Signs of the Times (3/28/16)

Georgia Governor Vetoes Religious Liberty Bill Amid Boycott Threats

Facing threats of a massive economic boycott, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal announced Monday he will veto a controversial religious liberty bill that critics describe as anti-gay and supporters describe as necessary to protect their religious rights. The Republican governor had been under intense pressure to veto the religious liberty bill which would allow faith-based organizations to deny services to those who violate their “sincerely held” religious beliefs. It also would let employers retain the right to fire employees not aligned with those beliefs. Supporters said the bill would protect religious viewpoints and in turn prevent discrimination against faith-based groups. In the past week, nearly three-dozen actors, directors and studio companies have threatened to pull out of lucrative projects in Georgia — a popular filming location dubbed the “Hollywood of the South” — if Deal signed the bill. Coca-Cola and other Georgia companies joined the National Football League urging Deal to reject the proposal.

Illegal Immigrants Getting Obamacare Benefits Illegally

Taxpayers are subsidizing health care for illegal immigrants in counties across the country, despite a provision in the Affordable Care Act explicitly prohibiting government-subsidized care for illegal immigrants, reports Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants in 20 of the 25 U.S. counties with the largest illegal immigrant populations are able to sign up for health care benefit programs paid for by taxpayers that act as health insurance, according to a Wall Street Journal survey of those 25 counties. And at least 750,000 illegal immigrants are receiving care in those counties, costing taxpayers more than $1 billion. Most of the programs allow residents of the county to sign up without regard to their immigration status, and some are explicitly intended for immigrants. Those who sign up for the plans can receive free doctor visits, shots, prescription drugs and surgeries and other benefits, depending on the program. President Obama’s healthcare law prohibits illegal immigrants from signing up for subsidized plans, but the counties surveyed by The WSJ are treating them anyway, reasoning the reduced emergency room costs will be more cost effective than denying them coverage.

Islamist Says Big Attack Coming to America

The deadly terrorist attacks in Brussels last week and in Paris last November are dress rehearsals for a coming “big” attack inside the United States, a leading Islamic State-allied militant claimed in an exclusive interview. Abu al-Ayna al-Ansari, a Salafist movement senior official in the Gaza Strip, made the claim in a pre-recorded, hour-long interview to air in full on Sunday on “Aaron Klein Investigative Radio.” Klein asked Ansari whether IS maintains cells inside the U.S. and if the terrorist group is “planning anything in America.” Ansari responded: “Aaron, the battle with America is a very long one, a very tough one, a very hard one. America has a black record with the mujahedeen, and this black record will not be purified but with blood, and lots of blood. Only blood will cleanse what America did to the mujahedeen. And I can confirm that our leadership made it very clear that what happened in Paris, what happened in Brussels was only a small rehearsal before the big thing that will happen in America.”

Belgium Fears Nuclear Plants Are Vulnerable

As a dragnet aimed at Islamic State operatives spiraled across Brussels into at least five European countries on Friday, the authorities were also focusing on a narrower but increasingly alarming threat: the vulnerability of Belgium’s nuclear installations. The investigation into this week’s deadly attacks in Brussels has prompted worries that the Islamic State is seeking to attack, infiltrate or sabotage nuclear installations or obtain nuclear or radioactive material. This is especially worrying in a country with a history of security lapses at its nuclear facilities, a weak intelligence apparatus and a deeply rooted terrorist network, reports the New York Times. On Friday, the authorities stripped security badges from several workers at one of two nuclear plants. Video footage of a top official at another Belgian nuclear facility was discovered last year in the apartment of a suspected militant linked to the extremists who unleashed the horror in Paris in November.

Tourists Avoiding Europe after Terror Attacks

Americans were shying away from Europe as a travel destination even before Tuesday’s terror attack in Brussels, and experts say the horrific bombing of the airport and train station will accelerate that trend. “There’s definitely a shift going on,” said Patrick Surry, the chief data scientist for the travel-data firm Hopper. “It feels like that’s been the trend since the Paris attacks, and now you’ve got an attack directly on an airport.” Hopper’s data shows that searches by travelers considering Europe are down 13% so far this year, compared to the same period last year. Overall, worldwide travel searches and bookings have remained stable. People are still traveling, but are avoiding Europe, he said. Priceline, Expedia and TripAdvisor all reported reduced revenues in the weeks after the Paris terror attacks left 130 dead in November, said Tuna Amobi, an equity analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence.

