on that field trip," Herbie grinned back, before closing the door behind him.

That afternoon, as Randa was driving back home from the field trip with Sydney, she thought of Herbie hunched diligently over the grill – the tiki torches he'd posted around the backyard flickering from the whisper of cool, western Indiana autumn air as the sweet smoke from the fresh corn and steaks filled the air.

Almost a soon as they got home, Randa heard the van roar into the driveway. Then the strong, hurried footsteps, followed by loud knocking. There were six of them standing there when she opened the door.


"Mrs. Tolman?"


"We're from U.S. Steel."


"There's been an accident. You have to come with us."

It had been a massive 1,600-pound wheel from one of the overhead cranes which did it, they said. Herbie had been working on it and the wheel just fell, suddenly, and crushed him. They told her that Herbie had died around 11 AM, and that he was gone the moment it hit him.

At the hospital, Herbie looked like he was sleeping too – clean shaven, a white sheet tucked under his chin, the same grin with which he'd left her on his lips, fresh blood leaking out of both his ears. According to the Lake County Coroner's report, the wheel had flown into Herbie's upper body after becoming dislodged from a jack, fracturing his skull and severely injuring his chest.

That Saturday, friends, families and workers crammed into the funeral home in Portage, the town where Herbie and Randa lived just outside of Gary, to pay their respects. Herbert's union, USWA Local 1066, paid for it all – the food, the funeral arrangements, everything. Sonny Tolman, Herbie's mother, couldn't believe how many people were there, at least 1,400 by her count, including all of her extended family, Herbert's ex-girlfriend from California, and old friends of her son's she hadn't seen since he was a boy. "I wanted the biggest sendoff I could have for my son and that's what we had," she says. "He had so many friends."

Meanwhile, local newspapers reported that U.S. Steel had fired two of Herbie's crewmates, including Pete Shaffer, for not following proper safety precautions just before the accident, and that investigators from the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) were at the plant trying to figure out exactly what happened.

A Spate Of Accidents

Herbie's death was the first at Gary Works in seven years, but there'd been others like it around the country last year.

In April, Ed Theriot was killed after being trapped between a steel cooling bed and a rail car from one of the trains which transports materials around the Bayou Steel Corporation plant in La Place, Louisiana.

In June, after working more than 20 years at Ispat International in East Chicago, Indiana, Tony Parker fell 20 feet from his work platform at the hot metal transfer station and died.

And just a month before Herbie died, Michael Carney had been crushed to death by a 35,000-pound roll used to flatten steel, which dropped from an overhead crane at the Allegheny Ludlum Steel plant in Vandegrift, Pennsylvania.

All told, after a steady decline in accidents and deaths at steel plants, USWA reported nine fatalities of its union members in steel plants in 2004, up from just three in 2003. Already this year, USWA says six workers have been killed in steel-related accidents, including Velma Burnette, crushed by a loose load of steel at the Republic Engineer Plant in Loraine, Ohio on January 27, the first woman killed at the plant in 40 years.

Explanations as to why this is happening are complex and differ depending on who's giving them, but there's clearly more than one factor involved. Certainly steel work has always been dangerous – most plants have hundreds of employees working skilled jobs with heavy equipment, molten metal and other combustibles and sometimes at dangerous heights. But over the past 20 years, automation of much of what occurs inside the plants has drastically reduced fatalities and accidents.

During the same period however, steel production at U.S. plants plummeted, largely because of foreign competition and an over-saturation of steel on the market. American plants downsized or closed, steel companies filed for bankruptcy and thousands of experienced workers were hustled off into generous early-retirement programs negotiated by the union.

But then, in recent years, a worldwide steel boom began to change the industry's fate and American steel plants have fired up production once again. According to the American Iron and Steel Institute, U.S. steel plants shipped off nearly six percent more product in 2004 than in 2003, and approximately 12 percent more than in 2002.

But while business is good, steel companies have suddenly found themselves without the "old timers," as they're called, whose mastery of their own specialized crafts has been particularly missed now that there's more work to be done. Ostensibly, a far younger, less experienced generation of workers like Herbie Tolman, have been thrust into technically demanding and often dangerous jobs without many of the veterans there to show them the safest way to work.

Unsure of how long the boom will last, steel companies have been reluctant to rehire, despite the fact that during the downturn, crew sizes were scaled down and safety and preventative maintenance staff reduced, says Mike Wright, director of health, safety and environment for USWA.

To meet the increased demand in production, many companies did the next best thing: they signed labor agreements with the USWA which allowed workers to be shifted from the job they'd initially trained for, to different departments within the plant. Indeed, more work, less knowledge and a reduced emphasis on safety have all contributed to the problem, it seems.

"The workers have been under extraordinary pressure," Wright says. This past summer, when it became apparent that the spate of fatalities in steel plants needed desperately to be addressed, three steel trade associations representing many of the major steel companies signed an alliance with OSHA to address safety concerns.

But they left the unions out of the alliance. USWA president Leo Gerard blasted the alliance in a July 8 statement, saying "If they were really interested in safety, they would have turned to the men and women who make these plants run."

An OSHA spokesman defended the decision saying that the trade associations did not want the union involved, at least at first, but that OSHA was open to engaging in a separate safety cooperative with the union.

Faced with the more immediate problem of how to handle the accidents at their own plants, many steel companies also began dealing with the situation individually, albeit in varying degrees.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Bayou Steel installed an automatic shut off switch on its rail cars after Ed Theriot was killed, and another company, International Steel Group, brought union representatives and company officials together to devise more stringent safety standards for its workers.

Last summer, after a series of non-fatal accidents and before Herbie Tolman died, U.S. Steel shut down all of its plants for one hour to talk safety with its workers. The company subsequently launched a reassessment of safety procedures for all of its jobs, and has sent officials out to plants to discuss working conditions.

But there's an underbelly to this safety-consciousness, says the union. U.S. Steel, says the USWA, has also been doing something very dangerous – disciplining employees for reporting injuries and accidents, and in the process forcing workers to think twice about coming forward when something in the plant has gone wrong.

"If there's an injury now, discipline often follows," says Wright. "And as a result, people just aren't reporting what's happening, so you lose basic information on how to make a plant safer."

Local union representatives at other U.S. Steel plants echo Wright's concern. Some workers at Granite City Works in Granite City, Illinois, say that since U.S. Steel took over the plant in 2003, their jobs have become considerably more dangerous, in part because, they say, the company discourages workers from reporting injuries or unsafe conditions.

"At this plant, if you're worried about the safety of the job you're doing, then you are considered insubordinate," says Gary Gaines, financial secretary for Granite City Works USWA Local 1899. "This company refuses to acknowledge that there are hazards in the steel industry."

Last December, one worker at the plant, Karl Richards, was killed from carbon monoxide poisoning while adjusting a valve on a blast furnace, and in February, another worker, David Prengel, was crushed against a loading dock by a cargo train.

John Armstrong, spokesman for U.S. Steel, would not comment on the disciplining of workers for reporting injuries or unsafe conditions, or on what the company was doing to improve safety at its plants. Nor would he say much about Herbie Tolman's death. "This was a terrible tragedy, and we've said everything we're going to say," Armstrong said. "We're not going to rehash this in the media another time."

On January 31, however, Indiana's OSHA office fined U.S. Steel a total of $6,125 for two serious violations involving Herbie Tolman's death. According to OSHA documents, the crane wheel Herbie's crew was working on was not properly cribbed or secured as it should have been, and the electrical extension cord the crew had used was damaged, exposing live wire.

Pete Shaffer, whose arms Herbie died in, is filing a grievance against U.S. Steel to get his job back, as is another co-worker, also fired after the accident. Their union is representing the workers and the process is likely to take months.

As for Randa Tolman, the $588 a week in workers compensation money she gets from the state is hardly enough to pay the bills and support two kids. U.S. Steel told her that Herbie's health insurance would be cut off, and it has, she says. In the meantime, Randa has hired attorneys and is considering legal action against the company in her husband's death.

What hurts the most, Randa says, is that U.S. Steel has yet to call or write to say how sorry it is about Herbie. In the end, she knows that's what he would have wanted.

"Not one person has called from Pittsburgh, not one person! Couldn't they have done that?" she wonders. "Herbie was so proud of that job. He loved it so much. I still can't believe he's never coming back."

Jailhouse Crock

It has all the trappings of a late night, futuristic action movie: A prison facility tucked away somewhere in Mexico, thousands of inmates, and of course, the prison�s private operators, which run the place in a legal and international netherworld. For Arizona officials, however, that scenario is more than just a bad cable TV movie. If some members of the state legislature have their way, it could all become quite real.

Facing severe and costly prison overcrowding and a growing population of undocumented immigrant prisoners, state lawmakers are considering controversial legislation which would set the stage for a prison located in Mexico, built and operated by a private corrections company, to house Mexican nationals arrested in Arizona.

Specifically, the bill calls for the establishment of a �foreign private prison commission� to hire a contractor and oversee the building and administration of a private prison, which would be under the purview of the state despite its location across the border. The bill also stipulates that the entire process would not begin until the existing U.S. prison-transfer treaty with Mexico is changed; the bill sets a deadline of 2010 for the legal path to be cleared.

Supporters of the measure say it would save Arizona taxpayers up to $100 million a year � money which pays for the approximately 4,000 Mexican nationals currently in Arizona prisons � because it�s cheaper to build and operate a prison in Mexico than in the U.S. �We�re getting stuck with a high volume of illegal felons and having to pay for it,� says Republican State Rep. Russell Jones, the bill�s sponsor. �If the federal government is not going to reimburse us, then they should at least put us in a position where we can mitigate some of the costs to Arizona taxpayers.�

Jones also believes the bill will ultimately create a healthier situation for Mexican nationals because, he says, a prison in Mexico would be more sensitive to the language and cultural needs of Mexican inmates, and it would be easier for their families to visit. Currently, Mexican nationals are segregated from the general population in many Arizona correctional facilities because of a variety of factors, including the potential for violence.

Prison reform advocates and immigrant rights groups, however, counter that Jones� bill is a dangerous legal and jurisdictional nightmare and that the state has enough trouble overseeing prisons within its borders, let alone a private facility in another country. They also worry it could further stoke anti-immigrant tensions in a state which recently voted for Proposition 200, a new law which denies basic government services to undocumented immigrants and punishes state employees who don�t report them to the authorities.

�This is about the state legislature wanting to send people to another country to save money,� says Caroline Isaacs, criminal justice coordinator for the Tucson chapter of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). �If you want to deal with prison overcrowding and costs, we need to take a look at our sentencing policies and modify those.�

Arizona�s Republican-dominated legislature has a �tough on crime� reputation which some say has created draconian sentencing policies, like the state�s mandate that criminals serve out 85 percent of their sentences, regardless of the charge or of their progress in rehabilitation.

As a result, says the AFSC, Arizona�s prison population has exploded over the past 25 years � from 4,360 in 1980, to 35,000. The group also says Arizona incarcerates Latinos at a considerably higher rate than other border states. Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) numbers show that Mexican nationals make up nearly 12 percent of its prison population, more than any other state except California and New York, which both incarcerate approximately the same percentage of foreign nationals.

�These are people who have committed very low-level crimes for economic reasons and are not very threatening,� says Jennifer Allen, executive director for Border Action Network, a local immigrant rights group which opposes the bill. �This is only a piecemeal band-aid which attempts to cover the inherent problems in this country�s immigration laws. Once they finish serving time in Mexico, they�ll just cross the border again.�

The issue of adequate oversight also worries the bill�s critics. Although the legislation stipulates that any private prison contractor would be subject to at least the same standards which apply to the ADC, the idea of trying to enforce regulations on a facility in a different country is �preposterous,� says Judy Greene, director of Justice Strategies, a prison reform consulting group.

�It seems unworkable. Being able to closely monitor and control conditions and contract performance is paramount to avoiding serious human rights violations and riots and escapes,� Greene says. �How they would manage to maintain sufficient control and constant, careful monitoring is beyond me.�

Historically, Arizona has struggled with overseeing its own facilities. In 1997, the Department of Justice sued the ADC for failing to protect its female inmates from sexually abusive guards. The ADC also came under fire in 2004, after a hostage situation in which prisoners took over a guard tower and raped a female guard. While the state has contracted out some of its facilities to private companies in an effort to save money and gain space – ADC is currently 2,500 beds short and is forced to ship prisoners out of state – it�s unclear whether those efforts have helped. A new report published by Justice Strategies, AFSC and the Private Corrections Institute, a non-profit group which advocates against privatizing prisons, questions whether privatizing in Arizona has actually shifted more of the financial burden onto the ADC.

