These proceedings

In the latest chapter of the Right's grievance wars, Republicans want you to believe an impossible story.

In recent weeks, I’ve become very good at identifying the congressman who’s speaking at any given moment, despite my back being turned to the TV while I work at my desk. I’ve memorized their voices because I’ve sat through dozens of hours of the impeachment hearings. This is a luxury reserved for a small class of people that includes journalists, pundits, politicians and their staffs, and all the people who make a living by paying attention to and documenting the news of each day.

We are a tiny minority. Most Americans will get their impeachment news in highly-distilled snippets, either from their local newspaper, which will run AP wire of the day’s developments, or their local television station, which will lean on their parent networks to tell the story. Beyond that, Americans will have their choice of partisan publications, websites and networks to learn of everything that happened in Washington while they were at work. 

Few will spend days on end watching the hearings live, like I have, to reach the fullest understanding of what has been transpiring for the last three weeks. 

What they’ve missed is actually pretty simple, and perfectly-suited for the failed both-sides coverage that daily journalism provides to most Americans. Democrats and Republicans are telling two stories. The first, the one that we know because a handful of witnesses have gone under oath to attest to it, is that Donald Trump extorted the president of Ukraine in an attempt to disparage his biggest political threat, Joe Biden. The second, the one that no one ever mentioned until after Trump was caught in his failed shakedown, is that he was actually trying to root out corruption in Ukraine, an issue he cares deeply about. 

Only one of these stories is true, but to know that you’d have to have been paying deep attention to this saga since at least September. The impeachment hearings will not inform you that the second story, the Republicans’ story, is complete and utter bullshit. Only the months and years worth of reporting on Ukraine that have become so much the focus of the American political world in the last three months will tell you that. And most Americans don’t have the time for such intensive reading.

So Republicans are capitalizing on this, exploiting the complexities of this story to hoodwink the ill-informed. But their flailing attempts to defend Trump are available for all to see, and they’re constantly evolving.

***

In order, here are Republicans’ defense of the president so far:

  1. He didn’t extort the president of Ukraine. In fact it was a “perfect” call.

  2. Ok maybe Trump did extort Zelensky, but that’s his right as president in order to achieve his foreign policy goals.

  3. He ended up giving him the military aid eventually (after he got caught, they always fail to note) so no harm, no foul. And besides, that’s more than Obama did.

  4. Zelensky publicly said he felt “no pressure” from Trump, so there you have it.

And now, now that Republicans are being confronted by Democrats who are pointing out the many flaws in Republicans’ ever-changing defense of the president, they’ve come up with what they believe is their best story yet:

  1. Ok, Trump did extort Zelensky, but he did it to make sure he was “the real deal” and was actually going to take on corruption in Ukraine. Also the Bidens should be investigated.

Ensuring Zelensky was “the real deal” is Rep. Jim Jordan’s favorite line at the moment. He and every other Republican in Congress want Americans to believe that Trump held up the aid because he had great concerns about Zelensky’s commitment to attacking corruption. The major problem with this story is that no one really said this until weeks after the transcript of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky was released.

If this was their primary defense, one would think they’d have said so back in September. But it isn’t. The Donald Trump, Corruption Crusader story Americans will hear in aggregated form through the media until the Senate eventually votes against impeaching Trump (which they will), has not been Republicans’ primary defense because it is not true. This is a story that no one came up with until after Trump had been caught.

Republicans still employe defenses 1 - 4 occasionally. Mostly they revert to “Zelensky said he felt no pressure.” As in last week, when Rep. Louie Gohmert said, “I’ve never sent anyone to prison in a case where the victim didn’t know they were the victim,” referencing both his days as a judge and Zelensky’s public comment.

But, like many victims of many crimes — including women who have been sexually assaulted by powerful men, like the three dozen who’ve accused Trump himself of doing — Zelensky is prohibited by fear of retaliation from speaking out.

He is the head of a vulnerable, fledgling democracy that is almost entirely reliant on the U.S. to fight a hot war against Russia, and yet Gohmert expects him to tell the world that, yes, he actually did feel pressure from the man who holds the purse strings that keep Ukraine free. 

