“The need to feel safe, in particular, is often treated as childish and absurd—but only when coming from people who have actual reason to feel vulnerable. Asking to be recognized as your true gender? It’s all in your head. Asking for accommodations for illness and disability? You’re too sensitive. Recounting experiences of dehumanization because of your race or gender? What an overreaction. But those who want to make the country “safer” by securing the borders against people they perceive as outsiders are never painted as whiners or cowards. The police officers killing unarmed folks in a moment of panic are not mocked for failing to keep their feelings in check. When someone wants a deadly weapon, their desire to feel safe becomes a rugged and real and sexy conviction.
The easiest way to ignore something is to call it an emotion, yet it’s also the easiest way to defend something if you’re the kind of person whose emotions are taken seriously.”
Chinese cities have widely deployed facial recognition systems on their streets to catch and fine jaywalkers... but sometimes it doesn’t work as planned.
At one intersection in the eastern city of Ningbo, the face of famous Chinese businesswoman Dong Mingzhu was displayed on a public screen dedicated to “naming and shaming” jaywalkers caught by the city’s facial recognition system. The photo of Dong included a line of text saying that she had just broken the law by crossing during a red light.
Except that she wasn’t jaywalking. She wasn’t there at all. What the cameras captured was her face on an advertisement on the side of a bus that had just driven through the intersection.
A photo of the display screen has been making rounds on Weibo, with users poking fun at the failure of the much-hyped ability of facial recognition. “Who is that person clinging onto the bus? Serious Warning!” One Weibo user joked.
Ningbo’s traffic police later posted a statement on Weibo, admitting that the facial recognition system made a mistake and said they had deleted the record of the violation. They also claimed that they had completed an upgrade of the system to prevent future such errors.
Chinese cities are widely adopting facial recognition for use at crossroads to identify jaywalkers. Shenzhen, for example, said it has shamed almost 14,000 jaywalkers in 10 months -- at one intersection alone.
Ningbo also boasted in June that facial recognition systems installed at six intersections in the city had captured more than 7,800 cases of red light-violating pedestrians and non-motor vehicles.
These systems can also check the jaywalkers’ identities in real time, but cities have different approaches to displaying jaywalkers’ personal information for technical and privacy reasons. Some cities don’t publicly display any personal information but instead check their identity at the backend, while some, including Ningbo, publicly display only a part of the offenders’ ID number and name. But the bus incident showed that the Ningbo system may not be that accurate. The display screen showed the surname “Ju” for Dong’s face.
Some netizens chose to look on the bright side of the mistake.
“It means that the system works -- it won’t let go of any face,” another Weibo user said.
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, took a stake last year in a startup whose co-chairman is a major Trump campaign fundraiser who has sought financial support from the federal government for his other business interests, according to records obtained by ProPublica.
The fundraiser, Texas money manager Gentry Beach, and Trump Jr. attended college together, are godfather to one of each other’s sons and have collaborated on investments — and on the Trump presidential campaign. Since Trump’s election, Beach has attempted to obtain federal assistance for projects in Asia, the Caribbean and South America, and he has met or corresponded with top officials in the National Security Council, Interior Department and Overseas Private Investment Corporation.
Beach and others at the startup, Eden Green Technology, have touted their connections to the first family to impress partners, suppliers and others, according to five current and former business associates. Richard Venn, an early backer of Eden Green, recalls the company’s founder mentioning “interest from the Trump family.” Another associate said Beach bragged about his ties to the Trumps in a business meeting.
The investment is one of just a handful of known business ventures pursued by Trump Jr. since his father moved into the White House almost two years ago. In addition to being a top campaign surrogate and public booster, Trump Jr. serves as an executive vice president of his father’s company and one of just two trustees of the trust holding the president’s assets.
Ethics experts have consistently criticized these arrangements, arguing that they invite those seeking to influence the government to do so by attempting to enrich the president or his family members with favorable business opportunities.
Trump Jr. invested in the startup, a company that grows organic lettuce in a hydroponic greenhouse, last year, records show. Those records don’t state how much money — if any — Trump paid for his 7,500 shares. But the shares would have been worth about $650,000 at the end of last year, based on a formula used by another shareholder in a recent court filing. Neither Trump Jr. nor the company have disclosed his investment publicly. Trump Jr. obtained the stake through a limited liability company called MSMDF Agriculture LLC, which was set up by a Trump Organization employee last fall.
The key ethical question, said Virginia Canter, chief ethics lawyer at the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, is whether Beach’s involvement with Eden Green, and Trump Jr.’s investment in it, are based on the business merits — or on the possibility of cashing in on connections to power. “Why is Trump Jr. being given this opportunity?” she asked. “It definitely has the appearance of trying to gain access by any means to curry favor with the administration.”
