AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Gas prices continue to hit record highs across the country. On Thursday, AAA reported that the average price in Texas unleaded gasoline topped $4 per gallon.
President Joe Biden had a blunt assessment during a visit to Fort Worth when reporters asked him about gas prices.
“They’re going to go up,” he shouted in response to questions from reporters covering the arrival of Air Force One.
“What can you do about it?” a reporter asked in a follow up question.
“Can’t do much right now. Russia is responsible.” the President replied.
Late Wednesday night, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to ban the import of Russian energy. The bill was authored by Congressman Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat from Austin.
Analysts have predicted such a move could send gas prices soaring even higher in the U.S.
Filling up in Tarrytown on Thursday, Austin driver Jen Roth told KXAN she’s OK paying a little more gas, given what’s happening abroad.
“You know, I understand and I fully support,” Roth said.
A new Quinnipiac University poll shows she’s not alone. 71% of Americans support a ban on Russian oil, even if it leads to higher gasoline prices. The poll surveyed 1,374 adults nationwide between March 4 and 6.
University of Texas at El Paso communication professor Dr. Richard Pineda said there’s a reason for that support in this specific moment.
“Americans’ attention on Ukraine is really driven right now by the prevalence of social media,” he said. “This is in some ways being dubbed ‘The TikTok War,’ partly because we’re watching almost real-time videos.”
Pineda added there is a limit on how long those images will garner American empathy.
“And it has nothing to do with the cause, it has nothing to do with people’s sensibilities about Russia or Ukraine,” he said. “I think it has more to do with attention span.”
KXAN spoke with Doggett on Thursday, fresh off his return flight from Washington.
The congressman said he knew his legislation could lead to higher gas prices but feels it is worth the political risk.
“Yes, we were willing to make some sacrifice, and I believe the American people are ready to do that, too,” Doggett said.
Doggett’s bill passed with wide bipartisan support, 414 to 17. Two of the ‘nay’ votes came from a pair of Texas congressmen, Republicans Chip Roy, and Louie Gohmert.
Roy sent a statement giving the rationale for voting against the measure. He said he supports penalties on Russia, but claims that the bill is flawed.
“It is designed purposefully to depress American oil and gas production,” Roy wrote in his statement. He added that he believes the bill “will likely empower adversaries in Iran and Venezuela.”
Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott, have suggested an increase in oil production in Texas could help bring those gas prices down and help the U.S. become energy independent.
Abbott tweeted this week, “Instead of begging other countries for oil, Biden can stop hindering the U.S. energy sector. Texas can easily produce enough oil to reduce gas prices if his Administration would get out of the way.”
But simply ramping up domestic production would not immediately help.
“We do produce a lot of oil domestically. Just because we get it out of the ground doesn’t mean we can actually refine it,” energy analyst Josh Rhodes said Tuesday.
A lot of our refiners, particularly in the gulf coast of Texas are built for this lower quality crude that comes from the Middle East and Russia and Canada. And the crude that we produce is typically higher quality. Counterintuitively, it’s harder for us to actually turn that better crude into gasoline and diesel than it is for the lower quality crude.energy analyst Josh Rhodes
That means in addition to ramping up domestic production, we would also have to change how refineries operate, which can’t happen overnight.
Ramping up production can help keep gas prices down, however, if we ship it overseas for processing.
“We can produce more and potentially send more to Europe where they actually are more tooled to process that sweet crude. And so that might be helpful in the short term,” Rhodes said.
The oil produced in the Permian Basin in West Texas is sweet crude, while much of the oil we import is sour.
“The difference between sweet and sour crude is basically the sulfur content. Lower quality crude just has higher levels of impurities that have to be removed. And sweeter crude has lower levels of impurities. And so it’s just a difference in the way that it has to be processed. And right now, we’re just set up to process the lower quality stuff, and not as much of the sweet stuff that we have here,” Rhodes explained.
