Thursday, October 31, 2013




          When the history of this fall’s partial government shutdown and debt limit battle is written, it may well list as one prime victim the pathway to citizenship long sought by undocumented immigrants.

          That’s because despite President Obama’s loud talk about pressing forward with his agenda on changes to the nation’s immigration rules, time grows short.

          Even if there were many months before the 2014 election season, the fate of immigration changes giving unauthorized immigrants some hope of eventually becoming citizens and improving the legal status of young immigrants often called “Dreamers” would be uncertain.

          That’s because Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have been reluctant for many months even to allow a vote on the compromise comprehensive immigration bill passed by the Senate last June, one that would greatly beef up border security at the same time it eases life and creates new hopes for the undocumented.

          “We’re committed to moving forward on step-by-step comprehensive reforms,” a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said in an oxymoron of an email.

          But Republicans have not begun to act on even one bill dealing with any substantial aspect of immigration since the Senate passed its proposal and it moved to the House, where it has been trapped in committee ever since. The only one discussed in detail may be filed by San Diego County’s Darrell Issa, who says he wants to offer current unauthorized immigrants six years of legal residency – but no path to citizenship.

          Conservative Republicans have threatened to oust Boehner as speaker if he allows a floor vote on the Senate measure. They know it would likely pass in its present form with votes from almost all 201 Democrats in the House and a few Republicans acting out of fear that if they voted “no,” their reelections could be threatened by the rising number of Latinos in their home districts.

          If the Senate bill never gets a floor vote, those GOP Congress members can say they favored the pathway to citizenship many conservatives describe as “amnesty” when they run next fall, even if they never voted for it. A classic example might be Jeff Denham, whose Modesto-centered district now is more than 42 percent Hispanic. Denham days ago became the first Republican to sign onto the House Democratic version of the Senate’s bill.

          Long before Boehner allowed the floor vote where Democrats and some Republicans ended the fall government shutdown and the threat of national default, GOP back-benchers warned they would fire him if he did anything like that with immigration. The Tea Party-oriented far right faction that actually controls the House Republican Caucus let him allow one floor vote; he could be an ex-Speaker and top lieutenant Eric Cantor an ex-majority leader if they do it on this issue.

          So it’s unrealistic to expect any wide-ranging House action this fall, even if some in Congress create smaller bills to deal with specific immigration questions.

          But next year will bring an election season, often a time of paralysis because most politicians fear making controversial votes that might remain fresh in voters’ memory at ballot time.

          It would take passage of five or six specific-issue bills by the House to generate a House-Senate conference committee that might craft something comprehensible by combining a House mishmash with the Senate bill. Not likely to happen.

          Which means it is still unclear what the majority of House Republicans have in mind for the 11 million undocumented immigrants now living in this country, about one-fourth of them in California.

          It is clear, though, that only about two months remain this year, a time that will be filled with congressional recesses for holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. That leaves precious little time for action, in combination with a House majority that’s demonstrated it is reluctant to move at all.

          So it's most likely the outcome of this year’s long-running immigration debate will be nothing. Don't expect anything much next year, either. Which will probably push the entire issue over into 2015, when Congress might have a substantially different makeup, especially if Latino voters go to the polls to vent their frustration over all this.

    For more Elias columns, go to Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His email address is




          Just in case anyone doubts the need for a lot more transparency in political fund-raising, a remarkable settlement just obtained by California’s campaign finance watchdog and accompanying demands for disgorgement of previously undisclosed donations should erase all doubt.

          The extraordinary thing about the settlement and the commission orders wasn’t the $1 million in fines assessed on two political committees, even though that’s an all-time record. Eclipsing the big fines were the volume of donor cash and the sheer hypocrisy revealed when one political committee inadvertently revealed its major contributors.

          This case was all about two 2012 ballot propositions and the money spent for and against them by two Arizona political nonprofits tightly linked to the Kansas-based billionaire industrialist brothers David and Charles Koch, well known for funding ultra-conservative causes and the Tea Party.

          There was no hypocrisy when their committees, the innocuously-named Center to Protect Patient Rights and Americans for Responsible Leadership, funneled more than $28 million of other people’s cash into campaigns. The cash was used against Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s initiative temporarily raising some state taxes, and for Proposition 32, a failed attempt to limit unions’ political power. Still, the two committees now must pay a combined $1 million for not disclosing donors before last year’s votes.

          Then there’s Los Angeles developer and philanthropist Eli Broad, the B in the giant development firm KB Homes.

