There was a time when rural Guatemalans never left home. But back to back hurricanes, failed crops and extreme poverty are driving them to make the dangerous trek north to the U.S. border.

Originally published by The New York Times

The director Matthew Heineman has an uncanny ability to get his camera into difficult places. For his Oscar-nominated documentary Cartel Land, he embedded himself with armed vigilante groups fighting the Mexican drug cartels. For City of Ghosts, he filmed a group of Syrian journalists in Raqqa who risked their lives to expose ISIS atrocities.

His cameras have been just as intrepid for the Showtime documentary series, The Trade, which returns Friday for its second season. People often ask Heineman how he gets such intimate access, he said Monday over afternoon coffee. But the access is the essence of the job; he wouldn’t bother without it.

The challenge now may be accessing people’s living rooms. Season 1 tackled the opioid crisis, which for all its horrors is not especially polarizing. But Season 2 goes deep into the dangers facing Central American migrants – a subject about which many Americans appear to have made up their minds.

I think the first priority with this show, he said, as with anything I’ve ever done, is to try to take an issue that people think they understand, that’s often plastered across the headlines, and to try to humanize it. To try to put a human face to it.

In conversation, Heineman eschews political talk – his job, he says, is to show and not tell with as much nuance as possible. To that end, he and the series’s showrunner, Pagan Harleman, went broad, sending journalists all over the map, north and south of the border.

One team embedded with Border Patrol officers and Homeland Security agents in McAllen, Tex. Another tracked investigations into Naasn Joaqun Garca, who has been charged with running a child pornography and sex trafficking operation from his Mexico-based global megachurch.

Another group, led by the Emmy-winning journalist Monica Villamizar, followed a young woman named Magda and her family on their long journey from Honduras to the U.S. border – much of it atop a freight train – after Magda’s husband was murdered.

I clicked with the family, and we started just by trying to be with them through the really hard time, the funeral, Villamizar said by phone. And then we just spent time with them and realized that Magda was in real danger.

Villamizar and the others spent more than a year and half following leads and earning trust. That kind of long-term investment in a single project, she said, was something she had never been able to make before. But the attachments she formed also made the project tougher.

To be honest, it was very hard – it was painful in a psychological way, she said. But in the end, she added, I was very happy to be able to be given this opportunity because as a Hispanic reporter working in the U.S., I always thought the immigration was something that I really wanted to take an in depth look at.

In a cafe in midtown Manhattan, Heineman discussed the scope of the four-part Season 2 and the challenges of doing justice to such a complex subject. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

ImageMatthew Heineman, who directs “The Trade,” during production of his Oscar-nominated documentary feature “Cartel Land.”
Credit…Hans Maximo-Musielik/Showtime

Some viewers will be more willing to see the opioid crisis in humanitarian terms than they do the migrant crisis. What’s missing from the discussion of migrant issues that you try to get at in this series?

For one, the migrant crisis and anything involving the border between us and Mexico has been highly politicized. What I’ve tried to do in all my projects is make something that’s apolitical. I believe it’s the job of a documentary to create discussion, to create debate. You can’t just preach to the choir. You have to, hopefully, allow both sides to come to the table and be understood.

That’s one answer. The other is: I think that over the last couple years, when people talk about the migrant crisis, it is so often relegated to the border and to legislation in Washington, and the humanity is lost in the discussion. So I feel like that was our job – to bring back the humanity into the debate.

What are some parallels you see between the two crises?

We are tied to Mexico and Central America whether we like it or not. People for decades have immigrated, have been smuggled from Central America – frankly, from around the world – through Mexico into the U.S. This is not something created by our current political climate; this is something that’s been going on for a very, very long time. It’s part of the ecosystem of our country.

But crossing the border used to be much safer. It used to be run by mom-and-pop shops, often family-owned, literally, even a decade ago. Now almost everything that goes across the border, whether it’s drugs or humans, is controlled by the cartel. Now you’re a commodity. You are out in the middle of the desert in the middle of the night with people with guns and masks, and that’s not necessarily a position you want to be in.

Are there elements that will surprise people who take the more liberal-minded position in the immigration debate?

