Yalambojoch, Dec 31 (AP/UNB) — White flowers and flickering candles sat atop a low table inside the simple wooden home in remote, rural Guatemala. Nearby was a small pair of rubber boots, sized to fit an 8-year-old.
Taped to the wall were three photos, alternately smiling and serious, bearing a simple epitaph for the boy whose memory the makeshift altar honored: "Felipe Gomez Alonzo. Died Dec. 24 2018 in New Mexico, United States."
On Christmas Eve, Felipe became the second Guatemalan child this month to die while in U.S. custody near the Mexican border. The deaths prompted widespread criticism of President Donald Trump, who has sought to deflect responsibility toward Democrats even as his Homeland Security secretary vowed additional health screenings for detained migrant children.
In the boy's village of Yalambojoch, in western Guatemala, the political fallout in the United States seemed a world away and there was only deep sadness over his death. Relatives said they had no idea that such a tragedy could occur. Nor had they heard about U.S. policies that led to thousands of migrant children being separated from their parents earlier this year.
"We don't have a television. We don't have a radio," Catarina Gomez, Felipe's sister, said Saturday. "We didn't know what had happened before."
The hamlet, set on a plain and surrounded by spectacular, pine-covered mountains, is a place of crushing poverty and lack of opportunity, home to a single small school, dirt roads that become impassible during the rainy season and rudimentary homes without insulation, proper flooring, water or electricity.
The community is populated by families who fled to Mexico during the bloodiest years of Guatemala's 1960-1996 civil war but returned after the signing of peace accords. There are no jobs, and people live off meager subsistence farming and local commerce. Residents say the Guatemalan government has turned a blind eye to their plight, a complaint that can be heard in other impoverished villages in the country.
Felipe's sister, Catarina, said that in recent years "everyone started heading for the United States," so much so that a local project to boost education financed with Swedish help was abandoned because there were practically no more young people to take the classes.
It was extreme poverty and lack of opportunity that drove Felipe's father, Agustin Gomez, to decide that he and the boy would set off for the United States. Others from the community had been able to cross the U.S. border with children, and he figured they would have the same luck. Felipe was chosen because he was the oldest son. It didn't occur to anyone that the journey could be dangerous.
"I didn't think of that, because several families had already left and they made it," the boy's mother, Catarina Alonzo said, speaking in the indigenous Chuj language as her stepdaughter translated into Spanish.
Felipe was healthy when they left, according to the family. The last time he spoke with his mother was a day before they were taken into detention by border agents. Felipe told her he was well, that he had eaten chicken, that the next time they talked would be by phone from the United States.
Instead, the call that came Christmas Day was from her husband, who said Felipe had died the day before.
The two had been apprehended a week earlier, on Dec. 18, near the Paso del Norte bridge connecting El Paso, Texas, to Juarez, Mexico, according to border officials. Father and son were held at the bridge's processing center and then the Border Patrol station in El Paso before being transferred on Dec. 23 to a facility in Alamogordo, New Mexico, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) away.
After an agent noticed Felipe coughing, father and son were taken to an Alamogordo hospital, where Felipe was found to have a 103-degree fever (39.4 degrees Celsius), officials have said.
Felipe was held for observation for 90 minutes, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, before being released with prescriptions for amoxicillin and ibuprofen.
But the boy fell sick hours later and was admitted to the hospital on Christmas Eve. He died just before midnight.
New Mexico authorities said late Thursday that an autopsy showed Felipe had the flu, but more tests need to be done before a cause of death can be determined.
The other Guatemalan child, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal, died Dec. 8 in El Paso. She showed signs of sepsis, a potentially fatal condition brought on by infection, according to officials.
On Saturday, Trump claimed that Felipe and Jakelin were "very sick" before they reached the border, though both young migrants passed initial health screenings by Border Patrol.
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said last week that prior to this month, no child had died in the agency's custody in more than a decade.
On Sunday he called for a "multifaceted solution" on immigration, including not only better border security and new immigration laws but more aid to the Central American countries the migrants are fleeing from.
Referring to the U.S. pledge earlier this month of $5.8 billion in development aid for Central America, McAleenan called it "a tremendous step forward."
"There are green shoots of progress both on security and the economic front in Central America. We need to foster that and help improve the opportunities to stay at home," he said on ABC's "This Week."
