US Agency Names 4 Firms to Build Border Wall Prototypes

U.S. Customs and Border Protection selected four construction companies Thursday to erect prototypes of the Mexican border wall that President Donald Trump has said he intends to build to deter illegal immigration and smuggling. The four firms, from four different U.S. states, are to build solid-concrete prototypes of the border wall within 30 days, once they are given a notice to proceed. Those four sample walls will then be tested for strength and “permeability,” according to the agency’s acting deputy commissioner, Ronald Vitiello. The border protection agency is separately screening applicants for other contracts to build prototype walls made from alternate materials. Trump has said he thinks the 10-meter-tall wall should have windows, or even be fully transparent, so Border Patrol officers in the United States can observe suspicious activities on the other side of the barrier. “We’re going to use all the things that we think will work the best,” Vitiello said. Thursday’s announcement was the latest step forward in a bureaucratic process that has been delayed multiple times. The administration once said construction of the full border wall would begin in June, but it was not until mid-March that the first requests for proposals went out to contractors, seeking conceptual designs for the border barrier, which has been shrouded in political controversy. Congress has appropriated $20 million to CBP for use in preparing the prototypes, both of concrete and other materials. No funds have yet been budgeted for the full border wall, likely a multibillion-dollar undertaking that would …

French Labor Reform Gives Firms Flexibility

The French government said on Thursday it would cap unfair dismissal payouts and give companies more flexibility to adapt pay and working hours to market conditions in a labor reform France’s biggest union said was disappointing. The reform, President Emmanuel Macron’s first major policy step since his election in May, is also the first big test of his plans to reform the euro zone’s second-biggest economy. For decades governments of the left and right have tried to reform France’s strict labor rules, but have always diluted them in the face of street protests. The government said in a document presenting the reform that it will make it possible to adapt work time, remuneration and workplace mobility to market conditions based on agreements reached by simplified majority between employers and workers. Workers compensation for dismissal judged in a labor court to be unfair would be set at three months of wages for two-years in the company with the amount rising progressively depending on how long a worker was with the firm, unions said. However, normal severance pay would be increased from 20 percent of wages for each year in a company to 25 percent, Liberation reported. The government consulted with unions for weeks as it drafted the reform, and only the hardline CGT union, the country’s second biggest, said from the start that it would hold a protest, set for Sept. 12. France’s biggest union, the reformist CFDT, said that it would not call a strike against the reform but described …

Studying Black Holes in a Bathtub

Mysterious black holes, thought to reside in the center of every galaxy, are difficult to study because even the closest one, in the center of our own Milky Way, is still some 27,000 light years away. But researchers at the University of Nottingham’s Quantum Gravity Laboratory have found that some of the physical phenomena linked to black holes can be studied in an ordinary bathtub. VOA’s George Putic has more. …

Trump’s Immigrant Crackdown Could Slow Houston Rebuilding

In the coming weeks, as Houston turns its attention to rebuilding areas devastated by Tropical Storm Harvey, people like Jay De Leon are likely to play an outsized role — if they stay around. De Leon, 47, owns a small construction business in Houston, and he and his 10 employees do exactly the kind of demolition and refurbishing the city will need. But like a large number of construction workers in Texas, De Leon and most of his workers live in the United States illegally, and that could make things complicated. The Pew Research Center estimated last year that 28 percent of Texas’s construction workforce is undocumented, while other studies have put the number as high as 50 percent. Construction employed 23 percent of working undocumented adults in Texas at the end of 2014, higher than any other sector, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Undocumented immigrants nervous However, undocumented immigrants are growing increasingly nervous in Texas because of an immigration crackdown by the Trump administration that has cast a wide net. In addition, a new Texas law that would have taken effect later this week bars cities from embracing so-called sanctuary policies, where they offer safe harbor to illegal immigrants, and allows local police to inquire about a person’s immigration status. A federal judge Wednesday temporarily blocked most of the law from taking effect. De Leon, who has lived in the country for 20 years and has two citizen children, says the changes have spooked the city’s migrant workforce. …

Michigan, North Dakota Among States Likely to be Hurt by NAFTA Changes

Michigan is likely to be the state most hurt by changes to the NAFTA trade agreement, according to a Fitch Ratings report released Wednesday, as U.S. President Donald Trump renewed threats to scrap the deal. Trump has threatened three times in the past week to abandon the North American Free Trade Agreement, revisiting his view that the United States would probably have to start the process of exiting the accord to reach a fair deal for his country. A second round of talks starts Friday in Mexico City to renegotiate the 1994 accord binding the United States, Mexico and Canada. Business groups have largely praised NAFTA and hope to persuade all three governments to make minimal changes to the pact. U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade has quadrupled since NAFTA took effect in 1994, surpassing $1 trillion in 2015. Michigan’s auto sector While several other states export a significant amount of products to Canada and Mexico, Michigan is an outlier in Fitch’s analysis because of the state’s global role in the automotive sector and proximity to Canada, the report said. Sixty-five percent of the Michigan’s exports went to Canada and Mexico in 2016, totaling 7.4 percent of its gross state product, it said. “Any state that is particularly export dependent or exposed to trade, if there’s a falloff in trade it’s going to hit income and sales taxes and that’s going to weaken state revenues,” said Michael D’Arcy, a director of U.S. public finance at Fitch. “Cuts would have to be made.” Anna Heaton, …

