Behind the Latino appreciation for Anthony Bourdain

Notes, photographs and flowers are left in memory of Anthony Bourdain at the closed location of Brasserie Les Halles, where Bourdain used to work as the executive chef, Friday in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Among the many tributes and condolences pouring in for Anthony Bourdain, Scott Kelly’s surely came from the rarefied heights. The retired astronaut tweeted that he watched the master storyteller’s shows from space because they pulled him closer to humanity.

“It made me feel more connected to the planet, its people and cultures and made my time there more palatable,” he said.

From his heavenly vantage point in space, Kelly said, Bourdain inspired him “to see the world up close.”

When we struggled to make sense of a world where difference is not tolerated but vilified, Bourdain, a hero of curiosity, someone said, taught us that the unknown was something to embrace and enjoy. Adventure was his muse. Sharing a meal and a drink was a means to connect and to discover we have more in common than we might think.

His travels around the globe, he said, had enriched him by showing him how other people live. “How hard their lives are, how big the world is,” he told CBS in a recent interview.

Bourdain was a champion of the marginalized. If you’re Mexican-American or Mexican or Latino – or even if you’re not – you have seen and heard accolades for his eloquent and irreverent public defense of Mexican immigrants and his appreciation for Mexican culture that reached broadly beyond just its cuisine.

In a famous 2014 essay that’s been shared widely in Latino circles, he wrote:

“As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy — the restaurant business as we know it — in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers. Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are ‘stealing American jobs.’ But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had one American kid walk in my door and apply for a dishwashing job, a porter’s position — or even a job as prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, provably, simply won’t do.”

Bourdain said he was grateful for the skilled Mexican cooks and kitchen workers who toiled in obscurity but were generous just the same, showing the new, celebrated chef the ropes, imparting the knowledge they had worked long and hard to acquire.

“In nearly 30 years of cooking professionally, just about every time I walked into a new kitchen, it was a Mexican guy who looked after me, had my back, showed me what was what, was there — and on the case — when the cooks more like me, with backgrounds like mine — ran away to go skiing or surfing — or simply ‘flaked.’”

The Mexican workers Bourdain stood up for get a raw deal. Working diligently in back kitchens and behind the scenes, but unappreciated, they are unwittingly yanked into the spotlight when their people are vilified as “criminals” and “rapists” overrunning our border, flooding our cities with drugs, taking jobs from Americans. In that narrative, they become something less than the rest of us.

Oh, and about those drugs, Bourdain wrote: “We love Mexican drugs. Maybe not you personally, but ‘we’ as a nation, certainly consume titanic amounts of them — and go to extraordinary lengths and expense to acquire them … In the service of our appetites, we spend billions and billions of dollars each year on Mexican drugs — while at the same time spending billions and billions more trying to prevent those drugs from reaching us.”

In daring to call out American hypocrisy over illegal immigration, Bourdain spoke bravely and with unflinching honesty, as much or more than any other American celebrity. The double standard is that this is a country that puts out the hiring sign to employ millions of unauthorized workers, yet spends billions to keep them out. To call that out is to risk self-inflicted wounds from the likes of those who cry, “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” Bourdain surely knew the risk — and was a willful defender of the immigrant workers he came to know.

Yes, that is why after learning of Bourdain’s death, some Latinos gravitated to social media to express their admiration for Bourdain, who dared to confront stereotypes and rhetorical talking points to present human beings and immigrant workers in a different light — with dignity.

 

Yes, we speak English in America – and 350 other languages too

Lawyer Aaron Schlossberg, center, who ranted against people speaking Spanish in a Midtown restaurant, takes a cellphone video of reporters taking his video as he leaves his home in New York on May 17. (Anthony DelMundo/New York Daily News/TNS)

Speaking Spanish – something 40 million Americans do – is all over the news.

When a Manhattan man went on a racially charged rant last week after hearing restaurant employees speaking Spanish, he said repeatedly, “It’s America.”

You get the message — ‘This is America, we speak English here.’

He’s right, of course, we do speak English in America, but that’s not all — we also speak over 350 different languages at home, according to a census report. Indeed, more than 1 in 5 Americans over the age of 5 speak a language other than English at home, the 2015 report found.

We are a nation of immigrants, after all.

