Two Democrats to be sworn in as senators, narrow GOP majority

File Photo: Democrat Doug Jones, who won the special US Senate election, speaks during a news conference in Birmingham, Alabama, US. (Reuters)
Updated 03 January 2018
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Two Democrats to be sworn in as senators, narrow GOP majority

WASHINGTON: Two new Democrats will be sworn in to the US Senate on Wednesday, narrowing the Republican majority and complicating efforts by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to advance the White House’s legislative agenda before the midterm elections in November.
Doug Jones, the first Alabama Democrat elected to the Senate in a quarter century, is one of two new members who will take the oath of office on the Senate floor at noon. The other is Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, who was appointed to replace Al Franken following the Democrat’s resignation over accusations of sexual misconduct. Smith also plans to compete in the special election taking place in November to complete the final two years of Franken’s term.
They will narrow the Republican majority to 51-49.
Jones, 63, will represent one of the most conservative states in the nation and is stressing his desire to work with both parties. He will be under pressure to find some areas of agreement with Republicans and has cited the funding of infrastructure improvements as one possible avenue.
“I will be an independent voice and work to find common ground with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get Washington back on track and fight to make our country a better place for all,” Jones said after defeating Republican Roy Moore in a special election rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct against Moore. Jones will take the seat once held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Before the Senate seat belonged to Sessions, it belonged to the man Jones considered his mentor, the late Sen. Howell Heflin. Jones worked for Heflin as a staffer after graduating from law school in 1979. Heflin was the last Democrat to represent Alabama in the US Senate.
Jones said for that reason, Wednesday will feel something like a homecoming, bringing his career full circle. During the swearing-in, Jones will be wearing a pair of Heflin’s cufflinks. Jones plans to place one of Heflin’s cigar boxes in his office.
“To be able to have done the things I’ve done and end up back here is just a remarkable thing,” Jones said. “I am looking forward to getting my feet wet and getting to know my colleagues and jumping into the action.”
Jones said he is hopeful that he comes to the Senate with a “little bit of a voice” because of the attention on the Alabama race.
“There are a lot of people who didn’t vote for me, and I hope they will keep an open mind because I am going to try to be the best senator I can for the state to try to move the state forward as a whole and not just one particular group or philosophy,” he said.
Jones made it clear during the campaign that he was opposed to the GOP’s efforts to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature health care overhaul, the Affordable Care Act. He said the efforts would drive up costs and lead to the closure of more rural health care facilities in the state. “That is a nonstarter,” Jones said.
Smith, 59, served as chief of staff to Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton before becoming his No. 2 when the previous lieutenant governor declined to seek a second term.
Smith is known largely as a liberal Democrat who has maintained connections to the state’s large and politically powerful business community.
Once the senators take the oath of office, they reprise the event at a ceremony with family and friends in the Old Senate Chamber, once the home to the US Senate and later to the US Supreme Court from 1860 to 1935.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale is expected to join Smith at the ceremony.
Jones said former Vice President Joe Biden, who headlined Jones’ campaign kickoff rally, and former Attorney General Eric Holder are expected to be among his guests Wednesday.


Europe’s solutions to migration create humanitarian crises

Updated 19 September 2018
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Europe’s solutions to migration create humanitarian crises

