UK voters go to the polls to choose new government to resolve Brexit impasse

A woman leaves a polling station at a ticket office of Amberley Museum during the general election in Amberley, Britain, December 12, 2019. (Reuters)
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Updated 13 December 2019

UK voters go to the polls to choose new government to resolve Brexit impasse

  • Johnson’s Conservatives need just nine more seats for a majority
  • Corbyn is proposing to renegotiate softer exit terms with Brussels

LONDON: Britons who have endured more than three years of wrangling over their country’s messy divorce from the European Union cast ballots Thursday in an election billed as a way out of the Brexit stalemate in this deeply divided nation.

On a dank, gray day with outbreaks of blustery rain, voters went to polling stations in schools, community centers, pubs and town halls after a five-week campaign rife with mudslinging and misinformation.

The contest pits Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who says he will take Britain out of the European Union by Jan. 31, against the opposition Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, who has promised another referendum on Brexit.

All 650 seats in the House of Commons are up for grabs in the election that is being held more than two years ahead of schedule. Opinion polls suggest the Conservatives have a lead over Labour. But all the parties are nervous about the verdict of a volatile electorate fed up after years of Brexit wrangling.

At a fish market in the eastern England port of Grimsby, seafood company owner Nathan Godley summed up the hopes of many that — one way or another — the election would provide a pathway to a resolution of Brexit.

“I think we all got a bit weary of the politicians over the last few years really, and I think having a government with a majority to give them the clout to actually do what they want is a good thing,” he said.

Johnson voted near the prime minister's Downing Street residence in London, accompanied by his dog, Dilyn. Corbyn was greeted by supporters and an activist dressed as Elmo from “Sesame Street”as he arrived to vote in his north London constituency.

The two parties are offering voters starkly different visions of the future. Johnson campaigned relentlessly on a promise to “Get Brexit done” — and promised a modest increase in public spending — while Labour vowed to tax the rich, nationalize industries such as railroads and water companies and give everyone in the country free internet access.

On Brexit, Labour says it will negotiate a new divorce deal with the EU and then offer voters the choice of leaving the 28-nation bloc on those terms or remaining.

The prime minister pushed for this early election to try to break a logjam in Parliament that stalled approval of his Brexit agreement. He says if he wins a majority, he will get Parliament to ratify his “oven-ready” divorce deal with the EU and take Britain out of the bloc as scheduled on Jan. 31.

Recent surveys suggest the Conservatives' lead may have narrowed in the final days of campaigning. While Labour is unlikely to get an outright majority, smaller pro-EU opposition parties hope to win enough seats so they can team up to block Johnson’s Brexit plans.

The Conservatives have focused much energy on trying to win in a “red wall” of working-class towns in central and northern England that have elected Labour lawmakers for decades but also voted strongly in 2016 to leave the EU. Polls suggest the plan may be working. The Conservatives also have been helped by the Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage, which decided at the last minute not to contest 317 Conservative-held seats to avoid splitting the pro-Brexit vote.

Labour, which is largely but ambiguously pro-EU, faces competition for anti-Brexit voters from the centrist Liberal Democrats, the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties, and the Greens.

Labour has tried to focus the campaign on the plight of the National Health Service, a deeply respected institution that has struggled to meet rising demand after nine years of austerity under Conservative-led governments.

One of the campaign's defining images was a photo of a sick 4-year-old boy sleeping on a hospital floor because no beds were available. Johnson's initial failure to even look at the photo put him on the defensive, portraying him as insensitive to the child's plight.

The photo, initially published by the Yorkshire Evening Post, swept across social media like a firestorm in the final days of the campaign.

For many voters, the election offers an unpalatable choice. Both Johnson and Corbyn have personal approval ratings in negative territory, and both have been dogged by questions about their character.

Johnson has been confronted by his past broken promises, lies and offensive statements, from calling the children of single mothers “ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate” to comparing Muslim women who wear face-covering veils to "letter boxes."

In Uxbridge, the suburban London seat that Johnson represents in Parliament, Stefan Hay said he was voting for the prime minister despite his flaws.

“At the end of the day, whether you like him or not, with all of his eccentricities, I think he has leadership ability and I think he is the best man for the job, simple as that," Hay said.

Corbyn has been accused of allowing anti-Semitism to spread within the party. The 70-year-old left-winger is portrayed by opponents as an aging Marxist with unsavory past associations with Hamas and the IRA.

But many voters said they were backing Labour because of its stance on social issues.

“If the Tories win, this country will just fall apart,” said Eleanor Sawbridge Burton, a freelance writer in London. “It will really hit climate change and the NHS. It feels a bit hopeless.”

With so much at stake, political parties have pushed the boundaries of truth, transparency and reality during five weeks of campaigning.

Social media platforms were a critical battleground, as the parties bombarded voters with messages — many of them misleading.

The Conservatives, in particular, were criticized for using underhanded tactics on social media. The party circulated a doctored video that made it look as if an opposition leader had been stumped when asked about his position on Brexit. Then during a TV debate, the party re-branded its press office Twitter account as a fact-checking service.

Labour also sought to co-opt the role of independent fact-checker, rolling out a website called The Insider, which urged voters to “trust the facts.”

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, said the digital campaign showed that the political landscape had changed.

“You don't get more establishment than the British Conservative Party," Nielsen said. “If that is what they see as fit and proper, we must confront the fact that this is the new normal.''


