Maryland’s Undocumented Immigrants: In Their Own Words

While reports circulate that the Trump administration is closer to resolving questions left after last week’s immigration announcement, Maryland’s undocumented residents are uncertain of what comes next.

Cindy Kolade, 24, originally from Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, West Africa, came to Baltimore with her mother when she was 12 years old.

In conversations following the White House announcement, three of Maryland’s “dreamers,” as they are often called, told Capital News Service they are worried about their future without the legal protections of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA.

“When you’re undocumented, the only thing you can rely on is your community,” said Nathaly Uribe Robledo, 22, of Glen Burnie, Maryland. “For a lot of us, this will be the first time that we will be living undocumented as adults with adult responsibilities.”

Robledo arrived with her mother from Chile 20 years ago on tourist visas, she told Capital News Service.

“I’ve been here since I was 2 years old, and I have very little memory – if any – of Chile,” she said. “All of my life and my memories, all of my special life events, have occurred here in the U.S.”

“The main reason my parents decided to come to the U.S. was the lack of opportunity in Chile,” Robledo continued. “There was so much economic instability in Chile, and coming to the U.S. meant a better opportunity for a better life.”

DACA was created in 2012 under an executive order issued by President Barack Obama shielding young undocumented immigrants from deportation and granting them two-year renewable work permits.

Jose Aguiluz, 28, was one of several hundred people gathered outside the White House awaiting the administration’s decision on Tuesday, Sept. 5th

Since the program began, almost 800,000 people have been approved. To be eligible, immigrants had to be between the ages of 16 and 31 as of June 25, 2012. They also had to have lived in the United States since 2007, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Robledo applied for her first permit in 2012 and again when the program was briefly expanded to three-year stays in 2014. She applied most recently in July.

President Donald Trump on Sept. 5 gave Congress six months to find a legislative solution to address the program. New DACA applications will no longer be accepted but undocumented immigrants who are already covered can still apply for renewal, as long it is by Oct. 5.

“I can personally say that (with DACA) I finally felt like an average, normal American teenager,” Robledo said.

She attended the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, until financial struggles forced her to withdraw in 2014. Robledo was pursuing a double major in biology and political science with dreams of becoming a representative in Congress. She now works at an insurance agency in Baltimore.

“I’m very lucky, in a way, and privileged – which is kind of an oxymoron – to be in a situation where my friends are very supportive of me and my employer is very supportive,” Robledo said.

The decision, while anticipated, felt “devastating” for Robledo.

“I know my parents have made it 20 years undocumented, and I know that I can make it if I try, but it will be hard,” she said.

“I’m just so scared of the unknown because my whole life being undocumented so far has been while I was in school,” she added. “It’s already scary enough knowing that these are the years where you’re supposed to set everything in motion for the rest of your life.”

A coalition of leaders across the country has signed a pledge supporting the DACA recipients. Among those are many Maryland politicians, including 12 state senators and four mayors.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a joint statement Wednesday that Trump “agreed to enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly, and to work out a package of border security, excluding the wall, that’s acceptable to both sides.”

Trump disputed the account on Twitter, saying that “no deal was made last night on DACA.”

“We cannot let the Trump Administration get away with tearing apart innocent families and wreaking havoc on our economy in Maryland,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, said in a Sept. 5 statement.

As of March, there were roughly 9,700 Marylanders enrolled in the DACA program, according to data from USCIS.

In Maryland, DACA-eligible dreamers are mainly found in three counties, based on 2016 data released by the Migration Policy Institute: Montgomery (roughly 8,000), Prince George’s (6,000) and Baltimore (3,000).

The DACA-eligible population in Maryland accounts for about 9.5 percent of the state’s total unauthorized population, said Jeanne Batalova, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

The majority of DACA applicants in Maryland come from four countries: El Salvador (about 7,000 recipients), Mexico (5,000), Guatemala (4,000) and South Korea (2,000), per data from the institute.

‘More than just Latinos’

Cindy Kolade, 24, arrived in Baltimore shortly after her twelfth birthday with her mother from the Ivory Coast. Kolade said she will remain covered by DACA through February 2019.

“DACA gave me a little bit of the American dream because I was able to provide for myself and provide for my family,” Kolade said. “With DACA, I’m able to help my mom with the bills.”

She and her mother came straight to Maryland because “it’s the only place I have family.”

“Baltimore shaped me into the person I am today,” she said. “I’m able to survive on my own and take care of myself.”

Kolade works as a clinical lab assistant at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. In 2014, she transferred to Towson University from Baltimore Community College. She is still in school, majoring in molecular biology.

Kolade is registered under Maryland’s DREAM Act and also under DACA, and received her first DACA work permit in October 2012.

In 2012, Maryland passed its own DREAM Act to make in-state tuition accessible for its undocumented residents, provided they attended previous schooling in Maryland.

“With DACA, I really thought I had it all for a minute,” Kolade said. “But even though DACA doesn’t give us the whole American dream…, at least it gave us a chance to go to school, work, and be part of the American society.”

Trump’s announcement has changed Kolade’s thinking.

“You’ve given us something and you’ve taken it away from us,” she said. “You still have to worry about what happens next. It doesn’t matter if it’s going to stop in March or two or three years from now. It’s really devastating because you don’t know how you’re going to survive for yourself.”

Kolade believes the administration’s decision to rescind DACA is a sign that Trump doesn’t understand that communities other than Latinos depend on the legal protections.

“Although (African populations) are a small minority, we still depend on DACA and still feel protected by it,” Kolade said.

Brian Frosh, Maryland’s attorney general, announced Monday that Maryland will join Minnesota, California and Maine in a lawsuit against the decision to end DACA.

