Skip to content

The Teens Trapped Between a Gang and the Law (The New Yorker)

Juliana grew up with a single memory of her father. He was sitting in the half-light of evening on the porch of their home, in a small town in El Salvador, while her mother cooked dinner in the kitchen. A man in a black mask emerged from the darkness. Juliana heard three gunshots, and saw her father fall off his chair, vomiting blood. She was three years old at the time, and afterward she wondered if the killing had actually happened. The most tangible detail was the man in the mask, who came to seem more present in her life than her father ever was. Juliana used to find her mother by the windows, pulling back a corner of the curtains to be sure that he had not returned. “It was like that man went on living with us,” Juliana told me. One day when she was older, her mother said that a gang called the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, had killed her father for refusing to pay a tax on a deli that he operated out of the house.

For five years after the killing, the family moved every six months, staying with relatives throughout El Salvador, trying to keep ahead of the gang. In 2011, after Juliana’s mother, Ramona, testified against the killer, a member of MS-13 tried to stab her at a soccer game, where she was selling refreshments. She escaped, and fled the country, leaving Juliana and her two younger sisters at an aunt’s house, because she couldn’t afford to bring them with her. She went to Brentwood, on Long Island, where she had relatives, and took a job cleaning houses. A few years later, she was returning home from work, when she got a call. “What I need is money to pay a lawyer for the people who have been affected by what you’ve said,” a male voice told her. “I know the people of the neighborhood. I know your family, your kids, your daughter.” One of Juliana’s schoolmates, a sixteen-year-old boy who belonged to MS-13, had kidnapped her from her aunt’s house; for weeks, she was raped and beaten. She managed to call her mother one afternoon, and together they plotted her escape.

keep reading:

My Only Friend is My Conscience (The New York Review of Books)

Between errands and a family dinner one Sunday in October 2015, Professor Angelina Godoy hurried to her office at the University of Washington in Seattle to pick up a book for her teenage daughter. When she unlocked the door, it took her a moment to notice that her computer was gone. An external hard-drive had been taken, too. There was sensitive information on both of the stolen devices about a pending lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency, and a former, once-powerful Salvadoran colonel with ties to the US. In place of the computer on her desk was a hand-carved wooden cat about three inches long with its front paws extended and its back arched. The cat used to sit on the top of her computer monitor—a trinket brought back from a trip to Mexico—but whoever moved it had taken some care: it was angled to face Godoy’s chair as though to suggest watchful eyes.

Godoy is the director of the university’s human rights center, a small, interdisciplinary body run by a few faculty members, two full-time staffers, and a team of students. For the past four years, the center has been filing public records requests with the CIA, the State Department, and the Pentagon, seeking declassified government cables about the civil war in El Salvador, which the country’s right-wing military fought, with the US’s help, against leftist guerrillas from 1980 to 1992. Some seventy-five thousand Salvadoran civilians died in the fighting, making it one of the US’s ugliest, and bloodiest, cold war interventions. The government cables Godoy’s center was analyzing told the moment-by-moment story of a failed American war effort, narrated by officials who were discovering the sordid truth about their Salvadoran allies.

keep reading:

How Stephen Miller Single-Handedly Got the US to Accept Fewer Refugees (New

In 1980, the year that Congress passed the Refugee Act, the U.S. accepted more than two hundred thousand refugees. The law created a robust program for accepting people who had been displaced by war and strife, and made refugee policy a new tool of American foreign policy, improving the country’s standing with foreign allies and helping the military and intelligence communities find partners in conflict zones. Since then, the mandated refugee “cap” set by the President has fluctuated; during the Obama Administration, it averaged seventy-six thousand, and, in 2017, Obama raised the cap to a hundred and ten thousand to allow in more Syrians fleeing civil war. Then came Donald Trump. In January, he signed an executive order temporarily freezing the refugee program, barring all Syrians, and slashing the number of refugees allowed into the country for the remainder of the year. Late last month, the White House announced that next year’s cap would be forty-five thousand, a record low. The State Department, the Defense Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Office of the Vice-President, and the Office of Management and Budget had wanted the number to be higher. But they had all been forced to compete with one influential White House official: Stephen Miller, the thirty-two-year-old former aide to Jeff Sessions who has become Trump’s top immigration adviser.