You’re trying to make me say political things, and I hate talking about politics. I think that every person who works in law enforcement isn’t evil. We follow Homeland Security personnel, we follow Border Patrol personnel attempting to fight human smuggling, human trafficking. We’re also trying to humanize their perspective and where they’re coming from. One of our characters [a Homeland Security investigator] is of Mexican heritage, and he deeply empathizes with the people coming northward. I feel like it’s my job to try to break preconceived notions of who people are or their motivations for doing what they do.

Still, the politics are fraught. Did your relationships with law enforcement require a lot of trust-building?

Absolutely. We knew that law enforcement would be a big part of the story; we had a lot of connections that we built in Season 1. But as always, it takes a long time to actually get cameras rolling and to get into the places you want to get into. You can’t just helicopter in and out. You need to spend weeks and weeks, and months and months of time with these characters to develop the rapport, to develop the trust, to become a part of the fabric of their daily lives, so that you can capture real human moments. One of the benefits of long-form documentary filmmaking is that we have the privilege of time. With so many other forms of journalism, you have one day, two days to get a story.

How did you find Magda? Did you commit early on to following her and her family, come what may?

With Magda, we were filming in San Pedro Sula, in Honduras, when her husband was murdered by MS-13. We had no idea where that story was going to go. Little did we know, it would become this epic journey of escaping the violence that killed her husband, and all the trappings that it comes with – having to deal with smugglers and abandoning friends and family members. Magda’s story is really the through-line for all four episodes.


We’re constantly debating and discussing, and nothing we do is scripted, nothing we do is planned. When I was 21 years old, a mentor of mine in the film world said that if you end up with the story you started with, then you weren’t listening along the way. I think that’s good advice for life; I think that’s good advice for filmmaking. Don’t be dogmatic, be open to the story changing. Be open to wonderful accidents of life.

So many things could have happened on Magda’s journey. I’m thinking of the scene in Episode 2 when they hop the train, right after we’ve learned how many people die by falling off. To say nothing of all the kidnappings.

These are very difficult films to make, but the difficulty pales in comparison to what our subjects go through on a daily basis. I derive so much inspiration and hope from the people we film, who are going through such life-altering circumstances or journeys, or life threatening situations, or overcoming certain things. So yes, this is a show about difficult subject matter. But I think audiences – as did I and everyone who worked on this series – will find enormous hope and inspiration in the perseverance of the human spirit, which just permeates almost every one of our characters.


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Originally published by Mother Jones

Democratic presidential hopeful Julian Castro visited a makeshift camp on Monday in the Mexican city of Matamoros, where asylum-seekers are being forced to live in squalor because of a Trump administration policy that has stranded some 50,000 people just south of the US-Mexico border. He was there to escort a group of vulnerable migrants as they petitioned for asylum at the port of entry, something that has become increasingly more difficult in recent months.  

The Migrant Protection Protocols policy, also known as Remain in Mexico, forces migrants who ask for asylum at the border back to Mexico-often for months-to wait on their day in immigration court. The policy started out in the San Diego area at the beginning of the year and has since expanded along the border to South Texas, forcing tens of thousands of migrants to wait in dangerous Mexican border towns-including Matamoros, which sits across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, and has been given a level 4 do not travel warning by the US State Department.

In a tweet sent Monday morning, Castro didn’t mince words about Trump: Make no mistake: his agenda is killing people-and it’s on purpose.

It was the first time Castro visited one of these camps in Mexico, and he urged others to do the same because it truly drives home how much we’re failing these people and unnecessarily harming their lives. 

I spoke to the former secretary of housing and urban development on the phone as he was driving back to San Antonio. Our conversation has been edited for content and clarity. 

Why did you travel to Matamoros?

I went to Matamoros today to spotlight the suffering of people there who are living in squalor, drinking dirty water, not eating enough food, and being subjected to crime, all because of this administration’s backwards policy to keep them out of the US while they seek asylum. Today I took 12 people [to the port of entry]-eight of them were from the LBTQ community, and one family with a person who is disabled-to appeal their placement in the [Migrant Protection Protocols] program. I did this because under the terms of the MPP program, people who have a mental health or physical disability are not supposed to be forced to remain in Mexico. Members of the LGBTQ community who have been persecuted, who have been threatened and suffered beatings, often have PTSD, and that should qualify as a mental health issue. The person who is deaf obviously shouldn’t have been placed in the MPP program in the first place. 

