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US, El Salvador sign asylum deal, details to be worked out

NEW YORK — The United States on Friday signed an agreement that paves the way for the U.S. to send some asylum-seekers to one of the world’s most violent countries, El Salvador.

But both countries must first take necessary legal actions and implement major border security and asylum procedures before it would take place, according to a draft copy of the agreement obtained by The Associated Press.

The deal is the latest ambitious step taken by the Trump administration to lean on other nations — many of them notoriously violent — to take in immigrants to stop the flow of migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border.

U.S. immigration officials also are forcing more than 42,000 people to remain in Mexico as their cases play out and have changed policy to deny asylum to anyone who transited through a third country en route to the southern border of the U.S.

Curbing immigration is a signature political issue for Trump and one that thrills his supporters. But the U.S. is also managing a crush of migrants at the border that has strained the system.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan and El Salvador’s foreign minister, Alexandra Hill Tinoco, signed the “cooperative asylum agreement” in a live-streamed press conference on Friday.

They lauded the two countries for working together to stem migration to the U.S. but provided few details about the agreement.

Condemnation from migrant and refugee advocates was swift.

“Where will they declare a haven for asylum-seekers next? Syria? North Korea? This is cynical and absurd. El Salvador is in no way safe for asylum-seekers,” said Refugees International President Eric Schwartz.

El Salvadorans are excluded from the agreement, according to the draft.

McAleenan, who called the agreement “a big step forward,” and Hill Tinoco discussed U.S. assistance in making El Salvador a safer and more prosperous place for its citizens. Hill Tinoco talked about ending gang violence.

“I mean, those individuals threaten people, those individuals kill people, those individuals request for the poorest and most vulnerable population to pay just to cross the street,” she said, adding that her country needs more investment from the U.S. and other nations.

The agreement, first reported by The Associated Press, could lead to migrants from third countries obtaining refuge in El Salvador if they pass through that country on their way to the U.S., Hill Tinoco said in an interview with the AP.

But she said most migrants who travel north don’t pass through El Salvador, which is on the western edge of Central America and is much smaller geographically than its neighbor to the east, Honduras.

She told The AP the details would need to be hammered out, including border security, asylum procedures and potential aid from the U.S. She said the agreement is a starting point, and they expected negotiations on possible aid to continue.

“It has to be a real partnership,” she said, which means the U.S. would have to give something.

The country’s new president, Nayib Bukele, has made clear he wishes to be an ally to the U.S., Hill Tinoco said.

“It is a complete 180 in terms of foreign policy,” she said.

McAleenan said the agreement advanced El Salvador’s commitment to developing an asylum framework, with help from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

“This will build on the good work we have accomplished already with El Salvador’s neighbor, Guatemala, in building protection capacity to try to further our efforts to provide opportunities to seek protection for political, racial, religious or social group persecution as close as possible to the origin of individuals that need it,” he said.

Guatemala officials are still working on how to implement a “safe third country” agreement with the U.S. signed earlier this summer.

The arrangement with El Salvador was not described as a safe third country agreement, under which nations agree that their respective countries are safe enough and have robust enough asylum systems, so that if migrants transit through one of the countries they must remain there instead of moving on to another country.

The U.S. officially has only one such agreement in place, with Canada.

The Trump administration this year threatened to withhold all federal assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras unless they did more to end the migrant crisis.

The move was met by stiff resistance in Congress as experts had said the cuts would likely only exacerbate the number of migrants seeking to make the hazardous journey to the U.S. because of a further lack of resources.

On Thursday, the U.S. announced a plan to promote economic development in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — as long as fewer migrants end up at the U.S. border.

Mauricio Claver-Clarone, national security adviser in charge of Latin America, said U.S. investment would occur soon but it was contingent on a continued reduction in the number of migrants. He didn’t specify how much Washington plans to give to promote economic growth in those countries.

In June, the State Department announced that the Trump administration was reversing some of the cuts but would not approve future aid to those nations. The State Department said then that some $370 million from the 2018 budget will not be spent and instead will be moved to other projects.

