Online shopping, extended sales dim, don’t defeat, Black Friday frenzy

Written with Wissam Melhem. Published Friday, Nov. 29, 2019 on Cronkite News.

WASHINGTON – Earlier sales and expanded online shopping options have cut into Black Friday’s appeal, but they have yet to knock it from its position as the elbow-throwing, hectic start of the holiday shopping season for many.

Call it Blackish Friday.

The National Retail Federation said there are still 115 million consumers who are considering shopping Friday, part of a five-day stretch in which 165 million are likely to shop.

“For some families, it is a tradition they will not pass up,” said Michelle Ahlmer, executive director of the Arizona Retailers Association.

“I still anticipate that it is going to be a big weekend and for some people it kind of emphasizes that it’s time to shop,” she said. “A lot of people have that weekend aside to take care of everything.”

Not all shoppers are waiting.

Michelle Skupin, senior director of marketing and communications at RetailMeNot, said that holiday sales are now beginning as early as the first week of November, as retailers try to meet consumer demands and stand out from the competition in stores and online.

The coupon-collecting company said it has seen more retailers release deals earlier in 2019 than ever before, with top retailers rolling out specials almost a week earlier than previous years.

“It’s a spreading out of what used to be many years ago at this point, a concentrated discount holiday of Black Friday and Cyber Monday,” Skupin said. “Consumers drove some of those demands. They started shopping and looking around earlier.”

Analytics company RetailNext predicts that even though Black Friday will have the highest one-day number of shoppers in the year, it will not generate the most sales. Black Friday was overtaken last year by Super Saturday – the last Saturday before Christmas – and it is expected to repeat this year.

For many, Black Friday remains both a kickoff to the holiday shopping season and an annual family tradition rolled into one. (Photo by tshein/Creative Commons)

“As Black Friday deals start earlier and earlier, especially this year, instead of starting later, you’re going to expect that all of the sales to erode the spike of that day,” said Lauren Bitar, the head of retail consulting at RetailNext.

While some stores are kicking off holiday sales earlier than usual, others are opting out of the Black Friday frenzy entirely.

REI will close its stores for the fifth consecutive year as part of its Opt Outside movement to encourage its employees and consumers to spend their Black Fridays outdoors.

This year, the outdoor-gear company is organizing cleanup efforts across the nation on Black Friday, including one in Phoenix where REI workers will join other local groups picking up trash along the lower Salt River.

Jay Parks, an REI local experiences market manager in Arizona, said in an email that the state park system had been a “solid Opt Outside” partner since the program began.

“They provide park entry passes to our local REI store locations and have helped us spreading the word by promoting the day,” he said.

But for others, Black Friday shopping remains a part of the holiday season that is as integral for families as gathering around the Thanksgiving table or settling in for holiday movie marathons.

Katherine Cullen, senior director for industry and consumer insights for NRF, said that sentimental attachment to the dedicated day of shopping plays into the day’s staying power.

“It’s a time not only to kind of focus on gift shopping and finding great deals, but also to spend time with your family, whether it is browsing items online from the comfort of your couch on Thanksgiving Day and spending time with your family or heading to the store together,” Cullen said.

Advocates urge immigrants to act fast, as higher citizenship fees loom

Published Nov. 27, 2019 on Cronkite News.

WASHINGTON – Immigration experts and advocates in Arizona are urging people to file their paperwork as soon as possible as federal agencies eye steeper processing fees across a broad range of citizenship forms.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced plans this month to raise the fees it charges for everything from applying for naturalization to renewing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protection, from asylum requests to petitions to suspend removals from the U.S.

Acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli said the increases, which average 21% across all forms, are need to cover the “true cost” of business for the agency, which is almost entirely dependent on fees for its budget. Without the new prices, the agency said it could be underfunded by $1.3 billion a year.

But advocates who guide people through the various applications fear that the fee increase will prevent people from applying.

“This is not good business. This is not good American values. And it’s going to bring a lot of hardships to communities that already live in hardships,” said Petra Falcon, executive director of Promise Arizona.

Among changes proposed by the agency, the cost of filing for naturalization would rise 83%, from $640 to $1,170, while DACA recipients would see a 55% increase in the cost of a renewal application, from $495 to $765. The agency has also proposed a new $50 fee for refugees granted asylum, and a whopping increase in the cost of applying for delayed removal, from $285 to $1,800.