Migrant parents separated from kids since 2018 return to US

Updated 23 January 2020

Migrant parents separated from kids since 2018 return to US

LOS ANGELES: Nine parents who were deported as the Trump administration separated thousands of migrant families landed back into the US late Wednesday to reunite with children they had not seen in a year and a half.
The group arrived at Los Angeles International Airport from Guatemala City in a trip arranged under the order of a federal judge who found the US government had unlawfully prevented them from seeking asylum. An asylum advocate confirmed the nine parents were all aboard the flight.
Some of the children were at the airport to greet them, including David Xol’s 9-year-old son Byron.
David fell to one knee and tearfully embraced Byron for about three minutes, patting the back of his son’s head.
“He was small,” David said after rising to his feet. He looked at his attorney — who accompanied him on the flight — raised his hand about chest-high and said, “He grew a lot.”
David, Byron and his attorney, Ricardo de Anda, then embraced in a three-way hug and exchanged words in their huddle. Byron was all smiles. Father, son, attorney and family sponsor eagerly left the airport for their hotel.
The reunion was a powerful reminder of the lasting effects of Trump’s separation policy, even as attention and outrage has faded amid impeachment proceedings and tensions with Iran. But it also underscored that hundreds, potentially thousands, of other parents and children are still apart nearly two years after the zero-tolerance policy on unauthorized border crossings took effect.
“They all kind of hit the lottery,” said Linda Grimm, an attorney who represents one of the parents returning to the US “There are so many people out there who have been traumatized by the family separation policy whose pain is not going to be redressed.”
More than 4,000 children are known to have been separated from their parents before and during the official start of zero tolerance in spring 2018. Under the policy, border agents charged parents en masse with illegally crossing the US-Mexico border, then placed their children in government facilities, including some “tender-age shelters” set up for infants.
The US has acknowledged that agents separated families long before they enforced zero tolerance across the entire southern border, its agencies did not properly record separations, and some detention centers were overcrowded and undersupplied, with families denied food, water or medical care.
In June 2018, US District Judge Dana Sabraw ordered the government to stop separating families and reunite parents and children.
At least 470 parents were deported without their children. Some of the kids were held in US government facilities and ultimately placed with sponsors. Others were deported to their home countries.
Accounts emerged of many parents being told to sign paperwork they couldn’t read or understand or being denied a chance to request asylum in ways that violated federal law.
The US Department of Homeland Security referred a request for comment to the Justice Department, which did not respond.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the original family separation lawsuit before Sabraw, asked the judge to order the return of a small group of parents whose children remained in the US In September, Sabraw required the US to allow 11 parents to come back and denied relief to seven others.
ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said Sabraw made clear he would only order the return of people “who were misled or coerced into giving up their asylum rights.” That will leave other parents who fled violence, poverty and persecution to decide whether to have their children return to their home countries or remain in the US without them.
“Many are going to make the decision that generations of immigrant parents have made — to leave their child in the US and endure the hardship of separation, but to do it for their child’s own safety,” Gelernt said.
Xol said that after he and his then-7-year-old son, Byron, crossed the border, they were taken to a US Border Patrol processing center in South Texas. Xol was charged with illegal entry on May 19, 2018.
Two days later, Xol said an officer told him to sign a document that would allow him and Byron to be deported together. If he didn’t sign, Byron would be given up for adoption and Xol would be detained for at least two years.
Xol signed the document, only to have Byron taken away and then get deported to Guatemala. Byron was placed in government facilities for 11 months.
The family’s attorney, Ricardo de Anda, persuaded a federal court to force the US to let a Texas family take in Byron. Since May 2019, Byron has lived with Holly and Matthew Sewell and their two children, with regular video calls to his family.
Holly Sewell brought Byron, now 9, to meet his father at the airport. They planned to go back to Texas to pack and prepare for Byron to move in with his father once Xol is settled in California. Before the reunion, Byron kept asking Sewell, his caretaker, when his father would clear immigration authorities.
“They’re almost here, you’re doing great,” she said. “Count to 1,000.”
“999,” Byron responded.
She said she was thrilled Byron could see his dad again but sharply criticized the US government’s treatment of asylum-seekers.
Esvin Fernando Arredondo was expected to be on the plane. The father from Guatemala was separated from one of his daughters, Andrea Arredondo — then 12 years old and now 13, after they turned themselves in on May 16, 2018, at a Texas crossing and sought asylum legally, according to Grimm, his lawyer. He failed an initial screening and agreed to go back to Guatemala.
According to Sabraw’s ruling, the government deported Arredondo even after the judge had ordered families reunited and subsequently prohibited US officials from removing any parent separated from their child. He’s now being given a second chance at asylum under the court order.
Andrea was separated from all family for about a month, living in a shelter as the government struggled to connect children with their parents because they lacked adequate tracking systems. She was finally reunited with her mother, who had turned herself in at the Texas crossing with the other two daughters four days earlier than her husband, on May 12, 2018.
She and her two daughters passed the initial screening interview for asylum, unlike her husband, even though they were fleeing for the same reason. Their son Marco, 17, was shot and killed by suspected gang members in Guatemala City.
Arredondo’s wife, Cleivi Jerez, 41, arrived at LAX less than an hour before the flight landed with their three daughters in tow, ages 17, 13 and 7.
“Lots of nerves, last night I couldn’t sleep,” she said in Spanish in an interview after the flight landed.
Jerez said she planned to stay up late catching up with her husband. She planned to rest at their Los Angeles home tomorrow as well, catching up on their 17 months apart before he has to report to an ICE office Friday in San Diego. Alison Arredondo, 7, said she missed going to the park with her father and she wanted to go to one with him in LA.
While the US has stopped the large-scale separations, it has implemented policies to prevent many asylum-seekers from entering the country. Under its “Remain in Mexico” policy, more than 50,000 people have been told to wait there for weeks or months for US court dates. The Trump administration also is ramping up deportations of Central Americans to other countries in the region to seek asylum there.
“People want to make this a heartwarming story, but it’s not. It’s devastating,” Sewell said. “There is just no good reason why we had to do this to this child and this family. And he symbolizes thousands of others who have been put in this exact same position.”