Border travel restrictions, immigration court shutdown extended because of COVID-19

EL PASO — The Trump administration extended travel restrictions between the United States and Mexico on Tuesday as both countries continue to grapple with increasing cases of the new coronavirus.

But border officials say the move will add to the negative financial impact the regional economy has experienced as travelers — and money — from Mexico are blocked from crossing the border.

Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf announced in March that travel between the United States and Mexico would be limited to essential travelers to help decrease the virus’ spread between the two countries. The restrictions exclude commercial trade with Mexico, which provides about 1 million jobs to Texans, according to Gov. Greg Abbott’s office.

The policy affects “individuals traveling for tourism purposes” like “sightseeing, recreation, gambling or attending cultural events” — but it does not apply to U.S. citizens. The same restrictions are in place on the northern border.

The restrictions were set to expire next week, but Wolf announced they will be extended until July 21.

The lack of visitors from Mexico for another month will likely add to the multimillion-dollar losses border counties have already experienced after seeing revenue from bridge tolls steadily decline during the pandemic.

Last week, the Texas Border Coalition, a group of elected officials and community and business leaders from the Texas-Mexico border, urged Wolf to lift the restrictions as the Texas and Mexican governments have started to allow businesses to reopen.

“As the United States and state governments work toward easing stay-at-home restrictions, foreign travel suspensions limiting entry to the U.S. have not seen a similar easing,” Cameron County Judge and TBC Chairman Eddie Treviño Jr. wrote to Wolf. “We must protect minority-owned small businesses, cross border trade, and the influence of daily travelers between our countries who invest in binational commerce through the goods and services they acquire.”

Officials in Laredo reported a drop in bridge revenue of more than $4.3 million, or more than 35%, for April and May compared with the same months in 2019.

The administration also announced Tuesday it is again postponing hearings in the United States for asylum seekers under the Migrant Protection Protocols program. The policy, also called “remain in Mexico,” requires that most asylum seekers, especially those from Central America and Cuba, wait in Mexico until their hearing dates in the United States.

Homeland Security officials said they will revisit the issue next month to determine whether courts can reopen and operate according to federal guidelines.

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Global Travel Alert Issued; No Change on Border

The U.S. State Department is asking U.S. citizens traveling or residing abroad to avoid mass gatherings and demonstrations in light of Sunday’s military offensive that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden.

In a global travel alert issued Sunday, the department asks U.S. citizens “in areas where recent events could cause anti-American violence” to also limit travel outside their homes or hotels. U.S. embassies worldwide will continue to function but may temporarily close or suspend services in order to evaluate their security measures, the statement says. U.S. government facilities around the globe will remain at a heightened state of alert.

The law enforcement presence on the Texas–Mexico border will likely remain unchanged, according to a statement from the Department of Homeland Security, which overseas U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“We remain at a heightened state of vigilance, but the Department of Homeland Security does not intend to issue [a National Terrorism Advisory System] alert at this time,” DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano stated.

Some Texas lawmakers have raised concerns that the violence plaguing Mexico could open up the possibility to Mexican cartels working with terrorists to aid the extremists in the smuggling of foreigners into the country. Law enforcement officials say there is not enough evidence to support the various claims, however, and government statistics reflect the majority of non-Mexicans apprehended on the Texas-Mexico border are Central Americans traveling through Mexico to gain access to the U.S.

The government apprehended about 45,280 non-Mexicans in 2010, and about 32,900 on the Texas border, according to unofficial U.S. Border Patrol statistics provided by the office of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. There were 736 immigrants from countries the U.S. considers state sponsors of terrorism apprehended last year: 712 Cubans, 14 Iranians, five from Syria and five from Sudan. Those numbers also include persons detained on the country’s northern border.

The article was published at Global Travel Alert Issued; No Change on Border

TRAVEL BAN ICE ordered to release detained Iraqi refugees, including one New Mexican

Hundreds of Iraqi refugees currently detained by the U.S. federal government could be released as early as next month. A federal judge ruled Tuesday that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has until Feb. 2 to show “clear and convincing evidence” that Iraqi refugees being detained are a public safety or flight risk.

U.S. Federal District Court Judge Mark Goldsmith wrote that while immigration proceedings are pending, “the aliens who were arrested have now languished in detention facilities — many for over six months — deprived of the intimacy of their families, the fellowship of their communities, and the economic opportunity to provide for themselves and their loved ones.”

