They lock them in an abandoned factory to kill their spirit

The situation unfolding in Piedras Negras provides a chaotic preview of what Remain in Mexico will look like

There are 2,000 men, women and children locked inside a shuttered factory that used to make body bags for the U.S. Army. They are being held there by three layers of Mexican government at the behest of the Trump administration, and none of them know when they will be released.

The factory is in Piedras Negras, Mexico, a few miles from the Eagle Pass port of entry where the migrants tried to reach so they could apply for asylum. For almost all of them, their journey began in Honduras, an incredibly violent country with a murder rate 10 times higher than that of the United States. In Saltillo, outside Monterrey, the migrants were loaded onto buses by regional government officials. The buses took them to Piedras Negras and the factory, where they wait.

“Many of them have said, ‘If I had known that this was the situation I would not have taken that ride,’” says Joe Rivano Barros, a 26-year-old field officer for RAICES Texas, a migrant advocacy organization.

Rivano Barros is gathering information about the situation in Piedras Negras to give to RAICES’ lawyers, who represent migrants in their asylum and other immigration court cases. Like everyone else, Rivano Barros is just trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

Here is what we know: Almost all of the migrants in the factory at Piedras Negras are from Honduras. When confronted in Saltillo, the migrants told whoever had the buses that they were trying to reach Eagle Pass, likely thinking it would be easier to apply for asylum there because it’s a smaller port of entry, where there are no lines like there are in Tijuana and Juarez. Once they arrived, federal police and INM — that’s Instituto Nacional de Migración, the Mexican version of ICE — told them they’d have to apply for “humanitarian visas.” The migrants would be held in the factory until that was sorted out, which has been going on for almost two weeks now.

“We have been talking to people through the fence a lot,” Rivano Barros says. “Mostly there’s just extreme frustration about the lack of clarity. They wonder, How long will we have to wait here for the visas and to apply for asylum? They haven’t been told anything about the [asylum] application process or how it works and because we can’t get inside there’s no third party to tell them what that process [is supposed to look] like.”

The short answer is: not like this. You are supposed to be able to walk up to a port of entry and tell a U.S. official that you want to apply for asylum, then given the chance to pass an initial screening and taken into custody by immigration authorities. The Trump administration hasn’t increased the ability to process the ever-growing number of Central American migrants arriving at ports of entry from California to Texas, so often the migrants are told to wait.

At Eagle Pass, they’re not even making it to the waiting part. That’s because Mexican officials are intercepting them and sending them to the shelter in Piedras Negras, where they’re told they must first obtain a humanitarian visa in order to walk to the port of entry to apply for asylum. Sometimes even then they are turned away.

Some migrants have told advocates that Mexican police officers have ripped up their visas, believing they’re fake, forcing the migrants to return to the shelter to get new ones.

As far as Rivano Barros can tell, the main thing the visas get you is the ability to leave the shelter and walk down the street to get something to eat. On Wednesday, some migrants tried to do just that, but the authorities at the shelter wouldn’t let them leave, so they tried to push their way out.

***

The humanitarian visas are part of a new initiative launched a few months back by Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez-Obrador. Instead of allowing migrants to travel freely through Mexico to the U.S. border, AMLO would require them to submit to a background check and fingerprinting — thus obtaining the humanitarian visas. That’s what the migrants in Piedras Negras are doing now, waiting in lines in a courtyard to go through this process.

Some are becoming impatient, as you might expect. In addition to the altercation on Wednesday, there have been other scuffles inside the facility. RAICES obtained audio from a migrant being held there who asked for warmer clothes to be donated because of the cold temperatures inside the factory, or maquiladora.

Yesterday, Rivano Barros saw a woman sitting in the courtyard holding up a sign: Retorno voluntario. She has given up on claiming asylum, and just wants to go home. The Trump administration will be pleased to hear this.