U.S. Immigration Shifting to Non-Mexicans

In 37 states, a country other than Mexico is now the most common country of origin for newly arrived immigrants, according to a Stateline analysis of census data. The numbers reflect a steep decline in Mexican immigration since 2005 and point to a swift and dramatic shift toward Asia — especially China and India — as the dominant source of newcomers to the U.S. “It is east of the Mississippi that shows a flip from Mexican to Indian, Chinese and other origins,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. Much of the shift can be attributed to economic reasons. During the U.S. housing boom, still in full swing in 2005, many Mexican immigrants came to work in construction. But the housing bust and recession, plus stricter border enforcement and better job prospects in Mexico, reduced the flood to a trickle. Meanwhile, a booming job market for people with technical and scientific skills has drawn increasing numbers of immigrants from India and China. The U.S. Census Bureau figures show 428,000 new immigrants came from India and China in 2014, more than double the 2005 number. Meanwhile, the number of new immigrants from Mexico dropped by two-thirds, to 240,000. Their number had peaked in 2000, at about 875,000.

Native American Girls have Highest Rate of Incarceration

American Indian and Native Alaskan girls are a small fraction of the population, but they are over-represented in the juvenile justice system, whether they are living on or off the reservation. Native American girls have the highest rates of incarceration of any ethnic group, reports the USA Today. They are nearly five times more likely than white girls to be confined to a juvenile detention facility, according to the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. They’re also poor, more likely to be sexually abused, end up in foster care, drop out of school, become homeless. They’re often the prey of traffickers. American Indian girls often find themselves without state or local social service programs tailored to their cultural backgrounds and experiences, which are distinct from other girls living in or on the edge of poverty. “As Indian people, our greatest hope is our children. And our kids are really at risk,” said Carla Fredericks, director of the American Indian Law Clinic at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder. “The only way we can help these girls is if we do it cooperatively, with the states, federal government and within our own communities.”

Persecution Watch

A bomb blast in a park filled with Christian families celebrating Easter in the Pakistani city of Lahore killed 65 people and wounded hundreds more, a government official said Sunday. A breakaway Taliban faction told the Associated Press that it was responsible for the explosion. Ahsanullah Ahsan, a spokesman for the militant group, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, said it deliberately targeted Christians and warned of more attacks to follow. Salman Rafiq, a health adviser to the chief minister of Punjab province, said many of those injured were in critical condition and warned that the death toll could climb. Zaeem Qadri, a spokesman for the chief minister, said at least 300 were injured in addition to those killed. When the U.S. Department of State released a statement condemning the Pakistani Taliban faction’s Easter bombing in a Lahore park, it noticeably omitted the fact that Easter-celebrating Christians were specifically targeted, despite the Taliban’s public claim.

Migrant Update

The once-great wave of refugees motoring in cheap rubber rafts across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek islands has suddenly become a ripple. Where thousands arrived in a day, now hundreds — and some days far fewer — splash onto the Greek shores from Turkey, a possible sign that the largest mass migration of the 21st century is slowing or that refugees are changing course as Europe scrambles to erect new barriers, reports the Washington Post. Migration officials and aid workers said that rough seas in recent days may be responsible for the dramatic reduction. But in the Syrian quarter of Izmir, once teeming with refugees shopping for life preservers, the cheap hotels are empty. Over the past 15 months, about 1 million refugees were smuggled from Turkey to the Greek islands. The maritime smuggling mafias made more than $4 billion last year, authorities said. Some 400 people have died in the Aegean Sea crossings. Most of them drowned, according to the Greek coast guard. An additional 170 are listed as missing.