True, most Americans speak only English at home or a few other languages like Spanish or Chinese or Vietnamese. Still, the data reveals the breathtaking range of language diversity in the U.S., the census said.

Take New York City, where the xenophobic meltdown occurred and where more than 1 in 3 metro area residents speak a language other than English. More than 200 languages are spoken by the 8.6 million people who live there, Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted.

“They’re all New Yorkers and they’re all welcome here,” he said.

As the nation goes, so goes Austin, where se habla Español. About 358,000 people age 5 and over – out of a total metro area population of 1.65 million — speak Spanish at home. In all, slightly more than 27 percent of Austin metro area residents spoke a language other than English. After Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese topped the list of other languages spoken here.

Spanish was tops as well among the other 350 languages spoken in the U.S., according to the census, which gleaned data collected from 2009 to 2013.

Other top languages spoken, in order of ranking, were:

Chinese

Tagalog

Vietnamese

French (including Patois and Cajun)

Korean

German

Arabic languages.

Spanish vaulted into the national consciousness again the other day when a U.S. Border Patrol agent detained two women, both U.S. citizens, in Montana simply for speaking Spanish. Caught on video, the incident went viral on social media.

“Speaking Spanish is very unheard of up here,” the agent told the women, attempting to explain why he stopped them but neglecting to state the obvious – speaking Spanish is not a crime.

He’s right that in Montana seldom is heard a Spanish word. In the entire state – its 1.05 million population is hardly bigger than the city of Austin’s — only about 1.5 percent of residents speak Spanish.

The irony? Montana is literally Spanish, coming from the word montaña, which means mountain.

Trump: Border wall position unchanged. But can you spare $18 billion?

Hundreds of people, many of them Haitian, demonstrate against racism in Times Square on Martin Luther King (MLK) Day, January 15, New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

President Trump is learning that the problem with asking U.S. taxpayers to pick up the $18 billion tab for his border wall is that they have long memories. Particularly when there’s money involved.

They remember when Trump promised ad nauseam at campaign rallies across the country in 2016 that Mexico would pay for a wall. Trump staked his bid for the presidency on it.

So, it’s natural for them to ask now, “What do you mean, you want us to pay for it?”

Faced with the reality that Mexico won’t pay – they were never going to – it should be embarrassing for the president to have his hand out in order to make good on a campaign promise he knew he couldn’t deliver. He should be more embarrassed that he is asking for border wall funding at the same time he’s playing political games with the fate of hundreds of thousands of young people known as Dreamers. These are the immigrants who came to this country illegally when they were children. Trump is insisting that a deal in Congress to avert a government shutdown and to extend legal protections for these young immigrants will only happen if lawmakers approve funding for his vision of a border wall.

Still, Trump isn’t giving up on the idea that Mexico will pay, no matter how preposterous that idea might seem. On Thursday, he tweeted:

“The Wall will be paid for, directly or indirectly, or through longer term reimbursement, by Mexico, which has a ridiculous $71 billion dollar trade surplus with the U.S. The $20 billion dollar Wall is “peanuts” compared to what Mexico makes from the U.S. NAFTA is a bad joke!”

Perhaps the president’s most ardent supporters will buy that sketchy “Don’t worry, Mexico will pay you back” promise, but most Americans won’t.

It’s important to note that most Americans don’t want a border wall, either, according to polling. And nearly nine in 10 Americans favor allowing Dreamers to stay in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, according to a CBS News poll out today. DACA gives recipients work permits and protects them from deportation.

Dreamers shouldn’t be punished for their parents’ actions to bring them here in search of a better life — some were infants when they came. Nor should they be played for a political football.

The president can do the right thing and untether their fate from his condition for funding for a border wall, one that most Americans don’t want.

RELATED: A southern border wall is still Trump’s north star 

Trump tweeted more about the wall Thursday, taking the extraordinary step of contradicting his chief of staff by saying that his position on a border wall had not changed.

On Wednesday, the president’s chief of staff, John Kelly, said Trump was not fully informed when he promised to build a wall last year. He said the president’s position had evolved.