“The callous and cavalier action taken by the Trump Administration will destroy the lives of many immigrants who were brought here as infants and toddlers, who love the United States of America, who pay taxes and abide by the law,” Frosh said in a statement. “Ending the program would constitute a $509.4 million loss to the state’s annual GDP.”

Strength in Community

“When I graduated from community college in Maryland in 2011, there was no DACA,” said Jose Aguiluz, 28, a registered nurse from Silver Spring, Maryland, who arrived from Honduras when he was 15.

“I had an associate’s degree in nursing, but I was working as an electrician to pay my bills because it was the only job I could get,” Aguiluz said. “Then DACA came along and changed my life completely within the span of four months.”

Upon receiving his Social Security number and work permit, Aguiluz told Capital News Service, he found work in his field almost immediately.

“I went from being an electrician to having a job as an RN,” he said. “After being able to work legally, I went back to school and got my bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Maryland University College.”

Aguiluz had plans to continue his education, but is now at a loss because “pretty much everything has been placed on hold.”

“I was looking at my work permit this morning, and I have a stay here until November of next year when my permit expires,” he said.

In 2012, Aguiluz worked with advocates to pass Maryland’s DREAM Act.

“It’s really heartbreaking,” he said. “I brought dreamers to the table to register, and now all that information is in the hands of the government. The Department of Homeland Security knows the phone numbers and addresses of all of us.”

Since Trump’s Sept. 5 decision, CASA, a local immigrants rights organization, is focused on helping dreamers get legal assistance before the final deadline.

“We are holding several DACA renewal clinics,” said Fernanda Durand, CASA communications manager. The clinics “help the DACA recipients renew their DACA applications.”

CASA will be holding three Maryland clinics before Oct. 5, said Durand: Sept. 16 and 30 in Langley Park and Sept. 23 in Baltimore.

Aguiluz is afraid of what so much rumor and confusion means for himself and other undocumented immigrants.

“We are in a particularly unsafe position,” Aguiluz said. “They can just go through my door and get me. It’s very stressful.”

However, Aguiluz was smiling while talking to Capital News Service.

“I don’t want to say that this is a sad occasion,” he said. “From all the indications, we knew that this was going to happen. I’m here because of my community, the community that I built when we started fighting for the DREAM Act in 2012.”

“Community is what keeps us in this fight together.”

By Helene Parshall and Chris Miller

Chesapeake College Announces Timeline for New Presidential Search

Chesapeake College’s Board of Trustees has announced the formation of a search committee to select the college’s sixth president and a process to involve members of the campus and Mid-Shore communities in identifying the qualifications, characteristics and values sought for the school’s new leader.

The 14-member Presidential Search Advisory Committee (PSAC) will be chaired by L. Nash McMahan, Vice Chair of Chesapeake’s Board of Trustees and President of Tri-Gas and Oil Co., and include four additional trustees from the Mid-Shore: Christopher Garvey, President & CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors Chesapeake Shores Chapter; Robert Grace, President & COO of Dixon Valve & Coupling Company; Mike Mulligan, retired Colonel U.S. Marine Corps and Senior Account Manager for Battelle; and Brenda Shorter, retired Kent County Schools educator.

“Nash McMahan’s experience as a CEO, civic leader and collaborator will be catalytic in helping the search committee identify qualifications and characteristics for the president that are based on widespread community input,” Chesapeake College Board of Trustees Chair Blenda Armistead said. “In particular, we felt it was important to get broad participation from the business community since the college plays such a critical role in educating and training our region’s current and future workforce.”

Additional members of the search committee include representatives from the Upper Shore Workforce Investment Board, the college’s Foundation Board and Business Council; and Chesapeake’s administration, faculty and staff.

Residents and employers in Caroline, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne’s and Talbot counties are invited to participate in the search process by completing a brief online survey on the campus website through Sept. 20 at noon. Results will be used to help develop a job description to recruit the new president.

“We have already completed individual interviews and focus groups on campus and in the community with elected officials and business leaders,” McMahan said. “The online survey gives others throughout the region the opportunity to share their ideas and priorities and the characteristics they would like to see in the new president.”

Based on this input, recruitment advertisements will be posted in October with applications accepted through the end of the year, according to McMahan.

The search committee will evaluate applicants in January and February and a list of three to four candidates will be submitted to the Board of Trustees in March. Campus and community engagement will be sought during the final interview process.

“We hope to announce our choice in the spring with the new president on campus by the start of the fiscal year on July 1,” Armistead said.

Chesapeake College Interim President Dr. Stuart Bounds is assisting the Board of Trustees in the search.

“Chesapeake College has had a deep commitment to the values and aspirations of the Mid-Shore community throughout our 50 year history,” he said. “The Board and the Presidential Search Advisory Committee will be seeking a candidate for the sixth president of the college who will build on that commitment and expand educational opportunity for all the citizens of our five-county community.”

To participate in the survey please go here

Is Maryland and the Eastern Shore Ready for the Next Big Storm?

In Maryland, which historically has ducked many of the worst storms of the last 50 years, the question is increasingly not if, but when the next big one will strike. And while some believe the state has often been spared from big hits by dint of location and the buffer of the Chesapeake, what the bay giveth it can also wash away.

Maryland has done extensive planning, including infrastructure improvements that focus on bolstering natural storm defenses to better absorb tidal surges and rainfall runoff, but there is widespread consensus among state officials and meteorologists that a massive hurricane like Harvey or Irma could overwhelm emergency services.

“None of us are exempt,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, during comments to reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday before he voted in support of the $7.85 billion Harvey relief bill in the House on Wednesday. “Every part of the country floods…we’re all subject to the vagaries of natural disasters.”

