Pragmatic idealist. Worked on Ubuntu Phone. Inkscape co-founder. Probably human.
1344 stories

Federal agents are expelling asylum seekers as young as 8 months from the border, citing COVID-19 risks

1 Comment
A father, right, and his son, who was detained in an American hotel and faced expulsion to Honduras. |
A father, right, and his son, who was detained in an American hotel and faced expulsion to Honduras. | Carolina Guerrero for The Texas Tribune/ProPublica

This article is co-published with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

Also, sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

A teenage girl carrying her baby arrived at the U.S. border this summer and begged for help. She told federal agents that she feared returning to Guatemala. The man who raped her she said had threatened to make her “disappear.”

Then, advocates say, the child briefly vanished — into the custody of the U.S. government, which held her and her baby for days in a hotel with almost no outside contact before federal officers summarily expelled them from the country.

Similar actions have played out along the border for months under an emergency health order the Trump administration issued in March. Citing the threat of COVID-19, it granted federal agents sweeping powers to almost immediately return anyone at the border, including infants as young as 8 months. Children are typically entitled to special protections under the law, including the right to have their asylum claims adjudicated by a judge.

Under this new policy, the administration is not deporting children -- a proceeding based on years of established law that requires a formal hearing in immigration court.

It is instead expelling them -- without a judge’s ruling and after only a cursory government screening and no access to social workers or lawyers, sometimes not even their family, while in U.S. custody. The children are not even granted the primary registration number by which the Department of Homeland Security tracks all immigrants in its care, making it “virtually impossible” to find them, Efrén C. Olivares, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, wrote in a court declaration arguing that the practice is illegal.

Little is known about how the process works, but published government figures suggest almost all children arriving at the border are being rapidly returned.

Between April and June, Customs and Border Protection officials encountered 3,379 unaccompanied minors at or between ports of entry. Of those, just 162 were sent to federal shelters for immigrant children run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the Health and Human Services agency tasked with their care. CBP would not say whether the remaining minors had been expelled or explain what had happened to them.

The precise number of children who are detained or to what situations they are returned is difficult to ascertain.

“We are only reaching a tiny fraction of these kids,” said Lisa Frydman, vice president of international programs at Kids in Need of Defense, an advocacy group for migrant children with partners across Central America. “The rest are just gone.”

Lawyers have fielded frantic calls from family members whose children suddenly went missing after crossing the U.S. border. Of the thousands of unaccompanied minors expelled under the health order, advocacy organizations said that they have only found about three dozen after months of searching across the United States, Mexico and Central America.

The Guatemalan teenager is one of them. She told child protection workers in Guatemala that she was sent to an American hotel with her baby for days and allowed only a brief call with her father in the United States. Then she and her infant were flown to Guatemala, where her case so alarmed international refugee groups that they referred her for protection in another country, determining that she was in peril. Advocates would not provide her age or other personal details to protect her.

The Associated Press first reported last month that the administration has detained at least 169 children in three Hampton Inn & Suites hotels in El Paso and McAllen, as well as Phoenix, before expelling them. New government numbers show that practice grew to more than 240 children over the past three months. Children reported being held for weeks in hotel rooms by an unlicensed government contractor, with little ability to reach anyone outside.

Advocates said the administration’s expulsion policy is far more concerning than simply the practice of lengthy hotel detention, which they argue violates a long-standing court settlement protecting migrant children. Most kids who now reach U.S. soil are quickly flown back to their home countries — often to danger, forcing the intervention of international child welfare agencies to protect them from harm. Some children told advocates that they were sent to Mexico, even if they were not from there, in the middle of the night.

The U.S. government has largely declined to comment or release statistics, citing litigation that the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy organizations have brought against the expulsion program.

In June, a desperate father in Houston found Linda Corchado, an immigration attorney in El Paso. His 16-year-old son was detained somewhere in an American hotel, although where or by whom he did not know. He said the government was about to fly the boy back to Honduras, where he feared his son might be executed by gang members who threatened him after he saw them kill another man.

Corchado alerted the ACLU, and the boy became the first plaintiff in what lawyers hoped would be a test case as they argued that the government was illegally using an obscure provision of the federal Public Health and Welfare Code, written in 1893, to justify expelling all migrants, even children, at the border.