The willingness of Eden Green to invoke the Trump name in its business dealings raises further ethical concerns, experts said, particularly if potential customers understand that they are giving contracts to a startup whose success could enrich the president’s son.
Neither Trump Jr. nor his spokesman responded to messages seeking comment on his relationship with Beach and investment in Eden Green. A White House spokeswoman didn’t respond to emailed questions. Alan Garten, the Trump Organization’s top lawyer, said in a statement that Trump Jr.’s investment is a personal one. The entity through which it was made “is not owned or controlled by, or affiliated in any way with, The Trump Organization,” Garten said.
Last fall, Eden Green concluded a deal with Walmart. Today, the giant retailer sells the company’s lettuce, kale and other greens at about 100 stores in the Dallas-Fort Worth region. (Eden Green’s sole facility is a 44,023-square-foot greenhouse outside Fort Worth, where it grows the greens in 18-foot vertical tubes.)
Walmart interacts with government regulators on an array of matters — everything from labor practices and land use to securities filings — but there is no indication that Walmart is aware of Trump Jr.’s connection to Eden Green. (Separately, Walmart contributed $150,000 to Trump’s inaugural committee. Beach was a finance vice chair of that committee, but a Beach spokesman says he has never met with Walmart executives.)
Molly Blakeman, a Walmart spokeswoman, declined to comment on Eden Green or its investors. “We don’t talk about our relationships with our suppliers,” said Blakeman, who added that Walmart has “supported inaugural activities” in the past.
Andrew Kolvet, a spokesman for Beach and the other Eden Green executives, said it’s “categorically false” that the Trump name was invoked by Eden Green officials. Kolvet cited a corporate policy that forbids discussing investors “with any current or potential client.” He also said Trump Jr. isn’t involved with company operations and bought into Eden Green during “U.S. friends and family fundraising efforts.”
A recent lawsuit asserts that Eden Green is in financial trouble. In October, the company’s largest shareholder, an entity controlled by a wealthy oil and gas family from Midland, Texas, filed suit in state court in Dallas, alleging “gross project mismanagement.” The suit accused Beach and six executives, all of them board members, of paying themselves extravagant salaries (allegedly $250,000 to $300,000 per year) and putting the company “on the precipice of failure.” A financial consultant hired to examine the company’s books asserted that Eden Green executives spent more than $19.4 million in the first nine months of 2018 — a daunting sum for a company that reported having raised a total of $22 million as of June — while generating $9,000 in revenues.
In late November, less than a month after the suit was filed, it was settled on confidential terms. Kolvet disputed the compensation figures asserted in the litigation, saying that the company’s pay is “in accordance with industry standards.” He maintained that Eden Green’s prospects are good. As with many startups, he said, “things don’t go in a straight line.” Kolvet asserted that the company has plenty of operating cash.
Trump Jr., now 40, and Beach, now 43, met at the University of Pennsylvania two decades ago. Both are the sons of wealthy businessmen, one in real estate, one in oil and gas. Beach’s father has since been laid low: Last month he was sentenced to four months in federal detention, plus two years of supervised release, for bankruptcy fraud.
Beach was a groomsman at Trump Jr.’s wedding (Trump Jr. and his wife recently separated). Beach and Trump Jr. like to hunt and once considered buying a hunting preserve in Mexico together. According to a 2010 deposition testimony by Trump Jr., they talked business during lunches at Rothmann’s steakhouse in New York.
Both have struggled in business at times. In 2009, Trump Jr. and others (including one person who pleaded guilty to an unrelated criminal fraud charge in 2010) formed a company that would sell concrete panels for home constructions out of a warehouse in North Charleston, South Carolina. The business quickly became mired in lawsuits seeking payment for unpaid bills. Trump Jr. made the situation more precarious by personally guaranteeing a $3.7 million loan for the project. Days before the note was due, the Trump Organization purchased the debt, eventually taking over the warehouse and selling it all back to Trump Jr.’s original business partner, according to press accounts.
For his part, Beach’s career path has also included some travails. He spent a year or so at Enron and then moved into finance. Beach worked for a hedge fund and remains locked in litigation with it more than a decade later. (He claims he wasn’t paid his full compensation; the fund claims he was “responsible for the destruction of millions of dollars of investor capital.”) Beach now runs a “family office focused on private equity investments” out of a Dallas office that Eden Green uses as its corporate address.
Trump Jr. has at least twice before invested with Beach in deals that didn’t pan out. Trump Jr. put $200,000 in a dry Texas oil well managed by Beach’s father, according to testimony by Trump Jr. He also lost an unknown sum in a failed African mining company affiliated with Beach’s uncle.