Prison reform and oversight issues notwithstanding, the enormous legal hurdles the legislation would have to clear first appear to be its heaviest albatross. Similar bills have surfaced in Arizona since the mid-90's but have been shot down because of legal concerns. If passed, this latest version allows five years to hammer out logistics, but it still does not specifically address the legal and jurisdictional tangle likely to ensue among various U.S. and Mexican government agencies. Further, the prospect of amending the current federal prisoner transfer treaty between the U.S. and Mexico is clearly a daunting undertaking.

Since 1977, the U.S. and 63 other countries, including Mexico, have abided by an international agreement to allows prison transfers, but only if the inmate requests the transfer and only after it clears a potentially time-consuming approval process by the Justice Department, the appropriate state correctional system and the receiving country.

�There�s still a lot of homework that needs to be done because we�re dealing with international and treaty issues. We don�t know if this can legally occur,� says ADC spokeswoman Cam Hunter, who says ADC, at this point, is not supporting the legislation. �We also want to find a solution for what is a desperate problem, but we have to live within the guidelines of our treaty with Mexico.�

Indeed, Jones� bill is not the only local effort to tackle the issue of undocumented immigrants who commit crimes and are subsequently imprisoned.

On Feb. 3, Gov. Janet Napolitano sent a letter to U.S Attorney General Alberto Gonzales demanding approximately $118 million owed to the state for incarcerating undocumented immigrants over the past fiscal year and a half. Under the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP), the federal government is supposed to help states pay for locking up immigrants who commit crimes after entering the country illegally. The idea is that the federal government should have prevented undocumented immigrants from entering the country in the first place and should thus house them in federal facilities if they�re criminals. But federal prisons are overcrowded, and states are rarely fully reimbursed for their services because there simply isn�t enough cash to go around. In 2004, for example, Arizona was only reimbursed $6.8 million for what Napolitano claims was a $71 million price-tag.

Napolitano�s spokeswoman, Jeanine L�Ecuyer, says the governor had yet to receive a response. Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller says the Justice Department does not comment publicly on such requests.

Ironically, the Bush administration is seeking to eliminate SCAAP from the federal budget, although a new bill introduced by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and John Kyl (R-Ariz.) hopes to keep the program breathing. For the last few years, officials in both Arizona and California have voiced concern that their states unfairly bear the burden of the federal government�s inefficient immigration laws and enforcement policies.

Given that it�s highly unlikely the Justice Department will acquiesce to Napolitano�s request, however, state Republicans see this legislation as a more viable answer, or at least a way to force the federal government�s hand. Indeed, regardless of the powerful legal and ethical concerns, the bill has managed to clear two committees. Some Democrats have openly opposed it. Rep. Ted Downing voted in vain against the bill on Feb. 9 while it was debated in the Government Reform and Finance Accountability committee. But they�re outnumbered by 22 seats in an increasingly conservative state body.

Napolitano, also a Democrat, does not weigh in on pending legislation, says spokeswoman L�Ecuyer, and is focusing on getting reimbursed from the Justice Department. She�ll be in Washington next week for a meeting of the National Association of Governors and is hoping to meet with the attorney general at that time, L�Ecuyer says.

Still, with the bill slated for debate by the full legislature early next week, the reimbursement approach might end up taking a back seat, at least for now.

�We�d rather be reimbursed, but the federal government won�t reimburse us and won�t let us deport the inmates,� says Republican Rep. Bill Konopnicki, a co-sponsor of the bill. �This has the potential to save us quite a bit of money.�

Meanwhile, opponents are lining up for a battle.

Says Caroline Isaacs: �Our state legislature wants to bury their heads in the sand and continue to incarcerate everyone for minor offenses without having to pay the bill. If they manage to find a way around the international law barriers, I think they�ll pass it in a heartbeat.�

Your Money or Your Life

Five long years ago, Rose Shaffer's life seemed sweet. A nurse since the early 1970s, Shaffer had spent most of her 60 years working at various Chicago hospitals, rising through the caregiver ranks and raising three kids. Now in the twilight of her career, she'd been hired as director of nursing at a home health agency in the suburb of Lombard. The position made Shaffer proud – she knew her salary could pay off the mortgage on her house a little sooner. At the time, her cousin Barack Obama was fast becoming a rising star in the Illinois State Senate.

Seven months into her new job, Shaffer suffered a heart attack, and an ambulance rushed her to Advocate South Suburban Hospital. Shaffer assumed she was automatically covered – health insurance was a given at her previous nursing jobs. She thought she'd filled out the proper forms. But she hadn't.

A week later, Shaffer received a bill from Advocate for the three days she'd been hospitalized. It was for $18,000. Shortly thereafter, Advocate began sending letters to Shaffer demanding payment. Then, a summons to appear in court was tossed on her porch. Advocate was suing her.

Shaffer was terrified and didn't show at her court date. She says she even received a letter from the Cook County Sheriff's Department, threatening arrest unless she appeared. Under pressure from Advocate and now behind on her mortgage payments, Shaffer filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in December 2002, which meant her debtors would garner a reduced portion of the money she owed.

"The hospital saved my life, but now they were trying to kill me," Shaffer says.

Rose Shaffer's experience has become disquietingly common. Since 2000, Harvard associate medical professors Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein, along with Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren and Ohio University sociology and anthropology professor Deborah Thorne, have been compiling data on bankruptcies in the United States. Their study, published on Feb. 2 by the medical policy journal Health Affairs, found that between 1981 and 2001, medical-related bankruptcies increased by 2,200 percent, an astonishing explosion in a relatively short period of time. This spike far outpaced the 360 percent growth in all personal bankruptcies during roughly the same period.

In addition, the study uncovered surprising information about the affected population. While poor, uninsured Americans have long been the most obvious victims of a defective healthcare system, it's the middle class that suffers most in this case, accounting for about 90 percent of all medical bankruptcies, says Warren.

"The people we found to be profoundly affected are not some distant underclass. They're the very heart of the middle class," Warren says. "These are educated Americans with decent jobs, homes and families. But one stumble, and they end up in complete financial collapse, wiped out by medical bills."

With so many middle-class American households potentially vulnerable, you might think politicians would seek a solution sensitive to their interests. Yet the momentum in Washington is in the opposite direction – toward bankruptcy "reform" that would make things worse for people who have been financially ruined by illness.

Until 25 years ago, filing for bankruptcy because of debts from a medical problem was virtually unheard of. In 1981, University of Texas law professors conducting bankruptcy research noticed that a handful of the debtors they were studying could never quite pay off their medical bills, but while these bills certainly didn't help, they weren't forcing people into bankruptcy.

Today, by contrast, medical-related debt is the second leading cause of personal bankruptcies, topped only by job loss. Edward Janger, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, gives two reasons for the change: First, there's been a dramatic rise in healthcare costs. In 2002 Americans paid an average of $5,440 in medical expenditures, up $419 from the previous year. A September 2004 study by Families USA found that 14.3 million Americans now hemorrhage more than a quarter of their earnings into healthcare costs.

Second, the past 15 years have seen a tremendous spike in the number of Americans who either don't have health insurance or have such skeletal coverage they might as well have none – there are currently some 45 million uninsured Americans, a jump of 10 million since 1990.

"What you're seeing in the bankruptcy numbers is a function of the fact that we have a very thin social safety net in this country in terms of health care," Janger says.

The Health Affairs study, which looked specifically at a cross section of 1,771 bankruptcies filed in 2001, concluded that the average medical debtor was a 41-year-old homeowning woman, with children and at least some education. The study also found that a majority of middle-class debtors had health insurance both when they first grew sick and at the actual time they filed, another surprise. Insurance alone, it turns out, doesn't prevent medical bankruptcy, because it is often too porous to provide a real buffer against the financial burden of a serious illness.

"A lot of people were bankrupted because of co-payments, deductibles or uncovered services, which added up to thousands of dollars in bills," says Steffie Woolhandler.

The story of Judy and Phil Specht shows how quickly livelihoods and bank accounts can collapse in the shadow of an illness, even when people initially have health insurance. It also demonstrates how medical problems, when coupled with job loss, can be particularly devastating – many debtors grappled with medical debt and income loss simultaneously, according to the Health Affairs study.

In 2001 the Spechts were living comfortably in Albuquerque, N.M., having worked at solid jobs there for years – Judy at a Philips semiconductor factory and Phil as a maintenance man at a retirement community. Together, the Spechts were bringing in around $40,000, which in New Mexico was enough to make the $787 monthly mortgage payment on their new home and still have a little left. Lately, Phil hadn't been feeling great – his body ached more than usual – but the Spechts both had health coverage through their jobs. In their late 50s, they were near enough retirement to taste it.

By 2002, though, Phil had grown worse, and after a series of tests, doctors diagnosed myelodysplastic syndrome, a bone-marrow disease that can cause leukemia. Phil retired and began collecting $1,080 a month in Social Security disability payments.

"I still had a good paying job with insurance that could cover us both, so I thought we'd be OK," Judy says.

But when Philips started shuttering some of its New Mexico factories three months later, Judy was laid off. She quickly found a job working at another semiconductor company, but after five months she was axed again. Now desperate, Judy took a housecleaning job at near-minimum wage. It was all she could find.

Fortunately, the Spechts only paid $50 a month for Phil's visits to University of New Mexico Hospital oncologists, thanks to UNM's charity care. But they had trouble affording the regular blood work Phil needed and the monthly $507 in prescription drug payments for both of them, climbing quickly because Judy developed high blood pressure, high cholesterol, acid reflux and an underactive thyroid – "stuff I hadn't experienced before this."

To save money, Judy chopped her blood pressure and thyroid tablets in half, took the acid-reflux medication less often than prescribed and quit her cholesterol pills altogether. "I was left with a choice of my medication or a roof over our heads."

To afford Phil's medicine, the Spechts sold their furniture, some jewelry and a camera. But by the end of 2003, $4,000 deep in medical debt and with $90,000 still left on their mortgage, the Spechts knew they couldn't hold on to their house any longer.

They hired a bankruptcy lawyer and filed for Chapter 7, freeing them from debt but eviscerating their credit for seven to ten years. The bank foreclosed on their mortgage, and the Spechts moved twice before settling in a cheap apartment for people over 55. Although they now participate in a new state program that offers drug discounts to elderly New Mexicans, the Spechts still owe $1,000 in medical bills; even after filing for bankruptcy, the couple continued to rack up bills until Judy finally landed a state job that gave her health coverage. The stress of the past three years has changed the Spechts forever. Judy describes the whole process as "frightening and humiliating."

"We'd wanted to retire in that house. We were heartbroken," she says.

The nightmare lived by the Spechts and other Americans could become even more harrowing if some members of Congress have their way. For years now, a powerful coalition of banks and credit-card companies has been lobbying Congress to make it harder to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which cancels personal debt, in favor of Chapter 13, which involves paying back a portion over a period of time. As the number of personal bankruptcies has surged – from approximately 718,000 in 1990 to 1.54 million in 2004 – banks and credit-card companies say, they've lost billions of dollars in canceled payments.

Republicans, and some Democrats, have long been pushing a bill that would create a means test for debtors who want to file for bankruptcy, preventing anyone who makes over the median income in their home state from filing for Chapter 7, but allowing them to file for Chapter 13. The idea, proponents say, is to make debtors take better care of their money.

Although the bill has failed in years past, Iowa's GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley, buoyed by Republican Congressional gains and past support from moderate Democrats like minority leader Harry Reid, recently reintroduced the legislation. "People who have the ability to repay some or all of their debt should not be able to use bankruptcy as a financial planning tool so they get out of paying their debt scot-free while honest Americans who play by the rules have to foot the bill," says Grassley's spokesperson Jill Kozeny. Kozeny also notes that medical expenses would be deductible under the means test, and that adjustments to the test would be allowed if debtors show "special circumstances."

Jim Manley, Reid's communications director, says Reid will support the legislation, which he believes will force people to "take a measure of personal responsibility" for their financial affairs. Reid and some other Democrats will insist that it contain a provision preventing abortion clinic protesters from filing for bankruptcy to avoid paying legal fines (a practice that Reid, who is anti-choice, nonetheless opposes). Such a provision was added to the 2002 version of the bill in an attempt to give political cover to Democrats (including Sens. Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton) who voted for it.

The legislation has nonetheless elicited some principled and vigorous Democratic opposition, from John Kerry, Jon Corzine, Dick Durbin and Ted Kennedy, among others. The bill's critics argue that it will squeeze the lower middle class right out of the system. This demographic, they say, might still earn above their state's median income, deductions notwithstanding, yet may not be able to afford to hire an attorney to prove through litigation that their story is exceptional.

Moreover, says Elizabeth Warren, there's a good chance many middle-class debtors wouldn't even be able to make Chapter 13 repayments. Nearly two-thirds of those who file for Chapter 13 aren't able to pay up, leaving them vulnerable to creditors for years, she notes.

