Saturday, February 25, 2017

These Are Children, Not Bad Hombres

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Doris Cruz Garcia with her children, Roberto and Kendra. CreditJessica Pons for The New York Times
Last year 7-year-old Kendra Cruz Garcia and her 10-year-old-brother, Roberto Guardado Cruz, crossed the Rio Grande alone. When their tiny boat reached the shore, they started walking into Texas.
The Border Patrol agents who soon caught the Salvadoran siblings deemed them “unaccompanied” because no parent was with them. Children with this designation are granted special, well-deserved protections.
They aren’t subject to quick deportation and are entitled to a full hearing before an immigration judge. They can’t be held for long periods in immigration jails. Instead, they are transferred to child-friendly shelters operated by Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, and released, usually within a month, to a parent, relative or sponsor while their court hearings proceed. Instead of facing cross-examination by adversarial prosecutors, children are interviewed by an asylum officer trained to gently probe whether they qualify to stay in the country legally.
In other words, they are treated with kindness and decency by our government because they are innocent children.
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But President Trump has decided to get tough on many of the 60,000 Central American children who arrive at our border each year begging for safety after fleeing some of the most dangerous places on earth. His executive orders, and memos from the Department of Homeland Security on how to interpret them, could strip this special treatment from the roughly 60 percent of unaccompanied children who have a parent already living in the United States. If Kendra and Roberto were just entering the United States now, they would fall into this group; instead they kept their protections and were eventually united with their mother, a house painter in Los Angeles.
Parents like her, the argument goes, are exploiting benefits established to help children who really are alone here. The administration has threatened to deport parents who send for their children or prosecute them for hiring smugglers.
Last week Mr. Trump’s press secretary said the president’s intention was to prioritize the deportation of immigrants who “represent a threat to public safety.” Supporters say he’s upholding the law. But these children are not threats, and there are many ways to preserve the integrity of our immigration laws while treating them humanely.
D.H.S. hasn’t fully explained how it will deal with children reclassified as “accompanied” if a parent steps forward to claim them. “There is a range of how bad this might be,” says Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice Program at the Women’s Refugee Commission.
But it could be pretty bad. In recent years, up to 90 percent of unaccompanied Central American kids have willingly turned themselves over to Border Patrol agents, knowing they would be cared for. Now they will go to great lengths to avoid detection, walking through deserts for days, risking dehydration, or traveling stuffed into hidden compartments in cars or trucks, where they can suffocate.
Smuggling fees will escalate. When that happens, smugglers often collect half in the home country and require children to work off the other half as indentured servants. Experts expect to see more cases like the one in 2014, when federal agents rescued eight Guatemalan teenagers from a trailer park in Ohio, where they’d been held captive by smugglers and forced to work at an egg farm.
Children will be afraid to admit they have parents here, as they were in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the government often told parents to retrieve apprehended children, only to deport the whole family when they showed up. As a result children languished in detention centers. Eighteen years ago, I spent a week in a jail in Liberty, Tex., where unaccompanied children who had been kept there for months had tried to slit their wrists or hang themselves.
Finally, advocates worry that Central American children will tell Border Patrol agents that they are Mexican, so they won’t be deported so far away. This was common a decade ago, and resulted in Central American children being preyed upon in lawless, cartel-controlled Mexican border towns. Today, 18,000 Central Americans are still kidnapped and ransomed each year while migrating through Mexico. Children whose families cannot pay are enslaved, raped, killed. Each year, a caravan of Central American mothers walk through Mexico, searching for missing children.
Why would immigrants — parents and children — take these risks? El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have among the highest homicide rates in the world. Boys are forced to join gangs; girls are forced to sleep with gangsters. The proof children are fleeing real danger: 73 percent of unaccompanied minors who go to immigration court with a lawyer win the right to stay here legally.
Kendra and Roberto’s mother, Doris Cruz Garcia, 34, fled El Salvador in 2013 after repeated beatings and death threats by Kendra’s father, a gang member. When Ms. Cruz became pregnant with Kendra, he kicked and punched her, trying to abort the baby. Ms. Cruz curled her body into a ball to protect her daughter, who was born two months early, weighing 3.5 pounds.
Ms. Cruz moved with the children constantly to hide from her ex. When Kendra was 3, he broke into the place where they were staying and attacked Ms. Cruz. When she came to the next day, she was covered in blood. Her ex had said he would kill her, that she would end up in a trash bag. She now believed him. She had to escape.
She had just enough money to get herself to the United States, so she planned to save up and send for Kendra and Roberto when she had the money. She thought they would be safe with her brother. But her brother was murdered a year later, probably by members of her ex’s gang.
Her sister decided it was too dangerous to keep the children. Without telling Ms. Cruz, she brought them to the United States. For three months, Roberto and Kendra walked all day and slept outdoors at night. They were stuffed with other migrants into the back of an 18-wheel truck for 27 hours. “We didn’t have food,” said Kendra. “We had to walk lots.” Roberto was afraid of the snakes and crocodiles he saw in a river he crossed. When they finally reached the border, their aunt said goodbye.
After staying at a Texas shelter for unaccompanied minors for a few months, the siblings were released to Ms. Cruz a year ago. The children are likely to soon qualify for visas granting them legal status; their mother remains here unlawfully.
Kendra and Roberto love the United States. They praised the shelter — the school, the food, how they could call their mother frequently. They are grateful for being referred to pro bono lawyers.
Roberto says punishing parents is wrong. “There are a lot of dangerous things and gangs in my country. I don’t want anything bad to happen to my mommy or my family,” he said. His sister, listening in, added: “I want my mom with me. I don’t want to be apart from my mommy. I don’t want to be alone.”
“I love that this country protects children,” Ms. Cruz said, sobbing. “I am just trying to stay in one piece with my children. They have dreams. I want to give them that. I love them. I am their mother.”
Americans are right to be concerned that children who lose their immigration cases flout the law by remaining here illegally. Many view this, rightfully, as a scam. And it is obviously a problem that, because immigration courts are backlogged with hundred of thousands of cases, immigrants get to stay for years before their case is decided.
But the solution isn’t to deport these children before bothering to find out how much danger they face back home. We should instead build an immigration judicial system with integrity by hiring enough judges to quickly process cases. Last year, Human Rights First calculated that the United States would need 150 more judges, costing some $150 million a year for them and their support staff, to clear the backlog within two years.
And children need government-funded lawyers if they’re going to get a full, fair hearing. Half of children who cannot afford a lawyer are expected to argue complex asylum cases on their own. One-year-olds stand alone before judges, making a mockery of our judicial system. Ahilan Arulanantham, the legal director for the A.C.L.U. of Southern California, who has sued the government to demand legal counsel for all children, says this would cost $2,700 to $5,000 per child.
We could adjudicate cases in six months. If a child loses the right to stay here legally, immigration agents should find her and safely repatriate her to her home country.
We can have a system that’s fair and humane, and preserves the rule of law.