But Trump Jr. stuck with his friend. The Associated Press reported this year that the two formed a company last October to pursue technology investments.
Then there was Eden Green. By the time Trump invested last fall, the company had already run into problems. It first launched in 2013 in South Africa with an ambitious mission: to feed the world through a highly efficient indoor farming system deploying patented technology intended to yield 10 to 12 harvests a year, compared with two or three for conventional agriculture.
There’s a market for vegetables grown in controlled greenhouse environments as big retailers increasingly push for cleaner, more reliable and locally grown alternatives. But the challenges are significant. Energy costs run high, and there are myriad difficulties associated with scaling up to an industrial-size system.
That’s what happened in Eden Green’s first iteration, according to a half dozen early backers and associates. The produce may have been sustainable — but the business model wasn’t. The CEO of its European unit wrote in an October 2017 email obtained by ProPublica that the company had “been bleeding money and resources for almost 2 years now.” In the fall of 2017, Eden Green’s founders cemented a deal to hand over majority control to a group of U.S. investors led by Beach, current and former business associates said.
This was the company Trump Jr. bought into. He used an innocuous-sounding limited liability company, called MSMDF Agriculture LLC, to make the investment. ProPublica discovered MSMDF after the Trump Organization listed it in New York City filings among dozens of other entities it controlled. (Because the Trump Organization has contracts with the city to run the Wollman skating rink in Central Park and a golf course in the Bronx, the city requires the company to file disclosures.) The Trump Organization told ProPublica that MSMDF is not in fact owned by the Trump Organization but was included in the disclosure form because it’s controlled by Trump Jr., who was described in the form as MSMDF’s president, secretary and treasurer.
MSMDF was formed by a Trump Organization employee in September 2017 in Delaware, according to incorporation papers. Eden Green Holdings UK, Ltd., an affiliate of the Texas-based company, then listed MSMDF among its roughly two dozen shareholders in a 2018 report filed with British regulators.
The Trump Jr.-Beach connection has been most visible in the political arena. Last year, for example, Trump Jr. publicly thanked Beach and their mutual friend Tommy Hicks Jr., another wealthy investor from Dallas, for their fundraising during the 2016 campaign. “We couldn’t have done it without you guys,” Trump Jr. said of his buddies to a crowd of Republican donors in March 2017. “It was just absolutely incredible.”
In the foreword to a recent book, Trump Jr. reiterated the message, writing that a “rag tag army” — Trump Jr., Beach, Hicks and Charlie Kirk, the firebrand chief of the pro-Trump organization, Turning Point USA — barnstormed the country in 2016, raising “over 150 million dollars in ninety days.”
Since Trump’s election, Beach has met with top administration figures on multiple occasions. For example, according to the AP, he lobbied National Security Council officials to relax sanctions against Venezuela to create opportunities for U.S. companies. He attended a private lunch with Republican donors and Interior secretary Ryan Zinke.
Beach has denied leveraging his ties to the first family. Last month, Beach told a TV interviewer in Croatia, where he said he was exploring a “truly spectacular” $100 million real estate development, “I don’t need anything from the government, thankfully, except normal police protection in my hometown.”
But newly obtained emails show that Beach wanted government backing for his private business interests at the same time he was running Eden Green. In October 2017, Beach pitched Ray Washburne, who heads the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a government agency that offers loans and guarantees to American companies looking to expand into emerging markets, according to emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. (Before joining OPIC, Washburne was a Dallas investor and a top fundraiser for Trump. He and Beach move in the same circles and have friends in common.)
“The Dominican Republic could really use some US investment and support,” Beach wrote in one email to Washburne, describing his various projects there, which included “a power plant upgrade to an existing tin mine” as well as liquid natural gas infrastructure. He invited OPIC officials to travel with him to the Dominican Republic “If permitted, we would be happy to handle all transportation from DC to DR and back,” he wrote in a follow-up note. (Such a trip never occurred, according to an OPIC spokesperson.)
A month later, the emails show, Beach also lobbied on another project, arranging a call with his business partner and one of Washburne’s top deputies regarding an “India Oppty,” which appeared to involve an energy fund. Separately, Beach also introduced Washburne to the head of oil giant Exxon Mobil’s Africa operations, with whom Beach said he had gone shooting at Blenheim Palace in England, where the Churchill family resided for three centuries. And Beach connected another Washburne aide with a South African mining executive who Beach described as “one of my partners.”
OPIC spokeswoman Amanda Burke said Beach has not submitted any formal applications for agency funding. “OPIC routinely meets with a variety of businesses and stakeholders,” she said, adding that formal applications trigger background and credit checks and “go through several levels of agency vetting and approval.”
