Monday, January 30, 2017

Trump's Executive Order: Refugees and Realities

In the wake of President Trump’s Executive Order suspending visas from seven Muslim-majority countries, it appears that for some in the country, the red line has already been passed. Anyone who was listening to Trump during his campaign would not be dismayed by this nor any of his other actions thus far. 

Three individuals
fit in with the
784,000 refugees
who have not been implicated
in terrorism.
What this action has exposed is the ever deepening divides in our country. The difference between rhetoric and reality has never been so stark. Perhaps, when rhetoric hits the pavement of action and resulting consequences, some will actually learn from this experience. Chances are, however, that lessons learned will be determined by support or opposition to the Trump administration, preconceived notions, and already strident positions.

The reality of this executive action is that it took place without key secretaries of the cabinet in place, without appropriate alerts and preparations to agencies and personnel, and with little foresight to the problems that would arise fairly immediately and predictably.

The other reality is that the Obama administration had already applied increased screening and scrutiny for travel to and from these countries. Trump simply went much further. The factual reality that no terrorists have attacked America’s homeland from any of these countries is striking. This simply defies logic. 

Those realities seem to dissuade critics and supporters of this action from discussing it on the merits: legal, strategic, economic, and moral. Instead, there is a lot of posturing and definitely outrage and indignation. 

Yes, It Is a Muslim Ban.

For the Trump administration to make the claim that this is not a Muslim ban seems to be a bit of a farce. From the executive order, it tasks government agencies “to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual's country of nationality.” Considering every country included in the ban is a Muslim majority country, the intent is not just clear, it’s bloody apparent. 

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The largest concern for supporters of this ban is the rash of terrorist attacks throughout Europe, which some in America have attached to the refugee crisis. Some in the media and in Washington have incorrectly applied guilt to the refugees, when this was later found out not to be the case. And, the European refugee crisis simply is not an applicable model to America, as we have no land bridge nor waterway for easy transport from the Middle East as they do.

On second read, this executive order could be used to fast-track European refugees, as those Muslims would be religious minorities in those countries. 

How Did We Arrive Here?

During the Republican primary contest, Donald Trump set himself apart from the other candidates on the issue of Muslim immigrants, taking full advantage of Islamophobia and xenophobic sentiments in the Republican base in the wake of 9/11 and the rise of ISIS. This has only further entrenched divisions on the issue.
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Despite garnering much media and political establishment criticism for his positions, such as referring to Syrian refugees as a “Trojan horse,” Trump quickly rose in the polls to eventually become the Republican nominee and eventually President. He, of course, is following through on his campaign promises.

What are the Consequences?

When emotions and fears run high in America, isolationist tendencies rise as well, even when this exacerbates the problem by fueling the terrorist pipeline, at home and abroad. This is precisely what the Trump ban will accomplish by providing propaganda for our enemies, by stoking divisiveness and alarm with our own allies, and by destabilizing our own screening process. Instead of applying a precise hand to adopt a new strategy, Trump has disrupted and set our immigration and national security systems back considerably with this action.
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The most necessary ally we have in our fight against terrorists in the Middle East are Muslims. Many have placed their lives and the lives of their families on the line for us with promises given to them by our military and government for safe harbor. Breaking those promises, which is what this executive order has already began to do, undermines intelligence assets and the trust that we have built with our partners throughout that region and the world.

Beyond that, by creating such an ill-conceived Muslim ban and rolling it out in such an ineffective manner, Trump has gift-wrapped propaganda to help fuel extremists around the world. By delineating such a stark, religious context to both our foreign and domestic policy, we have tossed unnecessary fuel into the fire. 

At least there are visible and rolling protests along with appeals in court that continue.  However, the executive branch has enormous latitude regarding immigration issues. Likely, any stay will be overturned, requiring Congress to act. 
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The Refugee Resettlement Process

The reality that Syrian or any other such refugees are or were ever entering America without due diligence is starkly different from the hyperbolic rhetoric of the Trump administration or online media outlets.

There are serious concerns that do need to be addressed. The refugee crisis in Syria, Iraq, and across North Africa has created humanitarian crises across the region, stressed political, economic and cultural systems across Europe, and has been used by politicians and pundits for their own agenda.

