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Cultivating community, Costa Rica celebrates 40 years of farmers markets

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 22, 2024 - 12:18
For over four decades, Costa Rica's farmers markets have been promoting local agriculture, creating vital economic lifelines and fostering a sense of community. Donaldo Hernández explores their enduring appeal in this story narrated by Veronica Villafañe.

Florida judge hears Trump bid to dismiss documents charges

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 22, 2024 - 12:05
Miami, Florida — A Florida judge was holding a hearing Wednesday on a bid by former U.S. President Donald Trump to dismiss the charges he faces for allegedly mishandling classified documents. The hearing is being held in Fort Pierce, Florida, before District Judge Aileen Cannon, who has already indefinitely postponed Trump's criminal trial in that case. Trump, who is seeking to recapture the White House in November, and a co-defendant, his valet Walt Nauta, have filed separate motions with Cannon seeking to have the case thrown out. Trump pleaded not guilty in Florida in June to the federal charges of unlawfully retaining national defense information, conspiracy to obstruct justice and making false statements. He kept the classified files — which included records from the Pentagon, CIA and National Security Agency — unsecured at his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida and thwarted official efforts to retrieve them, according to the indictment. Trump — who is currently on trial in New York, accused in a separate case of falsifying business records to pay hush money to a porn star — is not expected to attend Wednesday's proceedings. The dismissal motion is the latest of several that Trump's lawyers have unsuccessfully filed with Cannon in a bid to have the charges tossed out. The hearing is the first in the case since Cannon, on May 7, indefinitely postponed Trump's trial, which had been scheduled to begin this month. Cannon, a Trump appointee, said the planned May 20 start date was not possible because of the number of pretrial motions before the court. The postponement was a major setback for special counsel Jack Smith, who brought the charges against Trump, and makes it unlikely the case will be heard before the presidential election — now less than six months away. Trump's attorneys have sought to delay his various criminal cases until after the election, when Trump could potentially have the federal charges against him dropped if he wins. In addition to the New York and Florida cases, Trump has also been charged in Washington and Georgia with trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election won by Democrat Joe Biden, his likely November opponent.

VOA Newscasts

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 22, 2024 - 12:00
Give us 5 minutes, and we'll give you the world. Around the clock, Voice of America keeps you in touch with the latest news. We bring you reports from our correspondents and interviews with newsmakers from across the world.

Judge in Tennessee blocks effort to put Elvis Presley's former home Graceland up for sale 

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 22, 2024 - 11:48
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A Tennessee judge on Wednesday blocked the auction of Graceland, the former home of Elvis Presley, by a company that claimed his estate failed to repay a loan that used the property as collateral.  Shelby County Chancellor JoeDae Jenkins issued a temporary injunction against the proposed auction that had been scheduled for Thursday this week. Jenkins' injunction essentially keeps in place a previous restraining order that he had issued after Presley's granddaughter Riley Keough filed a lawsuit to fight off what she said was a fraudulent scheme.  A public notice for a foreclosure sale of the 13-acre estate in Memphis posted earlier in May said Promenade Trust, which controls the Graceland museum, owes $3.8 million after failing to repay a 2018 loan. Keough, an actor, inherited the trust and ownership of the home after the death of her mother, Lisa Marie Presley, last year.  Naussany Investments and Private Lending said Lisa Marie Presley had used Graceland as collateral for the loan, according to the foreclosure sale notice. Keough, on behalf of the Promenade Trust, alleged in her lawsuit that Naussany presented fraudulent documents regarding the loan in September 2023.  Neither Keough nor lawyers for Nassauny Investments were in court Wednesday.  "Lisa Maria Presley never borrowed money from Naussany Investments and never gave a deed of trust to Naussany Investments," Keough's lawyer wrote in a lawsuit.  Kimberly Philbrick, the notary whose name is listed on Nassauny's documents, indicated that she never met Lisa Marie Presley nor notarized any documents for her, the court filing said.  Graceland opened as a museum and tourist attraction in 1982 as a tribute to Elvis Presley, the singer and actor who died in August 1977 at age 42. It draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. A large Presley-themed entertainment complex across the street from the museum is owned by Elvis Presley Enterprises. 

VOA Newscasts

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 22, 2024 - 11:00
Give us 5 minutes, and we'll give you the world. Around the clock, Voice of America keeps you in touch with the latest news. We bring you reports from our correspondents and interviews with newsmakers from across the world.