Asked whether having a Trump connection would disqualify a person from receiving OPIC support, Burke emailed that “in general, an individual’s personal or legal business interests would not disqualify them from applying. However, certain relationships may cause board members or other decision makers of OPIC to be conflicted out of the decision-making process on potential projects.”
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Welcome to America General Hospital! Seems you have an oozing head injury there. Let’s check your insurance. Okay, quick “heads up” — ha! — that your plan may not cover everything today. What’s that? You want a reasonable price quote, upfront, for our services? Sorry, let me explain a hospital to you: we give you medical care, then we charge whatever the hell we want for it.
If you don’t like that, go fuck yourself and die.
Honestly, there’s no telling what you’ll pay today. Maybe $700. Maybe $70,000. It’s a fun surprise! Maybe you’ll go to the ER for five minutes, get no treatment, then we’ll charge you $5,000 for an ice pack and a bandage. Then your insurance company will be like, “This is nuts. We’re not paying this.” Who knows how hard you’ll get screwed? You will, in three months.
Fun story: This one time we charged two parents $18,000 for some baby formula. LOL! We pull that shit all the time. Don’t like it? Don’t bring a baby, asshole.
Oh, I get it: you’re used to knowing a clear price for products and services. The difference is that medicine is complicated and scary — unlike, say, flying hundreds of people in a steel tube across an ocean, or selling them a six-ounce hand-held computer that plays movies and talks to satellites. Anyway, no need to think this through rationally while you’re vulnerable, right? Your head is really gushing, ma’am.
Need an hour in the ER? How does $15,000-$50,000, sound? Hint: we don’t give a piss how it sounds you stupid fucking helpless human wallet.
Our medical system strikes you as “insane?” Well, you can’t do much about that now. Except of course to go fuck yourself. Yes, ma’am, as a matter of fact, we do have a special room where you can go fuck yourself. Yes, it does cost money to use the room, and no I cannot tell you how much. Want a hint? It’s between $1 and $35,000 per minute. Will you be reserving the go fuck yourself room?
Oh, you think you think we’re cruel and illogical? Well, no one forced you to come here. It’s your decision, you head-injured meatball. Feel free to go out into the parking lot and just die. I suggest you do that out in section F. Try to lean your corpse against a light pole. Our dead body disposal fee is $3.75 and is not covered by your shitty, confusing, out-of-network medical plan.
So, will you be dying in our parking lot today, you pathetic, impotent, walking insurance code? Okay, great! Your husband will get a bill for that soon, and if he doesn’t like it, he can fuck himself too.
My wife is having a procedure done that isn't covered by insurance. She was referred to a place that was going to charge $1,600. She shopped around and found a different place that will do it for $4-500. She had to go back to her referring physician to have a second referral for the procedure sent to the other location. On top of that, my wife and her referring physician are coworkers, so it is not as though her doctor was trying to screw her over. Doctors just aren't aware of the costs for procedures or the differences in cost between facilities. That there can be a 3x cost difference between providers, even in the same region, for the exact same procedure is ridiculous.
thanks for sharing that. I feel like we all have some version of these stories at this point. a dentist that gives you a bunch of care you don't really need. Or an insurance company rep that says something is covered but then it isn't, and there just doesn't seem to be any real recourse unless you feel like litigating. The other thing that surprised me is that it seems a lot of americans don't realize it doesn't have to be like this, plenty (arguably most?) other countries don't have these issues.
The Trump administration has quietly resumed separating immigrant families at the border, in some cases using vague or unsubstantiated allegations of wrongdoing or minor violations against the parents, including charges of illegally re-entering the country, as justification.
Over the last three months, lawyers at Catholic Charities, which provides legal services to immigrant children in government custody in New York, have discovered at least 16 new separation cases. They say they have come across such instances by chance and via their own sleuthing after children were put into temporary foster care and shelters with little or no indication that they arrived at the border with their parents.
ProPublica stumbled upon one more case late last month after receiving a call from a distraught Salvadoran father who had been detained in South Texas, and whose 4-year-old son, Brayan, had literally been yanked from his grasp by a Customs and Border Protection agent after they crossed the border and asked for asylum. Julio, the father, asked to be identified only by his first name because he was fleeing gang violence and worried about the safety of relatives back home.
“I failed him,” said Julio, 27, sobbing uncontrollably. “Everything I had done to be a good father was destroyed in an instant.”
