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Today's News: Jan. 12, 2017

U.S. ends “wet foot, dry foot” policy for Cubans, Vice President Joe Biden awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom with distinction, and more from the United States and around the world.

Norma Connolly / Reuters

—The United States is ending its “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which granted residency to Cubans who enter the U.S. without visas. More here

—President Obama surprised Vice President Joe Biden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom with distinction, in an emotional ceremony in the last days of the current administration. More here

—We’re tracking the news stories of the day below. All updates are in Eastern Standard Time (GMT -5).

Updates

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Obama Designates Five New National Monuments

AP

In his final days in the White House, President Obama is expanding his environmental legacy, protecting even more federal land. On Thursday, the Obama administration announced five new national monuments that span across the entire country and encompass civil rights history and environmental conservation. Three of the new national monuments are in the South, which, according to Obama “preserve the vibrant history of the Reconstruction Era” and “tell the important stories of the citizens who helped launch the civil rights movement.” Two of the new monuments are in Alabama. The sites, in Birmingham and Anniston, respectively, where locations of violence against black children and activists. The third site, in Beaufort, South Carolina, commemorate Reconstruction efforts to build schools for African Americans. The president has also designated two natural national monuments, expanding the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon by 42,000 acres and expanding the California Coastal National Monument by 5,000 acres. Both monuments were established by President Clinton. “Today’s actions will help ensure that more of our country’s history will be preserved and celebrated,” Obama said in a statement. The president used his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to establish national monuments without congressional approval. Obama has established more national monument than any president in U.S. history at 34.

U.S. Ends 'Wet Foot, Dry Foot' Policy for Fleeing Cubans

Norma Connolly / Reuters

The United States is ending its “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which granted residency to Cubans who enter the U.S. without visas, the White House announced Thursday. The Obama administration ended the policy with immediate effect through an executive order, one which could be reversed by the incoming Trump administration. Both countries will officially announce the policy change Thursday night. Previous U.S. policy, which was enacted by the Clinton administration in 1995, would grant residency for Cubans that made it to U.S. land, putting them on the path toward U.S. citizenship. But those Cubans who were intercepted in U.S. waters would be turned away and sent back to Cuba or a third country. The previous policy enacted in 1966 allowed Cubans intercepted at sea to come to the U.S. and get residency. As part of new negotiations with Cuba, the Cuban government will now allow those Cubans who were turned away from the U.S. to return. The U.S. will still accept Cubans seeking political asylum. “With this change we will continue to welcome Cubans as we welcome immigrants from other nations, consistent with our laws,” President Obama said in a statement. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have fled the island nation since 1960, after Fidel Castro took power. Since 2012, 118,000 Cubans have arrived in the U.S., the Associated Press reports. This is just the latest step by the Obama administration in its continued efforts to normalize relations between the two countries, which have included the reopening of embassies and Obama’s visit to Havana in March.

Obama Awards Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Susan Walsh / AP

President Obama surprised Vice President Joe Biden Thursday with the Presidential Medal of Freedom with distinction, in an emotional ceremony in the last days of the current administration. Biden is the third vice president to earn the award, considered the highest honor a civilian can receive; it has previously been awarded to Nelson A. Rockefeller, vice president under Gerald Ford, and Hubert H. Humphrey, who was awarded the honor by President Jimmy Carter. Biden, who said he had “no inkling” of the impending honor, said: “This honor is not only well beyond what I deserve, but it’s a reflection of the extent and generosity of your spirit. I don’t deserve this, but I know it came from the president’s heart.”

Justice Department's Inspector General to Investigate FBI's Actions Ahead of Election

The Justice Department inspector general’s office announced Thursday it would investigate the actions of both the FBI and the department ahead of the presidential election in November. The office of Michael Horowitz, the inspector general, said in a statement the inquiry followed requests from congressional lawmakers, organizations, and members of the public. At issue is FBI Director James Comey’s public letter to Congress on October 28, just days before the election, about a fresh review of the bureau’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Clinton maintains the letter contributed to her election loss. The statement Thursday said the inspector general’s investigation would examine “allegations that Department or FBI policies or procedures were not followed” in the release of the letter, and a subsequent letter Comey released on November 6, saying the investigation had concluded. In the statement, Horowitz also said he would look at whether an FBI deputy director should have recused himself from the Clinton investigation because the deputy director’s wife was running as a Democrat for the state senate in Virginia.