In a brief Easter weekend radio address, President Obama vowed to decimate the self-proclaimed Islamic State, but he said the United States will do so by offering an example of freedom, tolerance and open society. “Our openness to refugees fleeing ISIL’s violence; our determination to win the battle against ISIL’s hateful and violent propaganda — a distorted view of Islam that aims to radicalize young Muslims to their cause,” are paramount in the fight, Obama told Americans during his weekly radio address. Admitting entry to Syrian and Iraqi refugees has become a divisive issue in the U.S. as well as Europe, but Obama made clear he has no plan to back off his promise to admit 100,000 to the U.S. this year.

  • Apparently Obama hasn’t been reading news accounts of the widespread chaos and violence across Europe caused by the Muslim refugees. Maybe that’s because the mainstream media isn’t reporting these incidents.

Economic News

U.S. consumer spending posted a tiny gain for the third straight month in February while income growth slowed sharply. Consumer spending edged up 0.1% in February, matching similar lackluster gains in January and December, the Commerce Department reported Monday. Personal incomes rose a modest 0.2% in February after a much stronger 0.5% rise in January. The slowdown reflected a 0.1% drop in wages and salaries, the first drop in this key category since September. A key price gauge followed by the Federal Reserve showed prices fell 0.1% in February and are up just 1% over the past 12 months.

The portion of the U.S. population working or looking for jobs — known as the labor force participation rate — has risen to 62.9% from 62.4% since September, Labor Department figures show. The rate had been falling since 2008, mostly because of baby boomer retirements, and that’s still expected to be the long-term trend. Yet part of the decline was caused by a bruising post-recession job market that prompted discouraged workers to drop out of the labor force. At least some of those idled workers are returning to work or looking again now that the jobless rate has fallen to 4.9%, a level many economists consider full employment. They’ve been drawn back by employers who are raising pay or becoming less selective.

The U.S. oil industry, having grown into a giant on par with Saudi Arabia’s, is shrinking, with the biggest collapse in investment in energy in 25 years. More than 140,000 have lost energy jobs. Banks are bracing for tens of billions of dollars of defaults, and economists and lawyers predict the financial wreckage will accelerate this year, notes the Washington Post.

Islamic State

Syrian government forces backed by unrelenting Russian airstrikes recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra from Islamic State militants on Sunday, the Syrian army announced. The announcement followed a three-week siege that left hundreds of militants killed and sent many more fleeing into the desert, the army said. It follows a string of military setbacks for the Islamic State in its efforts to create a Sunni-based caliphate from a wide swath of Syria and Iraq. “Palmyra city is now fully cleared of ISIS terrorists after the army established complete control over all its parts,” the Syrian army said in a statement through the government controlled Syrian Arab News Agency. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed Syrian army gains, saying government forces and Shia militias were also taking control of neighborhoods on the outskirts of the United Nations heritage site known in the region as “the bride of the Syrian desert.” Iraqi forces on Sunday cleared villages from which they ousted jihadists south of Mosul, the Islamic State group’s main hub in the country.

Iraq

A suicide bomber killed at least 29 people and wounded 60 others in an attack on a crowd gathered at a soccer stadium south of Baghdad on Friday. The blast occurred during a trophy presentation in the village of Iskandariya about 25 miles south of the Iraqi capital. Islamic State militants claimed responsibility for the attack, according to the Amaq news agency, which is affiliated with the group also known as ISIL or ISIS. The Islamic State has carried out several suicide bombings in and around Baghdad as Iraqi forces with U.S. military support recaptured territory from the terrorist group in recent months.

Nigeria

Friday, three female suicide bombers planning to carry out an attack near the northern Cameroon village of Limani were spotted by local vigilantes before they could blow themselves up, Cameroon’s state broadcaster CRTV said One girl escaped. One girl who was captured claimed to be part of the group of 276 teenage girls kidnapped by Boko Haram from the Nigerian town of Chibok in April 2014, NTA reported. Boko Haram sparked international outrage when it abducted the girls from the town in northeastern Nigeria, police said. About 50 girls escaped but authorities fear the rest may have been raped, brutalized or forced to convert to Islam. Boko Haram is a militant Islamic group based in Nigeria whose purpose is to institute Sharia, or Islamic law.