Among the storms that have not missed Maryland is Agnes in 1972, a tropical deluge widely considered among the worst to hit the state, causing 19 deaths and $110 million in damages, according to the National Weather Service. In 2003, Hurricane Isabel made landfall in North Carolina as a Category 2 storm, creating a tidal surge in the Chesapeake of more than 6 feet and flooding Maryland communities including Annapolis, Fells Point in Baltimore and Cambridge, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration records.

“It’s certainly not impossible that something like (superstorm) Sandy would happen here,” said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and one of the state’s leading climate experts.

Boesch noted that a scientific concept called stationarity, the idea that many patterns operate within a fixed range, is no longer true when applied to climate-related events like big storms.

“Terms like ‘once in 100 years’ don’t have much meaning anymore,” he explained, while cautioning that the cooler ocean waters off the nation’s mid-Atlantic coast make a Harvey-scale storm unlikely.

For coastal states like Maryland, there are two types of storms that have the most potential to create damage: those that bring tidal surges (sea water pushed inland by a tropical storm or hurricane) and those that feature much more rain than wind, which create problems with water run-off.

Both storm varieties cause flooding, but for most of Maryland it’s the latter that can wreak havoc, particularly in low-lying areas like Annapolis and parts of Baltimore around the Inner Harbor, which flood regularly under heavy rain.

“Generally, we have increasing precipitation because the atmosphere is getting warmer and this will continue,” said Konstantin Vinnikov, a research scientist at University of Maryland and the state climatologist for Maryland. “Sea level rise in the next couple of decades will make everything much more catastrophic. In Maryland, our islands are suffering with sea level rise even now.”

So it’s fair to wonder what will happen if Maryland gets pounded with a Harvey- or Katrina-level storm that dumped water on the state for days.

“Clearly, the Eastern Shore could get hit as hard as the Gulf Coast could get hit,” said Ed McDonough, spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, which is charged with coordinating the state-level response to natural or man-made disasters. “The difference is most of the people who are in harm’s way are there in summer vacationing.”

MEMA’s basic action plan in the event of a direct storm hit or deluge of rain on the Eastern Shore is to order an evacuation of residents to areas north or west. It’s something the agency did on a small scale in 2011, moving about 3,000 seasonal workers from Ocean City when Hurricane Irene swept through the mid-Atlantic region.

MEMA recently updated one of its key emergency operation plans, although its main strategic emergency blueprint, the Emergency Preparedness Program Strategic Plan, has not been updated since 2013. “Plans are kind of living documents,” said McDonough, referring to the latter. “As things happen, you modify them.”

Loss of life and property are not the only concerns in a major storm. Given the economic importance of the Chesapeake Bay, environmental damage is also a worry.

“Big storms in general are bad for the bay because they bring a lot of pollution,” said Beth McGee, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The best defense against pollution from water runoff is what are called “living shorelines,” or those that remain in their natural state, something that is on the decline in Maryland, according to McGee.

“Flooding is made worse when you have a lot of paved surfaces and rooftops,” said McGee, who also said that Maryland was “making progress” at mitigating development in sensitive shore areas, but “not fast enough.”

“There’s a fair amount of land that’s converting from agriculture and forest to developed land,” she added.

Maryland’s Coast Smart Council, a group of state and local environmental and planning groups formed in 2014, is charged with making regulations for construction and land use with this in mind. In 2016, Coast Smart’s efforts included grant assistance to help restore floodplains, reinforce beaches and protect marsh lands that can serve as a flood buffer during storms.

But will it be enough? “Until you have a storm, it’s hard to gauge,” said Matt Fleming, director of Maryland’s Chesapeake and Coastal Service, an agency that coordinates among regional, state and local governments and private organizations to protect the state’s shoreline. “I hope we’re more prepared than we were five years ago. We’ve taken steps to put us in that direction.”

Timing also matters in Maryland. Spring or early summer storms are particularly lethal to the bay’s underwater sea grasses, which are still immature at the time but serve as spawning grounds and protection for young fish and crab populations.

Although Maryland has only a short ocean-facing shoreline, its needs differ from those areas directly on the Chesapeake.

“We’ve been lucky in a lot of ways, but you know we can be on the national news with the satellite trucks here at any given time,” said Ocean City Councilman Dennis Dare, a former member of the Coast Smart Council. “That’s why we’ve spent 30 years preparing.”

For Ocean City, it is storm surge, not wind or rain, that holds the greatest potential for mayhem—or, ironically, a storm that misses that city and hits the Chesapeake directly.

“If it (a storm) goes up the Chesapeake Bay, that means the metro areas—Annapolis, Prince George’s, Howard County, Baltimore—will have severe damage,” added Dare. “The resources of the state are gonna go in those areas and the Eastern Shore…we may be left to fend for ourselves.”

If Maryland absorbs a massive drubbing like Harvey or Irma, more than the Eastern Shore will likely go begging.

“No one is going to have everything they need for a catastrophic event like Harvey,” said McDonough.

On this, there is widespread agreement.

“If we get a ginormous (sic) storm like they had in Houston,” McGee said, “that’s going to overwhelm the entire system.”

By J.F. Meils

Mid-Shore Foundation Sets Up Fund for Victims of Hurricane Harvey

In response to the catastrophic damage caused by the Hurricanes, the Mid-Shore Community Foundation has expanded its disaster relief efforts.

The Directors of the Mid-Shore Community Foundation have established a Hurricane Relief Fund to provide disaster relief to the victims of the recent Hurricanes.  The first $5,000 in contributions will be matched by the Founder’s Fund of the Mid-Shore Community Foundation.

All donations to the Fund will support relief and recovery efforts in the devastated areas.  The funds will be directed to Community Foundations, serving the areas of devastation, to provide immediate and long-term assistance.

