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Denials of U.S. immigrant visas skyrocket after little-heralded rule change

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WASHINGTON/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – When Arturo Balbino, a Texas construction worker, walked into his visa interview at the American consulate in the northern Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez in March, he wasn’t nervous. He felt good.

Arturo, 33, a Mexican migrant, who was denied a visa to the United States, reacts next to his sons Juan (C), 10 and Javen, 6, inside their house in Neutla, Guanajuato state, Mexico, April 9, 2019. Picture taken April 9, 2019. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Balbino, a 33-year-old Mexican national who had entered the United States illegally 14 years ago, thought he had a strong case for a spousal visa: a wife and children who are U.S. citizens, a father-in-law who had pledged in an affidavit to financially support him if necessary, and a letter from his employer guaranteeing him an $18-per-hour job upon his return.

    When he went for the interview, he was at the final step of legalizing his status, which would, he hoped, pave the way for a more stable life for himself and his family.

Instead, the consular officer denied his application on the grounds that he could become a drain on U.S. taxpayers by requiring government financial assistance, according to documents reviewed by Reuters.

    That decision stranded Balbino in Mexico indefinitely and upended his family’s life.

    More and more aspiring immigrants – especially Mexicans – are being denied visas based on determinations by the U.S. State Department that they might become “public charges,” dependent on the government for support, according to official data and interviews with attorneys, immigrants and their family members.

    Lawyers for some immigrants say consular officers are denying visas even when applicants fulfill legal requirements to prove they will be financially independent.

    The refusals, capping an often complex and lengthy application process, can trap people for months or longer outside the United States, separated from American spouses and children, as they renew their efforts to legally return. Some may never be able to go back.

One reason for the rise in refusals are little-known changes last year in the State Department’s foreign affairs manual that gave diplomats wider discretion in deciding visa denials on public-charge grounds.

The changes occurred in January 2018 as the Department of Homeland Security was preparing a separate, highly controversial proposal to restrict immigration on public-charge grounds. The regulation, officially proposed in October, received more than 200,000 public comments, which will likely take months longer to fully evaluate.

     Some critics say the State Department is using a back door, tightening immigration policy without going through a similarly high-profile rulemaking process.

     “The State Department is trying to bypass public comment and implement changes to public-charge (policy) all on its own,” said Charles Wheeler, an attorney with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. “These changes are already having a terrible effect on people.”

The State Department declined to comment, citing pending litigation over the manual changes.

    In the lawsuit in a Maryland federal court, the government rejected accusations that the manual changes are motivated by any antipathy toward immigrants and argued that such “guidance” is not subject to court review or laws requiring public comment.

    The guidance, government lawyers wrote in a February court filing, is neutral and implements a long-standing U.S. law meant to exclude immigrants who are likely to become burdens on the United States.

The government acknowledged in the filing that the guidance “could potentially lead” to more frequent public-charge denials.

    The changes to the manual are not the only reason for the increase in refusals of immigrant visa applications on public-charge grounds. Those have risen since 2015, when fewer than 900 were issued, according to government data.

    But after the manual changes in January 2018, the refusals shot up. In the 2018 fiscal year, which ended in September, nearly 13,500 immigrant visa applications were refused on public-charge grounds – quadruple the number in the previous fiscal year and the highest total since 2004.

FEWER VISAS FOR MEXICANS

Although the State Department does not release visa refusal data by nationality or consulate, immigration lawyers said public-charge enforcement is particularly rigorous at the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez, where all Mexican immigrant visa applications are processed.

Mexicans received 11 percent fewer immigrant visas in fiscal year 2018 compared to 2017. That compares to a 4.6 percent overall decline in such visas to people of all nationalities during that period.

    Previously, the State Department typically considered an “affidavit of support,” signed by an American citizen or permanent resident offering to act as a sponsor of the immigrant, sufficient evidence that the person would not become a government burden, immigration lawyers said.

To qualify as a sponsor, a person must make at least 125 percent of the U.S. poverty level for that person’s household size. According to the affidavit from Balbino’s father-in-law, seen by Reuters, he made almost $90,000 a year – tens of thousands of dollars more than the government requires for a household of his size.

Now, according to the manual, the affidavit is just one factor among many. Consular officers are also now allowed to consider past or current use of public benefits – including health and nutrition services. And that includes use by an immigrant’s family, even if they are citizens.

Under the previous version of the manual, consular officials were not permitted to consider the use of non-cash benefits.

Balbino’s children’s use of the Medicaid program for low-income households and food stamps was an issue that came up in his visa interview, along with questions about his father-in-law’s commitment to supporting him, Balbino said.

    TRAPPED IN MEXICO

Public-charge denials can be particularly devastating for people like Balbino, who entered the United States illegally, built lives and have an opportunity to legalize their status through marriage.