Angola

More than 1,100 people have been diagnosed with yellow fever in Angola since December, according to the World Health Organization, and at least 178 have died. It’s the worst outbreak of yellow fever in the country in three decades, and the supply of vaccines is running low. The outbreak began in the capital of Luanda but has now spread to at least 10 of the 18 provinces in the country. Of greater concern to health officials is that China, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya have reported cases they suspect were imported from Angola. According to WHO, there are between 84,000 and 170,000 cases of yellow fever a year and as many as 60,000 of those cases are fatal. Yellow fever is a mosquito-borne disease transmitted by two types of mosquitoes.

Cuba

Just days after President Barack Obama concluded his historic three-day visit to Cuba, former leader Fidel Castro published an op-ed piece attacking the U.S. president. In a column published in the Communist government’s official newspaper on Monday entitled “My Brother Obama, Castro mocks the U.S. president’s efforts. He responded to sections of Obama’s speech line by line, engaging in an ex-post-facto dialogue with the American president with pointed critiques of perceived slights and insults, including Obama’s failure to give credit to indigenous Cubans and Castro’s prohibition of racial segregation after coming to power in 1959. He ends with a dig at the Obama administration’s drive to increase business ties with Cuba. “I warn you that we are capable of producing the food and material wealth we need with the effort and intelligence of our people. We do not need the empire to give us nothing.”

Environment

Usually idyllic beaches, waterways and estuaries near the massive, biodiverse ecosystem along central Florida’s Atlantic coast are littered with scores of dead, rotting fish; hundreds of thousands of them are floating belly up in brackish, polluted water as far as the eye can see. El Nino has soaked Florida recently, even during its usual “dry season.” In January, parts of central Florida received triple the amount of rain they normally do for the month. All that rainwater eventually made its way into estuaries via urbanized neighborhoods, picking up fertilizer and other pollutants along the way. In addition, temperatures were warmer than usual during the winter, allowing a toxic algae bloom and brown tide to deplete the water of oxygen.

Volcanoes

A volcano on Alaska’s Aleutian Islands erupted Sunday afternoon and sent ash 20,000 feet into the air, the U.S. Geological Survey reports. The agency says the Pavlof Volcano, which is about 600 miles southwest of Anchorage, erupted at 4:18 p.m. local time. The eruption also led to tremors on the ground. The agency says the volcano, which is about 4.4 miles in diameter, has had 40 known eruptions and “is one of the most consistently active volcanoes in the Aleutian arc.” During a previous eruption in 2013, ash plumes rose 27,000 feet. Other eruptions have generated ash plumes as high as 49,000 feet. The community closest to the volcano is Cold Bay, which is about 37 miles southwest.

Wildfires

The wildfire season has gotten underway early this year in the U.S. due to prolonged dry conditions and warmer than normal temperatures. As of last Friday, 887,920 acres had burned, the most since 2006 and more than twice the average over the last ten years. A wildfire that started in Oklahoma and spread into southern Kansas has become the “largest in Kansas history and one of the largest in U.S. history,” the Kansas Forest Service said in a release Friday. At least 620 square miles – roughly 397,000 acres – of land have been scorched in the fire, which started Tuesday.

Weather

March has been a very warm month for most of the U.S. Numerous locations from the Rockies to the East Coast, with the exception of much of the South, are in position to see a top-five warmest March. Heading into early April, however, a surge of colder temperatures is expected to push southward into the Midwest and portions of the East.

A severe thunderstorm pelted southern parts of the Orlando metro area Saturday evening with hailstones up to the size of quarters. Even more impressive was the volume of hail, which accumulated on lawns and streets, making some areas appear to be a winter wonderland, quite unusual in Florida.

Snow once again blanketed parts of the Rockies, including Colorado Sunday. Fortunately, this system was nothing like the paralyzing blizzard earlier in the week. Snowfall of 14 inches was recorded near Norris, South Dakota while Kebler Pass in Colorado received 13 inches with 12 inches in the Colorado Springs area.

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