Although the migrants in Piedras Negras have not yet been able to apply for asylum, their growing frustrations provide a preview of what a large-scale rollout of Remain in Mexico will look like. Those sent back to Mexico under the program — now called Migrant Protection Protocols — may find themselves in a similar situation, living in government-run shelters under strict supervision, perhaps unable to come and go as they please.

Of equal concern is migrants’ access to attorneys and advocates. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees visited the factory yesterday to document conditions there, but reporters, attorneys and advocates have not been allowed in.

When reporters, attorneys and advocates have entered Mexico to speak with migrants, they’ve been detained and questioned by U.S. authorities. One advocate in Texas told me she was grilled on whether she had “coached” migrants on how to apply for asylum — as if there’s something wrong or illegal about informing migrants of their rights under U.S. and international law. I haven’t had any such issues returning from Juarez, but more than a dozen journalists and activists described increasing harassment and questioning by U.S. immigration officials to the Intercept.

“Our goal was to go inside today but that didn’t happen. They just tell us to come back tomorrow and talk to their bosses,” Rivano Barros said of officers at the factory. “So now we’re here to just keep telling stories, to be here, to assess the situation and figure out what we can do going forward.”

***

All photos on this post are courtesy of Rivano Barros. The first was taken outside the factory, where Captain America was sent in to entertain children being held there. The second is of Coahuila state police, one of three Mexican law enforcement agencies guarding the facility.

'Once you reach this point, how do you go back?'

The blunt object of God and Country continues to mash its way through the truth about immigration.

It’s usually around the one-hour mark when I start to fade. He is talking about North Korea, about how good of a deal he made with his buddy, Kim. Or he is talking about taxes, and how they’re lower now because of him which has made the economy better and only he could have done that. He is describing in great detail how bad men tie up women and put tape over their mouths to smuggle them across the border, where they are sold as sex slaves. No one knows where this story comes from but it doesn’t matter because he is saying it, and when he is saying things Many People pay attention, and that is the point.

Donald Trump spoke at the El Paso County Coliseum last night and at the one-hour mark I had had just about enough, but at least I wasn’t there.

The last time I was, hundreds of people from all over the world were becoming citizens at a naturalization ceremony. A local judge told the new citizens that they’d soon have the ability to exercise the most important right of all Americans in the upcoming mid-term elections. Last night it was filled with men and women who have lives, jobs, and children, and who used that right to elect Trump president. They are people who pay their taxes and contribute to their communities and make sure the trains run on time. Doctors, lawyers, garbage men, plumbers, teachers, maybe some writers.

But last night they were empty vessels, capable only of consuming and spitting out various messages and catchphrases when prompted by Trump. It is a bizarre thing to witness even if you’re only watching it on TV. Reporters aren’t supposed to say things like the following because we’re supposed to always be curious and never assume things but there is nothing you can really learn from a Trump rally, even one in as diverse and fascinating a place as El Paso.

Trump rallies only serve to reinforce one’s own beliefs. He is a bizarre idiot or a groundbreaking genius. He is keeping us safe or prompting the downfall of our empire. You are a patriot or a traitor, a believer or a heretic.

It is the zero sum game of politics.

“The money that he’s proposing to spend on a border wall would be much better spent on ports of entry. If you want to spend $5.6 billion on infrastructure at the border, spend it on beefing up security at ports of entry,” Vince Perez, an El Paso County commissioner, told me after Trump’s rally. “But, no, it’s about the wall. That’s what I’m saying, it’s about absolutes. It’s you’re either with us or against us, and I think that’s exactly what his speech was about. It’s not about whether the wall will stop drugs and crime and illegal immigration, it’s just about getting the wall built. Building it for the sake of building it.”

***

Perez is a big fan of noting that Trump’s rhetoric does not match the reality of life in El Paso, which is to say it doesn’t match the reality of life in many places on the border or the facts about immigration at all.  

Here are some of those facts.

