Lou Dubose

Trumpism Is Killing Dreamers' Dreams

“Texas is the national testing ground for bad public policy,” the journalist Molly Ivins used to say.

It was a Texas attorney general, Gregg Abbott, who sued in federal court in Brownsville, Texas, challenging Barack Obama’s 2014 executive memorandum that attempted to provide temporary legal status for undocumented parents of children born in the United States. Twenty-five other Republican state attorneys general joined Abbott in the lawsuit.

Abbott, currently in the media spotlight because floodwaters created by Hurricane Harvey have inundated much of the city of Houston, used to brag that his job entailed “going to the office in the morning, suing the federal government, and going home in the afternoon.” He prevailed in Brownsville, blocking the implementation of Obama’s program, thus denying legal status to some 4 million undocumented residents of the United States. Their children might be citizens, or legal residents, but Abbott’s lawsuit ensured that they continue to live in the shadows.

Since filing suit against the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program (DAPA), Abbott was elected governor, and has moved further to the right, out of both conviction and a legitimate concern that his lieutenant governor, an evangelical extremist not unlike Vice President Mike Pence, will challenge him in a primary.

Abbott’s successor in the elected AG’s office is Ken Paxton, perhaps as extreme as Abbott, if not as bright and articulate, and currently under indictment for securities fraud.

In the footsteps of Abbott, Paxton is now leading a group of Republican state attorneys general in a lawsuit in the same Brownsville federal court, this time attempting to overturn a widely popular Obama executive action that currently defers the deportation of 886,814 young, undocumented residents, allowing them to obtain work permits and driver’s licenses, after paying a $495 fee and passing a background check.

It’s an odd designation, applicants are not granted “legal residence” per se, but rather allowed certain privileges while their deportation is deferred for two years, after which they can reapply to renew their Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status. DACA status provides no path to citizenship, nor can people granted DACA status receive any federal financial benefits, such as Social Security, college financial aid, or food stamps.

But Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an implacable opponent of immigration reform while he was in the Senate, appears to be at least supportive of Paxton’s lawsuit, telling “Fox and Friends” hosts: “I like that our states and localities are holding the federal government to account, expecting us to do what’s our responsibility to the state and locals, and that’s to enforce the law.”

Easy to confuse, two similar acronyms for two Obama programs for undocumented immigrants, DACA for children; and DAPA, which has been suspended while tied up in court, for parents. At least it was suspended until Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly rescinded it in mid-June, months before becoming Trump’s Chief of Staff.

For Paxton, rescinding DAPA, which was never implemented because it was tied up in court, wasn’t enough. On June 27, Paxton wrote to Sessions, demanding that he also order the Secretary of Homeland Security to end DACA.

Paxton warned Sessions that if the administration fails to issue a memorandum rescinding DACA by September 5, he will amend the lawsuit that successfully blocked DAPA and ask the same federal court to kill DACA.

Kill is not a legal term, but Paxton writes that unless the Trump administration rescinds Obama’s DACA order, he will ask the court for a ruling that lets the program die: “We respectfully ask the Secretary of Homeland Security to phase out the DACA program.…Specifically…not renew or issue any new DACA or Expanded DACA permits in the future.” If that request is not met, Paxton will go to court.

The suit Paxton intends to amend is sitting in the courtroom of Judge Andrew S. Hanen, whose animus toward undocumented immigrants is of record. As we reported in February 2015, Hanen was the author of a 2015 legal opinion in which he ruled on the enforcement authority of a federal agency, then went on to write 50 superfluous pages of dicta critical of the nation’s undocumented population.

A few examples:

“In 1992, the Attorney General estimated that the country’s immigrant population was as low as three million individuals. Today, California alone is said to have at least that many illegal aliens residing within its borders.”

“Evidence shows that Texas spends $9,473 to educate each illegal alien child … Texas also complains of the millions of dollars it must spend each year in providing uncompensated health care for these increasing numbers of undocumented workers.”

“This influx, for example, is causing the States to experience severe law enforcement problems … And in [Arizona’s] most populous county, these aliens are responsible for disproportionate share of serious crime.”

There is more in the public record that illustrates Hanen’s anti-immigrant bias.

Abbott was aware of Hanen’s hostile disposition toward undocumented immigrants when he carefully steered his 2015 DAPA lawsuit into his Brownsville courtroom. Now, Paxton will be trying his DACA case on the same playing field.

