Briefing with Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle Ricardo Zuniga on Ongoing Diplomatic Efforts to Address the Root Causes of Irregular Migration from Central America

Ricardo Zuniga, Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle

Via Teleconference

MS PORTER: Hi, good evening. This is Department – State Department Principal Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter. Thank you so much for joining the call this evening. Special Envoy Ricardo Zuniga is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service. He has decades of experience with the State Department and is now serving as a special envoy for the Northern Triangle. Special Envoy Zuniga is working in coordination with Vice President Harris to address the root causes of irregular migration and leading the U.S. diplomatic efforts with El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico on these issues. He’s joining us here today on the record to answer all of your questions. And as a reminder, today’s briefing is embargoed until the conclusion of the briefing.

And with that, I’ll turn it over to you, Special Envoy.

MR ZUNIGA: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. So I have a brief opening statement, and then I look forward to your questions. So over the past few weeks since mid-March when I joined, I have traveled to Central America and had a series of meetings with leaders from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras about working together to alleviate the conditions that are driving mass irregular migration to Mexico and the United States. While we agreed that we have a lot of work ahead of us, I believe we already have a good foundation with partners in all the countries in Central America and in Mexico.

To be clear, when I’m talking about leaders in this context, it doesn’t only include government leaders. Also, very importantly, it refers broadly to civil society, from social issue groups to members of the private sector, members of the media. We’ve discussed important issues at hand, including fundamental freedoms and dealing with the acute crises that are driving so much of the migration today. We discussed improving the current conditions and the cooperation needed to reduce irregular migration, but also, importantly, we really talked about what we needed to do together to establish the favorable conditions for economic and social growth to address one of those main drivers of irregular migration from the region.

So what we’re really focused on is trying to create enabling conditions that are going to allow societies to thrive. Very clearly, these large flows of irregular migrants aren’t just something that happens in one year and now there have been – it has been happening, and happening cyclically year after year over the last decade. We’ve seen that the challenges in Central America really do present challenges in the United States. When something goes wrong in Central America, we feel it in the United States. We are very closely connected as societies. The truth is we’re very closely linked.

And so our commitment has to be not just to deal with the acute drivers of migration, but really dealing with the short-, medium-, and long-term problems if we want to see systemic and sustainable change, which, really, that’s our objective. And thanks to the leadership of the Vice President, we’ve organized ourselves as a government to make cooperation stronger and more of a reality, a tangible reality for governments in the region. We’re also addressing structural problems that have affected so many lives in Central America, whether they regard insecurity or lack of opportunities or corruption.

Our goal is to work with the people of Central America to create safe, prosperous, democratic societies where citizens can build their own lives with dignity. At the center of our efforts, again, is this fight against corruption and impunity and fostering the conditions that provide for growth, especially in the vital small- and medium-sized business sector which drives – in which so many people are employed in the region.

With that, I look forward to your questions.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, again —

MS PORTER: All right. Let’s go to the line of Christina Ruffini, please.

QUESTION: Good evening.

OPERATOR: And Christina, your line is open.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks. Ricardo, thanks for taking the time. Just to start out, I know you are the special envoy to the Northern Triangle, but I’m wondering if the State Department is considering doing away with that term. We’ve heard from the countries themselves they’re pushing back against this saying they each have their own identities. In your opinion, is the term helpful for making policy to the region or has it – has it outlived its usefulness?

MR ZUNIGA: So this is something that we certainly have gotten that feedback. Governments are dealt with as a – just as a matter of substance, we do deal with them individually. Each of the countries have particular characteristics and particular challenges that they’re dealing with. I think it’s appropriate to focus on these three countries in northern Central America as a – as a – and in particular from the U.S. perspective, because that’s the source of irregular migration that is – that is reaching the Southwest border in large numbers. But we do understand the context is Mexico and all of Central America, and so we try looking at the – at the issue that way.

I certainly am sensitive to concerns about countries feeling like they are lumped together. That’s not how we’re approaching this. There are some common challenges and there are also challenges that have to be dealt with at a regional level, but we do in our work with governments deal with them as individual governments and don’t try to treat them all as if it were the same set of circumstances.

MS PORTER: Let’s go to the line of Tracy Wilkinson.

QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Special Envoy.

MR ZUNIGA: Hey, Tracy.

QUESTION: You – hi.  You seem to be putting a lot of eggs in the Guatemala basket.  I say that because if – correct me if I’m wrong, but he was the only president you met with, and he is the only president that Kamala Harris has spoken to and she’s going to do this virtual summit on Monday.  And yet Guatemala arguably is just as corrupt as the other two countries, and it was Guatemala that killed the CICIG.  So why so much faith in Guatemala?  Thanks.

MR ZUNIGA: So the – right now the first country that I visited with – at that point with the southwest border coordinator, Roberta Jacobson, and with the senior director for the Western Hemisphere at NSC, Juan Gonzalez – it was Mexico. Mexico has really been our key partner in our efforts to manage migration. So in – the short version is that we, at this early date, have really focused on the countries that are at the center of this movement of people. Honduras certainly is the other main source, but Guatemala and Mexico are the main sources of irregular migration right now. And we’ve put a lot of focus on those, understanding that this is going to have to require a systemic approach.

I did travel also to El Salvador. I have engaged with the foreign minister of Honduras. In each of the countries, we’ve established working groups that are focused on the main lines of action that we’re going to be dealing with in this. And certainly one is migration management, but also on issues related to governance and corruption, on issues related to security, and on issues related to economic development. Those are the other areas of work.

So, again, these are areas of mutual interest. We work with all of the three countries in northern Central America and in the Northern Triangle and in – and very closely with Mexico. And at all times we’re prepared to collaborate with those who want to work with us on a broad agenda, including on governance issues.