Illegal immigration is not a crisis threatening the vast majority of Americans’ lives and jobs. It’s pretty easy to understand this when you consider that no one was holding rallies on the border and demanding billions of dollars for a wall until Trump became president. If illegal immigration was as big of a problem as he claims, you’d think Republicans would have been clamoring for these policies before 2016.

More migrants are travelling to the border to claim asylum because the countries they’re coming from are starting to look like failed states, but they are not being granted asylum in much greater numbers than in the past.

Trump has responded to this new trend of asylum-seekers not by increasing the ability to process claims at ports of entry, but by sending troops to the border, most recently to Eagle Pass, Texas. There, the troops wait on our side of the line while hundreds of migrants take shelter in an abandoned factory in Piedras Negras, Mexico. Texas Governor Greg Abbott sent dozens of Texas Department of Public Safety officers to Eagle Pass, where they joined other law enforcement in lining up along the border at night with all their lights flashing in some bizarre, tough-guy show of force against desperate migrants.

The three empty vessels on Fox & Friends called the act “impressive” the other morning, speaking about the episode with the same sort of reverence you get with a 21-gun salute or taps playing — thank God for these brave men and women keeping us safe.

At the border, a mother and her child with a pink backpack approach a line of border officers, who have their fucking riot helmets out like something is actually going to happen.

***

After the rally I called Perez. I wanted to hear his thoughts on Trump’s speech, but I also just needed to hear a sane voice on the other end of the phone, saying accurate and truthful things about the border specifically and life more generally.

Trump and many Republicans are blunt objects that destroy things like knowledge, debate, context and nuance. Just mashing their way through such complexities by making everything about God, Family and Country.

“At the end I think was a good example, it was exactly what Ted Cruz was doing to Beto,” Perez said of Trump’s speech.

During their battle in the mid-terms, Cruz constantly portrayed O’Rourke as an open-borders socialist. The messaging was so effective that even some Hispanics in El Paso told me that’s who O’Rourke was, using that exact phrase, open borders socialist. Where Cruz believed in Jesus and the Flag, O’Rourke wanted a secular world in which countries were just identities of the past.

This is Texas, so it worked.

“We are a country that’s about freedom and we are about family values, not government bureaucracy, we will always believe in Democracy,” Perez said, mimicking the simplicity of Trump’s and Cruz’s message.

This was perhaps no more evident last night than during a moment that surely got a lot of blood pumping throughout the land. Discussing various Democratic Party policy positions and the Green New Deal, Trump took a hearty stand against the growing threat of socialism in this country.

“We’re born free, we will live free and we will die free. We will always be free,” he told the crowd.

Then, the big line.

“America will never be a socialist country.”

Because socialism is bad, while capitalism is great. A wall will fix things, and Democrats will make them bad. This is black, that is white. He is right, they are wrong.

Things are much more simple this way. More manageable.

“I’ve been in government and politics for over a decade,” Perez said. “And it seems like, once you reach this point, how do you go back?”

***

P.S. The first and second photos in this post are mine. The first is from Trump’s failed rally in Chicago in 2015, when a diverse group of young activists shut it down before Trump even took the stage. He hasn’t returned to an area that diverse in a major city ever since. He stays in his safe spaces now. The second photo is from June at Paso del Norte. The third photo is from yesterday in Eagle Pass. It was taken by Stephanie Leutert, a researcher and academic who studies migration and border policies and procedures. It was used with her permission.

They pull tricks and do things quietly where no one is looking

Flyers in Portland and New York ask migrants for personal information. The DOJ continues its assault on longstanding immigration law.

The immigration system is a funny thing. The only people who truly understand its ins and outs are those trapped inside and those trying to help them — and the government, which does its best to hide what’s actually going on.

This opacity has increased in the Trump administration. The latest example comes from Portland and New York and probably a lot of other places, although it’s hard to tell because the defining characteristic of the system is that it’s a black hole of information.

Eileen Sterlock is an immigration attorney in Portland. A recent situation she dealt with was passed on to me by an advocate source in Texas. I contacted Sterlock, who told me she knew of the same situation happening in New York through the internal and informal network of attorneys and advocates who deal with this stuff each day.