U.S. Sanctions Syrian Officials, Military Branches Over Chemical-Weapons Usage

U.N. officials inspect samples from the site of an alleged chemical-weapons attack in Damascus, Syria, on August 29, 2013. (Mohamed Abdullah / Reuters)

The Obama administration imposed sanctions against Syrian government officials and military branches Thursday for findings that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime used industrial chlorine as a weapon against the Syrian people. The sanctions, which target 18 government officials and five military branches, freezes any property held by these individuals within U.S. jurisdiction, and prohibits transactions between them and Americans. The Assad regime has been accused of using chemical weapons during its nearly six-year civil war—actions President Obama said, if proven true, would cross a “red line” that would prompt a U.S. response. The Treasury Department said the sanctions are in response to findings by the UN Joint Investigative Mechanism—established by the UN Security Council in 2015 to investigate chemical-weapons attacks in Syria—that determined the Syrian government was responsible for at least three chlorine-gas attacks in three cities between April 2014 and March 2015.

It's Official: The San Diego Chargers Are Moving to Los Angeles

Mike Blake / Reuters

Los Angeles didn’t have an NFL team last year, but now it has two. Nearly a year after the Rams announced their return to the City of Angels after more than 20 years in St. Louis, the San Diego Chargers said Thursday they too would move. Dean Spanos, the team’s chairman, said in a statement that “L.A. is a remarkable place, and while we played our first season there in 1960 and have had fans there ever since, our entire organization knows that we have a tremendous amount of work to do.” The decision comes two months after San Diego voters rejected a team-sponsored ballot measure asking for a hotel-tax increase to help fund a nearly $2 billion stadium there. Spanos did not say if the measure influenced the team’s decision. The Chargers were first given the offer to move to LA last year after its owners rejected a proposal for a shared stadium between the Chargers and the Oakland Raiders in Carson, California. Though several players have already voiced enthusiasm over the move, former Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts told ESPN, “At first, I hoped it was fake news. It's something that is unfathomable, but it is reality.”

The EPA Accuses Fiat Chrysler of Cheating on Emissions Tests

Reuters

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday accused Fiat Chrysler, the automaker, of cheating emissions tests by using software that enabled its diesel trucks and SUVs to register lower readings. The agency said the software was used in more than 100,000 Jeep Grand Cherokees and Dodge Ram trucks sold in the U.S. from 2014 to 2016, and Fiat Chrysler could face up to $37,500 in fines for each vehicle. The accusations are remarkably similar to those Volkswagen pleaded guilty to Wednesday. News of the accusations sent Fiat Chrysler’s stock plummeting more than 13 percent Thursday morning.

Burma and Bangladesh Agree to Talk About the Rohingya Refugee Crisis

Mohammad Ponir Hossain / Reuters

Burma and Bangladesh have agreed to begin talks about the Rohingya Muslims who have fled violent crackdowns that began in Burma three months ago. About 65,000 Rohingya who live mostly in Burma’s northwestern Rakhine State have recently tried to cross the border into Bangladesh seeking safety. The Rohingya have been denied citizenship by Burma’s majority Buddhist leaders, as well as by Bangladesh. They are considered one of the most persecuted peoples in the world. The latest conflict began in October, and Burmese border police have been accused of rape, murder, and burning the Rohingyas’ homes. About half a million Rohingya live in Bangladesh after fleeing violent crackdowns in past decades. Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, said Burma must take back the Rohingya that have crossed the border. Burma’s director general of the foreign affairs ministry, Aye Aye Soe, said the two countries would begin discussions about an “identification and verification process” and those found to be from Burma would be “repatriated at the appropriate time.” She added there would be no timeline for this.

Mattis Faces Confirmation Hearing

James Mattis, the former Marine Corps general who is President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to be secretary of defense, appears Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Mattis has bipartisan support and was expected to face an easy hearing, but his scheduled appearance today before a House panel for a hearing on the civilian control of the military was canceled, upsetting some lawmakers. That’s because Mattis needs a waiver from a law that prohibits military officers from heading the Department of Defense for seven years after they retire; Mattis retired in 2013. The last time the waiver was granted was 1950, when General George Marshall was nominated for the Cabinet position. Mike Pompeo, the CIA director nominee, and Ben Carson, Trump’s choice to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, also have hearings scheduled for today.

Senate Takes a Step Toward Repealing Obamacare

The Senate voted 51-48 early Thursday on a measure that makes it easier to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature legislative achievement. The vote ensures that key parts of the legislation, known as Obamacare, can be killed without the threat of a Democratic filibuster. But Republicans have been unable to agree on what will replace Obamacare, and President-elect Trump said Wednesday in his news conference, without offering any details, that he would announce a replacement plan as soon as Tom Price, his nominee for the Department of Health and Human Services, in confirmed. Senate Democrats vowed early Thursday to make it difficult to dismantle the legislation, adding it has given healthcare to millions of Americans who previously were not covered.