US arms control office critically understaffed under Trump, experts say

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State department office whittled down in staff numbers from 14 at start of administration to four as Trump shifts approach, experts say

A state department office tasked with negotiating and implementing nuclear disarmament treaties has lost more than 70% of its staff over the past two years, as the Trump administration moves towards a world without arms control for the first time in nearly half a century.

Related: Nuclear weapons: experts alarmed by new Pentagon ‘war-fighting’ doctrine

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Monday Open Thread | Civil rights groups sue Florida over ‘poll tax’ law to restore felon voter rights

A group of civil rights organizations filed a lawsuit against the state of Florida Friday after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that would require felons to pay court-ordered financial obligations if they want their voting rights restored.

Florida’s new law, SB7066, violates the prohibition against poll taxes enshrined in the 24th Amendment, claims a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida, the Brennan Center for Justice and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The suit filed on behalf of 10 Floridians also claims the law was at least partly motivated by a racially discriminatory purpose in violation of the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to people born or naturalized in the United States, and the 15th Amendment that prohibits the government from denying a citizen the right to vote based on race or color or previous servitude.

“This disenfranchisement will be borne disproportionately by low-income individuals and racial minorities, due to longstanding and well-documented racial gaps in poverty and employment,” the lawsuit states.

An estimated 1.4 million Floridians with felony records had their voting rights restored in January after 64.5 percent of state residents voted last year to approve an amendment to Florida’s constitution. The ballot initiative restored voting rights to residents with felony convictions who have completed their sentences, with the exception of those convicted of murder or a sexual offense.

But DeSantis began to undermine the voter-approved amendment in December just after he was elected.

DeSantis, then governor-elect, told The Palm Beach Post in an interview that the initiative shouldn’t be rolled out until “implementing language” is approved by the legislature and signed by him.

“They’re going to be able to do that in March,” DeSantis told the Post, referring to the 60-day legislative session beginning on March 5. “There’s no way you can go through this session without implementing it.”

The state’s Republican-controlled legislature did in fact introduce a bill to curb felon voting rights in March, a bill that passed both chambers and was signed by DeSantis on Friday.

And while court fees vary per individual, even the smallest amounts can prove difficult for the formerly incarcerated. A Harvard University researcher found that the median annual income was only about $6,500 for those newly out of prison.

Civil rights groups have argued that forcing felons emerging from the criminal justice system to pay debilitating penalties is unconstitutional and equates simply to a poll tax.

“There can be no mistaking the racial and class implications of this regressive new legislation,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program. “Florida legislators are trying to do an end run around the unmistakable message that Florida voters delivered at the ballot box in November.”

Julian Castro’s Immigration Policy

As Donald Trump threatens to “close” the US-Mexico border, one of the Democrats seeking to run against him in 2020 is coming out with the primary’s first immigration proposal — one that would dramatically reduce immigration enforcement.

Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio and secretary of housing and urban development, released an immigration platform on Tuesday morning, along with a Medium post outlining what the Castro campaign calls its “People First” immigration policy.

So far, the many Democrats vying for the 2020 presidential nomination have stayed in pretty safe territory on immigration, promising to support bills that would provide a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants living in the US — and especially groups that are at risk of losing legal protections under the Trump administration, like immigrants protected from deportation under the DACA, Temporary Protected Status, and Deferred Enforced Departure programs.

Castro’s proposal promises those things, as well as reversals of signature Trump policies like the travel ban and the reduction in refugee resettlement. But it goes much further than that in dismantling immigration enforcement.

In many ways, it seeks to unravel the post-9/11 immigration enforcement system — which has made it legally riskier than ever to live in the US as an unauthorized immigrant.

Most notably, Castro proposes to repeal the provision of US law that makes “illegal entry” into the US a federal crime, which has been on the books since 1929 but has only been routinely enforced in the 21st century. Prosecuting illegal entry — often referred to by “1325,” the relevant section of Chapter 8 of the US Code — gave the Trump administration the power to separate thousands of families in 2018, by referring parents for criminal prosecution.

“The fact that over the last several years this system has been weaponized by the Trump administration to go after immigrants, and the chaos that has been created under 1325, I believe, is the wrong direction for the country,” Castro told Vox. And his response — “to go the opposite way” — is to undo the legal underpinning that made it possible.

That proposal, and others, would require Congress to pass an immigration bill — something that Castro remains optimistic there’s bipartisan appetite for in Congress, but has said elsewhere wouldn’t be his first legislative priority. Unlike other plans 2020 candidates have released on other issues, however, much of the immigration policy Castro addresses is about what to do with existing executive branch resources and authorities — it’s policy, in other words, that Castro or another Democrat could start to change on day one.