Since Russian oil only accounts for about 4% of the U.S.’ oil supply, Rhodes said Biden’s decision Tuesday is largely symbolic. If the rest of Europe follows suit, we could see prices rise even more.
“If the rest of the world, which consumes the rest of Russian oil, also does the same thing, then because we are in a global market for oil, then that will push the price even higher than it is now.”
Biden said Tuesday the current crisis is a reminder the U.S. needs to move toward energy independence, although he does not point to increased oil production as the answer.
“Transforming our economy to run on electric vehicles powered by clean energy, with tax credits to help American families winterize their homes and use less energy that will help. And if we can, it will mean that no one has to worry about price of gas pump in the future,” Biden said Tuesday.
The rise in gas prices has also been building over time; it’s not solely attributable to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“In 2020, oil prices briefly went negative, indicating that there was not near as much demand as there was supply on the market. Now prices are well over $100. Rebound from COVID restrictions has been happening faster, prices have been low for so long that there hasn’t been as much investment in the sector,” Rhodes said.
Inflation has also played a role.
“Just general inflation across the board. Workforce issues, all kinds of things are leading to oil prices that were already increasing. And this is just the proverbial match that lit fire,” Rhodes explained.
Another problem with our energy infrastructure is how we’re transporting these products.
“We are limited somewhat in our pipeline capacity to move our products, either crude oil or refined products, from one part of the country to the other,” Rhodes explained.
A law passed in 1918, the Jones Act, also gets in the way of efficiently transporting the products.
“We’re limited in the amount that we can actually move it by one of the most basic methods, besides a pipeline, which is by marine because of the Jones Act, which does not allow a ship to go from a U.S. port to another U.S. port unless that ship is made, or was made, in the U.S. There’s just not that many ships that are made in the U.S. anymore,” Rhodes explained.
Biden vows to expand health benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits
President Joe Biden’s trip Tuesday to Fort Worth is personal. It’s a chance to talk with veterans and their caregivers and push for more help for members of the military who face health problems after exposure to burn pits.
“Secretary [Denis] McDonough has developed a new rule that’ll add several respiratory cancers to the list of presumptive conditions for certain veterans,” Biden said.
As of last year, under the Biden administration, veterans who develop asthma, rhinitis or sinusitis within 10 years of exposure can already receive disability benefits.
Denis McDonough, Texas Secretary of Veteran Affairs, said the expansion will help thousands of veterans.
“It means more than 12,500 vets are finally getting the benefits they’re owed,” McDonough said.
In last week’s State of the Union address, Biden raised the prospect of whether being near the chemicals from pits where military waste was incinerated in Iraq led to the death of his son, Beau.
“We don’t know for sure if a burn pit was the cause of his brain cancer or the diseases of so many of our troops,” Biden said in the speech. “But I’m committed to finding out everything we can.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Monday Biden would be traveling with Veterans Affairs Secretary McDonough to Texas. They visited the VA clinic in Fort Worth with remarks afterward at the Tarrant County Resource Connection on “expanding access to health care and benefits for veterans affected by exposure to harmful substances, toxins and other environmental hazards,” including those from burn pits, plots of land where the military destroyed tires, batteries, medical waste and other materials.
But linking health problems to this exposure in order to get benefits is difficult. According to NBC, the Department of Veteran Affairs has denied 75% of claims.
“I directed the VA to move quickly to review more of the cancers to provide determination on whether or not they’re presumed to be service-connected within 90 days,” Biden said.
Biden, a Democrat, will also call on Congress to send him a bill that protects veterans who face health consequences after burn pit exposure. The House last week passed a bill that would provide VA health care to millions of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who meet that criteria.
Apollo Hernandez, a Marine veteran, years after his deployment, reflected on his constant exposure to chemicals.
“There are all kinds of chemicals in there — plastic bottles, carcinogens — all kinds of stuff that you probably shouldn’t be inhaling,” Hernandez said.
He worries one day, he might deal with health issues after being exposed for as long as he was.
