“The Whole Facility’s Culture Is Rotted From the Core”: What Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Saw Inside the El Paso Camps

In an interview with Mother Jones, AOC describes the cruelty and impunity she glimpsed at the border.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is swarmed by media on Monday after touring a Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas. Christ Chavez/Getty

What stands out most about the budding concentration camps in El Paso, Texas, is that they don’t stand out at all. An unmarked beige-brick office building holds dozens of children, blinds shut to prying eyes from the surrounding bars and upscale hotels. A low-slung detention complex is painted to disappear into the surrounding desert, barely visible from the gas station food mart next door. It wasn’t until the congressional delegation reached the complex’s sunbaked parking lot that the outermost layer of barbed-wire fence could be seen.

The delegation was here because the clandestine camps had sprung into national view, not because of any image, but because of a delegation member’s words. In the space of a year after primarying a longtime Democratic incumbent, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old who represents the Bronx and Queens, has used social media and a cunning instinct for politics and publicity to build a megaphone that rivals, and sometimes surpasses, Donald Trump’s.

In early June, Ocasio-Cortez used her 3.7 million-follower Instagram feed to catapult attention onto the detention crisis. Echoing a small number of journalists and academics, she referred to the guarded facilities as concentration camps. In doing so, she drew a measured but direct parallel with history’s most notorious camps, saying, “I want to talk to the people that are concerned enough with humanity to say that ‘Never Again’ means something.”

Her comments were met with a flurry of responses, both supportive and critical. But there was no denying that she had forced the country’s focus back onto what Trump and border officials had largely succeeded in turning into an invisible crisis. Formerly niche stories about squalid living conditions and immigrant deaths in detention got national notice. Workers at Wayfair walked out to protest their company’s profiting off the camps. Bank of America announced it would stop lending to private detention center companies like CoreCivic and GEO Group.

Congress, forced to address a spiraling national embarrassment, passed a $4.6 billion supplemental funding bill to fund the camps and the border force, including $145 million for the Pentagon and hundreds of millions for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and overtime for Customs and Border Protection employees. Proponents of the bill said it would improve conditions in the camps. Ocasio-Cortez and others objected, saying it will exacerbate the crisis.

On Monday, Ocasio-Cortez was part of a 16-member congressional delegation that got a rare glimpse inside three highly fortified facilities: “Casa Franklin,” a downtown facility housing children run by the nonprofit Southwest Key; the US Border Patrol Station at Hondo Pass; and the Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas. Congressional staffers had privately worried that officials would sanitize and curtail their tour inside.

But the visit turned out to be more revealing than anyone had expected. Just before the delegation entered the station at Hondo Pass, ProPublica dropped a story exposing a Facebook group in which 9,500 CBP agents—nearly half the force—had traded racist and sexist jokes about detainees and the members of Congress who were about to visit. One member had posted a meme of Ocasio-Cortez performing oral sex on Donald Trump. When a Border Patrol officer tried to sneak a selfie with the famous congresswoman—after the members had been told phones were not allowed inside—the organized tour fell apart. Ocasio-Cortez and several other members of the delegation, including its leader, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), demanded entry into a holding cell, where women who’d been detained for months described being deprived of food and told to drink water from the cell’s toilet bowl.

At the next stop, Clint, anti-camp protesters got into a shouting match at the entrance with a smaller group of better-organized and -outfitted Trump supporters, who’d brought a large Trump flag and an actual megaphone. The pro-camp protesters shouted racist invective at delegation members like Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American from Michigan in her first term in Congress. They alternately claimed reports of abuses in the camps were “fake news” (in fact, yet another detainee, a 30-year-old man from Honduras, died Sunday after he was found unresponsive at a different Texas facility) and blamed Democrats—especially Ocasio-Cortez—for poor conditions inside. They also shouted for Trump to initiate mass deportations and permanently seal the border, drowning out a press conference where the members shared their reports of what they’d seen on the visit.

I accompanied the delegation to the sites, though reporters were not permitted inside. Later Monday night, I sat down with Ocasio-Cortez to get her perspective on what had happened during the day, how we got here, and where things might go next. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

This is the first time you’ve been inside the camps, right?

Inside, yes.

So what was your impression?