One of Europe’s main solutions to migration — Greece’s overcrowded, unsanitary Moria migrant camp — has suicidal children and conditions that a psychiatrist compared to “an old-fashioned mental asylum.”
In another heavily criticized solution to immigration, imprisoned men and women have been shuttled away from one gunbattle only to end up incarcerated on the front line of another, vulnerable to both trafficking and new abuse.
The jammed Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos and the dangerous migrant detention centers in Libya serve as a sober reminder to European leaders that their statistical success in curbing migration into the continent has spawned what the UN and others condemn as massive humanitarian failures. Deeply divided over how and where to control Europe’s borders, leaders are meeting Wednesday in a summit in Austria.
Migrant sea arrivals to Europe have plummeted this year, but each journey now carries increasing risks of death or indefinite detention in squalid conditions. More than 1,700 people have already died on Mediterranean crossings this year.
Abbas Elnaser, an Iraqi who arrived in Moria about three weeks ago, said his 8-year-old daughter’s health had always been frail and she was deteriorating quickly in the camp that was built for 3,100 but now houses over 9,000 people.
“She has problems breathing most of the time, she has problems in her lungs,” he said. “The tent is surrounded by garbage.”
In the central Mediterranean, Europe has effectively outsourced sea rescues of migrants to the Libyan coast guard, whose boats have returned 13,000 migrants to Libyan detention centers this year. In some of those centers around the Libyan capital of Tripoli, migrants ended up on the front lines of gunbattles as militias fought for control of the city.
At one point in the fighting, detainees abandoned by their jailers for days broke out of at least one center but ended up caught in gunbattle. A half-dozen people were shot, according to Ibrahim Younis, head of the Libya mission for the aid group Doctors without Borders.
As a Tripoli cease-fire brokered by the UN threatens to fracture, food for the detainees there is dwindling. Libyan officials complain that both they and the migrants have been largely abandoned by Europe. In the Janzour detention center, around 900 people were crammed into a space intended for half that many.
“We have difficulties in providing subsistence, difficulties in providing food, and difficulties in sheltering them,” said 1st Lt. Jamal Hussain. The government, which runs the facility, refused to allow an Associated Press journalist to speak to detainees.
The official number of asylum-seekers and refugees in detention in Libya is around 5,000, but thousands more are believed to be captive in warehouses and other buildings, where there have been widespread reports of slavery, sexual abuse and other atrocities.
This month the UN broke its silence over Europe’s policy of allowing the Libyan coast guard to intercept migrants, saying it was untenable and putting thousands of people at risk of being jailed indefinitely in inhumane conditions. Detailing allegations of torture, sexual abuse, violence and “nightmarish” conditions, the UN refugee agency said Libya doesn’t remotely meet the criteria “as a place of safety.”
In all, around 56,000 refugees and asylum-seekers are registered with the UN in Libya and neighboring Niger, which have accepted millions of euros in exchange for European promises to evaluate a portion for resettlement.
But, critics say, resettlement simply isn’t happening. A total of 657 people had left for resettlement in Europe as of last week, out of 3,886 slots promised over a year ago in 11 European countries and Canada.
Meanwhile, the Libyan and Greek detention centers continue to fill, with migrants and refugees waiting a year or more for a decision in their cases. That, however, suits many anti-immigrant populists in Europe just fine.
“Until the message is made abundantly clear that illegal economic migrants will not be processed, that boats will be turned back, thousands and thousands more sad and desperate lives will be lost in vain, all for your feelings of virtue,” said Nathan Gill, a British member of the European parliament, accusing fellow legislators last week of being soft on immigration. “You’re not really helping people.”
If migrants have made it to the Greek island of Lesbos, they’re already one step ahead of those trapped in Libya. But conditions are hardly better. Raw sewage flows out the main entrance in Moria, garbage piles up outside the containers where igrants sleep.
Luca Fontana, who works for Doctors without Borders in Lesbos, said a quarter of the minors there had either attempted suicide, had suicidal thoughts or were harming themselves.
“Only last week had to suture the wrists of a couple of unaccompanied minors, they tried to cut their veins inside Moria camp,” he said.
Psychiatrist Alessandro Barbero of Doctors without Borders said Moria was as grim as “an old-fashioned mental asylum, not seen in parts of Europe since the mid-twentieth century.”
Any hope of an easy solution to Europe’s immigration dilemma has faded.
Paolo Campana, who has studied the smuggling networks that lead through Libya, believes a solution is only possible if legal migration into Europe opens up at the same time as peace, stability and prosperity emerge in violence-plagued nations like Iraq, Syria, Ethiopia and Eritrea.
“We need to be humanitarian and to be pragmatic,” he said.
As of last week, 73,696 migrants and refugees have entered Europe by sea this year along with over 11,000 land arrivals, compared with 128,993 sea arrivals in 2017 and 298,663 in 2016.
European leaders in June proposed creating centers to process migrants in North Africa but those governments quickly rejected the idea. The EU now is pitching plans of an upgraded border force.
Last week, Austria and Italy’s right-wing interior ministers called for shipboard screenings of migrants on the Mediterranean, raising new questions about whose ships and where — given that Italy has blocked humanitarian groups from docking with migrants rescued at sea, favoring Libyan boats instead.
Trying to tackle the enormous problem at Moria, Greece on Tuesday agreed to transfer 2,000 asylum-seekers from the camp on Lesbos to the mainland this month. The move that can’t come soon enough for the migrants there. Ali Sajjad Faizy, a 19-year-old from Afghanistan, said conditions at Moria have steadily worsened and residents must stand in line “for four or five” hours just to get food.
“It’s completely full,” he said.