The Mid-Shore Community Foundation is a 501(c)(3) public charity and all donations are tax deductible.  To donate, make checks payable/mail to the Mid-Shore Community Foundation (MEMO: Hurricane Relief Fund), 102 East Dover Street, Easton, Maryland 21601 or donate online at www.mscf.org/hurricane-relief-fund.  For instructions on how to transfer assets (cash or stock), please contact the Foundation at (410)820-8175.

The Mid-Shore Community Foundation is a 501(c)(3) public charity and all donations are tax deductible. Donations may be made online at https://www.mscf.org/hurricane-harvey-relief-fund/. Checks should be made payable/mailed to the Mid-Shore Community Foundation (MEMO: Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund), 102 East Dover Street, Easton, Maryland 21601. You may also transfer assets or make a grant from a Donor Advised Fund.

 

 

Maryland Immigrant Rights Supporters attack Trump Move as Cruel

Maryland’s congressional Democrats and various immigrant rights groups condemned the Trump administration’s decision Tuesday to rescind an order protecting immigrant children who were brought to the United States illegally.

Lawmakers said removing protections for such immigrants would disrupt families and be cruel to those who were not to blame for their illegal status.

As Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the decision only blocks away, a crowd of a couple hundred protesters backing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program assembled at LaFayette Park and yelled “Shame!” in the direction of the White House while beating drums.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, said the announcement signaled a “dark day in our nation’s history” and implored Congress to pass legislation to make DACA permanent sometime this month.

“I know DACA kids, I’ve actually volunteered to do applications for them,” said Priscilla Labovitz, a Takoma Park, Maryland, resident. “I was an immigration lawyer, but I retired, so I know them as human beings, as nice kids, not in some lumped up way of ‘illegals’ because nobody is illegal.”

Rev. Jennifer Butler, the CEO of Faith and Public Life, a network of 40,000 religious leaders across the country, said the decision to revoke DACA goes against the major principles she believes in as a Christian.

“It’s morally despicable. I stood out there today with young people who are mourning, who are weeping,” Butler said.

“We’re going to keep fighting,” she added. “Clergy are planning even now to take these folks into their houses and into their sanctuaries. We don’t believe in this, and we are going to oppose it every step of the way.”

Rep. Andy Harris, R-Cockeysville, was the lone congressional voice from Maryland who came out in favor of the DACA wind-down. “I strongly support President (Donald) Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy,” he said in a statement. “The Obama-era policy is a gross overreach of executive power and undermined the authority of the legislative branch. President Trump is returning that power to Congress.”

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, had the opposite reaction. “Clearly written with little thought of the human consequences, this latest action by the Trump Administration will harm our economic and national security,” Cardin said. “It will break families and drive many underground, out of work and into poverty.”

Maryland’s other Democratic senator, Chris Van Hollen, warned of the economic impact of repealing DACA.

“Over its five-year history, DACA has helped nearly 800,000 young people pursue higher education and grow our economy,” Van Hollen said in a statement. “Ending this program will cost our economy over $460.3 billion over ten years and displace over 685,000 workers vital to businesses in Maryland and across the nation.”

Roughly 9,000 Marylanders are beneficiaries of DACA, and according to Sessions’ announcement, they will remain so for the next six months, as the administration plans to use an interim period to usher out the order’s recipients.

However, any DACA requests filed after Tuesday will be rejected, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Filings for renewal for current recipients will be accepted until Oct. 5.

Sessions announced the administration’s decision to a roomful of reporters but took no questions. Trump issued a statement following the announcement.

Ending the DACA program would leave roughly 800,000 illegal immigrants subject to deportation.

A 2012 executive order by President Obama allowed people who came to the United States as children to apply for deferred action for two years at a time. Once the deferred action expired, recipients could apply for renewal.

Recipients had to have been at least 15 and under 31 as of June 15, 2012. An applicant convicted of a felony or at least three misdemeanors was ineligible.

Trump has advocated for DACA’s end since his presidential campaign and, after the seeming inevitability of its termination came to a head this weekend, urged Congress via Twitter to “get ready to do (its) job.”

“Enforcing the law saves lives, protects communities and taxpayers and prevents human suffering,” said Sessions, who three times referred to DACA recipients as “illegal aliens.”

“Failure to enforce the laws in the past has put our nation at risk of crime, violence and terrorism,” the attorney general said.

But a wide array organizations and individuals across the political spectrum, from Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and the United States Chamber of Commerce to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and California Gov. Jerry Brown, decried the administration’s move. Some pledged court challenges.

In Lafayette Park across from the White House, protesters said they were dismayed at what felt like a betrayal.

“I served in the United States military, and this is not the type of freedom I served for,” said Jaime Contreras, a vice president at 32BJ SEIU, the Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, told Capital News Service.

“It doesn’t make any sense economically or socially in any form.”

Additional protesters marched along Pennsylvania Avenue, sitting down and blocking traffic just outside the Trump International Hotel.

Sheridan Aguirre, a DACA beneficiary, called the decision to strike down the executive order “cruel.”

“We have had five years now being able to live authentically as ourselves, and it’s been a cornerstone of safety for our immediate families,” he said in an interview with CNS. “We need to heal, we need to come together to talk about what’s happening, and in the long term be able to fight for a permanent solution.”

Aguirre is a 23-year-old undocumented immigrant from Austin, Texas, who said his life’s direction was uncertain before DACA. He graduated high school in Texas in June of 2012, days before DACA was announced.

After DACA was implemented, Aguirre, then 19, became the first person in his family to get a driver’s license.

Bobbie Monahan came into the city from Baltimore with other members of her Catholic parish, St. Gabriel, Woodlawn, to support the work of CASA.

“It is a great injustice, and my faith tells me to be here,” said Monahan. “If the heads of my church aren’t moving fast enough, then we’ll get out there and show them.”

Hoyer said he would like to see DACA passed and take effect permanently.