Trump shot back on Twitter: “The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it. Parts will be, of necessity, see through and it was never intended to be built in areas where there is natural protection such as mountains, wastelands or tough rivers or water…”

Bear in mind that the president promised over and over again in 2016 to build a wall spanning the nearly 2,000-mile-long southern border. More recently he’s told lawmakers that a continuous wall won’t be needed after all because of natural barriers. The $18 billion he’s asking for now would pay for about 900 miles of wall.

That sure sounds like a stance that’s evolved. What gives?

Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway said earlier this month the president had “discovered” there are rivers, mountains and rugged terrain that aren’t conducive to building a wall in some locations.

Oh, that. That’s something Texans could have told the president a long time ago.

 

In Khizr Khan’s inspirational story, a mighty river flows

Khizr Khan, father of fallen U.S. Army Capt. Humayun S.M. Khan, speaks as his wife Ghazala listens at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 28, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Maybe sometimes it takes a stranger to remind us of our greatness and of the things we hold dear as a nation, but which we take for granted. Maybe it takes someone like Khizr Khan, a Pakistani immigrant who chased his American dream and is living it.

You remember Khan. At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016, the Gold Star father of a Muslim U.S. soldier killed in combat in Iraq fixed a stern gaze at the television camera as if it were a portal into the American consciousness.

With his wife Ghazala beside him, Khan pulled a copy of the U.S. Constitution from his jacket and ripped then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for his proposed Muslim travel ban and his rhetoric on immigrants. Then Khan famously asked if Trump had even read the founding document.

“I will gladly lend you my copy,” he said as the audience roared. “In this document, look for the words liberty and equal protection of the law.”

An electric moment, it rocketed Khan to national prominence.

As we now know is his standard impulse, Trump took to Twitter to fire back. Never mind that attacking the grieving parents of a U.S. Army captain who had given his life for his country seemed outrageously undignified, beneath what we expect of someone wanting to be president.

Khan wasn’t surprised, he told me before an appearance last Saturday morning at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Austin: “We had known (Trump’s) caliber and his mentality and his lack of empathy, his lack of compassion.”

Today of course, Trump is the president of the United States. Khan isn’t shrinking from the spotlight, either. He is traveling across the country with a newly published book, “An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice.” The event at St. Andrew’s, where he spoke to a few hundred people about the book and about his life, was his 175th event since that fateful, life-changing night in Philadelphia.

“I’d rather be with my grandkids,” Khan told me with a warm smile. “But it’s for a good purpose — to share a message of unity and hope. We are lacking that now.”

But not Khan. His faith in America remains resolute. “The book,” he said, “is a tribute from (our family) to the goodness of America. We are expressing our gratitude.”

Later inside the school auditorium, Khan, wearing a dark suit and a Gold Star lapel pin, deftly wove his life story before a rapt, diverse audience. A Harvard-educated lawyer he spoke in a low, soothing timbre, and reminded them that among the things Americans cherish most are the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

“Human dignities,” he called them. “The founding document gave me these dignities. In Pakistan I did not have freedom of religion, freedom of press, freedom to address my grievances in a court of law and due process.”

Life led from a seat on a small cot at his rural Pakistani home with no electricity to his current home of Charlottesville – yes, that Charlottesville in Virginia, where a rally of white supremacists exploded in deadly violence August 12.

In the moonlit darkness of his Pakistani home, Khan’s grandfather offered the young boy wise counsel, paraphrasing one of Rumi’s seven advices. “He told me, ‘So what if you are thirsty. Be a river for others,’” Khan said.

In Charlottesville, three days after the ugly violence, the Khans joined other families in walking the same route the neo-Nazis had taken. Like his grandfather, Khizr Khan had his own lesson to impart.

“We showed our children that these were not American values,” he said. “We stood together to show them that this is the real America.”

Some Americans have blamed Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants for emboldening white supremacist protesters. Khan didn’t address the criticism.

The Khans didn’t intend to accept the Democratic convention’s invitation to speak. Confidantes had warned them there would be backlash, and they were right. Khan receives much hate mail – most of it unsigned and with no return address – and he must travel with great precaution.

But they could not ignore the concerns of their Muslim neighbors’ children, who with Trump’s talk about banning Muslims from entering the U.S., were reluctant to attend school because they feared their parents would be gone — deported – when they returned.

“They would ask, ‘Is this possible? But we were born here,’” Khan said.