In addition to paying for current services, the agency said the additional money is needed to more thoroughly vet applicants through social media screens and in-person interviews, shorten processing times and hire more employees to handle the workload. The agency also plans on hiring more than 6,400 employees with the money.

“USCIS is required to examine incoming and outgoing expenditures, just like a business, and make adjustments based on that analysis,” Cuccinelli said in a news release.

The agency, which got just under $143 million in funding from Congress in fiscal 2019, last raised fees in 2016. Cuccinelli said it relies on fees for 96% of its budget.

Organizations advocating for immigration reform said the USCIS’ plan sends “a clear message that Americans value citizenship.”

“It’s a balancing act that USCIS has to do with these applications,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies. The fees, she said, have “been underpriced for a very long time.”

“It’s about time to adjust those fees so that they can avoid delays,” she said.

Rising application fees are nothing new: Those applying for naturalization in 1989 were charged $60, less than one-tenth the current fee.

Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, said that while the increases are not unique to any administration, she questioned the need for some of the expanded services under the latest proposal.

“Part of the fee increase would’ve happened under any administration, under any policy regime, as costs go up over time. But part of the fee increase is probably the result of policy decisions that the administration is making,” Gelatt said.

She also noted that the proposal calls for transferring $207.6 million from USCIS to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But Matthew O’Brien, director of research for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, called the increase a reasonable approach by an agency that operates largely on the money it raises. The higher fees also indirectly help deter threats from abroad, he said.

“Charging responsible filing fees for immigration benefits sends a clear message that Americans value membership in our civic community and we will not carelessly hand out that privilege to those who are not willing to pay their own way,” he said in an emailed statement.

But Falcon said current fees already present a hurdle to applicants otherwise “eager” to complete the process.

“We’re helping people as much as we can to get in before the deadline, both at the DACA level and at the citizenship level,” she said.

Falcon and other members of her nonprofit are leading education campaigns about the fees, while encouraging people to oppose the increase. A public comment period that runs through Dec. 16 had attracted 4,256 comments by Wednesday.

Ruben Reyes, a Phoenix-based immigration attorney, said he has advised his clients to naturalize as soon as they are eligible.

“Waiting for a better time doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the horizon,” Reyes said.

Preterm births inched up in Arizona, but 2018 rate still beat nation

Published Nov. 7, 2019 on Cronkite News.

WASHINGTON – Rising rates of preterm births in 30 states – Arizona included – are a sign that health care providers are “failing our many mothers and babies,” maternal and infant health advocates said Thursday.

Their comments came as the March of Dimes released its 2019 report card that showed a slight increase in the number of Arizona babies born too soon, from 9.3% in 2017 to 9.5% in 2018. That was still better than the national average, which also inched up last year to just over 10% of babies in the U.S. born preterm.

Arizona is one of 11 states to earn a “C+” on the report card released this week for its overall performance. But it is also one of the states where the gap between the overall preterm birth rate and rates for racial and ethnic groups was wider than the national average.

Breann Westmore, government affairs and advocacy director for March of Dimes in Arizona, said her chapter realizes there is work to be
done, but she is still “extremely proud” of the state’s improvements in recent years. Preterm births have fallen from 10.2% in 2008.

“I want to make it clear: We understand there’s still a problem,” Westmore said. “It’s not that we think getting a C is really exciting. We definitely are excited about the changes we see that will impact making that grade better.”

Among the changes helping Arizona’s standings is a recently passed health reporting law and the state’s expansion of Medicaid, said Stacey Stewart, March of Dimes president and CEO. The law requires the state Department of Health Services to review maternal mortality reporting protocol and recommend changes.

Although Stewart said both factors are promising signs, it is still on states such as Arizona to meet the rest of mothers’ and infants’ needs.

“The fact of the matter is that we as a country are just not doing well by moms and babies,” Stewart said. “That’s why we consider this to be the most dangerous developed nation to give birth.”

The report considers any birth before 37 weeks of gestation a preterm birth, which it said can lead to long-term health problems and even infant death. But while preterm birth rate in Arizona was 9.3% in 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that there wer just 5.7 infant deaths per 1,000 live births that year – or an infant mortality rate of 0.57%.