El Salvador is plagued by gangs and is among the world’s deadliest countries, with one of the highest homicide rates on the globe.

According to a 2018 State Department report, human rights issues included allegations of “unlawful killings of suspected gang members and others by security forces; forced disappearances by military personnel; torture by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of government respect for judicial independence.”

Pine Tree High School offers class on how to fly drone

Marcanthony Rojas wants to become a firefighter one day. So, naturally, he is enrolled in the Fire Protection Academy to help him achieve his goal.

He also enrolled in a class on how to fly a drone.

Rojas, a senior at Pine Tree High School, said he wants to get his drone certification because it can be used on scene at a fire.

“You get on the scene, and the first person has to run around the house and check what’s damaged, what’s not, see what they can preserve,” he said. “With a drone, they can do that five times faster. The drone could actually go over the building to see what else is happening.”

Pine Tree High School is in its first year of offering Drones 101, a class helping students get their drone certification.

Wayne Gaddis, who teaches the class to about 55 students, said they are learning about the Federal Aviation Administration laws and regulations.

“That’s not the fun part. The fun part is learning how to use a drone and fly it safely,” he said. “(And) how to create good video and how to basically promote yourself as a commercial drone (pilot), certified drone pilot. And that’s my end goal, is some kind of promotional video at the end that they can take to a potential client to try to sell themselves as a person to do their video for them.”

Gaddis said the job market for certified drone pilots is growing, and students can go into real estate photography, the oil field and other industries.

Junior Cameron Cowden said he never flew a drone before taking the class.

“I play a lot of video games, so it’s similar, but, like, it is different, because it’s an actual floating object and not just on the screen,” he said. “I think the photography aspect is pretty cool. And there’s, like, drone racing, too, which I just think is cool. There’s just so many different things you can do with drones.”

Cowden said students are practicing flying smaller drones before moving up to larger ones.

Before moving on, students have to be able to fly small drones in the motion of a figure 8 that is taped to the floor, Rojas said.

“It’s pretty fun. It gives us more opportunities, because drones have become such a big thing. You can make your own business and stuff,” he said. “It’s pretty cool that we have options like this.”

Trump, in call, urged Ukraine to investigate Biden's son

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump urged the new leader of Ukraine this summer to investigate the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, a person familiar with the matter said Friday. Democrats condemned what they saw as a clear effort to damage a political rival, now at the heart of an explosive whistleblower complaint against Trump.

It was the latest revelation in an escalating controversy that has created a showdown between congressional Democrats and the Trump administration, which has refused to turn over the formal complaint by a national security official or even describe its contents.

Trump defended himself Friday against the intelligence official’s complaint, angrily declaring it came from a “partisan whistleblower,” though he also said he didn’t know who had made it. The complaint was based on a series of events, one of which was a July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, according to a two people familiar with the matter. The people were not authorized to discuss the issue by name and were granted anonymity.

Trump, in that call, urged Zelenskiy to probe the activities of potential Democratic rival Biden’s son Hunter, who worked for a Ukrainian gas company, according to one of the people, who was briefed on the call. Trump did not raise the issue of U.S. aid to Ukraine, indicating there was not an explicit quid pro quo, according to the person.

Biden reacted strongly late Friday, saying that if the reports are true, “then there is truly no bottom to President Trump’s willingness to abuse his power and abase our country.” He said Trump should release the transcript of his July phone conversation with Zelenskiy “so that the American people can judge for themselves.”

The government’s intelligence inspector general has described the whistleblower’s Aug. 12 complaint as “serious” and “urgent.” But Trump dismissed it all Friday, insisting “it’s nothing.” He scolded reporters for asking about it and said it was “just another political hack job.”

“I have conversations with many leaders. It’s always appropriate. Always appropriate,” Trump said. “At the highest level always appropriate. And anything I do, I fight for this country.”