ProPublica tracked down Brayan, who has reddish-blond hair and an endearing lisp, at a temporary foster care agency in New York City, and reached out to the lawyer who represents him. Until that phone call, the lawyer, Jodi Ziesemer, a supervising attorney at Catholic Charities, had no idea that Brayan had been separated from his father. The chaos, she said, felt disturbingly like zero tolerance all over again.
“It’s so disheartening,” Ziesemer said “This was supposed to be a policy that ended.”
Officially it has. On June 20, President Donald Trump signed an executive order retreating from his so-called zero-tolerance immigration enforcement policy, which called on authorities to criminally prosecute adults caught illegally crossing the border and separate them from any children they brought with them. A week later, a federal judge, Dana M. Sabraw, issued an injunction against the separations and ordered the government to put the thousands of affected families back together.
Sabraw, however, exempted cases in which the safety of the child was at risk, and crucially, imposed no standards or oversight over those decisions. As a result, attorneys say, immigration officials — taking their cues from an administration that has made it clear it still believes family separations are an effective deterrent — are using whatever justification they can find, with or without substantiation, to deem immigrant parents unfit or unsafe.
“If the authorities have even the most specious evidence that a parent was a gang member, or had some kind of blemish on their record,” said Neha Desai, a senior attorney at the National Center for Youth Law, “anything they can come up with to say that the separation is for the health and welfare of the child, then they’ll separate them.”
In an email, a senior CBP official acknowledged that immigrant families are still being separated, but said the separations had “nothing to do with zero tolerance.” The official added that “this administration continues to comply with the law and separates adults and children when required for the safety and security of the child.” The official declined to say how many children have been taken from their parents for what was said to be their own protection.
CBP officials explained that Brayan was such a case. One official said that the agency had conducted a routine background check on Julio, and that it “confirmed his gang affiliation with MS-13.” Spokeswoman Corry Schiermeyer declined to provide the evidence the agency had to support the allegation, saying only that it was “law enforcement sensitive.” Nor would she say why CBP believed Julio was a danger to his child. But Sabraw’s order, she said, “did not prevent these separations, in fact it explicitly allows DHS to continue with this prior practice.”
CBP has also not shared any evidence supporting its assertion of Julio’s gang ties with his lawyer, Georgia Evangelista, who said she wonders whether it exists.
(On Tuesday, a government lawyer repeated the allegation to an immigration judge in South Texas but said he could not provide documentation to the court because it was “confidential,” according to Evangelista. She said the immigration judge did not press for release of the evidence but freed her client on an $8,000 bond. Evangelista was frustrated by the outcome, saying, “How can we fight these charges when we don’t know what they are.”)
According to Evangelista, Julio arrived at the border in mid-September, carrying a letter prepared by a Salvadoran lawyer that explained that he had fled El Salvador with his son because he had been attacked and threatened by gangs there for years. At Evangelista’s request, the Salvadoran lawyer and Julio’s former employer sent sworn statements vouching for Julio’s character, and stating that he was never involved in criminal activity.
“I’m furious about this. They aren’t playing by the rules,” Evangelista said, referring to U.S. immigration authorities. “They’re treating him like a criminal so they can justify taking away his son. Where’s the proof? It’s his word against theirs. It sickens me.”
Susan Watson, a civil rights and family lawyer, said this kind of action could not be done without a judge’s review in custody cases that do not involve immigration issues. “Constitutionally, before a parent is separated from a child, you are entitled to due process,” she said. “Some decision in a dark corner by the Border Patrol doesn’t meet that standard.”
In New York, Ziesemer says the new separations identified by her organization involve children between the ages of 2 and 17, including Brayan. All of them arrived in New York City without any records indicating they had been separated from their parents at the border and why. A few weeks ago, the ACLU, which brought the lawsuit over the first round of family separations, sent a letter to the Justice Department raising concerns about the new cases, specifically about the grounds for the separations and why the ACLU hadn’t been notified about them.
Lee Gelernt, the ACLU attorney who led the organization’s lawsuit against family separations in the spring, said, “If the government is still secretly separating children, and is doing so based on flimsy excuses, that would be patently unconstitutional and we will be back in court.”
Lawyers at the ACLU and Catholic Charities said that the DOJ responded that it wasn’t obligated to report the new separations to the ACLU because they hadn’t been done as a part of the zero-tolerance policy. The DOJ said that in 14 of the 17 cases flagged in the ACLU’s letter, the children were removed from their parents’ custody because authorities suspected the parents had some kind of criminal background that made them unfit — even dangerous. But the agency would not specify what crimes the parents were suspected of committing and what evidence authorities had to support these allegations.