The mass detentions go back to a travel ban implemented by President Donald Trump’s administration last year. While Iraq was one of the countries included in the ban, the U.S. government agreed to exclude Iraq from the ban in exchange for the Middle Eastern country allowing political and religious refugees back in the country when they are deported. The result was hundreds of refugees, with sometimes decades old criminal charges, being detained in federal facilities awaiting court proceedings.

Abbas Oda Manshad Al-Sokaini is one of them. ICE agents arrested him last June at this Albuquerque home. Al-Sokaini reportedly helped the U.S. military during the Persian Gulf War, making him a probable target for torture or death if he returned to Iraq, according to a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. Al-Sokaini is currently being detained in a federal prison in El Paso, Texas.

Kristin Love, a staff attorney with the ACLU of New Mexico, said Al-Sokaini and many other of the detained refugees have consistently shown up to appointments with ICE officials and continually cooperated with them.

“There’s really no evidence that any of the people in this class poses a safety risk or a flight risk,” Love said.

She could not provide specifics of Al-Sokaini’s release, only that ICE officials will have about a month to make their case that Al-Sokaini should remain in jail.

Al-Sokaini faced two drug charges almost 20 years ago. According to his wife he pleaded guilty to both charges and served six months of probation. A couple years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, ICE detained Al-Sokaini because of his previous charges, but ultimately released him with the condition he check in with immigration officials.

Love said the ACLU is now “waiting to see what the government’s next move is.”

Apparently the federal government is doing the same.

In a statement to NM Political Report, ICE officials said they are still trying to determine their next move, but hinted that they may challenge the court’s decision.

“ICE is reviewing the decision issued by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan to determine the path forward. ICE is deeply disturbed by the decision, but will comply with the decision unless and until it is reversed by an appellate court.”

According to Goldsmith’s ruling, ICE must  prove detainees pose either a public safety or flight risk.

The article was published at TRAVEL BAN ICE ordered to release detained Iraqi refugees, including one New Mexican

State adjusts quarantine requirements for out-of-state travel for medical, family needs

On Thursday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an adjusted executive order regarding quarantine for those who leave the state for medical or family needs.

The adjusted order says that the quarantine requirement no longer applies to New Mexico residents who left the state to access medical care or those who left for less than 24 hours for parenting duties.

A statement, attributed only to the state of New Mexico, said, “Traveling for anything other than business that is absolutely essential to safety and well-being during a global pandemic is an extraordinary risk to yourself, your family, your community and your state. Help stop the spread of COVID-19 by reducing travel outside of the home and outside of the state.”

The governor said during last week’s press conference on the COVID-19 response that an update would be forthcoming to the self-quarantine requirement.

The previous order required all those traveling to New Mexico from other states to self-quarantine for 14 days to help slow the spread of COVID-19. It had some exceptions, such as for law enforcement officers, federal officials, airline employees and others.

The state’s announcement noted that those leaving the state for “vacations or other leisure activities” still must quarantine. Those who are “employed or contracted by an essential business” and traveling into New Mexico to conduct business activities are also not subject to the order.

The self-quarantine came as many states across the country saw a large increase in COVID-19 cases—including one of the largest outbreaks in the country in neighboring Arizona and another large outbreak uptick in cases in Texas.

When those are quarantined in New Mexico, they can only leave their place of lodging for medical care.

The current public health order extends through the end of August.

The article was published at State adjusts quarantine requirements for out-of-state travel for medical, family needs

Governor orders all those who travel to NM by plane to self-isolate for 14 days

Anyone traveling to New Mexico by air must self-isolate for 14 days or for their time while in New Mexico, whichever is shorter, according to an executive order from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The order says that those who do not self-isolate voluntarily would be subject to involuntary isolation or quarantine by the New Mexico Department of Health.

Air travel has already been decimated worldwide by the response to COVID-19. Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller called the Albuquerque International Sunport “an absolute ghost town” earlier this week.

“Because some individuals infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms, travelers may be unaware they are carrying the virus,” Lujan Grisham said in the order. “For this reason, persons arriving in New Mexico’s airports must self-isolate for a period of time sufficient to ensure that the public health and safety is not jeopardized.”