-Cronkite News graphic by Kailey Broussard

The report found that preterm birth rates worsened in Maricopa, Mojave, Pima and Pinal counties, while improving in Yavapai and Yuma counties. Black and Native American mothers in the state saw the highest rates of preterm births.

Westmore said the state chapter has been focused no reviewing morbidity data and working with partner organizations to address implicit biases in care provided to mothers.

A state law signed in April established a 13-member committee to recommend enhancements for data collection and reporting for the Arizona Maternal Mortality Review, as well as release a report on maternal deaths in the state. That report is due to the state legislature at the end of the year, according to Gov. Doug Ducey’s website.

The state also received a $10.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to improve health outcomes for all women in the state.

Arizona’s March of Dimes organization and partners such as the Department of Health Services and the Public Health Association are also exploring ways to reduce toxic stress among expectant mothers, which may contribute to higher rates of complications during and after pregnancy.

“We are not surprised by the grade because we’re constantly looking at and evaluating the data,” Westmore said. “We know the progress we have made here.”

Six states and Puerto Rico got an “F” on the March of Dimes report card. Oregon had the lowest preterm birth rate, at 7.8%, while Mississippi saw the highest rates, at 14.2%.

The March of Dimes aims to lower the national preterm birth rate to 8.1% by next year to curb the leading cause of infant death in the U.S. The organization has asked that states extend comprehensive Medicaid coverage for all women to at least one year after birth; establish mortality review committees; and offer group prenatal care enhanced reimbursements.

House OKs permanent ban on mining 1 million acres around Grand Canyon

WASHINGTON – The House voted 236-185 Wednesday to permanently ban uranium mining on just over 1 million acres around the Grand Canyon, on a largely party line vote in which each side accused the other of fear-mongering.

Republicans said the bill would do little to protect the Grand Canyon while killing mining jobs and making the U.S. reliant on other countries – some hostile – for uranium for our power and weapons.

But Democrats said the real threat is to the contamination threat the mining poses to a popular natural treasure and to residents of the area, including tribes that live in and around the canyon. In a news conference after the vote, they called it a major step toward safeguarding spiritual and cultural lands.

“In 2019, our Havasupai voices were heard after 30 years,” said Carletta Tilousi, a councilwoman for the Havasupai Tribe, said after the vote.

The victory lap came hours after Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, blasted the bill during House debate as a threat to national security and to northern Arizona’s environment and economy. He claimed the bill would gut up to 4,000 jobs and cost the state $29 billion in economic activity.

“This has nothing to do with the Grand Canyon. This has everything to do with monopolization and removing part of the segment that we promised future generations,” Gosar said.

Gosar also accused Democrats of using Native American tribes and the public as “pawns” by suggesting that the bill would affect the park itself.

“It’s sad when we use them as pawns,” Gosar said on the floor of the House. “When we have a press conference and they don’t even know what they’re coming to the press conference for. That’s sad. America, wake up.”

The bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, called Gosar disrespectful for suggesting tribes that had spent decades fighting new uranium mines in the region did not know what was at stake.

“To make those comments is not only insulting to all of us, but particularly mean to the people who have been fighting this fight for so long,” Grijalva said.

He rejected arguments that the bill would hurt Arizona’s mining industry, saying it is time to stop “rehashing the same worn-out arguments.”

-Cronkite News video by Heather Cumberledge

“The idea that we need to mine around the Grand Canyon to meet our energy needs is false,” Grijalva said during debate. “There is ample data to show it, and national security and nuclear nonproliferation experts have routinely raised the alarm this fear mongering about supplies is based on fantasy.”

Grijalva was joined by Arizona Democratic Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick of Tucson, Tom O’Halleran of Sedona and Greg Stanton of Phoenix, in cheering the proposal as a way to protect the Colorado River. Grijalva pointed to mines on both the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon that he said contaminated millions of gallons of water before they produced ore.

Former Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar in 2012 imposed a 20-year moratorium on new uranium and other hardrock mining permits 355,000 acres in the Kaibab National Forest, more than 600,000 acres owned by the Bureau of Land Management, and nearly 24,000 acres where ownership is split between private owners and the federal government.

The House bill would make that moratorium permanent, if it is passed by the Senate and signed into law by the president. Critics called both steps unlikely, but Grijalva said Wednesday he is optimistic about the bill’s chances in the Senate.