If Paxton goes ahead with the lawsuit, it will be left to Jeff Sessions to put together a defense for the 886,814 Dreamers whose temporary legal status Paxton is determined to end. After all, Paxton and his fellow attorneys general are suing Sessions’ client: the federal government.

On the campaign trail, Trump promised to rescind DACA, but he has been ambivalent since taking office, suggesting that children shouldn’t be held responsible for their parents’ decision to bring them into the country.

But all this might be beyond Trump’s control, unless he requests Sessions to make the DACA suit go away, as he requested him to stop the criminal prosecution of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. He failed with Arpaio and had to resort to a pardon. And his odds were better in Arizona, where the federal government was the prosecution in a criminal case, than in Texas, where it is a defendant in a civil action.

Beyond Hanen’s courtroom is the extremely conservative Fifth Circuit, never a friendly forum for undocumented residents of the country, and a conservative Supreme Court likely to be hostile to Obama-era executive orders and undocumented residents in general.

Perhaps this ends up a win-win proposition for Trump. He directs his Secretary of Homeland Security to kill the program. Or Paxton and his cohorts kill it in a Texas courtroom. Either way, a campaign promise is fulfilled. And a decision that at the moment appears inevitable forces almost 900,000 Dreamers back to a life in the shadows.

It all began in a courtroom in Texas.

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¿Cuba Libre?

Sometimes prison time actually does rehabilitate. Or perhaps it was Alan Gross’ December 2014 rescue from a Cuban prison by the patient, quiet diplomacy of the Obama administration.

Gross, a small player in the failed U.S. policy to overthrow Fidel (then Raul) Castro, was a USAID contractor who spent five years in a Cuban prison for engaging in illegal covert activity on the island. (Illegal there and probably illegal in the United States)

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Gross is working for a Miami-based PAC that will fund candidates who support President Obama’s move to normalize relations with Cuba:

A political-action committee backing candidates in favor of a U.S.-Cuba policy shift will launch its campaign effort Monday with the help of a notable guest: Alan Gross, the U.S. citizen who spent five years in Cuban prisons.

The committee, called New Cuba PAC, will back candidates who favor reorienting U.S.-Cuba policy, particularly with more trade and travel between the two countries. President Barack Obama took steps to lift financial and travel regulations in December as part of a normalization push, but it will take congressional action to fully lift an embargo and allow for full travel to the island.

As we reported at the time of his release, Gross was both a victim of George W. Bush’s Cuba regime-change policy and a perpetrator of several crimes in Cuba.

Gross, who spoke no Spanish and had no background in Cuban politics or policy, was arrested at the José Martí Airport on his fifth smuggling trip. On the U.S. taxpayer’s tab, he had been installing internet hubs in an attempt to break the Castro brothers’ electronic blockade of foreign websites and internet communication.

Among the items Cuban investigators found in Gross’s contraband were sophisticated encryption systems normally available to only the U.S. Army or the CIA.

An American Jew who belongs to a reform congregation in Maryland, Gross used the Cuba’s Jewish community for cover, working with rabbis and the leaders of several synagogues on the island, who were unaware that he was a U.S. agent. He also used unwitting American Jews engaged in humanitarian work for U.S.-based Jewish charities as “mules” to smuggle electronic devices in their luggage when visiting Cuba.

Gross’ arrest panicked USAID officials, who were aware of what he was doing and of the program’s use of mulas to smuggle contraband. One email the Spectator obtained at the time read:

If you knew that the risks associated with sending travelers to the island were high, would your travelers still want to go? Why or why not?

Please complete the attached table and return it to me by COB Thursday 21 January. You will note that we are not asking you for the travelers’ names. We are also not asking for information about mulas. We’re interested in programmatic travelers who spent time on the island.

The American Jewish USAID operative working in a Cold War program flush with new funding demanded by President George W. Bush was sprung from prison by a Barack Obama diplomatic initiative that had enlisted the support of Pope Francis.

The president’s “home for Hanukkah” delivery of Gross completely unhinged anti-Castro Republicans, most notably presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

It’s going to take more than a couple of chilled Cuba Libres to calm their nerves now that their Cold Warrior has come in from the cold to work on behalf of Obama’s Cuba policy.

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Marco Rubio Is Wrong: Alan Gross Was No Hostage

Within an hour of President Barack Obama’s announcing normalization of relations with Cuba, and the release of Alan Gross, an American imprisoned on the island for five years, Florida Senator Marco Rubio was making the rounds of cable news outlets.