The governor’s order does not apply to airline personnel or anyone performing public safety or public health functions, military personnel, those employed by a federal agency or national defense contractor, first responder or those working for shipping or freight companies.

Anyone who is self-isolated would only be allowed to leave to receive medical care. And while family or household members would be allowed to visit, that person would then need to self-isolate for 14 days.

The DOH had previously asked those who traveled out of state to self-isolate for two weeks in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, a disease caused by a coronavirus. The governor’s office said that a majority of the confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New Mexico so far have come from those with recent interstate or international travel.

The state has implemented a number of restrictions as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The state banned any gatherings of more than five people, allowed only businesses and non-profits deemed “essential” to continue with in-person operations and shut down public schools to in-person classes through the end of the school year.

The article was published at Governor orders all those who travel to NM by plane to self-isolate for 14 days

Trump’s Travel Ban ‘Causing Chaos’ in New York’s Nigerian Community

It was all supposed to happen this year for Oliver Anene.

He was going to become an American citizen, almost eight years after coming to the country as an asylum seeker. And his mother back in Nigeria was finally going to be able to get a visa through him, so she could see New York City for the first time.

In preparation for the reunion — the first time the two would see each other since Anene left Nigeria in 2012 — the green card holder saved thousands of dollars and readied to move out of his studio apartment in Harlem. She would be here a few months, and they would need the space.

Before he could sign a lease on a bigger apartment, however, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that Nigeria had been added to a list of countries from which travel to the United States would be restricted.

U.S. officials said on Jan. 31, citizens from Burma, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania, would now be barred from entering the country — all because their governments “failed to meet a series of security criteria.”

The expanded policy took effect three weeks later, on Feb. 21.

“I’ve been avoiding my mom, because I still don’t know how to explain,” Anene, a program specialist at the Open Society Foundations, told THE CITY.

He has since renewed his lease on the studio in Harlem and is unsure when he will see his mother. Returning to Nigeria for him, as an openly gay man, is still “very risky,” he said.

“This was something we discussed only a couple of weeks ago, in January,” he said of his plan to bring his mother to New York. “And then this happened.”

A Large Community

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and the continent’s largest economy. Nearly 400,000 first- and second-generation Nigerians are estimated to be living in the United States, according to a 2015 report from the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think-tank that studies immigration.

New York City boasts the nation’s largest Nigerian immigrant population, with 35,000, followed by Houston and Washington, according to the Institute.

“This is a massive expansion of the previous versions of the ban,” said Amaha Kassa, executive director of African Communities Together, a civil rights organization for African immigrants.

“African countries were targeted in the very first version of the ban, like Somalia and Sudan,” Kassa added. “But they’ve gone after the largest country on the African continent and the country with the largest diaspora.”

Nigerians are also a highly educated group of immigrants: Between 2008 and 2012, more than 60% of those with Nigerian ancestry who were 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree or higher, versus just 28.5% of all Americans, the Census Bureau found.

“Everywhere you go, Nigerians are at the top of their game,” said Abike Dabiri-Erewa, chair of the Nigerian government’s Diaspora Commission, a federal entity responsible for connecting with the estimated 17 million Nigerians she said are living outside the country.

She told THE CITY that, given the contributions of many Nigerians in the United States, the Trump administration’s decision felt especially vicious — particularly as the expanded ban most “affects those who are already here.”

In one case Dabiri-Erewa has been following, a Nigerian-American man living in America has been unable to bring his wife to the U.S. It’s a frustrating challenge for the pair, who recently married after five years of dating from more than 6,000 miles apart, she said.

‘A Lot of Fear’

There are many other stories like this one, Nigerian New Yorkers who spoke with THE CITY said.

“It’s causing chaos,” Kassa said of the travel ban.

“I don’t think people believed that this could happen to them,” he added. “There is a lot of fear. People have family members, husbands, wives, children, parents, who they had planned to help bring to the U.S. They now don’t know if that’s going to be impossible, or what.”

Dabiri-Arewa said she is “optimistic that the ban will not last for too long.”

The Nigerian government has set up a committee to examine the exceptions raised by U.S. officials, who contend the ban targeted countries that have “deficiencies in sharing terrorist, criminal or identity information.”

Nigerian officials said they also have started rolling out point-of-entry “biometric verification” in major airports, to collect information on those entering the country.

“We are hopeful the president will listen,” said Dabiri-Arewa.

