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US, Mexico officials to begin talks over tariffs, border

WASHINGTON — Mexico launched a counteroffensive Monday against the threat of U.S. tariffs, warning not only that it would hurt the economies of both countries but also could cause a quarter-million more Central Americans to migrate north.

A high-level delegation from the Mexican government held a news conference at the embassy in Washington, making the case against President Donald Trump’s threat of imposing a 5% tariff on Mexican imports by June 10.

It is unclear what more Mexico can do — and what will be enough — to satisfy the president.

“As a sign of good faith, Mexico should immediately stop the flow of people and drugs through their country and to our Southern Border. They can do it if they want!” Trump tweeted Monday from London.

Trump’s Republican allies warn that tariffs on Mexican imports will hit U.S. consumers, harm the economy and jeopardize the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement trade pact that the White House wants Congress to approve.

“This calls into question our ability to pass the USMCA, much less get it passed by Canada and Mexico,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

The GOP senator said he couldn’t imagine the hit to the economy if the tariffs rise to 25%, as Trump has threatened. “I don’t even want to think about it,” he told reporters Monday. “We need to put our heads together and try to come up with a solution.”

Trump all but taunted negotiators for a quick resolution. “Mexico is sending a big delegation to talk about the Border,” he tweeted Sunday. “Problem is, they’ve been ‘talking’ for 25 years. We want action, not talk.”

But Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard replied Monday that both countries working together is “the best way to do it.”

Mexico said it will only go so far to avert the duties, and absolutely ruled out a “third safe country” agreement that would require asylum seekers to apply for refuge in Mexico first.

“There is a clear limit to what we can negotiate, and the limit is Mexican dignity,” said Mexico’s Ambassador to the United States, Martha Barcena.

Barcena said Mexico has taken steps to offer migrants visas in Mexico, and “without Mexico’s efforts, an additional quarter-million migrants could arrive at the U.S. border in 2019.”

Barcena said Mexico has accepted 8,835 returned migrants as of May 29, and they are now waiting in the country for an asylum hearing in the U.S. courts.

The tariff threat comes just as the administration has been pushing for passage of the USMCA, which would update the North American Free Trade Agreement.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross met Monday with Mexican Economy Minister Graciela Marquez. Afterward, Ross said the two had discussed the tariffs and the “next steps” for the trade pact. “I reiterated the president’s message that Mexico needs to do more to help the U.S. address immigration across our shared border,” Ross said in a statement.

Delegations led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard will also meet in Washington.

Marquez said her team is assessing potential reprisals in case the diplomatic efforts do not bear fruit this week. “We will have to make a strategic plan to take into consideration many elements,” she said.

Agricultural trade between the United States and Mexico was worth about $130 million a day last year, according to Mexican Secretary of Agriculture Victor Villalobos. A 5% U.S. tariff would decrease that trade by $3.8 million a day, he said.

Trump has been here before, issuing high-stakes threats, only to back off come crunch time.

Trump claims Mexico has taken advantage of the United States for decades but that the abuse will end when he slaps tariffs on Mexican imports. His frustration with the flow of migrants is nothing new, but it’s a subject he often returns to, as he did last week after special counsel Robert Mueller’s rare public statement on the Trump-Russia report.

The president said last week that he will impose the tariffs to pressure the government of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to block Central American migrants from crossing the border into the U.S. Trump said the import tax will increase by 5% every month through October, topping out at 25%. It swiftly refocused attention on the border issues.

Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, said on “Fox News Sunday” that the president is “deadly serious.”

Still, Mulvaney acknowledged there are no concrete benchmarks being set to assess whether the U.S. ally is stemming the migrant flow enough to satisfy the administration.

“So, there’s no specific target, there’s no specific percentage, but things have to get better,” Mulvaney said. “They have to get dramatically better and they have to get better quickly.”

GOP Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, called the tariffs a “mistake” and said it was unlikely Trump would impose them.

Republicans on Capitol Hill and GOP allies in the business community have expressed serious unease with the tariffs. Some see this latest threat as a play for leverage and doubt Trump will follow through. Earlier this year, Trump threated to seal the border with Mexico only to change course.

Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted that the situation at the border was “unsustainable.” But he said he was “hopeful this can be resolved” without Trump using his authority to impose tariffs.

Republicans have repeatedly tried to nudge Trump away from trade wars and have specifically questioned the White House’s ability to rely on executive authorities to impose some of them as national security issues.

At the same time, Trump’s efforts to revamp immigration laws have drawn little support in the Congress.

“I think what the president said, what the White House has made clear, is we need a vast reduction in the numbers crossing,” Kevin McAleenan, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

editor's pick
High water dampens profit for local boat businesses
 Mike Copeland  / 

Not all are drowning in red ink, but several boat-related businesses are watching summertime revenues float not-so-merrily downstream.

Lake Waco is some 9.5 feet above normal, causing marinas and boat ramps to close during prime summer recreation days until the water recedes. The Brazos River was flowing through Waco on Monday at 20.6 feet, about a foot shy of the 20-year high-water mark set in 2007, leaving most but not all recreational boat services marooned.

Relief is not in sight. Meteorologist Bianca Garcia, in the Fort Worth office of the National Weather Service, said chances are 60 percent that Central Texas, including Waco, will receive up to 2 inches of rain through Thursday.

“This is hurting our pocketbook pretty hard,” said Ryan Helm, proprietor of Waco River Safari, which offers dinner cruises and occasionally morning trips on the Bosque and Brazos rivers. “I have a pretty big boat with lots of horsepower, so we can make the trips upriver, but seeing all the flooded docks is getting a little old. I’m not a huge fan.”

Last week, he had 15 passengers on Friday and 20 on Saturday in a boat that last year would have been full at 35 passengers every trip.

He said locals and tourists hear the weather reports, drive by the swollen Brazos and assume Waco River Safari is hibernating for now.

“We’re refunding 30 percent of our revenue, which is tough to swallow, but we are still making money,” said Helm, who launched his tour service two years ago and has at his disposal a second boat, a smaller model at 30 feet long and 10 feet wide. He said he hopes to expand his service to other cities, but for now, he simply watches the sky and prays for a break in the clouds.

“I hear we may be flooded through June,” he said with a sigh.

Erin Ward, who owns and operates Pura Vida Paddle with her husband, Blake, said her dock near Buzzard Billy’s Cajun restaurant is swamped. Customers would have to swim to rent kayaks and stand-up paddleboards.

The Wards had rather they not, so they are closed until further notice.

“The last time we were open was Mother’s Day,” said Ward. “Even before then, it was an off-and-on proposition, the water was up and down. Now it’s permanently up, on a constant high. Financially, it’s bad. We don’t have anything coming in. We do have other sources of income, so we’re blessed that way. We offer kayak lessons, and have found an alternate location near Woodway Park for those. The water is up there, too, but access is easy from the shore, and it’s calm. We also plan to start offering rentals at Tradinghouse Lake, the former TP&L Lake, which is a nice alternative.”

Also taking up the slack, she said, is the family’s new screen-printing business called Two Girls and a Guy, which will personalize shirts for Pura Vida Paddle. The Wards also hope to create a storefront to sell kayaks and paddleboards.

Pura Vida Paddle is less than rock-skipping distance from Buzzard Billy’s, where manager Miles Kastle sees a silver lining in the rain-producing clouds.

“It’s helping our business. We have good cold drinks, and people can sit and relax and look at how high the water is getting,” Kastle said.

Richard Chrisner, owner of The Outpost and Dick’s Canoe located eight miles south of the Whitney Dam on the Brazos River, said flooding and high waters now being released from the dam are costing him $1,500 to $2,000 a weekend in canoe and kayak rentals.

“This is our busy season, and I’ve been closed about a month,” said Chrisner. “When the Corps of Engineers put us in flood stage, and it became too dangerous to use the park, I shut down the canoe part of the operation,” said Chrisner, who also operates river cottages and hosts anglers from around the country pursuing largemouth bass in Lake Whitney’s clear water.