"The catastrophic problems which cause families to file for bankruptcy are not properly addressed by imposing greater requirements on people trying to get a fresh start," adds Ralph Mabey, co-chair of the legislation committee for the National Bankruptcy Conference, a national collective of bankruptcy experts that opposes the legislation.

Medical debtors, as the Health Affairs study shows, are suffering real hardship, which makes it hard to believe they are simply shirking their obligations and freeloading off the system, as Republican rhetoric suggests. In the two years before filing, 22 percent of families in the study went without food, 30 percent had a utility shut off, 61 percent went without important medical care and half failed to fill a doctor's prescription.

"The bill is written against a template that everyone has overspent, including those with breast cancer, those fighting chronic illness, those who have lost children to cystic fibrosis or other terrible illnesses," says Warren. "It's like responding to a cholera outbreak by closing down the hospitals."

Whatever happens politically, the fate of medical debtors will also be shaped by several cases now winding through the courts. Last summer, law firms filed numerous lawsuits against nonprofit hospitals for overcharging uninsured patients, a practice that often contributes to bankruptcy. Attorney Richard Scruggs, who headed government lawsuits against big tobacco companies, is leading the federal effort.

On the state level, a class-action suit is pending in Illinois that involves Advocate, the source of Rose Shaffer's troubles. In November 2003 seven former patients filed the suit, charging Advocate with imposing discriminatory pricing (the number has since risen to 17). There is ample evidence for their claims. In March 2003 the Service Employees International Union, the nation's largest healthcare union and an adversary of Advocate in organizing campaigns, released a study on the collection practices of 59 Cook County hospitals. Advocate, which operates six hospitals in the county, ranked worst. According to SEIU, Advocate charged uninsured patients 139 percent more than their insured counterparts and was three times as likely to sue as other local hospitals. A month after the report's release, Advocate announced an increase in charity care for patients who couldn't pay. But for Rose Shaffer and others, it was too late. Later that year SEIU and Barack Obama brought Shaffer to Springfield to tell her story to the State Assembly.

"Advocate fails to provide automatic charity care discounts to the poor, and as a result the uninsured are still victimized by aggressive pricing and collections tactics," says Joseph Geevarghese, director of SEIU's Hospital Accountability Project. Advocate, which says it offers among the nation's most generous charity care, filed a motion to dismiss and a counterclaim against SEIU, accusing the union of defamation. The motion was denied last November, but Advocate plans on refiling. The lawsuit will likely be tried this year.

Still, University of North Carolina associate law professor Melissa Jacoby, who testified before Congress last summer on how hospital collection practices can cause bankruptcy, doesn't think litigation on its own will right the system. "Hospitals with the most egregious practices certainly should clean up their acts," she says, "but millions of people will still experience medical-related financial problems and their consequences, including debt collection and bankruptcy."

Jay Westbrook, a University of Texas law professor who co-wrote the 1981 bankruptcy study, believes bankruptcy patterns are an indicator of other social problems – high unemployment, rising divorce rates (people often file for bankruptcy after a divorce) and, in this case, a crumbling healthcare system. "Bankruptcy occurs when there is a crisis. That's what it's there for," Westbrook says.

A study by the Center for Studying Health System Change shows that 20 million families struggled with medical debt in 2003. Federal projections suggest that out-of-pocket health expenses will rise at least until 2013. Elizabeth Warren and Steffie Woolhandler foresee medical bankruptcies continuing to climb as the uninsured population swells, overburdened hospitals aggressively collect to meet the bottom line, prescription drug prices increase and employers shift medical costs to employees.

The only real cure for the medical bankruptcy epidemic, according to Physicians for a National Health Program, is national health insurance – a system where coverage isn't linked to employment and medically necessary care is accessible to all without deductibles or copayments. If such sweeping reform seems a long way off, there are short-term fixes too. One would be to exempt medical debtors from any new laws restricting bankruptcies. "The bankruptcy courthouse doors must stay open for those who really need it," says Warren. Another worthwhile improvement, notes Henry Sommer, president of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, would be to better protect the homes of medical debtors; many states allow people only a small amount of home equity after they've gone bankrupt.

But even modest measures to protect medical debtors face an increasingly unforgiving environment. Although the recent litigation will likely force some hospitals to rethink collection practices, there's evidence they are finding other ways to reclaim money, like pushing debtors toward lenders and hospital-sponsored credit cards. And the bankruptcy reform pending in Congress could hurl many more middle-class Americans into lifelong debt.

Rose Shaffer, for one, is still reeling. She works two nursing jobs, seven days a week for nearly 60 hours, so she can make the monthly $2,088 in Chapter 13 payments she still owes. Advocate has yet to claim its portion, but Shaffer's credit is severely damaged and will be for the next decade. She's praying her 11-year-old car will make it through the Chicago winter.

"Sometimes I would start crying. I wished I was dead, but I was too big a coward to kill myself," Shaffer says. "I never thought my life would end up like this."

Drug Store Cowboys

A pharmaceutical company gets sued for bribing doctors to promote a particular drug. An HIV-positive New Yorker sues a drug store chain for buying and entering his medical records in a database without his consent. Two companies get sued for sending out unsolicited free samples of prescription drugs like Prozac. And on and on.

Manufacturing legal drugs is a growth industry and the latest twist in the multi-billion dollar drug-pushing game is that your local pharmacy may be turning into a marketing agency for the big drug companies.

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC), a consumer advocacy group, filed a lawsuit in September against supermarket giant Albertsons in California Superior Court, for allegedly selling the private prescription drug information of its customers to pharmaceutical companies. PRC also named 17 pharmaceutical heavyweights, like AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly and GlaxoSmithKline, as co-defendants, claiming that the companies use the information to promote their drugs through unsolicited phone calls and letters.

According to PRC, the drug companies have been paying Albertsons between $3.00 and $4.50 for every promotional letter written and between $12.00 and $15.00 for every phone call made to unwitting customers. Albertsons, the group maintains, stands to make millions in the process. PRC says both Albertsons and the drug companies are breaking California law because customers are never given the option of signing up to receive the calls or letters as mandated by the state's privacy regulations.

"What Albertsons is doing interferes with the patient-physician relationship and it visits terrible harm on people who rely on prescription drug notices and don't realize that they're being paid for by drug companies," says Jeffrey Krinsk, an attorney for PRC. "Perhaps most pernicious is the potential harm of third parties learning the existence of an underlying condition if the mail is mistakenly sent to the wrong address."

The drug companies footing the bill are equally culpable, adds Beth Givens, director of PRC. Though the actual letters and phone calls may come from Albertsons and appear to inform patients of the benefits of a particular drug or remind them to refill a prescription, the drug companies are clearly involved. A form letter and a training phone call transcript from Albertsons, provided by PRC, include clauses stating that the letter or phone call was "provided with financial support" or "sponsored by" a particular drug company, but that no information would be shared.

That, says Givens, is proof enough that information has indeed been exchanged between Albertsons and the drug companies, especially given the potential money both parties can make in the process. Further, Givens alleges that the refill reminders Albertsons sends on behalf of the drug companies are sometimes to customers whose doctors have not actually authorized a refill – a frightening charge.

Says Givens: "Albertsons wouldn't have any drug marketing program unless willing pharmaceutical companies signed on the dotted line."

Indeed, it's the ostensibly cozy relationship between pharmacies and drug companies that's raising eyebrows in this particular case. Prescription drug costs have risen sharply over the past decade – up an average of 7.3 percent annually from 1992 to 2002, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit health research organization. During that same time, the foundation reports, the number of prescription drugs purchased by Americans exploded by 74 percent. Subsequently, pharmaceutical companies have become the beneficiaries of a $400 billion a year business – more than enough incentive to keep their marketing machines running full steam.

Drug companies spend billons each year promoting their wares, in the form of television and print ads, as well as giveaways to physicians. A 2001 lawsuit against TAP Pharmaceuticals for bribing doctors to promote Livapro, a prostate cancer drug, has led to increased scrutiny, but the drug companies have invariably refined their techniques. The alleged backdoor scheme highlighted in the PRC suit seems to indicate a more nuanced marketing approach.

"Albertsons is acting as a vehicle for the drug companies," says Meredith Rosenthal, assistant professor of health economics and policy at Harvard University. "There have always been very worrisome ethical implications on the physician side in terms of pharmaceutical companies paying doctors, and I think this is similar in that consumers trust their pharmacies to be their unbiased advocate."

There is some precedent to what's happening in California. In 2001, two Massachusetts men, also represented by Jeffrey Krinsk, sued CVS Pharmacy, Glaxo Wellcome pharmaceuticals and Elensys, a marketing company, for mailing out promotional drug information based on a patient's particular condition. CVS agreed to stop the practice.

Similar suits have been filed over the past few years against local pharmacies and drug companies in other states as well. In 2001, an HIV-positive New York man sued CVS for buying his medical records and allegedly logging them into a database without his consent after it took over operations of his local pharmacy. In 2002, the Clearwater, Fla.-based Eckerd pharmacy chain paid $1 million in legal fines for using the medical information of its customers for marketing purposes. That same year in Florida, Walgreens and Eli Lilly were sued for sending out unsolicited, free samples of prescription drugs like the anti-depressant Prozac.

Lawyers like Krinsk are filing claims state by state because the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996, while giving patients control over medical records, doesn't completely protect their prescription drug information. What's more, many states have privacy laws which go beyond HIPAA and actually prohibit using medical information for marketing without first getting consent from the patient. California, as it happens, passed such a law in 2002.

Daniel Solove, a professor at George Washington University law school and an expert in privacy law, called the letters and phone calls from Albertsons legally "deceptive" because patients think they're from the pharmacist when really, it's the drug companies speaking. Solove referred to one letter from Albertsons which warns customers to renew their prescription of Plavix, a heart disease medicine, as "scare tactics."

"The letter basically implies that you're at an increased risk for a heart attack if you don't keep taking this drug," he says. Solove adds that if customers have not given their permission to Albertsons first, then both Albertsons and the drug companies are in violation of California privacy law. "There are some big problems with this kind of marketing," he says.

For their part, the pharmacies and the drug companies deny any wrongdoing. Albertsons spokeswoman Stacia Levenfeld emailed AlterNet a statement released by the company after the lawsuit was originally filed: "We highly value and respect the privacy of our pharmacy customers and do not sell, nor have we ever sold, their private information. We consider the allegations in this complaint to be false and totally without merit – and we will vigorously defend ourselves against them."

Albertsons operates 2,000 pharmacies in 37 states, including Osco, Jewel-Osco and Sav-On Drug Stores.

As for the drug companies, AstraZeneca spokeswoman Rachel Bloom says: "It is our policy not to comment on ongoing litigation. However, in the matter you are referring to, we will defend ourselves vigorously."

(Incidentally, on Oct. 18, the AFL-CIO and two consumer groups filed suit against AstraZeneca for misleading patients into switching to a more expensive ulcer medication through a promotional campaign.)

Eli Lilly spokesman Phil Belt also declined to comment directly on the lawsuit. "We obviously feel very good about our privacy policy," he said. "We've got a privacy officer dedicated to making sure systems are in place that respect patient and customer privacy."

GlaxoSmithKline did not return repeated phone calls from AlterNet.

Jeffrey Krinsk says he's considering expanding the lawsuit to include other drug companies and pharmacies he believes also engage in illegal marketing. Regardless of the outcome, it's become disturbingly clear that in the astoundingly lucrative and increasingly cutthroat world of prescription drugs, people's personal medical information is being bought and sold without their knowledge.

Says Larry Sasich, a pharmacist of 20 years and a research analyst for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group in Washington D.C.: "This is a reprehensible practice. The fact that you are using confidential medical information to a very real extent and that you're promoting expensive drugs to a patient that they might not need ... It's unethical professional behavior."

Reservation Blues

Dr. Thomas Drouhard remembers the first time he stared the drug dead in its eye five years ago.

He was on duty at the only hospital in Tuba City, Arizona, a dusty town of some 9,000 deep inside the Navajo reservation, when a woman was rushed into the emergency room with nine stab wounds to the chest.

"I'd never seen anything like it," says Drouhard, a warm, easygoing man who has worked as a surgeon on Navajo land for nearly three decades. "Looking back on that level of violence, I now know exactly what it was."

Meth, a highly addictive white powder made from over-the-counter ingredients like iodine, Drano and ephedrine, gives users a rush that can last eight hours. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it also causes a propensity toward psychotic behavior.

It was the effects of crystal methamphetamine that began wreaking havoc on rural, overwhelmingly white Midwest towns in the early '90s. Between 1995 and 2002, meth-related emergency room visits nationwide jumped 54 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and cities from New York to San Francisco all have experienced recent outbreaks.

