The City of Chicago said last week that it will still go after convicted hate crime hoaxer Jussie Smollett, a felon, for more than $100,000 in costs incurred by the city’s police department during their investigation into the hate crime that he staged on himself.
“The City filed a civil lawsuit against Jussie Smollett to recover costs incurred by the Chicago Police Department investigating what the City believed to be Smollett’s false police reports that he was a victim of a hate crime,” the city said in a statement. “While using a different standard of proof, the jury’s finding of guilt convicting Jussie Smollett of criminal charges stemming from the incident confirms that the City was correct in bringing its civil lawsuit.”
The statement continued, “The City intends to continue to pursue its lawsuit to hold Smollett accountable for his unlawful actions and to demand that he compensate the City for costs incurred by the Chicago Police Department which took his false claims of harm seriously.”
Smollett was found guilty on Thursday of five Class 4 felonies for telling police officers and detectives myriad lies from the staged hoax that he tried to blame on purported Trump supporters. A Class 4 felony carries a maximum prison sentence of 3 years per count.
Count 1 accused him of telling responding Chicago Police Officer Muhammed Baig at around 2:45 a.m., some 45 minutes after the purported attack, that he was the victim of a hate crime. He said two attackers put a rope around his neck. Count 2 referred to Smollett telling the same officer he was a victim of a battery, describing attackers beating and pouring bleach on him.
Counts 3 and 4 stemmed from Smollett making the same claims but to a different officer, Kimberly Murray, later that morning, just before 6 a.m.
Count 5 accused Smollett of again telling Murray at around 7:15 p.m. that he was the victim of a battery. Count 6 referred to Smollett reporting on Feb. 14, 2019, to detective Robert Graves that he’d been a victim of an aggravated battery.
Speaking with reporters following the verdict, Nenye Uche, lead attorney for Smollett, said that the now-convicted felon was “100 percent confident” that he would be found innocent on appeal.
“We feel 100 percent confident that this case will be won on appeal,” Uche said. “Unfortunately, that’s not the route we wanted but sometimes that’s the route you have to take to win, especially a case where we remain 100 percent confident in our client’s innocence.”
“He’s a human being; he’s disappointed — but I will tell you this: I am very proud of him. I’m very, very proud of him,” he added. “He’s holding up very strong; he’s committed to clearing his name and he’s 100 percent confident that he’s going to get cleared by the appellate court.”
TANUGGYI, Myanmar — A hot air balloon packed with pyrotechnics exploded over a crowd during a popular festival in Myanmar, sending revelers running for cover.
The frightening scene unfolded Nov. 14 during the Tazaungdaing Festival of Lights, an annual celebration that marks the end of the wet season in Myanmar. According to local media reports, festival organizers invite participants to launch unmanned balloons full of fireworks to usher in a new season.
One of those balloons burst into flames during Wednesday’s festival. Video shot by a spectator showed the balloon slowly ascending while fireworks shoot from its sides. In an instant, the balloon exploded, sending fireworks shooting toward the ground as the balloon came crashing down toward the crowd.
At least nine people were injured in the incident, festival organizers told the BBC. Though this particular explosion was not a fatal accident, similar incidents in years past have reportedly resulted in multiple fatalities.
Refugee resettlement groups in the Washington region are scrambling to keep up with a huge influx of Afghan evacuees, leaving families waiting for housing and other services in a situation that could soon worsen as U.S. officials prepare to shut down temporary housing sites in military bases.
Since the historic airlift out of Kabul in August, more than 3,700 Afghan evacuees have been resettled in the District, Maryland and Virginia, the bulk of them arriving under “humanitarian parole” and their future in the country uncertain.
Resettlement agencies say the floodof Afghans that federal officials have sent to the region — primarily Northern Virginia — has been faster than expected, putting a strain on caseworkers and other personnel whose numbers were cut during the Trump administration, when the number of refugees allowed to enter the country was steadily reduced to historical lows.
Before the Kabul airlift, “We had the staffing level to serve 500 people a year,” said Kristyn Peck, chief executive of Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area (LSSNCA), one of three local resettlement groups serving Northern Virginia.
Peck has hired 35 additional workers since July — but, she said, “You can’t go to a staffing level to serve 500 people a month overnight.”
“We just know that at this volume, frankly, our quality is suffering,” she said.
Federal and state officials have tried to ease the burden by imposing some restrictions on who can receive aid in areas that already have a high number of evacuees, an attempt to also control the impact on schools and the supply of affordable housing.