The ACLU and other groups representing immigrant children said the DOJ’s secrecy is highly troubling on several counts. They worry that the Department of Homeland Security has allowed authorities without formal training in custody issues — primarily Border Patrol agents — to make decisions using standards that could violate the spirit of the court order and that would never hold up in non-immigration cases. Ziesemer has talked to relatives and social workers and says she suspects that at least eight of the cases involve parents whose crime is illegally re-entering the country. Illegal re-entry is a felony, although previous administrations did not typically separate families in such cases. Ziesemer said the allegations the government has advanced to justify separations in eight other cases were either vague or unsubstantiated. The final case she identified involved a parent who was hospitalized.
“The government’s position is that because these are not zero-tolerance cases, they don’t have to tell us, or anyone, about them,” Ziesemer said. “Our position is that when children are separated from their parents, there needs to be some oversight.”
Brayan’s case is a vivid example of how government officials are interpreting the court order to allow separations of families.
I found out about him by accident. Early last month, after the government reported that of the more than 2,600 immigrant children separated under the zero-tolerance policy, only one child under the age of 5 remained in their care. I decided to try to find that child, thinking the case might make a compelling bookend to a story I’d written this year about a girl named Alison Jimena Valencia Madrid, whose cries were recorded inside a Border Patrol detention facility in June. The recording ignited a storm of outrage that tipped the political scales against the Trump administration’s family separation policy.
An attorney on the border, Thelma O. Garcia, said she represented a 6-year-old Salvadoran boy named Wilder Hilario Maldonado Cabrera, who was in a temporary foster home in San Antonio. Wilder had been separated from his father in June, Garcia said, and hadn’t been reunited because the father had a 10-year-old warrant for a DUI charge in Florida.
The father, Hilario Maldonado, called me from the South Texas detention facility in Pearsall and said he’d tried to keep in touch with Wilder by phone, but his social worker didn’t always pick up. When they did connect, he said, Wilder, pudgy, precocious and missing his two front teeth, scolded him for not coming to take him home.
I told Maldonado that it appeared he would be one of the last parents to go through such a separation because the government had agreed to stop them.
Maldonado, 39, said that wasn’t true. The separations are still happening, he said, and he knew of one.
A few minutes later, I got a call from Julio, who was at the same detention facility. He sounded desperate, crying and pleading for answers. He said he’d turned himself and Brayan into the authorities as soon as they’d crossed the border, asked for asylum and told immigration agents that his mother, who lives in Austin, Texas, was willing to help him get on his feet. Seven days later, a Border Patrol agent took Brayan, dressed in a SpongeBob SquarePants T-shirt, away, screaming.
Julio said all he knew was that his son was somewhere in New York. As soon as we hung up, I called Ziesemer at Catholic Charities, which has a government contract to provide legal services to the unaccompanied minors in the city. I asked whether she’d heard of Brayan.
“We do know this kid,” Ziesemer quickly responded, “but were not aware he was separated from his father.”
Ziesemer was audibly shaken. “Until you called, all I had was his name on a spreadsheet,” she said.
Ziesemer immediately arranged to have Brayan, who had been placed in a temporary foster home, brought to her office. Her experience told her not to expect much from their first interaction, partly because Brayan was likely to be afraid, and partly because he was only 4. So she tried putting Brayan at ease by opening a box of crayons and a Spider-Man coloring book.
He warmed up to her quickly, putting down his crayons to show her his Spider-Man moves and squiggling lines on a piece of paper when she asked whether he knew how to write his name. But, as Ziesemer expected, he was too young to make sense of what had happened to him on the border, much less explain it to an adult he’d just met. And his lisp made it hard for Ziesemer to understand the few things he could tell her.
After the meeting, she sounded both exasperated about having to grill a tiny child and terrified that there might be other children like him buried in her spreadsheets.
“We, and the caseworkers and the consulates, do what we can to fill in the gaps and figure out where these kids came from,” she said. “But that means days and weeks go by with a child not knowing where his parents are and vice versa. And it doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t be that way.”
After Ziesemer’s meeting with Brayan, I traveled to Pearsall to meet Julio. He said he’d fled the country with Brayan because street gangs had threatened to kill him after finding out that he reported one of their members to the police. His wife and stepson stayed behind because there wasn’t enough money to pay for everyone to come. I spoke to his wife, who told me she was hiding out at her parents’ house because she didn’t want to be home if gang members came looking for her husband.
In photos his relatives sent, Julio looked sort of like a cop, stocky with a crew cut. But after a month in detention, he looked pale and deflated. He wore navy blue detention garb and his dark brown hair was wet, though neatly combed. He didn’t have any tattoos, which are common among Central American gang members.