Tuba City might be getting it worse. There were 14 meth-related deaths here last year, a staggering number for a town this size. A local health department study found that 12 percent of Tuba's teens were using meth, as were 17 percent of residents between the age of 27 and 45. A third of the patients screened at the emergency room now test positive for the drug.

Among the reasons the drug has hit the area so hard, local police say, is that the reservation's vast frontier lends itself to the clandestine labs used to produce meth (the Navajo Nation is about the size of West Virginia). It's also cheap – a quarter of a gram, enough to get a person high for a few days, runs $20 to $40.

Further, crystal meth is not yet prohibited under Navajo law, preventing law enforcement from prosecuting cases in tribal court, which has jurisdiction over most crimes on tribal lands. This forces Navajo police to trek 79 miles to Flagstaff to arraign meth suspects in federal court.

Compounding all of this, the Navajo long have been vulnerable to addiction – almost one quarter of the reservation's 190,000 residents are unemployed and the rate of alcoholism is six times that of the entire United States.

Levon Hatathlie, a drug and alcohol counselor for the Tuba City Department of Behavioral Health Sciences, says she rarely saw anyone on meth until two years ago. Now, Hatathlie works with 13 users. Most are young adults, but a 15-year-old recently walked into her office. "It was shocking," she said.

With meth use becoming so widespread, the drug has caught the eye of a FBI task force in Flagstaff, working violent crimes on the western half of Navajo land as part of a cooperative agreement with the Navajo tribal government. Though actual numbers are hard to come by, the rate of violence is greater than ever, says Agent McDonald Rominger.

"Instead of just one violent act, which is what we see with alcohol, it becomes five random acts of violence when someone is on a meth run," Rominger said.

Greg Adair, a Navajo police investigator in Tuba City, says meth-induced crimes like that of a 24-year-old Navajo man stabbed 21 times last year – both he and his assailant were thought to be on meth – are of a brutality rarely seen before in Tuba City. Recent signs indicate meth-related crimes are worsening. On Sept. 24, Navajo police seized five pounds of meth from a car pulled over outside Tuba City. Three days later, an 18-month-old baby was found dead near Tuba City. His parents were high on meth and had abandoned him.

FBI Agent Nick Manns, who works the eastern half of the Navajo reservation 240 miles from Tuba City, says that 40 percent of the crimes he now deals with are meth-related.

But because of the oversight in tribal law, arresting someone for possessing meth on Navajo land is difficult.

Last year, the U.S. Attorney's office in Flagstaff agreed to let police bring meth suspects arrested on Navajo land to federal court, even though the federal system is typically designed for larger interstate drug trafficking cases. Since then, Navajo police, working with the FBI, have brought 16 meth cases to Flagstaff, but law enforcement officials say the numbers would be far higher if they could move meth cases through the considerably less burdened tribal court system.

Deanna Jackson, spokeswoman for Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, says a Navajo law prohibiting meth on tribal land is coming soon. "President Shirley is working towards drafting legislation we hope will be introduced during the next legislative session in October."

Meanwhile, the Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation isn't waiting around. Director Michelle Archuleta has launched a massive prevention campaign – conducting studies, sending experts and police into schools, consulting with tribal elders, and commissioning Navajo filmmaker Shonie De La Rosa to produce a documentary.

"We're trying to improve the wellness of this community from a native perspective by including entire Navajo families and also Navajo spiritual philosophies in our outreach," Archuleta said.

Such localized efforts are clearly having an impact: There were only three meth-related deaths this year, although the drug now is spreading beyond Tuba City disturbingly fast. And the losses remain painfully personal. Yvonne Hoosava, a secretary in the Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation and lieutenant governor of the Upper Village of Moenkopi, a nearby town on the Hopi reservation, cries quietly when discussing her meth-addicted son.

"If you've seen the movie 'The Exorcist,' that's exactly how he sounded," Hoosava said as she talked of the meth binge her son went on last year. "It was like the devil was talking."

Dennis Bowen, a counselor at Tuba City's alternative high school, has faith that these new demons can be combated using cultural ties. By reinforcing Navajo culture in some and introducing it to others, Bowen is hoping to reaffirm an identity that he believes is strong enough to overcome the meth problem.

"We have protective factors that other places don't – our elders, our language, our traditions," Bowen said. "And because of who we are, we have the potential to get this thing under control. ... We're not helpless."

The Vote Was Protected in Cleveland

After a long and uncertain night, the morning of Nov. 3 brought with it no immediate winner in the presidential election, although that scenario has changed quickly.

Despite assertions of victory by the Bush administration throughout the day's early hours, the Kerry camp had initially refused to concede until late votes from the pivotal state of Ohio were considered – the state board of elections says there are currently 178,000 provisional ballots yet to be counted.

Kerry, however, called President Bush to congratulate him shortly before noon and will give a gracious concession speech at 2 p.m. EST. At press time, CNN data showed that with all of the precincts reporting, Bush was leading in Ohio by more than 136,000 votes.

Things appeared decidedly different just a short 24 hours ago in Cleveland, Ohio – a Democratic stronghold which party officials knew would have to sway heavily toward Kerry in order to counter strong Republican turnout in Columbus and rural Ohio. According to local newspaper reports, Democrats had registered 140,000 new voters in Cuyahoga County – essentially Cleveland and the surrounding areas – in the months leading up to the election.

And virtually as soon as the polls opened, Cleveland locals began braving a cold, steady rain and growing lines to cast their vote, even as word circulated of an expected wave of Republican vote challengers who'd been granted access to the polls by an early morning decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. (The court had voted to overturn a decision meted out on Nov. 1 which banned all challengers from polling places).

Some 1,500 poll monitors volunteering for Election Protection, many of them law students and lawyers from the northeast, also fanned out across Cuyahoga County – to insure that challengers were behaving themselves and voters voices' would be heard. According to Lynne Algrant, a private school teacher and volunteer for the national non-partisan group, Election Protection, the poll monitors were sent to 167 different poll locations, in areas organizers identified has having a high concentration of new voters and where the rate of spoiled ballots had been particularly high in the past.

In Brooklyn Acres, a working-class, white area and long heavily Democratic, people – many of them old and handicapped – began showing up before the polls even opened at 6:30 a.m.

"I wouldn't miss this for the world," said one 85 year-old woman who wheeled her walker through the puddles and up to the polling location, a rental office for a housing complex. "I've been voting since I was 18, and I'm sure not going to stop, especially not in this election."

Across town, at Superior Elementary School in East Cleveland, an impoverished and predominantly African American city which sits adjacent to Cleveland but is still within Cuyahoga County, lines were long and emotions high.

"People here don't have nothing," said 37-year old Kim Yeager of the area, which some locals say is more dangerous than Baghdad. "So everyone is voting around here. This is the biggest turnout I've ever seen. Even the drug dealers off the street are voting. They get it too."

Later in the day, students from Shaw High School who'd been doling out voting rights information during the weeks leading up to the election showed up at Superior too. "This is very important. Many lives are at stake because of this election and so people need to vote," said eleventh-grader Antoinette Williams.

As the day progressed, it became clear that aside from some long lines – up to three hours at some locations – a few broken voting machines and a smattering of misinformed poll workers, there were none of the systemic and potentially ruinous problems some election officials had been bracing for.

Perhaps much of the reason why the situation at the polls seemed relatively calm was due to the constant and visible presence of poll monitors and legal teams who advised voters on their rights and kept a wary eye on election workers. Aside from the numerous Election Protection volunteers, a two-person team of election observers from the international group Fair Election drove to polling places and spoke with voters and poll workers as well.

"Aside from the long lines, everything has been really smooth. Nobody has been complaining much," said Irene Baghoomians of Australia.

That's not to say there were no problems.

A number of polling places, especially in the Shaker Heights suburb, had tremendous lines because certain precincts were understaffed and did not appear to have enough voting booths.

One incredulous man brought with him to the polls, a registration card his 15-year-old son had been sent in the mail.

"I want to know how they thought he was old enough to vote," the man exclaimed. Twenty-six-year-old Michael Slivka, said he'd received two voter registration cards in the mail, neither of which spelled his name correctly, and was concerned that his vote would be discounted.

All the while, calm and attentive poll monitors took down names and numbers and tried to allay the concerns of uneasy voters. "I think there were logistical problems – three hour waits, problems with provisional ballots but I think us being out there shining a light on the polls discouraged a lot of frivolous challenges which might have taken place," said Laila Hlass, a second year law student at Columbia University and spokeswoman for Impact2004, a consortium of law students from Columbia and Fordham University who'd trekked from New York to volunteer for Election Protection.

Interestingly, a team of lawyers from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an independent, bi-partisan agency under the Office of the General Counsel, was also on hand, traversing the city listening to concerns of minority voters.

One Civil Rights Commission lawyer who asked that his name not be used told AlterNet: "The biggest problems we found were at Woodbury Elementary School in Shaker Heights where there weren't enough machines and one group, which was all African American, was having to wait three hours to vote."

As the skies blackened and wind and rain whipped across the city, Doris Quinones, executive director of the Bronx Tourism Council who'd traveled with her husband from New York the day before, and Nancy Cribbs, attorney for Cleveland State University, huddled outside Louis Munoz Marin Middle School in the Tremont area of Cleveland, giving advice to Spanish speaking voters.

"I'm a lifelong voter, and I was very concerned about what might happen in the polls," said Cribbs.

At 7:27, three minutes before the polls closed, Elvin (last name not given) screeched his cherry red Ford pick-up to a stop in front of the school.

"My truck broke down, but I had to get here to vote!" Elvin yelled as he raced into the school. Poll monitors joked that Elvin had the fate of the world in the back of his truck.

Meanwhile as final polling locations shut its doors different state officials reflected on the day's events:

ACLU Ohio spokesman John Durkalski said he was concerned about the long lines throughout the state and the group would be waiting and reviewing complaints before taking any legal action.

"It got difficult at 1 a.m. [when we found out about Sixth Circuit's decision] to get the challengers out for the next day, but I think things went fairly smooth," Cuyahoga County Republican Party Chairman Jim Trakas on the mysterious Republican challengers who never materialized.

"We've had a record turnout," said state Democratic Party spokesman Dan Trevas. But, as night slipped into morning, it became increasingly clear that the record turnout was not going to be enough. Exhausted law students en route back to New York, awoke from a restless sleep to a National Public Radio broadcast recounting the latest results, among them Ohio, on the bus's intercom system.

Some groaned. Others shook their heads. Still others stumbled out into the morning in an exhausted daze, unable to absorb what they had heard and what would happen now.

Fighting a New War

Marching solemnly – some on foot and others in wheelchairs – they led the hundreds of thousands behind them past the police, past Madison Square Garden and through the sun-baked streets of New York City.

In this election season where as much seems to be riding on the past as the future, a collection of veterans groups, whose service spanned battles from Vietnam to Iraq, converged on New York City on Sunday to demonstrate their unhappiness with the Bush Administration's war, its long-term deployment of soldiers and the treatment of those soldiers when they're finished fighting.

"We opposed this war when before it started and we oppose it now," said David Cline, president of the national group, Veterans for Peace, and a 57-year-old disabled vet himself. "Nobody should be asked to die for lies."

"We need to bring our troops home and treat them right when they come home," added Michael Hoffman, a marine who spent two months fighting in Iraq and founder of Iraq Veterans Against The War. "We're creating a whole new generation of disabled veterans and at the same time we're cutting their benefits!"

Certainly, the powerful presence of such groups in New York is a welcome boon to the Kerry campaign, still smarting from the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth commercials, which appear to have bruised Kerry's support among veterans. A poll released by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Election Survey on Aug. 26 found that despite a boost after the Democratic National Convention, John Kerry still trails President Bush by some 18 points among veterans.

Organizations such as Veterans for Peace hope to help close that gap.

"What John Kerry said in front of Congress in 1971 was beautiful and it was right on the money," said Cline in defense of Kerry's controversial testimony in front of Congress as a young man on the war crimes committed by American soldiers in Vietnam. "Some of us in the military came out of our experience thinking about what we went through, and we tried to draw some lessons."

Further, the emergence of other less openly partisan veterans organizations – which have grown increasingly critical of the Bush administration in recent weeks – are the latest indicators of a strong split within a 26 million strong voting bloc that has historically voted staunchly Republican. (A recent Annenberg poll found that 37 percent of vets considered themselves to be Republicans while 23 percent said they were Democrats.)

Operation Truth – founded by veterans from the current war and designed to provide direct media exposure to the experiences of soldiers in Iraq – held a press conference on Aug. 24 both to announce their inception and also to criticize the way the war is being waged. The conference featured former Minnesota Governor and Navy Seal Jesse Ventura, who told reporters, "The use of the National Guard is wrong. They did not sign up to go occupy a foreign nation. In many cases, these men are doing things they were never trained to do. It's dangerous for them and for the war itself."

