Maddie worked as a travel guide in Argentina and a teacher at several educational nonprofits in San Francisco before joining Mother Jones. She’s also written for Outside, the Bay Citizen, and the Rumpus. She manages Mother Jones' Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program.
Guatemalan migrant Gladys Chinoy, 14, waits with more than 500 other migrants alongside a freight train in Chiapas, Mexico.
Ever since unaccompanied child migrants became a national news story six weeks ago, many people have started asking: Is this an immigration crisis, or is it a refugee crisis? In response, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said last week it wants to designate many of the Central Americans fleeing regional violence and gang extortion as refugees.
The announcement comes amid mounting evidence of the horrific conditions causing so many people to flee Honduras, El Salvador, and parts of Guatemala: kids escaping rape, gang recruitment, and murder all around them, as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Sonia Nazario detailed in a chilling op-ed in last Sunday's New York Times. With this new designation, the UNHCR hopes to pressure the United States to give more immigrants, including many of the 70,000-plus unaccompanied minors likely to arrive at the US border this year, political asylum.
See MoJo's full coverage of the surge of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America.
But if the UNHCR were to make such a move, it still would have no legal significance for the United States. So is it really that important? Yes and no, says Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights at the Women's Refugee Commission. Brané and I talked about what a "refugee" designation could mean, and other ways the US can help ease the pain for immigrants—particularly those who've experienced targeted violence.
Here are nine key takeaways from our conversation:
1. Casting this as a "refugee situation" isn't necessarily the important part.
"This population contains within it many children and mothers and parents bringing their children who qualify for refugee protection or for protection under international law. Whether you formally call it a 'refugee situation'—that to me is less relevant than acknowledging that this is a population that is being driven out of their country. And their government is not willing or able to protect them."
"Fifty-eight percent of the kids said, 'I received a death threat'."
2. It's not just general violence and unrest that's causing people to flee Central America and Mexico.
"It's true that general conditions of war or of danger are not sufficient to qualify for asylum. But the UN agency of refugees, in interviewing 400 of these children, for over an hour each, they found that 58 percent expressed a targeted fear. Not just, 'I was scared because my neighborhood was dangerous.' Fifty-eight percent of the kids said, 'I received a death threat.' Or, 'I had a body cut up in a plastic bag left on my doorstep as a warning.' One hundred percent come from a dangerous place. That we know. But 58 percent were targeted. That's the piece that people are not getting."
3. Using gang violence as grounds for international protection is not a novel idea.
"The UN committee for refugees has recognized for many years now that gang violence absolutely qualifies, depending on the circumstances, as persecution and as qualifying for status under the refugee commission. And the US has granted many claims. People talk about this being difficult to do. It is difficult, especially if you don't have an attorney. But children with attorneys requesting asylum are winning those cases. It's absolutely a grounds that has been accepted in the US. It's not something revolutionary."
4. Yes, this is a crisis—but we shouldn't throw our hands up.
"The numbers are small if you compare them to refugee situations worldwide. Like look at Syria. There's over a million Syrian refugees in Turkey. There's over 2 million Syrian refugees in Jordan. Those countries are tiny compared to the US, and the numbers are much bigger. It's absolutely our responsibility as the United States to manage this and handle it in a way that does not roll back protections. We have been the ones to stand up there and say to Turkey:' You've got to take these refugees'. For us to say, because of this small number, 'Oh, maybe we'll reconsider,' is crazy. It's absolutely manageable."
5. Very few migrants are faking persecution in order to get to stay in the United States.
"The US has excellent asylum screening procedures. The problem is, you need to beef up the system in order to accommodate these numbers. But that's something we need to do anyway. I know there's been a lot of allegations and concern that it's a system that can easily be gamed, and you can fake it—but it actually it's quite a rigorous process. There's several screening hurdles you have to get over, and then you have to go in front of a judge, and then there's security clearance."
6. And many of them migrate for multiple reasons.
"When people say they have family here, yes, that's true. But that's not what made them come entirely. Why are they coming now? A smuggler offered them passage to the US. Is the smuggler the reason you left? Part of it. But really, the reason you were looking for a way to come, again, goes back to the violence. Poverty, also. The majority of the kids coming also are experiencing poverty in their home country. Is that the main reason? Maybe, maybe not. It's combined.
"One interesting Vanderbilt study found that people who'd been victim of a crime were more likely to migrate than those who had not. It also found that people who feel their government is not responsive to their needs were much more likely to migrate than someone who's government didn't protect them. When you combine those two factors—both been a victim of a crime and felt their government couldn't protect them—they're exponentially more likely to migrate. It's always a combination of factors."