For example, resettlement agencies in Northern Virginia — a magnet for evacuees because of the region’s already large Afghan population, but with a costly housing market that has made finding permanent homes challenging — are now assigned cases only where the evacuees have a family connection in the region who can temporarily house them.
Evacuees who show up to their offices without first being assigned to their organization by the U.S. State Department are either being turned away or provided with limited aid, such as food stamps and basic medical care.
“We’re not stopping anybody at one point or another from coming to Virginia,” said Seyoum Berhe, the state refugee coordinator through the Virginia Department of Social Services. “But if we’re going to provide services, you must have a family connection. We want to do the best job we can but have to take numbers that we can at least attempt to manage.”
The evacuees are each entitled to receive $2,275 in federal support that is meant to cover housing costs, job training and other expenses over a three-month period once they are matched with a resettlement agency.
The high demand for such aid was on display inside the LSSNCA’s office in Annandale one recent morning. Clusters of evacuees arrived to an increasingly full lobby to see case managers who were already busy with other clients.
Nahzatullah Wror, 29, didn’t have an appointment that day. But after arriving in the United States the week before, he traveled an hour from his uncle’s home in Loudoun County to see what kind of help his family of four could get after not hearing from their overburdened case manager. The case manager showed up at Dulles International Airport 2½ hours late the day the Wror family arrived from Poland, where the family spent three months at a hotel.
“This is not the way that we should be treated,” said Wror, who has a special immigrant visa after working with U.S. officials as a psychological operations specialist for the former Afghan National Army.
“I know that I am a load on my uncle,” he said. “We’re 10 people living in two bedrooms. That’s really difficult.”
Federal officials say they are working to spread the evacuees to different parts of the country as they begin to shut down the temporary housing camps at seven military bases that are still home to 34,000 Afghans. The process is expected to be completed by mid-February.
For example, the evacuees are being offered free housing in Oklahoma, officials said. They are also pointed to other parts of the country with more job opportunities.
“We are tying to implement a system here that allows for the successful permanent resettlement of our new Afghan neighbors across the country in places that meet their needs,” said Curtis Ried, deputy to former Delaware governor Jack Markell, the White House’s point person on Afghan resettlement. “But we also don’t want to overwhelm any one area.”
But not everyone wants to disperse to parts unknown in the country. One is a 32-year-old man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for his family’s safety.
Last month, he and his wife took their three children out of the U.S. Air Force’s Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey when it appeared likely that they would be paired with a resettlement group in a different part of the country.
They arrived in Alexandria and — borrowing from friends in the area — rented a $2,000-per-month apartment with no means of keeping the home. The man traveled from resettlement agency to resettlement agency in the region in search of long-term aid before finding help at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington.
“They will send you to Alaska or Arizona,” he explained about his move, while his wife baked Afghan bread in their newly renovated kitchen. “I don’t have support there. I don’t know the culture there.”
Local resettlement agencies say they’re seeing the effects of that desire to stay in the Washington region.
Peck said her organization initially committed to serving 1,775 evacuees during the federal fiscal year that began in October. Then, the Biden administration asked the organization to increase that number to 2,400, assigning those extra evacuees to the LSSNCA within two weeks with the understanding that more will come, she said.
The Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC) committed to serving 400 evacuees at its main office in Arlington County, also more than the group initially told federal officials it would be able to handle, said Emily Gilkinson, a group spokesperson. More than 200 of those evacuees have already shown up, with the rest expected within the next two months, she said.
“Our Arlington office and other offices are all staffing up,” said Gilkinson, adding that the ECDC expects to serve a total of 6,000 evacuees at its 21 sites nationwide. “They are receiving more than double the number of cases that they received in all of 2021 in just a few months, so the challenge is immense.”
Complicating matters is the fact that many of the evacuees arrived in the United States without IDs or other documents proving who they are, making it harder to set them up with homes and work authorization, aid groups say.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, chief executive of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the LSSNCA’s parent organization, said that issue points to a longer-term problem for the Afghans who arrived under humanitarian parole. The designation grants them permission to remain and work in the United States for two years, with no path to U.S. citizenship.
Many might want to apply for asylum, a lengthy process requiring a lot of documentation that they didn’t consider when they were destroying their IDs and other records on their way out of Afghanistan to avoid being targeted by the Taliban, Vignarajah said.