The Veterans Institute for Security and Democracy, whose advisory board boasts numerous high ranking retired generals such as members General Joseph P. Hoar, a retired Commander of U.S. Central Command and former Bush-turned-Kerry supporter General Merrill McPeak, an ex- Air Force chief of staff, is explicitly non-partisan, says coordinator Acie Byrd. But while the group's members hail from both side of the aisle, it is abundantly clear that these ex-soldiers are anything but pleased with their commander-in-chief.

"We haven't taken a vote but the majority of us are angry with Bush and his administration" says Byrd. "We know the Republicans are not addressing issues important to veterans. This doesn't necessarily mean all of us will be voting for Kerry, but we think the public needs to know about the problems."

A press release from the group predicts that the Republican National Convention will be nothing more than a "four-day infomercial" designed to boost the president's credibility.

On Sept. 1, the Veterans Institute for Security and Democracy will hold a three-hour panel discussion in New York City. According to the organizers, the forum will "provide counterpoint to Republican pronouncements on foreign policy, national security, and veteran's issues."

Steve Robinson, a veteran of the first Gulf War and the executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, is one of those speaking at the Veterans Institute's panel. Robinson says the veterans' advocacy group is not aligned with any political agenda but wants "to focus on the facts."

"Veterans from the current war are languishing in medical hold facilities, and they're getting low-ball disability ratings," Robinson said. "There's a lack of focus on real issues like this, the under-funding of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the commitment we need to make towards our soldiers when they come home."

Many of the veterans groups in New York this week cite the Bush administration's November implementation of the 'stop-loss' decree – which prevents soldiers from retiring or leaving their units 90 days before deployment and 90 days after returning home – as evidence of its disregard for the well-being of soldiers.

They are also concerned about possible cuts in funding of the VA – word of a possible $910 million cut has been denied by VA Secretary Anthony Principi – and that the planned massive reorganization of its hospital system in order to recoup money, which critics say will ultimately close down medical facilities in areas where they are needed most.

The Kerry campaign has, in turn, also accused Bush of ignoring the plight of uninsured veterans and claims that 20 percent of reservists and their families lack adequate health care coverage. For his part, the president has refuted allegations of neglect. In a recent letter to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bush claims that increased funding of the VA under his watch has allowed the agency to enroll 2.5 million more veterans for health services in addition to expanding grants to homeless veterans.

The claim has had little effect on the veterans groups in New York City, who plan to make the case this week that the Bush administration has not done nearly enough to insure the safety of soldiers abroad and at home.

It remains to be seen whether they will garner sufficient media attention when the RNC rolls out its own heavy hitter veterans such as Senator John McCain, who addressed the Convention on Monday night. Nor is it clear whether these groups will have a significant impact on the veteran vote in November.

"Kerry has made some inroads with veterans groups because he has the advantage of not being the incumbent, he can promise to strengthen the VA and also because Donald Rumsfeld has had such a rocky relationship with the military," said Peter Feaver, Political Science Professor at Duke University. Feaver is also a Lt. Commander with the Navy Reserves, a member of the National Security Counsel under President Clinton and an expert on veterans� issues. "But most of the polls still give Bush the advantage," he said.

Groups such as Veterans For Peace that are openly campaigning for Kerry, however, remain optimistic. "They're a lot of veterans who have progressive instincts despite the stereotypes about our political affiliations," David Cline said. "The government turned their back on us when we came home, and we're not about to let that happen again."

Public Thunder

Together, undaunted by a blazing late summer sun, hundreds of thousands marched through some of New York City's busiest streets on Sunday in a massive protest against George Bush and the Republican National Convention. The BBC estimated the number of demonstrators at over 250,000.

Some carried clever posters decrying George Bush's ascent to power. Others wielded drums, horns, or in one case, a frying pan, and banged out their frustrations in rhythm. Still others carried small children on their shoulders.

Despite rumblings about Molotov-cocktail hurling anarchists and a bitter last-minute legal battle between protest organizers and the city of New York over where to hold the march, Sunday's event was largely peaceful, even as protestors came face to face with police, the secret service, and a loud contingent of Republican hecklers at Madison Square Garden, the site of the convention.

A police spokeswoman told AlterNet at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday night that 200 arrests were made, a relatively small amount considering the sheer number of protestors – at press time, organizers estimated 450,000 according to news reports while the police have not yet released a figure – and there were no immediate reports of violence.

According to the AP, the largest mass-arrest was of "50 protesters on bicycles who stopped near the parade route were carted away in an off-duty city bus." Another 15 were arrested "when someone set a papier-mache dragon float afire near Madison Square Garden," the AP reported.

Protestors began gathering between 14th and 22nd Streets and 7th Avenue in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood early Sunday morning in preparation for the march. United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), the marches' organizer and an umbrella of over 800 different groups nationwide, designated different sections for the various participating contingents to assemble – Vietnam, Gulf War and Iraqi War Veterans' groups were gathered at the front as were labor unions like Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and PSC-CUNY (City University of New York's Teachers' Union). National peace groups, youth and student collectives, as well as numerous regional organizations and individual protestors filled in behind them.

Virtually all those in attendance were donned in brightly-hued t-shirts, holding an equally colorful sign, or wearing a politically charged button, many of them laden with the sort of sardonic slogans that have become symbolic of the left's criticism of the Bush administration.

One man wore a shirt that read "I'll Mess With Texas." A woman held a sign which said 'Yee-ha Is Not Foreign Policy.' One elderly man raised a placard asking "Whose Taxes Would Jesus Cut?" A young woman grinned as she hoisted a cardboard poster which demanded "Pull Out Like Your Father Should Have!" Another solemn-faced woman grasped one which stated: "Bring My Son Home."

"This is incredible," gushed native New Yorker David Rosner, who came to protest by himself and wore a button which read "Somewhere in Texas, A Village Is Missing An Idiot."

Just before noon, filmmaker Michael Moore, Reverend Jesse Jackson, and UFPJ organizers led the march up Seventh Ave. toward Madison Square Garden. A team of yellow-shirted protest marshals from UFPJ locked arms and escorted them as they walked. The march snaked uptown at a snail's pace at first, with throngs of people waiting shoulder to shoulder for nearly an hour in stifling near-ninety degree heat to walk to one city block.

"We want an end to this war. We want the troops home," said Michael Moore. "It's just not going to work with us there. We owe a huge apology to the people of Iraq for creating the amount of death and destruction that we have created there."

Though police had cordoned off the first half of the protest route with barriers on either side of 7th Avenue, preventing anyone from exiting and entering the march except at designated areas, the mood of the marchers remained festive. The first ten blocks resembled more of a raucous political street party than anything else: Code Pink, a women's social justice group stopped at virtually every block to perform a well-choreographed dance routine as they chanted anti-Bush slogans; a head-bobbing group of teenage activists co-opted the hit Ludacris hip-hop song "Move Bitch" and began rapping "Move Bush! Get Out The Way!"; one young woman belted out an unrecognizable protest tune as she strummed wildly on an acoustic guitar.

Meanwhile, as police helicopters pounded overhead and a corner of Madison Square Garden's coliseum appeared in the distance, 80-year-old Phillip Miller trudged along slowly and deliberately in his full U.S. Army First Cavalry regiment uniform. "Well, I'm here to protest the war," he said. "The same unit I fought with in World War II is fighting in Iraq. If this thing isn't stopped, it's going to be never-ending." Austin, Texas native, Rebecca Webber (25) marched nearby.

"My brother's in Iraq. I want him to come home. He wants to come home. And that's why I'm here."

Things heated up considerably when the protestors reached Madison Square Garden, which spans from 31st to 33rd Streets between 7th and 8th Avenues. Police had blocked off the entrance to the arena, and stood stone-faced, side by side plain-clothes cops and secret service agents.

"Li-ars! Li-ars!" a huge group of protestors taunted, as they pressed up against the steel barriers, only a few feet away from police. "One, Two, Three, Four! We Don't Want Your Fucking War!" chanted another group in Kerry/Edwards t-shirts.

The Korean Alliance for Peace and Justice, from Los Angeles, which advocates for an end to U.S. presence in Korea and Iraq, formed a circle in front of the barricade and began playing the drums they were carrying, and some protestors stopped to dance. 21-year-old Cornelius (last name not given), wearing a hand-written "Baboons For Bush" shirt, doled out bananas to curious onlookers. "I'm voting for Bush, because I'm a baboon, and he's one of us," he chortled.

18-year-old Jessica Miller, from Alexandria Virginia, and a member of Food Not Bombs, an anarchist affiliated group which was handing out vegan meals to protestors, was more serious as she tugged at a gas mask dangling from her neck.

"I expect everything," she said glancing warily at the police.

The day before, one anarchist also affiliated with Food Not Bombs who asked not to be identified, told AlterNet he didn't expect any violence, and that his group and others were not planning on breaking away from the main march.

"Violence would be suicidal," he said.

"This is not a protest. It's more like a conference," added Karen Wheeler an organizer for the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition, which sits on UFPJ's Steering Committee. "I haven't spoken to or heard from anyone who wants this march to result in violence or chaos."

Indeed, the only visible signs of confrontation were just across from Madison Square Garden where a hodge-podge of Bush supporters had gathered behind a police barricade and shouted at marchers walking directly past them.

"You can't chant U.S.A 'cause you're traitors!" screamed one purple-faced man. "Get the fuck out of my city!" hurled back one protestor in a thick New York accent. From Madison Square Garden, the protest route took marchers east on 34th Street, over to Fifth Avenue and down to Union Square, where 14th Street. Park Ave. and Broadway collide.

Roving teams of legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild were everywhere, particularly in this area, offering up legal advice to anyone who asked. One legal observer, who asked not to be identified, said he had seen no evidence of police misconduct and had only taken down one complaint from a protestor throughout the entire duration of the march. The National Lawyers Guild's press office could not be reached for comment at press time.

As the march thundered downtown, police removed barricades, and the protest flowed more freely all the way to Union Square, where UFPJ organizers, some perched on ladders and armed with megaphones, advised protestors to disperse quietly and peacefully.

Virtually all of them did – with many walking or taking the subway home, and others heading up to Central Park's Great Lawn, where UFPJ had originally hoped to hold the protest (an August 24 New York State Supreme Court decision ordered them to use the 7th Avenue route as per the City's request).

Some of the demonstrators after the march headed for Times Square to pay a visit to the Republican delegates, who were attending Broadway shows as guests of The New York Times. Traffic was at a standstill for many blocks in the theater district, and police conducted large-scale arbitrary arrests of large groups without warning, catching protesters, bystanders, legal observers and some members of the press in their nets.

Back in Central Park, as a light evening wind brushed the sweat off of the thousands who had trekked uptown to gather on the Great Lawn's grass, a jazz band played and a circle of drummers began beating on bongos.

A man in an oversized Dick Cheney mask danced, dangling a tiny puppet of George Bush in front of him; others spoke in earnest tones about the day's events; exhausted news media gobbled long-neglected lunches; and young children darted amongst the throngs as the city sun began to move slowly behind the skyscrapers surrounding them all.

71-year-old Korean War veteran Arlen Dean Snyder watched, still thrusting his "Bring The Troops Home" sign high in the air. "This," he said. "was a wonderful march."

The Ex Factor

The red-faced man slows his shopping cart of empty beer cans and stares in disbelief at the white form just thrust into his hand.

"I can't," he mutters, shaking a head of unkempt, yellowish hair. "They told me I can't."

Caylor Roling, a tall, bespectacled young woman, who chased down her new friend through a crowded Food 4 Less parking lot, shakes her head back.

"That's not true," she almost shouts. "In Oregon, even if you have a past felony conviction, you can!"

Roling – an organizer with the Western Prison Project (WPP), a prison reform group in the midst of a voter registration drive aimed at convicted felons – smiles as the man trots away, curiously eyeing the registration form she handed him.

Since the 2000 election, a wellspring of attention has focused on felony disenfranchisement. Currently, nearly 4 million Americans cannot vote because they're incarcerated or live in a state that strips felons of their voting rights even after they are released, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C.-based prison reform organization.

But what of the millions of felons in the United States who can vote? Aside from Maine, Vermont and the District of Columbia, which allow all residents to vote even if they're locked up, 34 states let felons go to the polls at some point after their release. According to experts, however, the majority of these ex-felons probably don't, thanks to complex suffrage laws that differ by state, coupled with a dearth of information about those laws.

In New York, for example, parolees can't vote but those on probation can; in Oregon anyone can vote once they're out of prison; and in Washington, only ex-felons convicted after 1984 can vote, and they have to complete parole, probation and pay any outstanding fines first.

Ex-felons oftentimes have no idea that they've been re-enfranchised, and when they do try to vote, clueless election officials in some cases have refused to let them.