“We will see whether or not the statements of both sympathy and support for Dreamers (by Republicans) are in fact carried out legislatively or whether or not the most strident voices within the Republican Party fomenting anger and ire directing (sic) at these young people are followed,” he said. “Hopefully they will not be.”

Hoyer would not commit to the idea of using would-be Democratic votes for upcoming bills on Hurricane Harvey relief, the debt ceiling, or a continuing budget resolution as leverage to force passage of DACA legislation.

In the meantime, Hoyer believes that DACA would pass right now if it was introduced in the House.

“I frankly think the votes are there,” he said. ‘Will there be controversy? There will because there are some people who don’t want to see anybody admitted to the U.S. and particularly anybody who came here unauthorized.”

In 2015, Hoyer signed an amicus brief along with 180 other House members including Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Reps. John Sarbanes, D-Towson, Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Timonium, John Delaney, D-Potomac, and Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, supporting Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and DACA.

“President Trump is breaking his promise to hundreds of thousands of DREAMers who were brought here as children – through no fault of their own – and today know only America as their home,” Cummings said in a statement. “Our children are the living messages we send to a future we will never see and eliminating DACA sends a terrible message.”

By Conner Hoyt, Angela Jacob, J.F. Meils, Johnny Moseman, Helen Parshall, Ashley Clarke And Changez Ali

Consumer Advocacy Group Protests CareFirst Rate Hikes

Many Marylanders face sharp rate increases for health insurance after the Maryland Insurance Agency (MIA) approved requests by CareFirst, the state’s largest insurer.

The MIA on Aug. 29 approved increases averaging 34.5 percent for CareFirst’s HMO plans and 49.9 percent for its Preferred Provider plans for the individual market for 2018. The increases granted were pared back from CareFirst’s original request for more than 50 percent increases in its rates.

Other insurance companies also requested increases. Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, which accounts for nearly a third of the statewide market, requested increases averaging 25.1 percent across its plans. Uncertainty over what Congress may do to reform or possibly repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was largely to blame for the requested rate increases, according to a July report in the Baltimore Sun.

Leaders of Consumer Health First, the statewide consumer policy and advocacy organization, expressed deep concern about the effects of such a high rate increase on Marylanders and the stability of the state’s insurance marketplace.

The state’s decision will have devastating consequences for consumers and the long-term sustainability of the individual market,” said Leni Preston, president of Consumer Health First. “These rate increases are inconsistent with CareFirst’s statutorily mandated mission to provide affordable and accessible health insurance to its members.”

The premium hikes will especially harm Marylanders who do not qualify for a federal subsidy and could further destabilize the marketplace as healthier CareFirst customers either find a different carrier or drop coverage completely, Consumer Health First said in a news release Tuesday.

Beth Sammis, former acting commissioner of the MIA and a Consumer Health First board member, said, “It is time to hold CareFirst accountable for its performance in the individual market. CareFirst needs to demonstrate it is doing all it can to build a partnership with health care providers and consumers in the individual market to improve health and lower costs.”

Sammis called on the president and Congress “to take the steps necessary to guarantee the federal government will pay insurers the amount due for subsidies.” She said, “Failure to make these payments will result in even higher rate increases.” 

We also urge Governor Hogan and our elected officials to move forward with state programs to stabilize the individual market, such as a state reinsurance program, and to require the Commissioner to consider CareFirst’s statutory mission when reviewing rate filings in the future,” added Sammis.  

A previous analysis by Consumer Health First raised a number of concerns about CareFirst’s justification for its proposed hikes to premiums. It said that CareFirst remains on solid financial footing, with a surplus far exceeding what is required by law for a health insurer, despite its losses on the individual market since 2014.

Opposition Grows to Seismic Testing For Offshore Oil Reserves

Scientists are worried that an executive order issued by President Trump earlier this year that seeks to open large portions of the mid-Atlantic and other coastal areas to oil and gas exploration would harm the endangered North Atlantic right whale and other species that occasionally visit the Chesapeake Bay.

Trump’s order, issued April 28, would reverse a 2016 policy from the Obama administration that outlawed drilling in federal waters off portions of the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific coasts and the Gulf of Mexico. The order also instructed federal agencies to streamline the permitting process to speed approval of seismic testing to locate oil and gas reserves in those areas.

But the action is increasingly unpopular with many elected officials along the East Coast. In July, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced his opposition to further offshore exploration. And the attorneys general from nine East Coast jurisdictions — including those from Maryland, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia and Delaware — submitted comments opposing additional surveys.

“The proposed seismic tests are themselves disruptive and harmful,” Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said in a statement. “Worse, they are the precursors to offshore drilling that would put the Chesapeake Bay at risk to drilling-related contamination. That contamination would have catastrophic impacts on fragile ecosystems and important economies. This is a foolish gamble with our precious natural resources.”

Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia is the lone Southeastern governor supporting marine oil exploration, saying he “never had a problem” with seismic testing. While 127 municipalities have passed resolutions against the tests, only five are in Virginia.

But coastal Virginians’ unease with seismic tests appears to be growing. In July, the city council of Norfolk passed a unanimous resolution opposing both offshore drilling and seismic testing, citing threats to marine life, local fisheries and wetlands that offer vital protection from rising seas. The previous month, the city council of Virginia Beach also voted to oppose offshore drilling.

The seismic testing has raised particular concern because of its potential impact on marine life. The tests are conducted by firing seismic air guns from ships “every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, at a noise level that would rupture a human eardrum,” according to the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that was among 10 organizations that filed suit May 3 over the executive order. Among the plaintiffs’ contentions is that seismic blasts “could deafen and even kill whales, dolphins and other animals.”

The University of Rhode Island, in partnership with NOAA, has created a website called “sound in the sea,” through which visitors can click to hear what seismic air guns actually sound like when heard several thousand kilometers away underwater.