DHS officials have said that the 13 countries now facing immigration restrictions will undergo regular review to ensure they are complying with the imposed vetting requirements.

Some observers thought the ban might be retracted after a federal judge on Sunday nullified President Doinald Trump’s appointment of Ken Cuccinelli as acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. But, while a few of Cuccinelli’s orders are expected to be retracted or at least delayed, the travel ban is exempted because it was enacted through a presidential executive order, advocates noted.

Meanwhile, Kassa said his organization is exploring ways to challenge the ban through litigation and legislation.

“We’re not just sort of sitting quietly while this happens,” he said.

Even if the Nigerian government complies with the Trump administration’s demands, Kassa is “doubtful that after jumping through hoops this is gonna go away.”

“Anyone who thinks this is a bureaucratic problem as opposed to a political one is not being realistic,” he added.

The article was published at Trump’s Travel Ban ‘Causing Chaos’ in New York’s Nigerian Community

New TSA Policy Allows Travel with Some Cannabis-Derived Products

In response to changes in federal law governing CBD, or cannabidiol — a non-psychoactive component of cannabis — the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on Sunday updated its policy to allow passengers to fly with some forms of the compound.

While marijuana generally remains illegal under U.S. law — classified alongside heroin and LSD as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” — the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year approved the first CBD-containing drug, called Epidiolex, to treat two rare forms of childhood epilepsy. To eliminate confusion, the TSA website now clarifies that this drug is legal to bring on-board flights.

The agency’s update also notes that other CBD products are allowed, provided that they’re derived from hemp rather than marijuana. Both plants are strains of cannabis, but unlike marijuana, hemp contains very little THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the component of the drug that gets users high. Given hemp’s value as a raw material for everything from construction to clothing, the Trump administration legalized its production last December.

The development is sure to be welcomed by CBD enthusiasts, who despite a dearth of research regarding its efficacy, tout the compound’s use for all manner of ailments from arthritis to anxiety. But exactly how TSA will differentiate between various CBD products is not yet clear. (To comply with the law, hemp-derived products must contain no more than .3 percent THC.)

While the agency has said that questions regarding the legality of substances will be referred to law enforcement, police themselves may struggle to make such determinations. Earlier this year in Texas, police raided two stores and confiscated hundreds of pounds of CBD oil. Though they claimed in earlier undercover buys to have identified some products as marijuana, the levels of THC detected were not listed in the search warrant.

And in Virginia, an NBC investigation found that state forensic labs aren’t actually capable of determining the exact amount. Following legislation that legalized hemp-derived CBD in the state in March, police similarly arrested a store owner after detecting THC in his products, despite protestations that he was not in fact selling marijuana.

“Sometimes,” Virginia legislator Mark Keam told NBC, “law runs ahead of technology.”

Also in the news:

• Native American tribal leaders and environmental activists have scored a small victory in their years-long effort to stave off oil and gas drilling around New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historical Park. This week, U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced a one-year moratorium on the sale of new oil and gas leases on federal lands in the region. The move comes after Bernhardt, at the urging of U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich, visited the site and met with leaders of the Navajo Nation and Pueblo tribes. Bernhardt said afterward that the remote, ancient site had “blown him away.” The new moratorium will delay plans for the sale of oil and gas leases within an informal, 10-mile buffer zone around the park — a zone that is believed to contain important archaeological, religious, and ritualistic sites. But activists continue to press for the adoption of legislation — introduced earlier this year by members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation — that would make the informal buffer zone permanent. Drilling proponents say that the legislation will be a tough sell in the Republican-led U.S. Senate and point to the potential of oil and gas development to deliver economic growth. (Associated Press)

• The discovery of a peculiar genetic mutation linked to clusters of Alzheimer’s disease in Colombia has led, over nearly two decades, to dozens of studies and increasingly widespread media coverage. That’s because the Paisa mutation — named for the paisa people of Colombia’s Antioquia region — has provided researchers with new clues to the underlying mechanics of Alzheimer’s, and those insights might well lead to drugs that could prevent the crippling disease. But one Colombian family in the village Girardota, while also prone to Alzheimer’s, had a different kind of mutation — one that both hinted at other Alzheimer’s-causing mutations in Colombia, and also revealed an unexpected link between the families of Girardota and ancestors arriving not from Spain, as was suggested by the Paisa mutation, but from Africa. “While the Paisa mutation may have come in with a conquistador,” Undark reported this week, “this one had arrived with a slave, or arisen in his or her descendants.” The revelation runs counter to the origin stories that generations of Antioquia residents have told about themselves, according to one anthropologist — “a myth of racial purity and a lack of black and Indian heritage.” Now, as researchers continue to unravel the full complexity and import of these mutations, a lead investigator’s inclination is to consider them branches of a more diverse genetic tree. “What we really have are two Paisa mutations,” he said. “The African and the European.” (Undark)

