Residents of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas lose limbs and appendages to diabetes-related amputation at a rate 50 percent higher than anywhere else in the United States. So many people there have diabetes, that “In the Valley, there’s a fatalism associated with the disease, often considered an inevitable inheritance.” While losing a limb is horrible under any circumstances, as Sophie Novack reports at Texas Observer, the greatest tragedy is that because the vast majority of diabetes-related amputations are preventable with education and early intervention, it doesn’t have to be this way.
So he waited. Maybe it would pass.
Finally, the smell got unbearable. Like road kill in the hot South Texas sun. A couple of months after the blister appeared, Zamora drove 2 miles to Valley Baptist Medical Center, where doctors quickly diagnosed him: His diabetes, uncontrolled for years, had blocked blood flow to his toe, preventing it from healing. What began as a minor blister was now a life-threatening emergency. Zamora says the doctors sent him home with medication to treat the wound, but a few weeks later he went back to the ER, where he had two toes on his left foot amputated to prevent gangrene from spreading up his leg.
It’s a story told over and over again in the Valley: You don’t know you have diabetes until it’s severe, because you rarely see a doctor. You get a cut or blister but ignore it, because diabetes-related nerve damage means you can’t feel it, or you’re too busy working or taking care of your family to go to the doctor. The wound gets infected. By the time you get help, the infection is so bad that amputation is necessary. You can’t afford proper care, so sometimes the wound gets infected again. You get another amputation.
…amputations are important indicators that something went wrong with diabetes management, because they’re generally preventable in patients who can access diabetes education and primary care.
Outside of Houston, Cambodian immigrants built a small community in the unincorporated town of Rosharon, growing water spinach, called trakuon, for the Cambodian community. Then Hurricane Harvey hit and flooded the town’s homes and its farms.
For the Texas Observer, Michael Hardy reports on a surprising, uneasy alliance in the rebuilding efforts: Volunteer assistance from white far-right groups wearing Confederate flag jackets and camouflage. These anti-government neo-Confederates arrived to help Rosharon before the local government or the Red Cross arrived, and they took over the rebuilding effort so firmly that they initially refused to let in FEMA. Who were these people, and did they really just want to help?
The groups are affiliated with the so-called Patriot movement, which emerged in the early ’90s from the ashes of Ruby Ridge and Waco’s Branch Davidian compound, and whose ranks expanded dramatically during the Obama administration. The Freedom Keepers are an Oregon-based group whose members appeared at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer brandishing assault rifles and wearing body armor. (Marion, the Freedom Keepers and the New York Light Foot Militia are among the defendants currently being sued by Charlottesville and Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection to prevent them from returning. They’re also being sued by two women injured in the car attack that killed Heather Heyer.) The Confederate Riders, a Missouri-based group, travel the country protesting the removal of Confederate monuments. The two groups share information and coordinate protests mainly through their Facebook pages, which each have 10,000-plus followers.
Both groups harbor extreme anti-government views and believe the Constitution is under siege by a range of nefarious forces. On the Freedom Keepers’ weekly Facebook Live broadcast, “The American Radio Show,” Marion rails against Hillary Clinton, George Soros, Muslims and undocumented immigrants. He portrays the Patriot movement as America’s last line of defense. “This country will fall if we don’t get into the middle of it and change it from within,” he said on the show in December. “We have to become a disease. Some bacteria and some infections are beneficial. And we need to become an infection inside the body.”
Having infected Little Cambodia, the far-right groups were not eager to give it up. They didn’t see an impoverished community that had been shamefully underserved for decades and abandoned by the government in its time of greatest need; they saw a proudly self-reliant people who had built a libertarian paradise. “It’s been a really awakening experience to see what it means for people to live on their own, live their way, make their choices,” Marion said in a Facebook Live video from Rosharon. “It really is the American dream.”