Republican National Committee evacuates after receiving blood vials

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 22, 2024 - 10:58
WASHINGTON — The headquarters of the Republican National Committee in Washington was briefly evacuated Wednesday morning after a suspicious package containing two vials of blood was delivered to the building, the police said.  The RNC, the parent organization of the Republican Party, is playing a major role in the campaign of former President Donald Trump, who will face Democratic incumbent Joe Biden in the November 5 presidential election.   The authorities initially closed off one downtown block and directed staff and other personnel to avoid the area. By midmorning, employees were reentering the building and police were leaving the scene, according to a Reuters witness.   "The source of the package and its contents will be further investigated," the U.S. Capitol Police said in a statement.  The RNC did not respond to a request for comment. 

White House chef duo has dished up culinary diplomacy at state dinners for nearly a decade 

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 22, 2024 - 10:22
Washington — A house-cured smoked salmon, red grapefruit, avocado and cucumber starter. Dry-aged rib eye beef in a sesame sabayon sauce. Salted caramel pistachio cake under a layer of matcha ganache. While President Joe Biden and his guest of honor at a White House state dinner chew over foreign policy, the female chef duo of Cris Comerford and Susie Morrison take care of the culinary diplomacy. They pulled off the above menu for Japan's leader in April, and they'll have a new array of delicacies for Kenya's president on Thursday night. Comerford, the White House executive chef, and Morrison, the executive pastry chef, are the first women to hold those posts, forming a duo that has tantalized the taste buds of guests at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. with their culinary creations for nearly a decade. Comerford is also the first person of color to be executive chef. “Both are just exceptional examples of success in their field,” said Bill Yosses, who was the executive pastry chef for seven years before his departure in 2014 cleared the way for Morrison to be promoted. “They excel at what they do.” Comerford and Morrison get to do it again Thursday when Biden and his wife, first lady Jill Biden, host the administration's sixth state dinner, for Kenyan President William Ruto and his wife, Rachel. It will be the first such honor for an African head of state since 2008 and the first for Kenya since 2003. A lavish state dinner is a tool of U.S. diplomacy, a high honor reserved for America's longstanding and closest allies. In the case of Kenya, Biden wants to elevate a relationship that he sees as critical to security in Africa and far beyond. Jill Biden planned to preview the dinner setup for the news media on Wednesday afternoon. State dinner planning is done by the first lady's staff and the White House social office, and starts months in advance. Ideas are kicked around before the chefs propose a few different menus. The meals are prepared, plated as they would be served and tasted by the social secretary and the first lady, who makes the final call on what will be served. The menus change, but the overarching goal has stayed the same. “We're trying to showcase American food, American regions, American farmers,” while incorporating small tributes to the guest of honor, Yosses said. “It would be rare that we would really try to imitate something from the guest's country.” Ingredients for April's state dinner for Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his wife, Yuko, came from California, Maryland, Oregon and Ohio. The wines were from Oregon and Washington state. At the media preview for that glitzy event, Comerford explained that the diets of the Bidens and the visiting dignitaries are factored into the preparations, along with those of other guests. “When we formulate and we create the state dinner menu, we take into consideration all the principals and most of our guests,” she said. “We also take into consideration the season because this is the perfect time for some beautiful bounties right now, with the spring coming up, with all the morels and the mushrooms, and Susie's cherries and all the stuff she has on her plate.” The chefs contact their regular purveyors to find out what's in season, and go from there. The salmon appetizer served in April was inspired by the California roll, which Comerford said was invented by a Japanese chef. Morrison's dessert highlighted Japan's gift of cherry trees to the United States, many of which are planted in Washington, and its matcha tea. She decorated the pistachio cake with sugary mini cherry blossoms. “We wanted to bring a little bit of the cherry blossoms that are here on the Tidal Basin right here to our dessert in order for everyone to enjoy the cherry blossoms that we enjoy every year,” she said. Serving dinner to hundreds of guests at once comes down to timing. Thursday's event will be held in an expansive pavilion put up on the South Grounds of the White House. Sam Kass, who was an assistant chef during President Barack Obama's administration, said tradition holds that the president is the first one served and that plates are cleared away when he is finished eating. “You have to have a service that is so efficient and quick to get those plates out so that the last table has a chance to eat,” he said. Comerford, 61, sharpened her culinary skills while working at hotels in Chicago and restaurants in Washington before the White House brought her on in 1995 as an assistant chef. A naturalized U.S. citizen and Filipino native, she was named executive chef in 2005. Her responsibilities include designing and executing menus for state dinners, social events, holiday functions, receptions and official luncheons. Morrison, 57, started at the executive mansion as a contract pastry employee in 1995 while she was working at a hotel in northern Virginia. She was named an assistant pastry chef in 2002 and became the executive pastry chef in November 2014 — just in time to sweat over the details of that year's gingerbread White House for the holiday season. The pair has worked together at the White House for nearly 30 years. Yosses recalled at least one instance where the honoree's wishes dictated the menu selections. In 2015, China's Xi Jinping wanted a very American menu, “which I think was a polite way for him to say that he didn't think we could do Chinese food very well," Yosses said. The Chinese leader was served butter-poached Maine lobster and grilled Colorado lamb.

