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Shutdown, immigration dominate Rep. O'Halleran's town hall in Flagstaff

Representative Tom O’Halleran is back from Washington, D.C., this week and on top of meeting with Flagstaff City Council, the congressman also held a town hall to hear the concerns of constituents.

And top of mind for many who attended was the current government shutdown, which is now in the midst of its third week, as well as the issue at the center of the shutdown: border security.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Rep. Tom O'Halleran talks to constituents Monday evening during a town hall meeting at Flagstaff High School.

O’Halleran said he opposed the shutdown and that he recognized that many federal employees are struggling after more than two weeks of either furlough or work without pay.

“There are a lot of one-income families out there right now,” O’Halleran said. “They have government jobs, they’re not getting paid. Anybody who says the landlords of this nation are going to understand, [doesn’t see what’s going on].”

O’Halleran also said there is no reason that parts of the government should be shut down that have nothing to do with border security.

As such, the House of Representatives plans to pass bills funding each of the federal departments that are unrelated to the actual border issue at hand, according to O’Halleran.

These would allow agencies like the Coconino National Forest, Grand Canyon National Park and the United States Geological Survey to reopen, but while O’Halleran said the bills are likely to pass the House, he could not speak to the Senate.

President Trump, however, has voiced opposition to measures that have funded the government but left the question of wall funding negotiable, and the leader of the Senate has said he will not bring a measure to the floor unless the president will support it.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Rep. Tom O'Halleran talks to a constituent Monday evening during a town hall meeting at Flagstaff High School.

When asked if the congressman would support a bill that reopened the government even if it provided funding for a wall, O’Halleran simply said he has supported funding for sections of a border wall in the past.

“What we need to do is have more border security -- everybody agrees to that,” O’Halleran said, adding that this is still no reason to shut down the government.

“This isn’t an issue of anyone wanting to not secure the border, it’s an issue of how do we do it in the best way to secure the safety of the American citizens and to make sure we do it in a compassionate way,” O’Halleran said.

O’Halleran also pointed to the fact that there are already walls along much of the southern border, especially through more urban areas.

And much of the walls that have already been built, O’Halleran said, are falling into disrepair and in need of maintenance, adding that money would be better spent on maintaining existing wall and using technology to secure the border rather than on new stretches of wall.

But he also said while discussions surrounding immigration have focused on wall building, other issues surrounding immigration still have to be solved. Many of these issues may only be addressed with comprehensive immigration reform, O’Halleran said.

“There’s no reason we haven’t addressed visas for the ranches and farms and businesses of our county. We need talent right now,” O’Halleran said.

The congressman has introduced a bill with 14 co-sponsors with the hope of holding Congress more accountable for allowing the government to shut down.

The bill would require the Congressional Budget Office to provide a daily estimate of the economic output lost because of the shutdown.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Rep. Tom O'Halleran talks to constituents Monday evening during a town hall meeting at Flagstaff High School.


Members of the public also wanted to know what the congressman was doing on the subject of gun control.

O’Halleran said the House is planning on voting on a bill in the next few weeks to implement universal background checks for purchasing a firearm. He said he planned to support the bill and that it will likely pass the House with bi-partisan support, but may not pass the Senate.

Although he will supports universal background checks, O’Halleran cautioned that he and his Democratic colleagues don’t want to simply take people's firearms away. O’Halleran said he himself is a gun owner.

“But there are 300 million of us in this county, we're going to have some people who have problems,” O’Halleran said. “So don’t get into the illusion that just changing the laws or even doing away with guns is going to stop the violence in our cities.”

Instead, O’Halleran said, there are other ways to address the issue of gun violence, including economic mechanisms: People who are employed, hopeful for the future and not alienated by their society are far less likely to commit some attention-grabbing act of violence.

The congressman pointed to mental health as another issue that should be addressed that could help prevent gun violence.

FIAT fights modern-day slavery: Human trafficking prominent in Flagstaff

January is National Human Trafficking Prevention and Awareness Month. Wear blue tomorrow, Jan. 11, to show your support for prevention efforts.

Slavery is not merely a foreign or historical concept. Human trafficking, considered modern-day slavery, is a real and ongoing threat across the United States, especially in Flagstaff and the surrounding region.

In the last year, the Flagstaff Initiative Against Trafficking (FIAT) has identified 63 adults and 32 youth in the Flagstaff community who have experienced trafficking. At the same time, through various sting operations hosted by law enforcement, more than 600 individuals in the area attempted to purchase sex with a minor.