The three syringes lie in a row, lined up neatly on a somber black background. Displayed with a saline drip bag and looping IV catheter, the vials are oversized, as though designed for the chubby hands of a child playing a macabre game of doctor. Below each is a typed card explaining its purpose in the December 1982 death of Charlie Brooks, Jr., the first person in the United States executed by lethal injection.
To their right is a pair of hair clippers used for shaving inmates’ heads before electrocution as well as a sponge that was soaked in salt water to conduct electricity. The last thing to touch dozens of men’s shaven skulls, the sponge sits on a plastic riser, its face pale and pockmarked like the surface of a distant moon. A second sponge is in a baggie on a shelf a few steps away in the Texas Prison Museum’s vault. The objects sit there matter of factly, their subtle presentation belying the roles they’ve played in execution, Texas history and making Huntsville — with its five prisons and the headquarters for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) — shorthand for the death penalty all over the world.
Last year’s visitors came from all over the world. They arrived alone, with their kids on vacation, on school field trips, on charter buses loaded with senior citizens, with their motorcycle clubs, and on the way to visit spouses on death row. Some showed their prison ID cards, mentioned where they’d been incarcerated and cracked jokes about former residents getting discounted admission.
People like to play outlaw, walking into the replica of a cell, and for a dollar per person, visitors can borrow striped shirts and snap selfies behind bars.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Michael Barajas, Evan Ratliff, Andrew Mckirdy, Raffi Khatchadourian, and Agnes Callard.
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Michael Barajas | Texas Observer | January 21, 2020 | 25 minutes (6,335 words)
Decades with no personal contact, no way back into the general prison population, cut off from the possibility of parole — solitary confinement is an ongoing experiment in cruelty on human subjects.
Evan Ratliff | The California Sunday Magazine | January 16, 2020 | 48 minutes (12,100 words)
Nicola Gobbo defended Melbourne’s most notorious criminals at the height of a gangland war. They didn’t know she had a secret.
Andrew McMirdy | The Japan Times | January 10, 2020 | 9 minutes (2,465 words)
Japan is the second-biggest producer of plastic waste per capita, after the US. One journalist tries to spend a week without using single-use plastic and discovers how dependent Japan’s food system has become on disposable plastic.
Raffi Khatchadourian | The New Yorker | January 20, 2020 | 26 minutes (6,746 words)
In Raffi Khatchadourian’s New Yorker profile, N.K. Jemisin recounts the racism she witnessed as a child in Alabama in the ’80s, as well as racism — editorial and otherwise — that she has lived through in her career.
Agnes Callard | The Point | January 16, 2020 | 6 minutes (1,549 words)
Hi, nice to meet you, are we playing the Importance Game or the Leveling Game? With a skilled player, it’s hard to tell one from the other.
Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | July 2019 | 38 minutes (10,294 words)
For me the low point came two months after publication, at a playground a few blocks from my house. I sobbed on the phone with my sister, eking out incomprehensible sentences about my career this, my life expectations that, writing this, the publishing industry that, until finally my sister said, “Maybe you should look for a different job?” and I realized the jig was up — I was doomed to keep doing this ridiculous and often seemingly pointless thing.
A few weeks before this, I’d received my first letters from readers telling me how much they’d loved and needed the book, and I’d had another sister-to-sister phone call — just as wrought with emotion — in which I raved about all the deeper meaning and purpose of this milestone and how it wasn’t about the sales and the metrics but about what mattered blah blah blah. I ping-ponged like this for awhile, alternately aglow and despondent, hopeful and wretched, until finally I just started writing again and got on with it.
We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in profiles.
Journalist Sarah Smarsh has covered socioeconomic class, politics, and public policy for The Guardian, The New York Times, The Texas Observer, and many other publications.
Smarsh’s first book, Heartland, was long-listed for the National Book Award in nonfiction.