In some ways, Khan’s appearance at St. Andrews bore some of the hallmarks of both a celebrity appearance and an inspirational seminar for people thirsty for hope. A long line of people waited to have their photo taken with Khan, who exuded a quiet and gracious humility.

At times audience members fought back tears. At others they rollicked with laughter. The idea of holding up the Constitution had been an afterthought, conceived in a taxi on the way to the Democratic convention. Khan described a comical scene like something out of The Three Stooges: in rehearsing pulling the pocket-size Constitution from his jacket, he displayed the back cover, ruining the intended dramatic effect.

“Practice,” Ghazala scolded him.

In Austin and across the country, at a time when political civility has gone missing, at a time when some in America vilify those who don’t look like them, Khan might be the unlikeliest of rock stars, spinning a love poem to democratic ideals.

If he is thirsty, he is not letting on. Instead, he is a river to others.

 

 

From Cornyn, a border security plan less Trumpian, more Texas-friendly

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn points to a poster with an image of barrier on the Texas-Mexico border as he announces his border security plan Thursday on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo)

For President Trump, a border wall is a signature piece of his domestic agenda, of such magnitude to him politically that he fumed with Mexican President Peña Nieto and pleaded with him to stop saying Mexico wouldn’t pay for it. More on that later.

For U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, however, a border wall is important, but it’s not everything.

“It’s not the whole story,” the Republican Texas senator said Thursday as he presented his $15 billion border security plan that relies more on personnel and technology and less on a wall than the president might like.

As Maria Recio reported in the American-Statesman, Cornyn’s border plan calls for a layered strategy of walls, fencing, levees and technology. Called the Building America’s Trust Act, the bill would increase the number of federal agents at ports of entry and on the border, as well as add more immigration judges and prosecutors. It also would pour more resources into state and local efforts to fight drug trafficking.

VIEWPOINTS: Jobs, not ‘sanctuary’ policies beckon immigrants to U.S.

Cornyn’s plan brings a more reasoned alternative to Trump’s one-size-fits-all, build a border wall approach. It is also likely to go over better with Texans who oppose a wall for a number of reasons, not the least of which is some people just don’t think it’s necessary. Many of those critics live along the border, a point Cornyn subtly referenced when he said federal authorities should consult local officials in shaping border strategy.

That’s something you hear a lot in South Texas and up and down the border, where some residents feel they’ve become a requisite photo op for politicians who swoop in for an hour or two to assess border security — as if that’s all it takes — then return to their respective homes in faraway states. That’s what Trump the presidential candidate did in a 2015 visit to Laredo.

It’ll be interesting to see how Cornyn’s bill progresses and whether it receives bipartisan support. As a border senator and majority whip, he holds considerable sway in Congress and on the fortunes of any border security measure.

‘You cannot say that to the press.’

Trump paved a path to the White House in no small measure on his boastful promise to build a “beautiful” border wall.

“And who’s going to pay for it?” Trump would ask delirious supporters at campaign rallies.

“Mexico will!” they would roar in response.

But leaked transcripts of a January phone call between Trump and Peña Nieto reveal the president knew Mexico would never pay for the wall and that his demand for payment was just a political play. More importantly, he wanted the Mexican president to stop saying publicly that Mexico wouldn’t pay for a wall.

Trump acknowledged that his public posturing on the wall had left him in an extremely tight spot politically.

“The fact is we are both in a little bit of a political bind, because I have to have Mexico pay for the wall – I have to,” Trump told Peña Nieto in the call.

When Peña Nieto kept insisting that Mexico wouldn’t pay, Trump said: “You cannot say that to the press. The press is going to go with that and I cannot live with that.”

Trump later said the border wall is not all that important – remarkable considering all his bluster about it.

“Believe it or not, this is the least important thing that we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important (thing we) talk about,” Trump said.

Trump has steered away more recently from demanding that Mexico pay. He’s asked Congress for a $1.6 billion down payment for the wall, which the House has approved. Mexico will “reimburse” the U.S., Trump has said, without offering details on how that might happen.

That all sounds fuzzy. One thing is clear from that January phone call, however: Mexico won’t pay for the wall, and Trump knows it.