Tornado kills multiple people in Iowa as storms tear through Midwest

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 22, 2024 - 10:12
GREENFIELD, Iowa — Multiple people were killed when a tornado tore through a small town in Iowa and left a wide swath of obliterated homes and crumpled cars, while the howling winds also twisted and toppled wind turbines.  After devastating Greenfield, a town of 2,000, on Tuesday the storms moved eastward to pummel parts of Illinois and Wisconsin, knocking out power to tens of thousands of customers in the two states.  Greenfield's hospital was among the buildings that were damaged in the town, which meant that at least a dozen people who were hurt had to be taken to facilities elsewhere, according to Iowa State Patrol Sgt. Alex Dinkla.  "Sadly we can confirm that there have been fatalities," Dinkla said at a news conference Tuesday night, without specifying how many. "We're still counting at this time."  He said he thought they had accounted for all of the town's residents but that searches would continue if anyone was reported missing. The Adair County Health System said in a Facebook post Tuesday night that it had set up a triage center at the Greenfield high school and that people who need medical attention should go there.  The tornado destroyed much of Greenfield, which is located about 55 miles (90 kilometers) southwest of Des Moines, during a day that saw multiple tornadoes, giant hail and heavy rain in several states. The National Weather Service said it received 23 tornado reports Tuesday, with most in Iowa, and one each in Wisconsin and Minnesota.  In Wisconsin, the weather service's Green Bay office dispatched a staffer Wednesday morning to survey storm damage near the village of Unity in western Marathon County after law enforcement received a report from the public about a tornado on the ground about 7:45 p.m. Tuesday in that community about 55 miles (89 kilometers) east of Eau Claire, said meteorologist Roy Eckberg. He said staffers would also be visiting Outagamie County near the city of Kaukauna, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) southwest of Green Bay, to investigate significant wind damage there.  Eckberg said high winds were reported Tuesday night across parts of central Wisconsin, with a wind gust of 70 mph (113 kilometers per hour) in the city of Marshfield and with wind damage also reported to the northwest in the city of Wausau.  Weather service staff would also be assessing storm damage Wednesday in southeastern Minnesota after radar indicated that a tornado touched down Tuesday night in Winona County, said Kate Abbott, a meteorologist with the agency's La Crosse, Wisconsin, office.  "With that one we did have a radar confirmed tornado, but we're going out and survey there to make sure the damage is consistent with a tornado," she said.  Authorities announced a mandatory curfew for Greenfield and said they would only allow residents to enter the town until Wednesday morning. They also ordered media representatives to leave the city Tuesday night.  In the aftermath of the storm, mounds of broken wood from homes, branches, car parts and other debris littered lots where homes once stood. Some trees still standing were stripped of their limbs and leaves. Residents helped each other salvage furniture and other belongings that were strewn in every direction.  Rogue Paxton said he sheltered in the basement of his home when the storm moved through. He told WOI-TV he thought the house was lost but said his family got lucky.  "But everyone else is not so much, like my brother Cody, his house just got wiped," Paxton said. "Then you see all these people out here helping each other. ... Everything's going to be fine because we have each other, but it's just going to be really, really rough. It is a mess."  A tornado also apparently took down several 250-foot (76-meter) wind turbines in southwest Iowa. Some of the turbines caught fire, sending plumes of smoke into the air. Wind farms are built to withstand tornadoes, hurricanes and other powerful winds.  Mary Long, the owner of Long's Market in downtown Greenfield, said she rode out the storm at her business in the community's historic town square, which largely escaped damage. Long said there appeared to be widespread damage on the east and south sides of town.  "I could hear this roaring, like the proverbial freight train, and then it was just done," she said.  Camille Blair said the Greenfield Chamber of Commerce office where she works closed around 2 p.m. ahead of the storm.  "I can see from my house it kind of went in a straight line down the road," she said of the tornado.  Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said she planned to visit Greenfield on Wednesday morning.  "It was just a few weeks ago that tornadoes hit several other Iowa communities, and it's hard to believe that it's happened again," she said in a statement. "Iowans are strong and resilient, and we will get through this together."  Iowa had braced for severe weather after the weather service's Storm Prediction Center gave most of the state a high chance of seeing severe thunderstorms with the potential for strong tornadoes. The storms and tornado warnings moved into Wisconsin on Tuesday evening and night.  Across the US Earlier in the day, residents to the west in Omaha, Nebraska, awoke to sirens blaring and widespread power outages as torrential rain, high winds and large hail pummeled the area. The deluge flooded basements and submerged cars. Television station KETV showed firefighters rescuing people from vehicles.  In Illinois, dust storms led authorities to shut down stretches of two interstates due to low visibility.  The storms followed days of extreme weather that have ravaged much of the middle section of the country. Strong winds, large hail and tornadoes swept parts of Oklahoma and Kansas late Sunday, damaging homes and injuring two in Oklahoma.  Another round of storms Monday night raked Colorado and western Nebraska and saw the city of Yuma, Colorado, blanketed in hail the size of baseballs and golf balls, turning streets into rivers of water and ice.  In Texas, deadly storms hit the Houston area last week, killing at least eight people. Those storms last Thursday knocked out power to hundreds of thousands for days, leaving many in the dark and without air conditioning during hot and humid weather. Hurricane-force winds reduced businesses and other structures to debris and shattered glass in downtown skyscrapers.  Bob Oravec, lead forecaster with the weather service, said the system is expected to turn south Wednesday, bringing more severe weather to parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and southern Missouri. 