It’s a complex process, but one many immigrants like Balbino are willing to complete. U.S. law requires people who have been present in the United States illegally for longer than six months to leave and remain abroad for several years before attempting to re-enter.

    But visa applicants can ask for waivers that allow them to return more quickly. Balbino obtained such a waiver in 2017. Once a visa is refused on public-charge grounds, however, such waivers are revoked, trapping the person outside the country for months or years.

With Balbino’s waiver now revoked, his wife, Darlene, is considering moving with her children to Balbino’s hometown in the Mexican state of Guanajuato. She doesn’t work and is struggling to pay the bills.

“We can’t make it on our own any more,” she said.

    Because the family is so strapped, two of the five children, aged 6 and 10, have already been sent to live with Balbino – a move they are finding difficult. “They’ve spent their whole life in the United States,” Balbino said in an interview. “They don’t speak much Spanish.”

Slideshow (2 Images)

The 6-year-old boy had been receiving therapy for a speech impediment at his Texas school, but after the move to Mexico his speech has started to regress, said Darlene Balbino, who is still in Texas with her two older daughters and a toddler while she figures out what to do next.

Her husband is contemplating the possibility that the family will be apart for years.

“At times I want to think that everything will be okay and I’ll be able to be with my family again,” Arturo Balbino said. “It’s very difficult to think that I won’t be able to return to watch my children grow up.”

Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Washington and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Julie Marquis and Ross Colvin

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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EV

Tesla investigates video of parked Model S exploding in Shanghai

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SHANGHAI (Reuters) – U.S. electric vehicle (EV) maker Tesla Inc said it has sent a team to investigate a video on Chinese social media which showed a parked Tesla Model S car exploding, the latest in a string of fire incidents involving Tesla’s cars.

FILE PHOTO: A Tesla logo is seen on a wheel rim during the media day for the Shanghai auto show in Shanghai, China April 16, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo

The video, time stamped Sunday evening and widely shared on China’s Twitter-like Weibo, shows the parked EV emit smoke and burst into flames seconds later. A video purportedly of the aftermath showed a line of three cars completely destroyed.

Reuters was not immediately able to verify the origins of the videos, which Weibo users said were taken in Shanghai.

The cause of the explosion could not be immediately ascertained from the videos.

“We immediately sent a team onsite and we’re supporting local authorities to establish the facts. From what we know now, no one was harmed,” Tesla said in a statement on Monday.

It declined comment further when contacted by Reuters.

There have been at least 14 instances of Tesla cars catching fire since 2013, with the majority occurring after a crash.

The automaker has said its EVs are about 10 times less likely to experience a fire than petrol-powered cars, based on its fleet of over 500,000 vehicles which have driven more than 10 billion miles. It did not specify whether the statistic referred to normal use or involving accidents.

REPUTATION

The latest incident comes as Tesla tries to push sales in China, where its prices were impacted by tit-for-tat tariffs imposed during Sino-U.S. trade tensions last year.

The automaker currently imports all the cars it sells in China, but is building a factory in Shanghai that will initially make its Model 3 and help reduce the impact of a trade war.

In March, Tesla was also on the receiving end of a labeling mix-up at Shanghai customs that led to a temporary suspension of clearance for a batch of Model 3 cars.

Analysts said the latest fire incident would likely increase attention on the safety of EVs but was unlikely to have a significant impact on Tesla’s sales or reputation in China while the cause was being investigated.

“Tesla had fire incidents before, but they didn’t have a big impact on its reputation in China,” said analyst Alan Kang at LMC Automotive.

“Since its consumer base is not particularly conservative, and China is pushing the electric vehicle market, if this incident is just accidental, it will not have a big impact on Tesla,” he said.

“Tesla self-ignites” was one of the most popular hashtags on Weibo on Monday, racking up over 20 million clicks. Some users urged the automaker to quickly find the cause, whereas others speculated over the impact to the value of Tesla cars currently on the road. Still more found humour in the situation.

“One lesson I learnt from the Shanghai self-exploding Tesla: Don’t park your car next to a Tesla,” said one commentator.

In a separate, unrelated incident, Tesla’s rival in China, Nio, said in a social media post that an ES8 electric sport utility vehicle caught fire on Monday in a Nio service center in the central city of Xian while under repair.

“Nio has launched an investigation to determine the cause of the fire,” Nio said, adding no one was harmed due to the incident.

Reporting by Brenda Goh and Yilei Sun; Editing by Christopher Cushing an Himani Sarkar

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U.S. prepares to end Iran oil waivers; Asian buyers to be hardest hit

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WASHINGTON/SINGAPORE (Reuters) – The United States is expected to announce on Monday that buyers of Iranian oil need to end imports soon or face sanctions, a source familiar with the situation told Reuters, triggering a 3 percent jump in crude prices to their highest for 2019 so far.