William Barber Takes on Poverty and Race in the Age of Trump (Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker)
The intersection of class, race, and religion — what could be more fraught in these times? Cobb’s rare combination of quiet wisdom and a steady journalistic hand is the perfect guide. He profiles Protestant minister William Barber, the progressive activist and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, with thorough reporting and sensitivity, letting facts speak for themselves but humanizing the subject as no fact alone can do. I’ve been part of the Poor People’s Campaign at the ground level and was heartened to learn here that more than one respected source calls Barber “the real thing.” But, whether or not Barber is your political comrade, you will learn that he believes himself to be your spiritual brother — a refreshing fusion of political and moral force on the sometimes god-averse left.
Feature writer for The New York Times.
The mystery of Tucker Carlson (Lyz Lenz, Columbia Journalism Review)
This was a really good year for profiles, despite their death (reported annually). So good that it was very hard to narrow it down, and so I was very grateful that I couldn’t pick any from the New York Times, where I work, which really helped narrow it down. (Though you’ve just got to read this one.)
And how do you choose from the others: Dan Riley on Timothée Chalamet (though exactly which profile/article/photo/table of contents, even, under Jim Nelson wasn’t great?). Allison P. Davis’ Lena Dunham lede-ender of fallopian tubes like outstretched arms? Amanda Fortini opening Michelle Williams’ historically very locked vault. Emily Nussbaum on Ryan Murphy. Paige Williams on Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Wright Thompson on Geno Auriemma. Jessica Pressler on Anna Delvey. (Jessica Pressler on anything.) What a year.
But I finally picked one, and when I did, I realized it was a no-brainer. Lyz Lenz, who has terrifying amounts of talent, pulled off the neatest trick: A profile of screamy Tucker Carlson that walks the line of being way too self-referential, and yet somehow makes that work. It’s perhaps because it’s so funny. It’s perhaps because instead of looking for some fatuous lede scene it goes straight to the most prominent aspect of Carlson (why is he always screaming?). It’s perhaps because she knows that there is no end to the delight of knowing his full name: Tucker McNear Swanson Carlson. Or maybe it’s this section ender: “His publicist calls after our interview to make sure I know that Carlson is not a racist.” Whatever it is, I was very grateful for it.
James Ross Gardner
Editor-in-chief, Seattle Met.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s Battering Ram (Paige Williams, The New Yorker)
I lost count of how many times Paige Williams was obliged to deploy terms like “inaccurately,” “falsely,” “erroneous,” and “lie” in this extraordinary portrait of Sarah Huckabee Sanders. What’s remarkable about Trump’s press secretary though is that, at least here, those words are rarely used to describe statements by Sanders herself — but rather of those whose lies she must justify. It’s also what makes Sanders a cipher of our time. How does someone who vehemently claims to possess high moral character rationalize defending the indefensible? Put another way: How does one become that person? Williams’s search for an answer takes her to her subject’s native Arkansas, where in the ’90s the daughter of then governor Mike Huckabee “was given Chelsea Clinton’s former bedroom” in the governor’s mansion, and Little Rock “residents and journalists mocked the Huckabees as rubes.” Later, during a visit with a lifelong friend, we catch a rare glimpse of the press secretary uncoiled and away from the podium, “wearing tropical-print shorts and flip-flops, with a blue blouse and her pearls.” Details like these are certainly humanizing. But Williams isn’t here to vindicate Sanders’s transgressions. In 9,293 words she deftly dismantles the notion that the president’s “battering ram” might walk away from any of this with clean hands. “A press secretary who had an abiding respect for First Amendment freedoms likely would have resigned once it became clear that Trump intended to steamroll his way through the Constitution,” Williams offers early in the piece. “But Sanders stayed.”
Editor in Chief, The Atavist.
