Monday, September 28, 2009

Waiting on a DREAM

Reaction to my Sunday feature on Carlos Rivera’s complicated dilemma has been interesting to say the least.

For those who missed it, I wrote a story about how Rivera, a 27-year-old international business student at the University of Montana, is facing deportation. Rivera’s mother brought him to the U.S. in1988 when he was just 6 years old. He’s been in the country ever since. By all accounts Rivera is an upstanding young man who has forged a successful career in business and is on his way to completing his college degree.

But last year he came to the attention of immigration officials and now he’s facing the prospect of returning to a country he hardly even remembers. His immigration hearing is in January.

Rivera’s hopes of staying in the country and finishing his degree could rest on the passage DREAM Act, a bill before Congress that would create a path toward citizenship for people in Rivera’s position.

The idea behind the act is simple: immigrant students who arrive in the country as children, graduate from a United States high school, stay out of trouble with the law and have been in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the bill's enactment, can have the opportunity to earn conditional permanent residency.

The Senate debated a version of the bill in 2007, but it fell eight votes short of the number needed to overcome a filibuster by senators opposed to the measure.

The act has been introduced again, but it's unclear if or when Congress will resume debate on the measure. Supporters of the bill estimate that they still are eight votes shy in the Senate.

Critics of the DREAM Act say is an attempt to create broad amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Roy Beck is executive director and founder of Washington, D.C.-based NumbersUSA, an organization that lobbied against the 2007 version of the DREAM Act and opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Beck said he's sympathetic to Rivera's situation, but added that the DREAM Act is not an appropriate path to citizenship for immigrant children who were brought to this country by undocumented parents.

"You can take a lot of these individuals and you can make a compelling case for their story," Beck said. "If it was just this guy, I've got no problem with this guy being given amnesty. But there are apparently about 500,000 of these people in this country."

Beck said the DREAM Act, as written, contains loopholes that would allow people who receive amnesty under the law to apply to have their family members put on a path toward citizenship.

He said that would lead to massive fraud and open the door to thousands of new immigrants who could pour into the country in order to take advantage of the amnesty provisions in the law.

"When you allow people to break the law, and then allow them to harvest what they broke the law to get, you encourage more illegal activity," Beck said.

There are legitimate arguments to be made on all sides of the immigration debate. However, one of the criticisms that pops up over and over in the comments section on Sunday's story has to do with illegal immigrants not paying taxes while benefiting from those who do.

According to this USA Today article, not only do many illegal immigrants pay taxes, but they may be paying more taxes than they owe, and they don’t collect the benefits:

The tax system collects its due, even from a class of workers with little likelihood of claiming a refund and no hope of drawing a Social Security check.

Illegal immigrants are paying taxes to Uncle Sam, experts agree. Just how much they pay is hard to determine because the federal government doesn't fully tally it. But the latest figures available indicate it will amount to billions of dollars in federal income, Social Security and Medicare taxes this year. One rough estimate puts the amount of Social Security taxes alone at around $9 billion per year.

Paycheck withholding collects much of the federal tax from illegal workers, just as it does for legal workers.

The Internal Revenue Service doesn't track a worker's immigration status, yet many illegal immigrants fearful of deportation won't risk the government attention that will come from filing a return even if they might qualify for a refund. Economist William Ford of Middle Tennessee State University says there are no firm figures on how many such taxpayers there are.

"It's a mistake to think that no illegal immigrants pay taxes. They definitely do," said Martha Pantoja, who has been helping Hispanic immigrants this tax season as an IRS-certified volunteer tax preparer for the non-profit Nashville Wealth Building Coalition.

I can say from interviewing Rivera that he’s not looking for a free ride. He wants to earn his degree and become a productive member of society just like every one of his American classmates. He grew up in the United States from the age of six and has thought of himself as a U.S. citizen his entire life. Was he na├»ve about the consequences of living in the U.S. as an undocumented alien once he learned of his status? Sure. I think he’d admit that. Does that make him a bad person worthy of the kinds of attacks I’ve read in the comments to the story? Certainly not.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Still blogging, just busy

Just a note to let faithful Lowdown readers know that I haven't given up the blog, I've just had a lot going on lately and haven't had time to focus on additional writing. I plan to refocus on a blog a bit more next week, so sit tight and thanks for you patience. Keep checking back. Also, if you don't already follow The Lowdown on Twitter, please do. That's probably the best way to find out when I've posted new material.