I mean, it was pretty horrifying. The first CBP facility [at Hondo Pass], the thing that I was just so immediately struck by was how brazenly disrespectful the CBP officers were, from the beginning. From the jump.

We initially went into a conference room with all of the other CHC members. We sat down to get initially briefed on the conditions. And a lot of the other members who had been on several of these tours before started saying, “They’re filibustering. They’re trying to draw this beginning portion out as long as possible so we have as little time as possible with the actual communities inside.”

So then someone brought up the ProPublica piece. And all of the officers and everyone there immediately became uncomfortable and defensive. The excuse that was given was like, “We just became aware of this this morning through the ProPublica piece. This does not represent our values, and we will make sure that anyone in the group that has posted or participated in any of this will have kind of internal, will be disciplined.”

I sat there, and folks started speaking up, and I know that Representative Norma Torres [D-Calif.] was like, “Are we even safe in here? Are we even safe in your care?” And they started getting more and more uncomfortable, and they started getting more and more contentious. And they said, “Well, you know, our disciplinary standards are to preserve a culture.” And I said, “Well, clearly your disciplinary standards are not sufficient.” We’re not talking about a couple of people planning this. There’s 9,500 current and former officers.

They had the audacity to say our disciplinary standards are sufficient, and I said, “Well, I don’t think that’s up to you to determine. I think that’s up to the United States Congress and our oversight capacity. And they were like, basically trying to be like, no, it’s not. The amount of fighting back was just astonishing. So members were like, “Well, they’re just trying to filibuster. They’re just trying to have an argument, so let’s get up.” And so I stood up, and I said, “Yeah, let’s get out of there.”

We stood up, and we went to go to the facilities, and the way the facility, the way the cells were set up on the inside, you have all of these camps outside. But then on the inside there’s just a handful of these cells with these glass windows in them. And then there’s kind of this control center–type of situation, where there’s this elevated platform and then there’s glass all over the platform. And on the inside, it almost looks like a bridge in Star Trek or something.


Listen to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez describe what she saw inside the migrant detention facilities on this special episode of the Mother Jones Podcast:

I’m picturing Minority Report.

It’s kind of like that. And there was a screen with surveillance of all the cells inside, and there were officers with computers and stuff. And then there was this glass, but on the other side of the glass there was another lower level. It’s like a ring outside. And then there were cells like that. You can see all the cells almost at once.

I go up, and we’re all clustered in the tour in this top area. I’m listening to CBP give this tour, and then I see—and I think someone else had seen it first. It was either like Madeleine Dean or Rashida Tlaib or somebody saw the screen with the surveillance that had all of the video feeds of all of the cells. So I started walking up to the screen with all of the surveillance feeds. And since they made us check our phones at the door, I did have some paper and some pen, I started jotting things down. I was writing down everything that I had seen around me.

I was counting—I kind of had my pen up. In one of the feeds of the cell, there was one cell that just had a very large amount of people. There were so many people crowded in the cell that people could not sleep in there. There were some people sitting, some people crouched. And I went in and started counting all of the people that were in the cell, and then I look down, and I kid you not, there was literally a CBP officer with their phone. And they started trying to take a selfie of themselves with me in the background.

It wasn’t even in the distance. She was two feet in front of me, and there was this glass perimeter in front of them. And that’s when all hell broke loose. Because I pointed at her as she was holding the phone in front of everybody: the entire congressional delegation, the acting director, all of their supervisors. And I said, “Look at her. She’s taking a selfie right after everything that was just released this morning. Which you all just indicated you’re aware of.” And I was like, “Look at her. She’s taking a selfie right now.”

Then she got startled, as though what she was doing wasn’t incredibly obvious. And some of the other officers started laughing. She put her phone away. And I turned to the supervisors in CBP, and I said, “It is extremely clear that you all have lost all control over the culture here in these facilities. You have lost complete control of the culture. Clearly they do not respect your authority or your leadership. It’s either that, or they just think or know that you are not going to do anything. And that you are just going to turn the other cheek as soon as we leave if they feel this bold and brazen to do something so egregious in front of their superiors. Multiple levels of superiors.” And I was like, “You all have lost all control of this facility. And to tell us that we need to check our phones, and then to have this happen. Well, you—all rules are out the window.”