FIAT, housed by Northland Family Help Center, was created in August 2017 as a means to deter people from purchasing sex and provide resources for trafficking victims and survivors.

Kate Wyatt, FIAT’s human trafficking program coordinator, says, unlike metropolitan areas, much of the trafficking occurring in Flagstaff is hidden from public sight. FIAT and other local organizations are encouraging locals to catch the public’s attention by wearing blue tomorrow.

“It’s not out in the open. So much of it is online,” Wyatt said. “A lot of what happens is in people’s homes, in hotels, in parks. It looks different here, so we’re still trying to figure out what‘s happening and how we can prevent it.”

The International Labor Organization reported that human trafficking is a $150 billion industry worldwide, two-thirds of which is generated by sex trafficking.

According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, less than two percent of human trafficking victims are ever identified. In 2018 alone, more than 5,000 cases were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, suggesting the massive influence of this illegal industry.

To raise awareness statewide, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed a proclamation last week designating January 2019 Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The Arizona Capitol Dome will be lit blue throughout the month to demonstrate commitment to becoming a zero-tolerance state, Ducey explained in a Twitter post.

The Coconino County Board of Supervisors and Flagstaff City Council have followed suit, each making their own proclamations in order to make northern Arizona locals aware of this crisis. The county signed its proclamation Tuesday, and the city is scheduled to do so during its meeting next week.

A global and local crisis

Much of the human trafficking in the world today occurs online. No social media platform or online dating service is free from the reach of human trafficking, Wyatt said, including social media giants like Instagram and Facebook. Any website or app where people are communicating with each other can be misused for human trafficking.

Online exchanges can distance purchasers from victims, causing some to believe a felony is just an ordinary business transaction.

“A common misconception that buyers have is that it’s a victimless crime and that these men and women want to be doing this,” Wyatt said. “Most of the time, this isn’t a choice someone had. They were forced into it or tricked into it.”

She said oftentimes victims are forced into these situations by their own family members or to fulfill basic needs like food and shelter. FIAT strives to provide for those needs so individuals are not exploited through trafficking.

Physical location also plays a role in trafficking, though, putting Flagstaff at the heart of the issue because of its connection to major roadways.

“We are at some major transportation corridors in this area, and human trafficking is a real and visible and impactful activity that does occur in Coconino County,” said Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott prior to signing the proclamation Tuesday.

Wyatt said that, because of this location, it is easy for people to travel through Flagstaff to major cities like Phoenix, Dallas, Las Vegas and Los Angeles – and take trafficking victims with them.

“Traffickers will send or take their victims to the different cities and traffic them,” she said. “A lot of times, [the victims] have no idea where they are or where they’ve been.”

That’s where FIAT steps in. With the help of its 29 active members – community-wide professional service providers and volunteers of all types – the organization has established two subcommittees to better combat trafficking in northern Arizona. Since FIAT was created, the Community Education & Awareness Committee has hosted numerous events to better educate the community about the reality of human trafficking, while the Guideline/Protocol committee has outlined a process for trafficking incidents and observations.

The Coconino Coalition for Children & Youth is a member of the education committee. Virginia Watahomigie, CCC&Y director, said the committee’s next step is getting more local individuals and neighborhood representatives involved through documentary screenings, trainings and community meetings.

“Trafficking is alive in Arizona and it’s specifically happening within our small communities of Northern Arizona,” she said. “It’s extremely important that we’re raising awareness, that people are identifying individuals.”

Community members are encouraged to watch for the red flags of trafficking; however, for their safety and the safety of victims, they are asked not to approach a person they suspect may be a trafficking victim. Report as many details regarding the people, location and vehicles involved. FIAT, along with the Flagstaff Police Department, Coconino County Sheriff’s Office, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Homeland Security, work together to ensure the safety of these individuals.

Moving forward

Although the reality of human trafficking is often difficult to discuss, Wyatt said communication is essential.

“Don’t be afraid to talk about it,” she said. “It can seem like a really hard topic to discuss, and a lot of people don’t want to talk about it because it’s scary, but the more people who talk about it and the more people who are aware, the better we can work to stop it.”

Members of FIAT are including questions concerning trafficking on their routine intake surveys because, though they may not know it, many agencies are already serving a population of trafficking victims, Wyatt said.