• Last week, aerospace giant SpaceX propelled the first 60 members of its planned 12,000-satelitte mega-constellation into outer space. The massive fleet of low-orbit telecommunications satellites – known collectively as Starlink – could soon provide the entire planet with internet access including remote areas difficult to reach using on-Earth methods. But despite reassurances from SpaceX head Elon Musk that the satellites would not be visible when the stars are out, many astronomers are now expressing concern that the project will muddy their observations and interfere with their research. Light pollution from the some-2,000 active satellites currently in orbit is already a headache for scientists using long exposure shots from high-powered telescopes to observe deep space, as the devices can leave streaks of light across images as they move through the telescope’s field of view. “There’s been a long and very productive partnership between astronomers and the technology side of things to try and find solutions that work for everyone,” Phil Bull, a theoretical cosmologist at Queen Mary University of London, told The Verge. “As far as I’m aware, that just hasn’t happened here. And to be honest, it’s unusual to have not consulted on this kind of impact.” (The Verge)

• During the past 15 years, at least 34,000 people have died while taking immunosuppressant medications known as biologics, which have been increasingly used to treat a variety of autoimmune disorders including rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and Crohn’s disease. While these drugs have led to significant reductions in symptoms and remission for many patients, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) data analyzed by The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reveals that more than 1 million “adverse events” were reported in people using the drugs between 2004 and today, including nearly 500,000 that were deemed serious. Fungal infections and sepsis among people receiving biologics are particularly concerning due to patients’ weakened immune systems, leading to increased hospitalizations. Since 2000, the FDA has issued more than 25 warnings and safety communications regarding biologic drugs or required the drugs’ labels be updated to list information about serious new risks. Patients “take these drugs so they can live a life,” says Chadi Hage, an associate professor of clinical medicine at Indiana University. “But at the same time, the more they are educated about what is risky and what is not, the better the story will be.” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

• The great glaciers of the Himalayas are melting faster than normal, scientists confirmed this week, and the pace of the runoff threatens the long-term water security of an estimated 221 million people who depend on the glaciers for their drinking water. The researchers warned that due to rising temperatures, the glaciers are melting too fast for the winter snows to fully replenish them. Unless action is taken to reduce the heat associated with global climate change, severe water shortages are predicted in coming decades. In the shorter term, the glacial melt is also exposing the bodies of dead climbers, long hidden under the thick sheets of ice. “Finding bones is the new normal for us,” said one climber and guide. The government of Nepal is now trying to figure out the most respectful way to handle the newly emerging corpses. (The New York Times)

• And finally: Move over Smokey the Bear — there’s a new fire safety mascot in town. Following record costs for fighting wildfires in 2018, the state of Oregon is launching its own fire-safety awareness campaign featuring a local celebrity: Bigfoot. The ape-like creature, also known as Sasquatch, is a well-known fixture in North American folklore, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. “Prevent wildfires … leave only footprints,” reads one campaign poster, which features a large, hairy silhouette hiking alongside two people. The tagline plays on the mysterious footprints commonly used to argue for Bigfoot’s true existence. “Protect Bigfoot: Don’t let wildfire be the one that got away,” states another. Last year, humans were the leading cause of wildfires in the state, though those ignited by lightning ultimately burned more acres. “Wildfires can easily be ignited by backyard burning, an unattended campfire, a hot car on tall, dry grass, or from dragging tow chains, and they spread fast,” State Fire Marshal Jim Walker, told the Portland Tribune. “We hope our Bigfoot campaign will draw attention and create a bigger ‘footprint’ of wildfire prevention efforts around the state.” (The Oregonian).