Cetaceans — whales and their relatives — use specialized echolocation for almost all of their activities, including hunting, migration, courtship and communication, but they are extremely sensitive to underwater sound vibrations, scientists say. Right whales, whose population is thought to number only around 500, could be at particular risk, they say.

Last spring, 28 top marine mammal scientists specializing in right whales signed a statement declaring unequivocally that for this species, already facing a “desperate level of endangerment,” widespread seismic surveys may well represent a tipping point toward extinction.

To locate new sources of undersea oil, companies employ compressed-air guns that blast powerful acoustic waves through the water and into the seafloor. Each seismic test can affect an area of more than 2,500 square nautical miles, raising background noise levels to 260 decibels, approximately equaling the epicenter of a grenade blast. This can go on continuously for weeks or even months, according to a 2013 report released by the international body carrying out the United Nations sponsored Convention on Biodiversity.

Scientists say potential harm is not limited to large marine mammals. The testing could also harm zooplankton — microscopic invertebrates that constitute the core of the marine food chain for everything from shrimp to baleen whales. In a June 2017 study published in the journal Nature, a team of marine ecologists found that their air gun tests decreased zooplankton abundance and caused a two–to threefold increase in dead adult and larval zooplankton. The study concluded that there was significant potential for negative impacts on the ocean ecosystem’s functions and productivity.

In May, 133 environmental and civic organizations sent a joint letter to U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, asking him not to proceed with the Trump administration’s plan to expand offshore oil drilling and related seismic testing, citing “unacceptable risks” to ocean wildlife and ecosystems as well as human populations on the coast.

But Zinke followed up on the president’s executive order with an order of his own on May 11, setting the seismic testing in motion. “Seismic surveying helps a variety of federal and state partners better understand our nation’s offshore areas, including locating offshore hazards, siting of wind turbines, as well as offshore energy development,” Zinke said in a statement. “Allowing this scientific pursuit enables us to safely identify and evaluate resources that belong to the American people.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service has also proposed authorizing more than 90,000 miles of active seismic blasting which, based on the results of the Nature report, would constitute “approximately 135,000 square miles,” according to the Natural Resource Defense Council.

Reflection seismology, as the geophysical exploratory process is called, uses concussive compressed air to send a sudden shock of sound beneath the ocean surface. Oil deposits can be detected by a geological interpretation of sounds, or reflections, that bounce back. Reflections are gathered and collated by floating hydrophones, also called towed arrays or streamers.

“When a mammal is exposed to an audible sound of high intensity and long duration,” said Maria Morell, a specialist in marine mammal acoustics in the University of British Columbia’s zoology. “The sensory cells of the inner ear can suffer mechanical and metabolical fatigue.” This can lead to temporary or permanent hearing loss, she said.

The seismic testing, she said, just adds to the cacophony that Atlantic’s marine mammals endure every day, including everything from ship engine noise and military activities to acoustic deterrent and harassment devices.

Ingrid Biedron, a marine biologist with the conservation group Oceana, said that Trump’s call for offshore drilling may be difficult to enact under federal law. “Current proposals conflict with the Marine Mammal Protection Act,” she said. “They also conflict with the Endangered Species Act because several endangered whale species use the area proposed for seismic air gun blasting.” Citing a federal study, she said that as many as 138,000 whales and dolphins could be harmed and up to 13 million disturbed if the seismic testing is allowed.

The recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ocean Noise Roadmap recognizes that “sound is a fundamental component of the physical and biological habitat that many aquatic animals and ecosystems have evolved to rely on over millions of years.”

By William H. Funk

William H. (Bill) Funk is a freelance environmental journalist whose work for the Bay Journal centers on wildlife, forestry, rivers, farming and other land use issues in the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley.

Chesapeake and Dorchester YMCA Organizations Merge

Over the past year, volunteer leaders from the Dorchester County YMCA in Cambridge, Maryland and the YMCA of the Chesapeake have been exploring the benefits that could come from working more closely together. Those efforts led to both volunteer Board of Directors voting to merge the two charities together. “Bringing these two YMCAs together expands our ability to invest more into the communities we serve, strengthen programs and services, and maximize efficiencies to make a bigger impact in the lives of children, families and adults across the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia.” said YMCA of the Chesapeake Board member and Committee Chair Mark Welsh. The merger is slated to be completed in early September.

When the two charities officially merge together, the YMCA of the Chesapeake will be the largest human service organization on the Eastern Shore serving over 35,000 members. “With ten YMCA branches across the Shore, and another two dozen points of contact, the YMCA has the depth and breadth to tackle key community issues like the achievement gap, youth obesity and adult onset diabetes.” stated Mary Ann Moore, Past Board Chair for the Dorchester Y and Merger Committee Chair. “Our mission is focused around doing the most good for the most people and bringing these Ys together helps us further our cause.” The Dorchester County YMCA will keep its name and continue to be led by a local Board of volunteers.

Established on the Shore in 1857, the Y provides financial assistance for membership, programs and services turning no one away due to the inability to pay. In 2017, the YMCA will provide over $1,500,000 to over 15,000 people to ensure the Y is a place where everyone is welcome. Dorchester Y Board Chair Lee Grier echoed his excitement for the merger, “The Dorchester Y and the YMCA of the Chesapeake have the same cause and the same culture. We’re both working to strengthen the communities we call home. As we explored the opportunity to bring the two Ys together, it was evident that we could make a bigger impact working together than we ever could working alone.”

YMCA members will have access to facilities, programs and services across the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia as a part of the merger at no additional cost. The YMCA will employ over 850 staff and is currently one of the largest employers of first time work force employees. “Bringing these Y’s together gives us the ability to recruit, grow and develop and retain local talent who have a passion for serving others through the work of the Y and want to live and work on the Shore.” stated YMCA of the Chesapeake CEO Robbie Gill. “This merger is a big win for communities across the Shore and we’re excited to work together to make a positive difference in the lives of those we’re blessed enough to serve.”