MS PORTER: Let’s go to the line of Conor Finnegan.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. The White House implied earlier this month that the administration had reached new agreements with the three countries about border security, and some of them pushed back on that, saying any additional border security that they deployed – guards, things like that – happened before the administration even took office. So can you clarify whether or not you’ve reached any new agreements? And then, if so, what are you doing to ensure that people who have legitimate asylum claims can still make their journey north to make those claims? Thank you.

MR ZUNIGA: Thank you for that. And it is very important to point out here that we don’t have new agreements to announce. What we have are – and they’re correct. We have a long history of collaboration with the region and on trying to manage migration. What we have seen, very importantly, is that with the administration’s focus on collaborative migration approaches is a greater level of cooperation, including on issues of protection.

It’s not just the United States. When I was in Guatemala, we and the Guatemalan authorities – the Guatemalan Government hosted a meeting with the major international organizations that are our main partners in the region: IOM and certainly UNHCR and others – UNICEF – and others who have an important role to play, including on protection. And so in the case of Mexico, we also have a very strong relationship on matters related to supporting international organizations as they work with the Mexican Government. It’s correct that governments are responding to their own legitimate border security needs (inaudible).

MS PORTER: Let’s go to the line of Michelle Lee, please.

QUESTION: This is a question —

MR ZUNIGA: — in Central America – excuse me.

QUESTION: Go ahead.

MR ZUNIGA: Okay. And collaboration with countries in Central America has been to ensure that they have protection mechanisms that don’t require people to have to move all the way to the U.S. border to feel like they can – they can access at least protection screening. So that is the – that’s the other major effort that’s underway (inaudible).

QUESTION: Hello? This is Michelle Lee.

OPERATOR: Sir, your line cut out.

QUESTION: Oh, can I ask my question now?

MS PORTER: Hold tight with us one quick second. Thank you so much for your patience. We’re going to try to get him back on the line.

MR ZUNIGA: Hello?

MS PORTER: Hello, Special Envoy?

MR ZUNIGA: Hi. Yes, this is Ricardo. I’m so sorry. Something must have happened with my line dropping.

MS PORTER: Oh, glad to have you back. Now, we were on Michelle Lee. If you’re back, Michelle Lee, feel free to ask your question.

MR ZUNIGA: Michelle?

QUESTION: Okay, hello. Yes, it’s Michelle. Thanks for the —

MR ZUNIGA: Hey, so sorry.

QUESTION: It’s okay. Two questions. First, you’ve spoken about the need to provide political cover and technical support in order to help create sustained change from the inside of the countries, and I was wondering if you can talk some more about what the diplomatic efforts on governance looks like, and what realistically can be done to support those internal efforts.

And secondly, you may have been addressing this earlier when your – when you dropped off, but what sort of enforcement mechanisms is the U.S. considering? What are the options that the administration is willing to take, like trying to get the governments to tighten their own borders or impose new internal controls?

MR ZUNIGA: Certainly. So on the first one, on governance, you’re right; addressing corruption is at the center of what the Biden administration has focused on in seeking to create those enabling conditions for broad-based improvement in Central America. So what that means in practice is two things. First is supporting those within the countries – and that’s civil society as well as public servants – who are involved in efforts to promote transparency and combat corruption and impunity. So that can mean some of the ongoing work that we’ve had in support of prosecutors and judges involved in this work as well as direct support to organizations like the CNA in Honduras and others that are civil society organizations that have a particular role in supporting the work against corruption. So that’s one portion of it.

We are also looking at a – putting together an anti-corruption task force that is going to involve the Department of Justice and other U.S. agencies, with the support of the Department of State, to focus on particular cases involving corruption as well as enhancing the capacity of prosecutors, investigators, and others to actually move forward with cases.

I think it’s really important here to underline that the United States, we were disappointed with the lapse of CICIG in Guatemala and MACCIH in Honduras and believe those were setbacks in efforts to promote transparency and combat impunity. Both those entities had very strong popular support, and it’s important for the United States to show that we’re on the side of those who are victims of corruption and not on the side of those who are involved in corruption. So part of this is demanding that accountability that the citizens of Central America demand. We are backing up and supporting that effort.

Now, in terms of migration enforcement, this is – the reality is that we have to work with not just ourselves but with countries in the region to ensure that they have the means to enforce their laws and to be able to monitor their borders kind of in line with their – with sort of normal government activity. And so that involves working with the border and immigration officials in each country. It means increasing information sharing and having a more active collaboration among the five countries involved here – United States, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador – on managed migration.

That also includes – and these go together – ensuring that we are working to create legal pathways for migration and working to build protection for those vulnerable populations into migration systems across the region.

MS PORTER: Let’s go to Stef Knight.

QUESTION: Hi, Special Envoy. Thanks for having this call. And my name is actually Stef Kight, just – it’s a normal mistake, but no N.

I was wondering if you could speak to kind of the aid portion of the tactics with Central America. How much is actually available to invest in these countries? And is there a timeline where you all are hoping to be able to really start pouring actual money, resources into some of these short-term and long-term goals?

MR ZUNIGA: So there is a certain amount of funding left from prior fiscal years, but the administration just put forward an initial request for $861 million to – that will be shared in greater detail next month in terms of how that – how we’re planning to allocate that funding. It’s an initial payment on the $4 billion over four years that President Biden announced before coming into office.

And the assistance is going to be focused in three areas: in promoting governance, better, improved governance, so combating corruption, but also promoting transparency and access to information on the part of citizens and working with the private sector to ensure that they also have – are operating on a level playing field.

The second area is going to be on promoting transparent – excuse me – prosperity. So that means promoting economic development. The private sector is going to have an even bigger role than U.S. assistance in that regard, but what we can do is help create the conditions where both domestic and foreign investment can help create more jobs and more opportunities in the region.