Iran's supreme leader, militias pray for late president, other crash victims

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 22, 2024 - 10:08
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Iran's supreme leader and representatives of militia groups he backs in the Middle East prayed Wednesday over the coffins of the country's late president, foreign minister and other officials killed in a helicopter crash earlier this week. Hundreds of thousands of people later followed a procession honoring the dead down Tehran's main boulevard.  Iran's Shiite theocracy views mass demonstrations as crucial evidence of its legitimacy and the people's support.  Still, Wednesday's funeral service for President Ebrahim Raisi and others saw a turnout that onlookers described as noticeably lower than the 2020 procession honoring Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad.  Many of the participants said they came to Tehran for the ceremony from other cities and towns across the Islamic Republic, an indication of how those in Iran's capital viewed Raisi, who won the presidency in a record low turnout and later oversaw repeated crackdowns on dissent — including in the wake of the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, which sparked street protests over Iran's mandatory hijab, or headscarf.  Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had openly wept for Soleimani, also remained composed while reciting the standard prayer for the dead.  "Oh Allah, we didn't see anything but good from him," Khamenei said in Arabic, the language of Islam's holy book, the Quran. Iran's acting president, Mohammad Mokhber, stood nearby and openly cried.  The death of Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and six others in the crash on Sunday comes at a politically sensitive moment for Iran, both at home and abroad.  Raisi, who was 63, had been discussed as a possible successor to Iran's supreme leader, the 85-year-old Khamenei. None of Iran's living past presidents — other than Khamenei, who was president from 1981 until 1989 — could be seen in state television footage of Wednesday's prayers. The authorities gave no explanation for their apparent absence.  Following the deadly helicopter crash, Iran set June 28 as the next presidential election. For now, there's no clear favorite for the position among Iran's political elite — particularly no one who is a Shiite cleric, as Raisi was.  During Raisi's term in office, Iran launched an unprecedented attack on Israel last month as its war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip continued. Iran has supported Hamas throughout the war and provided weaponry to the militants.  Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh attended the prayers Wednesday morning, just two days after the International Criminal Court's prosecutor said he would seek an arrest warrant for him and others over the October 7 attack that sparked the latest Israel-Hamas war. In the unprecedented assault on southern Israel, Hamas-led militants killed 1,200 people and seized 250 hostages.  The ICC prosecutor is also seeking arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for their conduct in the war, which has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and hundreds in the West Bank.  Haniyeh recounted Raisi telling him this year that the October 7 attack was an "earthquake in the heart of the Zionist entity." In a later meeting with Khamenei, the supreme leader told Haniyeh that the "destruction of the Zionist regime is feasible and, God willing, the day in which Palestine will be created from the sea to river will arrive."  Haniyeh's presence likely signaled Khamenei intends to continue his policy of arming militant groups in the wider Mideast — including Hamas, Lebanon's Hezbollah and Yemen's Houthi rebels — to pressure adversaries such as Israel and the United States. Mourners at the ceremony chanted: "Death to Israel!"  Hezbollah and Houthi representatives were also in attendance.  Statesmen from the Mideast and beyond, including Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Tunisian President Kais Saied, attended a later memorial service.  Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry was there. Cairo and Tehran have been discussing reestablishing ties severed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.  A single black turban was placed over Raisi's casket during the morning service, which signifies he was considered a direct descendent of Islam's Prophet Muhammad. People then carried the coffins out on their shoulders as chants of "Death to America!" erupted outside.  People openly wept during the procession and beat their chests, a common sign of grief in the Shiite culture. They tossed scarves and other possessions up to the semitruck driving the caskets through Tehran, with coffin attendants brushing the items against the caskets in a gesture of blessing.  One man said he and his friends took a nearly seven-hour bus trip to attend the procession. Many expressed their sympathies for the dead, including Raisi.  "He was our president, the others were pilots and a minister, how can I be indifferent about their loss?" asked Sima Rahmani, a 27-year-old Tehran woman wearing a loose headscarf despite the risk of detention by police.  Prosecutors have warned people against showing any public signs of celebrating Raisi's death, and a heavy security force presence has been seen in Tehran since the crash. Many shops and stores noticeably remained open while some took off early for a long weekend despite bulk text messages and state TV broadcasting times for the procession.  "I did not vote for Raisi in 2021 election, but he was the president of all people," said Morteza Nemati, a 28-year-old physics student at Tehran Azad University. "My presence is a way of paying tribute to him."  Meanwhile, an Iranian official offered a new accounting of Sunday's crash, further fueling the theory that bad weather had led to it. Gholamhossein Esmaili, who traveled in one of the two other helicopters in Raisi's entourage, told state TV that weather had been fine when the aircraft took off. But Raisi's helicopter disappeared into heavy clouds, and the others couldn't reach the aircraft by radio.  The Friday prayer leader from the city of Tabriz, Mohammad Ali Ale-Hashem, who was also on board, somehow answered two mobile phone calls after the crash, saying he was hurt, Esmaili said.  It wasn't clear why Iran could not at that point track the phone signal. A Turkish drone helped find the crash site. Tehran had even asked the United States, its longtime foe, for help.  "The conditions of the bodies found showed that they [died] immediately after the incident," Esmaili said. "But Ayatollah Ale-Hashem [died] a few hours after the incident."