The mystery of Tucker Carlson (Lyz Lenz, Columbia Journalism Review)
Lyz Lenz’s profile of Tucker Carlson in the Columbia Journalism Review begins and ends with the subject shouting at the writer, but insisting that he’s not. It’s the perfect encapsulation of Carlson’s raison d’être in the Trump era: convincing people to believe lies despite proof of the truth sitting right friggin’ there in the form of scientific studies, sociological data, photographic evidence, and the like. And when gaslighting fails? To Lenz, hardy soul that she is, Carlson again demonstrates his favorite ripostes. He deflects probing questions with glib mockery, by rejecting a query’s value so that he doesn’t have to address it, or — my personal favorite — with pseudo-intellectual incoherence masquerading as the sort of wily argument that wins high-school debaters gleaming trophies. (This is a digression where I beg someone reading this list to pen the definitive essay on how debate is the root of political evil. I will tweet it every day, forever.) Lenz, wholly in control of her craft, injects the profile with her own anxiety and anger about Carlson’s bullshit and with sly reminders that, for too long, respectable media overlooked his bullshit because Carlson was quite good at mimicking Hunter S. Thompson. People keep wondering, wide-eyed, what happened to Tucker Carlson. They don’t want to admit that the answer is, and was always, right friggin’ there.
Senior editor, Longreads.
Jerry and Marge Go Large (Jason Fagone, Huffington Post Highline)
To Gerald “Jerry” Selbee, an “intellectually restless” dyslexic cereal box designer from Battle Creek Michigan, everything in the world was a puzzle to be solved. At age 64, Selbee’s mathematical mind discovered a loophole in the Michigan Lottery’s “Winfall” game. He figured he’d test his lottery strategy as something fun to do to in retirement. Jason Fagone wrote 11,000 words about how Jerry and Marge Selbee won $27 million gaming the Michigan Lottery over nine years and this piece has it all in a winning combination. As you root for the working man who finds a way to win against a big government entity, you too savor the thrill of solving a tough puzzle to make your lottery dream come true. This is longform at its finest.
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We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in crime reporting.
ProPublica senior reporter and New York Times Magazine writer-at-large.
The Disappeared (Hannah Dreier, ProPublica with Newsday)
When eleven high school students went missing in a single county on Long Island in just two years, law enforcement shrugged. Most of the teenagers who disappeared were recent transplants from Central America, and many of them were last seen heading into the woods, lured by the promise of weed. The Suffolk County police department responded with stomach-churning indifference, telling frantic parents that their children had simply run away.
Hannah Dreier chronicles an upside-down world in which one boy’s mother – an envelope factory employee who speaks no English – is left to piece together what happened to her son. Based on more than 100 interviews and voluminous public records, Hannah Dreier’s storytelling is as vivid as it is effortless. She builds upon an accumulation of damning details — like the fact that one Spanish-speaking mother, whose son was murdered, had to pay a taxi driver to interpret for her at the police station. (“He kept the clock running and charged her $70,” Dreier writes.) “The Disappeared,” which was turned into an episode of This American Life, is a devastating work of both relentless reporting and empathy.
Michael A. Gonzales
Contributor to Catapult, The Paris Review, and Longreads.
A Preacher, a Scam, and a Massacre in Brooklyn (Sarah Weinman, CrimeReads)
Fans of vintage New York crime stories will love Sarah Weinman’s brilliant Brooklyn-based tale, a sordid story that only gets worse the more you read. Weinman takes the reader into the mind and home of a con man named DeVernon LeGrand, a pretend preacher who kept a stable of women who dressed as nuns and begged on the streets. Of course, in true pimp fashion, LeGrand took most of their money. After moving his flock to 222 Brooklyn Avenue in 1966, things get worse for the crooked organization as it eventually becomes involved in kidnapping and murder. Although in the early 2000s I lived four blocks away from the scene of LeGrand’s various crimes for thirteen years, I had never heard of him or his house of pain and death until reading Weinman’s wonderfully written piece.
Contributor to The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, and The Daily Beast. Author of The Spy with No Name.
Jerry and Marge Go Large (Jason Fagone, Huffpost Highline)
I write about unusual heists from middle-America, so I was game for this Michigan lotto scam story from FOIA-bandit Jason Fagone. In crime writing it’s the characters who make for a good yarn, and I was all-in on this Mom and Pop who used brain-power to beat the system, and the odds.