          Broad during the campaign publicly supported Brown’s tax increases. “Those of us that are wealthy like myself should pay more,” he said.

          But he apparently contributed $500,000 to the campaign against the proposition. Oh, this hasn’t been formally disclosed or acknowledged. But redacted records obtained and then released by the state Fair Political Practices Commission show someone with the first name Eli, last name blacked out, with a 12th floor office in a Wilshire Boulevard building at a five-digit address in Los Angeles, made the contribution. Broad’s foundation has an office on the 12th floor at 10090 Wilshire.

          There was also Charles Schwab, principal of the eponymous San Francisco-based investment and brokerage firm, identified in a similar way. Nominally apolitical, Schwab apparently kicked $6.4 million into the two campaigns.

          It’s not exactly a fine, but the FPPC is also demanding that a California group called the Small Business Action Committee, which used $11 million from those secret donations and others on the campaigns, hand that amount over to the state by Nov. 30.

          “The money is all gone, all spent on the campaign. We don’t have that amount and it’s unlikely we could get it by the deadline,” says Joel Fox, head of the small business group and founder of the Fox & Hounds daily political blog, also nominally non-partisan. Because this case is unprecedented, it’s unclear what might befall Fox, a former head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., and his enterprises if he doesn’t pay.

          “We did report everything we knew (about donors) at the time,” he wrote in an email. “We think this is a misapplication of the disgorgement law and are going to fight it.”

          In all, 132 wealthy donors kicked significant cash into these two campaigns. Brown turned their secretiveness against them, making convenient bogeymen of the Kochs and others presumed at the time to be hidden donors (no one guessed Broad or Schwab were among them).

          But Brown, the ultimate savvy political veteran, was uniquely equipped to turn big donations against the causes of those donors. Not many future initiative backers and opponents will be so skilled. So full disclosure is a must for the public to know who’s behind what.

          Had voters passed a 1990s-era initiative demanding that all TV commercials and newspaper ads for or against ballot propositions identify their leading donors in type matching the largest anywhere else in the ads, there would have been no secret about all this. It would have been clear that billionaires were spending tens of millions to protect their interests, regardless of what they might have said at the same time.

          That is the kind of information California voters need, and it’s up to the Legislature to demand it, even if that requires lawmakers to offend some of their own donors.

    Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His email address is

Thursday, October 24, 2013




          No American immigration program draws as mixed reviews as the H-1B plan that allows U.S. companies to import foreign workers when there are no qualified Americans available to do the same jobs.

          Large California high-tech companies like Cisco Systems and Intel love the program, often said to allow in 65,000 workers per year, all of whom must leave immediately if they lose their jobs. In actuality, the total imported often exceeds 90,000 and in 2010 came to 117,409.

          The companies constantly pressure Congress to increase the number of visas available, claiming they need imported talent and have used it to fuel their well-publicized successes. They claim America does not have enough qualified, available (read: unemployed or newly graduated from college) workers to fill their demand.

          But some U.S. workers, principally members of engineers' organizations, many of whose members lost jobs during the recession, say H-1Bs are used to drive salaries down at their expense. Fully 16 percent of all H-1B visas go to California companies and their immigrant workers.

          For sure, most H-1B workers who lose their jobs whether for recession-related reasons or anything else, actually go home quickly. Nevertheless, a large number stay in the areas to which they were brought, often becoming off-the-books motel clerks or freelance computer instructors paid in cash or personal checks, with income never reported to federal authorities.

          That’s a failing, for sure. But the main problem with H-1B visas is that there has never been a test to determine if U.S.workers are available before foreigners are hired and visas issued.

          “Do not confuse H-1B demand with labor demand – they’re not the same thing,” Jared Bernstein, author of a Brookings Institution report on H-1B use, told a reporter. “Lot of employers,” he suggested, seek visas despite “a climate with very high unemployment even among skilled workers. Below-market wages are a real concern here.”

          Bernstein says he found evidence of employers using H-1Bs to force down wages. In short, American workers know that if their salary demands get too high, they can be replaced by workers from India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and many other countries.

          In fact, Chileans are assured 1,400 H-1B visas each year under a free trade agreement, while 5,400 visas go each year to citizens of Singapore under another trade pact. None of those count toward the nominal 65,000 annual limit

          There is bipartisan concern in Congress over the likelihood that H-1Bs put Americans out of work, led by Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois and Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa. But their efforts at a fix have gotten nowhere.