Outside the Gomez family home in Yalambojoch, women gathered wearing lavender skirts in the intricate patterns typical of indigenous garb in Guatemala. Colorful tapestries hung on a clothesline above the muddy yard.
Taped to the door were a pair of Felipe's artworks. One was a rendering of a blue balloon with a green string; in the other, a white horse jumped over a fence against a yellow sun and tangerine sky.
Among the villagers grieving Felipe's death was his 7-year-old best friend, Kevin. Two days before Felipe and his dad left, the two boys quarreled.
"They were crying because they had fought," said Felipe's sister, Catarina.
By the time Kevin came back to look for his friend, he had left for the United States. Kevin now knows that Felipe has died, the family said.
Trying to fight back tears, Catarina Alonzo said her son promised before leaving that when he was grown, he would work to send money home. Felipe also wanted to buy her a cellphone so she could see pictures of him from afar.
Now she hopes for only two things: That Felipe's body is returned as soon as possible for burial, and that her husband can remain in the United States to work off debt and support their other kids.
The Guatemalan Consulate in Phoenix has said that Agustin Gomez was released on a humanitarian license allowing him to remain in the United States for now. Felipe's body is expected to be sent back to Guatemala around mid-January.
Dhaka, Dec 30 (AP/UNB) -President Donald Trump sought to deflect blame for the deaths of two Guatemalan children in U.S. custody by claiming they were "very sick" when they arrived, even though immigration authorities have said both children passed initial health checks.
Meanwhile, his Homeland Security chief visited Border Patrol agents and medical officials at the southern border amid promises of more thorough health screenings for migrant children.
The president, whose administration has faced widespread criticism over the deaths, pointed on Twitter at Democrats "and their pathetic immigration policies that allow people to make the long trek thinking they can enter our country illegally."
He also alleged that both children "were very sick before they were given over to Border Patrol."
The two tweets were his first comments on the Dec. 8 death of 7-year-old Jakelin Caal and the death on Christmas Eve of 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has issued detailed statements about both children's deaths.
An initial screening of Jakelin "revealed no evidence of health issues," CBP said on Dec. 14. It wasn't until several hours later that Jakelin's father, Nery Caal, told agents that she was "sick and vomiting," CBP said. Attorneys for the Caal family have also denied claims that Nery "hadn't given her water in days," as Trump wrote.
And CBP said Tuesday that agents logged 23 welfare checks of Felipe and his father in the first several days the two were was detained. Felipe's father, Agustin Gomez, told a Guatemalan official that the boy first showed signs of illness Monday morning, the day he died.
Despite Trump's claim that Democrats were responsible for "pathetic" immigration policies, at least one of the laws his administration has blamed — legislation that prevents the immediate deportation of unaccompanied children from Central American countries — was signed in 2008 by former President George W. Bush, a Republican.
Democrats criticized the president in turn. "You slander Jakelin's memory and re-traumatize her family by spreading lies about why she died," said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, of Texas.
The president's comments came Saturday afternoon, the same day Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was in Yuma, Arizona, to meet with medical staff at the border. Nielsen said in a statement that "the system is clearly overwhelmed and we must work together to address this humanitarian crisis." She called on Congress to "act with urgency."
Her office said she was briefed in El Paso, Texas, on Friday on "recently instituted secondary medical screenings and the more thorough initial health screenings of migrants."
El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said he met with Nielsen and told CNN on Saturday that he agreed with her that the immigration policy is "broken."
"El Paso is dealing with the symptoms as a result of the lack of fortitude in Washington, on both sides of the aisle, to deal with our immigration policy," the Republican said.
Felipe and Agustin Gomez were apprehended by border agents Dec. 18 near the Paso del Norte bridge connecting El Paso to Juarez, Mexico, according to border officials. The two were detained at the bridge's processing center and then the Border Patrol station in El Paso, until being taken at about 1 a.m. Sunday to a facility in Alamogordo, New Mexico, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) away.
After an agent noticed Felipe coughing, father and son were taken to an Alamogordo hospital, where Felipe was diagnosed with a common cold and found to have a fever of 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39.4 degrees Celsius), officials have said.
Felipe was held for observation for 90 minutes, according to CBP, before being released with prescriptions for amoxicillin and ibuprofen.
But the boy fell sick hours later Monday and was re-admitted to the hospital. He died just before midnight.
New Mexico authorities said late Thursday that an autopsy showed Felipe had the flu, but more tests need to be done before a cause of death can be determined.
CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said this week that prior to this month, no child had died in their custody in more than a decade.
Trump threatened via Twitter the previous day to cut off aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in Central America's so-called Northern Triangle region. He has made similar threats in the past without following through.
The government of El Salvador is pushing back against Trump's assertion it doesn't do enough to stem migration north to the United States. The Central American nation says it has made strides in economic and social improvements to try to tamp down the root causes of the phenomenon.
A statement released Saturday said that the Salvadoran government has pushed a media campaign urging its citizens not to risk their lives making the dangerous journey, and especially not to expose children. It says migration from the country has fallen significantly this year.
Washington, Dec 29 (AP/UNB) — The Supreme Court began its term with the tumultuous confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, followed by a studied avoidance of drama on the high court bench — especially anything that would divide the five conservatives and four liberals.
The justices have been unusually solicitous of each other in the courtroom since Kavanaugh's confirmation, and several have voiced concern that the public perceives the court as merely a political institution. Chief Justice John Roberts seems determined to lead the one Washington institution that stays above the political fray. Even Roberts' rebuke of President Donald Trump, after the president criticized a federal judge, was in defense of an independent, apolitical judiciary.
The next few weeks will test whether the calm can last.
When they gather in private on Jan. 4 to consider new cases for arguments in April and into next term, the justices will confront a raft of high-profile appeals.
Abortion restrictions, workplace discrimination against LGBT people and partisan gerrymandering are on the agenda. Close behind are appeals from the Trump administration seeking to have the court allow it to end an Obama-era program that shields young immigrants from deportation and to put in place restrictive rules for transgender troops.
There already are signs that the conservative justices, apart from Roberts, are willing to take on controversial cases that are likely to produce the ideological and partisan divisions that their colleagues seem eager to avoid.
In recent weeks, three conservative justices accused the court of ducking its job of deciding important cases, especially when lower courts have disagreed on the outcome. Their criticism, written by Justice Clarence Thomas and joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, came after a recent decision to avoid a case involving funding for Planned Parenthood.
Then, on the Friday before Christmas, the court divided 5-4 in refusing to allow the Trump administration to enforce new restrictions on asylum seekers. Roberts joined the four liberals. The three conservatives who were displeased by the Planned Parenthood case outcome again noted their disagreement, this time joined by Kavanaugh.
The two votes can't be used to draw any firm conclusions about what may be happening behind closed doors at the court, as the cases arrived in different circumstances. In the Planned Parenthood case, the justices were considering whether to grant full review, a process that takes only four votes. The asylum case was an emergency appeal from the administration. At least five of the nine justices would have had to vote in the administration's favor.
But Lawrence Solum, a professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University's law school, said Roberts seems to have two reasons to limit the court's involvement in hot-button cases: his preference for taking small steps in the law and his concern for the court's reputation.
"It's clear that 5-4 decisions will be perceived by many, many lawyers, many politicians and large numbers of the public at large as ideological decisions," Solum said. "So given Roberts' desire to preserve the legitimacy of the court, he could be highly motivated to avoid decisions like that in the next immediate period in the history of the court. Whether that's one year, or two years or five years, who knows?"
The court arrived at this point after an unusual chain of events that began with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016. Senate Republicans refused to act on President Barack Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland, allowing Trump to put Gorsuch on the court in 2017. To this day, Democrats say the seat was stolen from them.
Then, over the summer, Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement meant that Trump would also get to replace the court's swing vote with a more reliable conservative. Kavanaugh's track record as an appellate judge suggested he was that man, but his confirmation was nearly derailed by allegations of sexual assault, which Kavanaugh denied.
The accusations against Kavanaugh turned the confirmation process into a national spectacle that culminated in a hearing with Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who accused him of assault when they were in high school. Republicans said the allegation was unproven and confirmed Kavanaugh in a rare Saturday session. Spotlighting how emotional the debate had become, a crowd of demonstrators gathered at the Supreme Court building after the Kavanaugh vote, with some climbing the stone statues that line the steps.
One result of the Kavanaugh turmoil has been the most serious discussion in decades of limiting the court's powers, including possibly increasing the number of justices, Solum said. "It suggests that the legitimacy of the court is at issue now in perhaps a way it hasn't been until recently."
Roberts is not only the chief justice, but he has essentially taken Kennedy's place as the swing vote — the conservative justice nearest the court's center. The Supreme Court will go only as far as Roberts is willing in either direction.