I recently spoke to four Administration officials involved in the refugee-cap process to try to understand how Miller was able to outmaneuver an array of powerful factions in the federal bureaucracy. Each official described Miller as a savvy operator who understands how to insert himself into the policy-creation process. They also described him as the beneficiary of a dysfunctional and understaffed Administration. Miller hadn’t completely gotten his way on the refugee cap, they told me; he wanted it to be lower. The forty-five-thousand figure—which past Administrations would have considered impractically low—amounted to a kind of compromise.

Keep reading:

A Veteran ICE Agent Speaks Out (New

In March, two months after President Trump took office, I received a text message from a veteran agent at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). I had been trying to find field agents willing to describe what life was like at the agency in the Trump era. This agent agreed to talk. Over the past four months, we have texted often and spoken on the phone several times. Some of our discussions have been about the specifics of new federal policies aimed at dramatically increasing the number of deportations. At other times, we’ve talked more broadly about how the culture at ICE has shifted. In April, the agent texted me a screen shot of a page from the minutes of a recent meeting, during which a superior had said that it was “the most exciting time to be part of ICE” in the agency’s history. The photo was sent without commentary—the agent just wanted someone on the outside to see it.

The agent, who has worked in federal immigration enforcement since the Clinton Administration, has been unsettled by the new order at ICE. During the campaign, many rank-and-file agents publicly cheered Trump’s pledge to deport more immigrants, and, since Inauguration Day, the Administration has explicitly encouraged them to pursue the undocumented as aggressively as possible. “We’re going to get sued,” the agent told me at one point. “You have guys who are doing whatever they want in the field, going after whoever they want.” At first, the agent spoke to me on the condition that I not publish anything about our conversations. But that has changed. Increasingly angry about the direction in which ICE is moving, the agent agreed last week to let me publish some of the details of our talks, as long as I didn’t include identifying information.

keep reading:

An Underground College for Undocumented Immigrants (The New Yorker)

Melissa and Ashley, identical twins from Georgia, shared a bedroom while growing up. They had the same best friend, took classes together in high school, and dreamed of becoming artists in their own collective. “We’re like two different people with one brain,” Melissa liked to say.

In the spring of 2011, during their junior year, they decided to apply to college in their usual way—in tandem. The University of Georgia, in Athens, the state’s flagship university, was their first choice. “All my life, I knew I wanted to go to college, even before I understood what that would entail,” Ashley said. “My parents didn’t go to college, so they didn’t know how to navigate all this. We had to figure out the process for ourselves.” As soon as they started filling out the application online, however, they encountered a problem. The second page of the Web site wouldn’t load.

Ashley called the university’s admissions office to see if the site had crashed. The receptionist, who spoke in a treacly drawl, directed her to a question on the first page, which asked if the applicant was a United States citizen.

“It should say ‘yes’—is that what you put?” she asked.

“We’re sort of in limbo at the moment,” Ashley replied. When the twins were six years old, they moved from Mexico with their parents and older sister to the suburbs of Atlanta. Victor and Verónica, their father and mother, came to Georgia legally to work in the construction boom of the mid-nineties. In 2010, they applied for permanent residency, but a year later they still hadn’t received a response.

“I don’t know what to tell you, sweetie,” the receptionist said. “It probably has to do with that.”

Ashley and Melissa didn’t know it, but the year before, the Georgia Board of Regents, which oversees the university system, had instituted a policy barring undocumented students from the state’s top five public schools. Georgia had thirty-five public colleges, serving about three hundred and ten thousand students, of whom some five hundred were undocumented; only twenty-nine undocumented students were enrolled at the top five schools. Nevertheless, the state legislature wanted the Board of Regents to send a message. As a state senator’s spokesman said, “We can’t afford to have illegal immigrants taking a taxpayer-subsidized spot in our colleges.” Two other states—South Carolina and Alabama—ban undocumented students from public universities.

Keep reading:

After an Immigration Raid, A City’s Students Vanish (New

David Morales teaches social studies at Mayfield High School, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, a city of a hundred thousand people, located fifty miles north of the Mexican border. Some of his students are the children of undocumented immigrants, and a few of them might even be undocumented themselves. He doesn’t know which ones, exactly, and he doesn’t care. “When they’re in my classroom, I’m there to teach them,” he told me recently. “I make a point of not knowing, unless the student wants me to.” His classes are small, with around twenty students each, and when any kid is out, “it’s obvious,” he said. “But last month it was painfully obvious.”