Through tears, Julio told me he’d replayed the days since his arrival at the border in his mind, trying to make sense of why authorities took away his son. Julio and Brayan had been taken to the “ice box,” a notorious air-conditioned cellblock that is the first stop for most immigrants intercepted at the border. Brayan developed a high fever and had to be taken to the hospital for treatment. A Border Patrol agent who drove Julio and his son scolded Julio for bringing a small boy on such a harrowing trip. Could that be the reason they took his son away? Was it because the agents had looked at the color of Brayan’s hair and didn’t believe he was the boy’s father?
Julio wonders whether he had been fooled into signing a document at the hospital — they were all in English — surrendering his rights to his child. Was it because he’d once been arrested for a robbery in El Salvador, but exonerated two days later when authorities realized they had the wrong person? Why would they consider him a danger to his child?
It wasn’t until I told him that Julio learned his child had been taken from him because Border Patrol agents suspected he was a gang member. The news hit him hard, and it was confounding because at the same time the CBP had deemed him a gang member, another agency within DHS had found that his asylum petition, in which Julio claims he was a victim of gang violence, was persuasive enough to be heard by an immigration judge.
In early October, Julio had met with an asylum officer for what’s known as a credible fear interview. According to the report of that interview, which Julio provided to ProPublica, the asylum officer not only asked him why he fled El Salvador, but whether he had a criminal record. Among the questions were: Have you ever committed a crime in any country? Have you ever harmed someone for any reason? Even if you did not want to, have you ever helped someone else harm people? Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime? Have you ever been a member of a gang?
Julio answered no to all of them. The asylum officer who conducted the interview deemed Julio’s account credible, and, even more significantly, indicated that she had been provided no derogatory information or criminal records that would automatically bar Julio from winning asylum.
The discrepancy reflects differences in the legal standards for asylum and family separation. While the asylum officer’s decision is subject to review by a judge, the Border Patrol’s decision to take away Julio’s child was not.
“I don’t know what information, if any, they really have on Julio,” his attorney, Evangelista, said. “They have total discretion when it comes to separating him from his child. They can do what they want. And they don’t have to explain why.”
Julio said his own father had abandoned him when he was about Brayan’s age. Then his mother left for the United States when he was 7. He said he vowed never to do the same thing to Brayan, which is why he didn’t leave the boy behind in El Salvador. He wonders now whether that was a mistake. In every phone call with Brayan, Julio says, he feels his son slowly slipping away.
“He tells me: ‘You’re not my Papa anymore. I have a new Papa,’” Julio said of his son, adding: “He doesn’t even call me Papa. He calls me Papi. I never taught him that word.”
Back in New York, Ziesemer said she worries family separations may be beginning all over again.
Sitting with Brayan in her office, she said, brought back the faces of the 400 or so separated kids who had shuffled through over the summer. As Catholic Charities’ point person during the crisis, she said she came to know every single one of those kids by name. One 9-year-old girl went into a full panic attack when she was asked to step into a room without her sister because she thought Ziesemer was going to take her sister away like officials had taken her mother. “At one point, we had to have a meeting with the entire office to explain why the conference room was full of all these wailing kids,” she said.
Catholic Charities, the ACLU and several other large immigrant advocacy groups took the lead in putting the families together again; working the phones to find parents who were still in immigration detention and dispatching colleagues to Central America to track down parents who had already been deported. In addition to the “huge, heavy lift” of reunification, Ziesemer said, there was a crush of calls and emails from Congress, consulates and the media — all seeking information about the separations.
Ziesemer said she and her team worked around the clock for months, and though there are still several dozen kids awaiting reunification, she thought things were winding down. That’s when she began seeing new cases, like Brayan’s, which had some of the same hallmarks of the old ones.
Ziesemer didn’t know much about Brayan, except the little bit of information she’d gotten from him during their meeting. So I shared with her some of the things I’d learned about him from his family: that he could eat four hard-boiled eggs in one sitting; that he loved Lightning McQueen, a character from the Pixar movie “Cars”; and that he had a dog, Lucky, whom he insisted on seeing during every WhatsApp video call with his mother. His grandmother in Austin had fixed up a bedroom for him, filled with Mickey Mouse dolls, remote-control cars and winter coats. I told Ziesemer how distraught Brayan’s father was that his son called him “Papi.”
“A couple of weeks is a long time for a kid his age,” she said about Brayan. “They start losing attachments to people, even their parents.”
It was shortly before Thanksgiving in an immigration court in San Antonio, and the third defendant to come before Judge Anibal Martinez walked into the courtroom without an attorney, wearing a gray winter hat that was stitched with a pair of blue googly eyes and a floppy red yarn mohawk.
When the bailiff asked his name, he piped up proudly: Wilder Hilario Maldonado Cabrera.