A gap assessment will be used to determine which additional service providers may be needed to help prevent local trafficking and provide for victims.

“We just want to continue to deter people from purchasing sex with other humans and help our community members to know what to look out for and to help keep Flagstaff safe for everyone,” Wyatt said.

Businesses are encouraged to put up the organization’s posters and stickers in public areas like bathrooms, while individuals interested in volunteering or being trained can contact FIAT. Most importantly, though, anyone can strive to be more aware of their surroundings to report suspicious behavior and help prevent the ongoing crime of human trafficking.

Terry Tang, AP Photo 

Phoenix Police spokesman Tommy Thompson speaks at a news conference, Wednesday, Jan. 9 in Phoenix, about the investigation of a woman at a long-term care facility who gave birth.

Michael Hartman / MIKE HARTMAN Sun Sports Editor 

Coconino's Mauricio Quijano (top) wrestles a Payson opponent on Wednesday at Coconino High School.

Trump stalks out of shutdown session with Dems

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump walked out of his negotiating meeting with congressional leaders Wednesday — "I said bye-bye," he tweeted — as efforts to end the 19-day partial government shutdown fell into deeper disarray over his demand for billions of dollars to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a negotiating session that was over almost as soon as it began, Democrats went to the White House asking Trump to reopen the government. Trump renewed his call for money for his signature campaign promise and was rebuffed. Republicans and Democrats had differing accounts of the brief exchange, but the result was clear: The partial shutdown continued with no end in sight.

Hundreds of thousands of federal workers will miss paychecks on Friday; a little more than half of them are still working without pay. Other key federal services are suspended, including some food inspections. And as some lawmakers expressed discomfort with the growing toll of the standoff, it was clear Wednesday that the wall was at the center.

Trump revived his threat to attempt to override Congress by declaring a national emergency to unleash Defense Department funding for the wall. He's due to visit the border today to highlight what he declared in an Oval Office speech Tuesday night as a "crisis." Democrats say Trump is manufacturing the emergency to justify a political ploy.

That debate set the tone for Wednesday's sit-down at the White House.

Republicans said Trump posed a direct question to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: If he opened the government, would she fund the wall? She said no. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Trump slammed his hand on the table, said "then we have nothing to discuss" and walked out.

Republicans said Trump, who passed out candy at the start of the meeting, did not raise his voice and there was no table pounding. Pelosi said Trump "stomped" out of the room and was "petulant." Republicans said he was merely firm.

"The president made clear today that he is going to stand firm to achieve his priorities to build a wall — a steel barrier — at the southern border," Vice President Mike Pence told reporters afterward.

Trump had just returned from Capitol Hill, where he urged jittery congressional Republicans to hold firm with him. He suggested a deal for his border wall might be getting closer, but he also said the shutdown would last "whatever it takes."

He discussed the possibility of a sweeping immigration compromise with Democrats to protect some immigrants from deportation but provided no clear strategy or timeline for resolving the standoff, according to senators in the private session. He left the Republican lunch boasting of "a very, very unified party," but GOP senators are publicly uneasy as the standoff ripples across the lives of Americans and interrupts the economy.

Trump insisted at the White House: "I didn't want this fight." But it was his sudden rejection of a bipartisan spending bill late last month that blindsided leaders in Congress now seeking a resolution to the shutdown.

The effects are growing. The Food and Drug Administration says it isn't doing routine food inspections because of the partial federal shutdown, but checks of the riskiest foods are expected to resume next week.

The agency said it's working to bring back about 150 employees to inspect more potentially hazardous foods such as cheese, infant formula and produce. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the agency can't make the case that "a routine inspection of a Nabisco cracker facility" is necessary during the shutdown, however. He said inspections would have ramped up this week for the first time since the holidays, so the lapse in inspections of high-risk foods will not be significant if they resume soon.

Republicans are mindful of the growing toll on ordinary Americans, including disruptions in payments to farmers and trouble for homebuyers who are seeking government-backed mortgage loans.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was among several senators who questioned Trump at the Capitol.

"I addressed the things that are very local to us — it's not just those who don't receive a federal paycheck perhaps on Friday, but there are other consequences," she said, mentioning the inability to certify weight scales for selling fish. The president's response? "He urged unity."

The Democratic-controlled House on Wednesday approved a bill 240-188 to fund the Treasury Department, the IRS and other agencies for the next year as part of a Democratic strategy to reopen the government on a piecemeal basis. Eight Republicans joined 232 Democrats to support the bill.

The bill is unlikely to move forward in the Republican-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has dismissed it as political theater.

Democrats said before the White House meeting that they would ask Trump to accept an earlier bipartisan bill to reopen the government with money for border security but not the wall. Pelosi warned that the effects of hundreds of thousands of lost paychecks would begin to ripple across the economy.

Ahead of his visit to Capitol Hill, Trump renewed his notice that he might declare a national emergency and try to authorize the wall on his own if Congress won't approve the money he's asking.

Education is a top issue for Ariz. voters, survey shows

For the fourth year in a row, Arizona voters have ranked education the top issue facing the state of Arizona, according to an annual survey conducted by Expect More Arizona, a statewide nonprofit, nonpartisan education advocacy group.

Among other state issues, such as immigration and border issues, taxes and healthcare, education earned the top ranking of the 600 statewide voters surveyed. This year, a separate report of rural voter preferences incorporated data from an additional 600 voters of six counties: Coconino, Cochise, Mohave, Pinal, Yavapai and Yuma.

Although rural voters ranked immigration and border issues above education as the top state issue, they did so by a margin of less than 2 percent and still reported similar sentiments about funding priorities.

When asked to consider the top issue facing education in Arizona, 25 percent of voters said teacher pay/support, followed closely by general lack of funding at 24 percent. They also said, when given the choice among other educational priorities, they would be most willing to pay more in taxes in order to increase pay for Arizona teachers.

In both rural and urban areas throughout the state, voters also agreed that location of residence, financial situation, race or ethnicity should not determine the quality of education that a child receives.

“Educators should be heartened that Arizona voters still see the need to invest in education at all levels and that education is still a top priority for the state,” said Christine Thompson, president and CEO of Expect More Arizona. “Understanding where we are now is really going to help local communities move into the future and be able to help improve schools and communities and really help focus the work of local leaders.”

Voters of all political parties, ages and regions were surveyed. The number of voters included from each Congressional district was proportional to the average voter turnout in each area.

Virginia Watahomigie, executive director of the Coconino Coalition for Children & Youth, said these survey results demonstrate that voters are not alone in their beliefs of education, an important initial step in the movement toward creating positive change.

“In Flagstaff, the voters have shown that they do care about education,” she said. “But with the state cuts, there’s more pressure on local communities to meet the needs that were covered by the state. People can start banding together now and let their elected officials know how important this issue is.”

Jennifer Hernandez, Expect More Arizona’s Northern Arizona community engagement manager, said all elected leaders, from local officials and school board members to state legislators, should be informed of these values because they each have different roles to play in the Arizona educational system.

“More and more people are starting to understand what a challenging job and what a valuable resource teachers are,” she said. “More and more people and community leaders believe teachers need to be compensated for the value they bring to the community. What we need voters to do is tell [elected officials] that you want to see education be the priority.”

More progress needed

“There has been a lot of focus on education in the last 12 months,” Thompson said. “Those things that resonated 12 months ago are still resonating with voters now. Even with all the activity in the last year, voters still recognize there’s more to do.”

Expect More Arizona has partnered with the Decision Center for Educational Excellence at Arizona State University to create a progress meter with up-to-date statistics on various aspects of Arizona education, including third-grade reading, eighth-grade math, high school graduation and post high school enrollment.

According to their collected data, in the last year, high school graduation and post high school enrollment have increased in both Flagstaff and Coconino County; however, the number of students succeeding in third-grade reading and eighth-grade math, measured by AzMERIT results, has decreased or, in the case of countywide reading levels, remained steady since last year.

As in other areas throughout the state, though some progress has been made, success levels are still not up to voters’ standards.

The progress meter states that in the Flagstaff Unified School District, for example, only 38 percent of third-graders are meeting or exceeding state reading standards, while only 31 percent of eighth-graders are doing so in math. The district does exceed the state average for high school graduation by nearly 8 percent, though.

Hernandez said educational support in the region is undeniable – and invaluable to future progress.

“In Flagstaff in particular, there’s always been a pretty strong demonstration of support for education, especially when it comes to K12,” she said. “What I hope happens in the future is that we see that support across the educational spectrum, to see more support for early education as well as post-secondary so students are supported from early years through to their careers.”