VOA Newscasts

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 22, 2024 - 10:00
Give us 5 minutes, and we'll give you the world. Around the clock, Voice of America keeps you in touch with the latest news. We bring you reports from our correspondents and interviews with newsmakers from across the world.

China accelerates forced relocation of rural Tibetans to urban areas, report says

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 22, 2024 - 09:47
Taipei, Taiwan — In a newly released report, Human Rights Watch says China has been accelerating the forced relocation of Tibetan villagers and herders in the name of “poverty alleviation” and environmental protection since 2016. While Chinese authorities describe the relocations as voluntary, the New York-based international rights organization’s report cites more than 1,000 Chinese state media reports and government publications that it says contradict that assertion. “The news articles indicate that participation in whole-village relocation programs in Tibet is in effect compulsory,” the report said, adding that many Tibetans asked to relocate express “high levels of reluctance.” China’s official data suggests that more than 930,000 Tibetans in rural areas have been relocated since 2000, and around 76% of these relocations happened since 2016, the report said. Of that total, at least 140,000 rural Tibetans were moved as part of what authorities called “whole-village relocation.” In some cases, rural Tibetans are relocated to places hundreds of kilometers from their homes. And while some Tibetan villagers are reluctant to take part in the government’s relocation program initially, state media reports show how local authorities have used coercive measures, including repeated home visits, threats of punishment or the banning of criticism, to push these Tibetans to comply, the report said. “In some cases, officials of increasing seniority visit families to gain their ‘consent’ [while] some official reports show [local authorities] telling residents that essential services would be cut to their current homes if they didn’t move,” the report wrote. Human Rights Watch also found that higher-level authorities would routinely pressure local officials to use coercive measures to achieve the goal of relocating rural Tibetans. The higher-level authorities would “routinely characterize the relocation program as a non-negotiable policy coming straight from the national capital, Beijing, or from Lhasa, the regional capital,” the report said. Maya Wang, the interim director at Human Rights Watch, told VOA that the forced relocations are part of the Chinese government’s efforts to “assimilate” Tibetans into the majority Han Chinese society. “The whole project has an impact of transforming Tibetans’ way of life,” Wang said, adding that the relocations “undermine the Tibetan language, culture and religion.” During a press conference in 2020, China’s State Council Information Office said 266,000 rural Tibetans had been relocated to 965 areas established by the Chinese government as part of its efforts to “alleviate poverty” in Tibet. Misleading promises In addition to the “whole-village relocation,” the report said around 567,000 rural Tibetans may have been relocated as part of the government’s “individual household relocation” program since 2016. While individual household relocation involves less coercive measures, Human Rights Watch found that officials would try to gain Tibetan families’ consent by providing misleading information about the economic benefits of moving to a new place. “Surveys carried out by official scholars at relocation sites in Tibet concluded that many of those relocated ‘cannot find suitable jobs to support their families’ and ‘satisfaction with relocation is low,’” the report said. These Tibetans “have to leave their animals and move to an area near a town where they can’t farm,” Robert Barnett, an expert on Tibet at King's College London, told VOA by phone. He said in other cases, rural Tibetans are relocated to areas they are not familiar with culturally, and one of the requirements for them to find jobs in urban centers is to acquire Chinese language skills. “There are lots of question marks about whether the Chinese government thought through this strategy,” Barnett said. To help Tibetans find jobs, Barnett said the Chinese government has tried to set up industries and projects for them to work on. “I’m not sure it’s a very satisfying form of income for the Tibetans, as they’ve spent their entire lives being their own bosses,” he told VOA. In response to the report, the Chinese embassy in the United States said the assertion that Tibetans have been forcefully relocated is “entirely groundless.” “No one has been forced to become ‘transferred laborers’ in Xizang [China’s official name for Tibet] and workers of all ethnic groups in Xizang choose their professions according to their own will,” Liu Pengyu, the spokesperson of the Chinese embassy in the U.S., told VOA in a written response. Violation of international law Despite the Chinese government’s defense of its relocation program in Tibet, Human Rights Watch said the two relocation programs and other government programs that require rural Tibetans to rebuild houses or adopt “a sedentary way of life” if they are nomads have affected most of the 4.55 million Tibetan population in rural areas. “While such mass relocations of residents have been occurring elsewhere in poor rural areas in China, these drives risk causing a devastating impact on Tibetan communities,” the report wrote. Maya Wang told VOA that the involuntary nature of these relocations constitutes forced eviction, which is prohibited by international law. “This is a classic Chinese development behavior towards minorities that in many ways violates international human rights law,” she said. Some Tibetan activists worry that the mass relocation or displacement of Tibetan communities may eventually “eradicate the Tibetan identity.” “It takes many years for [a community] to flourish in one land, and you can’t easily build that in a place where you are not willing to go,” Tenzin Choekyi, a senior researcher at Tibet Watch, told VOA by phone. In her view, the implementation of the relocation policies hasn’t taken the Tibetan community’s opinions and thoughts into consideration. “The Tibetan identity is in the hands of the Chinese party-state and is being eradicated under different policy directives,” she said.