Old Wye Grist Mill Seriously Damaged after Hard Rains Hit Region

It was a somber day for the Friends of Old Wye Grist Mill, and the Eastern Shore community as a whole, after a torrential downpour hit the Mid-Shore a few days ago. The historic Wye Mills site experienced serious flooding in its aftermath.

The water wheel had water above the axle, and the entire lower museum area remains flooded. The water coming from the Mill Pond has also flooded the entire area where Route 213 intersects Route 662, while the bridge over the stream was closed for a time because it was covered with water.

It’s going to be a major project for the Friends of Wye Mill, Inc. to restore the Mill, and they express the hope that those who love to Grist Mill will consider donating the repairs that will be needed.

Volunteers to help clean up after the water recedes will also be gratefully welcomed. The small non-profit organization is staffed by a small, dedicated group of volunteers. The Mill, which was established in 1682 is the oldest water-powered mill in continuous use in the U.S., and the oldest commercial establishment in continuous use in Maryland. It’s a priceless historical resource that must be preserved for present and future generations.

Donors and volunteers are asked to contact the Friends of Old Wye Grist Mill here to help.

A John Smith Historic Discovery or a Double-Cross by Tom Horton

Coastal geologist Darrin Lowery, among the Bay region’s premier finders of ancient artifacts, tells cautionary tales about how discoveries are not always as they seem.

There was the fork inscribed “Davy Crockett” that he found poking out of an eroding Delmarva Peninsula coastline, which turned out to be a 1955 Disney commemorative product, and a 4,500-year-old spear point penetrating a castoff Frigidaire. Go figure.

“Proving anything from the archaeology of a single day is virtually impossible,” Lowery said.

The two-and-a-half inch brass cross found on Mockhorn Island was determined to at least 400 years old, but later tests showed it contained an epoxy that wasn’t developed until 1937. (Dave Harp)

But then there came the blistering, buggy day Lowery and two colleagues virtually tripped over a small brass cross as they surveyed one of the Eastern Shore’s remotest shorelines on Mockhorn Island, VA.

If the little cross was what they had reason to think it might be, it would be one of the most significant archaeological finds made around the Chesapeake.

They found it on June 20, 2010 — 402 years and 17 days after Capt. John Smith sailed into the area near the Chesapeake’s mouth. A day out from Jamestown, Smith had just embarked on his famous voyages of exploration during the spring and summer of 1608 that literally put the Bay on the map.

Smith’s map, remarkably accurate by standards of the time, was further distinguished by showing where Smith had nailed up metal crosses to mark where he and his crew had actually explored.

Before this, none of the crosses had ever been found. According to the map, though, one such cross had been placed just south of the modern-day town of Oyster, which is just across a narrow bay from Mockhorn Island. For years, Lowery had been developing a hypothesis that Smith had not gone ashore near Oyster, as historians had long assumed, but a few miles east, on Mockhorn.

An authenticated John Smith cross where Lowery’s team found it would have dramatically boosted his theory. As Lowery would have been the first to tell you —though findings since the discovery have raised at least as many questions as they’ve answered.

Katherine Ridgway, the conservator at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, shows a cross found at Mockhorn Island and the original X-ray she made that revealed the second hole in the cross’s base. (Dave Harp)

It was a compelling discovery. As a coastal geologist, Lowery knew the sandy barrier islands lining Virginia’s Atlantic coast are among the most dynamic of all landforms, changing shapes at the whim of storms, currents and rising sea levels on time scales as short as decades.

By dating marsh sediment cores, old oyster beds, dune soils and other features around Mockhorn and Smith Island just to the southeast, he was fairly sure that John Smith had sailed into a very different landscape than exists there now.

Back then, Smith Island (named for the explorer, unlike the Smith Island in the Maryland Chesapeake, which is named for an early settler) was shaped and oriented differently from today. According to Lowery’s research, deep water flowed up the eastern side of Mockhorn, where now it would be difficult to paddle a kayak. On the island’s western side, where a broad channel now separates it from the mainland, only a narrow, barely discernible opening existed in 1608.

By Lowery’s reckoning, Smith most likely came around the tip of Delmarva and ventured up the eastern, Atlantic-facing side of Mockhorn. The island’s forested ridges, shown on Smith’s map, would have prevented his landing party from seeing that it was separated by water from the mainland (that is, the Eastern Shore).

Darrin Lowery, right, discusses an artifact with Norm Brady in Lowery’s study. (Dave Harp)

But it all happened a long time ago, in a dynamic, ever-shifting environment. And other than the map, there is no record or description of the 24 or so crosses that Smith said he nailed up (or, in places, carved into tree trunks) throughout the Chesapeake and its rivers.

But despite Lowery’s published theory, and close to a hundred visits to Mockhorn, which is rich in artifacts from 13,000 years of human habitation, the geologist said he was never on a “cross hunt.”

“We were just doing coastal archaeology, surveys under contract to the state of Virginia . . . doing our business,” explained Norm Brady, a retired arborist and longtime sidekick of Lowery on his expeditions. “We’d kid about it sometimes: ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if we found the cross?’ But not seriously.”

Then, in June of 2010, Brady recalled, he literally stepped on it. He was walking along the shore ahead of Lowery and another assistant, and never noticed the ancient-looking brass cross lying there. It was about 2.5 inches in height and width, blackened by exposure and showing the imprint where a barnacle had been attached.

Lowery, coming up behind, plucked it from Brady’s boot print. “They caught up and said, ‘Norm, you just stepped on John Smith’s cross’ ” Brady remembers. “I wasn’t happy because I’d broken it.”

