On Monday, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) published an op-ed on Fox News detailing his recent travels in the Rio Grande Valley, where he met an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador and visited a cemetery that houses the remains of unidentified migrants who died traversing the county's scorching canyons. "As a policymaker, I have a responsibility to find real solutions to these issues that are all-too-familiar to Texans," he writes. "Anything less only perpetuates this grotesque human tragedy playing out every day on American soil." So far so good. He also released this video, which documents his trip to the cemetery with a close-up on the details (or lack thereof) on the unmarked graves:
At this point you might think that Cornyn is taking a lead role in combating the surge in migrant deaths in South Texas. But that's where things get weird.
Cornyn's video points to the increasing number of migrant deaths in Brooks County as evidence that the border isn't really secure. That's really the opposite of what's happening. Rising migrant death totals aren't a symptom of a porous border; they're a symptom of a border that's increasingly locked-down, and a testament to more effective enforcement policies in traditional migrant corridors—a point that's made in the Washington Poststory Cornyn cited in the video. The idea that tougher border security makes border crossings more dangerous is well-established (this 2009 report from the American Civil Liberties Union is instructive, as is this from the American Public Health Association). Contra Cornyn's assertion in the video, Brooks County is what a secure border looks like. That's why Coalición Derechos Humanos Arizona, which works with migrants in the Sonora desert, doesn't support the enforcement-heavy bill currently being considered in the Senate.
Cornyn did vote for a successful amendment to the Senate legislation to mandate better data collection of human trafficking, inspired by this specific case in Houston. But he's pushing for a harsher security policy that would exacerbate the problems Brooks County already faces—citing, among other things, the presence of men "wearing some form of turban" crossing into South Texas. (Cornyn has introduced his own legislation focusing exclusively on border security, which he'd like to see as a prerequisite for any kind of immigration reform.) During the committee markup, Cornyn broached the subject of Brooks County's rising toll, but only to push for reimbursement for the county. On Thursday, he voted for a proposal from Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) that would modify the Senate immigration reform bill to "strike the section that requires the Secretary of Homeland Security to issue policies governing the use of force by Department of Homeland Security personnel."
Richard Nixon, it turns out, wasn't even the original Richard Nixon.
On Monday, President Obama weighed in on the alleged targeting of conservative nonprofit groups by the Internal Revenue Service, calling for a full investigation into what he said would constitute "outrageous" conduct. That's one way to put it. Here's another: depressingly normal. For much of the last century, abuse of the IRS for political ends has been the rule, not the exception. Under Republican and Democratic presidents alike, the IRS has gone after communists, students, black activists, young conservatives, and mainstream political rivals. Here are some prime examples:
Franklin D. Roosevelt: According to libertarian historian Burton W. Folsom's New Deal or Raw Deal, Elliott Roosevelt, the president's son, noted that FDR "may have been the originator of the concept of employing the IRS as a weapon of political retribution"—most notably against former Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long. (The famously corrupt Long, in fairness, was kind of asking for it.) Rep. Hamilton Fish, a New York Republican, alleged that Roosevelt's IRS had gone after him on trumped-up charges—and when that failed, handed the investigation over to the FBI instead. Roosevelt's longtime Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr., admitted that the administration had deliberately targeted his Republican predecessor, Richard Mellon, on trumped-up charges of tax evasion.
Dwight Eisenhower: The FBI's counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, relied heavily on the compliance of the IRS to go after members of the Communist Party. Per a 1976 Senate report, "In its efforts against the Communist Party, the FBI had unlimited access to tax returns; it never told the IRS why it wanted them, and IRS never attempted to find out."
Defense Distributed, the Texas-based company specializing in 3-D-printed plastic firearms, took down its downloadable files on Thursday at the request of the State Department's Directorate of Defense Trade Control Compliance. The company posted a blueprint for the first fully-operational printed plastic handgun, "The Liberator," on Monday at its site, DEFCAD; the file was downloaded more than a 100,000 times in its first three days.