“How old is Wilder?” the immigration judge asked.
An attorney, who was there with other clients, came forward and volunteered to stand in for Wilder. She turned to the boy and in Spanish asked his age.
“Seis años,” he said, 6, his legs dangling from a chair at the defendant’s table.
Wilder, a smiley, pudgy Salvadoran boy, missing his two front teeth, was the youngest defendant on the juvenile docket that day. But that wasn’t all that made him special. He was one of the last children left in government custody who had been affected by the administration’s widely criticized zero-tolerance policy, and who were still awaiting reunification with parents detained in the United States.
The policy, which was announced with great fanfare in April and was scuttled two months later in the face of bipartisan opposition, required immigration authorities to file criminal charges against anyone caught crossing the border illegally and separate them from the children they brought with them.
Over 2,600 immigrant children — including more than 100 who were under the age of 5 — were separated from their parents before a federal judge ordered the administration to end the policy and reunite the families affected. Most have been reunited with parents or other relatives. Around 120 children remain in federal custody because their parents had already been deported. Some 30 cases involve children whose parents have criminal histories. As immigration authorities and advocates scrambled to put the broken families back together, courtrooms like Martinez’s often felt more like family court.
On the day that Wilder appeared, the courtroom was full of minors, most of them teenagers who had not been separated from parents at the border but had migrated to the United States on their own. The boys, wearing pressed slacks and button-down shirts, sat in the back. And there were three very pregnant girls, one of them complaining of pain, in the front.
“I hear we have a child with medical issues?” Martinez said, peering down at her from his dais. “If she’s not comfortable or if she needs to step outside at all, that’s fine.”
One of the first children to be summoned before Martinez was an 11-year-old Guatemalan girl, wearing a flowered dress with her hair tied in a ponytail high on her head.
She sat in a black leather chair and barely said a word, as her attorney, Monica Cueva Kretzschmar, explained that she had admitted to illegally crossing the border and wanted to be sent home to Guatemala to her parents (hers was not a family separation case). The judge asked whether the girl had made the decision of her own free will. She had, the lawyer said. Did her return pose any risks of harm or danger, he asked? The lawyer said no.
Then the judge looked at the girl. “I understand you want to return to your parents in Guatemala,” he said. She nodded back. “I just granted that request. I wish you all the best.”
The girl got up from her seat, grinning and waving a thumbs-up at the attorneys in the audience.
Then it was Wilder’s turn.
The judge asked about the boy’s father. Was he still detained?
The prosecutor said he didn’t know.
He was, in fact, still in federal custody at an immigration detention facility less than an hour’s drive away from the court. The boy and his father had been separated on June 6, after they illegally crossed the border and asked for asylum. Wilder was placed into temporary foster care. His father, Hilario Maldonado, was sent to detention. They’d only sporadically been able to speak on the telephone ever since.
Authorities had determined soon after Maldonado entered the country that he did not qualify for asylum, but they refused to reunite him with his son while that decision was appealed because Maldonado, who lived in the United States more than a decade ago, had an old warrant for a DUI in Florida. It’s a charge that would almost never result in a loss of parental custody in a non-immigration context, but immigration lawyers say they have seen immigration authorities use such minor, nonviolent criminal records to justify separating immigrant parents from their children at the border. Government officials say that while a federal court ordered them to stop separating children under zero tolerance, it exempted cases involving parents who posed security risks to their child.
Meanwhile, Wilder’s mother, Maria Elida Cabrera, was still back in El Salvador, struggling for the first time to feed Wilder’s three siblings on her own. She said by phone that Maldonado was the family breadwinner, and since his detention she and her children were surviving with help from immigrant advocacy groups in the United States who’d heard about Wilder’s case.
None of them knew when and if they’d be together again — least of all little Wilder. Born in a remote mountain village at the northern edge of El Salvador, he barely knew what to make of the metal detector at the courthouse, much less why he was in court in the first place.
Before entering the courtroom, the bailiff had to gently nudge the boy through the machine, because he froze in fright at the blinking lights on its side. “No seas nervioso,” she told him, don’t be nervous.
The attorney helped Wilder put on his headphones, so he could hear the court translator, as if language was the only barrier to his ability to follow the whirlwind proceedings.
Then she asked the judge to set aside any decisions about the boy’s asylum claim until Wilder’s lawyer could arrange to be in court with him. The judge agreed.
“Wilder, I wish you well,” he said, sending the boy off to uncertainty. “We’ll see you soon.”
Wilder, a huge Spider-Man fan, waved at the judge, then pretended he was shooting spiderwebs from his wrists. On his way out, he waved to the friendly bailiff and said, “Bye policía.”