And finally, on security, that’s the last area that we’re going to be focused on. And there, it’s not just the issue of ensuring – combating the very high levels of violence that continue to plague the region, but also creating systems and judicial systems and supporting judicial systems that can offer justice to people in the region. We think that in terms of assistance, it’s important to, on the immediate basis, deal with some of the humanitarian issues that are driving migration on an acute basis. That means the lingering impacts from the hurricane, that means in particular the impact of the COVID pandemic on not just the health of Central American societies but also on the economies, and so helping to put those back on their feet are early priorities.

And then we’re also beginning to lay the groundwork for longer-term structural change by essentially forming strong partnerships in civil society with the private sector and with governments, but as well as with other donors so that we’re spreading the burden but also dividing some of this responsibility and ensuring that we’re not overlapping too much. So increased coordination is an important part of that longer-term work.

MS PORTER: Let’s go to the line of Jordan Fabian.

QUESTION: Thanks, Special Envoy. I wanted to ask you about the other side of the anti-corruption coin. You’ve talked about ways that the United States might try to incentivize governments to crack down on corruption, but what about – what is the United States going to do if these governments are obstinate? Are you guys considering sanctions against officials who are involved in corruption or anything even stronger than that? Thanks.

MR ZUNIGA: Yes, we are, and in fact, we have a mandate from the U.S. Congress to develop lists of officials who are involved in corruption and to propose actions against them. That can range from using State Department authorities to revoke visas of people involved in corruption and their family members. It can also mean working through the Department of the Treasury and Department of Justice to designate individuals who are involved in high levels of corruption. We’ve got the Global Magnitsky Act that we intend to make use of. Absolutely, the work against corruption involves not just incentives, but doing what we think is necessary and using the tools that we have from Congress to demonstrate our opposition to particular individuals and organizations involved in this.

Now, they can be involved not only in organized crime activity or money laundering but also in acts of corruption, because we think that corruption is one of the main drivers of instability in Central America. And again, we want to demonstrate that we are on the side of the victims of corruption and determined to act against those involved in corruption.

MS PORTER: Let’s take one final question from James Traub.

OPERATOR: My apologies. One moment here. James – yeah, please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey, can you hear me?

OPERATOR: Yeah.

MR ZUNIGA: We can.

QUESTION: Okay. Okay. So one of the things you mentioned while you were in the region was the hope to expand the use of temporary seasonal visas for people coming from the Northern Triangle. And just a few days ago that number was announced at 6,000, which is a modest number and a modest increase over the existing number. And this gave people a lot of concern, I think, especially coming after Biden’s reversed announcement of the refugee cap, that the administration was getting cold feet on some of these issues. So could you address both the seasonal visa issue and that broader question?

MR ZUNIGA: So on the seasonal visa issues, we are looking at as many methods of creating legal pathways for people to come to United States. Labor is obviously an important part of that because so many – I mean, such a large percentage of the people coming irregularly are coming to try to work in the United States. And so clearly, we want to be able to use not just H-2Bs – that number was H-2B visas – but look at other possibilities as well. And the overall expansion was right around 20,000 additional H-2B visas and with 6,000 set aside for Central America.

There is an issue, which is that when you have – when you’re expanding seasonal labor visas to – or expanding them in a country, typically there requires some work at the beginning to establish connections between employees and employers in the United States. So there’s also the concern about, at least in this immediate phase, not designating so many for Central America that we aren’t able to fill them immediately or very quickly and then leave some visas on the table. We want these to be used. That’s for the capped visas.

H-2As, which are not capped, are also – those have their own complexities because most people in the H-2A program are Mexican nationals that have a longstanding relationship with employers in United States. It takes some work and time to develop those relationships, but those are two methods. We are looking at whatever legal methods we have available under the Immigration Nationality Act to regularize labor flows as much as possible. We understand that’s a part of the formula.

On the larger issue, I think that for one thing, it’s important to note that the entire migration system has been under intense strain. President Biden submitted comprehensive immigration reform proposals precisely because there’s an understanding that the current system hasn’t provided the speed, regularity, and access that the country needs. And we want to ensure that as many people have as much access as needed to legal pathways. We want to incentivize that. But there was enormous strain on the system, and it is taking time to put it – to kind of reconstitute an effective system, and for example, to re-initiate asylum processing on the – at the speed at which we would like to have it.

So this is a – it is a difficult time to be taking on the challenges related to migration. And in addition to that, there is a lot of – many of the resources of the U.S. Government are dedicated right now to dealing with the situation at the southwest border. So there is a strain on resources, there is a commitment to try to promote legal pathways as much as possible, and certainly there is a commitment to use the tools that we have available to ensure that we’re able to promote improved access for labor and temporary labor purposes in United States and match employers with potential employees in Central America.

MS PORTER: All right, Special Envoy, I actually – I said that was the last question, but I actually have one last alibi since you dropped on the line when Conor Finnegan was wanting to ask you about —

MR ZUNIGA: Totally fair.

MS PORTER: — U.S. making asylum claims. And so are you able to just provide a little bit of context on that? Can you provide those details on U.S. claims – on making U.S. asylum claims in other countries?

MR ZUNIGA: Certainly. Do you mind – is he still on the line? I just wanted to hear the question again because I thought – I want to make sure I recalled it correctly.

MS PORTER: So he is – I don’t believe he – hold on. Let me just clarify one quick second. Operator, are you able to see if Conor Finnegan is on the line? I don’t believe he got back on.

OPERATOR: Yeah, I’ve got him now.

MS PORTER: Oh, great. Okay. There you go, Conor.