US-funded Ethiopian Abattoir Hopes to Help Herders During Drought

An abattoir located among herding communities in Ethiopia’s eastern Somali region, known more for droughts and famine than business opportunities, is an unusual stop for a U.S. aid administrator. But USAID chief Mark Green stopped at the Jijiga Export Slaughter House (JESH) during a visit to the town of Jijiga on Wednesday to see the effects of a crippling drought that has pushed some areas to the south to the brink of famine. The abattoir buys goats, sheep, cows and camels for slaughter from herders for export to the Middle East, giving families cash to buy food during the drought. A $1.5-million loan from Feed the Future, a $1 billion-a-year agricultural program launched during U.S. President Barack Obama’s presidency in 2010, helped purchase refrigerators and trucks for the facility, which employs 100 people from local villages. To Green, the slaughterhouse represents what USAID can do to help attract private-sector money into investments that boost the productivity of small farmers in developing countries. While at the abattoir, Green announced 12 countries that will benefit from Feed The Future investments in 2017, signaling that the program will survive proposed deep cuts to USAID’s budget this year. The 12 countries are Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, Kenya, Mali, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda. Green said investments like the Jijinga slaughterhouse not only created markets for American businesses but helped communities out of poverty. Herders can earn as much as $80 per goat when they sell to the slaughterhouse. “I’m under no illusions; …

Growing Commerce With India Gives Vietnam New Defense Against China

A flood of Indian business in fast-growing Vietnam has solidified commercial ties to help Hanoi upgrade an alliance with a powerful Asian neighbor and offset dependence on its historic rival, the more massive China. Indian investment in Vietnam has reached $2 billion and bilateral trade hit $10 billion over the year ending in March on its way to $15 billion by 2020, said Radha Krishnan, vice chairman of the Indian Business Chamber of Vietnam. “As of now that is very easily achievable,” Krishnan said. “The last three … years exports from Vietnam to India have picked up momentum.” Vietnam has many trade partners Last year the two countries agreed to upgrade a “strategic partnership,” giving Vietnam more Indian market access, and they will drop import tariffs in 2022 as part of a trade deal with a bloc of Southeast Asian countries. Those totals hardly match those of Vietnam’s long-time investment sources such as Taiwan, South Korea and China. But their growth offers Vietnam a line to the world’s second-largest country, helping to reduce dependence on China, which is the world’s second-largest economy and Vietnam’s biggest trading partner. China-Vietnam set a trade target of $100 billion in 2016, but the pair disputes a swathe of the South China Sea. Their dispute sparked clashes in 1974, 1988 and 2014. “The Vietnamese government, they don’t want to get an unbalanced investment portfolio where any particular country or region is dominant, because then it just unbalances everything else — foreign policy, domestic politics and everything,” …

‘Reprogrammed’ Stem Cells Fight Parkinson’s Disease in Monkeys

Scientists have successfully used “reprogrammed” stem cells to restore functioning brain cells in monkeys, raising hopes the technique could be used in the future to help patients with Parkinson’s disease. Since Parkinson’s is caused by a lack of dopamine made by brain cells, researchers have long hoped to use stem cells to restore normal production of the neurotransmitter chemical. Now, for the first time, Japanese researchers have shown that human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) can be administered safely and effectively to treat primates with symptoms of the debilitating disease. So-called iPS cells are made by removing mature cells from an individual — often from the skin — and reprogramming them to behave like embryonic stem cells. They can then be coaxed into dopamine-producing brain cells. The scientists from Kyoto University, a world-leader in iPS technology, said their experiment indicated that this approach could potentially be used for the clinical treatment of human patients with Parkinson’s. In addition to boosting dopamine production, the tests showed improved movement in affected monkeys and no tumors in their brains for at least two years. The human iPS cells used in the experiment worked whether they came from healthy individuals or Parkinson’s disease patients, the Japanese team reported in the journal Nature on Wednesday. “This is extremely promising research demonstrating that a safe and highly effective cell therapy for Parkinson’s can be produced in the lab,” said Tilo Kunath of the MRC Center for Regenerative Medicine, University of Edinburgh, who was not involved in …

Dream Chaser Spacecraft in Captive-carry Test Over Desert

A test version of a spacecraft resembling a mini space shuttle was carried aloft over the Mojave Desert by a helicopter Wednesday in a precursor to a free flight in which it will be released to autonomously land on a runway as it would in a return from orbit.   Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser craft was lifted off the ground at 7:21 a.m., at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center on Edwards Air Force Base, California, and was carried to the same altitude and flight conditions it will experience before release in a free flight.   A control team sent commands to the wingless vehicle and collected data before the helicopter brought it down at 9:02 a.m., the company said.   “Everything we have seen points to a successful test with useful data for the next round of testing,” director of flight operations Lee “Bru” Archambault said in a statement.   A second captive-carry test is scheduled this year and if it is successful, a free flight test will follow.   The Dream Chaser is being developed to carry cargo to and from the International Space Station without a crew aboard. The version flown Wednesday is for tests in the atmosphere. The version that will be launched into space is still in development.   With the addition of life-support equipment, a Dream Chaser could transport a crew of seven.   Last month, Sierra Nevada selected United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket to launch the first two Dream Chaser cargo missions, …