Because they told us before, you’re not allowed to talk to anybody that’s in here. You’re not allowed to talk to any of the detainees. You can’t talk to any of the children. And I said, “Clearly this is a fear. Clearly this is a show. Because I’m here five minutes, and you all are violating very, very egregious codes of conduct here. And the lack of professionalism is astounding.” So I said that.

That’s when the whole thing got disrupted. Because they had this very scripted tour that they were planning on taking us on. And so this moment just exploded everything, because this officer was so egregious. And the other officers laughing. So I beelined. I cut through everybody, and I walked out of the main control room, and I go down onto this lower perch, and I started pointing at each of them. I was like, “I saw you laughing. What was so funny? What were you laughing at?”

Then I said, “You,” to the woman that was taking the selfie, “are you interacting with children today? Are you going to be trusted to care with children today?'” They were all like [here she feigns a confused look], “homina homina homina.” And I said, “That’s enough.” I turned around, and I go to the cell. I put my hand on the glass of the window, and I said, “What’s the temperature in this cell?” They weren’t giving me an answer. And one of the officers had the audacity to say, “It’s cooler there than it is outside.” It’s a hundred and something degrees outside in the blistering sun.

Right.

The fact that these officers had felt comfortable enough to use sarcasm in these circumstances tells me that the whole facility’s culture is rotted from the core, and prioritizes and incentivizes dehumanizing behavior. So I put my hand on the glass, and it’s cold. And I say, “What’s the temperature in this room right now?” All these women are huddled up in these sleeping bags. They don’t have pillows, nothing. And he says, “Oh well, it’s cooler there than it is outside.” And I said, “You’re going to let me in this cell right now. You’re going to let me in here right now.”

At the beginning of the tour they told us we couldn’t speak to anybody. But because there was just a huge breach moment, it was like, no, now we’re renegotiating everything.

So this was in the hielera? [Spanish for “icebox,” hielera is the nickname for intentionally overcooled rooms where detainees have been kept since at least the Obama era.]  

This was in the hielera. And so I went in, and I was joined by Ayanna Pressley [D-Mass.], Madeleine Dean [D-Pa.], Joaquin Castro, and we were in there, and I started talking to all of the women. At first they were just answering very clear questions. Like, “Yes, no, how many days have you been here, etc.”

You were speaking to them in Spanish?

I was speaking to them in Spanish. And eventually they started saying a little bit more, and all of a sudden they all start just sobbing. Sobbing, sobbing. One of them had been separated from her one daughter. The other had been separated from her two children. One woman had been in there for two months. Most of the women had been there a long time. At least 20 days.

Where were they from?

All of these women were from Cuba. They separated them. This was a cell that had no running water. This was the cell [where] the woman said she was told earlier today that the toilet water’s drinkable. They also told us the extent to which CBP cleaned up before we got there. So they said that they were kind of officially—like the policy was to give them one shower every 15 days.

Right.

Then that changed four days ago. Four days ago was when we announced that we’d be coming here. Four days ago was when we reached out to CBP that this was the facility we were going to visit. And then they said they get one shower a day, but it’s in these kind of tub things. It was hard to suss out exactly what they were describing, but it seemed like their showers are inadequate, too, like they’re not normal showers.

And the toilet situation was like that picture, where it’s like a sink on top of the toilet?

Right, like it was a toilet, a lot like the one that was shown. Except that top sink had no water.

Because it wasn’t working.

Because it wasn’t working.

And so they were told to drink out of the toilet?

So they were told they could drink out of the toilet bowl, and then CBP officers were like, “Oh, no, we have water out here, outside the cell, and if they need water they can tell us.” But I’ll tell you, I was in that cell. I did not see one cup. I did not see one bottle of water. I didn’t see anything that told me that these women had water to drink. Some of the women said that they were able to drink water not from the toilet. But other women told me that they had drunk from the toilet.

Where do they get their meals?

They get fed. They receive meals, but the meals are wholly inadequate. They literally get like a Nature Valley oat and honey granola bar in the morning.

Wow.

Yeah, she showed it to me. I saw two oranges on the concrete floor. And I think they get sandwiches. But they don’t get any greens or vegetables. So these women were showing me—they had canker sores. And because the food is so lacking nutritionally they’re developing digestive issues and other health problems.

I bet.