On CNN, Rubio, whose father fled Cuba, repeated the claim he has made in the past. Alan Gross was “taken hostage” in Cuba while he was trying to help the island’s small Jewish community. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer bought right into it.

“He was providing electronics equipment for the small Jewish community in Cuba,” he said.

Both are incorrect.

Gross was arrested for conducting a covert operation on the island, violating Cuban law. He was using the Jewish community as cover to set up a communications network, not helping it.

Rubio is a rabid anti-Castro ideologue, whose father’s story is essential to the senator’s presidential campaign narrative. Blitzer should know better.

One of the ironies of the event that triggered the apertura in United States-Cuba relations is that it began with a bungled covert operation outside the legal mandate of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in a program whose funding was ramped up by the George W. Bush administration until Obama scaled it back.

The budget for funneling communications technology into Cuba jumped from $3.5 million to $45 million during Bush’s two terms, according to Associated Press reporter Desmond Butler, who reported the story from Havana and Washington.

From those earmarked funds, Gross was paid more than $500,000 as a USAID subcontractor.

The details revealed about Gross’s mission illustrate why USAID should not conduct covert operations.

Gross spoke very little Spanish and was trying to teach himself the language with the aid of a Rosetta Stone computer program.

He is Jewish and presented himself as a member of a Jewish humanitarian group working to provide internet service to Cuban Jews.

Jews in Cuba didn’t need internet access, because they are one of a few privileged groups on the island who already had it. Two years before Gross began working in Cuba, World ORT, a Jewish educational organization, funded internet projects that linked six Jewish communities in Cuba.

Gross never told leaders of the Jewish community in Cuba that he was a U.S. government subcontractor, although their cooperation with him put them at considerable risk.

The 18-page sentencia released by a Cuban court on March 11, 2011, describes one incident in which Gross failed to tell Jewish community leaders in Havana that he was installing wireless equipment in their synagogue, even though collaborating with an agent of the U.S. government could have landed them in jail.

In this instance, it made little difference. At least not to the Cuban government. Gross has been under surveillance since his first trip to Cuba when one of his initial contacts turned out to be a double agent.

Gross also took risks with members of Jewish humanitarian groups traveling to Cuba, deceiving them into carrying in their luggage electronic items illegal to import into Cuba.

Three of his “mules” are named in the Cuban court’s sentencia, which might be compared to a finding of facts. They were from Jewish synagogues and humanitarian groups in New York and South Florida, and never had a clue they were smuggling contraband.

Among the items smuggled were BGAN satellite links, which would allow the wi-fi hotspots that Gross was setting up to circumvent government servers.

Cuban authorities produced an inventory of every illegal electronic device that Gross and the unwitting “mules” working with him had smuggled onto the island.

On one occasion in January 2010, after Gross was detained, a USAID official got anxious about the agency’s use of “mules,” sending the following message (in an email I obtained).

If you knew that the risks associated with sending travelers to the island were high, would your travelers still want to go? Why or why not?

Please complete the attached table and return it to me by COB Thursday 21 January. You will note that we are not asking you for the travelers’ names. We are also not asking for information about mulas. We’re interested in programmatic travellers who spent time on the island.

Beyond putting these American Jewish “mulas” at risk, Gross risked upsetting the delicate equilibrium established between the Castro regime and Cuba’s Jews, who enjoy freedoms many other Cubans do not.

“We have achieved a modus vivendi with the Cuban government,” Arturo Lopez-­Levy, former secretary of Cuba’s B’nai B’rith Maimonides Lodge, told The Forward. “We have freedom of religion, Birthright trips. Why do we have to risk our status for this?” (Lopez-­Levy was living in the United States when he was interviewed.)

If this operation doesn’t seem to make sense, it didn’t.

Penetrated by Cuban intelligence from the onset, and tracked by Cuban authorities until it’s conclusion, it achieved nothing.

When Gross was arrested—not taken hostage—in December 2009, on his fifth trip to Havana, he was carrying with him, according to Butler’s AP report,” a mobile phone chip that experts say is often used by the Pentagon and the CIA to make satellite signals virtually impossible to track.”

If the Cuban government wasn’t then in possession of that technology, it is now.

Of course, Gross’s Cuban initiative did achieve something other than what its architects in the Bush administration intended.