OPERATOR: Conor, your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you for doing that. And I appreciate the follow-up, Jalina. I just was asking what the administration is doing to ensure that folks who have legitimate asylum claims can make those claims. President Biden had mentioned allowing folks to make them while still in a third country. So any update on all of that? Thank you.

MR ZUNIGA: Certainly. Certainly. Yes, this – access to protection is an important part of the work that we’re doing to promote collaborative migration management in the region. So the – our main partner in doing that is UNHCR, and the counterparts in countries in the case of Mexico, for example, COMAR is the partner in that effort. And what we’re focused on doing is ensuring that – it’s a recognition that – we’re focused on migration to the United States for the clear reason that it’s us and our border, but in fact there is – there are mass movements all across the Americas, from Venezuela and throughout South America.

And within Central America there’s quite a bit of movement from – by Nicaraguans into Costa Rica, for example, that strains resources there and into other countries. And so what we’re trying to do is help build up the capacity of both the national migration systems but also international organizations in – working in Central America to provide some level of security and protection for those who have the need. Now, in some cases there will be individuals who are found to have a status that would enable them to come to the United States, but in other cases there might be protection available closer to home and in the region.

And that’s something that we do, and Costa Rica is a – is certainly a very important partner in that regard, but we’re working with a number of countries to ensure that it’s – that’s it’s – there are other countries other than the United States that are also involved in this. So yes, that’s an important part of our work, and the State Department has the lead in doing so through our Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and its relationships with UNHCR, IOM, and other international organizations.

MS PORTER: All right. Thank you all for joining the call this Earth Day. With that, the embargo is lifted. Have a good evening.

MR ZUNIGA: Thank you very much.