There was that packet, I posted a photo of it earlier today. But it’s like—

Oh, the shampoo thing.

Yeah. It was like, a little bigger, like twice as big as a duck sauce packet that you would get. If that—probably isn’t even twice as big, because a duck sauce pack is fatter. And this was thinner, but it was wider. And that’s what they get to clean everything on their body. So it says shampoo, but they said that’s what they get for everything. So no conditioner for their hair. And they said we don’t get access, allow access to deodorant.

I spent a lot of time with those women. I considered just staying in there, and saying I wasn’t going to leave until they did, but then I got cajoled because they were saying we needed to see the kids in Clint. And so—

Cajoled by who?

I mean it was like, the office of the general counsel. And she was like, “You’re going to really want to see the kids in Clint.” The way that it was kind of presented to me was like those facilities would be worse, and if I was upset by this, then I would really want to see that. And I wasn’t quite sure whether to trust the assessment or not, but I did.

Were they worse?

No, they were not. They were not.

Do you think that’s because…well, what do you think?

I think there’s a couple of reasons. First of all, it was extremely apparent in both facilities—and this is supported by what the women were telling me in the first facility—that CBP emptied everything out. There was no one there. At Clint there was nobody there. And there was nobody there at the El Paso Border Station, patrol station. The women at the patrol station told me that the day before yesterday there were over 300 migrants there in the tents—cramped in things—and that, yesterday and the day before yesterday, they just started busing all of them out. And I asked them where they went, and they said that they dumped everyone in Juárez [the Mexican border city that adjoins El Paso]. And some people got sent to Arizona, which is also apparently where some really bad facilities are.

They deported them to Juárez?

No, they used MPP, which is like this “remain in Mexico” policy.

Okay.

Which advocates are telling us is worse than deportation.

When you came out and called these “concentration camps”—can you talk a little bit about how you came to that decision, what your calculus was?

I think what happened was we started seeing this slow, chronic dehumanization over years, when people say, “Oh, Obama did this.” I’m not here to defend Obama’s policy. Obama did not have good immigration policy either. And in many ways he set the groundwork. Trump didn’t invent ICE.

Right.

But Trump certainly weaponized it. He’s like, “Oh, here’s this great thing that will be really convenient to turn into a complete force for dehumanization.” CBP and ICE. And all of it was coming from reporting that I had been reading, increasingly troubling accounts coming from journalists, coming from lawyers, coming from advocates. And then it was academics themselves. I wasn’t going out on a limb on this. These were academics, and these were historians saying that these qualify as concentration camps. And I felt like if we have concentration camps in America, and there’s an academic consensus on that, then we need to elevate that issue. And we need to repeat it, and allow ourselves to be uncomfortable with that.

It’s transformed the issue. Like, people weren’t talking about this.

Well, that was my goal. My goal was that because it was this static background, like banal torture. And the reason no one was talking about it was because we had accustomed ourselves to depravity. And sometimes you have to make people uncomfortable in order for us to do anything about an issue. Especially people in power. And people with power.

So what do you think happens now?

I think that what we do and what we’ve been talking about is huddling on drafting an actual policy framework solution for it. Whether we’d be able to get support for it, it will be another question. I mean, you literally have Democrats, like the chair of the Problem Solver Caucus [Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat], whipping votes because he doesn’t think that this is brutal enough. He doesn’t think that ICE has enough money to terrorize more families. And that’s people in the Democratic Party. You have the Senate bill this week where members within the Democratic Party themselves said, “Yeah, let’s throw more money at all the wrong places to dehumanize more people and reward bad behavior.”

And so it’s not like the Republican Party is bad, and all the Democrats are good on this issue. There are Democrats on this issue that are horrible, and absolutely willing to aid and abet this depravity for political points.

Nancy Pelosi—is she on that list?

I don’t think she’s on that list explicitly, but I think some of the folks in the Problem Solvers Caucus that forced her hand this week on top of the situation that frankly the Senate put the House in, as well—I mean, they never should have voted for McConnell’s bill. They never should have done that. And the fact that they did is extremely troubling. [Note: Pelosi’s office did not return a request for comment.]