He can try to keep the court entirely out of some cases, though that requires him to be able to persuade at least one other conservative justice to go along. That's what happened in the Planned Parenthood case, when Kavanaugh voted to deny review. "The difficult confirmation battle may lead to a bit of caution," said John McGinnis, a Northwestern University law school professor.
When the justices do plunge into controversy, Roberts will be able "to write or insist that decisions be narrowly drawn," McGinnis said.
Roberts has been chief justice for more than 13 years, but he is only 63 and could lead the court for an additional two decades or more. That allows Roberts, who began his legal career as a lawyer in the Reagan administration, to take a long view, McGinnis said, and await a time when political tensions and concerns about the court's reputation subside.
Washington, Dec 29 (AP/UNB) — The Trump administration on Friday targeted an Obama-era regulation credited with helping dramatically reduce toxic mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants, saying the benefits to human health and the environment may not be worth the cost of the regulation.
The 2011 Obama administration rule, called the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, led to what electric utilities say was an $18 billion clean-up of mercury and other toxins from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants.
Overall, environmental groups say, federal and state efforts have cut mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants by 85 percent in roughly the last decade.
Mercury causes brain damage, learning disabilities and other birth defects in children, among other harm. Coal power plants in this country are the largest single manmade source of mercury pollutants, which enters the food chain through fish and other items that people consume.
A proposal Friday from the Environmental Protection Agency challenges the basis for the Obama regulation. It calculates that the crackdown on mercury and other toxins from coal plants produced only a few million dollars a year in measurable health benefits and was not "appropriate and necessary" — a legal benchmark under the country's landmark Clean Air Act.
The proposal, which now goes up for public comment before any final administration approval, would leave the current mercury regulation in place.
However, the EPA said it will seek comment during a 60-day public-review period on whether "we would be obligated to rescind" the Obama-era rule if the agency adopts Friday's finding that the regulation was not appropriate and necessary. Any such change would trigger new rounds in what have already been years of court battles over regulating mercury pollution from coal plants.
Friday's move is the latest by the Trump administration that changes estimates of the costs and payoffs of regulations as part of an overhaul of Obama-era environmental protections.
It's also the administration's latest proposed move on behalf of the U.S. coal industry, which has been struggling in the face of competition from natural gas and other cheaper, cleaner forms of energy. The Trump administration in August proposed an overhaul for another Obama-era regulation that would have prodded electricity providers to get less of their energy from dirtier-burning coal plants.
In a statement, the EPA said Friday the administration was "providing regulatory certainty" by more accurately estimating the costs and benefits of the Obama administration crackdown on mercury and other toxic emissions from smokestacks.
Hal Quinn, head of the National Mining Association, charged in a statement Friday that the Obama administration had carried out "perhaps the largest regulatory accounting fraud perpetrated on American consumers" when it calculated that the broad health benefits to Americans would outweigh the cost of equipment upgrades by power providers.
Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, condemned the Trump administration's move.
The EPA has "decided to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory" after the successful clean-up of toxins from the country's coal-plant smokestacks, Carper said.
He and other opponents of the move said the Trump administration was playing with numbers, ignoring what Carper said were clear health, environmental and economic benefits to come up with a bottom line that suited the administration's deregulatory aims.
Janet McCabe, a former air-quality official in the Obama administration's EPA, called the proposal part of "the quiet dismantling of the regulatory framework" for the federal government's environmental protections.
Coming one week into a government shutdown, and in the lull between Christmas and New Year, "this low-key announcement shouldn't fool anyone — it is a big deal, with significant implications," McCabe said.
Washington, Dec 29 (AP/UNB) — The partial government shutdown will almost certainly be handed off to a divided government to solve in the new year, as President Donald Trump sought to raise the stakes Friday and both parties traded blame in the weeklong impasse.
Agreement eludes Washington in the waning days of the Republican monopoly on power, and that sets up the first big confrontation between Trump and newly empowered Democrats. Trump is sticking with his demand for money to build a wall along the southern border, and Democrats, who take control of the House on Jan. 3, are refusing to give him what he wants.
Trump worked to escalate the showdown Friday, reissuing threats to close the U.S.-Mexico border to pressure Congress to fund the wall and to shut off aid to three Central American countries from which many migrants have fled.
"We will be forced to close the Southern Border entirely if the Obstructionist Democrats do not give us the money to finish the Wall & also change the ridiculous immigration laws that our Country is saddled with," he wrote in one of a series of tweets.