7. Requiring international protection, or refugee designation, for more migrants is the right start—but the US can't solve this crisis alone.
"Mexico also has to acknowledge that many of these children need protection. Mexico also has very good asylum laws on the books. What they don't have is the resources and the infrastructure to support implementing those policies. Frankly, I think one of the things the US should be doing, and could do if they talk about this in the context of a refugee crisis, is to provide support regionally, not just to Mexico but also to Belize, to Costa Rica, to Panama, all of the countries that are also seeing influxes of these children. Provide them with the support to implement their protection policies consistent with international law. And not all of these kids have to come to the US, right? The burden can sort of be shared in the region."
8. We don't have to wait to act until migrants get to our borders—we could process them before they leave their country.
"We've done that before: with the Vietnamese in the past, with Haitians, and with Cubans. The first thing that needs to happen is you have to set up what the criteria are going to be; who qualifies to be sort of preprocessed. You could limit it to kids with strong family connection to the US, who have been targeted and pass some sort of criteria. It can be done administratively. You do not need legislation to do that. And in doing it you basically cut out the smugglers. If you process the kids internally, they can get on a plane for $300 and fly over here—they don't have to pay $3,000 to a criminal organization. It really undercuts the smugglers and trafficking operation in a huge way.
"If you process the kids [in their own country], they can get on a plane for $300 and fly over here—they don't have to pay $3,000 to a criminal organization."
"If children see there's a legal way that's safer to come—without taking this horrible journey—maybe they'll wait a little bit. And at the same time, you're building up the child welfare system and funding safehouses and anti-corruption campaigns. Maybe they'll see things get a little bit better; I can wait, I don't have to leave today. You slow the flow at that end. Not just by deporting people summarily, without a hearing. If you do that, and that's all you do, they're going to turn right around and come back."
9. Even if Obama's request for emergency supplemental funding to deal with this crisis isn't perfect, it's better than nothing.
"While we may not agree with all the details of where some of the money is going to—it's sort of heavy on enforcement, in my view—there's no question that they desperately need this money in order to be able manage the situation and get a handle on it. Frankly, it needs to go through. Blocking it will make the situation worse. They won't have any place to hold these kids while they process them, they won't have money to process them and deport them, and they won't have money to put them on planes and send them back. So it's crazy that there's discussion about blocking it."
UPDATE, 7/24/14: The Obama administration is considering a plan to screen Hondurans under the age of 21 in their home country to see if they qualify for asylum in the United States, the New York Times reports. As Michelle Brané points out in the interview above, this would allow the kids to apply for protection without making the dangerous crossing through Mexico or supporting human traffickers. If successful, the pilot program might also be adopted in El Salvador and Guatemala. That the administration is discussing such a measure helps legitimize that the Central American children migrating en masse are fleeing threats of imminent danger. According to an early draft proposal, 35 to 50 percent of Honduran applicants could be considered for asylum.
When I meet Kenny Belov mid-morning at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, the boats that would normally be out at sea chasing salmon sit tethered to their docks. The steady breeze coursing through the bay belies choppier conditions farther out—so rough that the local fishermen threw in the towel for the fifth morning in a row. Belov scans the horizon as he explains this, feet away from the warehouse of his sustainable seafood company, TwoXSea. Because his business hinges on what local fishermen can bring in, he's used to coping with wild fish shortages.
If we continue to fish at the current pace, some scientists predict we'll be facing oceans devoid of edible marine creatures by 2050.
But unlike these fishermen, Belov has a stash of treasure in his warehouse, as he soon shows me: a golf-cart-size container of plump trout, their glossy bodies still taut from rigor mortis. The night before, Belov drove north to Humboldt to help "chill kill" the fish by submerging them live into barrels of slushy ice water. Belov can count on shipments of these McFarland Springs trout every week—because he helped grow them himself on a farm.
Rashid Ali hugs his seven-year-old son, Rahil, who has been diagnosed with torch infection and lissencephaly. Children with similar conditions have an average life expectancy of less than 10 years.
Before dawn on December 3, 1984, a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, exploded and leaked 45 tons of methyl isocyanate. Half a million people came in contact with the toxic gas and other chemicals, and thousands died within days. As many as 25,000 people are thought to have eventually perished after exposure to the gas, which causes nerve and respiratory damage.