Trump vs. Press: Crazy, Stupid Love

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President Trump speaking to reporters on Air Force One last weekend. At a rally after they landed, he attacked the press. CreditAl Drago/The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Much has been made of Melania Trump’s absence from the capital.
But our new president’s most intense, primal, torrid relationship is in full “The War of the Roses” bloom here. And it is not with his beautiful, reserved wife. It’s with the press, the mirror for the First Narcissus.
President Trump thinks that the mirror is cracked and the coverage is “fake.” And many in the press, spanning the ideological spectrum, think that he is cracked and that a lot of his pronouncements are fake.
Can this strange, symbiotic relationship be saved? Probably not. It is too inflamed and enmeshed, too full of passionate accusations. It’s going to end like all those plays and movies — from “Othello” to “Endless Love” — where the mutual attraction is so powerful, it’s toxic.
Trump could not live without the press. It is his crack. He would be adrift and bereft without his sparring partners, lightning rods, scapegoats and amplifiers.
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And while many in the press may disdain the way Trump uses them to rile up crowds and deflect from transgressions, they know they have a rare story and a tantalizing, antagonizing protagonist.
As the New York Times White House reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted in January: “Trump has frequently complained about my reporting,” yet, “He remains the most accessible politician I’ve ever covered.”
The press is everything to Donald Trump, from interior décor — his Trump Tower office was plastered wall to wall with framed magazine covers reflecting his face back at him like an infinity mirror — to daily reading. For decades every morning, he had his assistant print out a sheaf of stories published about him and keep a store of videotapes for ego gratification. Once Trump became a Twitter addict, this morphed into an incestuous, vertiginous spiral, as he got upset and shot back against news reports he did not like.
His campaign staff “cracked the code for tamping down his most inflammatory tweets,” Tara Palmeri reported in Politico last week, by ensuring “his personal media consumption includes a steady stream of praise. And when no such praise was to be found, staff would turn to friendly outlets to drum some up — and make sure it made its way to Trump’s desk.”
Talk about fake news.
He is the biggest story on the planet, “King Lear meets Rodney Dangerfield,” as Lloyd Grove tweeted after Trump’s recent press conference. As our new president is well aware, he’s a rainmaker and a troublemaker for media.
Financially pressed news organizations are not being shy about seizing the moment to celebrate — and cash in on — their aggressive independence. They are responding with a missionary zeal to being treated as “the opposition party” that “should keep its mouth shut,” as Trump enforcer Steve Bannon put it.
The Washington Post has added a dramatic “Batman”-style motto online: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” The New York Times bought a pricey ad for the Oscars with the tag line, “The truth is more important than ever.” The Los Angeles Times made new multilingual T-shirts declaring, “We will not shut up.”
President Trump is constantly berating the press because the accounts of his chaotic, careering first month in the job do not sync up with the glossy, self-regarding image he has in the fun-house mirror of his head and in the reflection from his circle of sycophants. Kellyanne Conway calls him “President Action” and “President Impact” and Bannon compares him to William Jennings Bryan. (Trump would definitely want a cross of gold to match his new Oval Office drapes.)
Back in the ’70s and ’80s, with a shameless talent for self-aggrandizement untethered to fact, Trump was able to turn himself into a celebrity. Like his mentor Roy Cohn, Trump learned to manipulate his coverage in the New York tabloids. He even came up with two alter egos, John Barron and John Miller, so he could masquerade as his own p.r. agent and spin tall tales about Madonna and Carla Bruni craving him.
“Posing as John Miller, he used to ask to go on and off the record when talking about girls lusting after Donald,” recalls Sue Carswell, who dealt with both Trump and his fake spinmeister when she was at People during l’affaire Marla Maples.
It doesn’t seem to have sunk in with Trump that he can’t manipulate the press as easily today. He’s the president. When he exaggerates and makes things up now, it has global consequences and subverts American values. It is not like whispering lies about which famous women are panting for him.
In his pouty speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, he reiterated his sour denunciation of journalists as “the enemy of the people.” The man who made his flashy reputation by being an anonymous and pseudonymous source — and who still spews a constant stream of wild assertions based on anonymous sources — blustered that the press “shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name.”
The White House has been trying to shape coverage by giving passes and questions at press conferences to Breitbart and other conservative outlets, including some fringe ones. And on Friday afternoon, the White House barred several news organizations from a Sean Spicer briefing. This included The New York Times and CNN, which angered the White House by reporting on links between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence officials.
This Russian-style domination of the press came only a few hours after the president told CPAC: “I love the First Amendment; nobody loves it better than me. Nobody.”
Fake news. Let’s just hope he doesn’t love the First Amendment to death.
Correction: February 25, 2017 
An earlier version of this column misspelled the name of a politician. He is William Jennings Bryan (not Bryant).