It was the first time Castro visited one of these camps in Mexico, and he urged others to do the same because it truly drives home how much we’re failing these people and unnecessarily harming their lives. 

I spoke to the former secretary of housing and urban development on the phone as he was driving back to San Antonio. Our conversation has been edited for content and clarity. 

Why did you travel to Matamoros?

I went to Matamoros today to spotlight the suffering of people there who are living in squalor, drinking dirty water, not eating enough food, and being subjected to crime, all because of this administration’s backwards policy to keep them out of the US while they seek asylum. Today I took 12 people [to the port of entry]-eight of them were from the LBTQ community, and one family with a person who is disabled-to appeal their placement in the [Migrant Protection Protocols] program. I did this because under the terms of the MPP program, people who have a mental health or physical disability are not supposed to be forced to remain in Mexico. Members of the LGBTQ community who have been persecuted, who have been threatened and suffered beatings, often have PTSD, and that should qualify as a mental health issue. The person who is deaf obviously shouldn’t have been placed in the MPP program in the first place. 

The saddest thing that I saw today was a mother with her young child on her lap and the child looked thin, probably from lack of eating much. He seemed weak and very fatigued, probably because of the heat, or perhaps because they don’t have clean drinking water. There are many children who are sick, who are not getting any kind of education, and who are desperate. 

You’ve been speaking against the MPP/Remain in Mexico policy for most of the year, and you and I spoke about this back in May, but was there anything that surprised you today seeing it firsthand-especially having crossed into Matamoros?

The scale of the squalor. They’re up to more than 1,000 people there in tents right on the other side of the border. Plus, Matamoros is the newest site; you have more than 3,000 people in Nuevo Laredo and many more in Tijuana. The scale of the desperation is growing quickly as the policy expands. This is a humanitarian disaster that should be ended immediately. 

Are you concerned with what the asylum-seeking process in the United States has turned into under this administration?

Absolutely! It’s become a sham! First of all, we don’t have an immigration court system that is properly equipped to deal with the asylum claims, and it should be independent from the Department of Justice. We also should recognize people who are victims of domestic violence and gang violence in asylum claims. We should stop playing games with people at the border. 

What was the outcome for the 12 people you took to the port of entry?

We’re waiting to get the news, they are going to go through an interview their appeal of getting put through the MPP process, and we should find out at some point today what happened to them. We’re going to follow up with the Texas Civil Rights Project; they have attorneys who are in contact with each of them. 

Now, this was just a handful of people on one day, at one port of entry. We know that tens of thousands are being forced to wait in dangerous Mexican border towns for many months. Knowing the scale of this, what are you feeling right now as you drive away from the border?

This is a betrayal of our values and who we should be as a country, because desperate people are knocking on our door, and instead of allowing them safety as their asylum claim is determined, we push them to unsafe places along the border and have made their lives much worse. Like a lot of people, I’m frustrated by this administration’s cruelty, and I feel more determined than ever to end this policy. There’s also, of course, a sadness, especially for the children who are going through all of this. 

You’ve said that if elected president, you would quickly sign an executive order to end this policy. What else needs to happen, both short-term and long-term, to properly address asylum claims at the border?

We need an independent immigration judiciary with enough judges and support staff to hear all of these claims in a timely manner.  We also need to put more resources into getting people connected with family members who are already in the United States so they can find a loving home instead of placing them in the detention facilities. It would be more cost-effective than building more detention facilities. In addition to that, Mexico has a role, as well, in doing what it can to ensure that people have basic living conditions and that they’re safe.  

Is there an image from your trip this morning that you’d like people to know about?

Yeah, we went and laid flowers along the banks of the [Rio Grande] river where there were crosses to commemorate the death of a number of migrants, including Oscar and his daughter Valeria. And in that same river just feet away from those crosses little children were playing and bathing themselves. The river is heavily polluted, and that’s the water that people are bathing in. 