The Man Who Captures Criminals for the DEA by Playing Them (Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, The New Yorker)
Why actor Spyros Enotiades told his story to Yudhijit Bhattacharjee I don’t know (there must surely be a bounty on his head), but the storytelling was extraordinary. Undercover capers don’t get better than this.
Managing editor at The Investigative Fund.
The Trauma of Everyday Gun Violence in New Orleans (Jimmie Briggs and Andre Lambertson, VICE)
This photojournalistic investigation into how gun violence affects black communities explores how living with that violence can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) just like experience with war can. But unlike with returning veterans, gun violence-plagued communities don’t get the funding or mental health resources to help them cope.
Executive Editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Author of five books including Squeezed, Branded, and the poetry book, Monetized. She writes The Guardian’s Outclassed column.
Could an Ex-Convict Become an Attorney? I Intended to Find Out (Reginald Dwayne Betts, The New York Times Magazine)
This is fantastic longform that embodies what I think social justice reportage should be today. It combines an under-heard, first-person voice with a gripping true story about one of the most crucial issues in America today, incarceration. Betts, who is a lawyer and a poet, also gives his tale an unexpected literary feel, with a comprehensive gloss on the sociology behind juvenile crime, prisons, jailhouse lawyers, and the limited social possibilities for ex-felons.
Omnipresence (Ann Neumann, Virginia Quarterly Review)
This multimedia criminal justice story is about how too-bright, all-night lighting in housing projects, and faulty design overall, contributes to a troubling level of surveillance in poorer communities under the guise of fighting crime. It makes something as basic as sleeping uncomfortable for thousands upon thousands of law-abiding citizens. I really like this story’s taxonomic, poetic style, as well as how architectural photographer Elizabeth Felicella gives the story a more formalist visual valence than your typical housing piece.
Blood Cries Out (Sean Patrick Cooper, The Atavist)
In the book Popular Crime by Bill James, the author writes that the phrase “something terrible has happened” is “the best title ever for a crime book…those words turn the ‘crime story’ inside out by exposing the human beings standing on what otherwise appears to be a vast and grisly stage.”
We’re hardly ten percent of the way into the story in “Blood Cries Out” before someone uses those words to tell her husband that the unthinkable has occurred: there’s been a murder right across the road. And the vast and grisly stage? Small-town Chillicothe, Missouri, where two men have amicably farmed the same land for years, until one of them wakes up in the middle of the night with a bullet in his face and his wife dead beside him. The wounded man initially suspects his daughter’s abusive boyfriend, but then changes his story and accuses his farming partner, and then his farming partner’s son, which results in the sort of twisty and utterly corrupt legal process worthy of Making a Murderer part three.
The piece is full of letters and depositions and secret meetings and a lot of paperwork, but on occasion, it vibrates with poignantly biblical/Americana-esque undertones, from the title (plucked from Genesis) to lines like, “[the victim’s] murder was an attack on a Christian matriarch, a cherished local archetype. Similarly, [the innocent man’s] conviction represented the denial of an eldest son’s right to live and work on his father’s land.”
Author of The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World.
The End of Evil (Sarah Marshall, The Believer)
I published a book and wrote a lot of my own pieces in 2018 — including one for this site — so, oddly, I didn’t keep as good track of longform reporting produced by others (podcasts, however, that’s a different story, but this is Longreads, not Longlistens). But I keep returning to Sarah Marshall’s “The End of Evil” because it makes fresh a story long consigned to easy tropes. Marshall, who also co-hosts the stellar podcast You’re Wrong About… and is one of my favorite true crime writers, gives voice to the myriad of women and girls Bundy murdered, shows him as something far less than an evil mastermind, and demonstrates why, with particular clarity, “the longer you spend inside this story, the less sense you can find.”