“I’ve had some big groups cancel,” he said. “They would have taken 40 or 50 boats. I’ve had to turn away others. We used to be booked out every weekend, but now we can’t even access the river. This has happened several times the last three or four years, knocking out a month or two of our busy season. You just have to anticipate it. We’re at the mercy of the river: low, high or hopefully somewhere in-between. Rain does not impact us much, but this is a flood control lake, and there is a lot of water in the watershed.”

Waco Tours offers vehicle trips around downtown, horseback rides in the country and, until recently, river cruises along the Brazos.

High water and the threat of debris has pulled the plug on boat rides until further notice, spokeswoman Melinda Seibert said Monday.

“We evaluate the situation daily, and it’s not looking good,” she added.

She said Waco Tours is offering discounted prices on its classic tours around town to those whose river cruises have had to be canceled.

“We want to make sure they leave Waco happy,” she said. “We’ve taken surveys, and a significant percentage of those who take the classic tour come back and bring a family member or friend. That’s part of our desire, to make Waco a repeat destination. We don’t want them to check the ‘I’ve done Waco box.’ We want triple threats, those who take our river cruises, our Texas experiences and our classic tours that showcase downtown sites.”

Docking facilities around Lake Waco find themselves submerged, tossing a wrench into recreational and dining plans, said Carla Pendergraft, who markets the city of Waco and the Waco Convention Center.

“We’re all disappointed,” she said. “But the lake and the river are involved in flood control, and the safety of people downstream takes precedence over recreation. Even riverwalks along Lake Brazos are under water. There are two dangers: the swiftness of the current and debris floating in the water. A log or whole tree floating down the Brazos would devastate a plastic kayak.”

Even when the water recedes, said Pendergraft, cleanup crews will have their hands full restoring order to the saturated sites around Lake Waco.

“The Corps of Engineers tells me everything definitely will be ready by July 4, and they are optimistically looking at mid-June,” Pendergraft said.

Congress finally to send $19B disaster aid bill to Trump

WASHINGTON — Congress is finally shipping President Donald Trump a $19.1 billion disaster aid bill, a measure stalled for months by infighting, misjudgment, and a presidential feud with Democrats.

The House is approving the measure in its first significant action as it returns from a 10-day recess. It is slated for a Monday evening vote in which Republicans whose home districts have been hit by hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and fires are set to join with majority Democrats to deliver a big vote for the measure.

Conservative Republicans had held up the bill during the recess, objecting on three occasions to efforts by Democratic leaders to pass the bill by a voice vote requiring unanimity. They say the legislation — which reflects an increasingly permissive attitude in Washington on spending to address disasters that sooner or later hit every region of the country — shouldn’t be rushed through without a recorded vote.

Along the way, House and Senate old-timers have seemed to outmaneuver the White House, though Trump personally prevailed upon Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., to drop a bid to free up billions of dollars for dredging and other harbor projects. The Senate passed the bill by a sweeping 85-8 vote on its way out of Washington May 23, a margin that reflected a consensus that the bill is long overdue.

The measure was initially held up over a fight between Trump and Democrats over aid to Puerto Rico that seems long settled.

“Some in our government refused to assist our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico who are still recovering from a 2017 hurricane. I’m pleased we’ve moved past that,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. “Because when disaster strikes, we shouldn’t let a ZIP code dictate our response.”

The measure also faced delays amid failed talks on Trump’s $4 billion-plus request to care for thousands of mostly Central American migrants being held at the southern border. The sides narrowed their differences but couldn’t reach agreement in the rush to go on recess but everyone agrees that another bill will be needed almost immediately to refill nearly empty agency accounts to care for migrants.

The measure is largely the same as a version that passed the House last month that Republicans opposed for leaving out the border funding.

“We must work together quickly to pass a bill that addresses the surge of unaccompanied children crossing the border and provides law enforcement agencies with the funding they need,” said top Appropriations Committee Republican Kay Granger of Texas. “The stakes are high. There are serious — life or death — repercussions if the Congress does not act.”