Plus: Join Mother Jones' research editor Maddie Oatman in conversation with Corinne Goria, editor of Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy, which includes a narrative from a Bhopal survivor, on June 3 in San Francisco. Details here.
Union Carbide, the American company that owned the plant, initially tried to avoid any liability for the disaster, claiming sabotage by an employee. In 1989, it finally agreed to pay out $470 million—which worked out to about $550 per victim. The corporation's CEO, Warren Anderson, spent years ignoring Indian criminal chargesin his abode in the Hamptons. (A 2006 Mother Jones story explores the tangled the legal fallout from the tragedy. Anderson passed away at age 92 on September 29, 2014.) Dow Chemical, which acquired Union Carbide 17 years after the accident, has also avoided responsibility for its subsidiary's troubled past, maintaining that the legal case was resolved with the 1989 settlement and that cleanup now falls to the Indian government.
Unlike these corporations, Bhopal's residents don't have the luxury of moving on. In 2010, the disaster site still contained 425 tons of uncleared waste. An estimated 120,000 to 150,000 survivors still struggle with serious medical conditions including nerve damage, growth problems, gynecological disorders, respiratory issues, birth defects, and elevated rates of cancer and tuberculosis, explains Colin Toogood, spokesperson for the Bhopal Medical Appeal, which runs free health clinics for survivors. And tens of thousands of families continue to rely on heavily contaminated water from around the abandoned factory.
Sanjay Verma was orphaned by the gas leak, though he didn't know it until he was five. He doesn't remember the night of the explosion, but he lives with the nightmare of Bhopal's second disaster: The failure to fully clean up the leak and the ongoing neglect of its victims. Verma's story, excerpted below, is included in Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy, a new anthology of testimonies from laborers from around the worldfrom the Voice of Witness book series.
London-based photographer Alex Masi spent years documenting those living in the shadow of Bhopal. "I strived to portray my subjects with intimacy, meaning, and depth," writes Masi, "in the hopes of becoming a catalyst for the promotion of awareness, action, and change for the people of Bhopal." Though Masi's photoessay does not picture Sanjay Varma, the images help answer Verma's plea: "I hope that people will find out more about Bhopal. It is not just history. We are still here, and we still need help."
"I grew up in an orphanage in Bhopal. I was there with my sister Mamta, who is about nine years older than me, for around ten years. We went to primary school nearby. One day when I was about five years old, we had a parents' meeting at school, and many of my classmates came in with their parents. But I didn't have anyone there that night. So then I realized, I don't have parents with me. I said to my sister, "my classmates came with their parents to the meeting, but there was no one with me. Our foster mother—she's my mother, right? So who is my father? And how come they didn't go with me?"
And so my sister told me about what had happened. She said, "Sanjay, there was a tragedy, a disaster, in 1984. We were four brothers and four sisters and two parents. But both our parents, three sisters, and two brothers died that same night." And that's all she said. When she told me that, to be honest, I don't even remember how I felt. I knew that she had answered some pretty big questions, but I still had many more.
The abandoned Union Carbide industrial complex in Bhopal. Alex Masi
Rashida Bee demonstrates with other survivors. She lost six members of her family in the Bhopal disaster. Alex Masi
Anna Brundage is a "too-tall red-headed woman with bangs who rides her bike to school from the East Village" to teach carpentry to little girls in safety goggles. But she used to be a rockstar—a bohemian, coked-out siren with a devoted following and an unreplicable sound. After her second album tanked, she left the scene. Now, seven years later, bruised, divorced, and a lot less innocent, Anna wants to reclaim her old life and yearns to be back "wandering, tracing an unpredictable path." Life on the tour bus, take two—only this time, she's 44.
Coffee brewing is in the midst of a revolution, and I'm not talking about the AeroPress. It comes in the form of a small 2-by-2-inch single-serving pod that requires a special machine. Keurig, owned by Vermont-based Green Mountain Coffee, makes the most popular pods, called "K-Cups." At the press of a button, the Keurig brewer punctures a small hole into the aluminum lid of an individual plastic cup filled with grounds, flushes it with steaming water, and, voilà! Out comes one hot cup of joe.
When Keurig launched its specialized brewing system in 1998, it might have come off as a bit niche. Not anymore. According to a survey by the National Coffee Association, nearly 1 in 5 adults drank single-cup-brewed coffee yesterday, making it the second most popular way to brew after the traditional drip methods—and far more popular than espresso machines.
Keurig would not tell me what types of plastic go into its #7 blend, saying the information was proprietary.