***

Republicans have decided that the Donald Trump, Corruption Crusader defense is a hill they’re willing to die on. It’s a good defense for them because no one can really prove or disprove it — to do so you’d have to know what was in Trump’s heart. Somewhere in there, Republicans insist, is a long-held belief that Ukrainian corruption must be stamped out, and he’d be the one to do it. 

They’re going to die on the hill of that defense because they’re now saying they’re a part of its completely untrue core: Jordan and others are going on the record each day saying they support the withholding of aid to make sure that Zelensky was “the real deal.” They’re on record as saying that the Bidens should be investigated — “This Burisma stuff, there’s something happening there,” Gohmert insisted last week. But there’s a very simple reason Americans shouldn’t believe Republicans when they say there’s enough smoke for Biden to be investigated: they looked at that same smoke for eight years and never did anything about it.

Following these proceedings, Americans will have even more evidence that Republicans’ final defense, this fantastical story of Trump crusading against corruption first and exposing the Bidens’ role in it second, is a farce. Once the Senate votes not to impeach Trump, they’ll have the numbers and momentum they’ll need to launch a full investigation of Biden and Burisma. But they won’t.

Republicans will get away with that obvious hypocrisy for the same reason they’ve convinced generations of working class Americans to vote against their own interests in electing the GOP to be the majority party in this country: grievance. Republican voters won’t bat an eye when the Congress in 2020 fails to take up an investigation of the Bidens because those voters are conditioned to understand that this is all about winning. The lack of an investigation won’t matter because they’ll have won — they’ll have staved off the impeachment of Trump, who was being attacked by people who hated him. People who hated them. 

Photos in order: Carter for president, ‘76 at Pinkie’s in our new home of Savannah. A monument to the Confederate dead in nearby Forsyth Park. Sunset from a few thousand feet over the city’s west side. The new direction I briefly mentioned in my August post closing out my tenure as an immigration reporter is nearly upon us. More on that in a post in the coming weeks. Thanks for reading.

Chris Collins: the congressman who never stopped being a businessman

Stock tips, private loans, helpful legislation. In six years in Congress, Collins did it all — for himself.

Here are some of the things Chris Collins has done since being elected to Congress six years ago:

  • Get sweetheart stock deals for his fellow lawmakers so they could invest in his company

  • Introduce at least five bills that would have helped the company make more money

  • Propose cuts to a federal program that helps poor hospitals which would have made his company more money

  • Asked a government scientist to talk to researchers at his company to help them develop a drug worth billions of dollars

Here are the things Chris Collins has been punished for: Nothing. 

With the announcement yesterday that Collins will plead guilty to the insider trading charges he faces in Manhattan, that will change. With his resignation that followed, he’ll likely avoid punishment for all his misdeeds as a member of Congress, many of which I’ve reported on over the last several years.

Back in Dallas, there was a big board in my office that I could close the doors to when I didn’t want to look at the various facts and connections of something I was investigating. For the four months before I moved to Savannah I’d left it open, because every time I walked by I wanted to be reminded of the work that remained before my editor and I could publish our next Collins story. Call it negative motivation. 

We didn’t obviously didn’t make it — and the details of that story, which I’ll get to shortly, are more odd than damning. Those details are just part of an endless flood of stories and facts regarding Collins and other super wealthy members of Congress that shows this government is more disconnected from the lives of the average American than perhaps ever before. 

That’s in addition to being one of the richest and most corrupt governments in American history. Donald Trump has obviously done much to embed more corruption than ever in Washington, and the irony is lost on no one that Chris Collins was the first member of Congress to endorse Trump for president. 

Now that Collins has resigned from office, whatever investigation the House Ethics Committee was planning to launch or had already launched — I could never tell, and no one there would answer that question — will almost surely disappear. 

That means Collins will not be held accountable for all of the ways in which he tried to enrich himself with the power of his office while taking in a salary that is more than double what the average American makes. He is the absolute definition of a scumbag politician, and if he serves a single day in prison for his crimes it will have been well-deserved.

***

Collins is worth an estimated $43 million and ranks as the 13th wealthiest member of Congress. Before his indictment and while serving as the representative of New York’s 27th district he made money from or served on the board of more than a dozen private companies. Making $174,000 a year as a member of Congress, Collins never stopped being a businessman. 