You can follow The Lowdown on Twitter here.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Rehberg to MT press: "I saw no signs of impairment" of boat driver who crashed on Flathead Lake, injuring five

Congressman Denny Rehberg spoke to members of the Montana press this morning for the first time since the boat crash two weeks ago that left him and four others seriously injured.
Rehberg talked for almost an hour about the events surrounding the crash.
You can download a Windows Media audio file of the complete conference call here.
Rehberg told reporters that he didn't have any reason to believe that Kalispell Sen. Greg Barkus, the driver of the boat, was impaired when he got behind the wheel and attempted to drive Rehberg and his two staffers back to their hotel on the other side of the lake.
“It would be like me talking to you right now,” Rehberg said. “I have no idea what anybody else felt. We can go through and second guess ourselves forever on this thing, but as far as I could tell I saw no signs of impairment at all. None.”
Rehberg said he had one glass of Kettlehouse Cold Smoke Scotch Ale and part of another while meeting with dinner guests at an evening get-together in Lakeside, but he said he did not observe Barkus drinking alcohol at any point that evening.
“I could not honestly tell you whether he had a drink or not.”
He said Barkus’ wife, Kathy, had small cooler on the boat that contained 12 ounces or less of margarita.
“When we first got in the boat, Kathy had a little cooler of about, oh it looked like 12 oz. or less of margarita. That was the extent of what I know was on the boat. I’m not aware of anything else.”
Rehberg said Barkus was using a GPS device to navigate across the lake to the Marina Cay Resort on Bigfork Bay. Rehberg said he recalls Barkus indicating that something “doesn’t seem right,” shortly before boat struck the rocks.
Rehberg said he didn’t think that Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan’s assertion that the boat was traveling at a speed of about 40 mph when it crashed on the rocks was correct.
“I’m no judge, because I was not paying attention and there’s nothing really to gauge it by, but to me, I’ve water skied, and I’ve water skied at 30-40 miles mph, and I wouldn’t suggest this was water skiing speed,” Rehberg said. “It’d have been a lot colder, your hair would have been flipping around a lot more.”
I’ll have more on Rehberg’s press conference in tomorrow’s Great Falls Tribune.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Details of Baucus health care plan coming to light

ABC News Senior Congressional Correspondent Jonathan Karl has seen a draft of Baucus' proposed health care bill in the Senate Finance Committee. Baucus was reportedly going to meet with the so-called "Gang of Six" this afternoon and give them a take-it-or-leave it proposition for the bill, according to George Stephanopoulos.

According to Karl, here are some of the key points in the bill:

- By 2013, Americans would be required to have health insurance or pay a fine. Depending on income level, the fines could be as high as $3800 per family.

- Native Americans, the very poor and those with religious objections are exempt from this new mandate.

- There’s no mandate on companies to provide insurance to their employees.

- Health insurance companies bear a big share of the costs with two new taxes:

  • A $6 billion annual tax that will be divided among companies based on market share
  • A tax on so-called Cadillac plans; insurance plans valued at more than $8,000 for individuals or $21,000 for a family of four.

- Expansion of Medicaid to those up to 133 percent of the poverty level.

- Federal subsidies to help those up to 300 percent of the poverty level buy insurance

- No new government-run insurance program, aka “public option”

- As an alternative to the public option, the bill creates and funds non-profit “cooperatives” that will provide insurance coverage

- New regulations on insurance companies: e.g. Bans denial of coverage or higher rates b/c of pre-existing conditions. Insurance companies would still be allowed, however, to charge higher rates for smokers.

Baucus' plan is already taking a heat from the left.

Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, President Obama was meeting with Democratic leaders on the eve of his major health care speech tomorrow to plot a strategy for pushing health care reform forward. The White House wouldn't comment on how Baucus' plan fits into the mix.
Administration officials have declined to discuss in depth either Mr. Baucus’s plan or the president’s speech, which Mr. Obama will deliver Wednesday night to a joint session of Congress. But the officials welcomed Mr. Baucus’s draft as important progress just as lawmakers are returning this week from their summer recess.
Stay tuned.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Prosecutor: Boat pilot was drinking the night of crash that injured Rehberg and four others

The latest from the Associated Press:

The Flathead County attorney says state Sen. Greg Barkus was drinking the night of the boat crash that severely injured U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg and three other passengers.

Authorities are awaiting results of blood tests from the state crime lab, and delivery of Barkus' medical records before determining whether to file charges. County Attorney Ed Corrigan has said he is weighing felony charges.

A critical piece of information will be whether or not Barkus' blood alcohol level was above the legal limit of 0.08 for a vehicle operator.

Corrigan says he hopes to get that information in the next week or so.

Driving records show that Barkus was pulled over for drunk driving a few years ago, an arrest that resulted in a conviction of reckless driving.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

AP: Flathead Co. Attorney “weighing felony charges” against Barkus

This just in from the Associated Press:

Authorities say that state Sen. Greg Barkus was driving his boat at 40 miles per hour when it crashed into a rocky cliff on Flathead Lake last week, injuring U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg and three other passengers.

Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan also says he is awaiting results of a test for Barkus’s blood-alcohol level from the state crime lab in Missoula. Corrigan has said that he is weighing felony charges in the case.

I don’t know how many of you have ever been in a open-bow motorboat, but I grew up driving a boat very similar to the one that crashed last week. Driving 40 mph feels like you're flying on open water. That’s quite a bit faster than you would typically pull a water skier. This incident is mind blowing. I can’t believe nobody was killed.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

New info on Flathead Lake Crash

OK, so I guess the headline might be a little deceiving because quite honestly, there isn't much new news to report at all. The Flathead County Sheriff's Office is still saying very little and State Sen. Greg Barkus, the man behind the wheel of the boat that crashed high on the rocks on the shore of Wayfarers State Park, refuses to talk to authorities or the press.

Meanwhile, we still don't have any indication from the Flathead County Sheriff's Office as to whether they think alcohol played a role in the crash. If you look here, here, here, here, and here (these are just a handful of recent examples) you'll notice that authorities in these cases stated whether or not they believed alcohol was factor in the crash within a day or two of the incident. That's almost always the first question investigators try to answer in an incident like this, and it's usually found in the first or second paragraph of any crash write-up in the newspaper. I would think that after interviewing people who were on the boat, people who were at the dinner party in Lakeside earlier that night and officers and emergency personnel at the scene of the crash authorities should have some indication by now as to whether or not Barkus had been drinking. It's been nearly a full week since the crash--which left five people injured including a sitting U.S. congressman and a state senator and left one victim in what appears to be a coma--and the authorities have still not answered the most burning question about this case. And that's even after said congressman, Denny Rehberg, admitted the day after the crash that he had been drinking at a dockside dinner with Barkus earlier that night.

The issue is whether Barkus was impaired at the time of the crash. Police apparently did not test the victims at the scene. Understandably, their priority was getting the severely injured passengers to the hospital ASAP. Once at the hospital, any blood tests done on Barkus or anyone else immediately becomes part of their medical record, which is protected under the federal HIPAA. Barkus appears to be resisting the release of those records to authorities, because the Flathead Co. Sherrif's Office had to issue a subpoena for them.

Barkus' medical records have been subpoenaed, so hopefully we'll be able to clear this up once and for all by the end of the week.

Here's something to consider when thinking about BAC: it goes down shortly after you stop drinking. So for instance, in Rehberg's case, his BAC was .054, or about .026 below the legal limit, when doctors drew his blood at 12:58 a.m. That was about 2 hours and 40 minutes after the crash occurred. According to the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, BAC decreases at a rate of about .015-.020 per hour. So let's assume Rehberg weighs somewhere between 160 to 180-pounds. For a male that size, in 2 hours and 40 minutes his BAC would have decreased by approximately .03 to .04. So, at the time of the crash, Rehberg's BAC was likely over the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle.

However, I want to stress that Rehberg, by all accounts, was never behind the wheel of the boat, so whether or not he was legally impaired or not is not the issue here. Authorities have already said they don't expect any charges against Rehberg.

But people still have a lot questions that need to be answered.


This is an interesting tidbit that the Missoula Independent dug up about Barkus' 2005 reckless driving charge:

We've since learned, through a report with Lake County Justice Court obtained by Indy staff reporter Jessica Mayrer, that Barkus was originally charged with DUI. He was operating a 2000 white Corvette with vanity plates reading "DREAM IT." Barkus was stopped going 84 mph in a 65-mph zone and found to be under the influence.(emphasis added)

He subsequently pleaded not guilty and was convicted of reckless driving, a misdemeanor.

So it appears this isn't the first time Barkus has hired Kalispell attorney Todd Glazier to represent him in a sticky situation.

For those who are interested, here's a copy of the two tickets Barkus received for his reckless driving incident in Lake County:

Also, James Connor at the Flathead Memo has an interesting hypothesis about the conditions Barkus and his ill-fated passengers faced as they left the dock at Lakeside Thursday night. It's worth a read. Here's a snip:
The end of astronomical twilight was still 20 minutes away when Barkus pointed his boat northeast and advanced the throttle. As the U.S. Naval Observatory notes, “…for a considerable interval…before the end of evening [astronomical] twilight, sky illumination is so faint that it is practically imperceptible.” To the northwest, various objects would be faintly silhouetted against against the residual light, but the lake’s eastern shore was much darker. Light from the moon may have provided some help, and there may have been a moon streak on the water that commanded the attention of some on board. Full dark adaptation of the human eye requires 20–30 minutes; longer if exposed to bright light while adapting.
That's all for now. Keep checking back. I'll keep you updated on developments as soon as we have them.