It goes like this:

Sterlock’s client is an indigenous Mayan woman from Guatemala. She is out on some form of release while her asylum case is being tried in immigration court. As a condition of her release, she must check in with an official working for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the least transparent of all immigration agencies, which is like being fattest person at Golden Corral — a tough prize to win. On a recent visit, Sterlock’s client was given a flyer that said ICE was conducting a survey. How old are you? Did you attend university?

Then, Why did you leave your country? And Why did you come to the United States?

***

These are important questions for an asylum-seeker, because the answers might determine whether or not the government believes you are truly in fear for your life or, you know, trying to seek a better life for you and your family by working in the United States. If you say the second thing, you will not get you asylum. If you say the first, you might. The flyer was in English and Spanish, neither of which Sterlock’s client speaks.

The flyer was then explained to her in Spanish because the second defining characteristic of the immigration system is that nothing makes any sense and migrants have few rights and fewer resources.

The client took the flyer to Sterlock who advised her to absolutely not fucking call that number and give ICE any information. Typical lawyer stuff.

“I don’t know why they’re doing it now but based on everything the administration has done to target, discourage, and discriminate against asylum-seekers, I’m assuming this survey is to help support that mission,” Sterlock told me. I can’t imagine that it would be helpful to Central Americans at all.”

Sterlock was upset, naturally, and called ICE to ask why it gave the flyer to her client. They said they didn’t know, but Sterlock persisted.

Eventually, ICE admitted that it was paying a contractor to conduct the survey, which the agency insisted was completely innocuous. The company conducting the survey is a sub-contractor of GEO Group, one of the biggest private prison corporations in the country and a huge beneficiary of policies that lock up as many migrants as possible for as long as possible.

If you believe the survey is harmless then you haven’t spent much time looking into the black hole of the immigration system.

“I assume they could use these answers to create statistics that say people are coming here for work, not asylum,” Sterlock said.

That would help the administration back up its claim that too many people are being granted asylum, which is part of its master plan to reduce total immigration as much as possible. If you listen to the people working in the black hole they say these types of things constantly. Yesterday an attorney in California told a reporter that the new Remain in Mexico policy was just the latest part of this government-wide effort to reduce immigration as much as possible.

“From step one, it seems that the administration has tried to do everything they can to put as many hurdles in front of these individuals, and make it as hard as possible for them to make their [asylum] claim,” said Andrew Nietor, an immigration attorney in San Diego.

I can’t count the number of times immigration attorneys have said nearly those exact same words to me.

Because the days are extremely long now, further evidence that the Trump administration is doing everything it can to reduce immigration came last night. That’s when the American Immigration Lawyers Association announced that wait times for green cards and citizenship have increased exponentially in the last few years — even though the number of applications has gone down.

You must be willfully blind to not understand what this is about: Republicans and the Trump administration are engaged in a historic radicalization of immigration policy in an effort to keep as many brown people out of the country as possible. To say otherwise is to ignore the facts that many people work very hard to dig out of the black hole each day.

***

Sterlock asked around about the flyer and found a lawyer in New York whose client was also given one. I tried to get a hold of that lawyer through a non-profit she used to work for, but got pulled down a rabbit hole when I discovered a post on their website about an obscure decision that is now pending with acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker.

That was when I was in El Paso and I’ve been straightening it out ever since. I can report now that Whitaker plans to undo protections for victims of domestic violence, including child victims of sexual assault, who are seeking asylum. Basically, he’s going to change U.S. immigration law to say that someone who is abused by a family member can’t obtain asylum because they’re fleeing family violence.

They do these things quietly.

Thanks to the fact that we’re still a functioning democracy there are certain things that the government can’t do in the black hole, where they tried to trick migrants like Sterlock’s client into giving up personal information in a bogus survey that would have probably been used against her. One of the things they can’t necessarily do in the black hole is radically change immigration law, which Whitaker will do when he makes his decision on domestic violence asylum claims.