He didn’t have to. There are currently no rules preventing lawmakers from doing business with — or owning and operating! — private companies. (Although HR-1 has a provision to change that, which I’ll detail in a forthcoming newsletter.) So Collins was free to sit on committees that regulated the very industries in which his companies operated. If that weren’t enough, Collins supported or introduced five bills — one for nearly every year he served in Congress — that would have made his companies more money.

This is all well-documented, but in the spring I stumbled upon something in Collins’ financial disclosures that wasn’t. 

Two witnesses who refused to speak to investigators about Collins had been loaned hundreds of thousands of dollars by the congressman. They also had at one point held millions of dollars in stock in Collins’ Australian pharmaceutical company, Innate Immunotherapeutics, before that stock crashed and they lost big.

But they weren’t the only ones who received loans in the form of rare, private mortgages from Collins. In all, the lawmaker from Buffalo loaned more than $770,000 in private mortgages to investors in Innate.

They include the Michael Hook, Collins’ former chief of staff, who got at least $250,000 from Collins for a mortgage on a home in Cuba, New York, as The Buffalo News first reported. 

What’s odd is that Hook purchased the home in 2013 for $67,000, I found, and it has a current assessed market value of $97,000. Why get a mortgage more than twice the value of a home you already own? That’s something only Hook and Collins can answer, and neither of them ever returned my calls. 

The witnesses, Bill and Marcia Grove, have for years been close to Collins, who served as the best man at their wedding. When the Office of Congressional Ethics in 2017 sought to speak with the couple about Collins’ dealings with Innate, the Groves refused. 

In fact, Collins suggested they not cooperate with the probe.  

“I will admit I told them to go to Wikipedia and to Wikipedia the authority and the leverage the OCE has,” Collins told investigators, “and I would’ve stated definitively that the OCE does not have subpoena power and beyond that, make your own decision,” Collins told investigators. “Get your own counsel; I can’t tell you what to do because I can’t tell you what to do, but make your own decision.”

Collins went on to loan the Groves’ son, Travis, $420,000 for a home not far from his parents in Florida. Travis also owned Innate stock before it came crashing down.

I could never find any specific wrongdoing in all this, no law that Collins was obviously breaking. But it was certainly weird. More than anything, what I took from all this reporting is something that I often conclude after looking through congressional financial disclosures: these people are not like us. Collins’ finances are an endless web of connections and money moving around, and businesses, stock transactions, real estate purchases, loans and promissory notes. This makes him disconnected from the daily lives and struggles of average Americans, who often vote for very rich men like Collins because they see themselves in their wealthy leaders. 

They have hope that they’ll one day be rich like them.

The problem is that people like Collins rig the game for people like Collins, not people like you and I. 

***

In the last four years I’ve spent many a night and early morning working on stories about Collins. Often times this involved reading transcripts of him at committee hearings or in the interviews he sat for with the OCE investigators.

In the silence of a sleeping home, I felt very connected to Collins, like I was coming to understand him. He speaks in an honest and unfiltered way, talking without fear or hesitation because he truly believes he never did anything wrong.

Everything is so innocent and normal in Collins’ view. Lawmakers trading stock tips is just something that people do, he once alluded to. The bills he introduce that would have helped Innate weren’t for that, they were created to help everyone.

When he told investigators how he and Tom Price first discussed Innate, he just laid it all out there, how the whole system works.

“I mean, I – again, when we’re sitting on the House floor, killing time during a 20 motion to recommit, we talk about our kids, and we talk about our vacations and we talk about…the New York Yankees, in my case, my companies. Oh, yeah. So general conversation where if you look at what we’re watching o C-SPAN, nobody sits in their assigned seats and nobody’s paying attention. They all got their phones out and they’re emailing. That’s just what happens. So yeah, it would’ve been a discussion. It could’ve been elsewhere, it could’ve been at a dinner, but primarily Tom and I, you know we’d sit down next to each other on the House floor and chat and so I would’ve …he would’ve asked about the company and I can’t tell you the total context because I can’t remember but, somehow it would’ve been yeah, we’re doing one last offering. And at which point, he said, “I’d like to consider participating. Can you get me the documents?” He’s a sophisticated guy. He knows how private placements go. I said, sure. Write your name down, I’ll have Simon get it to you.”