A father holds hands with his 16-year-old son. The father alerted the American Civil Liberties Union when his son faced deportation to Honduras, where he feared gang members would kill him.
A father holds hands with his 16-year-old son. The father alerted the American Civil Liberties Union when his son faced deportation to Honduras, where he feared gang members would kill him. Carolina Guerrero for The Texas Tribune/ProPublica

The boy’s case spurred an emergency court hearing in June in Washington, D.C., before U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols, who ruled that the ACLU was “likely to succeed” in its arguments that the government did not have the authority to expel the boy under the health declaration, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Within days, Justice Department attorneys paused the boy’s expulsion and agreed to allow him to request asylum through the immigration courts — the legal process usually required for migrant children coming here alone.

Attorneys found more children facing expulsion.

The relative of another 16-year-old Honduran boy told an advocate at the U.S. port of entry in El Paso that the teenager had disappeared in U.S. custody after they crossed the border together. Corchado called CBP and requested the protection screening allowed for the boy under the expulsion process, but federal agents said that they were moving him to a hotel to fly him back.

Once migrants are transferred to a hotel under the care of a government contractor, it is as if they vanish into a “legal abyss” where it is unclear which federal agency retains custody, Corchado said.

“You can’t advocate for them,” she said.

She said a supervisor with Immigration and Customs Enforcement told her that after migrants are moved there, “it’s kind of off our radar.”

Under the threat of litigation by the ACLU, the administration agreed to halt the boy’s removal and transfer him to a federal shelter while he fought for asylum, his lawyers said.

Coordinating with advocates across the country, ACLU attorneys have located at least 18 children as of late July who were being expelled, court filings show. In each case, the government agreed to halt proceedings against them — a win for the child, but a concession that blocked lawyers from obtaining a judge’s ruling on the policy as a whole.

“We assumed the government would want to have a test case in court to decide the lawfulness of this highly controversial and unprecedented practice of using public health laws to effect shadow deportations of children,” said Lee Gelernt, an ACLU attorney fighting the program in court. “The government is getting away with a complete end run around all of the protections for children that Congress has painstakingly enacted.”

Alexa Vance, a Justice Department spokesperson, declined to comment. So did April Grant, a spokesperson for ICE, citing the pending lawsuits.

Grant also refused to release statistics on children expelled by the agency, including those it detained in hotels, or provide the repatriation agreements that the U.S. holds with at least eight countries — including Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — that would shed light on how those countries have agreed to accept expelled children and under which circumstances.

Matthew Dyman, a spokesman for CBP, similarly said the ongoing litigation meant he couldn’t answer most questions about the policy. Alexei Woltornist, a DHS spokesman, did not respond to emails.

“Nobody can find them”

Advocates said the secrecy reminds them of their search two years ago for thousands of immigrant children whom the Trump administration separated from their parents at the border.

Then, government agents sent children to federal shelters under ORR, often without tracking numbers linking them to their parents in ICE detention centers. It took a federal court order and months of taxpayer-funded efforts before many could be reunited with their parents. A few never were because their parents had been deported and so they were released instead to acquaintances or other relatives in the U.S.

What’s different now is that children are not entering the U.S. system for migrant children at all.

“Nobody can find them,” said Jennifer Podkul, vice president for policy at KIND, the advocacy group.

The majority are quickly flown back to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, the three main origins of unaccompanied children to the U.S.

Once in Central America, they don’t have access to protections offered before the pandemic. Strict lockdowns have made it hard for watchdogs such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to track unaccompanied children after they are sent back to government repatriation centers.

Government representatives in those three Central American nations said that they could not differentiate between children who had been returned under the health order and those who had been deported under usual proceedings. But what they could report alarmed advocates.

Since the start of the pandemic through early July, at least 476 unaccompanied children have been sent back to Honduras, about half flown from the United States and the rest largely returned from Mexico, the Honduran federal agency overseeing children reported.

Guatemala reported about 380 such children returned from the United States in roughly that same period, according to a government spokesperson. El Salvador said more than 70 unaccompanied minors had been returned, and Mexico’s government reported some 1,050 of its own children were returned between April and June, the latest data available.

The total for unaccompanied children governments said had been returned to those four countries — about 1,700 — is far less than the last official figure the U.S. government released. In early June, it said it had expelled at least 2,175 “single minors” under the health declaration. Then, citing litigation, the administration stopped providing that data.

“The number of kids who have been received doesn’t match up with the number of kids who have been expelled,” said Frydman of KIND.

She and other advocates suspect children from other countries are informally expelled to Mexico. Many in the last few months have reported that U.S. authorities returned them there — sometimes alone in the middle of the night and without being processed by Mexican immigration officials.

KIND found at least three unaccompanied minors from Central America in Mexico.

Two were siblings who said they arrived on their own at the port of entry in El Paso. CBP officers told them “the border is closed,” the children later told attorneys, who declined to reveal the siblings’ ages or other details for their safety.

Federal officials sent the siblings to Ciudad Juarez, where they were homeless until they went to a shelter, which contacted Mexico’s child welfare agency.

Dyman, the CBP spokesperson, did not respond to questions about the siblings. But he said non-Mexican children can be expelled there only if they are with adult relatives. They are not supposed to be sent there alone.

“When minors are encountered without adult family members, CBP works closely with their home countries to transfer them to the custody of government officials and reunite them with their families,” Dyman wrote in an email.

He said agents may exempt migrants from expulsion under certain circumstances, such as when they cannot be returned to their countries or if officers suspect they were victims of human trafficking. But he declined to elaborate on how CBP officials make those exceptions and conduct screenings, saying that information is “law enforcement sensitive.”

Statistics from Mexico’s National Migration Institute show that more than 200 children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have been expelled to Mexico under the health declaration as of June. That number includes unaccompanied children and those with adults. An official at Mexico’s Secretary of Interior wrote that it does not have a formal agreement with the U.S. on how to return unaccompanied children from other countries, so it does not keep cumulative statistics.

“Shadow operation"

Usually children coming to the U.S. alone from nations other than Mexico must be flown home — an operation delayed by logistics during a global pandemic. By law, they cannot be held for more than 72 hours in temporary CBP processing facilities before they are sent to shelters run by ORR.

That agency is currently detaining about 850 children, although it has 14,000 taxpayer-funded beds available. Before the administration’s health order, ORR in late March was holding about 3,600 unaccompanied minors.

Instead of placing children in these federally regulated and state-licensed shelters, where they would have access to counsel and social workers, the U.S. moved hundreds of minors to a clandestine network of hotels — under the custody of a contractor not licensed to care for children.

The administration provided that data to attorneys litigating a court-ordered settlement that sets specific rules on how the government is allowed to hold migrant children. That 1997 consent decree, known as the Flores Settlement, requires migrant children in detention have certain rights, including that they be released quickly and held in licensed child care facilities.

In April, May and June, the government confined at least 240 children awaiting expulsion — including more than a dozen younger than 6 — in hotel rooms, according to legal filings submitted to the court overseeing compliance with the Flores Settlement.

In April, ICE, via its contractor MVM Inc., held at least 29 unaccompanied migrant children for as long as 10 days in the three Hampton Inn & Suites hotels in Texas and Arizona before expelling them.

Vans outside a Hampton Inn where migrant children were being detained in McAllen.
Vans outside a Hampton Inn where migrant children were being detained in McAllen. Brenda Bazán for The Texas Tribune/ProPublica

In May, the contractor detained 80 children for days in those three hotels. In June, 120 were held there before being expelled, according to the government reports.

A 5-year-old was kept in a hotel room for 19 days in June before she was expelled.

An 8-month-old was held in a Hampton Inn for 12 days that month before being turned back with a 9-year-old sibling.

As of June 30, according to the administration’s most recent reports submitted under the Flores Settlement, a 2-month-old had been detained in a Hampton hotel for four days while awaiting expulsion along with 19 other children.

Neha Desai, an attorney with the National Center for Youth Law, an organization that litigates to ensure the government abides by that consent decree, called the prolonged detention of migrant children in hotels a “blatant breach” of that settlement.

“This is a shadow operation,” she said.

The U.S. has always briefly held a small number of children in hotel rooms after an immigration judge ordered them removed if there was a delay with their deportation flights.

But such widespread detention for up to three weeks involving children whose protection claims have never been adjudicated “flies in the face of the law,” said Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, a former senior ICE official who left the agency last year. He said Congress and the courts have repeatedly held that children should not be kept in hotel rooms for more than one night — and even then, only in limited circumstances.

“The government is playing cowboy with regards to children’s safety,” he said.

Bob Carey, who headed ORR under President Barack Obama, called the practice “horrific … you have vulnerable children in the care of a private contractor with little, if any, transparency or adherence to state law, federal guidelines, legislation and a court settlement.”

Not much is known about MVM, the private security contractor from Virginia that detains the children in hotel rooms. A spokesperson wrote in an email that its multimillion-dollar agreement with ICE to transport unaccompanied minors prevents it from disclosing information. It referred questions to ICE, which declined to comment and refused to release the contract.

In 2018, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting found that MVM had held children for longer than a day in vacant office buildings in Phoenix. An ICE spokesperson said the agency did not permit the company to detain children for more than 24 hours in those offices, which she said were intended as “waiting areas” for same-day transport between CBP and ORR shelters. An MVM spokesperson termed it a “regrettable exception” to the company’s policy of finding a hotel when there are delays in transporting children.

Details about the company’s current contract came to light in a July court filing from Andrea Sheridan Ordin, a former U.S. attorney appointed to monitor the Flores Settlement in 2018. The federal judge overseeing that consent decree determined that was necessary because the government was not complying with it.

Ordin recommended ICE cease detaining unaccompanied minors in hotels, citing a “lack of formal oversight.” She wrote MVM’s “transportation specialists” are required to have only an associate’s degree or high school diploma and one year of relevant work experience. They separated migrant children in hotel rooms by age and gender and allowed “little to no access to recreation.” Children must be “within the line of sight” of contractors at all times.

Ordin said detention for weeks in hotel rooms can have a “harmful” impact on children, adding that MVM did not appear to have consistent requirements “regarding the special needs of young children, including hygiene, nutrition, or emotional well-being.”

Ordin wrote that what was initially a “stop-gap measure” for the government to fly back children outside of normal proceedings has transformed under its expulsion policies into an “integral component of the immigration detention system” for children.

The administration argued she had overreached her authority. Children expelled under the health order, it contended, were not subject to protections under the Flores Settlement because they had never formally entered “immigration” custody.

Lawyers representing children under that settlement requested a judge’s ruling, writing that the government has a “penchant for unilaterally disregarding” the consent decree.

A sense of deja vu

Thirty-five years ago, a 15-year-old Salvadoran girl fleeing a civil war in her homeland was also imprisoned in an American hotel under the care of unlicensed private security guards. Jenny Flores’ case forced the most significant overhaul yet of how U.S. authorities can detain migrant children. In fact, the 1997 federal settlement is named for her.

Carlos Holguín, who began litigating that case in 1985, said there is now a sense of “deja vu … but the degree of lawlessness is even beyond what was going on then.”

Since taking office, the Trump administration has tried to end the Flores Settlement, arguing that it and a 2008 trafficking law work as “loopholes” encouraging families to send children here alone. The government has attempted to undo the settlement through regulations and requested Congress curtail the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which requires certain safeguards for children arriving alone at the border.

So far, both efforts have failed.

The administration tried separating parents and children at the border, but a federal judge largely ruled against the practice in 2018, allowing it only in narrow circumstances such as if the adult poses a danger.

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee, who is in charge of the Flores Settlement, has determined the administration must quickly release children locked up with their parents in immigrant detention centers, most recently citing the risk of coronavirus spreading.

“The family residential centers are on fire and there is no more time for half measures,” she wrote in a June 26 order.

The government is now arguing it can force detained parents to choose between freeing their children or staying indefinitely imprisoned with them.

But none of the administration's attempts to undo either the settlement or the law have been as effective as the expulsion order, which is “eviscerating every single protection mechanism outlined by Congress and the courts with one sweeping gesture,” said Podkul of KIND.

Late last month, the ACLU sued to allow its lawyers access to children detained in the McAllen Hampton Inn after a video went viral showing a Texas Civil Rights Project lawyer forcibly pushed away.

“The children are in imminent danger of unlawful removal,” the attorneys wrote.

Facing a public relations scandal, Hilton quickly announced that all three hotels had canceled reservations with MVM.

“We expect all Hilton properties to reject business that would use a hotel in this way,” a Hilton spokesperson said.

Government attorneys agreed to pause the expulsion of the migrants who they said remained in the McAllen hotel on the date of the lawsuit — once again, ACLU attorneys said, mooting litigation on the broader policy. A separate suit involving a 13-year-old Salvadoran girl who was expelled this summer is still pending in a Washington, D.C., federal court.

By the time the administration stopped the removal of the migrants detained at the Hampton Inn, most who had been held there had already been expelled or transferred elsewhere — some, advocates said, just before the ACLU filed its lawsuit. Only 17 family members, including one unaccompanied child, remained in that hotel.

What happened to the rest? No one would say.

Read the whole story
1 hour ago
Immigrants are now "disappearing" without anyone seemingly able to track them. Using the COVID19 crisis as an excuse to punish children seeking asylum.
Texas, USA
Share this story

COVID-19 hospital data is a hot mess after feds take control

1 Comment
Members of the medical staff treat a patient in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at the United Memorial Medical Center on July 28, 2020 in Houston, Texas. COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have spiked since Texas reopened, pushing intensive-care units to full capacity and sparking concerns about a surge in fatalities as the virus spreads.

Enlarge / Members of the medical staff treat a patient in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at the United Memorial Medical Center on July 28, 2020 in Houston, Texas. COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have spiked since Texas reopened, pushing intensive-care units to full capacity and sparking concerns about a surge in fatalities as the virus spreads. (credit: Getty | Go Nakamura)

As COVID-19 hospitalizations in the US approach the highest levels seen in the pandemic so far, national efforts to track patients and hospital resources remain in shambles after the federal government abruptly seized control of data collection earlier this month.

The Trump administration issued a directive to hospitals and states July 10, instructing them to stop submitting their daily COVID-19 hospital data to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—which has historically handled such public health data—and instead submit it to a new database in the hands of the Department of Health and Human Services. The change was ostensibly made to streamline federal data collection, which is critical for assessing the state of the pandemic and distributing needed resources, such as personal protective equipment and remdesivir, an antiviral drug shown to shorten COVID-19 recovery times.

Watchdogs and public health experts were immediately aghast by the switch to the HHS database, fearing the data would be manipulated for political reasons or hidden from public view all together. However, the real threat so far has been the administrative chaos. The switch took effect July 15, giving hospitals and states just days to adjust to the new data collection and submission process.

As such, hospitals have been struggling with the new data reporting, which involves reporting more types of data than the CDC’s previous system. Generally, the data includes stats on admissions, discharges, beds and ventilators in use and in reserve, as well as information on patients.

For some hospitals, that data has to be harvested from various sources, such as electronic medical records, lab reports, pharmacy data, and administrative sources. Some larger hospital systems have been working to write new scripts to automate new data mining, while others are relying on staff to compile the data manually into excel spreadsheets, which can take multiple hours each day, according to a report by Healthcare IT News. The task has been particularly onerous for small, rural hospitals and hospitals that are already strained by a crush of COVID-19 patients.

Technical snags

Once the data is collected, hospitals have several options for offering it up to the federal government. They can submit the data directly to the HHS system (called TeleTracking) via an online portal, authorize an IT vendor to submit it to the HHS for them, publish it on their website in a standardized format, or have state officials submit it on their behalf.

Many of these options have proven difficult as well. Some hospitals that have historically reported data directly to their state governments found that their states aren’t yet authorized to submit hospital data to the new HHS database on their behalf. This has left some hospitals, such as those in New Mexico, with the burden of submitting data to both the state and the HHS. For the hospitals who try to submit on their own, some have scrambled to get all the necessary data collected only to face technical problems inputting data into the portal.

Such was the case for some hospitals in Georgia. "All of this is taking the very valuable and precious resources” away from the fight against COVID-19, Anna Adams, vice president of government relations at the Georgia Hospital Association, told Healthcare IT News.

Amid all the administrative and technical hurdles, the national data on hospitalizations has become a hot mess. The COVID Tracking Project—which collects data on a variety of COVID-19 pandemic metrics—wrote in a blog post July 28 that US hospitalization data is no longer reliable.

The blog noted that between July 20 and July 26, federal totals of currently hospitalized patients has been, on average, 24-percent higher than the totals reported by states. On a state-by-state level, some states are reporting fewer cases than the HHS, some are reporting more, and some federal data has significant day-to-day fluctuations not seen before the reporting transition.

Dark data

This may be due to a variety of factors, including double-reporting by hospitals, or hospitals only reporting to the HHS and not their states now. Some numbers of COVID-19 patients may be different because of dueling definitions states and the HHS use to define COVID-19 patients. For instance, some states may not report suspected or probable cases, or those that tested positive for COVID-19 after being admitted to a hospital for something else.

In a July 30 update, the tracking project noted the continued problems, concluding: “Taken together, the gaps and uncertainties in the previously stable hospitalization data mean that this crucial indicator has become much less useful for understanding the true severity of COVID-19 outbreaks.”

Likewise, Dave Dillon, vice president of media and public relations at the Missouri Hospital Association, expressed frustration at the timing of this data collection switch.

“It's worth mentioning that as we moved toward this change we were approaching the number that would have met or exceeded the maximum hospitalization we'd seen during the virus,” Dillon told Healthcare IT News. "We went dark at the same time we were getting close to what our previous peak was. Moving from a known platform that all of the individuals could easily manipulate … has harmed our ability to have that situational awareness.”

According to The COVID Tracking Project, hospitalizations reached a peak of 59,885 on July 23, just shy of the high of 59,940 hospitalizations on April 15. The project reports that the number of hospitalizations has since declined but that the numbers they are reporting are likely undercounts.

Meanwhile, an investigation by NPR noted that there were irregularities in the process used by the Trump administration to grant TeleTracking Technologies the $10.2 million contract to set up the federal database. In particular, the CEO of the Pittsburgh-based company has links to the Trump Organization. Congressional investigators are now looking into the matter.

Read Comments

Read the whole story
3 days ago
In the middle of a pandemic we can't properly track cases because the president wanted to give a corrupt contract to a friend who was incompetent.
Texas, USA
Share this story

What’s this? A bipartisan plan for AI and national security

1 Comment
A military drone is faceless and menacing against a mostly blue sky.

Enlarge / Closeup of a Predator MQ-9 uncrewed aerial vehicle. (credit: Tobias Schwarz | Getty Images)

US Reps. Will Hurd and Robin Kelly are from opposite sides of the ever-widening aisle, but they share a concern that the United States may lose its grip on artificial intelligence, threatening the American economy and the balance of world power.

On Thursday, Hurd (R-Tex.) and Kelly (D-Ill.) offered suggestions to prevent the US from falling behind China, especially, on applications of AI to defense and national security. They want to cut off China’s access to AI-specific silicon chips and push Congress and federal agencies to devote more resources to advancing and safely deploying AI technology.

Although Capitol Hill is increasingly divided, the bipartisan duo claims to see an emerging consensus that China poses a serious threat and that supporting US tech development is a vital remedy.

“American leadership and advanced technology has been critical to our success since World War II, and we are in a race with the government of China,” Hurd says. “It’s time for Congress to play its role.”

Kelly, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, says that she has found many Republicans, not just Hurd, the only Black Republican in the House, open to working together on tech issues. “I think people in Congress now understand that we need to do more than we have been doing,” she says.

The Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy, updated in 2018, says AI will be key to staying ahead of rivals such as China and Russia. Thursday’s report lays out recommendations on how Congress and the Pentagon should support and direct use of the technology in areas such as autonomous military vehicles. It was written in collaboration with the Bipartisan Policy Center and Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, which consulted experts from government, industry, and academia.

The report says the US should work more closely with allies on AI development and standards, while restricting exports to China of technology such as new computer chips to power machine learning. Such hardware has enabled many recent advances by leading corporate labs, such as at Google. The report also urges federal agencies to hand out more money and computing power to support AI development across government, industry, and academia. The Pentagon is asked to think about how court martials will handle questions of liability when autonomous systems are used in war and to talk more about its commitment to ethical uses of AI.

Hurd and Kelly say military AI is so potentially powerful that America should engage in a kind of AI diplomacy to prevent dangerous misunderstandings. One of the report’s 25 recommendations is that the US establish AI-specific communication procedures with China and Russia to allow human-to-human dialog to defuse any accidental escalation caused by algorithms. The suggestion has echoes of the Moscow-Washington hotline installed in 1963 during the Cold War. “Imagine in a high-stakes issue: What does a Cuban missile crisis look like with the use of AI?” asks Hurd, who is retiring from Congress at the end of the year.

Cut through the hype

Beyond such worst-case scenarios, the report includes more sober ideas that could help dismantle some hype around military AI and killer robots. It urges the Pentagon to do more to test the robustness of technologies such as machine learning, which can fail in unpredictable ways in fast-changing situations such as a battlefield. Intelligence agencies and the military should focus AI deployment on back-office and noncritical uses until reliability improves, the report says. That could presage fat new contracts to leading computing companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Google.

Helen Toner, director of strategy at the Georgetown center, says although the Pentagon and intelligence community are trying to build AI systems that are reliable and responsible, “there’s a question of whether they will have the ability or institutional support.” Congressional funding and oversight would help them get it right, she says.

The paper released Thursday is the second of four on AI strategy issued by Hurd and Kelly with the Bipartisan Policy Center. The first, released earlier this month, focused on the workplace. Its recommendations included reworking education from kindergarten through grad school to prepare more Americans to work with or on AI. The two papers to come are on AI research and development, and AI ethics.

Kelly and Hurd have shared an interest in AI since working on hearings on the subject by the House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on Information Technology in 2018. The pair later authored a report warning that the US could lose its leading position on AI. Kelly says she wants to ensure the United States remains a leader in AI, but also that “people in the diverse district I come from have a piece of that pie, and that there are not biases against them or concerns around privacy.”

Falling behind

At the tail end of the Obama administration, the White House produced lengthy documents on how to support US AI development and deployment and address potential downsides such as technological unemployment. The Trump administration chose not to build on those, but last year President Trump signed an executive order directing existing government programs to be tilted towards AI projects. It leaves the US with a less toothy AI strategy than many other nations, including China, which have stood up new programs and funding sources. Hurd and Kelly are trying to change that.

James Lewis, who leads work on technology policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, applauds the effort. The timing is good, he says, because more lawmakers are taking an interest in tech policy. “They now realize we’re in a contest with China and have woken up to the fact that technology like AI and semiconductors and cybersecurity are important,” he says. Last week, the Senate voted 96-4 to amend the annual Pentagon budget bill with $25 billion to support domestic research and manufacturing of new chip technology.

Lewis supports restricting chip exports to China—an idea that could gain traction in a Congress showing new interest in tech export controls. He’s skeptical that an AI hotline or inventing special forms of AI diplomacy to prevent autonomous accidents are worthwhile. Events during the Cold War and since, most recently in areas such as cybersecurity, suggest China and Russia don’t take such programs seriously, Lewis says.

Hurd and Kelly are now drafting a congressional resolution incorporating their ideas about AI, including in national security. After that, they’ll start work on AI legislation. “Some of that I hope we get done in this Congress, and others can be taken and run with in the next Congress,” Hurd says.

This story first appeared on

Read Comments

Read the whole story
3 days ago
The bill is one thing, but I'm more inspired by people in congress seeing that science has been a key part of America's success in the last fifty years. Hopefully having those with the mics supporting science will push back towards a more fact based dialog in the US.
Texas, USA
Share this story

Coronavirus: Signs tell shoppers 'stay seven Chihuahuas apart'

1 Comment
Graphic designer Keith Williams came up with alternative messages to keep shoppers socially distant.
Read the whole story
10 days ago
I support the "chihuahua" becoming an international unit of measure.
Texas, USA
Share this story

Tom the Dancing Bug by Ruben Bolling for Fri, 24 Jul 2020

1 Comment

Tom the Dancing Bug by Ruben Bolling on Fri, 24 Jul 2020

Source - Patreon

Read the whole story
11 days ago
A brochure for Trump's secret police: "It's not just judicial — it's EXTRAjudicial"
Texas, USA
Share this story

Internal Google Program Taps Data on Rival Android Apps

1 Comment

When YouTube was planning the rollout of its rival to TikTok in India earlier this month, employees turned to a valuable source of market research: how people in the country were using TikTok and its competitors on Android, the mobile operating system controlled by YouTube parent company Google.

The research was part of an unreported Google effort, internally called Android Lockbox, that has for years tapped what the company has referred to as “sensitive” data collected by Android to selectively monitor how users interact with non-Google apps, according to internal documents obtained by The Information and people familiar with the matter. In some cases, such as YouTube in India, this data helps Google advance its own competing apps, say the people, all of whom requested anonymity to speak freely. 

Read the whole story
11 days ago
Wow. Comes down to if someone has the data, you have to imagine they'll use it. Do you love your corporate GMail?
Texas, USA
Share this story
Next Page of Stories