The article was published at New TSA Policy Allows Travel with Some Cannabis-Derived Products

Airlines Want Flyers To Feel Safe, But Grab Bag Of COVID Policies Adds Turbulence

American Airlines announced June 26 it will begin booking flights to capacity July 1. In a press release, the airline said it will continue to notify customers and allow them to move to more open flights when available, all without incurring any cost. It also reiterated the existing policy that if space is available once boarding is complete — taking into consideration any aircraft weight or balance restrictions — customers may move to another seat within their ticketed cabin subject to availability.]

Tony Scott boarded an American Airlines flight May 25 from Los Angeles to Dallas. It was a trip he felt he had to take despite concerns about the coronavirus. His son, who lives in Texas, was having health problems.

The teen seated next to Scott in business class wasn’t wearing a mask. Scott was surprised because before the flight he received an email from American reminding him masks were required. He flagged down a flight attendant, who gently reminded the teen of the face-covering rule. She still declined to wear the mask, and the flight attendant told Scott that because she was a minor, the teen was exempt from the requirement.

But Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines state that only children younger than 2 are exempt. The flight attendant also didn’t offer to move Scott to another seat.

Scott, a 53-year-old African American with asthma, was upset. He said he is in a high-risk category for COVID-19 and was shocked by this experience. “I’m very worried about getting coronavirus,” Scott told KHN. “I want to be safe, I don’t want to die and I want the airline to stop putting people at risk.”

Josh Freed, an American Airlines spokesperson, reiterated the policies on the company’s website but declined to discuss Scott’s situation.

Other customers have echoed Scott’s experience on social media, telling tales of uneven, inconsistent and even incorrect COVID-19 policy enforcement on various airlines flights.

As consumers consider traveling again, they discover the public health guidelines in place for flying often are a messy patchwork of precautions that lack the teeth to protect passengers. More often, the priority is on selling tickets. And, so far, federal agencies have been loath to establish and enforce specific safety standards.

Last week — nearly a month after Scott’s flight — it was widely reported that American escorted a passenger off a flight after he refused to wear a mask and then banned him from future American flights while the mask rule remains in place. It was the first known incident of stepped-up enforcement of airlines’ updated COVID policies. American now states that if a passenger is not exempt from wearing a face mask and refuses to wear one, they may be denied boarding and future travel on American.

It’s not the only airline to take such action. In mid-June, Airlines for America, the trade group that represents the major U.S. airlines, announced that its members would be “vigorously enforcing” face-covering policies by communicating before the flight and making onboard announcements. The group said it would be up to each airline to determine the appropriate consequences for not wearing a face mask.

“All A4A [Airlines for America] carriers have implemented a face-covering requirement and have determined the appropriate consequences for passengers who are found to be in noncompliance,” said the group’s spokesperson, Katherine Estep.

United said passengers will lose travel privileges with the airline for a certain period of time that “will be determined when we review the incident.” Delta said a refusal to comply will “risk future flight privileges.” Southwest said it will deny boarding to any customer not wearing a mask.

The announcement comes after most major U.S. airlines started requiring masks on board flights in early May. But, since that announcement, many consumers, such as Scott, reported that the policy wasn’t being enforced.

But the federal government has continued to leave it up to the airlines to regulate themselves regarding masks and other policies to foster consumer confidence in air travel.

Take the social distancing policies. Though most airlines outline on their websites measures to help passengers maintain social distance, the specifics vary significantly.

Both United Airlines and American haven’t committed to blocking out seats, though United said it will be “adjusting advance seat selection” and American said it may reassign seats or move people once onboard and is capping occupancy on flights.

Delta and Southwest said they are blocking middle seats to ensure space between customers — a distance of about 20 inches. Delta is also blocking some window and aisle seats, and JetBlue is doing the same for middle and aisle seats, with both airlines basing these decisions on the size of the aircraft. Exceptions are usually allowed for families who want to sit together.

The websites for some budget airlines, such as FrontierSpirit and Allegiant, don’t provide such social distancing specifics. Allegiant does say reseating may occur, if possible, and it discourages customers from booking the middle seat.

There are also the matters of boarding and even health screenings.

DeltaUnitedJetBlue and Frontier are boarding passengers from back to front so they don’t have to closely pass one another. Southwest is boarding 10 people at a time, from only one side of the boarding poles. Airlines have also modified food and beverage service.