However, the refugees that actually resettle in America go through a very elaborate process before even being considered.
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During Obama’s tenure, Canada helped to highlight the American political paralysis by resettling over 30,000 Syrian refugees and by pledging to increase their financial assistance to the humanitarian efforts by 10%. Recently, Prime Minister Trudeau went further by pledging to accept the refugees turned away by Trump’s executive order. 

Ultimately, a 5 million Syrians will likely need to be resettled outside of Syria. However, the needs of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are quite different from what is possible to achieve through the elaborate bureaucratic system in place. With an already overstressed immigrant and political situation in Europe, highlighted by both the UK’s Brexit vote and multiple terrorist attacks, the Western Hemisphere is needed to pick up the slack. 

Canada cannot be the only country to do its part, but it appears for the foreseeable future, that will have to do.
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The reality is that 67% of all Syrian refugees needing resettlement are women and children. Most of those will never make it to America. First, each refugee is vetted by the UNHCR and the Department of Homeland Security travels to the site of the refugee to begin conducting interviews to determine further security risk assessments. These DHS personnel don’t assume the information given by refugees are accurate. They then send out assets to determine the validity of the information given during these preliminary interviews.

That’s only steps one, two and three. 
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After roughly 18 to 24 months and in conjunction with DHS, the Department of State, the Department of Health and Human Services, and nine other nonprofits, a decision is finally reached if a refugee qualifies to be resettled in America. That would qualify as a fairly exhaustive process.

The needs of the UNHCR are staggering. That pales in comparison to the needs of the Syrian people. Of the nearly 5 million Syrian refugees, about a half million will likely need resettlement out of the region by 2018. Earlier Syrian refugees have been relocated throughout the Great Lakes region, the Northeast, Texas, Florida, and the Southwest, including both northern and southern California. 

History of the Program

Of the Iraqi and Afghanistan refugees that fled those war torn regions, only three of 784,000 were ever even arrested on terrorism charges, and two of those were only plotting terrorism. The other actually possessed explosives. 

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The San Bernardino attacker was born an American citizen as was the Orlando nightclub shooter. In fact, since 9/11 there has been about 28 such domestic terrorism attacks in America and no successful foreign attacks. That would qualify as fairly significant success in thwarting foreign attacks, with zero attacks coming from refugee populations.

However, an examination of the overall jihadists arrested within America since 9/11 shows a slightly different picture. When the total of 12 refugees arrested as jihadists on terrorism charges is compared to the 346 American, non-refugee citizens that were arrested on similar charges, the real terrorist threat appears to be primarily homegrown.

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Citizens and politicians have legitimate concerns regarding the costs of refugee resettlement within America. Many refugees eventually payback the cost of travel to America, only receive a $1,000 stipend for three months after arrival, required to apply for jobs, and are not tracked by the government. On the ground nonprofit organizations help these refugees find work, find housing, and help them acclimate to their new communities. 

There are both economic benefits to refugee resettlement and distributional consequences. Refugees are often not skilled and, thus, often procure lower skilled, lower wage jobs. This is great for employers that hire low skill workers because it increases the pool of workers they can hire. This can have the consequence of depressing wage growth. 

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Also, if the refugees aren’t buoyed enough by nonprofits, family and other community support, they can rely more heavily on social services as they transition into the American economy. However, successfully transitioned refugees often end up benefitting the tax base much more than they may have used these services initially to afford education, food, housing, and  healthcare. These afforded them the opportunity for gaining skills for higher wage jobs, more spendable income, and potential entrepreneurship, all of which increase their share of taxes.
What other steps can be taken that aren’t already being implemented? That seems to be wholly absent from this executive order. 

Realistically, this executive order is mostly window-dressing made to fulfill campaign promises. It’s not just careless, it’s without purpose and an objective that is neither achievable and not already functioning under the previous system. It is either designed to or through accident alone to create chaos, disruption, and insecurity. The only tangibles America has garnered from Trump’s action is a decrease in national security and a buoy for the terrorists and their propaganda. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The 'Blame Trump' Pitfall

The apprehension people feel this week is understandable. That apprehension cannot lead people to succumb to fear, anxiety, and paralysis. I’m certain we have also seen and heard people that have become angered and outraged by nearly every action, every executive order, each tweet, and every statement made by the Trump administration. ‘Sign this petition. Get rid of this Democrat. How dare they find even a shred of common purpose or common ground with him!’