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    In 1996 Congress provided DOD with authorities enabling it to obtain private-sector financing and management to repair, renovate, construct, and operate military housing. DOD has since privatized about 99 percent of its domestic housing. The Department of Defense (DOD) has made progress in addressing weaknesses in its privatized housing program, and GAO has identified additional opportunities to strengthen the program. GAO reported in March 2020 on DOD's oversight and its role in the management of privatized housing. Specifically, GAO found that 1) the military departments conducted some oversight of the physical condition of privatized housing, but some efforts were limited in scope; 2) the military departments used performance metrics to monitor private developers, but the metrics did not provide meaningful information on the condition of housing; 3) the military departments and private developers collected maintenance data on homes, but these data were not captured reliably or consistently, and 4) DOD provided reports to Congress on the status of privatized housing, but some data in these reports were unreliable, leading to misleading results. GAO made 12 recommendations, including that DOD take steps to improve housing condition oversight, performance indicators, maintenance data, and resident satisfaction reporting. DOD generally concurred with the recommendations. As of February 2021, DOD fully implemented 5 recommendations and partially implemented 7 recommendations. DOD should also take action to improve the process for setting basic allowance for housing (BAH)—a key source of revenue for privatized housing projects. In January 2021, GAO reported on DOD's process to determine BAH. GAO found that DOD has not always collected rental data on the minimum number of rental units needed to estimate the total housing cost for certain locations and housing types. Until DOD develops ways to increase its sample size, it will risk providing housing cost compensation that does not accurately represent the cost of suitable housing for servicemembers. GAO recommended that DOD review its methodology to increase sample sizes. GAO has also determined, in a report to be issued this week, that DOD should improve oversight of privatized housing property insurance and natural disaster recovery. GAO assessed the extent to which the military departments and the Office of the Secretary of Defense exercise oversight of their projects' insurance coverage. GAO found that the military departments have exercised insufficient oversight, and that the Office of the Secretary of Defense has not regularly monitored the military departments' implementation of insurance requirements. Without establishing procedures for timely and documented reviews, the military departments cannot be assured that the projects are complying with insurance requirements and assuming a proper balance of risk and cost. The draft of this report, which GAO provided to DOD for official comment, included 9 recommendations, 2 of which DOD addressed in January 2021 by issuing policy updates. The final report's 7 remaining recommendations, including that the military departments update their respective insurance review oversight procedures, will help strengthen DOD's oversight of privatized housing, once implemented. DOD concurred with all of the recommendations. Congress enacted the Military Housing Privatization Initiative (MHPI) in 1996 to improve the quality of housing for servicemembers. DOD is responsible for general oversight of privatized housing projects. Private-sector developers are responsible for the ownership, construction, renovation, maintenance, and repair of about 99 percent of military housing in the United States. GAO has conducted a series of reviews of MHPI, following reports of hazards (such as mold) in homes, questions about DOD's process to determine the basic allowance for housing rates, which is a key revenue source for privatized housing, and concerns about how DOD ensures appropriate property insurance for privatized housing projects impacted by severe weather. This statement summarizes 1) steps DOD has taken to strengthen oversight and management of its privatized housing program, and work remaining; 2) actions needed to improve DOD's BAH process; and 3) actions needed to enhance DOD's oversight of privatized housing property insurance. The statement summarizes two of GAO's prior reports, and a report to be issued, related to privatized housing. For this statement, GAO reviewed prior reports, collected information on recommendation implementation, and interviewed DOD officials. In prior reports, GAO recommended that DOD improve oversight of housing conditions; review its process for determining basic allowance for housing rates; and that the military departments update their housing insurance review oversight procedures. For more information, contact Elizabeth A. Field at (202) 512-2775 or fielde1@gao.gov.
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  • Disaster Housing: Improved Cost Data and Guidance Would Aid FEMA Activation Decisions
    In U.S GAO News
    The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) relied primarily on rental assistance payments to assist 2017 and 2018 hurricane survivors but also used direct housing programs to address housing needs, as shown in the table below. GAO found that FEMA provided rental assistance to about 746,000 households and direct housing assistance to about 5,400 households. FEMA did not use the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP)—a pilot grant program managed jointly with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—because FEMA viewed its direct housing programs to be more efficient and cost-effective and did not consider DHAP to be a standard post-disaster housing assistance program. Number of Households Affected by the 2017 and 2018 Hurricanes That Received Rental and Direct Temporary Housing Assistance, by State or Territory State or territory Rental assistance Direct housing assistance Florida 422,230 1,241 North Carolina 20,198 656 Puerto Rico 147,620 414 Texas 143,465 2,988 U.S. Virgin Islands 12,147 69 Total number of households 745,660 5,368 Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). | GAO-21-116 Notes: FEMA provided the vast majority of its direct housing assistance through transportable temporary housing units such as manufactured housing. Rental assistance data are as of February 13, 2020, and direct housing assistance data are as of July 15, 2020. FEMA's analyses of the cost-effectiveness of housing assistance programs were limited because program cost data were incomplete or not readily useable. The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act requires FEMA to consider factors including cost-effectiveness when determining which types of housing assistance to provide. Although FEMA has stated its direct housing programs were relatively more cost-effective than DHAP, FEMA generally could not support these statements with cost data. Specifically, FEMA does not collect key program data in its system, such as monthly subsidy and administrative costs, in a manner that would allow it to analyze the full costs of providing the assistance. Without such information, the agency's program activation decisions will not be well informed, particularly with regard to cost-effectiveness. FEMA policy guidance also says that FEMA is to compare the projected costs of the direct housing programs it is considering activating, but does not consistently specify what cost information to consider, such as whether to use both programmatic and administrative costs. Without such guidance, FEMA cannot reasonably assure that its assessments and their results incorporate consistent and comparable data. The 2017 and 2018 hurricanes (Harvey, Irma, Maria, Florence, and Michael) caused $325 billion in damage. FEMA provided post-disaster assistance, including rental and direct housing assistance. DHAP was a pilot grant program that provided temporary rental assistance and was used to respond to several hurricanes before 2017. GAO was asked to review issues related to major disasters in 2018 and housing assistance provided after the 2017 and 2018 hurricanes. This report (1) describes the assistance FEMA provided in response to those hurricanes, and (2) evaluates the extent to which FEMA considered cost-effectiveness in activating programs. GAO reviewed FEMA and HUD policies, communications, and other documentation; analyzed FEMA data; and interviewed officials at FEMA headquarters and regional offices, HUD, and Texas state and local government offices. GAO makes two recommendations to FEMA for its temporary housing programs: (1) identify and make changes to its data systems to allow for capture and analysis of programs' full costs, and (2) specify the information needed to compare projected program costs in its guidance on activating programs. DHS agreed with both recommendations, and said it planned to implement them in 2021–2022. For more information, contact John Pendleton at (202) 512-8678 or pendletonj@gao.gov.