Note: About two hours after I spoke with Castro, he learned that the 12 asylum-seekers he helped that morning had been sent back to Mexico. They presented their cases for why they feared returning to Mexico, and why they should be exempt from the Migrant Protection Protocols, but US Customs and Border Protection officials denied their claims. 

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Originally published by The NY Times

Trying to stop immigrants as the Trump administration is doing – unilaterally, at the border and with tear gas and troops – is a sign of only one thing: failure.

In fact, the administration’s response to the migrant caravan from Central America that recently arrived at the border with Mexico highlights much of what is wrong with American politics and immigration policy today.

These migrants, regardless of their reasons for coming, are being exploited and victimized at both ends of their journey: at home by street gangs, human traffickers and major criminal organizations, and in the United States by politicians seeking political gain.

Given the situation at the border, there is an urgent need to deploy practical solutions to the challenges of migration with the clear goal of establishing safe, orderly and legal migration.

This means that the United States must stay true to its national interests, history, values and legal obligations in the ways it handles people seeking asylum. That does not mean letting in every petitioner. Economic migrants do not qualify for asylum; they should understand that, for them, the perilous journey north will ultimately be a fruitless one.

But being scrupulously selective about asylum requests does not mean we should be firing tear gas at families at the border, wastefully deploying troops to string concertina wire as cameras roll, ignoring our historical role as a haven for the persecuted or manufacturing a crisis for political purposes.

Instead, the United States and its partners in the region need to address the governmental dysfunction in Central America that is driving so many desperate people to embark on incredibly dangerous journeys in search of a better, more secure life.

In the short term, this means radically increasing the United States’ capacity to adjudicate asylum claims. The slow-walking of processing asylum claims, and the huge backlog of cases at ports of entry, are only adding to tensions in the region. More judges and Customs and Border Protection officers, not more troops, should be sent to the border to speed up the processing of claims.

The United States also needs to expand its refugee programs in the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – so that people can apply for refugee status while still in their home countries.

The United States must also work with international organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration as well as the Mexican government to provide shelter and food to migrants on Mexico’s southern border. The Mexican government has said that Central American migrants in that area, as well as near the United States-Mexico border, can apply for Mexican work permits.

At the same time, the United States should increase its funding to and engagement with United Nations refugee agency to quickly expand Mexico’s ability to process refugee and asylum claims. This would be a major change for the Trump administration, which has been hesitant to work with many international organizations and pulled out from in the United Nations-brokered Global Compact on Migration before it was even finalized.

Longer-term work is also essential to break the cycles of lawlessness and economic deprivation fueling migration.

The United States should not be threatening to curtail assistance to the Northern Triangle countries, as President Trump has done. Instead, it should be providing additional assistance focused on job creation and strengthening anti-gang and violence prevention programs. Effective but small-scale local programs to combat these problems already exist – they should be expanded so their impact is felt across the region.

The president-elect of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lpez Obrador, who will take office on Saturday, has spoken of his country playing a more active role in economic development in the Northern Triangle. The United States should leverage that interest to the fullest extent possible.

Any effort to promote more stable, sustainable societies in the Northern Triangle must also include the region’s private sector. It should be pressed to contribute financially to American aid packages. And the United States should support efforts to root out corruption that is often fueled by predatory corporate interests.

Instead of tough talk and empty gestures, it is time for the United States to provide leadership based on both our national interests and our values. If it is smart and open to working with others, the administration can manage the flow of migrants humanely and efficiently. If it is not, this crisis will only get worse.

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Originally published by Time

Presidents have many jobs, and one is telling us who we are.

For the first 240 years of U.S. history, at least, our most revered chief executives reliably articulated a set of high-minded, humanist values that bound together a diverse nation by naming what we aspired to: democracy, humanity, equality. The Enlightenment ideals Thomas Jefferson etched onto the Declaration of Independence were given voice by Presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama.