In a letter to the company's founder, Cody Wilson, the State Department alleged that the Defense Distributed's file-sharing service violated the terms of the Arms Export Control Act, and demanded that it take down 10 of its files, including the Liberator, within three weeks.
"Our theory's a good one, but I just didn't ask them and I didn't tell them what we were gonna do," Wilson, a University of Texas law student, told Mother Jones. "So I think it's gonna end up being alright, but for now they're asserting information control over the technical data, because the Arms Information Control Act governs not just actual arms, but technical data, pictures, anything related to arms."
The app, based on information compiled by the medical examiner and other sources and made possible by an anonymous $175,000 grant to the county, could help identify the unclaimed bodies of migrants and reunite them with their families. The data can be sorted by gender, cause of death, approximate location, and the victim's last name, if known. The medical examiners "get these calls from people—'My loved one disappeared three months ago, five months ago, at this point,'" says John Chamblee, a researcher at the University of Georgia who helped create the app. "Or they'll get a call like, 'The smuggler called me,' and they left their loved one at this point and they try to find out about them." Now can just create a custom map using whatever information they have, and sift through the results.
The Pima County data's impact is potentially far-reaching. Humane Borders hopes better tracking will help reduce the number of fatalities across the borderlands by giving aid workers an idea of where to place food and water. The data can also be used to trace shifts in migrant traffic and how policing strategies affect migrant safety. In Texas' Rio Grande Valley, the number of migrant deaths jumped from 52 in 2011 to 129 last year, an alarming increase immigration experts attributed to more effective strategies to block crossings in Arizona. Researchers like Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey have attributed the swelling number of deaths along to the militarization of the border: With easily followed geographic corridors closed off, migrants are forced to travel through less navigable terrain, where they may become lost or run out of supplies. According to the Border Patrol, there were 463 migrant deaths in the Southwest in 2012, the highest total since 2005.
But Pima County is mostly alone in its quest for better information on migrant deaths. Only a handful of other counties, such as Imperial in southeastern California, have even produced reliable data. Data collected by the Border Patrol is unreliable, and not very specific. (One of Chamblee's challenges was to reconcile often contradictory data sets maintained by the border patrol, foreign consulates, and the Pima County medical examiner.) As Mother Joneshas reported before, the Pima County medical examiner is unique because it is wholly independent of law enforcement, which means it faces less political pressure and fewer distractions. In some smaller counties in Texas, for instance, coroner is just a part-time job.
It's not that officials in other counties don't care about the issue; they're just worried that the data would be misused. "Some of them think politically don't think it's a good idea to create this," said Kat Rodriguez, a program director at Coalición Derechos Humanos Arizona. "Suddenly the narrative would be, 'Oh my God, look how much money is being spent on these illegals.'"
The Pima County project looks at a slice of a larger dataset that does not exist for now. Draft legislation floated by the White House in February included language requiring US Customs and Border Protection to collect statistics on deaths along the border. It would be required to publish those statistics at least once a quarter and issue a report within one year of the bill's passage analyzing any trends and recommending actions to prevent such deaths. The draft immigration bill being considered in the Senate has no such provision, nor do any proposed amendments. In the meantime, Pima County's program will have to do.
After leading the Senate's unsuccessful push for background check legislation, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has a new target: "Wiki Weapons." At his usual Sunday press conference, Schumer announced his support for legislation that would criminalize the production of firearms made from 3-D printers (which can replicate or "print" plastic objects using digital files).
The bill was introduced in April by Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) in response to the boasts of University of Texas law student Cody Wilson, who last fall launched a company called Defense Distributed to manufacture the plastic guns. On Monday, Wilson unveiled the first fully-operational prototype, a handgun he calls "the Liberator." The file has already been downloaded 50,000 times.
But there's a problem with Schumer's pitch: The legislation in question would not stop the guns from being made. Israel's bill is mostly a reauthorization of the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, which was originally written to combat the anticipated onslaught of fully plastic Glocks. (It was an onslaught, Bloomberg Businessweek's Paul Barrett explained, that never really materialized.) It's not especially controversial, and part of the reason is that it doesn't take many significant steps to stop 3-D-printed weapons from being printed.