That means — and let’s face it, we knew this all along — American taxpayers will foot the bill, which the Department of Homeland Security says could hit $21.6 billion. Will Trump’s supporters still cheer?

RELATED: U.S. policy stole 8 lives in a truck. Why the dying won’t end

As Trump pulls back on a border wall, some aren’t pleased

A boy runs up toward the U.S. border fence from his backyard in San Benito in June. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald via AP)

Like the twisting Rio Grande, President Trump’s position on a border wall is changing course.

The president, who made the promise of a “big, beautiful border wall” one of the cornerstone promises of his campaign, significantly dialed back on the pledge Thursday, telling reporters that a 2,000-mile-long wall is no longer necessary “because you have a lot of natural barriers.”

“You have mountains. You have some rivers that are violent and vicious,” Trump said, according to excerpts released by the White House from the president’s conversation with journalists aboard Air Force One. “You have some areas that are so far away that you don’t really have people crossing. So, you don’t need that.”

Hmmm, that sounds a lot like Texas to us.

RELATED: “Why the border wall fences us in”

The president said he now believes only 700 to 900 miles of wall are needed. About 650 miles of the border with Mexico are already protected by fences or walls; many of those miles in Texas. Trump seemed to suggest that repairing fences already in place would count against the total miles he has in mind, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“You know, we’ve already started the wall because we’re fixing large portions of wall right now,” Trump said. “We’re taking wall that was good but it’s in very bad shape, and we’re making it new.”

At campaign rallies, where supporters’ chants of “build that wall” became a staple, Trump often talked about a wall 30 feet high running the length of the U.S.-Mexico border. But on Thursday the president described a new vision of a wall more closely resembling the fencing already up in places like South Texas, where, at least in some cases, fences hug residents’ back yards.

“You need transparency,” Trump said. “In other words, if you can’t see through that wall — so it could be a steel wall with openings, but you have to have openings because you have to see what’s on the other side of the wall.”

Trump won the support of conservative groups who liked his tough campaign talk on immigration. Some clearly aren’t happy with his changing course on a border wall.

“We don’t have the rule of law when it comes to immigration,” Stephen Steinlight, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington told the Times. “It doesn’t exist. There’s immigration anarchy.”

His new position, however, is likely to go over better with some of the president’s prominent supporters in Texas, who think more border walls aren’t the answer on border security. They include Dennis Nixon, a well-known Laredo banking executive who had this to say to me recently about a border wall: “No serious person thinks you can build a wall from El Paso to Brownsville with any kind of reasonable expectation it will be successful.”

Nixon was the Texas finance chair for the Donald J. Trump for President campaign. Among other solutions, he advocates cleaning up dense vegetation along the Rio Grande so that border enforcement agents gain better access and visibility.

A final footnote on why Trump said a border wall needs openings, and we’ll leave it there.

“As horrible as it sounds,” Trump said, “when they throw the large sacks of drugs over, and if you have people on the other side of the wall, you don’t see them — they hit you on the head with 60 pounds of stuff? It’s over. As crazy as that sounds, you need transparency through that wall.”

 

 

 

Trump doubles down on a border wall, and a government shutdown looms

The border fence between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
The border fence between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (The New York Times)

 

What are we to make of Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist extraordinaire who is embroiled in a child custody battle in a Travis County courtroom? His attorney wants us to believe Jones’ bombastic on-air persona is merely performance art – just for show, folks, that’s all. Jones, however, asserts no trickery is involved.

A far cry from President Trump, another well-known figure known for his crowd-pleasing bluster. You can count on Trump meaning what he says. Well, except for when he doesn’t.

Take for instance the president’s recent flip-flop on NATO, the trans-Atlantic alliance Trump called “obsolete” throughout the campaign and as recently as last month. The president declared then that NATO “doesn’t cover terrorism,” which isn’t true.

But earlier this month, as he stood with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump had a sudden change of heart. “I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete,” the president said, explaining that NATO made a change and now fights terrorism. The record says otherwise; as the Washington Post noted, NATO has been active in counterterrorism since 1980, even moreso since 9/11.

The newspaper has taken to calling Trump the “king of flip-flops.” Like the Post, a number of news organizations routinely chronicle the president’s many 180-degree turns on policy.

