US Border Militia Leader Could Face More Charges

The leader of an armed civilian militia group that has been detaining illegal border crossers at the U.S. Mexico-border appeared in court Monday. He faces charges of being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition.

Larry Mitchell Hopkins, 69, was arrested in the border city of Sunland Park, New Mexico, on a federal complaint.

The charges stem from the discovery of weapons at Hopkins’ residence in 2017, after the FBI was alerted to “alleged militia extremist” activity connected to Hopkins, according to a federal court complaint that was unsealed Monday. The United States Attorney’s office in New Mexico did not reveal why there was a delay in charging Hopkins.

Hopkins is the leader of the United Constitutional Patriots, one of several civilian militias operating along the U.S. southern border. On its Facebook page, the UCP claims it is a group of “Americans that believe in the constitution and the rights of every American that will stand up for there [sic] rights in unity and help keep America safe.”  

Jim Benvie, a spokesman for the UCP, said the group is simply helping U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents and local police, and that UCP members carry weapons for self defense and at no time pointed guns at migrants, as they have been accused.

But recently uploaded videos show armed members of the group detaining hundreds of children and their parents in the New Mexico desert near El Paso, Texas, before handing the migrants over to the Border Patrol.

The American Civil Liberties Union has accused the UCP of kidnapping and detaining people seeking asylum in the U.S.

Peter Simonson, director of the ACLU in New Mexico, told The Washington Post that his group alerted officials because of fears that the armed militia members would harm the migrants.

Hopkins was convicted of a felony in 2006 for similar crimes. At the time, he was arrested and charged with impersonating a police officer and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

According to an incident report cited by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Hopkins was seen at a gas station in Keno, Oregon, near the California border, showing firearms to a group of children, telling them that he was a police officer.

A Klamath County sheriff’s deputy wrote in the incident report at the time that he had “observed that Larry Hopkins was wearing a black uniform style shirt and black pants. Hopkins had a badge similar in appearance to a police officer badge pinned above his left breast in the area a police officer would wear a badge. Hopkins had a gold star on each of his collars, which is often a sign of rank. Hopkins had several military or law enforcement style pins all over his shirt in a uniform appearance.”

The latest firearms charge against Hopkins is relatively minor, but it can lead to more serious charges such as kidnapping and impersonating a police officer, and allow law enforcement authorities to open an investigation into the militia and his role in the group.

The FBI said it has received information that Hopkins had “allegedly made the statement that the United Constitutional Patriots were training to assassinate (billionaire activist) George Soros, (former Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton and (former President) Barack Obama.”

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Half of Americans Back Stronger Role of Religion in Society

Around half of Americans favor religion playing a greater role in U.S. society, while 18 percent oppose that idea, according to a Pew Research Center study published Monday.

Despite there being a separation of church and state, religion plays a significant part in daily U.S. life: the president traditionally is sworn in using a Bible, while “In God We Trust” is printed on bank notes.

France, Sweden and the Netherlands, meanwhile, posted almost opposite results: 47 percent, 51 percent and 45 percent respectively were opposed to religion playing a key role in society.

Among the 27 countries surveyed in 2018, France (20 percent) and Japan (15 percent) were the countries with the lowest proportion of citizens favoring strengthening religion’s role in society.

Indonesia (85 percent), Kenya (74 percent) and Tunisia (69 percent) came out as the countries most in favor of a bigger place for religion.

The study did not make a distinction between different religions.

In the U.S., the proportion rose to 61 percent among people aged 50 and over, but dropped to 39 percent among 18- to 29-year-olds.

The study was carried out with a representative sample of at least 1,000 people in each country.

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Trump Threatens Crackdown on High Visa Overstay Countries

The Trump administration is considering suspending or limiting entry to the U.S. for individuals from countries with high rates of short-term visa overstays — a proposal vaguely reminiscent of the controversial travel bans President Donald Trump pursued during his first year in office.