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  • Maternal Mortality and Morbidity: Additional Efforts Needed to Assess Program Data for Rural and Underserved Areas
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Nationwide data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System from 2011-2016, the most recent data available at the time of GAO's review, indicate that deaths during pregnancy or up to 1 year postpartum due to pregnancy-related causes—are higher in rural areas compared to metropolitan areas. See figure. CDC data also showed higher mortality in underserved areas (areas with lower numbers of certain health care providers per capita). Pregnancy-Related Mortality Ratios in Rural and Metropolitan Areas, 2011-2016 Note: Micropolitan areas include counties with populations of 2,500 to 49,999. Noncore areas include nonmetropolitan counties that do not qualify as micropolitan. GAO also analyzed the most recent annual data available from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality for 2016-2018 on severe maternal morbidity (SMM)—unexpected outcomes of labor and delivery resulting in significant health consequences. Nationwide, these data showed higher estimated rates of SMM in metropolitan areas (72.6 per 10,000 delivery hospitalizations) compared to rural areas (62.9 per 10,000). CDC and another Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) agency, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), fund several maternal health programs that aim to reduce maternal mortality and SMM, including some that target rural or underserved areas. CDC and HRSA collect program data, such as the percentage of women who received postpartum visits, to track progress in improving maternal health, but they do not systematically disaggregate and analyze program data by rural and underserved areas. By taking these actions, CDC and HRSA could help better ensure that program funding is being used to help address any needs in these areas. HHS has taken actions to improve maternal health through its funding of various programs and releasing an action plan in 2020. HHS also has two workgroups that aim to coordinate across HHS agencies on maternal health efforts, such as program activities that aim to reduce maternal mortality and SMM. Officials from HHS's two workgroups said they coordinated in developing the action plan, but they do not have a formal relationship established to ensure ongoing coordination. Officials from one of the workgroups noted that they often have competing priorities and do not always coordinate their efforts. By more formally coordinating their efforts, HHS's workgroups may be in a better position to identify opportunities to achieve HHS's action plan goal for reducing maternal mortality and objectives that target rural and underserved areas. Why GAO Did This Study Each year in the United States, hundreds of women die from pregnancy-related causes, and thousands more experience SMM. Research suggests there is a greater risk of maternal mortality and SMM among rural residents and that underserved areas may lack needed health services. GAO was asked to review maternal mortality and SMM outcomes in rural and underserved areas. This report examines, among other objectives, what is known about these outcomes; selected CDC and HRSA programs that aim to reduce these outcomes, as well as actions to collect and use relevant data; and the extent to which HHS is taking actions to improve maternal health and monitoring progress on its efforts. GAO analyzed HHS data, agency documentation, literature, and interviewed officials from a non-generalizable sample of three states and stakeholders to capture various perspectives.
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  • Priority Open Recommendations: Department of Housing and Urban Development
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found In April 2020, GAO identified 17 priority recommendations for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Since then, HUD has implemented 5 of those recommendations by, among other things, taking actions to help HUD strengthen the monitoring of disaster recovery block grant funds and improving information technology management. In June 2021, GAO identified 1 additional priority recommendation for HUD, bringing the total number to 13. This recommendation involved improving the Real Estate Assessment Center's physical inspection process. The 13 recommendations fall into the following areas: Improve Real Estate Assessment Center's physical inspection process Address Ginnie Mae's risk management and staffing-related challenges Strengthen processes to address lead paint hazards Enhance oversight of Moving to Work Improve cybersecurity risk management and workforce planning practices Improve information technology management HUD's continued attention to these issues could lead to significant improvements in government operations. Why GAO Did This Study Priority open recommendations are the GAO recommendations that warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies because their implementation could save large amounts of money; improve congressional and/or executive branch decision-making on major issues; eliminate mismanagement, fraud, and abuse; or ensure that programs comply with laws and funds are legally spent, among other benefits. Since 2015 GAO has sent letters to selected agencies to highlight the importance of implementing such recommendations. For more information, contact John Pendleton at (202) 512-8678 or pendletonj@gao.gov.
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  • Military Spouse Employment: DOD Should Continue Assessing State Licensing Practices and Increase Awareness of Resources
    In U.S GAO News
    According to estimates from Department of Defense (DOD) survey data, roughly one-quarter of military spouses who were in the workforce and in career fields that required credentials (state licenses or certifications) were unemployed in 2017. In that same year, about one-quarter of spouses who were employed in credentialed career fields were working outside their area of expertise, and about one in seven were working part-time due to a lack of full-time opportunities—two potential indicators of underemployment. Employment outcomes for military spouses may also vary due to other factors, including their partner's rank and frequent moves, according to DOD survey data and GAO's literature review. In February 2020, the Defense State Liaison Office, which works on key issues affecting military families, assessed states' use of best practices that help military spouses transfer occupational licenses. For example, the Liaison Office found that 34 states could increase their use of interstate compacts, which allow spouses in certain career fields, such as nursing, to work in multiple states without relicensing (see figure). However, the Liaison Office does not plan to continue these assessments, or assess whether states' efforts are improving spouses' experiences with transferring licenses. As a result, DOD may not have up-to-date information on states' actions that help spouses transfer their licenses and maintain employment. Assessment by the Defense State Liaison Office of Number of States Using Interstate Compacts to Improve Military Spouse Employment DOD and the military services use a range of virtual and in-person outreach to promote awareness of employment resources among military spouses. For example, officials GAO interviewed at installations said they promoted resources through social media and at orientation briefings. Nonetheless, GAO found that inconsistent information sharing across DOD and with external stakeholders who help spouses with employment hindered the effectiveness of outreach. For instance, officials from two services said they do not have methods to regularly exchange outreach best practices or challenges, while officials from another service said they have quarterly staff calls to share lessons learned. Without strategies for sharing information among internal and external stakeholders, DOD may miss opportunities to increase spouses' awareness of available resources, and improve their employment opportunities. There were over 605,000 spouses of active duty servicemembers in the U.S. military as of 2018. These spouses may face conditions associated with the military lifestyle that make it challenging to start or maintain a career, including frequent moves and difficulties transferring occupational licenses. House Armed Services Committee Report 116-120 accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 included a provision for GAO to review several matters related to military spouse employment. This report examines (1) selected employment outcomes for military spouses, (2) DOD's efforts to evaluate states' licensing policies for spouses, and (3) DOD's outreach efforts to promote awareness of employment resources. GAO reviewed DOD documentation and 2017 survey data (most recent available), relevant literature, and federal laws; interviewed DOD and military services officials and relevant stakeholders; and spoke with staff at six military installations selected based on the numbers of servicemembers, among other factors. GAO is making two recommendations to DOD to continue assessing and reporting on states' efforts to help military spouses transfer occupational licenses, and to establish information sharing strategies on outreach to military spouses about employment resources. DOD concurred with both recommendations. For more information, contact Elizabeth Curda at (202) 512-7215 or curdae@gao.gov.