Donald Trump doesn’t talk like that. In the 18 months since his Inauguration, Trump has mentioned democracy fewer than 100 times, equality only 12 times and human rights just 10 times. The tallies, drawn from, a searchable online agglomeration of 5 million of Trump’s words, contrast with his predecessors’: at the same point in his first term, Ronald Reagan had mentioned equality three times as often in recorded remarks, which included 48 references to human rights, according to the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Trump embraces a different set of values. He speaks often of patriotism, albeit in the narrow sense of military duty, or as the kind of loyalty test he’s made to NFL players. He also esteems religious liberty and economic vitality. But American’s 45th President is not doing what rhetoricians call that ‘transcendent move,’ says Mary E. Stuckey, a communications professor at Penn State University and author of Defining Americans: The Presidency and National Identity. Instead, with each passing month he is testing anew just how far from our founding humanism his America first policies can take us. And over the past two months on our southern border, we have seen the result.

TIME Photo-Illustration. Photographs by Getty Images

On April 6, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new zero tolerance policy toward those crossing illegally into the U.S. from Mexico. In mere weeks, over 2,000 children were taken from their parents and held, alone, sometimes behind chain-link fences, under the cold care of the federal government. In Texas, three tender age centers were set up for detained toddlers and infants. Incessant wails of Mama and Papa were heard on audio from a Customs and Border Protection detention center. An advocate told of a child being led away from her mother crying so hard she vomited. In a case mocked by former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, the child taken from a parent was a 10-year-old with Down syndrome.

The reality on the southern U.S. border was so difficult to reconcile with Americans’ vision of themselves that Trump did not even make the effort. The President’s first mention of the order to separate children from their parents was a May 26 Twitter post calling it horrible even though he had personally authorized it. Three weeks later, his motives were fully in the open: by driving attention to the border, his signature campaign issue, Trump aimed to force a vote on his long-promised border wall before midterm elections can undo the GOP majority in Congress.

The attention part certainly worked. A week after his return from the June 12 summit with North Korea’s dictator, family separation dominated the national conversation like no other political story since former FBI chief James Comey was shown the door. A steadily building wave of revulsion washed over the political spectrum, from MSNBC to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal to Franklin Graham and into the White House living quarters, when a spokeswoman for the First Lady said she called for a country that governs with heart.

Which leaves us facing a question: What kind of country are we? The world has been nervously asking that since November 2016. And while Trump ultimately capitulated on the forced separation of children, his new order suggested that families would be detained not only together, but perhaps indefinitely. For many Americans, the forced separation of immigrant families left them looking into the void from which the brutal policy emerged: the dark space left by the words Trump does say.

In the first days of the Trump Administration, the State Department moved to drop two words-just and democratic-from the list of qualities the U.S. sought to promote beyond its borders. The change did not go through, but the effort signaled a retreat from idealism that is re-ordering the world. In the name of America first, a slogan that first surfaced to keep America out of World War II, Trump is angrily sawing away at the global structures the U.S. spent decades building after prevailing in that conflict, which left America not only as the globe’s only intact major economic power, but also holding the moral high ground. Imperfect in myriad ways (lynching was still common in 1945; women had been allowed to vote for just a quarter-century), the U.S. looked plenty good beside the Third Reich and Imperial Japan, and vowed to do better. In a postwar world divided between the West and communism, America assumed the role of beacon. Presidents spoke relentlessly of democracy, humanitarianism and universal rights.

Go to the United States, that’s the place, was what Ivars Kalnins’ parents heard in the displaced-persons camp where the family lived for five years after World War II, having fled their native Latvia ahead of the Soviets. Kalnins’ father, as a city official, was a target for the Communists. The young family ended up in the southwestern Wisconsin hamlet of Burton, sponsored by the families of St. Paul Lutheran, where my father later preached. Kalnins’ dad started out as a hired hand, doing the chores for local farmers that Mexicans now do, for half the wages a local would demand. His son, Ivars Kalnins, grew up to be a lawyer and ardent Trump supporter.

My opinion on immigration basically is, wait your turn, Kalnins says. We waited five years. I don’t have any time or use for people sneaking in. You can’t blame them for wanting a better life. On the other hand, we can’t take in the whole world here, because everyone wants a better life. It’s up to them to make the place they’re from a better place.