And on June 1, Frontier became the first U.S. airline to start screening passengers for fever before boarding. The airline said any passenger with a temperature over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit will be denied boarding, though customers will be checked again after a “rest period” if there is time. Since April, Frontier has also been requiring passengers when they check in to verify that they have no COVID symptoms, nor does anyone else in their household. UnitedSouthwest and Allegiant are now asking passengers to fill out health questionnaires at check-in.

No other airlines are screening temperatures yet, though the Trump administration has reportedly been in talks with the Transportation Security Administration to test the idea at select airports as part of the security check process. But it’s unclear how exactly this would work. Would TSA follow a model similar to Frontier’s? Would airlines charge rebooking fees for passengers turned away?

“At this time, no decision has been made regarding health screening measures at airports,” TSA spokesperson Lorie Dankers said in an email. And the agency isn’t eager for a public discussion. “It is premature to talk about any aspect or specifics of how this could even occur,” said Dankers.

‘The Airlines Can Do Whatever They Want’

Since March, the airline industry has suffered significant losses, with travel down by almost 90% because of stay-at-home orders and fears of the pandemic. But as businesses restart operations, it has sent clear signals about its hopes for how travel will proceed amid COVID-19 concerns: Airlines want the leeway to set and manage their own safety requirements while they regain their financial footing.

Besides announcing more vigorous face mask enforcement, Airlines for America also recently launched a public awareness campaign that “showcases the proactive measures U.S. airlines are implementing to enhance sanitation and disinfection procedures,” said Estep, in a statement. Some of the burden falls on customers and Estep said the campaign would remind “the traveling public of steps they can take to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

The National Air Carrier Association, whose members are low-cost airlines such as Frontier, Spirit and Allegiant, takes a harder line. It opposes any federal regulation to enforce capacity limits on planes or block out middle seats, saying such measures could cause bankruptcy and higher ticket costs. “Things that might work for legacy carriers could put low-cost carriers out of business,” said spokesperson Dan Stohr.

These hands-off approaches draw skeptical responses from advocates who want the Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration to protect public health.

“The position of DOT is the airlines can do whatever they want,” said Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, a consumer organization. “The FAA is supposed to deal with safety, but they have taken the position that they cannot regulate health unless they are directed to do so by the DOT secretary.”

Indeed, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson wrote in an April letter to the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilots union, that the FAA is “not a public health agency.

And Dickson told a Senate committee last week that the CDC, not the FAA, is the lead agency charged with requiring safety precautions against the spread of the coronavirus.

“Our space is aviation safety, and their space is public health,” he said.

He did add, however, that the agency is monitoring airlines’ voluntary safety programs “to make sure they are following through” and that airlines have been better about enforcement.

But some Democrats on Capitol Hill are pressing for more. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington and the leadership of key House committees separately sent letters in May to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao asking her to issue uniform guidelines about seating on flights and other aspects of air travel.

Because the federal government provided significant financial assistance to the airline industry in the CARES Act to help it survive the coronavirus era, some argue the government should also set uniform safety standards.

“We are spending somewhere between $40 and $50 billion in a variety of grants and subsidies to airlines to help them make it through this episode, and yet the government won’t go to the extent of promulgating a rule to make everyone wear masks, which puts us all at risk,” said Robert Mann, an aviation analyst.

How To Be Safe Now?

While this debate continues in Washington, and airlines push toward an economic recovery tied to their ability to regain customers, passengers should remember that the rules to protect against COVID-19 in public spaces apply to every area of the airport and plane.

Wear a mask at all times. Put 6 feet of space between yourself and others. Touch as few surfaces as possible. Wash your hands frequently and use hand sanitizer. If you’re going to sit in a space for a while, such as at the gate, wipe down the areas around you.

And most importantly: Remember that the nation is in the midst of a pandemic. “Don’t travel by air or other means if it’s not necessary,” said Henry Wu, director of the Emory TravelWell Center and an assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine. “It is certainly possible to get COVID-19 while traveling.”

This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The article was published at Airlines Want Flyers To Feel Safe, But Grab Bag Of COVID Policies Adds Turbulence

Travel ban legal battles continue, as Trump administration appeals new injunction

The Trump administration is appealing a federal judge’s decision to temporarily block the president’s second travel ban from going into effect — setting up another legal showdown in an appeals court.