On February 15th, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ice) officers conducted a raid in Las Cruces, arresting people at a trailer park on the outskirts of town. The raid came a few weeks after President Trump signed two executive orders, signalling his plans to fulfill a campaign promise of cracking down on undocumented immigrants. Rumors spread that there were further raids planned, though none took place. On February 16th, a Thursday, Las Cruces’s public schools saw a sixty-per-cent spike in absences compared to the previous week—twenty-one hundred of the district’s twenty-five thousand students missed school. Two thousand students stayed away again the next day. Attendance returned to normal the following week, which made the two-day rash of absences all the more pronounced. “It was alarming,” Greg Ewing, the district’s superintendent, told me. News of the raid caused such fear in the community that Ewing wrote a letter to parents on the 16th, in English and Spanish, reassuring them that “we do not anticipate any ice activity occurring on school campuses.”

His reassurances only went so far. Students might not have been at risk, but their parents seemed to fear that they themselves would be stopped coming or going from the schools. “Parents often don’t have legal papers,” he said. “They just have to survive day by day so their kids can get educated.” At the city’s high schools, absences went up by twenty-five per cent in the two days after the raids, but the numbers were even higher at the schools for younger students, where many still rely on their parents to drop them off and pick them up every day. In the two days after the raids, absences at elementary schools rose by almost a hundred and fifty per cent.

“As my students filed in, I was worried,” Morales said. “Who’s not going to be here?” In one of his classes, three students were missing on the 16th. The next day it was five. “My first thought was, Are they O.K.?” he said. “Then, What if their parents got picked up? Do they have a place to stay?”

Keep reading:

The Deportees Taking Our Calls (The New Yorker)

Eddie Anzora was sitting in his cubicle at a call center in El Salvador one day a couple of years ago, making a hotel reservation for an impatient American customer, when he spotted someone he knew from a past life. The man, who was part of a group of new employees on a tour of the office, was tall, with a tattoo of a rose on the back of his neck. His loping stride caught Anzora’s attention. Salvadorans didn’t walk like that.

“Where you from?” Anzora asked, when the man reached his desk.

“Sunland Park,” he replied. It was a neighborhood in Los Angeles, more than two thousand miles away, but Anzora knew it. A decade earlier, when the two men belonged to rival street crews, they had got into a fistfight there. Now they were both deportees, sizing each other up in a country they barely knew.

Anzora, who is thirty-nine, is thick-armed and barrel-chested; his hair is trimmed to a fade. He was born in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, but he lived in California between the ages of two and twenty-nine, when he was deported for drug possession. “I got real American-culturized from the beginning,” he told me recently.

By the time Anzora returned to El Salvador, in 2007, it had become one of the most dangerous countries in the world, gripped by an intractable gang war. On the plane, Anzora had been handcuffed, his legs shackled. Once he stepped outside, police officers inspected him to see if he had any tattoos that suggested gang ties. Anzora’s Spanish was “all beat up,” he said, a second language that he spoke with a Chicano accent. A cousin he knew from L.A., who had been deported a year earlier, picked him up from the San Salvador airport and let him stay in his apartment while he figured out what to do. Over dinner that night, Anzora’s cousin told him about a company called Sykes, which ran one of the two largest call centers in San Salvador. Sykes, which is based in Florida, has call centers in twenty countries and employs about three thousand Salvadorans, who provide customer service and technical support to American businesses. In El Salvador, Sykes came to be known, in English, as “homieland,” because so many of its employees were deportees from the United States.

Keep reading:

The Championship for the Reelection of the General (The Atavist Magazine)

In 1937, some of the most famous baseball players who ever lived–all black and relegated to the then-segregated Negro Leagues–got fed up with American racism and took advantage of one of the strangest offers they’d ever know. The dictator of the Dominican Republic, easily one of the most dangerous (and racist) men of the era, was sponsoring a baseball tournament in his own honor. And he wanted the best players money could buy. This is the story of what happened when 17 stars flew down to the DR to play for a man named Rafael Trujillo. In the process, they caused a major diplomatic scandal; almost drove black baseball out of business; and cemented some of the legends we all grew up with.

Read my story in Issue 57 of The Atavist Magazine

A special thanks to some sources who were indispensable to the research of this story. Orlando Inoa, the Dominican historian and publisher of Letra Gráfica, is quite simply one of the most knowledgeable historians and documentarians around; without him, the story would have been impossible to tell. Salvador Alfau, at the National Archives in Santo Domingo, was extremely generous. Rob Ruck, of the University of Pittsburgh, has written brilliantly about baseball in the DR, and it was an honor to confer with him along the way. I can’t do justice here to Cuqui Córdova, and he makes a cameo in the story itself. Thank you: José A. Vega Imbert, Layton Revel, Luis Muñoz, Freddy Gómez, Frank Moya Pons, Robin Derby,  Roberto Echevarría, Larry Lester, Larry Tye, and Neil Lanctot. The list goes on.