Calling Secretary Tillerson

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Rex Tillerson in Mexico on Wednesday. CreditCarlos Jasso/Reuters
When Rex Tillerson showed up for his first day of work at the State Department earlier this month, he moved quickly to allay the concerns of diplomats and others alarmed by President Trump’s security policies and his disparaging comments about allies and partners.
Addressing a crowd in the department lobby, the new secretary of state spoke of his “high regard” for the public servants he was appointed to manage, extolled the importance of teamwork and pledged to “depend on the expertise of this institution.” Mr. Tillerson generated good will that day, but there have since been worrying signs that the man many hoped would provide thoughtful balance to Mr. Trump’s more impetuous, hard-line advisers has in fact been marginalized, along with the department he runs, with potentially unfortunate consequences for the country and a world facing multiple crises.
Mr. Tillerson has largely been absent from White House meetings with foreign leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and reportedly was excluded from such major decisions as Mr. Trump’s withdrawal of support for a Palestinian state and his declaration that Iran is now “on notice” for testing ballistic missiles. Mr. Trump’s rejection of Mr. Tillerson’s choice for deputy secretary of state was a public rebuke that undermined the secretary within his department and raised further doubts about his standing with the president.
For now at least, Mr. Tillerson, a former CEO of Exxon Mobil who has no foreign policy or government experience, has been eclipsed by Jim Mattis, the defense secretary; Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser; and John Kelly, the secretary of homeland security. All three men are generals, and while they are respected experts in their fields, their backgrounds could lead to an overly militaristic approach to foreign policy. That makes the voice of the State Department, with its focus on diplomacy, more important than ever. But too often this voice has seemed muffled.
A case in point was Mr. Tillerson’s trip to Mexico this week to calm tensions inflamed by Mr. Trump’s criticisms of the Mexican people and his crackdown on immigrants. Mr. Tillerson wound up playing second fiddle to Mr. Kelly, who dominated the news on Thursday when he was forced to rebut Mr. Trump’s inaccurate description of moves along the border to deport undocumented immigrants as a “military operation.”
Another complication is that Mr. Trump’s two closest aides, Stephen Bannon and Jared Kushner, are both seeking to influence foreign policy, and both have close personal relationships with Mr. Trump. Even more than other recent presidents, Mr. Trump has centered decision making in the White House, a process Mr. Bannon has reinforced by setting up a structure called the Strategic Initiatives Group to compete with the National Security Council.
Mr. Tillerson has not helped himself by moving too slowly to build a competent staff. He is also said to have isolated himself from career diplomats who know the issues best by restricting the number and types of officials who attend senior staff meetings or have access to him. Every secretary needs his own people in top positions, but it is impossible to devise or execute good policies without the support of the institution — something Mr. Tillerson must know from his Exxon days.
Meanwhile, he has made few public statements, given no public interviews, tightly restricted the number of reporters he allows to travel on his plane and suspended the daily State Department press briefings — a decades-old practice that is useful in explaining the administration’s policies and reactions to world events. (The department said Friday that briefings would resume on March 6 but not necessarily on a daily basis.) No president can expect Americans to support his policies if they are not explained.
The bottom line: If Mr. Tillerson is going to be the secretary of state, he needs to start acting like one.

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