Audience editor, Longreads
Checkpoint Nation (Melissa del Bosque, Texas Observer)
When Americans think of “the border” as a narrow and specific line, we neglect the legal reality that the term actually applies to a border zone, a much larger halo covering up to 100 air miles from any U.S. land or coastal boundary. The zone touches parts of 38 states, covering 10 in their entirety — and within that wide rim, anyone can be subjected to a warrantless search at any time. In this signature longform reality check, Melissa del Bosque digs into the history of how Congress vested U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) with alarming, far-reaching powers to search and detain even long-term residents who’ve never committed a crime at surprise, “suspicionless” checkpoints.
Japan’s Prisons Are a Haven for Elderly Women (Shiho Fukada, Bloomberg Businessweek)
In a series of sweet, anonymous snapshots, Shiho Fukada talks to and photographs a growing cohort of Japanese seniors: “otherwise law-abiding elderly women” who have found a solution to the loneliness of aging in the reliable comforts of prison. Almost 1 in 5 women in Japanese prisons is a senior, Fukada reports, and 90 percent of them are arrested for shoplifting. From the simple things they steal (rice, cold medicine, a frying pan) to the circumstances they’re trying to escape (bedridden or violent spouses, invisibility, loss, and financial strain), the details of this story make structural inadequacies to meet the unmet social and healthcare needs of an aging population all too clear.
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Nicole Antebi | Longreads | November 2018 | 18 minutes (4,438 words)
For the past few years I’ve been working on a topographical film titled Fred’s Rainbow Bar and Other Stages on the International Border featuring a variety of animation styles along with live-action and archival imagery to interrogate histories, memories, and imaginings of the border landscapes of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, the region where I grew up. During this time I’ve also been following the incredible story of “Paso Del Sur” a watch group in El Paso who have been fighting to save Duranguito, the oldest barrio in El Paso Texas.
At any time of day or night, a group of older residents can be seen patrolling the Duranguito neighborhood in downtown El Paso, Texas, located across the river from downtown Juárez, Mexico. Historian David Dorado Romo is one of several “Paso Del Sur” figureheads who have been fighting the City of El Paso, for over a decade, to preserve the spaces Romo has long been writing about. In his 2005 book, Ringside Seat to a Revolution, Romo tracked the footsteps of Mexican Revolutionary folk hero, Francisco “Pancho” Villa and other historical figures of the period throughout Duranguito and greater downtown El Paso. I visited Romo this summer in Duranguito where I interviewed him about their battle with the City and the El Paso Del Norte Group, a bi-national consortium of developers who disobeyed a court order and illegally paid people to demolish their own property. At the time of our interview the neighborhood was in a state of limbo with a section punched out of each of five buildings by orders issued by the City; giving the distinct anthropomorphic appearance of a body disemboweled and left for dead.
The day after the 2018 midterms, while awaiting edits on this piece, I got word that the City of El Paso had increased their police presence in the neighborhood and resumed fencing in properties to speed up an archaeological study, with plans to resume displacement and demolition within the next week.
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NICOLE ANTEBI: Where does the name Duranguito originate from?
DAVID DORADO ROMO: The provenance of the name is both anecdotal and historical. One of the stories Toñita Morales, who lives in the adobe-looking house over there, tells me, is that she first heard it when she was a young woman living in Segundo Barrio in the late ’40s. She told me that there was a family from the State of Durango with three daughters that lived here on one of the streets and when young men would go back to visit people would say “A donde vas?” and they would respond, “Vamos con las de Duranguito.”
What I’ve seen in some of the oral history records at the University of Texas at El Paso is that it was called Barrio Durango back around the turn of the 20th century and they don’t really say why, but I get the feeling that it may have been called that because one of the streets here is Durango street. So you can find all these streets in the Anson Mills plot map of 1859, even before the railroads came here, and these were all wagon destinations. So Chihuahua and Santa Fe streets were part of the old Camino Real and Durango was also one of those destinations where you would go.
Later, in the 1990s, you had the central business association led by Tanny Berg who had plans to gentrify this place and turn it into a destination with bars and a nightlife and he started calling this whole place Union Plaza based on the Union Depot. That’s a relatively new name. And so now the city is saying it’s not called Barrio Duranguito, its called Union Plaza.