“There are definitely veterans, that do get cancer and things like that that might have been caused by burn pits,” Hernandez said.
That’s what Biden speculates may have caused his son Beau’s cancer and death.
Beau was a major in a Delaware Army National Guard unit that deployed to Iraq in 2008. The two-term Delaware attorney general was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2013 and died two years later at age 46.
It is difficult to link toxic exposure to an individual’s medical condition. The concentration of toxic material is often well below the levels needed for immediate poisoning. Still, the VA’s own hazardous materials exposure website, along with scientists and doctors, said military personnel do face risks and dangers after being exposed to contaminants.
Hernandez feels drawing attention to these issues is a good first step, and he’s hopeful it’ll open more doors to get veterans the help they need.
“We should we have an obligation to care for our veterans,” Hernandez said.
Meet the Texas man who has made $75,000 suing telemarketers
Dan Graham says his phone rings and pings constantly.
“I probably get, in any given day, 10 on average,” said Graham about the number of spam calls and texts he receives. “I counted one day, actually…I got 24 that day.”
He said most come from spoofed phone numbers selling insurance, extending warrantees and offering student loan forgiveness.
He has listed his number on the National Do Not Call Registry (DNC), which was created to stop unwanted sales calls, but he said it didn’t make a difference.
Since he splits his time between Dallas and Austin for work, and travels a lot, it’s not an option for Graham to just ignore all unknown numbers.
“With now two young kids and a wife living in another city, just not answering the phone when I get a strange call is, that’s not an option particularly because now these guys started spoofing phone numbers,” explained Graham.
The financial accounting consultant started filing complaints with the Better Business Bureau and Federal Trade Commission but he said there was no relief.
“I started pushing back. I would stay on the line until I found the company behind it, then file a BBB complaint. I probably filed over two dozen BBB complaints and got nowhere, just more frustrated,” he said.
Last April, Graham filed his first lawsuit in Travis County against a company violating the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).
“In an effort to address a growing number of telephone marketing calls, Congress enacted in 1991 the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA),” according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
It restricts telemarketing calls and the use of autodialed or prerecorded calls or text messages.
In 2012, the FCC said the agency revised the rules to require telemarketers, “(1) to obtain prior express written consent from consumers before robocalling them, (2) to no longer allow telemarketers to use an “established business relationship” to avoid getting consent from consumers when their home phones, and (3) to require telemarketers to provide an automated, interactive “opt-out” mechanism during each robocall so consumers can immediately tell the telemarketer to stop calling.”
“It’s gone from just the calls that are, ‘hey, we want to sell you a car’…we want to sell insurance, to text messages that are I would say a blatant fraud. You won an iPad or you know, you won an iPhone or your phone’s infected and you need to download this anti-virus software, things like that,” he explained.
Graham has filed around 50 small claims cases just in Travis County and several more in North Texas and said he’s collected about $75,000 in settlements.
“We’ve had some that simply say ‘hey, we don’t really care. We’re gonna keep doing what we want.’ No apology, nothing. We’ve also had another company, this is probably my favorite, we took them to court and they called, their legal counsel called us and said, ‘first of all, thank you. We realize you’re suing us, but we had no idea our marketing affiliates were doing this kind of behavior. We’ve fired them on the spot, we’ve ended the relationship.'”
He said about 10 companies have changed the way they’re handling that kind of marketing.
“I really think the law was written specifically for this kind of situation, when we see that our regulators are overwhelmed, we’re the ones getting the harassment, we can actually stand up and do something about it,” Graham explained.
In a recent report to Congress, the FTC said more than 244 million consumers have placed their phone numbers on the DNC registry over the past two years. The report also detailed that there was more than five million complaints in 2021 with people overwhelmingly reporting violations from robocalls.
The FTC noted that, “Imposter scam and warranty protection scam calls led list of commonly reported call topics.”
Since the pandemic, the FTC explained that the agency has received more than 18,000 COVID-related Do Not Call complaints, according to the report.