USCIS Updates Guidance for Family-Based Immigrant Visas

Effective May 22, 2024, we are updating guidance in the USCIS Policy Manual on family-based immigrant visa petitions (including Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative and, in limited situations, family-based Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant), including explaining how we handle correcting approval notice errors, requests for consular processing or adjustment of status on the beneficiary’s behalf, and routing procedures for approved petitions.

AI, deepfakes, social media influencers - India’s mammoth election sees it all 

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 22, 2024 - 09:15
New Delhi — From deep fake videos created by artificial intelligence to social media influencers who hold sway with young people, political parties in India are using all the tools of the digital age to expand their outreach to voters as the country holds its mammoth general election. AI-generated images, audio and videos have helped politicians connect directly with tens of thousands of voters. Stalwart political leaders who have died have been resurrected to cash in on their popularity. Deepfake videos of Bollywood stars criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi have gone viral before being taken down. “It’s the first time that AI has been disseminated on such a large scale,” said Divyendra Singh Jadoun, who calls himself the Indian Deepfaker and has had a packed schedule in recent months, creating synthetic content for political parties. In a country where more than 800 million people are on the internet, how will it impact democracy? “Are these uses significant enough to actually change someone’s vote? That is still an unanswered question,” says Prateek Waghre, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights group based in New Delhi. “In the Indian context, you already have political parties relying heavily on pushing certain narratives, misleading messages, etc. Over and above that, how much difference is synthetic content making is a question mark.” In a country where each parliamentary constituency has about two million voters, Jadoun and his team have created AI avatars that address voters by name to deliver personalized messages to seek their support. Then there are AI-powered chatbots that call constituents in the voices of political leaders. Plummeting costs have made it possible to do it on a mass scale. “Four years ago, it used to take us several days to create a one-minute AI video. Now anybody, even if they don’t have knowledge of coding, can take one single image of a person and an audio track to create one,” said Jadoun. During the election campaign in the southern state of Tamil Nadu where voting has now concluded, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, a tall leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam regional party who died in 2018, was seen in videos wearing his trademark dark glasses praising the leadership of his son, M.K. Stalin, the state’s current chief minister. The idea was to enthuse the party cadres. Disinformation remains the biggest challenge. Days after India’s phased election got underway last month, two videos that went viral showed Bollywood stars Ranveer Singh and Aamir Khan criticizing the government and seeking votes for the opposition Congress Party. Both were deepfakes. Another video alleging that opposition Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi had resigned from the party took social media by storm last month — his AI-generated cloned voice was used to support the claim. Jadoun said that among the enquiries he receives but turns down are requests to create deep fake videos of political opponents to tarnish their reputations. “A common way is to swap the face of the opponent leader and paste it on to a controversial comment he never made. The second is to clone his voice and make him say something he has never said to discredit him,” he said. India’s Election Commission has warned political parties against using AI to spread misinformation, but there is little regulation in place. “You can only create awareness among people,” said Jadoun. “If a video is escalating their emotions, they should pause before sharing it.” He says he labels his videos “A.I. generated,” and chatbots announce that they are A.I.-generated voices. AI is also being put to softer uses. In Tamil Nadu, where Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trying to establish its footprint in a state far away from the Hindi heartland that the Hindu nationalists dominate, AI generated versions of Modi singing popular Tamil songs helped expand his reach, according to Muralikrishnan Chinnadurai, a fact-checker based in the state. “These were widely shared. It made people see him as a more approachable, softer leader. While it may not influence older, more politically savvy people, such content has the power to impact young voters,” he said. AI is not the only new factor in India’s election. In the country with the world’s largest number of people on both YouTube and Instagram, political parties have also mobilized influencers in a campaign to woo voters. The BJP, a party that was always savvy in its use of social media, is seen as being ahead of others. In March, just about five weeks before the election got underway, Modi handed out awards to 24 prominent social media influencers at the country’s first-ever National Creators Award ceremony to promote "storytellers of a confident, assertive New India." Critics saw it as an effort to coopt them in the election campaign and create an incentive for them to endorse the government. State units of the BJP have been holding influencer meetings to persuade them to spread the message about the work the government has done. In the past year, prominent politicians and ministers have sat down with influencers for interviews. “It’s a fuzzy and pretty concerning development. The challenge is that these interactions are very different from what you would expect with a journalist,” said Waghre. “It is going to be a very soft conversation where the politician is unlikely to be challenged on claims they make and then that message is being carried to the influencer’s audience exactly as the politician wants it to go.” He says this tactic is going to be hard to regulate and over time one could result in less reliance on traditional media.

Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen elevated her country internationally, despite China challenge

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 22, 2024 - 09:02
Washington, DC and Taipei, Taiwan — Former President of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen left office May 20, passing the baton to her Democratic Progress Party’s (DPP) successor, Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai.  Analysts say her time as leader of self-ruled Taiwan saw it gain international support for a peaceful Taiwan Strait despite an increasingly assertive China – a legacy they hope President Lai can maintain.  Tsai was Taiwan’s first female leader and one of the few top female leaders in Asia and she ushered in some of the region’s most liberal laws on LGBTQ rights. Yet analysts say her foremost legacy will be the international attention and support she brought to Taiwan.  Hung-Jen Wang, a professor of politics at Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University, tells VOA that Tsai's biggest achievement was her effectiveness in getting major nations to consider and confront the possibility of China using force against Taiwan and the global impact that would be caused by conflict in the Taiwan Strait.   "President Tsai has made it clearer to everyone that the stability of the Taiwan Strait issue is not Taiwan's issue, nor is it an issue of internal affairs between Taiwan and China, but (relevant to) everyone's national interests," Wang said.  Since the 2021 Summit of the Group of Seven (G7) publicly used the phrase "the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait" for the first time, the phrase has become an indispensable part of the joint communiqués of the G7 group of economically advanced democracies. The group is Britain, Canada, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States.  Beijing claims Taiwan is a breakaway province that must one day reunite with the mainland, by force if necessary.  Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, which President Vladimir Putin has similarly claimed as part of Russia, and Moscow’s close ties with Beijing, have further underscored concerns that China could follow Russia’s lead in seizing territory by force.  China has in the past couple years increased its cross-straits threats, including military exercises, sending scores of suspected spy balloons over Taiwan, and interfering in its election with threats. Tsai increased military spending and submarine development to better defend Taiwan if China attacks.  Ryan Hass, director of the John L. Thornton China Center and the Chen-Fu and Cecilia Yen Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, tells VOA history will be kind to Tsai, who took Beijing’s saber-rattling in stride.  “I think that she has been stable, steady, pragmatic, (and) principled. She has helped create conditions that have allowed Taiwan to attract more support from the rest of the international community than at any previous time. And really sort of pushed back against the notion that Taiwan can be isolated and intimidated by Beijing,” Hass said, adding that he hopes that Tsai’s successor “will carry forward the legacy of what she has left off.” Tsai and Lai both support Taiwan’s status quo. Though Lai has in the past been an outspoken supporter of Taiwan independence, he has in the last few years softened his tone.  But Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office on Monday still denounced Lai as a “worker for Taiwan independence."  Michael Cunningham, a research fellow in The Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center, said China didn’t see Tsai as moderate, either. “China has refused to engage officially in talks, but she has been very pragmatic,” Cunningham told VOA. “In fact, all parties essentially have the same general approach to China now, which is to preserve stability, preserve de facto sovereignty. Don't rock the boat, which is very important."  China has, however, engaged in talks with leaders of Taiwan’s opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party, who blame Tsai and Lai for stoking cross-straits tensions with Beijing.  During Tsai’s eight years in office, China convinced almost half of the nations that were recognizing Taiwan as a country to switch diplomatic recognition to Beijing. Only 11, mainly small island nations and the Vatican, recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation.  Despite the lost recognition, analysts say Tsai successfully pushed trade and unofficial relationships that garnered more support for Taiwan’s status quo as a self-governing democracy.  Cunningham told VOA Tsai managed to make Taiwan well-known on the international stage. “...And in that way, she's done a great job for Taiwan diplomatically,” he said. “However, I hope President-elect Lai and his administration will be able to do a better job of holding on to the official diplomatic partners." Lai inherits a politically divided Taiwan with the KMT wanting to engage with China and weaken his presidency. Despite the tensions, Yao-Yuan Yeh, a professor at the University of St. Thomas, told VOA in a phone interview that Taiwan has already chosen its future.  "Tsai Ing-wen's biggest effort in the past eight years has been to help Taiwan choose the side of the United States in the environment of confrontation between the United States and China,” Yeh said. “That is, Taiwan will stand on the same front as democratic countries in the future." Lai inherits an unprecedented third term in a row for the DPP, coming off of high ratings for his predecessor.  The latest survey released by Taiwan's TVBS Polling Center last week showed that Tsai's policy satisfaction before leaving office was 42%, 19 percentage points higher than former KMT President Ma Ying-jeou's 23% and 29 percentage points higher than previous DPP President Chen Shui-bian's 13%.  As for Tsai’s role after the presidency, Taiwanese media reports say she plans to organize an international think tank to continue advocating for Taiwan. Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.  