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  • Veteran Suicide: VA Needs Accurate Data and Comprehensive Analyses to Better Understand On-Campus Suicides
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) process for identifying on-campus suicides does not include a step for ensuring the accuracy of the number of suicides identified. As a result, its numbers are inaccurate. VA's Veterans Health Administration (VHA) first started tracking on-campus veteran suicides in October 2017, and uses the results to inform VA leadership and Congress. GAO reviewed the data and found errors in the 55 on-campus veteran suicides VHA identified for fiscal years 2018 and 2019, including 10 overcounts (deaths that should not have been reported but were) and four undercounts (deaths that should have been reported but were not).   Examples of Errors on the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) List of 55 On-Campus Veteran Suicides for Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019 (as of September 2019) VA has taken some steps to address on-campus veteran suicides, such as issuing guidance and staff training. However, GAO found that the analyses informing these efforts are limited. Specifically, VHA requires root cause analyses—processes to determine what can be done to prevent recurrences of incidents—for some but not all on-campus veteran suicides. According to VHA officials, only 25 percent of on-campus suicides from October 2017 to April 2019 met the criteria for a root cause analysis. does not make use of all relevant information VA collects about these deaths, such as clinical and demographic data collected through other VA suicide prevention efforts. VHA officials said they could not link the different sources of information, but GAO found that selected medical facilities could do so. Without accurate information on the number of suicides and comprehensive analyses of the underlying causes, VA does not have a full understanding of the prevalence and nature of on-campus suicides, hindering its ability to address them. VA established suicide prevention as its highest clinical priority. In recent years, there have been reports of veterans dying by suicide on VA campuses—in locations such as inpatient settings, parking lots, and on the grounds of cemeteries. GAO was asked to review veteran deaths by suicide on VA campuses. This report examines (1) VA's process to track the number of veterans that died by suicide on VA campuses, and (2) steps VA has taken to address these types of suicides. GAO reviewed the sources of information VHA uses to identify and analyze on-campus veteran suicides, VA and VHA strategic plans and policies related to suicide prevention and reporting, and federal internal control standards. GAO also interviewed VA and VHA central office officials, and officials from three medical facilities that GAO selected because they reportedly had on-campus veteran suicides between fiscal years 2018 and 2019. GAO is making three recommendations, including that VA improve its process to accurately identify all on-campus veteran suicides and conduct more comprehensive analyses of these occurrences. VA did not concur with one of GAO's recommendations related to conducting root cause analyses. GAO continues to believe that this recommendation is valid, as discussed in the report. For more information, contact Debra A. Draper at (202) 512-7114 or draperd@gao.gov.
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  • Science & Tech Spotlight: Vaccine Safety
    In U.S GAO News
    Why this Matters Safe vaccines are critical to fighting diseases, from polio to COVID-19. Research shows that the protection provided by U.S. licensed vaccines outweighs their potential risks. However, misinformation and unjustified safety concerns can cause people to delay or refuse vaccination, which may increase preventable deaths and prolong negative social and economic impacts. The Science What is it? A vaccine is generally considered safe when the benefits of protecting an individual from disease outweigh the risks from potential side effects (fig. 1). The most common side effects stem from the body's immune reaction and include swelling at the injection site, fever, and aches. Figure 1. Symptoms of polio and side effects of the polio vaccine. A vaccine is generally considered safe if its benefits (preventing disease) outweigh its risks (side effects). In rare cases, some vaccines may cause more severe side effects. For example, the vaccine for rotavirus—a childhood illness that can cause severe diarrhea, dehydration, and even death—can cause intestinal blockage in one in 100,000 recipients. However, the vaccine is still administered because this very rare side effect is outweighed by the vaccine's benefits: it saves lives and prevents an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 childhood hospitalizations in the U.S. each year. The two messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines authorized for COVID-19—a disease that contributed to more than 415,000 American deaths between January 2020 and January 2021—can cause severe allergic reactions. However, early safety reporting found that these reactions have been extremely rare, with only about five cases per 1 million recipients, according to data from January 2021 reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In general, side effects from vaccines are less acceptable to the public than side effects from treatments given to people who already have a disease. What is known? Vaccine developers assess safety from early research, through laboratory and animal testing, and even after the vaccine is in use (fig. 2). Researchers may rely on previous studies to inform future vaccine trials. For example, safety information from preclinical trials of mRNA flu vaccine candidates in 2017 allowed for the acceleration of mRNA COVID-19 vaccine development. Vaccine candidates shown to be safe in these preclinical trials can proceed to clinical trials in humans. In the U.S., clinical trials generally proceed through three phases of testing involving increasing numbers of volunteers: dozens in phase 1 to thousands in phase 3. Although data may be collected over years, most common side effects are identified in the first 2 months after vaccination in clinical trials. After reviewing safety and other data from vaccine studies, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may license a vaccine to be marketed in the U.S. There are also programs to expedite—but not bypass—development and review processes, such as a priority review designation, which shortens FDA’s goal review time from 10 to 6 months. Safety monitoring continues after licensing. For example, health officials are required to report certain adverse events—such as heart problems—following vaccination, in order to help identify potential long-term or rare side effects that were not seen in clinical trials and may or may not be associated with the vaccine. Figure 2. Vaccine safety is assessed at every stage: development through post-licensure. Following a declared emergency, FDA can also issue emergency use authorizations (EUA) to allow temporary use of unlicensed vaccines if there is evidence that known and potential benefits of the vaccine outweigh known and potential risks, among other criteria. As of January 2021, two COVID-19 vaccines had received EUAs, after their efficacy and short-term safety were assessed through large clinical trials. However, developers must continue safety monitoring and meet other requirements if they intend to apply for FDA licensure to continue distribution of these vaccines after the emergency period has ended. What are the knowledge gaps? One knowledge gap that can remain after clinical trials is whether side effects or other adverse events may occur in certain groups. For example, because clinical trials usually exclude certain populations, such as people who are pregnant or have existing medical conditions, data on potential adverse events related to specific populations may not be understood until vaccines are widely administered. In addition, it can be difficult to determine the safety of new vaccines if outbreaks end suddenly. For example, vaccine safety studies were hindered during the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic when a large increase in the number of cases was followed by a sharp decrease. This disrupted the clinical trials of Ebola vaccine candidates, because the trials require many infected and non-infected