Critics include Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson, who said he sees no negative impacts from uranium mining on the area – but a big downside from not mining.

“People want to talk about climate change and carbon footprints. Nuclear reactors are carbon-free, and bring a lot of inexpensive power that people have come to rely on,” he said.

Johnson, who has testified previously before committees on the bill, said uranium mining in the Grand Canyon is vital to national security and clean energy development.

“We have the richest uranium deposits here in Arizona,” he said. “Without being able to mine that, we’re totally dependent upon foreign uranium to run our nuclear reactors and our ships at sea and all the things that we need for our military.”

But Kevin Dahl, Arizona senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said there is too much at stake in mining that close to the Grand Canyon to even take the chance.

“The risk is too great. Mining companies have forever said, ‘There will be no impact,’ and, ‘We’ll clean this up,’” Dahl said.

Money to burn: Forest Service wildfire fund ends its year in the black

Published Oct. 25, 2019 on Cronkite News.

WASHINGTON – For the first time in nine years, the U.S. Forest Service ended the fiscal year without depleting its fire suppression budget and having to borrow money from other projects to continue fighting wildfires.

Experts credit cooler and wetter weather that helped suppress wildfires around the country this year, and said they expect coming years will again see more costly firefighting operations.

But they also hope that the service may have turned a corner by ending this year in the black, just as a new funding formula takes effect that should prevent such “fire borrowing” in the future.

“I think it’s good news from a lot of perspectives that they’re ending up in the black this year and didn’t have fire borrowing,” said Zander Evans, executive director of the nonprofit Forest Stewards Guild, before adding that any future fire season “is unlikely to be this good.”

“In some ways, we got lucky,” he said.

The National Interagency Fire Center reports that since Jan. 1, there have been nearly 44,000 wildfires that burned more than 4.5 million acres of land across the U.S. That compares to more than 50,000 fires that covered more than 8 million acres at the same time last year.

A Forest Service spokeswoman said the drop in fires this year is due in part to cooler temperatures in the Southwest, increased snowpack in the Northwest and more precipitation in the Southeast.

That allowed the Forest Service to avoid resorting this year to “fire borrowing,” which it has been forced to do in 13 of the last 17 years.

Fire borrowing describes the practice of pulling funds from unrelated Forest Service projects around the U.S. after the agency has exhausted its main and reserve funding to contain or extinguish fires. In Arizona, for example, fire borrowing in the past has affected projects ranging from forest maintenance to trails to habitat for the threatened Chiricahua leopard frog.

But lawmakers and experts hope fire borrowing will become a thing of the past. Beginning this year, the departments of Agriculture and the Interior will be able to tap a separate $2.25 billion fund to continue firefighting once the Forest Service’s $1 billion main suppression fund has been exhausted. That fund is scheduled to grow by $100 million a year for the next seven years.

Arizona lawmakers welcomed the so-called “fire-funding fix,” even as they said longer-term solutions are needed.

Ben Goldey, spokesman for the Western Caucus, said the caucus chairman, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, supports “any measure” to improve land management.

“The Forest Service needs flexibility and the proper tools to manage overgrown forests and brush lands that help fuel catastrophic wildfires,” Goldey said. “Fire borrowing is the unfortunate result of years of failed forestry policies, diverting much-needed funds for wildfire suppression.”

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said increased funding for fire suppression is always welcome, but he is not sure the fix is a long-term solution. He said other federal agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, should shoulder more the cost of wildfires.

“These are natural catastrophes that we should respond to and not be robbing the Forest Service budget of other things,” he said.

While fires were down nationally, Arizona has seen nearly twice as much fire activity this year as last, according to Tiffany Davila, public affairs officer for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Management.

She said heavy monsoons in late 2018 spurred plant growth and pushed back this year’s monsoon season. But the wildfires have since caught up, burning around 365,000 acres have burned in Arizona in 2019 – nearly twice the acreage that burned at the same point last year.

“We’re starting to see drought conditions affect the state again,” she said.

Bryan Henry, a meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center, said the state’s current dry conditions, if they continue, could lead to a more active fire season in 2020.

“We’re not seeing a whole lot of precipitation coming to the southwest over the next couple of months, so that could be a little bit of a concern as we head into the fire season next year with the vegetation starting out a little bit on the drier side,” Henry said.