What might turn out to be one of Barack Obama’s most “historic” (as Blitzer described it) achievements was midwifed by a failed USAID covert mission, of which the president was unaware until it unraveled.

Obama’s willingness to seize the initiative was, of course, the big factor.

It all concluded on the first day of Hanukkah with a jubilant Gross ending a Washington press conference, saying:

“I support the president.”

It might turn out that the president has made Rubio hostage to a narrative that no longer has much currency.

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The Pimping of the President

Four months after he took the oath of office in 2001, President George W. Bush was the attraction, and the White House the venue, for a fundraiser organized by the alleged perpetrator of the largest billing fraud in the history of corporate lobbying. In May 2001, Jack Abramoff's lobbying client book was worth $4.1 million in annual billing for the Greenberg Traurig law firm. He was a friend of Bush advisor Karl Rove. He was a Bush "Pioneer," delivering at least $100,000 in bundled contributions to the 2000 campaign.

He had just concluded his work on the Bush Transition Team as an advisor to the Department of the Interior. He had sent his personal assistant Susan Ralston to the White House to work as Rove's personal assistant. He was a close friend, advisor, and high-dollar fundraiser for the most powerful man in Congress, Tom DeLay. Abramoff was so closely tied to the Bush Administration that he could, and did, charge two of his clients $25,000 for a White House lunch date and a meeting with the President. From the same two clients he took to the White House in May 2001, Abramoff also obtained $2.5 million in contributions for a non-profit foundation he and his wife operated.

Abramoff's White House guests were the chiefs of two of the six casino-rich Indian tribes he and his partner Mike Scanlon ultimately billed $82 million for services tribal leaders now claim were never performed or were improperly performed. Together the six tribes would make $10 million in political contributions, at Abramoff's direction, almost all of it to Republican campaigns of his choosing. On May 9, 2001, when he ushered the two tribal chiefs into the White House to meet the President, The Washington Post story that would end his lobbying career and begin two Senate Committee investigations was three years away. (When the Post story broke in February 2004, however, Abramoff and Scanlon, a former Tom DeLay press aide, were already targets of a U.S. Attorney's investigation in Washington.)

Abramoff brought the Coushatta and Choctaw chiefs to Washington at the request of Grover Norquist. Norquist is founder and director of Americans for Tax Reform, the advocacy group committed to slashing taxes until the federal government is so small you "can drown it in the bathtub." Norquist started ATR in 1985. His power increased exponentially in 1994, when Republicans took control of the House of Representatives and he collaborated with then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay to launch the "K Street Project"--a coordinated campaign to compel lobbyists to contribute only to Republican candidates and ultimately to hire only Republicans. Like Abramoff and Rove, Norquist considered George Bush's victory over Al Gore the culmination of a project the three Washington insiders started 30 years ago as national leaders of the College Republicans.

Since the Post's Susan Schmidt broke the Jack Abramoff story, the media has focused on the stunning $82 million Abramoff and Scanlon billed six tribes for lobbying and public relations work. Far less attention has been paid to the political contributions, by Abramoff's account $10 million, made by the six tribes. That piece of the story involves the K Street Project, which moves the money of corporate lobbyists and their clients into the accounts of Republican candidates, PACs, and issue advocacy groups.

Republican Campaign Accounts

Abramoff advised tribal leaders that the contributions were the cost of doing business in Washington, where he could protect them from other tribes trying to open casinos to compete with those that already had them. He sent orders for the checks to be cut, designating each recipient. On March 6, 2002, for example, Coushatta Tribal Council Chair Lovelin Poncho followed Abramoff's orders and disbursed $336,300 in tribal funds, according to tribal accounting ledgers obtained by the Observer.

The Coushattas, a southwest Louisiana tribe of 837 members, operate a casino that does an estimated $300 million in annual business. The $32 million they paid Abramoff and Scanlon makes the tribe the largest victim of the fraud their lawyers now allege in a lawsuit filed by Texas plaintiff's firm Provost Umphrey. The tribe also contributed what tribal council member David Sickey said was probably "many millions" of dollars to political causes and charities designated by Abramoff.

Since we first reported the White House ATR fundraiser and the $1 million contribution to the Capital Athletic Foundation, the Coushattas, speaking through Austin attorneys at Hance, Scarborough, Wright, Ginsburg & Brusilow, and through Louisiana political consultant Roy Fletcher, have vociferously denied that tribal Chairman Poncho visited the White House after contributing $25,000 to ATR. They also denied the $1 million contribution to Abramoff's foundation.