This election year, no one's taking any chances. Prison reform groups like WPP, along with voting rights organizations, are working in unprecedented numbers across the country to educate and register ex-felons and to ensure that election officials get it right. Particularly in swing states like Oregon that grant unconditional suffrage to ex-felons – Al Gore squeezed out a victory here by just 6,700 votes in 2000 – the effort conceivably could impact the election.

Christopher Uggen, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, says there are probably close to 9 million ex-felons in the United States. "Many are still unaware that their rights have been restored or are hesitant to vote because they would not like to risk being turned away at the polls," he told In These Times.

While it's difficult to predict the voting patterns of a population that hasn't yet flexed its political muscle, Uggen estimates that, based on sex, age, race, marital status and income, some 70 percent to 80 percent of all ex-felons (and felons) in the United States would vote Democratic. This is in large part because a tremendous percentage of those who are or have been incarcerated are black; 90 percent of African American voters cast their ballots for Gore in 2000.

WPP's campaign, called the VOICE Project, is focusing on Oregon, Montana, Utah and Nevada. Since 2002, organizers have been registering voters at halfway houses, canvassing areas identified as having a high percentage of ex-felons, and disseminating information through probation and parole officers – not to mention calling elections and corrections officials to make sure they don't screw it all up.

In Oregon alone, WPP Executive Director Brigette Sarabi says there are about 30,000 men and women on parole, probation or under some sort of post-release supervision, and thousands more with felony convictions, most of whom have no idea they can vote.

"Felons are always told what they can't do when they leave prison," says Cassandra Villanueva, an organizer for WPP and herself an ex-felon who was unaware of her rights until she contacted the group. "But they've never been told what they can do."

According to Jessie Allen, associate counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, often there's also "ignorance and stereotyping" on the part of election officials when ex-felons try to vote. In 2002, the Brennan Center discovered that during local elections in New York about half of the county election boards were asking ex-felons to present fictitious documents proving they had completed their sentences. According to Allen, lawyers from Brennan met with state election officials in an effort to inform them of their own rules.

Two years later, Allen says she's concerned that some election officials in New York and elsewhere across the country are still in the dark.

"It's safe to say that many election officials still don't know the rules of the states where they work," Allen notes. "People are very confused right now."

Late last year, Connections, a Montana prison reform group that's participating in WPP's registration drive, sent surveys to 10 county election officials and 10 parole and probation officers, asking whether ex-felons in the state of Montana are allowed to vote.

The majority answered that ex-felons couldn't – a stupefying revelation, considering that for the past 34 years state law has granted suffrage to all convicted felons from the day they're released.

"They failed miserably," says Casey Rudd, Connections' executive director. According to Rudd, 385 ex-felons also were surveyed, and the overwhelming majority were convinced they had lost their voting rights as well.

Disturbed by the results, Connections has met with local corrections officials, doled out information to those who botched their survey and dived headfirst into WPP's campaign.

On a recent trip to two transitional houses in Salem, Oregon, in the shadows of the state's capital building, Villanueva and Roling registered six young women fresh out of prison or drug treatment centers in a matter of minutes. One, 27-year-old Misty Frank, on probation from a felony narcotics possession charge, had never registered before. She was both shocked and delighted that she could.

Says Sarabi: "Once you've taken their rights away, it's amazing how many ex-felons want to exercise them."

Locking Up New Voters

The red-faced man slows his shopping cart of empty beer cans and stares in disbelief at the white form just thrust into his hand.

"I can't," he mutters, shaking a head of unkempt, yellowish hair. "They told me I can't."

Caylor Roling, a tall, bespectacled young woman, who chased down her new friend through a crowded Food 4 Less parking lot, shakes her head back.

"That's not true," she almost shouts. "In Oregon, even if you have a past felony conviction, you can!"

Roling – an organizer with the Western Prison Project (WPP), a prison reform group in the midst of a voter registration drive aimed at convicted felons – smiles as the man trots away, curiously eyeing the registration form she handed him.

Since the 2000 election, a wellspring of attention has focused on felony disenfranchisement. Currently, nearly 4 million Americans cannot vote because they're incarcerated or live in a state that strips felons of their voting rights even after they've been released, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C.-based prison reform organization.

But what of the millions of felons in the United States who can vote? Aside from Maine, Vermont and the District of Columbia, which allow all residents to vote even if they're locked up, 34 states let felons go to the polls at some point after their release. According to experts, however, the majority of these ex-felons probably don't, thanks to complex suffrage laws that differ by state, coupled with a dearth of information about those laws.

In New York, for example, parolees can't vote but those on probation can; in Oregon anyone can vote once they're out of prison; and in Washington, only ex-felons convicted after 1984 can vote, and they have to complete parole, probation and pay any outstanding fines first.

Ex-felons oftentimes have no idea that they've been re-enfranchised, and when they do try to vote, clueless election officials in some cases have refused to let them.

This election year, no one's taking any chances. Prison reform groups like WPP, along with voting rights organizations, are working in unprecedented numbers across the country to educate and register ex-felons and to ensure that election officials get it right. Particularly in swing states like Oregon that grant unconditional suffrage to ex-felons – Al Gore squeezed out a victory here by just 6,700 votes in 2000 – the effort conceivably could impact the election.

Christopher Uggen, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, says there are probably close to 9 million ex-felons in the United States. "Many are still unaware that their rights have been restored or are hesitant to vote because they would not like to risk being turned away at the polls," he told In These Times.

While it's difficult to predict the voting patterns of a population that hasn't yet flexed its political muscle, Uggen estimates that, based on sex, age, race, marital status and income, some 70 percent to 80 percent of all ex-felons (and felons) in the United States would vote Democratic. This is in large part because a tremendous percentage of those who are or have been incarcerated are black; 90 percent of African American voters cast their ballots for Gore in 2000.

WPP's campaign, called the VOICE Project, is focusing on Oregon, Montana, Utah and Nevada. Since 2002, organizers have been registering voters at halfway houses, canvassing areas identified as having a high percentage of ex-felons, and disseminating information through probation and parole officers – not to mention calling elections and corrections officials to make sure they don't screw it all up.

In Oregon alone, WPP Executive Director Brigette Sarabi says there are about 30,000 men and women on parole, probation or under some sort of post-release supervision, and thousands more with felony convictions, most of whom have no idea they can vote.

"Felons are always told what they can't do when they leave prison," says Cassandra Villanueva, an organizer for WPP and herself an ex-felon who was unaware of her rights until she contacted the group. "But they've never been told what they can do."

According to Jessie Allen, associate counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, often there's also "ignorance and stereotyping" on the part of election officials when ex-felons try to vote. In 2002, the Brennan Center discovered that during local elections in New York about half of the county election boards were asking ex-felons to present fictitious documents proving they'd completed their sentences. According to Allen, lawyers from Brennan met with state election officials in an effort to inform them of their own rules.

Two years later, Allen says she's concerned that some election officials in New York and elsewhere across the country are still in the dark.

"It's safe to say that many election officials still don't know the rules of the states where they work," Allen notes. "People are very confused right now."

Late last year, Connections, a Montana prison reform group that's participating in WPP's registration drive, sent surveys to 10 county election officials and 10 parole and probation officers, asking whether ex-felons in the state of Montana are allowed to vote.

The majority answered that ex-felons couldn't – a stupefying revelation, considering that for the past 34 years state law has granted suffrage to all convicted felons from the day they're released.

"They failed miserably," says Casey Rudd, Connections' executive director. According to Rudd, 385 ex-felons also were surveyed, and the overwhelming majority was convinced they'd lost their voting rights as well.

Disturbed by the results, Connections has met with local corrections officials, doled out information to those who'd botched their survey and dived headfirst into WPP's campaign.

On a recent trip to two transitional houses in Salem, Oregon, in the shadows of the state's capital building, Villanueva and Roling registered six young women fresh out of prison or drug treatment centers in a matter of minutes. One, 27-year-old Misty Frank, on probation from a felony narcotics possession charge, had never registered before. She was both shocked and pleased that she could.

Says Sarabi: "Once you've taken their rights away, it's amazing how many ex-felons want to exercise them."

New Mexico Front and Center

From the day Governor Bill Richardson took office in 2003, New Mexico was hurled into the national political theatre like never before.

The gregarious Richardson – who speaks the Mexico City-tinged Spanish of his mother – has been wildly popular ever since winning a Congressional seat in 1982, and the national press immediately honed in on his potential to rein in the ever-important Hispanic vote.

To be sure, 42 percent of New Mexico's population is Hispanic, and Al Gore barely eked out a victory in 2000, winning by just 366 votes. But this is an exquisitely strange state, and prophesizing the intentions of its electorate by one issue alone is myopic.

Indeed, New Mexico is a place where mammoth nuclear factories jut out behind untouched high desert cliffs; where heroin and green chile are two of the most popular indulgences; where health insurance is almost as rare as the rain; and where new-age hippies from the coasts and ancient families who claim the blood of Spanish noblemen together bemoan a dry season that hasn't broken for nearly a decade.

Here, many of America's most pressing problems are played out in dramatic fashion every day, and the governor, whose national political ambitions are no secret, has stayed busy trying to right the state's many troubles.

So, despite what the pundits say, New Mexicans are likely to go to the polls come November with a lot more than just race on their minds. The following issues weigh the heaviest:


Despite a few garish enclaves in Santa Fe, Taos and Los Alamos, New Mexico is extraordinarily poor, especially in rural areas.

Those familiar with urban poverty wouldn't know it when traveling through the state – New Mexico's charming, frontier-style towns, nestled among cactus and mesas, seem a far cry from big-city ghettos.

Don't be fooled. McKinley and Rio Arriba counties consistently rank among the nation's most impoverished, and with 20 percent of all New Mexicans living in poverty, this is the second poorest state in the country (Mississippi is the first), says Kim Posich, executive director of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

Things are even worse when it comes to children. A 2004 national study found that a staggering 26 percent of the state's kids are living below the poverty line, the highest such proportion in the nation.

The effects of such intense poverty are clear. According to a 2003 state epidemiology report, New Mexico leads the nation in drug overdoses, which jumped 22 percent statewide between 2001 and 2002. Tiny Rio Arriba, a beautiful but mournful mountainous region of 41,000, has been in the clutches of an overwhelming heroin epidemic since the late nineties, and suffers a higher rate of drug-overdoses than any other county in the U.S.

Kay Monaco, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, a child advocacy group, says the reasons for New Mexico's endemic poverty are numerous: There's no real industry here; the preponderance of small, family-owned business mean low-wage jobs; and providing access to social services in rural areas is difficult.

During his first two years, Richardson – whose old Congressional district included Rio Arriba – has taken the conservative approach of slashing income and capital gains taxes and killing the state's food tariff. He says such measures will keep hard-earned money in poor New Mexican's pockets, while critics argue it will only drain funding from critical state-support programs.

Meanwhile, some aren't waiting to find out. Earlier this year, Santa Fe's city council voted to raise the city's minimum wage to $8.50 to combat the rising cost of living in the capital.

"Poverty has a huge ripple affect throughout all of New Mexico," comments Monaco. "If we can fix it somehow, there'll be huge corollary benefits."

Health Care

Last year, New Mexico state senator Manny Aragon (D-Bernalillo) introduced a bill that would have created a universal health plan for all New Mexicans. Despite having the backing of over 50 local organizations, Aragon's proposed legislation was ultimately viewed as too extreme.

His effort, though in vain, is evidence of a raging debate about how best to fix New Mexico's mortally wounded health care system.

Twenty-one percent of all New Mexicans are without health insurance, well above the national average. Sixteen percent of the state's children don't have any coverage either, ranking New Mexico near the very top nationwide. According to Health Security for New Mexicans, the coalition of groups that backed Aragon, barely half of the state's employers were offering health benefits in 2003. Only Texas has a higher proportion of total uninsured.

It doesn't help that New Mexico's Medicaid program has swollen out of control. The state's Legislative Finance committee estimates Medicaid will need an additional $110 million in the coming year to sustain growth, and the legislature has its own Medicaid Reform committee to try and trim the fat. This past legislative session, lawmakers, with Richardson's blessing, approved health care tax hikes – in large part to keep Medicaid functioning.

Ellen Leitzer, vice-president of Health Action New Mexico, another group advocating for health care reform, says the crisis stems from the soaring cost of insurance premiums and prescription drugs, coupled with New Mexico's unique demographics.

"We are a poor state with a lot of mom and pop businesses and a large transient population," she says. "The cost for employers to provide health insurance and the cost for an individual to obtain it is simply not affordable."

And though the governor vowed to bring health insurance to all New Mexicans in his inauguration speech, some say he's been too reticent since taking office. The state did, however, just receive a $905,000 grant from the feds to figure out how to improve a situation that can't get much worse.


As he stumped on the campaign trail two years ago, Bill Richardson spoke about education perhaps more than any other issue, and for good reason.