For an administration that was founded and elected on fear-mongering about immigrants, you’d think they’d be proud to announce that they’re changing the law dramatically through executive fiat in order to reduce the number of people admitted into the country. But they’re apparently not, because they announce these decisions on a remote corner of the Justice Department’s website where most people who aren’t always searching for things in the black hole will never go.

There are no press releases that say We Plan to End Protections for Child Victims of Sexual Abuse.

The U.S. Government Doesn’t Care About Central American Children Abused by Their Relatives, the chyron on Fox News will never say.

Now, there’s another black hole they’re looking to exploit. While lawyers here find the time to talk to people like me and tell us what’s going on in the black hole, the black hole in Mexico is more difficult to penetrate. That’s why the Trump administration has started sending migrants back there to wait while their cases go through the immigration court system. It’ll be harder for attorneys and people like me to find the migrants in Mexico and ask them what they’ve gone through.

Disposable people. Sub-human. This is the third defining characteristic of the black hole: It consumes and spits out people without regard to their humanity.

***

P.S. All the photos in this post except for the flyer were taken by Zach Nelson, who rolled with me on the VICE piece about life in the borderland a few months back. The first photo was taken from Juarez looking back to El Paso, where there’s this weird DMZ-type area that migrants walk into in order to be purposefully picked up by Border Patrol and apply for asylum. Once they got in those SUVs, who knows where they went. They could have ended up in Georgia or New York for all we know. The second photo was taken in an area west of Juarez where a source had seen a ladder leaned up against the wall there. That’s how good the wall that’s already there is working, in case you wondered... Zach and I are digging in to a new project to expand the type of coverage we did at the border that’ll include all types of issues, if we ever find the proper time for it, that is.

They are killing the news because it's the only thing that can stop them

Layoffs for digital giants. Local newsrooms slowly dying. The crooked rejoice.

You might have seen the bad news about the news recently, which in this round included a bunch of layoffs at BuzzFeed and HuffPo, in addition to the forever-round of local newspapers slowly dying a horrific death.

Or maybe you didn’t because a lot of people probably didn’t. A lot of people don’t read the news and therefore don’t care if it dies. I don’t know why they don’t care because it enrages me when people in power abuse their power and take advantage of vulnerable people, which is what a lot of powerful people in this country do all the time. Catching them doing those bad things is what journalists like myself wake up each morning to do.

Maybe some people don’t care if the news dies  because — even though there are a lot of power-abusing people — their impact is relatively small compared to the entire population. Many Americans will live their whole lives without being screwed over and made to feel helpless by someone who is much more powerful than them.

But if that does happen there are really only two people to call: the cops or a reporter. Someone said last week that all the layoffs meant about 1,000 reporters without a job now. Someone else then said we lose that many reporters at local newspapers every month. I have a book from 2009 called The Death and Life of American Journalism. It details how the 2008 recession cut off a few limbs of the news, reducing the number of journalists nationwide by somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000.

Since then it’s only gotten worse, and if you think it’s bad now, wait’ll another recession hits.

I have another book that I just started reading about Hunter Thompson. The author ignores the drug-addled caricature that most people associate with Thompson and focuses on his obsession with fighting American fascism through his writing. A friend recommended it to me because he reads this newsletter and said it reminds him of Thompson’s fight.

Thompson began his life-long battle the night John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, which happened about 10 minutes from my house. That night, Thompson started writing letters to his friends. In one of them, the author of this book says, he warned that Kennedy’s death opened a vacuum for scumbags like Richard Nixon to exploit. So Thompson spent the next several decades skewering Nixon at every opportunity. Nixon became Thompson’s nemesis-for-life.

What’s crazy about my friend telling me this newsletter is sort of like that is thinking about how Thompson fought Nixon forever, and now we’ve got someone even worse than Nixon in the White House.