The FCC said last March that it’s taken aggressive enforcement actions. The agency issued the largest fine in FCC history — a $225 million fine against Texas telemarketers for illegally spoofing approximately 1 billion robocalls to sell short-term, limited duration health insurance plans.
The agency said the the robocalls falsely claimed to offer health insurance plans from well-known health insurance companies.
The FCC said it also delivered cease-and-desist letters to six voice providers that have consistently violated guidelines on the use of autodialed and prerecorded voice message calls.
Graham has gotten some relief from the calls and texts after the lawsuits.
“I’ll get to the company’s line and the company will say ‘you know, you have been blocked,’ and so I’ve gotten a lot of that. I’ve even had the the telemarketer get back on the line and say ‘hmm, it looks like you you’ve been blacklisted,'” he said. “I’ve also seen certain kinds of calls diminish.”
Graham explained anyone getting these calls and texts should report it to the FTC and find out the company behind it, then write reviews and post what happened on social media.
He said Travis County has made the process to file very consumer friendly and you can do a lot online.
“If people knew how to push back and started doing so, we could make this kind of endless spam unaffordable for the people who do it,” he explained. “The hope is that there’s enough of us who stand up, start pushing back, that it becomes more expensive for companies to negligently hire these telemarketers and participate in these telemarketing practices — more expensive to do that, then the benefit they receive from it.”
Life After ‘Remain in Mexico’: Migrant family’s case terminated but future remains uncertain
Editor’s note: This is a follow up to our two-part series, “Life After Remain in Mexico,” documenting the two-year journey of one of the first families sent back across the border under the Migrant Protection Protocols program, Read Part 1: Honduran family’s harrowing journey to U.S., encampment in Mexico; and Part 2: A family’s struggles in America ahead of immigration court hearings.
Carolina Carranza Silva sat wringing her hands on the front porch of her meager apartment. The 24-year-old who doesn’t speak English was scared and unsure what the future holds for her small and growing family after they skipped an immigration court proceeding recently.
They came to the United States in 2019 from Honduras. She and her common-law husband, Jose Escobar, and 5-year-old daughter Emily did not attend their required immigration court appearance on Feb. 15 before U.S. Immigration Judge Joshua Osborn in downtown Houston.
Carolina knew that in doing so, she and her family could face immediate deportation. But in a surprise ruling, the immigration judge terminated their case — meaning the federal government is dropping its deportation proceedings against them, at least for the time being.
Charges still could be refiled against them because they are non-citizens, and they could be deported in the future, but case terminations appear to be occurring more and more under the Biden administration.
Court data shows that the U.S. government issued more terminations last fiscal year than any year since 1998, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) of Syracuse University, which tracks immigration cases.
In the Fiscal Year 2021, which ended on Sept 30, there were 37,567 immigration court case terminations — that’s an increase of 65% from the previous fiscal year, when Donald Trump was president, according to TRAC.
“Last year was the highest number of terminations that we have seen back to Fiscal 1998, according to the court records,” TRAC co-founder Susan Long told Border Report.
Carolina was heading to work when Border Report caught up with her and told her about the ruling.
She said she and her family couldn’t afford a lawyer and were afraid if they went before the judge that they’d be deported back to Honduras. She said she couldn’t risk being sent away from her 1-year-old daughter Isabela, a U.S. citizen who was born in Houston.
So, they made the decision not to attend the mandatory hearing.
Border Report has been following her family since they were one of the first sent back to Mexico from South Texas in the summer of 2019 as part of President Donald Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, formally called the Migrant Protection Protocols program.
For nearly five months, they lived in a squalid migrant camp under a second-hand tattered blue tent pitched at the base of the Gateway International Bridge in the Mexican border town of Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas. An immigration judge finally allowed them to cross into Brownsville in November 2019 after Carolina became pregnant. They were granted humanitarian parole and allowed to legally live in the United States as long as they comply with all laws, and show up for all immigration court hearings.