And that’s how easy it is. Two members of Congress just “sitting on the House floor, killing time.” One tells the other about a company’s hot prospects, then they tell a few more people, then the next thing you know, they’re introducing a bill that will help that company (which Collins and Price did with the 21st Century Cures Act). Now everyone’s happy. And the people who elected them are happy because they’re creating jobs and lowering taxes, or they’re not. Doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that the system stays in place, because it’s the system that actually rules us. We have Chris Collins to thank for being just the latest politician to prove that point.

***

All the photos on this story are mine. The first is from my old office in Dallas. The second was taken on the road in Texas. The third is from a hotel room in Austin.

The system wasn't built for this: How Trump violated election law and might get away with it

Things of value and urgent concerns.

What you saw today in Joseph Maguire’s testimony before Congress was a man who takes the oath to the constitution he has sworn to uphold 11 times over his career very seriously. Like many others before him during the Trump administration, Maguire’s commitment to that oath today had the ironic effect of protecting a president who doesn’t care at all about it, even though he himself took it when he put his hand on two Bibles at his inauguration.

Maguire operates in a system of rules, laws and military order — also of checks and balances — that was created two centuries ago with the assumption that the executive at the top would have respect for and commitment to that system.

Donald Trump has neither. That’s why Maguire said over and over today that the situation we find ourselves in is “unprecedented.” It is unprecedented because Trump has done something that every president before him would likely never do: solicit help from a foreign power for his own personal gain. Trump has done this because he does not subscribe to the same universal ideals of democracy that Republican and Democrat presidents alike have operated under for at least most of the history of this country. 

Maguire’s actions after he learned of a whistleblower’s complaint against the president followed the hierarchy of order in which he has spent 40 years as a Navy veteran and civil servant. He went to the White House and asked if he could release the complaint regarding Trump’s unprecedented actions not because he was trying to aid in a cover-up, but because this is the first time that the subject of such a complaint was the president himself. 

Get past all the semantics of the situation — whether Maguire believe the complaint fell under the legal definition of “urgent concern,” whether he should have ever wondered if it qualified under executive privilege — and you have something that is actually very simple: the president clearly violated federal election law, and the Justice Department decided not to pursue that case. 

Don’t take that from me; take it from Larry Noble, a former lawyer with the Federal Election Commission who has argued that Trump’s actions during his call with the Ukranian president represent a direct violation of a portion of election law that deals with “contributions and donations by foreign nationals,” otherwise known as the foreign-source ban.

Specifically, Americans are not allowed to accept a “contribution or donation or other thing of value” from foreign nationals or governments, Noble reminded his followers today

When I reached Noble this afternoon he was once again eyeballs-deep in the weeds of the Mueller report, working on an op-ed for CNN. We picked up on page 186 of the report, in which Mueller explains his decision not to prosecute members of the Trump campaign for their involvement in the infamous Trump Tower meeting.

That decision was based on two ideas: what constitutes a “thing of value” from the foreign-source ban and whether or not the meeting’s participants from the Trump campaign acted “willfully.”

First, while Mueller believed that the “dirt” on Hillary Clinton being offered by the Russians was most certainly a thing of value, he understood that courts have yet to classify such opposition research under that phrase, presenting a difficult legal challenge. 

“Such an interpretation could have implications beyond the foreign-source ban [...] and raise First Amendment questions,” Mueller wrote in his report. “Those questions could be especially difficult where the information consisted simply of the recounting of historically accurate facts. It is uncertain how courts would resolve those issues.”

Secondly, Mueller declined to prosecute because the meeting’s participants on Trump’s side were simply too stupid to know that what they were doing was illegal — a requirement to convict someone for violating election law.

“The investigation has not developed evidence that the participants in the meeting were familiar

with the foreign-contribution ban or the application of federal law to the relevant factual context,” Mueller wrote.

“I was actually offended by that,” Noble told me. “By saying that a presidential campaign may not know that they can’t accept assistance from a foreign national sets a pretty low bar.”

Oh, but that bar may get far lower. That’s because Trump’s actions on the call with President Volodymyr Zelensky — actions that represent a more egregious violation of the foreign-contribution ban because Trump solicited an election contribution in the form of an investigation into Joe Biden and his son — have apparently already been determined to be legal by the Justice Department.

One of the overlooked developments from Maguire’s testimony was his admission that, after reading both the whistleblower’s complaint and the accompanying report from the intelligence community inspector general, he took that information to the FBI to see if Trump’s actions were at all criminal. The FBI, we learned today, decided they were not. 