So, I imagine, I’ll be sitting here 30 years from now writing about a president who’s somehow worse than Trump because apparently Americans are unable or unwilling to learn the lessons of what Thompson started writing about in 19-fucking-63.

***

The cuts at BuzzFeed and HuffPo came because — in some way, shape or form — those publications weren’t making enough money. There’s plenty of fair criticism to go around about how they operated and spent money — other than Jason Leopold, I can’t name a single BuzzFeed reporter off the top of my head, I’m sorry. And I read a lot of news, I’m sure double or triple the amount of the average American. For HuffPo, the only person I can think of is one of the politics editors because I follow her on Twitter and see her stuff there a lot. So maybe BuzzFeed and HuffPo were spending a lot of money on big newsrooms and not getting a lot in return, I can’t say for sure. What I do know is that their newsrooms were slashed because they didn’t make enough money for the companies and people that own those publications.

That’s because the news is no longer profitable in any meaningful sense. To be profitable you have to make money off advertising, and the only medium that makes money off advertising is TV.

This is why the news has to seize the means of production, as the saying goes. For too long, reporters did their jobs and didn’t know or do anything about the business side of their publications — and unfortunately more than a few that I know still operate that way.

Donald Trump seized the means of news production by having tens of millions of Twitter followers he can tell lies to every day. He also seized the means of production by putting together a massive email list to ask people for money a few times a week in order to support the lies he tells and the policies he’s trying to implement that back up those lies.

***

The news isn’t really necessary, which is why it’s so vulnerable to being destroyed. There are certain occupations that are required to make the trains run on time. The people who drive trains, obviously. Doctors, lawyers, the people who build the house or office you’re sitting in right now, the guys who come pick up my garbage and recycling, the postman who delivers my mail and makes my dog lose his ever-loving mind in the most stereotypical and maddening dog-hates-mailman way that always happens when I’m on the phone interviewing someone — these are jobs that are required for us to get around our cities and towns without driving into a sinkhole.

Nothing about our daily lives requires someone to wake up each day and look for bad things that are happening, then ask people in power why those bad things are happening and why they’re not doing anything about it. No one needs that person in a society. We might need them in an idealistic sense — to keep people accountable and give voice to the voiceless, all that — but no one needs reporters to keep the street lights on and put out a fire at your house.

In fact if your house is on fire all we’re going to do is run towards it and take some pictures, then ask you how bad it feels to have your house burn down. In a way we’re like first responders, because when bad things happen we run towards them, not away. That is the first test you have to pass in order to be a good reporter — if you hear gunshots, you have to run toward them. It is your job, and sometimes it means you will die doing it.

That person doesn’t have to exist, and people in power would prefer if they didn’t exist. Because if that person runs toward gunfire and sees the police shooting an unarmed, innocent man, they will report that and the cops will face consequences.(1)

This is why very few people in power are doing anything to save the news. They know it will be better for them when they kill the news because assholes like me won’t be around anymore to go through their financial disclosure forms and bills and ask why it is that they’re introducing legislation that will help their companies.

Publications are finally starting to figure this out, I think. They’ve begun to ask readers to pay them directly so they don’t have to worry about meeting revenue targets in an industry that doesn’t really produce anything other than stories. Hell, it’s why I started this newsletter.

For the past couple weeks I’ve been working on a piece about my hometown newspaper, the Journal Star. It’s where I had my first job as a reporter and first started seeing the problems in the industry. It’s only gotten worse since then. I mean bad. Real bad. There are about five reporters on the news side (as opposed to sports) left in the entire newsroom. Most of them won’t talk to me on the record for my story but a few people who have left the paper have.

I’ve been struggling with how to write it because a friend said I should pitch it to a few publications, which would mean having to format it for their style and make it more newsy. I don’t really want to do that because that’s not the point of the story — plenty have already written and plenty more will write about the decline of the news industry by using facts and figures and statistics.

I’d like to write about how they’re killing the news in my hometown from a personal perspective, and how it affects the people who used to work there. Which is the other reason I started this newsletter — because some stories aren’t meant for news publications, and are best at home here.