Crossing Over (Oxford American, Fall 2015)

En route last year from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez, once the most dangerous city on earth, Claudia Delfin crossed the border in fear over what she’d find on the other side, but the real trouble was in coming back. After spending a few jittery hours in Mexico, she waited among the throng at customs on the Santa Fe Street Bridge while her Juárez nerves slowly stopped jangling. A uniformed officer called her over to his booth, barely making eye contact. He cut an authoritarian bust behind his desk, just upper torso visible on a boosted chair. She held out her Texas state ID and a tattered birth certificate. Both documents said Ricardo, not Claudia—and the ID, when plugged into the computer, called up a long list of prison stints. Claudia is thin and gangly, five feet seven inches, with dark skin, a broad nose, and deep-set brown eyes. Her smile is a few teeth shy of being pristine—metal caps top her canines, and flash when she talks. Two tattoos in a loopy scrawl spill over the tops of her hands, and another spiders around the nape of her neck. 

The questions followed, one after the other, the pace quickening. Where do you work? Do you have drugs? Who were you there to see? There was too much story to get through, and Claudia’s voice snagged and wavered, her answers spilling out in a jumble. She’s transgender, and never changed the name on her ID; the priors were for old offenses (drugs, prostitution, theft); she was visiting friends, and has a godson on the other side. The officer stepped down from his perch and led her into a side room with white cinder-block walls; jack-booted patrolmen clomped in and out. She stood by while they figured out what to do with her. Eventually, they propped Claudia against a wall and two teams, working in pairs, set in on her. The female officers went first, patting her down from the waist up with gloved hands, latex against the skin. They toyed with her bra, tilting it to see if drugs fell out. Then the men took over. They felt from the waist down, holding firm hands to her inner thighs and grazing against her penis for contraband. After fifteen minutes, they returned an uneaten burrito she’d been carrying in her purse, and she was free to go. 

It was the first time Claudia had gone to Juárez in more than a decade. She was forty-five, and began crossing into the city in her teens. El Paso and Juárez are sibling cities, joined together in a single metropolitan hub, with families, businesses, and communities enmeshed across both sides. Claudia’s trips used to be routine, practically second nature, but she stopped going around 2000, when the killings picked up. Women had been disappearing in Juárez throughout the Nineties in an epidemic of rapes and murders. Most of the victims belonged to a swelling urban underclass; they were low-wage laborers picked off on their way home from work on secluded patches of desert road. NAFTA had been pushing Mexico’s poorest citizens up from the interior and into the factories along the northern corridor, where they converged on a turf war fought by the cartels. Drug violence took Claudia’s two cities, gutted one and sealed up the other. In 2010, there were more than three thousand murders in Juárez alone, while in El Paso there were all of five. The gore and terror sharpened the dividing line itself. To come home to El Paso from the south raised more questions than could easily be answered, and so for twenty minutes Claudia was marooned on a bridge, in fronteriza limbo.

Keep reading:

The Dominican Diamond Expert (The New York Times)

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Ever since Pedro Martinez entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in July, Emilio Cordova, the Dominican Republic’s most celebrated baseball historian, has been carrying copies of stat sheets with him all over town. On one side of the pages are Martinez’s career numbers; on the other are those of Juan Marichal, the country’s other legendary pitcher.

“Everyone keeps asking me who was better,” said Cordova, who is known as Cuqui. “It’s driving me crazy!”

He reels off the statistics — complete games, shutouts, earned run average — as if they are an unshakable tic.

“People who never saw Marichal pitch are saying, ‘I like Pedro more; he was better,’ ” Cordova said. “Not true! Look at the numbers.”

He knows most of them by heart. In the Dominican Republic, Cordova, 85, is known as the “immortal sports historian,” a living, breathing archive of Dominican baseball. (His memorabilia-filled home is the related brick-and-mortar version.) Always impeccably dressed, in a blazer complete with a pocket square and suspenders, Cordova is as dapper as he is gentlemanly, an authentic caballero of the old school. But it is what is inside that natty package, the information he shares in his many books and newspaper columns, that makes him a national treasure.

Keep reading: