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UPDATED: Feds confirm refugee children flown to Iowa after previous denials to Iowa officials

DES MOINES — Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office said Thursday that 19 refugee children were flown to Des Moines and transported to sponsor families last month, despite her previous rejection of a federal request that immigrant children be housed in Iowa.

Reynolds, a Republican, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne both said the federal government withheld information on the flight despite repeated requests from their respective offices.

Reynolds’ office on Thursday said the federal government on multiple occasions denied the April 22 flight was part of a federal refugee settlement program, only to confirm on May 21 that it in fact was.

GARY KRAMBECK 

Reynolds

In a news release, Reynolds’ office laid out a timeline of the flight that brought refugee children to Iowa and the questions around it.

According to the governor’s office:

• On May 2, the state became aware of an April 22 flight that landed in Des Moines and carried “unaccompanied minor children.”

• After reviewing surveillance footage, the state on May 6 reached out to multiple federal agencies.

• Federal agencies on May 7, May 10, and May 11 told the state the flight was not a federal immigration flight.

• The state reached out to U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley’s office on May 14, and three days later a federal immigration agency told Grassley’s staff it was not involved in the flight.

• On May 21, the federal Health and Human Services’ Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Office of Refugee Resettlement, which had issued the May 7 and May 10 denials, confirmed to Sen. Grassley’s office that the April 22 flight in question was in fact one of its flights. The agency confirmed 19 children were flown from Long Beach, California, to Des Moines. Two buses transported the children to various locations to join their sponsors.

A Grassley spokesman confirmed the details involving his office.

In the news release, Reynolds said she and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, both Republicans, have joined Grassley’s call for a U.S. Senate judiciary committee hearing on immigration issues at the U.S.-Mexico border. Refugee children also were recently settled in Tennessee, according to Reynolds’ office.

“These experiences sow seeds of mistrust in our communities, and work to intentionally subvert the will of the people for a secure border and a clear, lawful immigration process,” the governors wrote in their letter to Grassley. “Additionally, the federal government’s failure to provide advance notification to states places an undue burden on our law enforcement partners to determine whether these types of flights constitute a criminal act of human trafficking or the federally-sponsored transport of vulnerable children.”

Michael Brochstein, Tribune News Service 

Axne

Axne joined Reynolds in criticizing the federal government for its responses --- or lack thereof --- to Iowa officials and in the call for further investigation into the matter.

“The lack of transparency and accountability from our federal immigration officials regarding the April 22 flight from Long Beach to Des Moines is totally unacceptable,” Axne said in a statement. “As this new administration tries to rebuild trust and fix our broken immigration system, denying the existence of a taxpayer-funded flight carrying migrant children into our community will only undermine the integrity of that mission, and will unfortunately provide fodder to those who would use this episode only to feed the disinformation and conspiracies related to our current immigration policies.”

Reynolds earlier this year said she rejected a request from Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration to accept migrant children into Iowa. In 2019, under Republican President Donald Trump, Reynolds consented to accepting refugees from the federal government.

“This is not our problem. This is the president’s (Biden’s) problem,” Reynolds said April 8 on WHO-AM radio in Des Moines. “He’s the one that has opened the border and he needs to be responsible for this and he needs to stop it.”

The Iowa Democratic Party issued a statement that criticized Reynolds’ previous refusal to accept refugee children and her statement Thursday.

“Gov. Reynolds does not care about the well-being of migrant children brought into Iowa, she said so herself back in April. She’s only focused on dividing and distracting Iowans from her own record and using a fake crisis to further attacks on our friends and neighbors,” Democratic state party chairman Ross Wilburn said in the statement. “Iowa Democrats want to solve the real problems within our own state borders, not play partisan politics that only seek to divide us further.”

Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, in 2014 said he would not seek the removal of immigrant children who had been relocated to Iowa, but criticized then-President Barack Obama, a Democrat, over what he said was that administration’s lack of transparency.


Hytrek
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SD community making improvements
WATCH NOW: Street project aims to make downtown Vermillion a destination

VERMILLION, S.D. -- On a pleasant, sunny morning recently, Julia Hellwege and Nabila Parijat provided a glimpse of what Vermillion leaders hope their downtown will become.

The two sat at a small table outside The Bean coffee shop for their weekly meeting. Aside from the noise from an excavator tearing up the sidewalk behind them, it was a perfect setting to meet and work.

Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal 

Vermillion City Councilwoman Julia Hellwege, left, and Nabila Parijat work at an outside table in front of The Bean coffeehouse on June 1 as an excavator tears out a piece of sidewalk along Main Street in Vermillion, S.D. The construction is part of a project to make the downtown district more pedestrian-friendly and inviting.

The excavator is key to what Hellwege, a Vermillion city councilwoman and University of South Dakota political science professor, envisions for downtown Vermillion. Workers are in the midst of the $3.5 million Main Street Streetscape Project, which aims to make a four-block area of Main Street between Dakota and Market streets safer for pedestrians and bicycles, more accessible and more attractive for public events.

In short, Vermillion is searching for the same solution as other cities large and small: How to make downtown a destination. Here, leaders and business owners believe wider sidewalks, improved lighting, more bike racks and benches, and new trees and landscaping are the answer.

When it's done, what does Hellwege hope to see?

"More of this," she said, motioning toward her outdoor table. "What I hope to see is a really nice combination of something that looks updated and modern while also keeping intact some of our historic features."

But before that comes the mess. During the 11-phase construction plan, work will proceed up and down Main Street, one side of the street at a time, then to five side streets. Construction is expected to be finished by the end of October.

In the meantime, business owners and their patrons will dodge construction equipment and barriers while driving and walking downtown. The short-term hassle should be worth it in the long term, said James Waters, co-owner of Cafe Brule and Dakota Brickhouse, two Main Street establishments.

"Whenever there's progress, there's always some inconveniences to get there. It's really going to dress up the downtown area," said Waters, chairman of the Business Improvement District Board, which helped develop an assessment program through which Main Street property owners will fund a portion of the improvements. Other funding sources include city funds, sales tax revenues and federal COVID relief money.

A downtown overhaul wasn't in the city's initial plans, but when a 2013 inspection determined that 60% of the sidewalks in the downtown area warranted replacement, some began to see a bigger picture. If improvements were needed, why not go a little further?

"It kind of morphed out of that," city engineer Jose Dominguez said.

Consultants developed a plan to make it easier to get around downtown. Sidewalk bump outs into the street reduce the time it takes to cross the street, adding room for more sidewalk tables or even street performers. It will hopefully encourage residents and visitors to park their cars, walk around and enjoy just hanging out.

A more vibrant, attractive downtown sends a message to entrepreneurs pondering opening a new business, Waters said.

"See, we're progressive, we're on the move and care about our community," he said.

A couple phases of construction are near completion, providing an early look at the street's future appearance. Colored, patterned concrete and smooth walking surfaces with wide sidewalk cuts accommodate wheelchairs and invite pedestrian traffic.

"Overall, it looks really nice," Dominguez said. "I've heard a lot of positive comments from the public."

Getting a glimpse of the finished project should help win over those who thought it wasn't necessary, Waters said.

"I think once all is said and done, everyone will be happy with it," he said.

Weather won't always be as accommodating for outdoor seating as it was the morning Hellwege sat at a sidewalk table enjoying her beverage and conversation. But when you see the changes taking place, it's easy to envision how inviting the downtown atmosphere could become, regardless of the conditions.


Local
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Siouxland District Health ends COVID reporting: 'There was always going to be a stopping point'

SIOUX CITY -- Though it might have seemed as though the COVID-19 reports from Siouxland District Health Department were never going to end, that the blue-and-white chart would be a permanent fixture of the local social media landscape from now on, that was never the plan. 

Siouxland District Health ended its public COVID reports for Woodbury County last week. The reports, which detailed number of positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the virus, had been released daily, with few exceptions, since the beginning of the outbreak last spring.

Photo courtesy Tyler Brock 

Brock 

"There was always going to be a stopping point -- because we don't do this for any other illness, where just on a daily basis we announce new cases," Tyler Brock, deputy director of the health department, said. "We felt like the time was now. That wasn't going to be something that was just going to be forever -- it wasn't going to be forever and ever, we're going to be reporting daily COVID numbers.

"It was going to need to stop at some point. Our cases have been as low as they've been since this started, at this point."

COVID-19 infection numbers had slumped in the weeks prior to the department ending its public reports, as more and more local residents become vaccinated. Just two infections were reported on the final daily report on June 5, and only two people were hospitalized in Sioux City due to the virus at that time. 

On several days in the past month, no new cases were reported. On some days, the tally of new infections actually went into the negative, likely due to data corrections in state databases. 

Fewer and fewer people seemed to be interacting with the health department's daily social media posts in recent weeks and months, particularly as the numbers became less alarming and the posts themselves more mundane.

Brock also said there was probably "some benefit to letting go of that daily urge to find out how many cases of COVID we had today. It's dominated our lives, our thoughts and everything, for this long period of time." 

The reports consumed about half an hour to an hour of District Health staff time per day, including weekends, he said.

"As we transition back into more normal public health, Siouxland District Health Department-type work that's non-COVID-related, we kind of felt like this was the time to make that transition and kind of pull that staff back from doing these daily reports," Brock said. 

The department can now focus more time on its regular health communications -- like advising people to exercise, eat right, get a physical, monitor their blood pressure, keep hydrated during bouts of extreme heat, avoid lead poisoning, quit smoking, ensure meat is cooked to the proper temperature, and stay away from mosquitoes and the West Nile virus. The list is long, and COVID doesn't have to dominate it anymore. 

Information on COVID infections for Woodbury and other Iowa counties remains available on the Iowa Department of Public Health website. But even the state might not do this reporting forever, Brock said, as the number of new cases reaches new lows. 

"There's going to be an exit plan for them too -- they're not going to always do what they're doing now. There'll be a time where this is treated a little bit more like a normal respiratory virus," he said. 

The Dakota County Health Department is still releasing its weekly COVID report for the Northeast Nebraska county, though there were only four new infections reported in the seven days preceding the report, and only three in the week prior to that. 

The Northeast Nebraska Public Health Department in Wayne, which represents Cedar, Dixon, Thurston and Wayne counties, terminated its "Risk Dial" at the end of May, citing "declining COVID-19 activity." The NNPHD's daily COVID reports, meanwhile, became weekly reports. 

Their most recent report showed only one positive test between the four counties during the week ended June 5. The positive was in Thurston County, the hardest-hit of the four. 

Some counties in Northwest Iowa, including Lyon, Osceola, Cherokee, Ida, Sac and Crawford, have posted zero percent positivity rates during the past week, according to IDPH data. Other counties in the region are between 1 and 3 percent positive. 

The low virus numbers are pretty much the same wherever you look. 

Clay County, in Southeast South Dakota, had zero active COVID infections as of Thursday, according to the South Dakota Department of Public Health. Neighboring Union County had one, while Yankton County had six. 


Sioux City Musketeers goal keeper Akira Schmid stands ready for action at the Tyson Events Center.


Business
US consumer prices surge

WASHINGTON — American consumers absorbed another surge in prices in May — a 0.6% increase over April and 5% over the past year, the biggest 12-month inflation spike since 2008.

The May rise in consumer prices that the Labor Department reported Thursday reflected a range of goods and services now in growing demand as people increasingly shop, travel, dine out and attend entertainment events in a rapidly reopening economy.

The increased consumer appetite is bumping up against a shortage of components, from lumber and steel to chemicals and semiconductors, that supply such key products as autos and computer equipment, all of which has forced up prices. And as consumers increasingly venture away from home, demand has spread from manufactured goods to services — airline fares, for example, along with restaurant meals and hotel prices — raising inflation in those areas, too.

In its report Thursday, the government said that core inflation, which excludes volatile energy and food costs, rose 0.7% in May after an even bigger 0.9% increase in April, and has risen 3.8% over the past year. That is the sharpest 12-month jump in core inflation since 1992. And it is far above the Federal Reserve's 2% target for annual price increases.

Among specific items in May, prices for used vehicles, which had surged by a record 10% in April, shot up an additional 7.3% and accounted for one-third of May's overall price jump. The price of new cars, too, rose 1.6% — the largest one-month increase since 2009.

The jump in new and used vehicle prices reflects supply chain problems that have caused a shortage of semiconductors. The lack of computer chips has limited production of new cars, which, in turn, has reduced the supply of used cars. As demand for vehicles has risen, prices have followed.

But higher prices were evident in a wide variety of categories in May, including household furnishings, which rose 0.9%, driven by a record jump in the price of floor coverings. Airline fares rose 7% after having increased 10.2% in April. Food prices rose 0.4%, with beef prices jumping 2.3%. Energy costs, though unchanged in May, are still up 56.2% in the past year.

Meanwhile, the number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell for the sixth straight week as the U.S. economy, held back for months by the coronavirus pandemic, reopens rapidly.

Jobless claims fell by 9,000 to 376,000 from 385,000 the week before, the Labor Department reported Thursday. The number of people signing up for benefits exceeded 900,000 in early January and has fallen more or less steadily ever since. Still, claims are high by historic standards. Before the pandemic brought economic activity to a near-standstill in March 2020, weekly applications were regularly coming in below 220,000.

Nearly 3.5 million people were receiving traditional state unemployment benefits the week of May 29, down by 258,000 from 3.8 million the week before.

From the cereal maker General Mills to Chipotle Mexican Grill to the paint maker Sherwin-Williams, a range of companies have been raising prices or plan to do so, in some cases to make up for higher wages they're now paying to keep or attract workers. This week, for example, Chipotle Mexican Grill announced it was boosting menu prices by roughly 4% to cover the cost of raising its workers' wages. In May, Chipotle had said that it would raise wages for its restaurant workers to reach an average of $15 an hour by the end of June.

Andrew Hunter, a senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics, noted that the price category that covers restaurant meals jumped 0.6% last month. He took that as evidence that labor shortages at restaurants, hotels and other service sector companies are beginning to fuel wage and price increases.

The inflation pressures are not only squeezing consumers but also posing a risk to the economy's recovery from the pandemic recession. One risk is that the Fed will eventually respond to intensifying inflation by raising interest rates too aggressively and derail the economic recovery.

The central bank, led by Chair Jerome Powell, has repeatedly expressed its belief that inflation will prove temporary as supply bottlenecks are unclogged and parts and goods flow normally again. But some economists have expressed concern that as the economic recovery accelerates, fueled by rising demand from consumers spending freely again, so will inflation.

The question is, for how long?

"The price spikes could be bigger and more prolonged because the pandemic has been so disruptive to supply chains," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. But "by the fall or end of the year," Zandi suggested, "prices will be coming back to earth."

So far, Fed officials haven't deviated from their view that higher inflation is a temporary consequence of the economy's rapid reopening, with its accelerating consumer demand, and the lack of enough supplies and workers to keep pace with it. Eventually, they say, supply will rise to match demand.

Officials also note that year-over-year gauges of inflation now look especially large because they are being measured against the early months of the pandemic, when inflation tumbled as the economy all but shut down. In coming months, the year-over-year inflation figures will likely look smaller.


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