Now, seven years later, Lowery often seems to wish he’d never found the cross. Even the moment of discovery that day in 2010, he explained, was not the “eureka” moment the casual beachcomber might assume.

“I guess after finding tens of thousands of artifacts over the decades, I don’t get excited much anymore, especially when I find an object that is outside of my knowledge base (i.e. historic vs. prehistoric),” Lowery said in an email. “As always, you have to go back home and put all the pieces together before you know what you have.”

Lowery notified Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources, which agreed that he should seek to have it tested for possible authenticity. That was when things did get exciting, he said.

In 2011, testing by the Smithsonian Institution found that the cross was old enough to be from John Smith’s time. It was about half copper, a quarter to a third lead, mixed with tin, zinc and iron in lesser amounts. Subsequent research indicated it might even date to the 9th century — possibly a “pilgrim’s badge,” worn by someone making a religious pilgrimage. A hole in the top of the cross might have enabled someone to insert a metal ring and wear it.

Lowery was advised by Virginia officials to hold onto the cross. It was 2014 before he would turn it over to the state, which by law owns artifacts found on public lands like Mockhorn. More testing by Virginia’s historic resources department would confirm the Smithsonian’s finding about its age.

“We had people on both sides of [whether the cross was authentic], but it seemed a real possibility that it might be John Smith’s cross,” said Michael Barber, Virginia’s state archeologist. “It was exciting.”

Last October, though, that excitement turn into something that Lowery said he felt bordered on accusation. He and Brady were in Williamsburg to present results of contractual survey work to archaeologists. The day before, the two had uncovered some previously unknown archaeological sites on Virginia’s Rappahannock River. Brady mentioned to Barber that “he wouldn’t believe” what they had found.

“I probably won’t,” Barber replied, according to a lengthy account of the cross affair Lowery has recently published online, called “Coastal Geomorphology and the Search for John Smith’s First Landing Site.” Lowery said he thought the comment “odd, but I shrugged it off.”

Later that day, Barber showed Lowery and Brady an X-ray of the cross done as part of Virginia’s further authentication process. It showed a hole in the bottom of the cross, which had been filled, apparently to conceal it. The X-ray analysis determined that the bottom hole, the same diameter as the visible top hole, was as old as the rest of the cross. But what had been used to fill it was not. More tests had revealed the hole had been plugged with a mix of clay and a modern epoxy, invented in Germany in 1937 and still in use. In fact, epoxy coated the whole cross.

“The meeting took on the aura of an investigation,” Lowery wrote in his online account. He recalled that Michael Madden, a federal archeologist present with Barber during the discussion, advised him that “we know you have a lot of enemies in archaeology and you should find out who might have planted the metal cross.”

In an interview, Madden said, “[Being tricked] has happened to other archaeologists. People screw with people all the time, and archaeology is no different.”

Barber, in a separate interview, added: “All we can say for sure is the science was done, and the cross didn’t stand up as authentic. We’re done with it — time to move on.”

Lowery acknowledged that his “bubbly personality,” as he puts it, has rubbed some people the wrong way in the relatively small and sometimes competitive world of Chesapeake archaeology. “The one course I failed miserably in all my years of training” — he holds a Ph.D. in coastal geology — “was kiss-ass 101,” he said.

His friends will confirm that. “Darrin is from Tilghman Island,” said Brady, “and down there they say what they think, and if you’ve got an ego, you might get pissed off.”

Could someone have played a nasty trick? Brady and Lowery both think it’s wildly unlikely someone might have taken a John Smith era cross, cleverly altered it so that it would eventually be found a fake, and then actually have been able to “plant” it in a wave-washed shoreline zone on remote and inaccessible Mockhorn Island, so that it would be discovered that day.

“There was no one else in sight that day,” Brady said. “No one even knew we’d be out there looking then.”

Lowery wondered out loud in his online paper whether the cross might have been altered once it passed from his hands for testing. The Smithsonian appears to have no documentation of how it did its analysis, and the woman who did the tests retired soon thereafter to Boston. Brady says he was told she was ill, and his attempts to contact her have proven fruitless.

Katherine Ridgway, a conservator with the Virginia archaeologist’s office who handled the state’s analyses, says the Smithsonian testing was a non-invasive process (i.e. it wouldn’t have required drilling a hole or destroying a sliver of the cross). She said it would not have necessarily revealed the second hole or the epoxy.

The epoxy finding, she said, was made by Winterthur, a DuPont museum of decorative arts in Delaware that has “some of the best” facilities for such an analysis.

“Their finding is solid,” Ridgway said, “and unfortunately it means there is no way that cross can ever be linked to John Smith.”

No one has ever publicly suggested the almost unthinkable — that Lowery might have obtained and planted the cross, not knowing of the epoxy in it. He has always been a prolific discoverer of artifacts, and from time to time one hears that Lowery seems uncommonly “lucky.”

My own observation, based on trips afield with Lowery over the last couple decades, is that for both work and pleasure he spends more time exploring the region’s coastal edges than most. He uses his considerable expertise in coastal processes, such as erosion and sea-level rise, to deduce where Americans Indians likely ranged through the millennia. He knows where to look and when — after big storms have exposed new soils, for instance.

“I’ve asked Darrin, what is it he looks for to find artifacts — shapes, colors, textures.” Brady explained. “He basically seems to just integrate it all at once. . . . Sometimes I’ll try to fool him, bring him an artifact I showed him years ago, and he always recognizes it.”

Barber said that Virginia will hold onto the cross, “put it with the bottle caps and other detritus of history.” Lowery and Brady, who tried unsuccessfully to get it back for more testing, seem resigned.

“I’ve moved on,” Lowery said. “You find lots of weird stuff along the shoreline…let’s just call it that.”

By Tom Horton

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University.