The president also signaled he was in no rush to seek a resolution, welcoming the fight as he heads toward his own bid for re-election in 2020. He tweeted Thursday evening that Democrats may be able to block him now, "but we have the issue, Border Security. 2020!"
Incoming acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said Trump had canceled his plans to travel to Florida to celebrate New Year's at his private Mar-a-Lago club.
The shutdown is forcing hundreds of thousands of federal workers and contractors to stay home or work without pay, and many are experiencing mounting stress from the impasse. It also is beginning to pinch citizens who count on public services. Gates are closed at some national parks, new farm loans will be put on hold beginning next week, and in New York, the chief judge of Manhattan federal courts suspended work on civil cases involving U.S. government lawyers, including several civil lawsuits in which Trump himself is a defendant.
The Smithsonian Institution also announced that museums and galleries popular with visitors and locals in the nation's capital will close starting midweek if the partial shutdown drags on.
The Environmental Protection Agency will keep disaster-response teams and other essential workers on the job as it becomes the latest agency to start furloughing employees in the government shutdown. Spokeswoman Molly Block says the EPA will implement its shutdown plan at midnight Friday. That will mean furloughing many of its roughly 14,000 workers.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., released a statement applauding a decision by the administration to reverse new guidance issued by the Department of Homeland Security that prevented the Federal Emergency Management Agency from writing or renewing National Flood Insurance Program policies during the current government shutdown. He said it was important that people could continue to get and maintain their flood insurance.
With another long holiday weekend coming and nearly all lawmakers away from the Capitol there is little expectation of a quick fix.
"We are far apart," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told CBS on Friday, claiming of Democrats, "They've left the table all together."
Mulvaney said Democrats are no longer negotiating with the administration over an earlier offer to accept less than the $5 billion Trump wants for the wall. Democrats said the White House offered $2.5 billion for border security, but that Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer told Vice President Mike Pence it wasn't acceptable.
"There's not a single Democrat talking to the president of the United States about this deal," Mulvaney said Friday
Speaking on Fox News and later to reporters, he tried to drive a wedge between Democrats, pinning the blame on House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
"My gut was that (Schumer) was really interested in doing a deal and coming to some sort of compromise. But the more we're hearing this week is that it's Nancy Pelosi who's preventing that from happening," he said, alleging that if Pelosi "cuts a deal with the president of any sort before her election on January 3rd she's at risk of losing her speakership, so we're in this for the long haul."
Pelosi has all but locked up the support she needs to win the gavel on Jan. 3 and there is also no sign of daylight between her and Schumer in the negotiations over government funding.
Mulvaney added of the shutdown: "We do expect this to go on for a while."
Democrats brushed off the White House's attempt to cast blame.
"For the White House to try and blame anyone but the president for this shutdown doesn't pass the laugh test," said Justin Goodman, a spokesman for Schumer.
Pelosi has vowed to pass legislation to reopen the nine shuttered departments and dozens of agencies now hit by the partial shutdown as soon as she takes the gavel, which is expected when the new Congress convenes.
Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill added that Democrats "are united against the President's immoral, ineffective and expensive wall" and said Democrats won't seriously consider any White House offer unless Trump backs it publicly because he "has changed his position so many times."
"While we await the President's public proposal, Democrats have made it clear that, under a House Democratic Majority, we will vote swiftly to re-open government on Day One," Hammill said in a statement.
But even that may be difficult without a compromise because the Senate will remain in Republican hands and Trump's signature will be needed to turn any bill into law.
"I think it's obvious that until the president decides he can sign something — or something is presented to him — that we are where we are," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who opened the Senate on Thursday for a session that only lasted minutes.
Trump had said during his campaign that Mexico would pay for his promised wall, but Mexico refuses to do so. It was unclear how Trump's threat to close the border would affect his efforts to ratify an amended North American free trade pact.
He has repeatedly threatened to cut off U.S. aid to countries that he deems have not done enough to combat illegal immigration, but thus far he's failed to follow through. Experts have warned that cutting off aid money to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras could actually exacerbate the problem by worsening the poverty and violence that push many migrants to leave.
And it is Congress, not the president, which appropriates aid money.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador reacted cautiously to Trump's threat to close the border, calling it an "internal affair of the U.S. government."
"We are always seeking a good relationship with the United States. We do not want to be rash," he said.