“But that same documentation that might be a death sentence in Afghanistan could be the key to win an asylum case here in the U.S.,” she said. Vignarajah, along with other advocates, has been pushing for Congress to pass an Afghan Adjustment Act, which would allow evacuees to apply for lawful permanent residence, eliminating the need for an asylum application.
The Biden administration has also been pushing for such a law while steering more funds toward Afghan resettlement. Since September, an additional $13.3 billion has been authorized for that effort.
Berhe, the refugee coordinator for Virginia, said the extra funds — amounting to $30 million in his state over a three-year period — will help with mental health counseling, job training and, more urgently, emergency housing assistance.
That could help the scores of evacuees who have shown up to the region from the military bases with no guarantee of local aid and no job prospects.
Bita Golshan Lotfi, director of the Immigrant and Refugee Outreach Center, said her McLean-based nonprofit has helped nearly 60 such families connect with a resettlement group while supplying them with donated clothes and food.
“They’re coming without a resettlement agency, without furniture, without anything,” she said.
The colorful, reclusive Agami Heron is a coveted sighting for birders visiting flooded lowland forests and slow-moving waterways of Central and South America. This long-billed, medium-sized heron is so distinctive that it occupies its own genus, Agamia. Its species name, “Agami,” comes from a Cayenne Indian word for a forest bird.
In Brazil, the Agami is sometimes called Soco beija-flor, “hummingbird heron,” for its vivid plumage. It’s also commonly known as the Chestnut-bellied Heron.
The Agami Heron’s retiring nature and preference for dense vegetation makes the species difficult to study, and its total population is still unknown. Although resident throughout its range, it moves seasonally, abandoning nesting areas for deeper forest after the breeding season.
This heron specializes in fishing from river banks or branches overhanging the water. Its long neck and dagger-like bill — the longest of any New World heron’s — gives the Agami a significant striking range, while proportionally short legs confine the bird to shallow water. Agami Herons rarely wade in the open, preferring to forage for small fish, snails, and insects while stalking along under dense cover.
Unusual for birds, both male and female Agami Herons flaunt colorful courtship plumage during the breeding season. Both sexes also show heightened color in the lores (the fleshy area between the base of the bill and front of the eyes), which turn an intense red during displays.
The Agami’s spectacular courtship display begins when a male chooses a display site, then starts to “dance” with shaking plumes, rocking movements, and bill-snapping. An interested female will approach the site and perform similar displays until the male accepts her presence. This process may go on for several days, as the male may aggressively repel the female at first. After some persistence on the female’s part, the birds form a pair-bond, mate, and begin to build a nest.
Agami Heron in its swanky breeding plumage. Photo by Kyle C. Moon
Recent fieldwork has found that Agami Heron, like Reddish Egret and many other waterbirds, nest in colonies. The birds hide their nests, a loose platform of sticks, within the forest canopy.
More than 100 migrant farm workers in the southeast U.S. were freed from the “shackles of modern-day slavery” when federal agents broke up a transnational crime ring.
Two-dozen people, including illegal aliens, were indicted last month on 54 counts of international forced labor trafficking, mail fraud, money laundering and other charges. The indictments, announced in Georgia, charged that H-2A agricultural visas were fraudulently used to smuggle foreign nationals from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras into the United States.
Agents heading up “Operation Blooming Onion” (OBO) said workers in the field were forced to pay for transportation, food and housing while their identification documents were withheld. Laborers “performed physically demanding work for little or no pay … hous[ed]in crowded, unsanitary and degrading living conditions, and threaten[ed]with deportation and violence.”
“Exploitation of the workers included being required to dig onions with their bare hands, paid 20 cents for each bucket harvested, and threatened with guns and violence to keep them in line,” officials said.
Conspirators alleged to have reaped more than $200 million from the scheme were also accused of raping, kidnapping and attempting to kill some workers or their families. At least two laborers died while working.
The $200 million haul is intriguing, says David North of the Center for Immigration Studies, noting, “[It] was not taken from corporations or banks. It was extracted a few dollars at a time from wages not paid to farm workers and from other moneys extorted from those workers.”
That suggests OBO may be understating the number of workers abused in this scheme. “To get that much from farm workers there would have to be a lot of them,” North figures.
Whatever the number, the Biden administration deserves credit for bringing home this multi-agency investigation that began in 2018. Likewise, it’s encouraging that the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has backed off a misguided plan to halt collection of wage data necessary to establish pay rates for H-2A workers.