FILE PHOTO: Gas flares from an oil production platform at the Soroush oil fields in the Persian Gulf, south of the capital Tehran, July 25, 2005. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/File Photo

Officials in Asia opposed the expected move, pointing to tight market conditions and high fuel prices that were harming industry.

The source confirmed a report by the Washington Post that the administration will terminate the sanctions waivers it granted to some importers of Iranian oil late last year.

Benchmark Brent crude oil futures rose by as much as 3.2 percent to $74.31 a barrel, the highest since Nov. 1, in early trading on Monday in reaction to expectations of tightening supply. U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) futures climbed as much as 3 percent to $65.87 a barrel, its highest since Oct. 30.

U.S. President Donald Trump wants to end the waivers to exert “maximum economic pressure” on Iran by cutting off its oil exports and reducing its main revenue source to zero.

In November, the U.S. reimposed sanctions on exports of Iranian oil after President Trump unilaterally pulled out of a 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and six world powers.

Washington, however, granted waivers to Iran’s eight main buyers – China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Italy and Greece – that allowed them limited purchases for six months.

On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will announce “that, as of May 2, the State Department will no longer grant sanctions waivers to any country that is currently importing Iranian crude or condensate,” the Post’s columnist Josh Rogin said in his report, citing two State Department officials that he did not name.

On April 17, Frank Fannon, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources, repeated the administration’s position that “our goal is to get to zero Iranian exports as quickly as possible.”

Peter Kiernan, lead energy analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) said “a severe loss in (Iranian) volumes will put pressure on the supply side, given the political uncertainty currently blighting other oil exporters, such as Venezuela and Libya.”

Oil markets have tightened this year because of supply cuts led by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

As a result, Brent prices have risen by more than a third since January, and WTI by more than 40 percent.

Analysts said they expected the Trump administration to push OPEC and its de-facto leader Saudi Arabia to stop withholding supply to calm market fears of oil shortages.

“If there is a time for the U.S. to be able to take a hard line it is now, with the Saudis having over 2 million barrels (per day) of spare capacity,” said Tony Nunan, oil risk manager at Mitsubishi Corp in Tokyo.

Trump spoke with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by phone last week, and the White House said he used the call to discuss ways of “maintaining maximum pressure against Iran.”

ASIA HIT HARDEST

An end to the exemptions would hit Asian buyers hardest. Iran’s biggest oil customers are China and India, who have both been lobbying for extensions to sanction waivers.

Geng Shuang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said at a daily news briefing in Beijing on Monday that it opposed unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran and that China’s bilateral cooperation with Iran was in accordance with the law.

He did not say whether China would heed the U.S. call to cut Iran oil imports to zero.

Dong Xiucheng, director of energy policy research at Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics, said “Chinese companies may reduce imports from Iran to show some level of compliances” but added “it is impossible for China to cut off Iranian oil completely, simply because it does not conform to China’s long-term diplomatic policy.”

In India, refiners have started a search for alternative supplies.

The government, however, declined to comment officially.

“We are engaged with the U.S. administration on this matter and once the U.S. side makes a comment on this matter, then we will come up with a comment,” said a source at India’s foreign affairs ministry who declined to be named.

“I expect India to fall in line with the sanctions,” said Sukrit Vijayakar, director of Indian energy consultancy Trifecta.

South Korea, a close U.S. ally, is a major buyer of Iranian condensate, an ultra-light form of crude oil that its refining industry relies on to produce petrochemicals.

Government officials there declined to comment, but Kim Jae-kyung of the Korean Energy Economics Institute said the end of the sanction waivers “will be a problem if South Korea can’t bring in cheap Iranian condensate (for) South Korean petrochemical makers.”

Japan is another close U.S. ally in Asia that is also a traditionally significant buyer of Iranian oil.

The government also declined to comment ahead of an official U.S. announcement, but Takayuki Nogami, chief economist at Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC), said the end of the sanction waivers “is not a good policy for Trump.”

Nogami said he expected oil prices to rise further because of the U.S. sanctions and OPEC-led supply cuts.

Prior to the re-imposition of sanctions, Iran was the fourth-largest producer among the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) at almost 3 million barrels per day (bpd), but April exports have shrunk to well below 1 million bpd, according to ship tracking and analyst data in Refinitiv.

(GRAPHIC: Iran crude oil & condensate shipping departures – tmsnrt.rs/2IBQF06)

Reporting by Susan Cornwell in WASHINGTON and Henning Gloystein in SINGAPORE; Additional reporting by Aaron Sheldrick and Yuka Obayahi in TOKYO, and Jane Chung in SEOUL, Meng Meng in SHANGHAI, Nidhi Verma in NEW DELHI, Koustav Samanta and Chen Aizhu in SINGAPORE; Editing by Marguerita Choy, Christian Schmollinger and Tom Hogue

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Ukraine enters uncharted new era after comedian wins presidency

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KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine entered uncharted political waters on Monday after near final results showed a comedian with no political experience and few detailed policies had dramatically up-ended the status quo and won the country’s presidential election by a landslide.