Trump, who took questions in the Oval Office alongside Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whom he was hosting for a state visit, was asked if he knew if the whistleblower’s complaint centered on his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Zelenskiy. The president responded, “I really don’t know,” but he continued to insist any phone call he made with a head of state was “perfectly fine and respectful.”

Trump was asked Friday if he brought up Biden in the call with Zelenskiy, and he answered, “It doesn’t matter what I discussed.” But then he used the moment to urge the media “to look into” Biden’s background with Ukraine.

There has yet to be any evidence of any wrongdoing by Biden or his son regarding Ukraine.

Trump and Zelenskiy are to meet on the sidelines of the United Nations next week. The Wall Street Journal first reported that Trump pressed Zelenskiy about Biden.

The standoff with Congress raises fresh questions about the extent to which Trump’s appointees are protecting the Republican president from oversight and, specifically, whether his new acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, is working with the Justice Department to shield the president.

Democrats say the administration is legally required to give Congress access to the whistleblower’s complaint, and Rep. Adam Schiff of California has said he will go to court in an effort to get it if necessary.

The intelligence community’s inspector general said the matter involves the “most significant” responsibilities of intelligence leadership.

House Democrats also are fighting the administration for access to witnesses and documents in impeachment probes.

In the whistleblower case, lawmakers are looking into whether Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani traveled to Ukraine to pressure the government to aid the president’s reelection effort by investigating the activities of Biden’s son.

During a rambling interview Thursday on CNN, Giuliani was asked whether he had asked Ukraine to look into Biden. He initially said, “No, actually I didn’t,” but seconds later he said, “Of course I did.”

Giuliani has spent months trying to drum up potentially damaging evidence about Biden’s ties to Ukraine. He told CNN that Trump was unaware of his actions.

“I did what I did on my own,” he said. “I told him about it afterward.

Still later, Giuliani tweeted, “A President telling a Pres-elect of a well known corrupt country he better investigate corruption that affects US is doing his job.” Democrats have contended that Trump, in the aftermath of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, may have asked for foreign assistance in his upcoming reelection bid.

Trump further stoked those concerns earlier this year in an interview when he suggested he would be open to receiving foreign help.

The inspector general appeared before the House intelligence committee behind closed doors Thursday but declined, under administration orders, to reveal to members the substance of the complaint.

Schiff, a California Democrat, said Trump’s attack on the whistleblower was disturbing and raised concerns that it would have a chilling effect on other potential exposers of wrongdoing. He also said it was “deeply disturbing” that the White House appeared to know more about the complaint than its intended recipient — Congress.

The information “deserves a thorough investigation,” Schiff said. “Come hell or high water, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Among the materials Democrats have sought is a transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Zelenskiy. The call took place one day after Mueller’s faltering testimony to Congress effectively ended the threat his probe posed to the White House. A readout of the call released from the Ukrainian government said Trump believed Kyiv could complete corruptions investigations that have hampered relations between the two nations but did not get into specifics.

Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who in May called for a probe of Giuliani’s effort in Ukraine, said in an interview on Friday it’s “outrageous” the president has been sending his political operative to talk to Ukraine’s new president. Murphy tweeted that during his own visit it was clear to him that Ukraine officials were “worried about the consequences of ignoring Giuliani’s demands.”

The senator tweeted that he told Zelenskiy during their August visit it was “best to ignore requests from Trump’s campaign operatives. He agreed.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Trump faces “serious repercussions” if reports about the complaint are accurate. She said it raises “grave, urgent concerns for our national security.”

Letters to Congress from the inspector general make clear that Maguire consulted with the Justice Department in deciding not to transmit the complaint to Congress in a further departure from standard procedure. It’s unclear whether the White House was also involved, Schiff said.

Maguire has refused to discuss details of the whistleblower complaint, but he has been subpoenaed by the House panel and is expected to testify publicly next Thursday. Maguire and the inspector general, Michael Atkinson, also are expected next week at the Senate intelligence committee.