Carolina said they all went to their first scheduled court hearing in March 2020 in Houston, but it was canceled due to the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic. Another hearing scheduled a year later also was canceled, she said.
Their first in-person hearing was on Feb. 15 of this year, but she said the family made a “hard decision” not to go after the husband of a friend was deported to Honduras after he went to an immigration hearing in Houston a few months ago.
Although their case has been terminated, that does not mean they can stay here indefinitely, and they still could be deported. That’s because as non-citizens, the federal government can refile charges against them at any time for illegally entering the United States.
The family came across the Rio Grande from Reynosa, Mexico in a raft one night in July 2019, and illegally entered South Texas near the town of Hidalgo. They surrendered to U.S. Border Patrol agetns but after a few days were turned back to Mexico under the MPP policy that had just started in South Texas.
When they were legally allowed to cross into Brownsville, Texas, after 150 days in the migrant camp, the Department of Homeland Security gave them a Notice to Appear document that they signed agreeing to attend all future U.S. immigration court hearings. The document was in response to the federal government having filed deportation orders against them for crossing illegally.
But when a case is terminated, the status of the immigrant is often uncertain, legal experts say.
The migrant is allowed to remain, for the time being, but a termination confers no status or other benefits on them. Essentially, it allows them to live in a shadow economy in the United States.
“A termination would be generally entered by the court if the government hasn’t shown that the person is deportable,” Long said. “The question comes, ‘Do they have a basis for getting some sort of legal status here so they can remain?’”
Carolina had originally tried to claim asylum based on political persecution. She says she was an outspoken political activist against former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández.
Hernández was arrested in February and is facing extradition to the United States to stand trial on drug trafficking and weapons charges.
Carolina said her family trekked 1,700 miles north, walking much of it through Mexico, to escape the poverty and gangs that were rampant in Honduras under Hernández’s reign. On the journey, they were kidnapped twice and held for ransom before being sent back to Mexico under the Trump administration.
She blames much of her family’s suffering on both former presidents, and she said that just because Hernández is out of office does not mean the country will improve immediately. She said President Xiomara Castro, who took office in January, has much work to do.
“For eight years we had the president that was not right. This is why we left. Because we wanted the president who was right for the country,” she said in Spanish. “There were no opportunities to work. The education system was bad and because of the political situation we decided to come here.”
Carolina has not given DHS her address and is now working without a work permit — which is an offense that in itself could get her deported by the Department of Homeland Security.
She is uncertain whether she filed the proper asylum paperwork when she was first admitted into the United States.
Border Report reached out to officials with the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) to further explain the termination proceedings against the family, but no information was received.
Long, of TRAC, said her organization cannot make a correlation between migrant cases that are terminated and deportations because the nonprofit only receives monthly “data dumps” of information batches that detail the court dispositions, or rulings, but not individual case files. Due to privacy laws, they do not know the migrant’s alien registration number, called an A-number, so they cannot track individual cases. Therefore, they would not know if DHS filed additional charges on a migrant after a case is terminated, or whether the migrant is deported or whether the migrant is allowed to stay and what their status is.
“We’re essentially getting monthly dumps of the internal database the court keeps to keep track of its workload, but it’s not the documents,” Long said.
In Carolina’s case, she said the uncertainty of their future worries her constantly.
A call to the EOIR 1-800 hotline operated by DHS yields a message that says: “The system does not contain any information regarding a future hearing date on your case.”
Carolina’s family does not have health insurance and she and Jose earn little money. Only Isabella receives subsidized support because she was born in the United States, and Emily gets free meals at her school that is in a low-income area where all children receive free breakfasts and lunches.
She said she often sits on her front porch listening to children play and imagining Emily.
She said the family prays to God they won’t be forced to leave.
“We will ask God. God is the only one who knows what will happen to us at this moment. If God wants us to stay, we will be here. Otherwise, we will be gone,” she said.