          That’s partly because high-tech firms spread campaign money around widely and liberally.

          But the flaw remains. It is employers who must file initially for H-1Bs, and they are a far cry from hiring only persons with advanced degrees. In fact, a special category of H-1B adds 20,000 visas a year atop the purported 65,000 limit, going to workers with master’s degrees or higher credentials earned at American universities. This effort aims to keep in this country some of the foreign talent that’s regularly trained here.

          But relatively few in the basic 65,000 quota possess advanced degrees or credentials. Most are not high-level researchers and software engineers, as high-tech firms often try to bill them. Rather, they may be laboratory technicians or even assembly-line workers.

          One big problem singled out by the Brookings study was that some companies which file labor condition applications (LCAs) where they affirm  there are shortages of qualified workers include more than one type of worker in each such filing. Some companies are more straightforward, like Microsoft, which files a separate LCA for each H-1B worker.

          One of the most remarkable things about the H-1B controversy is that conservative politicians who normally inveigh loudly against illegal immigration say almost nothing about it. Neither President Obama nor his 2012 challenger Mitt Romney ever said anything significant on the subject.

          So it remains a lingering sore point for many highly trained, but unemployed American workers. The bottom-line fact is that neither the Departments of Labor nor Homeland Security ever makes sure the workers brought in on these visas are actually needed, rather than merely a convenient, exploitative money-saver for big corporations.

    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




          Alex Maese is an example of how mistaken critics can be when they claim, as they have for decades, that Californians are not smart or sophisticated enough for direct democracy via ballot propositions.

    Maese was convicted in 1997 of possessing a fragment of a cotton ball containing 0.029 grams of heroin, then sentenced to life in prison. No court at the time saw evidence of how he was using that tiny drug dose to self-medicate post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from his service in Viet Nam.

    Stanford Law School students learned of his case and in 2008 convinced a Kern County judge to release Maese on the basis of the 11 years he had already served. Having completed a residential drug rehab program, he now lives in Los Angeles.

    Maese’s case and the trivial offense that triggered his harsh sentence under California’s Three-Strikes-and-You’re-Out law was typical of those that spurred voters almost precisely a year ago to pass Proposition 36 by an overwhelming 69-31 percent margin.

    Now it has become clear that initiative is working well. And Proposition 36 is far from alone. The 2008 Marsy’s Law, passed as Proposition 9, today forces notification of victims and their relatives whenever there’s a bail or parole hearing for persons accused or convicted of harming them.

          The 1988 Proposition 103 still keeps California car and property insurance rates below national averages. There are many more examples.

          But Proposition 36, the most recent significant initiative success  story, is also among the most humane measures voters have ever passed.

          Designed to mitigate some of the obvious overkill spawned by the 1990s-era Three Strikes sentencing law, this initiative so far has produced the early release of more than 1,000 convicts whose third strikes were as minor as stealing a car jack from an open tow truck or shoplifting a pair of shoes for a child.

          An estimated 2,000 more similar prisoners are probably in line for release in the next year or so, with hundreds more yearly now spared long prison terms for petty offenses. This is one reason there’s some hope of success for new plans to comply with federal court orders to lower prison populations.

          When all the eligibles are released, Proposition 36 will be saving taxpayers more than $70 million yearly.

          That’s the upshot of an autumn report from the Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

          The good news in this study of three-strikers released to date is that so far, they haven’t committed many new crimes. Their recidivism rate of about 2 percent is well under the statewide average of 16 percent committing new offenses within similar time periods after release.

          The early results demonstrate the soundness of voters’ instincts in softening Three Strikes to make its maximum 25-years-to-life sentence apply only when the third felony conviction is for a violent or serious crime. The law also allows prisoners serving sentences now deemed excessive by the voters to seek resentencing.

          The humanity of the initiative was demonstrated in the Stanford-NAACP report with several individual cases successfully pursued by law students in the lead-up to Proposition 36.

          Besides Maese, for example, there was Gregory Taylor, who broke into a church soup kitchen in 1997 and took food, getting a life sentence for his trouble. Released in 2010, he helps manage a sober-living community.

          It’s probably too early to know how many similar success stories will emerge from the early releases spawned by Proposition 36. Or how many failures there will be.

          But early signs look positive, with judges having granted resentencing under the new law to almost all those requesting it, as lawyers make their way through the least controversial cases first.

          The bottom line: If those released get substance abuse counseling, mental health services and transitional housing, there’s every reason to expect the early results to hold up.

     Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to