In a memo signed Monday, Trump directs officials to examine new ways to minimize the number of people overstaying their business and tourist visas as part of a renewed focus on immigration as the 2020 campaign kicks into high gear.

And it says the administration is considering developing “admission bonds” — people entering the country would pay a fee that would be reimbursed when they leave — in an effort to improve compliance.

“We have laws that need to be followed to keep Americans safe and to protect the integrity of a system where, right now, there are millions of people who are waiting in line to come to America to seek the American Dream,” Trump said in a statement.

 

More people are in the U.S. because they overstay visas than because they cross the border illegally, according to the nonpartisan Center for Migration Studies. Some of the countries with high overstay rates include Chad, Djibouti, Eritrea, Liberia, the Solomon Islands, Benin and Burkina Faso. Officials say 20 countries have rates over 10 percent.

The memo gives the secretaries of state and homeland security 120 days to come up with recommendations, including potentially limiting how long visas last.

The idea of restricting travel from high overstay countries is part of a long list of proposals being tossed around by officials as they try to appease a president who has been seething over the influx of migrants at the border as he tries to make good on his 2016 campaign promises and energize his base going into 2020.

The ideas have ranged from the extreme —including Trump’s threat to completely shut down the southern border and resume the widely denounced practice of separating children from parents — to more subtle tweaks to the legal immigration system.

Plans are also in the works to have border patrol agents, instead of asylum officers, conduct initial interviews to determine whether migrants seeking asylum have a “credible fear” of returning to their homelands. And the administration has been weighing targeting the remittance payments people living in the country illegally send home to their families and moving forward with plans to punish immigrants in the country legally for using public benefits, such as food stamps.

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Trump Rejects Suggestion His Commands Are Ignored

U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday rejected the suggestion that White House aides ignore his commands when they consider them out of line with the norms of the presidency.

“Nobody disobeys my orders,” Trump told reporters at the annual Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn.

He was reacting to accounts last week in the 448-page report by special counsel Robert Mueller on Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election that some Trump aides have ignored his directives over the first two years of his White House tenure because they considered them as unwarranted, damaging to his presidency or wanted to keep themselves out of legal entanglements.

In one widely reported episode, Trump White House counsel Donald McGahn told investigators he refused several Trump overtures to push top Justice Department officials to oust Mueller to end the investigation that has overshadowed his presidency.

“The president’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful,” Mueller concluded, “but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”

The Mueller report exonerated Trump and his campaign of colluding with Russia to help him, but said it was unable to conclude that “no criminal conduct occurred’ on accusations that Trump obstructed justice to thwart the investigation. However, Attorney General William Barr, a Trump appointee as the country’s top law enforcement official, concluded that with Mueller making no decision on the obstruction question, criminal charges were not warranted.

With Mueller’s portrayal of Trump’s efforts to impede the Muller investigation, some opposition Democrats say they are weighing whether to start impeachment proceedings against him in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, even though there is virtually no chance the Republican-controlled Senate would muster the required two-thirds vote to convict Trump and oust him from office.

Asked whether he was worried about impeachment, Trump replied, “Not even a little bit.”  

In an earlier Twitter comment, Trump said, “Only high crimes and misdemeanors can lead to impeachment. There were no crimes by me (No Collusion, No Obstruction), so you can’t impeach. It was the Democrats that committed the crimes, not your Republican President! Tables are finally turning on the Witch Hunt!”  

  

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Trump Says Cain Withdraws From Consideration for Fed Seat

Donald Trump said Monday that Herman Cain has withdrawn from consideration for a seat on the Federal Reserve’s board amid a focus on past scandals.

Cain is a former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza who dropped out of the 2012 presidential race amid allegations of sexual harassment and infidelity. The issues resurfaced after Trump said he intended to nominate Cain to the central bank’s board of governors.

Trump tweeted Monday that “My friend Herman Cain, a truly wonderful man, has asked me not to nominate him for a seat on the Federal Reserve Board. I will respect his wishes.”