But there is one policy position where the president isn’t showing any signs of budging or flip-flopping – his vision of a border wall.

On Thursday Trump doubled down on one of his signature campaign pledges. He wants Congress to add money for a new wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border to a massive spending bill, potentially forcing a government shutdown. As the Chicago Tribune reported:

Trump’s request, outlined in conversations with White House officials and in a memo from budget director Mick Mulvaney, calls for $33 billion in new defense and border spending — and $18 billion in cuts to other priorities, such as medical research and jobs programs.

RELATED: A border wall riddled with holes in logic 

RELATED: Why the border wall fences us in

A partial government shutdown would begin April 29 if the spending bill isn’t passed.

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney told The Associated Press that Democratic negotiators on the spending bill need to sign on to funding the president’s priorities, including a down payment on a border wall and hiring more immigration agents.

“Elections have consequences,” Mulvaney said. “We want wall funding.”
Mulvaney said the Trump administration knows many in Congress, especially Democrats, don’t like the wall, “but they lost the election.”

More Americans opposed (62 percent) than favored (35 percent) building a wall, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in February.

A partial government shutdown is never popular and at least for now, it appears few in Congress share the White House’s desire to flirt with one, though some Democrats vow to oppose the wall and even some conservative Republicans object, though on fiscal grounds.

The Department of Homeland Security pegs the cost of a wall at up to $21.6 billion. Trump famously vowed throughout his campaign to make Mexico pay for the wall. That’s obviously not in the cards. Was it ever, really?

With the spectre of a government shutdown looming, some on Capitol Hill expect a bipartisan spending bill will emerge by next week’s end, and that a vote on funding for the wall will come in a separate spending bill later this year.

One thing is clear: Trump administration requests to fund the wall aren’t going away. The president is adamant about fulfilling his vision of a “big, beautiful border wall.”

 

 

 

 

Trump’s order a case of ‘Do as I say, not as I do’

President Trump Visits Snap-On Tools In Kenosha, WisconsinCall it a case of “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Harkening back to a cornerstone of his campaign, President Trump this week signed a “Buy American, Hire American” executive order that tightens rules under which visas are awarded to skilled foreign workers.

The order also directs the federal government to prioritize buying American-made goods and hiring American firms for federal projects.

“We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure more products are stamped with those wonderful words ‘Made in the USA,’ ” Trump said during a visit to a tool manufacturer in Wisconsin, with wrenches forming a U.S. flag as his backdrop. “For too long we’ve watched as our factories have been closed and our jobs have been sent to faraway lands.”

On the campaign trail, as he did in his Wisconsin stop, Trump made buying American-made goods and hiring American workers a signature theme, one that played very well with blue-collar audiences.

That was Trump, the candidate. Trump, the billionaire businessman, however, was a different story.

As The Washington Post put it, “(Trump’s) business practices often contradicted his political rhetoric. Parts of his clothing line were manufactured abroad and he hired foreign workers at many of his properties.”

Trump may want the federal government and American firms to “buy American” and “hire American,” but he doesn’t always do that himself. Many of his products are made outside the U.S., and the use of undocumented immigrants to build Trump Tower became a flashpoint of one of the presidential debates, an accusation by Hillary Clinton that the Politifact organization rated as “True.” Trump also uses the H-2B visa program to hire foreign workers at his Mar-a-Lago resort.

The order Trump signed this week calls for federal crackdowns on fraud in another visa program, H-1B.

The order is intended to discourage use of foreign labor, which the White House argues puts Americans out of jobs and drives down wages.

That prompted a swift response from the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which said H-1B visas have a positive impact on wages because workers earn higher average wages than Americans in similar jobs.

The immigration lawyers group said the H-1B is expensive enough that most American employers use it only when they can’t find qualified U.S. workers to fill jobs.

Trump’s order, AILA said, won’t have an immediate impact on the visa program because it will require legislative rule changes first.

 

 

 

Abbott’s Texas stomps Austin, local governments

Governor Greg Abbott speaks before signing his new book ‘Broken but Unbowed’ as he launches his book tour at the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation. Wednesday, May 18, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Welcome to Gov. Abbott’s Texas, where the state bullies local governments to bend to its will and strangles efforts of local people to govern themselves. That sounds surreal, but it is not a stretch if Abbott gets his way.