Atkinson wrote in letters that Schiff released that he and Maguire had hit an “impasse” over the acting director’s decision not to share the complaint with Congress. Atkinson said he was told by the legal counsel for the intelligence director that the complaint did not actually meet the definition of an “urgent concern.” And he said the Justice Department said it did not fall under the director’s jurisdiction because it did not involve an intelligence professional.

Atkinson said he disagreed with that Justice Department view. The complaint “not only falls under DNI’s jurisdiction,” Atkinson wrote, “but relates to one of the most significant and important of DNI’s responsibilities to the American people.”

Gladewater, White Oak OK vouchers to drop off animals at Longview shelter as fees rise

GLADEWATER — As costs increase to use a Longview animal shelter, two local cities hope vouchers can curtail drop-offs of stray animals from nonresidents.

The Gladewater City Council agreed Thursday night to renew its contract with Longview Animal Care and Adoption Center — only this renewal comes with a gradual fee increase for the shelter to take in strays.

White Oak approved a similar contract Sept. 10.

Gladewater, White Oak and Kilgore pay $142 for every stray animal brought to the shelter by one of their city officers or residents.

But Longview spokesman Shawn Hara said that fee doesn’t fully cover the per-animal cost of operating the shelter, so the shelter will incrementally increase the fee over the next three years.

Starting Oct. 1, Gladewater and White Oak municipal governments will pay $162 per animal. A year later, the fee will increase to $182; and by Oct. 1, 2021, the per-animal cost will reach $201.

“Based on the averages of the last several years, Longview has determined an average per-animal cost of operations of approximately $201,” Hara said. “That is based on an annual average of just over $1.1 million in shelter expenses, and 5,600 animals per year. Those are for animal shelter operations only; Longview’s animal control costs are excluded.”

Kilgore also contracts with the city of Longview for animal shelter services, but neither City Manager Josh Selleck nor Mayor Ronnie Spradlin responded to messages requesting comment.

Last year, Gladewater’s bill for the 185 stray animals dropped off at the Longview shelter was $26,270, City Manager Ricky Tow said.

Meanwhile for White Oak, that city paid about $6,000 to the shelter for stray animal intakes just in one month, City Coordinator Charles Smith said, and about 80% of those strays were dropped off by residents. City staff or police drop off between five and eight animals monthly, which amounts to less than $1,300.

Oftentimes, a resident might drop off a litter of kittens or a pregnant cat that then has the kittens inside the shelter, and the city is charged $142 for each of those kittens, Smith said.

“That’s what we need to curtail is the private drop-offs, if we can,” he said.

According to the city of Longview, the current fee is about 70% of the cost of providing service, so the amount of subsidy for each animal dropped off from the cities of Gladewater, White Oak and Kilgore is about $60.

“It is important to note that intake fluctuates over the years, so it was important to get a broader time picture to show the costs,” Hara said.

“In general terms, approximately 15% of the shelter’s animals come from the neighboring cities. Again, in general terms, the total subsidy then is approximately $40,000 to $50,000 a year in total for the three contract cities of Kilgore, White Oak and Gladewater,” he said.

While the Gladewater City Council approved the contract Thursday, Tow said other alternatives were discussed.

“Obviously, we’d like to look at opportunities out there to do something with animals,” Tow said.

Gladewater and White Oak are instituting a voucher system. It means that any resident wishing to drop off a stray animal must go to City Hall or the local police station first to get a voucher to take the stray or strays to the Longview animal shelter. Without the voucher, residents must pay the drop-off fee themselves.

“It’s making sure the citizens paying the taxes are the ones receiving the benefit,” Tow said, noting that people living near Big Sandy or in Union Grove or Liberty City have Gladewater on their mailing address but don’t live inside the city limits or pay property taxes to the city of Gladewater.

“So a lot of out-of-the-city people have taken advantage of that by giving their address,” Tow said.

During the White Oak City Council meeting Sept. 10, Councilman Greg Hulett suggested that city might even look into building its own shelter in future years if the contract with Longview became too costly.

“I don’t know what type of regulations you have to adhere to to do that, but … this is going to end up being tens or hundreds or thousands of dollars a year,” Hulett said.