Many of the state's public school districts have long been in crisis mode – teachers are paid less than their colleagues in surrounding states; minority students' test scores indicate underperformance; truancy has been systemic; and school districts have don't have the spare cash to fix such powerful problems.

True to his campaign rhetoric, Richardson dove in headfirst, initially trying to bump teachers' salaries by 6 percent. That proposal was winnowed down to 2 percent after the state's educational employees union argued that the raise should be applied to all school workers

Richardson has also created a cabinet-level Secretary of Education position to oversee New Mexico's 89 school districts, and included in his 2005 budget an overall $112 million boost for public schools. The state legislature, with the governor's nudging, has passed a number of noteworthy bills as well: One prohibits schools from carrying over surplus money. Another creates a state licensing system to increase teachers' qualifications. One more toughens truancy laws.

Still, the largely intangible challenge of better navigating the cultural and language differences of the state's students could be the toughest hurdle to clear.

A study done by the Santa Fe New Mexican this year found that Hispanic students in Santa Fe, who are the majority, test ten percent lower than whites, a gap the governor seems intent on closing.

"We have pueblos where our children speak three different languages. We have the Zuni, Hopi, Navajo and Apache reservations. And then we have a high percentage of Hispanics, many of whom are also second language learners," says Christine Trujillo, president of the New Mexico federation of educational employees and a member of the state's Public Education Commission. "In other words, we're a state that has a variety of different student needs. I don't think anyone truly understands how diverse we are."

The Environment

Pick up a newspaper in New Mexico on any given day, and you're liable to find at least one story about water. New Mexico, like the rest of the southwest, has been in throes of an unrelenting drought since 1996, prompting the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2003, to term the state an Agricultural Disaster Area.

Rainfall in New Mexico has been well below average levels for years, although places like Albuquerque have recently experienced some relief. Still, many crucial water sources, like the Elephant Butte reservoir, are at only a fraction of their normal capacity, says Consuelo Bokum, director of water projects for 1000 Friends of New Mexico, a local non-profit that works on growth-related issues.

Most large municipalities now have tight water restrictions – like the 2002 Santa Fe city ordinance requiring the installation of low-flow toilets in businesses and new homes – and are imposing increasingly stringent fines on violators.

The governor has taken an aggressive approach – he commissioned State Engineer John D'Antonio to devise an official state water plan, created a drought task force and rustled up $10 million to research innovative ways to conserve.

Of course, water is only one pivotal environmental issue. New Mexico's land is rich in oil and gas, and earlier this year, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), announced plans to drill for oil in the Otero Mesa, a 2 million-acre swath of Chihuahua grassland near the Texas border.

The idea has provoked the ire of both ranchers and environmentalists, and Richardson has publicly stated that he'll take the feds to court if necessary; he recently filed an official complaint with the BLM to prove his point.

Predictably, with some Democrats crying that the Bush Administration is pulling the strings, the situation has morphed into a political powder keg. According to newspaper reports, local environmentalists and state officials have accused oil man George Yates, whose company first drilled a test well in the area and who happens to be a staunch GOP contributor, of pushing the White House to influence the BLM. The BLM, in turn, has denied the Bush administration's involvement.

National Laboratories

Responsible for the country's nuclear research, Los Alamos (LANL) and Sandia National Laboratories are the biggest businesses in New Mexico with approximately 17,500 employees and a budget in the billions. They're also the most controversial – hazardous waste leaks, security breaches and lawsuits from workers who've been exposed to toxins make LANL and Sandia a mainstay in both the local and national media.

Since 9/11, public scrutiny has only increased, and the past few years have seen stupefying security breaches – LANL director John Browne resigned in 2003 after allegations of covering up an employee credit-card fraud scandal, while FBI surveillance tapes caught Sandia guards snoozing on duty.

This year, the DOE issued LANL a notice of violation for a 2003 incident in which two workers were exposed to plutonium radiation, and on July 3, the state proposed fining Sandia's operators, Lockheed Martin, $3.2 million for 27 different environmental violations.

Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, says her group is now monitoring the movement of contaminants from LANL towards the Rio Grande. For years, Arends and other watchdogs have been lobbying the DOE to beef up its half-hearted oversight, and in 2004 the DOE finally allotted $600,000 to create an environmental oversight agency at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a controversial nuclear waste dump in Carlsbad.

Considering all of these issues, the DOE's recent decision to put LANL up for bidding isn't much of a surprise; it has been managed by the University of California since its inception in 1943. So far, according to the Albuquerque Journal, the University of Texas and Lockheed Martin have both expressed interest.

Certainly, with LANL's future uncertain and unending questions about pollution and protection against terrorism, the labs remain a critical part of New Mexico's political landscape.

Native Americans

With nearly ten percent of its population Native American, New Mexico has one of the largest Indian populations in the country, scattered across 19 different pueblos and numerous tribal nations.

While each pueblo and tribe has its own government, New Mexico is unique in that native politics and culture are not necessarily self-contained, but a highly visible part of New Mexican society. Traditional feast days on the pueblos are widely attended by non-natives, both the acclaimed Institute of American Indian Arts and the pueblo-operated Santa Fe Indian School are located in the capital and the legislature has its own Indian Affairs committee devoted to issues affecting the native community.

Staving off corporate intrusions onto sacred land is one of them, and both the tiny Picuris Pueblo and the Navajo nation are currently involved in battles to keep mining companies from operating on their land, says Doug Meiklejohn, executive director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.

Language preservation, how to curb drunk driving on Indian land – a huge problem – as well as the question of whether tribal governments can create their own tax system are all at the forefront of native politics in New Mexico.

And though there are currently only five Indian state legislators, native officials have seen their influence rise over the past two years. Under Richardson, the secretary of New Mexico's Indian Affairs department is now a cabinet member, and the deputy secretary of environment is Native American as well.

The governor has publicly courted the Indian vote, promising to bring native concerns to the national political forum. He has also touted the success of New Mexico's 'Indian Gaming' industry, the state's third largest employer, which rakes in millions for the 11 casino-owning tribes. Gaming pumps between three and eight percent of the profits back into the state's general fund every year, as evidence of increasing political and economic muscle.

Says Representative James Roger Madalena (D-Jemez Pueblo) of Richardson, "He's been very, very sensitive to our issues and we think we'll be able to accomplish a lot with him in charge."

Uncle Sam Wants You Anyway

If you're an American ex-prison official whose tenure was tainted by federal investigations, state hearings, inmate deaths, allegations of torture, civil rights lawsuits, even an outcry from Amnesty International, despair not. There's a job for you in Iraq.

In what appears to be an emerging pattern of ill-advised hires, the Justice Department has sent a virtual who's-who of prison tough guys to Iraq over the past year – their collective track record on human rights essentially one enormous red flag – and paid them to reconstitute that country's detention system.

Already, two of the Justice Department's 'corrections advisors' are making headlines: Lane McCotter, former director of the Utah Department of Corrections, and John Armstrong, his Connecticut counterpart, both resigned after inmate abuse scandals occurred under their respective watches.

McCotter stepped down from his Utah post in 1997 following the case of a schizophrenic inmate who died shortly after being strapped to a restraining chair for 16 hours. McCotter later became an executive of a private prison company whose Santa Fe jail was investigated by the Justice Department in 2003 for healthcare, sanitary and safety deficiencies.

Armstrong left Connecticut's top corrections job last year amidst the fall-out from an ACLU lawsuit over his decision to transfer inmates to a notorious Virginia prison (two Connecticut inmates died in custody there), and a state human rights commission hearing which took him to task for failing to deal with sexual harassment of female guards. Armstrong also attracted the ire of Amnesty International, which called for an investigation into the state's York Correctional Institution for women in November, 2000, after the group received complaints from inmates and former employees alleging sexual abuse by guards.

The Justice Department's hiring of McCotter and Armstrong could be relegated to an eyebrow-raising turn of events; two occasions do not necessarily constitute a trend. However, there are signs that the hirings were not necessarily a mind-boggling oversight attributable to the chaos of the occupation's early days, but perhaps indicative of a decision to contract the roughest, toughest prison people around regardless of their histories.

AlterNet has learned that two more corrections advisors sent by the Justice Department to Iraq, former Arizona Department of Corrections director Terry Stewart and his top deputy Chuck Ryan, have controversial pasts as well.

In 1995, the year Stewart was appointed to head the Arizona DOC, the Justice Department began an 18-month investigation of alleged sexual abuse of female inmates. A subsequent report found "an unconstitutional pattern of practice of sexual misconduct"; documented the cases of 14 female inmates who were raped, sodomized or assaulted by guards; and criticized DOC officials for not dealing with the problem.

In response, Stewart wrote a letter to then Attorney General Janet Reno claiming the report represented isolated incidents, but in 1997, the Justice Department sued Arizona for failing to protect its female inmates from guards and DOC staff. The suit named Stewart as one of the defendants and accused him and other DOC officials of knowing about the abuses but doing nothing. (Eventually, despite never admitting any wrongdoing, the DOC agreed to further protect female inmates from sexual abuse and the suit was dismissed.)

Stewart could not be reached for comment before we first published this story, but he later sent us an e-mail saying he was not the director when the alleged abuses occurred and that he "fashioned the mutually agreed upon corrective measures" which led to the Justice Department suit being dismissed.

Ryan, a 25-year Arizona DOC veteran, became Stewart's deputy director in 1996 and was seen by some as an integral part of his regime, which also drew criticism for the long-term, intense segregation of high-risk inmates, and for a failed effort to build a private prison exclusively for the state's foreign inmates, who happened to be overwhelmingly Mexican.

Dan Pochoda, a New York civil rights lawyer, was assigned by the federal government to monitor the conditions in the Arizona prison system just prior to Stewart's taking the reigns. "Even in the spectrum of corrections administrators, they are uniquely hard line, and in my opinion, acknowledged proponents of conditions that are damaging on a human level," he said of Stewart and Ryan.

"There was an absolute brutality in the way the Stewart regime saw the correctional purpose," added Caroline Isaacs, criminal justice program coordinator for the Arizona American Friends Service Committee, which advocates for prison reform. "The prison system was taken from a place that cared at least a little about rehabilitation to a dictate that was all about control and security and nothing more."

In a May 20 Justice Department press release, Stewart was listed as one of the corrections advisors who was sent to Iraq. In a subsequent interview for an online magazine, The Corrections Connection, Stewart, Lane McCotter and Gary DeLand – another former Utah Corrections official – discuss their trip there.

DeLand told me that Chuck Ryan was part of a second shift of corrections advisors, along with John Armstrong, that came to Iraq to replace Stewart, McCotter and himself after they'd left. A Feb. 3 Asia Times story, referring to Ryan as the Coalition Provisional Authority's deputy director of prisons, confirmed what DeLand told me. Ryan could not be reached for comment.

And while it's unlikely any of the corrections advisors in question were part of the unfolding abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, their presence in Iraq is causing a gathering storm. Over the past two weeks, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has written two letters to Attorney General John Ashcroft demanding answers to why and how McCotter and Armstrong were hired and calling for an investigation into the role of civilian contractors in Iraqi prisons.

So far, the feds have been tight-lipped. Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo would not return phone calls, and a Defense Department spokesman refused comment. In an email, Coalition Provisional Authority press officer Shane Wolfe noted the corrections advisors were not interrogating any inmates but training police and correctional officers and assessing the needs of Iraqi civilian prisons.

Meanwhile, as more information is unveiled, prison reformists are increasingly aghast at why an agency responsible for keeping America's correctional system humane has been hiring people whose own prisons, they allege, were anything but.

A May 21 New York Times story quoted an anonymous senior Justice Department official as saying its contractors "were all vetted in the normal process" and came highly recommended. Such a revelation, coupled with the resumes of McCotter, Armstrong, Stewart and Ryan, suggests that perhaps the Justice Department actually sought out perceived hard-nosed corrections types that they thought could bring order to an Iraqi detention system in shambles.

"It makes you wonder what kind of criteria they were using," said Brooklyn-based prison reform consultant Judy Greene. "It's hard to imagine the Justice Department were looking for candidates with a proven track record of tolerating or condoning abusive treatment of prisoners, but that's what they got."

Dan Frosch is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He's been on staff at the San Gabriel Valley Weekly section of the Los Angeles Times, The Source magazine, the Pacific Palisadian Post and most recently the Santa Fe Reporter.

Gunning for the White House

If you were to peruse the official website for John Kerry's presidential campaign these days, you might be a bit surprised by what you find.

Amidst headlines and headshots of the candidate proclaiming his support for such standard Democratic issues as peace in Iraq, middle-class tax relief and women's rights, there's a link with the somewhat incongruous title Sportsmen for Kerry. If you click on it, you're whisked to a new page and greeted by a rather amusing photo of Kerry wearing a screaming orange hunting vest, an enormous rifle slung over his shoulder, staring intently at some sort of dead animal held by a man next to him.