So, if you like what you read here, send a link to some friends and tell them there’s going to be a really good story here soon about the death of a local newspaper from a guy who used to work there.

***

(1) Sometimes, that is. As you may remember from the years 2014-2016, a lot of police killed a lot of people and were never punished for it. The number of police shootings hasn’t gone down in recent years, we just don’t cover them as much because Trump is a blunt object who suck the oxygen out of the news.

P.S. All the photos on this post are mine. The first one is of a theater in South Central Dallas from when I first came here to cover the shooting in July 2016 that killed five cops. The second photo is of my buddy Bill Kotsatos’ gear in some motel in Cleveland when we were there for the Republican National Convention. We brought our riot gear because the Dallas shooting had only been a few months before, and we were on the heels of a two-year police shooting war that Bill and I travelled the country to cover. I guess because of Trump we’ve collectively forgotten about that strange and distressing portion of recent American history. The third photo is of my buddy, Alex Wroblewski. I took it some time in the summer of 2016 at a crime scene on the West Side of Chicago. We were both living in the city at the time and finishing up the crime reporting portions of our careers. He’s in Washington D.C. now doing a lot of politics stuff, and gearing up for the 2020 campaign.

They will be fine when the economy goes down but we won't

Wilbur Ross is so rich he doesn't even know where all his money is. Workers in Detroit make less than they did in 1914.

All things come to an end. Good things, bad things, in-between things. Things end and then new things replace them. For the better part of the last 10 years we’ve been doing pretty well, economically speaking. Eventually, it has to end. The only question now is when.

Trump won’t see it coming because, like a lot of rich people, he will be immune to the negative consequences of the next economic downturn. This is why you hear people like Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross say with honest-to-goodness confusion that he doesn’t understand why some federal workers resorted to going to food banks during the government shutdown.

Trump and every member of his cabinet — which is the richest in history — will be perfectly fine when the economy takes a turn for the worse. That’s why I’m sure they’re already making moves to secure their own wealth while telling us everything is fine. While we don’t know everything about the money moves being made by Trump and his cabinet we can get a glimpse through annual financial disclosures and periodic transaction reports.

Ross, for example, is so rich that he can’t even keep track of all his investments and has had to update his periodic transaction reports — which detail the movement of tens of millions of dollars — several times because he didn’t even realize he still held certain investments.

This is why you can hear earnest bewilderment in his voice when talking about federal workers going to food banks.

In June, Ross sold between $50,001 and $100,000 in stock in a company that leases commercial aircraft. Under ethics guidance, I assume, he had previously sold off his other shares in the company, Air Lease Corporation, which he held through an entity called American Stock and Transfer Company (AST). Then, after receiving a check for dividends, he realized he had another account of shares in the company, this one in an account that contained his middle initial, L.

“Unbeknownst to me AST also had 1,631 shares in a separate account labeled Wilbur L. Ross. When I had called them last year seeking share information they never told me about this separate account,” Ross or more likely someone who works for him wrote on the periodic transaction report. “The way I learned about it was just recently when they sent me a check for less than $200 representing dividend payments that had gone unclaimed. I had no record of receiving these payments and had no prior record of these shares. Upon becoming aware of them, I promptly sold the Air Lease shares and filed this Transaction Report.”

The discovery of a single letter made Ross more money than I make in a year and as much as double the average American’s annual income, if the transaction approached $100,000. That is an insane sentence to write but there it is, and it is true.

***

So while Ross and others tell us everything is great and Trump’s policies are the reason for it, maybe we should check in with ourselves, because it’s pretty clear that men like Trump and Ross don’t understand what the average, $50,000-a-year American is going through. (Which is why Trump says insane things like grocery stores and mortgage lenders will “work along” with furloughed federal workers, the barter system I think we’re all familiar with and have used many times when going to a store without any money.)