According to Noble that decision “reflects this DOJ deciding a foreign government helping a campaign with opposition research or digging up dirt on an opponent is not a thing of value, and that’s a very dangerous thing.”

Like Maguire, the lawyers at the Justice Department were presented with an unprecedented situation in — once again — having to decide whether the president may have broken the law. Considering no court has ever said that opposition research is a thing of value, one can’t really blame those lawyers for declining to pursue an investigation. (Doing so would also be walking into a hornet’s nest of conflicts with a president who rails constantly about the “deep state.” Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that the DOJ is led by an Attorney General who has largely carried Trump’s water and believes in extremely broad interpretations of executive privilege.)

Thinking conspiratorially, one might believe that Bill Barr quashed the investigation into the Ukraine call because he’s a Trump sycophant. There’s probably an element of truth to that, but Maguire’s testimony today was indicative of a familiar pattern that indicates otherwise: Trump does something unprecedented, civil servants have to make a decision about it under the rules and systems that have guided their careers, and end up protecting a president who doesn’t believe in any of those things. 

“What we’re stuck in is, everything’s unprecedented because pretty much everything this president does is unprecedented,” Noble said. “That’s not a shield. It’s not the more outrageous you get, the more protection you get.”

P.S. The photo on this post is from a friend’s bar in Dallas. Savannah is nice, and hot, just like Dallas but without all the traffic.

Boomers are killing us and we're helping them — but there's a way forward

Companies can't survive under the current system of generational transfer of wealth.

It is 3:21 a.m. and I’ve been up for more than an hour, lying in bed and trying to go back to sleep. I have failed. The overly sensitive motion detector light out back keeps clicking on a few times a minute. The crickets seem louder than usual tonight. But there’s something else keeping me up and making my mind walk in circles as I try to come up with ways to get more of it: money.

This is supposed to be the greatest economy in the world. The president says constantly that everything is going great thanks to him, and that Americans are better off now than they’ve ever been before. Do you feel that way? I don’t. I think about money constantly, obsessively turning off light switches and filing all purchases and expenses in giant spreadsheets that I think will one day provide salvation. Every time I get paid I turn that money around and pay all the bills, saving 40 percent for my quarterly estimated income tax payments just to be safe. I can’t help but note how little is left over to do all the things you’re supposed to have done by the time you’re my age, 35. I constantly try to find ways to save money so that I can do those things. I want to have three month’s salary sitting in my savings account, just in case something terrible happens. I want to invest in the stock market so my money can earn some passive income. I want to get married. I want to have kids.

I can’t imagine how I will do any of that under current circumstances, because the money just is not there. I make the average American annual income and I don’t have money for these things, because apparently the average isn’t enough anymore. 

If all that weren’t enough, we are now facing the very real possibility of an economic downturn, and all my worrying is likely to soon get worse. I guess I can take a little solace in knowing that I’m not the only one — as The Atlantic laid out a few weeks ago, the next recession is going to destroy people like me, Millennials. Apparently that’s because we never fully recovered from the last one.

Millennials got bodied in the downturn, have struggled in the recovery, and are now left more vulnerable than other, older age cohorts. As they pitch toward middle age, they are failing to make it to the middle class, and are likely to be the first generation in modern economic history to end up worse off than their parents. The next downturn might make sure of it, stalling their careers and sucking away their wages right as the Millennials enter their prime earning years.

“Prime earning years,” that’s apparently where I’m at right now. It doesn’t feel like that, and the health of the global economy is really all about how people feel. If you feel like things aren’t going great, you cut back on spending. This prompts less demand for goods and services, affecting how much money other people are making. They, in turn, also cut back. This cycle perpetuates itself until it prompts an economic downturn, recession or, god forbid, depression. 

What happened? How did the average become not enough?

For one, housing costs have gone way up, Annie Lowrey reports in that Atlantic piece. To make a decent wage — an average wage — you pretty much have no choice but to live in a city. That’s where you also can’t even think about being able to buy a house, so you rent. And you’re renting from Baby Boomers, who may very well be the last generation to be better off than their parents (making us the first generation not to, as Lowrey points out). “This represents a large generational transfer of wealth from the young to the old,” Lowrey writes. “Boomers own the houses and bar municipalities from building more of them, thus benefiting from rising prices and soaking up endless rent checks forked over by younger and poorer families.”