The president added that “Herman is a great American who truly loves our Country!”

Trump has also nominated conservative ally Stephen Moore for a separate vacancy on the Fed’s seven-member board.

Cain’s nomination was all but doomed earlier this month when four Republican senators said they wouldn’t vote to confirm him if he were nominated. The GOP holds just a three-seat majority in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to say 10 days ago whether the chamber would confirm Cain.

Trump’s nomination of Cain, along with Moore, had raised concerns about the Fed’s ability to remain politically independent. Last fall, Cain co-founded a pro-Trump super political action committee, America Fighting Back PAC. It features a photo of the president on its website and says, “We must protect Donald Trump and his agenda from impeachment.”

The potential nominations surfaced after Trump has spent months attacking his pick to lead the Fed, Jerome Powell, and other Fed officials for raising interest rates four times last year. Those rate hikes hurt the stock market and were unnecessary because there was no inflation threat, Trump has said.

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Trump Calls Sri Lankan PM, Expresses Condolences After Deadly Blasts

Steve Herman contributed to this report. 

U.S. President Donald Trump has called Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to express his condolences to the Sri Lankan people after the Easter Sunday bombings that killed nearly 300 people and wounded hundreds of others.

The White House said Prime Minister Wickremesinghe expressed appreciation for the president’s concern and updated him on the progress of the investigation into the attacks.

“President Trump pledged United States support to Sri Lanka in bringing the perpetrators to justice, and the leaders re-affirmed their commitment to the fight against global terrorism,” a White House readout of the phone call said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also addressed the bombings in a press briefing Monday, confirming that some victims were American citizens.

“This is America’s fight too,” Pompeo told reporters. “Today our nation grieves with the people of Sri Lanka and we stand committed, resolved to confront terrorism together.”

“Our embassy and other parts of U.S. government are offering all possible assistance to Americans and the Sri Lankan government alike. We urge that any evil doers be brought to justice expeditiously, and America is prepared to support that,” Pompeo added.

The U.S. State Department has updated a travel advisory to Sri Lanka, urging Americans to “exercise increased caution in Sri Lanka due to terrorism.” It said “terrorist groups continue plotting possible attacks” in the country in the wake of Sunday’s deadly blasts.

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Reports: US to Sanction Nations for Importing Iranian Oil

The Trump administration is poised to tell five nations, including allies Japan, South Korea and Turkey, that they will no longer be exempt from U.S. sanctions if they continue to import oil from Iran, officials said Sunday.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo plans to announce on Monday that the administration will not renew sanctions waivers for the five countries when they expire on May 2, three U.S. officials said. The others are China and India.

It was not immediately clear if any of the five would be given additional time to wind down their purchases or if they would be subject to U.S. sanctions on May 3 if they do not immediately halt imports of Iranian oil.

The officials were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of Pompeo’s announcement.

The decision not to extend the waivers, which was first reported by The Washington Post, was finalized on Friday by President Donald Trump, according to the officials. They said it is intended to further ramp up pressure on Iran by strangling the revenue it gets from oil exports.

The administration granted eight oil sanctions waivers when it re-imposed sanctions on Iran after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal. They were granted in part to give those countries more time to find alternate energy sources but also to prevent a shock to global oil markets from the sudden removal of Iranian crude.

U.S. officials now say they do not expect any significant reduction in the supply of oil given production increases by other countries, including the U.S. itself and Saudi Arabia.

Since November, three of the eight — Italy, Greece and Taiwan — have stopped importing oil from Iran. The other five, however, have not, and have lobbied for their waivers to be extended.

NATO ally Turkey has made perhaps the most public case for an extension, with senior officials telling their U.S. counterparts that Iranian oil is critical to meeting their country’s energy needs. They have also made the case that as a neighbor of Iran, Turkey cannot be expected to completely close its economy to Iranian goods.