The emphatic victory of Volodymyr Zelenskiy, 41, is a bitter blow for incumbent Petro Poroshenko who tried to rally Ukrainians around the flag by casting himself as a bulwark against Russian aggression and a champion of Ukrainian identity.

With 95 percent of votes counted, Zelenskiy had won 73 percent of the vote with Poroshenko winning just under 25 percent, the central election commission said.

Zelenskiy, who plays a fictitious president in a popular TV series, is now poised to take over the leadership of a country on the frontline of the West’s standoff with Russia following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support for a pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

Declaring victory at his campaign headquarters to emotional supporters on Sunday night, Zelenskiy promised he would not let the Ukrainian people down.

“I’m not yet officially the president, but as a citizen of Ukraine, I can say to all countries in the post-Soviet Union look at us. Anything is possible!”

Zelenskiy, whose victory fits a pattern of anti-establishment figures unseating incumbents in Europe and further afield, has promised to end the war in the eastern Donbass region and to root out corruption amid widespread dismay over rising prices and sliding living standards.

But he has been coy about exactly how he plans to achieve all that and investors want reassurances that he will accelerate reforms needed to attract foreign investment and keep the country in an International Monetary Fund program.

“Since there is complete uncertainty about the economic policy of the person who will become president, we simply don’t know what is going to happen and that worries the financial community,” said Serhiy Fursa, an investment banker at Dragon Capital in Kiev.

WEST WATCHING CLOSELY

The United States, the European Union and Russia will be closely watching Zelenskiy’s foreign policy pronouncements to see if and how he might try to end the war against pro-Russian separatists that has killed some 13,000 people.

U.S. President Donald Trump phoned Zelenskiy and pledged to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity, while European Council President Donald Tusk congratulated the Ukrainian people on what he called a show of democratic maturity.

Zelenskiy said on Sunday he planned to continue European-backed talks with Russia on a so far largely unimplemented peace deal and would try to free Ukrainians imprisoned in Russia, which is holding 24 Ukrainian sailors among others.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who only last week signed a decree limiting exports of some Russian coal, crude oil and oil products to Ukraine, said Moscow and Kiev now had a chance to improve what he called their destroyed economic relationship, but said he was not harboring any illusions that it would necessarily happen.

Writing on social media, Medvedev asked what was needed to achieve better relations between the two countries. “Honesty. And pragmatism and a responsible approach,” he said.

Zelenskiy has pledged to keep Ukraine on a pro-Western course, but has sounded less emphatic than Poroshenko about possible plans for the country of 42 million people to one day join the European Union and NATO.

Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy reacts following the announcement of the first exit poll in a presidential election at his campaign headquarters in Kiev, Ukraine April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

Poroshenko, who conceded defeat but said he planned to stay in politics, said on social media he thought Zelenskiy’s win would spark celebrations in the Kremlin, which has yet to comment on the comedian’s victory.

Critics accuse Zelenskiy of having an unhealthily close working relationship with a powerful oligarch called Ihor Kolomoisky, whose TV channel broadcasts his comedy shows.

Zelenskiy has rejected those accusations and promised not to be unduly influenced by Kolomoisky.

One of the most important and early tests of that promise will be the fate of PrivatBank, Ukraine’s largest lender, which was nationalized in 2016.

The government wrested PrivatBank from Kolomoisky as part of a banking system clean-up backed by the IMF, which supports Ukraine with a multi-billion dollar loan program.

But its fate hangs in the balance after a Kiev court ruled days before the election that the change of PrivatBank’s ownership was illegal.

Zelenskiy has repeatedly denied he would seek to hand PrivatBank back to Kolomoisky if elected or help the businessman win compensation for the ownership change.

The IMF will be watching closely too to see if Zelenskiy will allow gas prices to rise to market levels, an IMF demand but a politically sensitive issue and one Zelenskiy has been vague about.

Zelenskiy’s unorthodox campaign traded on the character he plays in the TV show, a scrupulously honest schoolteacher who becomes president by accident after an expletive-ridden rant about corruption goes viral.

Slideshow (29 Images)

He has promised to fight corruption, a message that has resonated with Ukrainians fed up with the status quo in a country that is one of Europe’s poorest nearly three decades after breaking away from the Soviet Union.

(Election graphic – tmsnrt.rs/2EEQ22R)

Additional Reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Natalia Zinets, Andrei Makhovsky and Polina Ivanova in Kiev and by Steve Holland in Washington and Foo Yun Chee in Brussels; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Marguerita Choy, Michael Perry and Kirsten Donovan

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