Last Saturday, millions had the courage to gather together in support of women, Muslims, LGBTQ, the disabled, and countless other groups to rally and march in solidarity with one another. Mostly, these were positive and forward-leaning gatherings, focused on action, not division.  
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These marches made some Americans uncomfortable. Democracy isn’t about being comfortable. The freedom of speech, expression, and the right to peaceably assemble have consequences. We sometimes hear and see what we don’t want to acknowledge.

In May of 2012, Vice President Biden came out in favor of marriage equality, forcing President Obama to make a similar statement in support of marriage equality. This was thought to be political suicide ahead of the 2012 presidential race. 

After Obama’s support and the subsequent national conversation that resulted, the majority of the American people grew to support marriage equality and are now against discrimination on the basis of sexuality as well. This is an example of how bold, courageous words coupled with appropriate action can have enormously beneficial impacts unforeseen at the time. 

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We live in a truly historic time. This is not the time to retreat from the most recent, hard fought victories. If we don’t stand up together with and for each other, for our fellow neighbors, and for our shared values and principles, we won’t have a chance in 2018 nor in 2020 to begin reversing the damage done in the coming months and years.

I might add that more people supported those who marched on January 21st than currently support President Trump. 

We cannot shy away from difficult or uncomfortable conservations and actions. The most vulnerable amongst us are the most threatened in the coming years. They may not be able to stand up and speak out for themselves. 

I, for one, will not rest until they are protected.

This does not mean we demean or dismiss those who happen to disagree or who happened to vote for or support President Trump. Being anti-Trump is not enough, nor is it compelling to those who don’t already agree with that rather myopic perspective.
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We must stand FOR something, not simply be AGAINST Trump. Running an anti-Trump campaign didn't work out so well in 2016. Secretary Kerry’s anti-W Bush campaign didn't result in a victory in 2004 either. 

A movement has to be about something. Trump was for tangible policies. That's a fact rather his adversaries agree with it or not. Some may not agree with these policies, I certainly don't, but these were tangible for those who voted for him.

Having a constructive, positive, forward-thinking agenda that addresses the needs of those people is important. If people condescend, demean, and dismiss their concerns and their support, there is no constructive conversation and dialogue that can possibly take place. 

The bully and intimidation tactics of Trump has never convinced you, has it?

Saturday, January 21, 2017

National Women's March: A Beginning to Benefit All

Today, I had the American opportunity to gather together with people of common purpose for the benefit of others. This is a remarkable opportunity that not many human beings are able to experience let alone dream about. 

Many critics will point to the few instances of violence or destructive acts that have taken place. That is in no way indicative of the millions that came out around the world in peace, for justice, and with equality for all in mind.

It was inspiring and heartening to see so many people of different ages, genders, races, religions, sexualities, and disabilities come together out of solidarity. 

These people were not there for themselves. They were there to help defend the rights of all people. That is a deeply felt principle for most of the participants in these Marches across the country today. 
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This was in stark contrast to some of the bitterness, the anger, and the burning outrage that I’ve witnessed online since the election from both extremes. 

Why bother understanding someone who will never bother to understand us?

How could we understand or have compassion for someone who actively or passively damages others through their words, actions, or by simply standing by?

Because not doing so damages not only ourselves but others as well. And, perhaps, understanding these people will yield some guidance as to how to better approach these situations and people that have a different set of experiences and opinions from ourselves. 

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It takes mental and emotional energy to bother to attempt understanding of others, especially when these attempts are met with resentment, hostility, and worse. 

What is the alternative? Waiting for them to die? Treating them as they have treated others? 

I simply cannot find a suitable, rational reason that would condone perpetuating such a negative and reactionary cycle.

“When they go low, we go high!”

This is not just a slogan, but a way of being, a way of responding to all others. 

That does not mean you sit down and take it. This is why so many good-intentioned people showed up in so many cities across this country and around the world today. 
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We are not going to remain silent. We will not remain in our seats. We are going to do something about what’s happening. 

We’re just going to do this in an extraordinary way, that lifts the dialogue and places emphasis on action, not denigration. 

Be involved in your community. Start going to city council and county board meetings. Connect with people that have a broad range of beliefs, opinions, and political ideologies. 

We really are not so different. We’re just being misled. Hold ourselves accountable, that way we can hold officials accountable without being hypocritical.

There is much that we should be thankful and hopeful for in this time of change and challenging adversity. We can do something about it. We have a system of government that does give us many opportunities to have our voices heard. 