I can speak from personal experience on this: shortly before leaving Dallas, Sarah and I approached the property manager at our home — a 1941 bungalow built by a well-known architect in the city — and asked about his not-very-well-defined offer that we might be able to buy the place. It needed tons of work — replacing the original windows alone would have cost at least $5,000. Nothing had been updated in the home, either, since it was constructed. (We pressed the owners to finally, after nearly 80 years, to put insulation in the attic so our living room wouldn’t be 63 degrees in the coldest nights of the winter.) The county’s assessed value — some $260,000 — was far too high of a price for the work that needed done, and I made that point clear. The answer: the owners would want at least that. And why shouldn’t they? We were paying their mortgage every month on a house that I’m sure was fully-paid off. There’s that generation transfer of wealth Lowrey was talking about. 

In the two and a half years we lived there, we spent $48,000 on rent at our beloved Coombs. That’s $48,000 in straight cash that went to its owners, money that could have been paying off our first home.

***

Boomers run the show in this country. They own the houses and the land. They run the government and own the companies that employ us. Most of them are Republican, because this is still a center-right country. (I’ve often made the argument that it really isn’t and if most Americans took a hard look at Democratic economic proposals they’d see their personal financial interests would be best served voting for Democrats. But over the decades, the GOP has done an incredible job convincing these folks to vote against their own economic interests by ginning up fear about everything from immigrants and welfare recipients to unions and the results-producing War on Christmas. None of my financial woes makes me want to vote for Republicans, considering they’re the ones who insist that people who make twice, quadruple and 30 times what I make pay just seven percent more in income taxes than I do.) Even the Democrats, who are supposed to be the party of progress, have three Boomers atop their presidential field — Joe Biden is 76; Elizabeth Warren is 70; Bernie Sanders is 77.

While Boomers are doing their part to make us poor and miserable, we’re contributing to that downward spiral pretty well ourselves. Boomers kick our asses when it comes to showing up on Election Day, as Politico’s Timothy Noah notes in his recent piece. That’s surely the biggest reason why we have a “Gerontocracy,” as Noah calls it — we are governed by the old because the old actually go out and vote and because soon we will mostly be the old.

By 2030, every living Boomer will be elderly (that is, age 65 or older), and by 2035, the Census Bureau projects, the elderly will outnumber minors for the first time in U.S. history,” Noah writes.

We should probably start voting more, but I myself am bad at this because I’m sitting up at 4:08 a.m. writing this newsletter instead of researching my local, state and federal representatives to see who I’ll vote for in November. Younger Millennials — the future workforce — should especially get involved by working to figure out how to force employers to share more wealth, and voting for people who would support those efforts would certainly help. 

Hell, their potential Boomer bosses are already claiming to address this issue. Last month, when the Business Roundtable introduced a 95 Theses of sorts that said their companies would focus on objectives other than simply making their shareholders money, it was met with justified skepticism. But I believe them.

The reason they are shifting focus is not because they want to save the planet or necessarily provide better wages to their workers, but because an economy that is forever shifting wealth from young to old is not one that can sustain companies like those from the Business Roundtable and the S&P 500 on down to your neighborhood coffee shop.

If those companies want to exist far into the future — far past the death of the last wealthy Baby Boomer — they’re going to need Millennials not just to buy their products but to invest in their companies. We can’t do any of that if we’re all dead broke. 

All the photos on this post are mine, from our home on Coombs Creek in Dallas’ Oak Cliff. If you like this post or any of my previous writing, tell a friend. Eventually I’m going to turn the paywall on here and you’ll have to give me some of that money I’m awake at 4:28 a.m. thinking about. Mahalo.

They made it here with a little help

Mateo and his mother Alma made it to America with perseverance and a little luck. Their story ends, for now, my tenure as an immigration reporter.

Mateo won’t remember any of this. He won’t remember the man in the big truck in the parking garage who jump-started my car. He won’t remember the Whataburger drive-through, or the couple in the front seats speaking a language he and his mother did not understand. Or the little bridge over the creek, or the art-filled house, the fluffy dog who was very interested in his sleeping body, the pull-out couch in the spare room, or the drive back to the airport a few hours later. 

He will remember none of it. But it was how he made it to America. 