The single-serve method has experienced impressive growth: According to the Seattle Times, while US consumers bought $132 million worth of coffee pods in 2008, they forked over $3.1 billion for them last year, compared to $6 billion for roasted coffee and $2.5 billion in instant coffee. Keurig also has similar brewing systems and pods for tea and iced beverages, and will roll out a system for Campbell's soup later this year.
What Keurig customers love, proclaims Green Mountain's 2013 annual report, is the system's "Quality, Convenience, and Choice"—and let's be real, it's convenience that trumps for most busy Americans. Keurig systems take under a minute to brew coffee, and cleaning them is laughably easy: Just chuck the used coffee pod in the trash, then press a button, and a "cleansing brew" shoots hot water through the system to clear it of residue.
But critics warn that the packaging needed for these systems comes with environmental and health-related costs. By making each pod so individualized, and so easy to dispose of, you must also exponentially increase the packaging—packaging that ultimately ends up in landfills. (And that's to say nothing of the plastic and metal brewing systems, which if broken, aren't that easy to recycle either.)
Journalist Murray Carpenter estimates in his new book, Caffeinated, that a row of all the K-Cups produced in 2011 would circle the globe more than six times. To update that analogy: In 2013, Green Mountain produced 8.3 billion K-Cups, enough to wrap around the equator 10.5 times. If Green Mountain aims to have "a Keurig System on every counter," as the company states in its latest annual report, that's a hell of a lot of little cups.
Green Mountain only makes 5 percent of its current cups out of recyclable plastic. The rest of them are made up of a #7 composite plastic, which is nonrecyclable in most places. And for the small few that are recyclable, the aluminum lid must be separated from the cup, which also must be emptied of its wet grounds, for the materials to make it through the recycling process. Even then, chances are the pod won't be recycled because it's too small, says Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Keurig just released a sustainability report announcing that the company plans to make all coffee pods recyclable by 2020, among other ecofriendly efforts. The company says it's evaluating the type of plastic used in the cups, exploring potential biodegradable and compostable packaging, and coming up with an easier way for customers to easily prepare them for recycling.
Some competitors already have recyclable or biodegradable versions of this single-serve pod; Nespresso's lid and pod is made entirely from aluminum. A Canadian brand, Canterbury Coffee, makes a version that it says is 92 percent biodegradable (everything save for the nylon filter can break down). Finding a substitute is an interesting challenge, says Keurig spokeswoman Sandy Yusen, because coffee is perishable, and so the material used must prevent light, oxygen, and moisture from degrading the coffee.
Another reason to look beyond plastic is a concern with what could leach out of the material when heated. Yusen confirmed that the #7 plastic used in K-Cups is BPA-free, safe, and "meets or exceeds applicable FDA standards." But new evidence suggests that even non-BPA plastics can test positive for estrogenic activity. (Our "Frightening Field Guide to Common Plastics" contains more information about this.)
"No. 7 plastic means 'other,'" says the NRDC's Hoover. "You don't know what it is." One concern with this plastic mix is the presence of polystyrene, containing the chemical styrene, which Hoover warns is especially worrisome for workers. A possible carcinogen, styrene can wreak havoc on the nervous systems of those handling it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The chemical also shows up in tobacco smoke and home copy machines, and in the Styrofoam used in food containers.
The New York Times determined that single-brew coffee ends up costing more than $50 a pound, even for Folgers.
Keurig would not tell me what types of plastic go into its #7 blend, saying the information was proprietary, nor would it confirm or deny the presence of polystyrene in the mix.
Keurig does make a plastic and mesh reusable coffee filter. But why use a filter that necessitates cleaning—and also requires a fancy-schmancy brewing system—over the traditional method? As Hoover points out, "you're essentially giving up the convenience of the little teeny tiny cup."
It's not just convenience that's sacrificed. By my calculations, a K-Cup-worth of coffee will run up your tab way more than grounds and a filter (not including the cost of the brewer); a standard pod of Green Mountain coffee costs 68 cents, while one cup of the company's Vermont Blend brewed the traditional way costs about 44 cents, filter included. The New York Times did a more comprehensive analysis of the actual price of single-brew coffee, and determined that it ends up costing more than $50 a pound, even for standard brands like Folgers, compared to the less than $20 you can expect to pay for a bag of roasted beans. Call me a cheapskate, but I'll stick to freshly ground coffee that doesn't require a bulky brewer and billions of plastic pods to be delicious.