Kalnins’ journey from refugee to Trump loyalist is as complex and nuanced as the immigration issue, then and now. His grandmother, who had suffered a nervous breakdown from incessant shelling, ended up in Britain, having been told the U.S. was not accepting refugees who were disabled physically or mentally. (So there’s your family separation, he says. I’ve been through it. It happens.) But it was a Republican, Reagan, who extended amnesty to undocumented immigrants, and a Democrat, Obama, who deported more immigrants than any previous President and detained families, a policy abhorred by liberal critics.

Central American immigrants leave ICE custody on June 11 pending future hearings
Central American immigrants leave ICE custody on June 11 pending future hearings
John Moore-Getty Images

But Obama also spoke of America’s lofty values with an eloquence that intentionally sought to echo Reagan. Nobody did this like Ronald Reagan did, says Stuckey. Reagan could talk about national identity in ways that even liberals would nod their head and say, yes, I see myself there. By contrast, Stuckey says, Trump doesn’t reach for America’s loftier values in an attempt to unify. Trump isn’t interested in those things, she adds, he speaks almost exclusively to his base.

That suits the base just fine. All these grandiose speeches, says Kalnins, who counts himself among those who relish that Trump does not sound like a politician. Even Bush, who wanted to be the aw-shucks guy, it was all in there, a nice half-hour speech saying absolutely nothing. That’s what we’ve gotten away from. It scares the hell out of some people, but I personally feel that there must have been something there that helped him win, because we were on the road of the fall of the Roman Empire.

What’s lost in Trump’s approach is any expectation of higher purpose. He makes no apology for lavishing praise on authoritarian leaders that past U.S. Presidents dealt with at arm’s length-Egypt’s Abdul Fattah al-Sisi (somebody that’s been very close to me from the first time I met him), the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte (great relationship) and Russia’s strong leader Vladimir Putin. When China’s Xi Jinping announced he would be President for life, placing 1.4 billion people deeper under government control, Trump offered congratulations.

American deference to authoritarian rulers now extends even into the nation’s capital. When Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan directed his security detail to beat protesters in full view of the press on a Washington, D.C., street on May 16, 2017, there were no consequences. Federal charges against his bodyguards were dropped in March, a day before Erdogan was scheduled to meet with Trump’s Secretary of State.

The story we tell the world is also the story we tell ourselves. Trump began June by blowing up the G-7 gathering of the world’s leading democracies by refusing to sign a joint statement endorsing shared values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights and our commitment to promote a rules-based international order. He slapped tariffs on Canada, Mexico and the European Union, advised France to drop out of the E.U., and urged Germans to support right-wing anti-immigrant parties intent on deposing Chancellor Angela Merkel. The leaders of France and Canada replied by citing values, but Trump had moved on to Singapore, where he praised North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un, whose regime actively operates a network of gulags, as a funny guy … very smart … his country does love him. You see the fervor.

What values does America’s billionaire President embrace in place of the Founders’? A kind of gimlet-eyed competition. Trump purports to run the country as a business, the most meaningful metric being exports vs. imports: if you have more than your counterpart, you’re a winner, and the other guy a loser. But even in the bloodless world of accounting, goodwill has a place on the ledger (the left side; it’s an asset) and the U.S. may be writing down a loss. Its economy is strong. The people pitching up at its borders surely count as proof of that.

It was Alexis de Tocqueville, the French observer of the early American character, who recognized the danger of placing too much value on business, law and order at the expense of the higher values. Warning of the country’s obsession with material gain and the enforcement of order necessary to pursue it, he wrote, A nation that asks nothing of its government but the maintenance of order is already a slave at heart.

Which is why the test posed with Trump’s zero tolerance policy is as much about our future as it is about the tragedy of the families separated by its implementation. Trump may have backed down on the specific practice of family separation, but the larger question remains. In the balance between the integrity of the U.S. border with Mexico and a parent’s love for a child, where will we come down?

Without a Border, you don’t have a Country, the President wrote on June 19. Everyone knows that. The question is, what kind of country?

This appears in the July 02, 2018 issue of TIME.

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