In Detroit, Charlie LeDuff checks in with average Americans every day. Long a bellwether for the economic health of the working-class, Detroit is once again primed to provide a vision of the future for millions of Americans, Charlie says. Will it be home to a revival of manufacturing jobs, which Trump has promised to bring back? Or will it be a place where some combination of tech work and the creative class turns the city into something far different than it’s been for the last 100 years? Regardless, like a lot of places in the Midwest, Detroit is a good place to check in with folks to see how the economy is doing on a micro level.

I caught up with Charlie recently to see where he thinks things are going. Normally, this would be a Q&A, except I really only asked one question — where does the economy go from here — then Charlie and I just talked. Here’s a rough transcript of his end of the conversation, with some clarifying notes from me in between.

CL: Well, all I know is that GM is laying off 15,000, Ford is a mess, we’re closing factories, and on a macroeconomic level real wages have done nothing. If you take out the financial sector, which has done pretty well for itself, you take out inflation, people aren’t making any more money than they were 10 years ago, and probably a lot longer than that. We also know more people are in apartments than ever before, personal debt is at an all time high, and now they’re doing subprime auto loans.

JG: The use of subprime auto loans have increased in recent years, with some warning that the practice is simply creating another bubble similar to the subprime home mortgage crisis that led to the 2008 recession. One company in Irving, just outside Dallas, is planning to go public because it believes it can capitalize on a subprime auto loan market that is worth about $400 million. If this bubble bursts we can all look back to stories like this one — in which a subprime auto loan company discusses its use of artificial intelligence to expand the number of lendees — as a pretty obvious sign that things weren’t going well.

CL: My best weathervane are people. Even though they say consumer confidence is at an all time, I don't know who they're talking to. Do you feel confident? They talk about corporate profits, but corporate profits don’t filter to the average man. What did the [Trump] tax cuts get anybody? It got stock buybacks. All it did was blow a hole in the budget. It’ll lead to inflation, poor schools, bad roads. I don’t mean to sound like a Bolshevik but it was wealth redistribution. You get cheap goods and that’s supposed to be considered a raise.

JG: Even Marco Rubio has criticized the practices of corporate America following the massive tax cuts he and other Republicans gave them, writing in an op-ed for the Atlantic that buying back stock to pay off their shareholders wasn’t what he had hoped for. “The question workers face going forward isn’t whether tax cuts will bring capital back to the United States; it’s where that capital will go once it’s here,” Rubio wrote. “Wall St is a much more savvy motherfucker than Marco Rubio,” Charlie says.

CL: Student loan debt is over a trillion dollars — none of the fundamentals point to good health. Household debt, wages, savings... we’re looking at jobs numbers but you gotta look at real wages.

JG: What wages have done, Charlie argues, is drop for the average worker in Detroit from the pivotal announcement by Henry Ford in 1914 that he’d pay his workers $5 a day. In 2018 dollars, that amounts to $627.77 a week. In recent years, the second-tier of workers at factories for the Big Three top out at $20 an hour, or about $800 a week.

CL: Aren’t these supposed to be the greatest of times? Ok, I don’t see a lot of new cars. That’s where I look and I don’t see people with shiny new wheels. In fact car sales are going down, except for the subprime loans. People don’t like socialism, but guess what, here it comes. But it’s coming in a different form. It’s not going to be the government telling you what to do but all of our device distractions. All the entertainment you can watch — Netflix, reality TV, sports — it’s all cheap and easy to get on your phone. They’ll make sure we have just enough money to keep those things going so we’re fat and happy. But we won’t be going anywhere, and we won’t be getting any richer.

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P.S. Both photos on this post are mine. The first was taken at an abandoned motel somewhere in northern Indiana on my way to the Republican National Convention in 2016. The second was taken in Washington D.C. in January, 2018. If you like this newsletter, please consider telling your friends, co-workers, family and strangers on the street about it, and have them subscribe. Each new subscriber gets me a little closer to not having to worry about the next economic downturn that will cause another massive blow to the struggling journalism industry.

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