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Armed Civilian Border Group Member Arrested in New Mexico

A New Mexico man belonging to an armed group that has detained Central American families near the U.S.-Mexico border was arrested Saturday in a border community on a criminal complaint accusing him of being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition, authorities said.

The FBI said in a statement it arrested 69-year-old Larry Mitchell Hopkins in Sunland Park with the assistance of local police. New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said in a separate statement that Hopkins was a member of the group that had stopped migrants.

Hopkins was booked into the Dona Ana County detention center in Las Cruces and it wasn’t immediately known whether he has an attorney who could comment on the allegations.

The FBI statement did not provide information on Hopkins’ background, and FBI spokesman Frank Fisher told The Associated Press that no additional information would be released until after Hopkins has an initial appearance Monday in federal court in Las Cruces.

The FBI said Hopkins is from Flora Vista, a rural community in northern New Mexico and approximately 353 miles (572 kilometers) north of Sunland Park, which is a suburb of El Paso, Texas.

The Sunland Park Police Department on Saturday referred an AP reporter to the FBI.

Balderas said in a statement that Hopkins “is a dangerous felon who should not have weapons around children and families. Today’s arrest by the FBI indicates clearly that the rule of law should be in the hands of trained law enforcement officials, not armed vigilantes.”

Federal authorities on Friday warned private groups to avoid policing the border after a string of videos on social media showed armed civilians detaining large groups of Central American families in New Mexico.

The videos posted earlier in the week show members of United Constitutional Patriots ordering family groups as small as seven and as large as several hundred to sit on the dirt with their children, some toddlers, waiting until Border Patrol agents arrive.

Customs and Border Protection said on its Twitter account that it “does not endorse or condone private groups or organizations that take enforcement matters into their own hands. Interference by civilians in law enforcement matters could have public safety and legal consequences for all parties involved.”

Jim Benvie, a spokesman for United Constitutional Patriots, did not immediately respond Saturday to a request for comment made via Facebook.

Benvie said in a video that the group’s members were assisting a “stressed and overstrained Border Patrol” and said the group is legally armed for self-defense and never points guns at migrants. The posted videos do not show them with firearms drawn.

Armed civilian groups have been a fixture on the border for years, especially when large numbers of migrants come. But, unlike previous times, many of the migrants crossing now are children.

In the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, which has emerged as the second-busiest corridor for illegal crossings after Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, 86% of arrests in March were people who came as families or unaccompanied children.

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US Carves Out Exceptions for Foreigners Dealing With IRGC

The United States has largely carved out exceptions so that  foreign governments, firms and NGOs do not automatically face U.S. sanctions for dealing with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards after the group’s designation by Washington as a foreign terrorist group, according to three current and three former U.S. officials.

The exemptions, granted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and described by a State Department spokesman in response to questions from Reuters, mean officials from countries such as Iraq who may have dealings with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, would not necessarily be denied U.S. visas. The IRGC is a powerful faction in Iran that controls a business empire as well as elite armed and intelligence forces.

The exceptions to U.S. sanctions would also permit foreign executives who do business in Iran, where the IRGC is a major economic force, as well as humanitarian groups working in regions such as northern Syria, Iraq and Yemen, to do so without fear they will automatically trigger U.S. laws on dealing with a foreign terrorist group.

However, the U.S. government also created an exception to the carve-out, retaining the right to sanction any individual in a foreign government, company or NGO who themselves provides “material support” to a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO).

The move is the latest in which the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has staked out a hardline position on Iran, insisting for example that Iran’s oil customers cut their imports of Iranian petroleum to zero, only to grant waivers allowing them keep buying it.

Pompeo designated the IRGC as an FTO on April 15, creating a problem for foreigners who deal with it and its companies, and

for U.S. diplomats and military officers in Iraq and Syria, whose interlocutors may work with the IRGC.

The move – the first time the United States had formally labeled part of another sovereign government as a terrorist group – created confusion among U.S. officials who initially had no guidance on how to proceed and on whether they were still allowed to deal with such interlocutors, three U.S. officials said.