We just have to act. We just have to listen. We just have to start.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

How to Better Explore Policy in the Era of Trump

Listening to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan on Charlie Rose, I’m struck by how confident he seems and how he really enjoys being told how he’s the patriarch/architect of the conservative agenda. 

I really think I may have misjudged Speaker Ryan and his reaction to this very divisive election. He truly believes the country has united behind his party and their platform as well as connecting with the message communicated by President-elect Trump throughout the campaign.

It’s rather myopic. It’s also potentially a warning sign that what this Congress and this White House will produce is going to be a massive overreach, a rollback of progress recently achieved, and will have some very unfortunate consequences for the American people, our national economy, and our national interests. 

There is a stark disparity between reality and perception in America. The financial and daily stressors for average Americans has simply not been soothed or resolved with the progress achieved since the Great Recession in many areas of the country. 
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Also, the way we discuss our lives, our government, and recent history has changed considerably over the last decade. 

Facts are too often ignored in order to sustain strongly held beliefs and opinions. 

Many demonize those they disagree with or even perceive they disagree with on issues. Every statement, every speech about a political opponent is cherry-picked, often taken out of context, in order to buttress an entire argument against someone or some issue.

The far left is as guilty as the far right in how they behave in discussions on policy and politics. If we’re ever going to resolve our longterm problems, we have to begin to see those that disagree with as not being the enemy simply because who is President. 
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Simply being against everyone and everything becomes white noise. There is some common ground with at least some of these nominees. Maybe, we can become more informed about the nominee, that nominee’s capacity to make change, and what, if any, areas of common ground we might share. Certainly, finding a way to diminish the temperature of anger and outrage with some context and understanding may yield some space to make better change. 

Certainly, Ryan has some credibility on tax reform. However, the way he frames the argument is that tax rates on businesses are too high when many of these businesses don’t pay any taxes. 

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Absolutely, smaller, individual business owners get railroaded, both with federal and state taxes, both in income and property taxes. However, the effective corporate tax rate is much lower than the stated tax rate. If corporations and big business did not enjoy such extraordinary tax welfare and tax shelters through the tax code and Congress, we could have a rational discussion about where tax rates should actually be. Until we clear out the tax code, it simply is too difficult to have a clear and coherent discussion about reform and tax rates.

Healthcare reform is similar. Obamacare (Affordable Care Act) was never a government takeover of the healthcare industry, nor of health insurance. Both sides made false claims. One side would do nothing to reform it while the other could do nothing to fix it. Now, the American people are left with the resulting chaos and mess. 
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We just cannot continue discussing these issues as if we’re all enemies. As if someone who challenges our views and our positions is somehow our enemy. 

It’s simply not working. 

Not for us, not for our families, not for our communities, and not for the country as a whole.

Yes, the policies someone passes, supports, or promotes we may find damaging, dangerous, or destructive. Equating the policy with the person is the problem. 

What is the objective or intention of a policy? Usually, there’s an understandable reason. When we attack the messenger, it does nothing but increase division on the issue. If we can understand the root causes for the desire or need for a policy or as to why a group embraces a policy, then we have a chance or at least more of an opportunity to find a better solution together. 
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The reason people gravitated toward Trump on some issues is because he addressed underlying fears with seemingly tangible policies based on authoritarian, strongman principles. Build a Wall. I Will Keep Them Out. Only I Can Do It. Don’t Trust Anyone Else. 

Demeaning and dismissing anyone does nothing but isolate them, further entrenching and strengthening their views. When we do this within our own circles toward Trump and his supporters, which is exactly what Trump did during his campaign rallies, all we’re doing is furthering the antagonistic and poisonous atmosphere that we’re all going to be living through over the next few years. 

I, for one, want to do something constructive about what’s happening in my community and in my country. 

I want to understand people more, not less. I want to reach out to more people. 

Let’s do this together, because doing it apart has never worked.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Obama Sends Mixed Messages with Commutation

I’m a bit puzzled by the mixed messages President Obama sent out today with the commutation of the majority of Chelsea (Bradley) Manning’s 35-year court martial sentence. To understand the context, Manning stole data from the U.S. government, specifically videos of two airstrikes and diplomatic cables, and communicated these to WikiLeaks. 

This comes on the heels of President Obama’s strong words and modest actions against Russia after their interference in the 2016 election was released to the public. 

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This seems to continue Obama’s pattern of sending mixed messages to adversaries, both foreign and domestic. Steal our information. We’ll punish you, but we’ll let you off the hook. It certainly defies logic and reason but it also disrespects the military and their process of managing their own affairs, especially those charged with espionage against the United States. 