Names and terrains have always been contested. That’s part of the identity of a place and that’s also part of the struggle. We are trying to revive what the neighbors themselves call it. But in fact, if you go back to 1827, it was called Ponce de Leon Rancho and it was the first land grant on this side of the river. In 1873, when El Paso was first incorporated, Duranguito was designated the First Ward. There’s an older parcel where the Chamizal or the Segundo Barrio used to be, that, it could be said, was the first, but it was still on the Mexican side of the border at that time. So in 1873, this became the first land grant on the El Paso side. And when they first broke ground, there were a lot of adobe structures that were designed to protect themselves from the Apaches. So that was also contested terrain. And even the Apaches were themselves contesting this place. There is archaeological evidence all around of Pueblo-style sedentary communities. So really, this is part of a long, long, history of contestation. But this isn’t the kind of history the City feels like it can promote.
Thanks to a Justice Department mandate from 1953, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection can now detain and search people within 100 air miles from the actual border. With over 40,000 agents, it’s now the largest federal law enforcement agency. Every year, its agents interact with 27 million people at both permanent and temporary checkpoints.
For the Texas Observer, Melissa del Bosque writes about the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s expansion, its overreach, and current attempts to reign it in. Bosque details the way the agency routinely detains American citizens without having to explain why, searches our cars with no warrants, and operates with little oversight. Yet its reach keeps expanding. If you drive within 100 miles of the border on a road that leads to an official border crossing, you better watch out, because if the patrol barks at you the wrong way, you could be detained for a while. And for what?
During CBP’s rapid expansion, the agency ramped up its use of interior checkpoints, subjecting ever more Americans to warrantless searches, seizures and detentions near their schools, in their neighborhoods and on public roads. CBP’s own data suggests that its interior checkpoints do little to catch what it calls “unauthorized entrants” and instead ensnare U.S. citizens on minor drug charges. (Forty percent of its seizures were 1 ounce or less of marijuana taken from citizens.) From 2013 to 2016, interior checkpoints accounted for only 2 percent of CBP apprehensions of undocumented immigrants. In May, a circuit court judge in New Hampshire threw out charges against 16 people who were arrested for possessing small quantities of drugs at a checkpoint manned by local police and Border Patrol agents, about 90 miles south of the Canadian border. “While the stated purpose of the checkpoints in this matter was screening for immigration violations,” the judge wrote, “the primary purpose of the action was detection and seizure of drugs,” which he ruled unconstitutional.
The Trump administration has been aggressively promoting further cooperation between immigration agencies and police departments. Border Patrol agents often accompany officers during routine traffic stops and serve as backup or sometimes as interpreters, but their involvement in domestic policing has had lethal consequences. In 2011, a man in Washington state called 911 because his son, 30-year-old Alex Martinez, who had a history of mental illness, was smashing the windows of their home. Border Patrol accompanied local sheriff’s deputies to the residence, likely because the call was made in Spanish. When they arrived, Martinez stepped out of his house holding something in his hand. Law enforcement say it was a hammer; the family alleges it was a flashlight. A local deputy and a Border Patrol agent, who said they felt threatened, shot Martinez 13 times. Since 2010, watchdog groups have counted 77 CBP-related fatalities—at least one-fifth of them U.S. citizens.
CBP operates with less oversight than your local police department despite having one of the largest federal budgets in Washington. The agency doesn’t reveal the names of agents or details of its internal proceedings in fatality or misconduct investigations. Until four years ago, CBP even kept its use-of-force policies secret; they were made public only after a congressional inquiry into a wrongful death resulted in an independent review. CBP hasn’t widely adopted dashboard or body cameras, although it began a six-month pilot project in May. In 2015, the Homeland Security Advisory Council, a panel of law enforcement experts formed by DHS, warned that CBP had no effective process to root out corruption and that its internal affairs office was woefully understaffed. “The true levels of corruption within CBP are not known,” the council warned. “Pockets of corruption could fester within CBP, potentially for years.”