The picture of Kerry the hunter, and for that matter, the entire 'Sportsmen for Kerry' site -- which touts Kerry's firm belief in Americans' right to bear arms and also in gun control -- underscores an important point. With a nail-biter election all but certain, neither candidate can afford to take any issue for granted.

Such an approach even holds true with guns, where the lines have long been drawn between Democrats and Republicans and where the omnipotent gun lobby has been racking up Republican votes for as long as anyone can remember. Indeed, with crucial swing states up for grabs like West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Ohio -- each with a high percentage of gun owners -- John Kerry and George Bush have begun an awkward political duel over the gun issue with varying degrees of success.

"The electorate is so evenly divided, that both candidates are having to walk this tightrope where they're simultaneously playing to their base and to the center to win over swing voters," says Kristin Goss, an expert on gun control and a visiting assistant professor of government at Georgetown.

Kerry, says Goss, is portraying himself as a sensible warrior and life-long hunter (hence the Sportsmen for Kerry site), and subsequently trying to mollify the moderate gun owners who shake their heads when their right-leaning compatriots gush about Glock 9s and AK-47s. At the same time, Kerry is keeping his Democratic base in line by bad mouthing the conservative NRA whenever he gets a chance.

Bush, on the other hand, wants to extend the Clinton-era ban on assault weapons which expires in September -- a moderate and highly popular position. But on April 17, he dispatched Dick Cheney, champion of the solider of fortune types, to the 133rd annual convention of the NRA in Pittsburgh; Cheney responded by whipping the crowd into a frenzy with statements like, "John Kerry's approach to the Second Amendment has been to regulate, regulate and regulate some more."

Despite the angry rhetoric coming from the right, some say that Kerry could have the edge with the gun lobby -- if he plays his Vietnam experience right.

Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at the State University of New York at Cortland and author of The Politics of Gun Control, says "Clinton tried the same thing, saying he was a hunter and used guns, but it didn't help him much," says Spitzer. "But this could help Kerry, because not only is he an active hunter and has talked about basic gun rights for honest gun owners, but he is also a war veteran. There is a certain respect among people with guns for Kerry because he fought in a combat unit and understands what guns are about."

Conversely, Bush has already faced a backlash from some gun owners outraged over his 2000 election year vow to extend the ban on assault weapons; he has since remained virtually mute about the issue (you won't find one word on the Bush/Cheney '04 website). And while Republicans will undoubtedly block any legislated extension of the ban before it gets to the Senate floor, Spitzer says that if the debate stays in the spotlight, it could put the president in an unenviable conundrum given that 66 percent of gun owners approve of the ban but groups like the NRA loathe it.

For its part, NRA leadership has tried to downplay their differences with Bush. "We disagree with him on this issue, but on numerous other important issues, affecting law abiding gun owners, he has been very supportive," says NRA spokeswoman Kelly Hobbs.

Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, whose 300,000 members is significantly smaller than the NRA's 4 million, is less diplomatic. "What in the world would possess a Republican president to do anything that would jeopardize his second amendment base when that's what put him in office?" he bristles. "It would be disaster for the president [if the ban was signed]. You'd be able to hear people throwing up in gun clubs across the country."

Both Hobbs and Pratt agree that none of their following will likely be seduced by Kerry -- both the NRA and Gun Owners of America gave Kerry a failing grade as a Senator because he voted for numerous gun control measures and most recently, opposed legislation that would make gun companies exempt from lawsuits, a huge issue for the gun lobby. Nonetheless, Pratt notes that some members of his group have already talked about boycotting Bush, although the outcry has yet to become a chorus.

According to an April 13 Los Angeles Times story on Bush's rocky relationship with gun groups, between 75 and 80 million Americans own guns and as many as 10 million of them are willing to cast their vote based on gun-related issues. Still, only a small fraction of gun owners are members of groups like the NRA and Gun Owners of America -- and the faction's potential boycott of Bush at the polls would not mean that those votes would go to Kerry.

All of this could mean two things, as both campaigns intensify their appeal to swing voters in the coming months: Kerry, with his orange vest and military credo, might very will sway the minds of some of the 'salt of the earth sportsmen,' as Kristin Goss calls them. And Bush might very well lose support from some of those Second Amendment stalwarts if the ban on automatic weapons becomes a political hot potato.

Come high noon in November, the gangly Bostonian with the hunting rifle and the swaggering Texan with the loose trigger finger will finally fight face to face, and every vote will count. Who falls first into the D.C. dust remains to be seen.

Dan Frosch is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He's been on staff at the San Gabriel Valley Weekly section of the Los Angeles Times, The Source magazine, the Pacific Palisadian Post and most recently the Santa Fe Reporter.

The Burden of Conscience

J.E. McNeil recalls the Special Operations soldier who couldn't kill anymore after an Afghan child darted in front of his riflescope, or the Marine who vowed he'd never return to Iraq, unable to justify the devastation he witnessed. McNeil hears such stories every day, as part of her role as executive director of the Center on Conscience and War -- a Washington group that works with conscientious objectors.

Invariably, when the term 'conscientious objector' is mentioned, our minds drift to Vietnam. During that war, nearly 172,000 young men were relieved of military duty after officially registering as pacifists. Scenes of protestors burning draft cards were forever seared into America's collective psyche.

But when Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia, who'd gone AWOL after returning from Iraq, publicly announced on March 15 that he was applying for a conscientious objector discharge, the idea of refusing to fight in the name of universal peace was hurled into the maelstrom of debate over the current war.

By definition, a member of the Armed Forces must prove, through an application and the subsequent investigation, that he or she is opposed to all war in general, not just one particular conflict. Mejia, currently assigned to duty with his Florida National Guard unit at Fort Stewart, Georgia, is waiting to see if Army brass will sign off on his application or if he will be prosecuted for going AWOL.

Predictably, the Pentagon has downplayed his story, as well as one involving two Army medics who requested conscientious objector discharges the following day, just before being shipped to Iraq. As reported in The New York Times on March 16, Army spokeswoman Martha Rudd said 31 of 60 applications for conscientious objector discharges were given the nod last year and two of five have been approved so far in 2004 -- hardly a noteworthy percentage of the more than 130,000 troops currently serving in Iraq.

The Army's numbers, however, are not only misleading; they're bound to change.

According to the GI Rights Hotline, a coalition of advocacy groups that offer confidential counseling and legal advice to American troops, thousands of soldiers have called its offices inquiring about conscientious objector status since the war began. In fact, say two leaders of the GI Rights Hotline, the situation is virtually out of control.

Teresa Panepinto, GI Rights program coordinator for the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO) -- part of the GI Rights Hotline -- says her Oakland office fielded 29,000 calls from soldiers in 2003, both from those awaiting deployment and from those currently in Iraq. The majority of the calls were from soldiers trying to navigate a way out of the military, with 22 percent of them inquiring about the consequences of going AWOL and 13 percent asking about conscientious objector discharges. Judging from phone call intake this year, Panepinto says, it's already clear that the numbers are getting higher.

J.E. McNeil, whose Center on Conscience and War is also part of the GI Rights Hotline, says that after Sept. 11, her office was initially getting one or two phone calls a week from soldiers specifically wanting to know about the conscientious objector application process. But since January, 2003, the call volume has jumped to one or two phone calls a day.

"The military doesn't have accurate numbers" states McNeil, a longtime attorney for conscientious objectors, noting her organization is currently working on the cases of 30 soldiers who have either already requested conscientious objector discharges or are in the process of applying.

The sketchy statistics, she says, are due to overall underreporting by the Pentagon; applications derailed during the process being discounted; and soldiers going AWOL or Unauthorized Absence (UA) before waiting the three months to a year it might take before the Army makes up its mind.

Says McNeil: "The stories we're hearing out of Iraq are horrific. Soldiers are calling us and saying 'I now realize what war is and I can't do it.' It's heart wrenching."

"All I can tell you is how many people have applied," responds Army spokeswoman Martha Rudd. "I can't comment on how many calls the hotlines are taking. If somebody is serious, they'll apply and their application will be considered."

It's worth noting that all of this has considerable historical precedent. According to the Center on Conscience and War, conscientious objectors have been in every major American war, dating back to the American Revolution. Originally, only members of the historic 'peace' churches -- Quakers, Mennonites and Brethren -- were permitted to be conscientious objectors. But even they were required to serve as noncombatants in the military and faced jail time or seizure of property if they refused. By World War II, because of the country's first peacetime draft, anybody could register as a conscientious objector on religious grounds. Such objectors, however, were forced to serve in the Civilian Public Service for four years without pay -- working particularly undesirable government jobs vacated by those who'd gone off to war.

By the end of the Korean War, that program was eliminated and by Vietnam, you could also cite moral and ethical grounds. Also during Vietnam, the military began allowing soldiers who could prove they had a change of heart towards war to apply for a conscientious objector discharge, and 3,275 soldiers did. During the first Gulf War, some 111 soldiers were granted conscientious objector discharges, according to statistics culled by the Center on Conscience and War.

The current conflict in Iraq is provoking a new movement of conscientious objectors for two reasons, says McNeil. A sweeping 'stop-loss' decree, authorized by the Army on Nov. 13 and designed to stabilize an over-exerted fighting force, prevents soldiers from retiring or leaving their units 90 days before deployment and 90 days after returning home. Reservists and National Guard soldiers in particular have been affected as they are shifted out of Iraq and then re-deployed within the allotted 90 days. As a result, says McNeil, men and women accustomed to serving one weekend a month and two weeks a year are spending most of the year in Iraq, separated from their families and fighting an increasingly chaotic and dangerous war.

The second variable has to do with the hellishness of this war itself. More and more soldiers, no matter how tough their training or elite their unit, are finding the brutality of urban battle coupled with the murky justification for invading Iraq as reason enough to stop fighting.

One GI being counseled by the Center on Conscience and War spoke with Alternet on condition of anonymity as his application for conscientious objector status is still pending. Part of a Special Operations unit deployed in Iraq early last year, this soldier spent four months on seemingly endless combat missions. It took only his first fight, some three weeks into his tour of duty, to change him.

"There was this numbness..., this human aspect, you didn't think would be there," he said. "People all around me -- us, the Iraqis -- we were all losing friends and family. It was sickening."

Beneath his proudly polished military speak, the soldier suddenly sounded very young, as he described his metamorphosis.

"I saw destruction of people. Innocent lives taken that won't be coming back. I took lives," he said. "You were trained to think these people were lower than you. But you wondered if that person you'd just killed could have been your friend.... There was no honor in it, and I didn't want to be a part of it anymore."

After that first battle, the soldier said it was obvious both to him and to the other soldiers in his unit that he never wanted to fight again, though he never told anyone outright because he felt ashamed. When his unit returned home on leave, he was transferred to a conventional combat battalion, which had not yet been deployed. There, the soldier wrestled with his feelings and spoke to Army chaplains and psychiatrists as well as his own friends and family about what to do.

"During that time I was made aware of the conscientious objector option, and I submitted the paperwork, because I realized I want separation from the military" he said. "I was told I'd be fighting for freedom and honor and glory, but it's been about protecting political interests. It's been a lie."

Meanwhile, the solider is still waiting for his application to be processed and a judgment to be meted out.

Aside from such first hand accounts, both J.E. McNeil and Teresa Panepinto note that another surefire sign of the intense unhappiness many soldiers experience towards fighting in Iraq is the high suicide rate among those stationed there. The Pentagon has acknowledged that 22 soldiers killed themselves in Iraq last year and the Army dispatched a mental-health assessment team last September to investigate. The results of that report are expected sometime within the next few weeks.

Nancy Lessin, co-founder of Military Families Speak Out and herself the mother of a Marine who returned from Iraq last May, confirms that her organization is working with numerous soldiers and families of soldiers dealing with depression and suicide.

"We're seeing this because people are being deployed for the second or third time and also because soldiers who believed that this war was needed in the beginning have come around to see that it's based on lies," said Lessin, whose group organized a massive peace march in Fayetteville, North Carolina on March 20.

Interestingly, Lessin's analysis of military suicides and depression eerily parallels the motives behind the outpouring of phone calls to the GI Hotline about conscientious objector discharges. Unfortunately, despite President Bush's blind boasts about American resolve and lives sacrificed for freedom, it seems certain that this outpouring -- not to mention the suicides and depression -- is destined to continue, as more GIs like Camilo Mejia and the anonymous Special Operations soldier find themselves unable to keep firing their weapons in good faith.

Nearly 100 years later, apparently, we're still perpetuating what poet Wilfred Owen called the "old Lie: Dulce et decorum / Est pro patria mori."

How sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country.

Dan Frosch is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He also contributes to VIBE, POZ and In These Times.

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