Among the reasons was a demand by House liberals to block the Homeland Security Department from getting information from federal social welfare authorities to help track immigrants residing in the U.S. illegally who take migrant refugee children into their homes.

As the measure languished, disasters kept coming — with failed levees in Arkansas, Iowa and Missouri and tornadoes across Ohio just the most recent examples. The measure is supported by the bipartisan party leadership in both House and Senate.

The legislation is also being driven by Florida and Georgia lawmakers steaming with frustration over delays in delivering help to farmers, towns, and military bases slammed by hurricanes last fall. Flooding in Iowa and Nebraska this spring added to the coalition behind the measure, which delivers much of its help to regions where Trump supporters dominate.

The bill started out as a modest $7.8 billion measure passed in the last days of House GOP control. A $14 billion version advanced in the Pelosi-led chamber in January and ballooned to $19.1 billion by the time it emerged from the floor last month, fed by new funding for community rehabilitation projects, Army Corps of Engineers water and flood protection projects, and rebuilding funds for several military bases, including Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.

Many Republicans opposed funding to mitigate future disasters as part of rebuilding projects when Superstorm Sandy funding passed in 2013 only to embrace it now that areas such as suburban Houston need it. Democrats, for their part, held firm for what ended up as roughly $1.4 billion for Puerto Rico, letting Trump feud with the U.S. territory’s Democratic officials for weeks and deflecting political blame for stalling the bill.

editor's pick
Superintendent faces suspension as Marlin ISD's future hangs in balance
 Brooke Crum  / 

The Marlin Independent School District board of managers will meet Wednesday to place Superintendent Michael Seabolt on paid administrative leave, as directed by a state conservator last week, and possibly authorize an independent investigation into the district and superintendent.

The meeting is scheduled to start at noon in the Marlin Middle School Library, 678 Success Lane.

Texas Education Agency conservator Jean Bahney directed the board of managers May 29 to place Seabolt on paid administrative leave, “pending further board action,” after a motion to suspend Seabolt failed.

A conservator has the authority to direct the board and oversee the general administration of the district, according to a letter from the state education commissioner to the board of managers.

Other items on Wednesday’s agenda include possible action to appoint an acting superintendent and to hire an independent agent to investigate “district affairs as well as the superintendent’s performance of duties,” the agenda states. A.J. Crabill, TEA deputy commissioner of governance, also will give a presentation.

Marlin ISD faces closure for the fourth consecutive school year, despite two years of state intervention in the form of a state-installed board of managers. The district has failed state academic accountability standards based on standardized exam scores for seven consecutive years.

As a result, state Education Commissioner Mike Morath revoked Marlin ISD’s accreditation status for the 2018-2019 school year in February. He also appointed Bahney as conservator. This could result in the closure of the district as early as July 1, according to a February letter Morath sent Seabolt and the board of managers.

The closure of the district depends on the results of an informal review of its accreditation status. Marlin ISD requested this review, a remedy available to school districts in this situation.

TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said the agency has conducted the informal review and it is pending a final decision. There is no set deadline.

The district faced the same possibility of closure the past three school years and has continued operating under abatement agreements with the TEA. Seabolt has said he expects the district of 835 students will receive yet another abatement agreement this school year.

But the most recent abatement agreement calls for Morath to revoke Marlin ISD’s accreditation and shut it down if the district receives an “unacceptable” rating for academic accountability, according to the February letter.

Marlin ISD received a 2018 academic accountability rating of F, the lowest possible rating.

TEA installed a board of managers at Marlin ISD in February 2017, after the district failed state accountability standards for six consecutive years. The board of managers replaced the district’s elected board of trustees.

In January, Morath extended the appointment of the Marlin ISD board of managers for another two years, citing a “lack of improvement” at the district.

Seabolt started in Marlin in summer 2015 with a mandate to turn the district around. He guided the district through its first abatement agreement with the TEA.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  


Filogoni Campos, a Waco ISD Child Nutrition Services employee, prepares a meal in a school bus at Seley Park as the free summer meal program kicked off Monday. The meals are available at dozens of locations citywide.

John Cornyn mug