The Texas Tribune reported this week that Abbott is proposing a “rifle-shot” law to pre-empt regulations of cities and counties that run counter to the state’s interest. Such an approach would wreck the current democratic process in which the Legislature publicly debates local ordinances before either validating them or striking them down.

Here is what Abbott told the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, an Austin-based think tank, during a Q&A session at the group’s meeting in Corpus Christi.

“As opposed to the state having to take multiple rifle-shot approaches at overriding local regulations, I think a broad-based law by the state of Texas that says across the board, the state is going to pre-empt local regulations, is a superior approach,” The Tribune reported.

Abbott added that such an approach, “makes it more simple, more elegant, but more importantly, provides greater advance notice to businesses and to individuals that you’re going to have the certainty to run your lives.”

Yes, Governor, democracy is messy, tedious and time-consuming. But that is what the framers of the Constitution had in mind in setting up a system to ensure that ideas are debated in the public square in front of the people so presumably the best ones would prevail.

A sweeping law aimed at diluting or eroding that process is antithetical to the Constitution.

Our democratic system was not intended to be “elegant,” or means of granting “notice to businesses and individuals” so as to provide certainty in their practices or lives, as the governor seems to believe. And the notion that elected lawmakers need some kind of break in doing the jobs we elected and pay them to do – pass laws – is misguided.

Aside from being imprudent, Abbott’s proposal is unnecessary as the limits of municipalities, such as the city of Austin, and all 254 Texas counties, are spelled out in the state’s constitution and legal principles, as Austin attorney and former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire, notes.

“The Texas Constitution and statutes establish different legal principles regarding power of cities and counties,” Aleshire told me Wednesday.

“The principle for home-rule cities is that they have any power necessary for protection for the health, welfare, or safety of the city residents that is not prohibited by state law. The opposite is true for counties, which only have power that is granted to them by state law.”

In other words, home-rule cities, such as Austin, can legally ban plastic bags, require Uber and Lyft to fingerprint their drivers and regulate short-term rentals as those are areas in which the state has not established regulations, with the exception of some restrictions on plastic bag bans. So none of Austin’s local ordinances in such areas violate state regulations.

And if the state does extend its reach in those areas as some Republicans in the Legislature now are attempting to do, Austin’s ordinances would have to come into compliance with state law. The city could, however, decide to challenge state law in court. In either scenario, the current democratic system works in handling such issues.

As for Travis County, no doubt Abbott is madder than hell over new policies of Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez to deny most requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain jail inmates for federal immigration checks before releasing them.

I say that because counties have so little authority in general and already are limited to doing what the state prescribes. So Abbott’s proposal with regard to counties makes no sense. That is especially true since state lawmakers now are considering a law to require Texas sheriffs to fully comply with all ICE detainers or fine them civilly or criminally if they don’t.

As it now stands, Hernandez is only honoring ICE requests when the inmate is charged with one of four crimes: capital murder, murder, aggravated sexual assault or continuous human smuggling.

Again, our current legislative process – including debate and public meetings – is handling the local initiative that has Abbott all riled up. Austin and Travis County leaders might not agree with the Legislature’s response to Hernandez’s ICE policy, but even Hernandez has said she would follow state law under such circumstances, meaning she would honor ICE detainers if that is the law.

As a former state supreme court justice and attorney general for Texas, Abbott should know that upheaval, disruption and disagreement are part of the formula for a healthy democracy. And can you even imagine the reaction of Abbott, who worships at the altar of states’ rights, if the federal government struck that posture with Texas?

And let’s face it, some of the most autocratic countries in the world are the ones with the most certainty and predictability for their people, government and businesses. Like North Korea.

Why the border wall fences us in

A section of the border fence with a gate, bounded by smaller chain-link fence in Runn, Texas. The patchwork border fence along the Texas-Mexico border has created a nebulous and bizarre third space between countries.   Kelly West/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

From atop a dusty bluff on the U.S. Mexico border in deep South Texas, the mighty Rio Grande commands the panoramic vista below. Its waters a muted hue of green, the river courses wildly in every direction, zig-zagging here, straightening out there for about a mile due south before making an impossible hairpin turn due north, then zig-zagging again. With its bedeviling twists and turns, the Rio Grande is God’s work or Nature’s work, or both.