I first saw him in the El Paso airport, tired and hungry and happy that he got a bottle of Coke and a bag of chips. His mother — who looked to me like a child herself — tended to him alongside another young migrant mother with her own young child. In the back of a jet from El Paso to Dallas I met Mateo and his mother, Alma. On the sidewalk outside a terminal in Dallas I realized she didn’t know where she was and had no place to go. 

Que es la dirección de tu familia? I asked in broken Spanish, wondering why she was pacing on the sidewalk and who from Dallas was coming to pick her up.

“Birmingham,” she replied.

Birmingham? Fuck. She thinks she’s in Birmingham. She had been traveling there to meet her husband and their other child, a daughter, when her flight from El Paso to Dallas was delayed. Arriving at nearly midnight, her connecting flight to Alabama was long gone.

She may not have even known she had a connecting flight. She carried with her a small purse and a plastic bag with her tickets and identification, much like other migrants I’ve seen flying out of El Paso who are bound for friends or family in the interior of the United States. Alma had wandered past security and onto the sidewalk, and now she was stuck. Her options were to sleep on the floor near a baggage carousel, or come with us. I found someone who speaks better Spanish than I do and had him explain these options to her. She chose our offer of a place to sleep and a ride back to the airport for the next day’s flight. 

After a few hour’s rest and some pleading with TSA agents the next morning, Mateo and Alma made their flight and are now in Alabama after living their whole lives in Guatemala. They made it here like generations of people before them, with a whole lot of persistence and perseverance, some luck, and a little of the kindness of strangers. Now they have a better chance in life than they might have ever had before. 

They are as American as they come.

Here is where a quote would go to end this section, but Alma was so reserved and quiet in our time together that there is none to provide. Whatever the question was, her answer was Si. All she wanted was to get her and Mateo to her husband and daughter. Whatever it took to get there, the answer was Yes. 

***

For the last two and a half years now I’ve lived in Texas and have seen many things. I have been to the border almost a dozen times in the last year and it has changed my perception of right and wrong and how some people in this country should be treated

I have a very difficult time controlling my anger around people who are full-throated Trump supporters because of the things I have seen at the border. But those experiences are only in addition to being inundated each week with news of how so many people in power in this country degrade and denigrate migrants like Mateo and Alma — and how many regular people support those statements. Then there are the horror stories coming out of the detention centers where we’re holding more than 50,000 people whose only crime is seeking a better life. Then there’s the seven deaths, at least two of them children, that occurred under our government’s watch at those facilities. 

Radical reshaping of asylum law to effectively shut it down, metering at ports of entry, detaining American citizens because of their skin color, daily vile statements from the president — all of it is too much to handle sometimes.

All of this hateful rhetoric and fear-mongering policy decisions came to their logical conclusion in early August when an angry white man shot and killed as many people as he could at a Walmart in El Paso simply because they were brown. The president is responsible for that, because he is constantly saying that white people should be angry at and afraid of brown people. 

Do not believe people when they tell you that calling the president a racist is unfair or to call his supporters racist is also unfair because you can support a racist president but not be racist yourself. Do not listen to people who say calling Trump and his supporters racist is a slippery slope to calling anyone you disagree with regarding immigration a racist. 

Don’t listen to this bad faith argument because what we’ve been living through in the past three years is not a traditional Democrat-versus-Republican policy dispute on immigration. What we have witnessed since Trump took office is a historic, extreme radicalization of American immigration policy, and our country’s stance towards refugees. Because that’s what these migrants are — refugees from failing states plagued by violence and corruption. Migrants move because they want to. Refugees flee because they have to.

This administration knows all of this and surely has access to even more detailed information about the deteriorating conditions in the Latin American countries many migrants are fleeing from. In response to this desperation the Trump administration has effectively shut down the asylum process as we’ve known it for the last 50 years. Putting salt in the wound, Trump and his lackeys in right-wing media have engaged in a full-throated campaign to portray migrants as criminals, free-loaders and job-takers. They have scapegoated migrants, and told White America that it need look no further than the nearest brown person to blame for all the problems in their own lives. 

That is, by definition, racist. 

Following the El Paso shooting, I thought that Republicans and Trump supporters would face a reckoning, that they would have to disavow the president because his words had turned into bloody bodies on the ground. 