people. Furthermore, a lack of understanding and/or misinformation about the steps taken to ensure the safety of vaccines hinders accurate public knowledge about safety concerns, which may cause people to delay or refuse vaccination. This resulting hesitancy may, in turn, increase deaths, social harm, and economic damage. Opportunities Continuing and, where necessary, improving existing vaccine safety practices offers the following opportunities to society: Herd immunity. Widespread immunity in a population, acquired in large part through safe and effective vaccines, can slow the spread of infection and protect those most vulnerable. Health care improvements. Vaccinations can reduce the burden on the health care system by reducing severe symptoms that require individuals to seek treatment. Eradication. Safe vaccination programs, such as those combatting smallpox, may eliminate diseases to the point where transmission no longer occurs. Challenges There are a number of challenges to ensuring safe vaccines: Public confidence. Vaccine hesitancy, in part due to misinformation or historic unethical human experimentation, decreases participation in clinical trials, impeding identification of side effects across individuals with different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Mutating viruses. Some viruses, such as those that cause the flu or COVID-19, may mutate rapidly and thus may require new or updated vaccines, for which ongoing safety monitoring is important. Long-term and rare effects. Exceedingly rare or long-term effects may not be identified until after vaccines have been widely administered. Further study is needed to detect any such effects and confirm they are truly associated with the vaccine. Policy Context & Questions What steps can policymakers take to improve public trust and understanding of the process of assessing vaccine safety? How can policymakers convey the social importance of vaccines to protect the general public and those who are most vulnerable? How can policymakers leverage available resources to support ongoing vaccine development and post-licensure safety monitoring? For more information, contact Karen Howard at (202) 512-6888 or HowardK@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Retirement plans' investments, including those of the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) for federal employees, could be exposed to financial risks from climate change, according to GAO's literature review and interviews with stakeholders knowledgeable about climate change and financial markets. Stakeholders said climate-related events, from natural disasters to changes in government policy, are expected to impact much of the economy and thereby investment returns (see figure). Retirement plans can assess their exposure to these risks by analyzing the potential financial performance of holdings in their portfolios under projected climate change scenarios. How Climate Change Could Impact Retirement Plan Investments GAO reviewed retirement plans in the United Kingdom, Japan, and Sweden that had taken steps to incorporate climate change risks into their plan management. Officials from these plans described using engagement—such as outreach to corporate boards—to encourage companies in which they invest to address their financial risks from climate change. Officials had taken other steps as well, such as incorporating climate change as a financial risk into their policies and practices. Officials communicate information on climate-related investment risks through public disclosures and reports. The agency that oversees TSP, the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board (FRTIB), has not taken steps to assess the risks to TSP's investments from climate change as part of its process for evaluating investment options. Officials told us that they use a passive investment strategy and do not focus on risks to a specific industry or company. FRTIB is required by statute to invest TSP's funds passively, however, it has previously identified and addressed investment risks. For example, in the 1990s, FRTIB reviewed its investment policies and recommended adding an international equities fund and a small- and medium-capitalization stock fund, both passively managed, to incorporate classes of assets that it determined were missing from TSP's investment mix. Stakeholders in the financial sector, including an advisory panel to a federal financial regulator, have stated that it is important to consider the investment risks from climate change. Evaluating such risks is also consistent with GAO's Disaster Resilience Framework. Taking action to understand the financial risks that climate change poses to the TSP would enhance FRTIB's risk management and help it protect the retirement savings of federal workers. Why GAO Did This Study Climate change is expected to have widespread economic impacts and pose risks to investments held by retirement plans, including the federal government's TSP. As of November 2020, TSP had 6 million active and retired federal employee participants and nearly $700 billion in assets. GAO was asked to examine how the agency that oversees TSP has addressed its exposure to such risks. This report examines (1) what is known about retirement plans' exposure to climate change-related investment risks, (2) what comparable retirement plans in other countries have done to address risks from climate change and how they communicate this information to the public, and (3) what steps FRTIB has taken to address investment risks from climate change. GAO reviewed relevant literature and interviewed representatives from investment consulting firms and other stakeholders knowledgeable about climate change and its possible financial impacts. GAO reviewed documents and interviewed officials from selected retirement plans for public- and private-sector employees in the United Kingdom, Japan, and Sweden identified as examples of plans that are addressing climate risks. GAO also reviewed TSP documents, and interviewed FRTIB officials.
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  • Three Florida Men Charged in $46 Million Health Care Fraud, Kickback, and Money Laundering Conspiracy
    In Crime News
    Three telemarketing company owners were charged for their alleged participation in a $47 million health care fraud, kickback, and money laundering scheme involving the referral of medically unnecessary cancer genetic tests to labs in exchange for kickbacks.
    [Read More…]
  • Houston man sent to prison for coercion and enticement via Kik
    In Justice News
    A 63-year-old Houston [Read More…]
  • Kenyan National Indicted for Conspiring to Hijack Aircraft on Behalf of the Al Qaeda-Affiliated Terrorist Organization Al Shabaab
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice announced the unsealing of an indictment charging Cholo Abdi Abdullah with six counts of terrorism-related offenses arising from his activities as an operative of the foreign terrorist organization al Shabaab, including conspiring to hijack aircraft in order to conduct a 9/11-style attack in the United States.  Abdullah was arrested in July 2019 in the Philippines on local charges, and was subsequently transferred on Dec. 15, 2020 in connection with his deportation from the Philippines to the custody of U.S. law enforcement for prosecution on the charges in the indictment.  Abdullah was transported from the Phillippines to the United States yesterday, and is expected to be presented today before Magistrate Judge Robert W. Lehrburger in Manhattan federal court.  The case is assigned to United States District Judge Analisa Torres.
    [Read More…]
  • Two Members of Notorious Videogame Piracy Group “Team Xecuter” in Custody
    In Crime News
    Two leaders of one of the world’s most notorious videogame piracy groups, Team Xecuter, have been arrested and are in custody facing charges filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle.
    [Read More…]
  • New Bankruptcy Filings Plummet 38.1 Percent
    In U.S Courts
    Bankruptcy filings dropped 38.1 percent for the 12-month period ending March 31, 2021, a dramatic fall that coincided with the coronavirus (COVID-19), which first disrupted the economy in March 2020. 
    [Read More…]
  • Secretary Antony J. Blinken and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian at a Joint Press Availability
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Antony J. Blinken, [Read More…]
  • Supreme Court Fellows Set to Begin New Term
    In U.S Courts
    Four new Supreme Court Fellows are set to begin their 2020-2021 fellowships in September working virtually, due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
    [Read More…]
  • Justice Department Seeks to Shut Down Georgia Return Preparer
    In Crime News
    The United States has filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, Macon Division, seeking to bar an Irwinton, Georgia, tax return preparer from preparing tax returns for others.
    [Read More…]
  • Kuwait Travel Advisory
    In Travel
    Reconsider travel to [Read More…]