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Voice of America’s immigration news - May 22, 2024 - 09:00
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Pakistan claims killing dozens of Afghan-based 'terrorists' in recent operations

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 22, 2024 - 08:04
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s military said Wednesday that its operations against a recent surge in terrorist attacks from Afghanistan, and cross-border militant infiltration attempts, have resulted in the killings of nearly 30 “terrorists" in the last month. The announcement came a day after a U.S. research group said in a report that "Afghanistan has become a breeding ground for terrorist activities” since the Taliban regained power in 2021.  While sharing details of its ongoing counterterrorism actions, the Pakistani military said it was focused on parts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan border provinces. It noted that one of the operations a week ago also led to the death of an army major. “Of late, Pakistan has witnessed a surge in terrorist incidents orchestrated from Afghan soil, wherein terrorists from Afghanistan attempt to infiltrate through the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and target security forces as well as innocent civilians,” the statement said.  Islamabad renewed its call for Kabul “to ensure effective border management” on the Afghan side, saying the Taliban government “is expected to fulfill its obligations and deny the use of Afghan soil by terrorists for perpetuating acts of terrorism against Pakistan.” There was no immediate reaction from de facto Afghan authorities to Pakistan’s assertions. The Taliban have rejected previous such allegations, saying they are not allowing anyone to use Afghan territory to threaten neighboring countries or beyond. Pakistan maintains that fugitive commanders and combatants of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, a designated global terrorist group, are using havens in Afghanistan to launch deadly cross-border attacks against Pakistanis, including security forces.  The Washington-based Center for a New American Security released its report Tuesday, saying the TTP and other regional militant groups “are active and face few constraints on their activities from the Taliban—with whom they share core ideological beliefs.” The study warned that terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan “are intensifying and an Afghan-based Islamic State affiliate, the Islamic State-Khorasan, or IS-K, “constitutes the main international concern.” It also cited a recent United Nations report that highlighted the Taliban’s close ties to al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan, noting that “al-Qaida leaders are now part of the Taliban’s administrative structure and are constructing their own training camps in the country.” On May 10, the United States hosted a bilateral counterterrorism dialogue with Pakistan, where the two sides agreed to intensify collaboration in the fight against the TTP and IS-K. A post-meeting joint statement said the two countries “recognize that a partnership to counter” the TTP and IS-K and other regional terrorist groups “will advance security in the region and help “address transnational terrorism threats.” 

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