This is the border.

The border fence, however, is far from the river’s edge in many places, up to a mile in some spots, leaving many Texans and their way of life caught in something of a No Man’s Land, as reporter Jeremy Schwartz noted in last Sunday’s American-Statesman.

In communities up and down the Rio Grande Valley, people’s homes, their farmlands, nature trails and wildlife sanctuaries, cemeteries and soccer fields are caught in the space between. Intended to keep people out, the fence instead cuts off sizable pieces of Texas from the people who live there. Even some homeowners have been cut off from their own land.

Then there’s the case of Greg Garcia. To get to his classes at Texas Southmost College in Brownsville, Garcia regularly passes through an opening in the 18-foot-high border fence. To get home, he drives south past the fence, where U.S. Border Patrol agents let him through.

Large numbers of people make similar every-day adjustments to get to school, to their jobs and to their homes. It’s an alternative universe not like the way of life people along the border knew for generations before, a carefree existence that allowed children to frolic in the river’s cool waters on scorching summer days.

Though I’ve lived in Austin most of my adult life, I grew up in the Valley and still consider myself a son of the border. When I was a kid, crossing the border meant a Sunday afternoon outing with your parents, strolling the plaza, getting your shoes shined, stocking up on cookies and candies and enjoying a Mexican coke before it was hip.

Not everyone thinks the fence upsets the way of life here, however. Arnold Lopez says he hardly sees the steel fence anymore, having crossed it so many times. “It’s not like it’s the Berlin Wall or anything,” he told Schwartz.

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Only about 10 percent of the border in Texas is currently fenced in, but President Trump has promised to build 1,250 miles of new border wall, most of it in Texas. A Department of Homeland Security report puts the price tag at a staggering $21.6 billion. If Trump fulfills his vow, it’s likely that much more of Texas will be caught in a no man’s land, because unlike many parts of other border states, in this state the Rio Grande hugs residents’ back yards and vast parcels of private land.

The madly winding shoreline made building a wall a maddening experience for federal officials a decade ago. They learned that fencing along the river’s banks would exacerbate flooding. And most riverfront land in Texas is in private hands, forcing the government to negotiate rights of way or claim eminent domain in the courts.

The prospect of extending the existing wall should lead Texans to ask if building more will expand the No Man’s Land beyond just South Texas.

A border wall is President Trump’s magic answer for solving illegal immigration. His campaign rhetoric stirred up fear, painting a portrait of a sievelike border overrun by criminals and rapists. Trump would have you believe that the estimated 11.1 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. all sneaked across. He would have you think they’re all from Mexico, and that illegal immigration is growing.

A new study by the Center for Migration Studies, however, separates hot rhetoric from cold reality. The report found that fully two-thirds of immigrants who joined the undocumented population in 2014 did not sneak across, but instead entered the country legally with a valid visa and then overstayed. No amount of border fencing will stop people from entering the U.S. legally.

And the current reality is that the number of Mexicans apprehended by the Border Patrol has plummeted from a peak of 1.6 million in 2000 to about 193,000 in 2016, a near-historic low. Pew also found that the number of Mexican immigrants living in the U.S. illegally has declined by more than 1 million since 2007. More recently, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly touted a 40 percent drop in the number of illegal border crossings through Mexico this year.

And then there’s this nugget from Pew: The number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. has not changed since 2009.

Facts can be inconvenient and I doubt politicians have those figures at their fingertips when they parachute in, donning body armor to ride speedboats down the Rio Grande, flanked by law enforcement officers brandishing high-powered rifles. Fleeting moments made for television campaign commercials.

The Texas border wall fences us in, corralling too a reality that’s as murky as the Rio Grande after a summer thundershower. For every Rio Grande Valley resident who has had it with illegal immigration  — and there are many — you can find at least one other who says a border fence doesn’t make them feel any safer. Some fear an expanded wall will destroy communities, and that money for it would be better spent on motion sensors and technology.

As we all question whether an expanded wall will be efficient and useful, we should glean what we can from life in the shadow of the patchwork border fence in South Texas, and we should ask, “Is a wall worth the cost?”