Recently the story has changed. Or at least the version told by the majority that controls the council has begun to change. Two minority members of the five-seat council have pointed to the pay-to-play meeting with President Bush and the $1 million contribution to Abramoff as examples of the council's financial mismanagement. One of the two members of the minority faction, David Sickey, has regularly made himself available to the press. Normally, press inquiries to the council majority are answered by Hance Scarborough, by Roy Fletcher, or occasionally by sources close to the council majority.

According to a source close to the tribal majority, Chairman Poncho recently "revisited that issue" of his visit to the White House. He had previously denied it because he thought he was responding to press inquiries that implied he had a one-on-one meeting with Bush. He now recalls that he in fact did go to the White House on May 9, 2001. Tribal attorney Kathryn Fowler Van Hoof went with him, although she did not get into the meeting with the President. That meeting lasted for about 15 minutes and was not a one-on-one meeting. At the meeting, Bush made some general comments about Indian policy but did not discuss Indian gaming. Abramoff was at the meeting--for which he charged the Coushatta Tribe $25,000. The change in Poncho's position is odd in light of the fact that he and his spokespersons have maintained for more than a year that he did not meet with President Bush in May 2001.

Norquist has not responded to inquiries about using the White House as a fundraiser. It is, however, a regular ATR practice to invite state legislators and tribal leaders who have supported ATR anti-tax initiatives to the White House for a personal thank-you from the President. A source at ATR said no money is ever accepted from participants in these events. The $25,000 check from the Coushattas suggests that, at least in this instance, Norquist's organization made an exception.

The $75,000 collected from the Mississippi Choctaws and two corporate sponsors mentioned in Abramoff's e-mail suggests there were other exceptions. Norquist recently wrote to the tribes who paid to attend White House meetings. His story regarding that event is also evolving. The contributions, he told tribal leaders in letters that went out in May, were in no way related to any White House event. That doesn't square with the paper trail Abramoff and Norquist left behind, which makes it evident that they were selling access to the President.

The Coushatta Tribal Council majority has also revised its response to questions about the $1 million contribution, which critics in the tribe have insisted was made to Abramoff's Capital Athletic Foundation in 2001. The foundation funded Abramoff's Jewish prep school in Bethesda, MD, which closed soon after his lobbying scheme unraveled. When the Observer inquired in November 2004 about the $1 million contribution, we had obtained a copy of the Capital Athletic Foundation's tax filing, but the contributor's name was redacted.

Following the lead of Lake Charles, Lousiana, American Press reporter Shawn Martin, the Observer last week obtained an un-redacted copy. The $1 million contribution, roughly 95 percent of what the foundation raised in 2001, was attributed to the Coushatta Tribe. A source working with the Coushatta Tribal Council majority said it now appears that the contribution was made in response to a bill sent by Mike Scanlon.

Accountants working under the direction of Hance Scarborough found a $1 million Greenberg Traurig invoice that Scanlon sent the tribe. Scanlon routinely sent un-itemized bills for larger sums, which the tribe routinely paid. But as he was not a Greenberg Traurig employee, he billed on his own Capitol Campaign Strategies invoices. On the $1 million Greenberg Traurig invoice Scanlon sent the tribe in 2001, the company name was misspelled.

There will need to be more accounting, probably by different accountants. And perhaps by different legal representation, or at least under a different understanding between the tribe and its lawyers. In the May 28 tribal election on the Elton, LA reservation, a reform slate won a majority on the five-member council. Sickey, who five days before the election maintained that the $1 million contribution was made and that tribal chair Poncho indeed went to the White House in 2001, predicted the new majority will hire forensic accountants to determine where all the money went. (A week before the election he was looking for a tribal newsletter in which, he said, Poncho described his 2001 White House visit.)

The shift on the council does not bode well for its Austin law firm. Hance Scarborough had gone to tribal court and successfully blocked a recall election that would have forced the council majority to stand for election a year ago, and David Sickey was a proponent of the recall. "Kent Hance doesn't represent me or [the other minority dissident] Harold John," said Sickey. "He represents Lovelin Poncho."

The White House press office has not responded to our questions about other visits Jack Abramoff might have made to the White House or about Norquist using the official residence of the President to raise funds for Americans for Tax Reform. None of the political contributions Abramoff insisted the tribes make as yet have been returned.