Of course, the President is the Commander-in-Chief. How would Americans respond to a President Trump pardoning any administration official responsible for giving classified information to the Russians, to WikiLeaks, or to any of our adversaries that harmed our national interests, our national security, and our allies?

I doubt most Democrats nor Republicans would be too pleased with the use of such Executive Powers in such a seemingly cavalier way. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Way Forward: Obamacare and Trumpcare

A lot of people completely misunderstand some of the profound disagreements with the ACA/Obamacare. 

For many that do receive tax subsidies to help pay for their premiums, they feel terrible about it. It's just something that makes their skin crawl. I know that might not make much sense to some people, but that’s a fact. You’d be shocked, but there are even some people that become unsettled when they go on Medicare as well. 

Beyond those issues, even when they do have health insurance, they still have to pay extremely high deductibles and co-pays. It’s almost as if they don’t have insurance. 

The idea of health insurance sounds wonderful. Having tax-subsidies to help pay for premiums sounds wonderful. However, labels rarely describe reality.
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In rural areas, these problems are magnified. It’s a set of fairly simple situations that together create a synergy that make the ACA/Obamacare untenable for many. 

#1 - rural areas have higher numbers of employers that employee smaller numbers of people. That means these employers aren’t required by the ACA to offer health insurance. 

#2 - these same areas have predominately lower wages and less benefits than urban areas. That means these workers have less money to put toward health insurance, co-pays, and deductibles. 

#3 - there’s also often less options for health providers in rural areas. This decreases competition which increases costs for consumers. 
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Even with the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, some healthcare providers directed those patients to the ER as opposed to primary care facilities, increasing the cost to state and federal funds. In some cases, this decision was due to a state’s slow response to pay bills. 

The provider’s response is to jack up the bill. The outcome for the consumer is less comprehensive care. Lose-Lose.

Even in areas where Medicaid programs are not encumbered with lack of access, too often these programs are sluggish or unresponsive with the entrenched bureaucratic components. 

Learning how to streamline Medicaid programs without opening these up to fraud and abuse is difficult, however, it is crucial to healthcare providers and consumers to create a more consistent relationship that is built on confidence and expectation. 
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Considering the disparities that exist between urban, suburban, and rural areas with access to healthcare providers and health insurance, the focus of federal and state interventions should be to help build bridges between consumer and provider, making each party more whole. 

The stubbornness of all parties in these policy discussions is discouraging. Both sides tend to argue as if those on the opposing side have no rationale. The most concerning issue with regard to healthcare is that people’s lives, children’s lives, hang in the balance based on choices and votes made in Congress and in the White House.

We can come together and work toward benefiting the American people. Do we have the foresight and courage it takes to find some common ground with those we disagree? Someone’s health may depend upon our capacity to do just that

Friday, January 6, 2017

Ft. Lauderdale Shooting and How to Heal the Divisiveness

The loss of life in Ft. Lauderdale is yet another national tragedy. We will learn much more about this in the weeks to come.

I kid you not, I've already heard people discussing the Ft. Lauderdale shooting as a reason to end gun free zones. 

So, more guns in the hands of civilians at airports is the answer? The logic seems stunningly lacking considering all the arms by security professionals at airports. 

Airports are known to be such a highly secure area and yet numerous civilians were injured and killed today. 

We as a nation must have the calm sense to consider these issues with both logic and data, because the emotional and guttural accusatory approach these Second Amendment issues tend to be discussed by politicians, pundits, and people, both in public and on social media, often yields no beneficial results for anyone but the gun industry and incumbent politicians. 
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Rational, reasonable Americans have every right to their guns. All Americans have every right to living as safe and secure a life as possible.  This does not need to include infringing on those Second Amendment rights. The two are not mutually exclusive. 

Just as with all of the other divisive political and cultural issues that we face as a people, we must find more inclusive ways of discussing them with one another without believing others are the enemy. 

It’s this ‘us versus them’ mentality that is dividing our country. It’s not President Obama, President Bush, or President-Elect Trump to blame. It is all of US in America that are responsible for the divisions.

We can do better. We must do better. It matters more who WE are, not who our President is. It matters what WE do, not what our Party is. It matters that WE participate, not that our Candidate wins. 

We will do better. It’s just a matter of when. Why not now?