For all Donald Trump’s jawboning about immigration, his USDA under political appointees like former Secretary Sonny Perdue were hostile to positive enforcement changes on agricultural guest workers, says Preston Huennekens, FAIR’s government relations manager.
An NBC News investigation highlighted the problems last year, finding that while H-2A visas surged during the Trump era, the program subjected workers to “horrific abuse.”
Here’s hoping that Biden’s team turns over a new leaf, and gets serious about cleaning up the fields, starting with prosecuting the farmers who use slave-labor contractors. Until the ultimate employers are held criminally and civilly liable, operations like Blooming Onion will not root out the problem.
Bob Dane, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR)’s Executive Director, has been with FAIR since 2006. His deep belief is that immigration is the most transformational determinant of where we are heading as a nation and that our policies must be reformed in the public interest. Over many years on thousands of radio, TV and print interviews, Bob has made the case that unless immigration is regulated and sensibly reduced, it will be difficult for America to reduce unemployment, increase wages, improve health care and education and heighten national security. Prior to joining FAIR, Bob spent twenty years in network radio, marketing and communications after an earlier career in policy and budgeting within the Reagan Administration. Bob has a degree from George Mason University in Public Administration and Management.
Bald eagles — America’s symbolic bird — are dying “senseless deaths,” a wildlife center in Pennsylvania is warning.
These birds of prey are dying from lead poisoning and have been for years.
“This was a rough year with lead toxicity in our adult bald eagles,” Centre Wildlife Care, a rescue service in Port Matilda in Centre County, wrote in a Dec. 6 Facebook post.
In 2021 alone, eight bald eagles were brought to the center suffering lead poisoning, and seven died.
This problem isn’t exclusive to Pennsylvania; millions of birds are affected each year, including bald eagles, by lead toxicity that is a “leading concern” for many species, according to the American Eagle Foundation.
Poisoning is brought on after birds of prey eat animal carcasses shot with lead ammo by hunters.
“All scavengers and humans are at risk of lead toxicity when consuming meat shot with lead ammo (bullets or pellets) especially the avian scavengers such as eagles, hawks and vultures,” Robyn Graboski, a spokesperson and wildlife rehabilitator for the center, told McClatchy News via email.
“We ask all hunters to use non-lead alternatives when hunting because hunters are our first conservationists.”
One bald eagle brought to the center died on Dec. 5 after it was caught in a leg trap for 10 days, the center said in the news release.
“Sadly, the infection caused by the trap injury complicated by lead poisoning was just too great to overcome. These losses hurt.”
“Simple acts like switching from lead ammo to copper and properly covering traps from aerial view can prevent these senseless deaths,” the center urged.
The bald eagle that recently died “was flying around at least 10 days with a leg hold trap attached to its foot,” Graboski said. “It was caught when it was too weak to fly.”
“When it arrived, it was thin, weak, dehydrated, anemic, exhausted, lost a toe, had a bacterial infection,” alongside “suffering from lead toxicity,” they added.
Lead poisoning causes a slow death that could last weeks for birds if it goes untreated, the center explains online.
Birds of prey “get lead poisoning through leftover gut piles, un-retrieved carcasses and varmint carcasses left in the field,” according to the center, as fragments of lead ammo “left in the tissue of carcasses” get ingested.
Additionally, the winged creatures can be poisoned from “lead tackle left behind in fish,” the center warns.
“When the lead hits the bird’s acidic stomach, it gets broken down and absorbed into their bloodstream where it can be distributed to tissues throughout their body,” according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
If a bird appears “weak, emaciated, and uncoordinated” and is having trouble walking, flying or moving at all, those are likely signs of lead poisoning, the commission said.
The birds also might suffer seizures, appear blind and refuse to eat anything.
“Bald eagles with lead poisoning often do not respond at all when approached,” the commission added.
It advises hunters to bury an animal’s carcass or gut pile if lead ammo is used.
“If the carcass or gut pile it too large to be removed from the environment, it can be buried or covered with debris to prevent scavengers from accessing the carcass and lead fragments,” according to the commission.
In 2014, Ed Clark, the president and co-founder of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, said in a news release by the American Bird Conservancy that lead poisoning in bald eagles “is not a new problem.”
“The question is not whether or not lead is causing the deaths of eagles and other wild animals; the real question is, what are we going to do about it?”
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