The first version of the ban, temporarily suspending the U.S. refugee program and barring entry into the U.S. from residents of seven majority-Muslim countries, was quickly blocked by a federal judge in Washington state. The Justice Department appealed that temporary restraining order, but a panel of judges from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the suspension of the ban.

Then President Trump issued a new ban — one designed to address the legal concerns of the 9th Circuit, the administration says. It omitted Iraq from the list of barred countries, removed references to religion and excluded green card holders and people who already had visas, among other changes.

That new executive order was also swiftly challenged in court. Earlier this week, two federal judges in separate courts blocked portions of the ban — a judge in Hawaii imposed a temporary restraining order, and a judge in Maryland granted a narrower, but potentially longer-lasting, preliminary injunction.

It’s the Maryland injunction that the Trump administration is moving to appeal, asking the 4th Circuit Court to intervene.

Omar Jadwat, the director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project and one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the Maryland case, says the ban has “fared miserably in the courts.”

“We look forward to defending this careful and well-reasoned decision in the appeals court,” he says, referring to Judge Theodore D. Chuang’s decision to grant the preliminary injunction.

The Trump administration had signaled on Thursday that it planned to appeal Chuang’s decision; press secretary Sean Spicer said the administration would seek clarification on the Hawaii ruling before appealing that case.

The article was published at Travel ban legal battles continue, as Trump administration appeals new injunction

Hundreds of doctors in LA County could be affected by new travel ban

Among those who will feel the impact of President Trump’s revised travel ban are hundreds of doctors in Los Angeles County who come from the six majority-Muslim countries named in his executive order.

“We are concerned that … doctors might have challenges traveling to visit loved ones or there might be physicians in one of those countries right now who might have problems getting back to this country to care for his or her patients,” said Gustavo Friederichsen, Chief Executive Officer of the Los Angeles County Medical Association.  Friederichsen said the ban would also make it difficult for patients in those countries seeking treatment in the U.S.

The executive order, which is due to go into effect on Thursday, temporarily blocks visas from being issued to citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen to “to protect the Nation from terrorist activities by foreign nationals.” The ban does not include permanent residents and those who already have visas, but doctors applying for new visas or seeking to renew expired ones would require a waiver. Several states are challenging the order’s constitutionality in court.

“Los Angeles is actually the metro area in the United States which has the highest number of doctors from the banned countries,” according to Jonathan Roth, a Harvard PhD student and one of the researchers who worked on the Immigrant Doctors Project.

Roth, along with other researchers from Harvard and MIT, used the location of the medical school where a doctor was trained as a way to calculate a doctor’s country of origin. Since many doctors train abroad, Roth says it’s likely that the number of doctors affected by the ban is much larger than their estimates.

More than 900 doctors in Los Angeles went to medical school in one of the six countries listed in the executive order, more than three-quarters of them in Iran, he says. While many doctors could be citizens, permanent residents or visa holders exempt from the ban, Roth says they may still be affected if they need to renew their visas or if their loved ones are unable to travel.

One of the main purposes of the Immigrant Doctors Project is to show the contribution doctors from the banned countries make to healthcare, says Roth. The researchers estimate that doctors from the six countries see patients at 14 million appointments each year.

“While immigrant doctors are just a small fraction of the people from these countries in the United States, they’re a group for which their impacts are very tangible,” says Roth.

The California Medical Association criticized the Trump administration’s previous attempt to impose a travel ban, arguing that it would prevent foreign doctors from working in the country at a time when there is a growing shortage of physicians.

“There is no doubt that a robust and well-trained workforce is essential to meeting the health care demands for all Californians – we can’t afford to ban qualified physicians who already adhere to rigorous U.S. legal and medical licensing requirements,” Association President  Dr. Ruth Haskins said in a Feb. 17 statement.

The American Medical Association has expressed concerns about the effect the revised ban could have on the medical profession.

“Hundreds of physicians from six countries are subject to the revised executive order and have applied to U.S. training programs and requested visa sponsorship,” AMA President Dr. Andrew Gurman said in a statement.

“The new executive order leaves them in limbo and without an explicit waiver,” which means “these foreign physicians will be unable to provide care in the U.S. when training programs begin on July 1,” he said.

The administration should also clarify which factors will be taken into account when considering an application by someone seeking to enter the country to receive medical treatment, said Gurman.

The article was published at Hundreds of doctors in LA County could be affected by new travel ban