American officials have long said they fear the designation could endanger U.S. forces in places such as Syria or Iraq, where they may operate in close proximity to IRGC-allied groups.

The State Department’s Near Eastern and South and Central Asian bureaus, wrote a rare joint memo to Pompeo before the designation expressing concerns about its potential impact, but were overruled, two U.S. officials said on condition of anonymity.

The action was also taken over the objections of the Defense and Homeland Security Departments, a congressional aide said.

“Simply engaging in conversations with IRGC officials generally does not constitute terrorist activity,” the State Department spokesman said when asked what repercussions U.S.-allied countries could face if they had contact with the IRGC.

“Our ultimate goal is to get other states and non-state entities to stop doing business the IRGC,” the State Department spokesman, who declined to be identified by name, added without specifying the countries or entities targeted.

Separately, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has replaced the head of the IRGC, Iranian state TV reported on Sunday, appointing Brigadier General Hossein Salami to replace Mohammad Ali Jafari.

Pompeo’s carve-outs appear designed to limit the potential liability for foreign governments, companies and NGOs, while leaving open the possibility that individuals within those groups could be punished for helping the IRGC.

“Under the first group exemption, the secretary determined that, generally – but with one important exception – a ministry, department, agency, division, or other group or sub-group of any foreign government will not be treated as a Tier III terrorist organization,” the State Department spokesman said.

A Tier III terrorist group is one that has not formally been designated as an FTO or a terrorist group under other laws, but that the U.S. government deems to have engaged in “terrorist activity,” and hence, its members may not enter the United States.

This exemption, a congressional aide and two former U.S. State Department lawyers said, appeared designed to ensure that the rest of the Iranian government, as well as officials from partner governments such as Iraq and Oman who may deal with the IRGC, would not automatically be tainted by its FTO designation.

Under U.S. law, someone who provides “material support” to terrorist groups is subject to extensive penalties. Material support is defined widely and can cover anything from providing funds, transportation or counterfeit documents to giving food, helping to set up tents or distributing literature, the Department of Homeland Security’s website shows.

A former State Department lawyer said the guidance quoted above seemed to signal visa officers should not reflexively deny applications from officials of foreign governments or businesses that might deal with the IRGC, but called the language unclear.

“Frankly, a lot of people are going to have questions about the impact of these exemptions. Why be so opaque about it?” asked the lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The State Department declined requests to explain the guidance language.

“Under the second group exemption, the secretary determined that, generally, a non-governmental business, organization, or group that provided material support to any sub-entity of a foreign government that has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization … will not be treated as a Tier III terrorist organization,” the State Department spokesman said.

A congressional aide suggested the Trump administration wanted to signal it was ratcheting up pressure on Iran by targeting the IRGC, but not to disrupt diplomacy of U.S. allies.

“I got the sense that the administration was looking for a splash, but not a policy change,” said the congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They are not necessarily looking to punish anyone. They are looking to scare people.”

However, the State Department also made clear it could go after individuals in exempted groups if they wished.

“The exemptions do not benefit members of an exempted group who themselves provided material support … or had other relevant ties to a non-exempt terrorist organization,” the agency spokesman said.

“This FTO designation, like other sanctions actions, has a number of unintended consequences that if left to play out in their natural way, would harm U.S. interests,” said former State Department lawyer Peter Harrell, alluding to the potential denial of U.S. visas to officials from partner countries.

“The State Department is trying to in a reasonable way limit those consequences,” he said.

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Senior Citizens and Children Brought Together by a Special

Helping children with homework, playing with toddlers, giving sage advice or just listening, the men and women you’re about to meet do what many grandparents do. The Foster Grandparent program has been using volunteers older than 55 to help children and youth in their communities for decades. The program helps 20,000 older people stay active and makes kids feel loved when their own grandparents can’t be near. Lesia Bakalets met with program members to learn more. Anna Rice narrates her story.

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