Less than a month later, El Paso is as forgotten and gone as Las Vegas was five months after 58 people were gunned down there by another dead-eyed white man.

I fear that it is only a matter of time before it happens again. 

***

This will likely be my last post for some time that is focused on immigration and the border. Sarah and I have moved to Savannah, Georgia for her work. After two years of covering immigration I can honestly say this change is a relief. This is difficult work. Like I said in the first post about Rubén, the Central American asylum-seeker I met in February in Juárez, it is very difficult to watch someone cry because you asked them a question about the difficulties in their life. Rubén’s story is just one of dozens I’ve heard in the last few years, all just as heartbreaking and painful as the next.

But every one of those tragic stories is rooted in hope, because before bad things befell each one of those migrants, they had left their home with great hope in their heart that they would one day have a better life here. That’s why immigration reporting is so difficult  — because for every migrant who makes it through there are 100 more who don’t, and every single day, our leaders are making it more difficult for them to come here. I can’t imagine how immigration attorneys do it, just getting knocked down day after day and always getting back up to fight.

It’s not people like Donald Trump who are tough and brave — as much as he and his supporters believe themselves to be — it’s people like Taylor Levy and Iliana Holguin in El Paso and Eileen Sterlock in Portland. They and other immigration advocates and attorneys battle forces several times their size every single day and always show up when the bell rings.

Cowards beat up people smaller than them, thus proving their own smallness. In this way, we know Donald Trump is the world’s smallest man.  

But there is occasional good news on the immigration front. 

Following the shooting in El Paso, citizens of Juárez shined the lights of their cell phones toward El Paso, a place many of them can’t go. 

Readers of this newsletter recently raised another $1,000 for Rubén, which bought Rubén much-needed medical supplies. (A special thanks goes out to Jess Ann Kirby, an influencer friend of Sarah’s who shared Rubén’s fundraiser with her followers. That second push last month brought the total raised to almost $2,000 since I launched the fundraiser in April. Now, I am preparing Rubén’s asylum application ahead of his next check-in with immigration authorities.)

Migrant advocates also helped a Central American couple stuck in Juárez under Remain in Mexico nearly reach a goal of $2,500. They need the money to pay for travel around Juárez, where they’re looking for work, as well as for trips to El Paso for their asylum case hearings. Recently, the couple used some of the money to get married — a legal hoop they had to jump through that could affect their asylum case. 

My friend Justin Hamel, the El Paso-based photographer who has been documenting the situation at the border for months, and who shot my story about Juárez for Heated Mag, was there to watch the couple tie the knot. Here they are, faces obscured to protect their privacy.

***

After a dead battery in my car, a stranger jumping it, a trip to Whataburger for much-needed sustenance and two hour’s sleep, Sarah and I took Alma and Mateo back to the airport that morning in late June. We got her a wheelchair to sit in with Mateo — you should have seen this tiny woman carrying the boy, who is big for his age. It was then that we realized the only identification she possessed was a Guatemalan ID card. No visa, no passport, no nothing. How did she get past security in El Paso? Unknown. How would she get past security to make it to Birmingham?

With a little luck, and TSA agents looking the other way.

“She has to be legal somehow,” I told them. “They let her get on the plane in El Paso, after all.”

Eventually, they waved Alma and Mateo through. She looked back one last time and we waved. They had made it.

***

All of the photos on this post are mine with the exception of the married couple in Juárez, which was provided by Justin Hamel. The first is of the canal separating El Paso and Juárez from my trip there for Heated Mag. The second is of a holding pen for migrants at Paso Del Norte, and the third is of myself and my fixer and friend, Julian Cardona, in Juárez. Many, many thanks are owed to Julian for his help navigating Juárez. Without him, I could not have done this work. Now thousands of miles from the border, this newsletter will soon go in a different direction. I’m interested in unsolved missing persons cases and homicides, which I’ll begin investigating here in Georgia. The New York Times will soon be publishing a piece of mine about members of Congress who are involved with private companies, so it’s also very likely that Where Do We Go From Here will take on a renewed focus on political corruption. As always, if you like what you see here, tell a friend. And if anyone has any tips on scandals, malfeasance or general wrongdoing in Georgia and the Low Country, please let me know. Here, I’ll continue my efforts to give a voice to those who usually don’t get one, and holding people in power accountable. Thanks for reading. 

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