Does that represent a lost cause? Does it mean that you need to have another election to get more of those Democrats out before that can change, or—

No, I think that they can get the shit scared out of them. And I think a lot of them are. I think a lot of them cast this vote, and they didn’t know what they were doing. And the Hispanic caucus endorsed a no vote. The progressive caucus endorsed a no vote. Appropriations…if they have to do it, there’s enormous amount of pressure for people on Appropriations to vote for their own bills and such. And once you have leadership voting no, Pelosi’s team did not whip a yes vote on it.

So there was all that uncertainty, and despite all of that, frankly, it was nonideological. The CHC is not an ideological, it’s not a progressive caucus. There are Blue Dogs in it, there are New Dems in it, there are all sorts of folks in it. The CHC endorsed a no vote on it. And so I think what happened was that when people voted for it, and it passed, I don’t think they anticipated the blowback from it that happened. And so I think some people in the caucus feel vulnerable.

To like a primary?

I don’t know! I know, at least in the short term, outrage from their districts. I know Josh Gottheimer got protested by his own constituents, and a lot of members started catching heat for this vote. And I think it was uncomfortable because how do you justify voting for a bill that the entire Hispanic caucus, that every member with significant immigration issues in their district, or almost every member, that the progressive caucus, that anyone with expertise in immigration recommended against? How do you justify throwing $5 billion at the people who are torturing children?

And I think that it’s not entirely those members’ faults, either. It was a chaotic—I mean, it was scandalous how the thing just happened. We had no idea we were voting on that until maybe 30 minutes before.

Really?

Yes! That’s the thing that was so scandalous about that vote. Because what happened was we sent the House bill. McConnell kills the House bill. And the whole week, it was truly ridiculous. The whole week we’re whipping on this House bill. There was not the support for the House bill. And so we needed to rob every couch cushion and whatever in the caucus to figure out how we’re going to pass the House bill. And the whole pressure behind, and as you probably know, I voted against it, Ayanna, because we’re like, “This whole thing is ridiculous.” But the whole pressure, the immense amount of pressure, and the elbow twisting was, we need to get the House bill to the Senate before the Senate bill gets to the House, because then there will be pressure on them to pass this bill.

Right.

That was the whole justification for this terrible thing. And so they did it. I mean, I voted against it, but the caucus voted for it. And it passed. The House bill gets to the Senate, and their grand plan was going all perfectly, right? And then McConnell kills the House bill, which I felt like anybody with two pennies to rub together would know that that was going on. 

And now we have to deal with the Senate bill. With this train wreck of a Senate bill. So we’re dealing with that, and it’s like, okay, understanding that, right? Understanding the House lost, Senate won. That whole day, what was it, like a Thursday? That whole day was about passing the Senate bill with House amendments to it. It was adding the Flores agreements. It was adding all of these House amendments to the Senate bill. And then all of a sudden, the House breaks into recess. We had a scheduled vote. And that scheduled vote comes and goes, and no vote is called. And all the members were like, what is going on? And then it just—the House is just in recess. And we have no idea what is happening. And then all of the sudden, maybe an hour later or whatever, they call the vote, and the vote is for the Senate bill with no amendments. It caught the entire caucus blindsided. And there were literally members that were like: “What’s in this bill? I don’t know what’s in this bill.”

But why? Why would she do that?

Because the Problem Solvers Caucus, they said, we have enough votes to kill the House amendments. And they basically held. It was like these 40 members led by Representative Gottheimer that worked with Republicans to say we’re going to pass the McConnell bill. And so they effectively handed over the Democratic Party.

I mean, is this the result of like, the dudes were standing in front of Clint today who are just repeating shit that I hear on Twitter all the time—”oh, you’re not doing your job.” Like, this is Democrats’ fault because you’re not funding—

Right, and it’s all a farce, right? Because then afterwards I go to the shelters where CBP and all these folks are telling me all day the reason folks are overcrowded here is because HHS doesn’t have capacity, we don’t have beds in these humane facilities, humane shelters. I go in and it’s a ghost town in this shelter. They are not putting people in these shelters. And there is no excuse for it. There is no other apparent reason besides intentional cruelty. For them, what they call that is deterrence, right? If you torture people, maybe they won’t think America is great. And maybe that’s their grand plan. But it’s torture. It’s cruelty.

We’re throwing all this money at all of these beds, and I’ve seen these conversations in DC. “It’s because they don’t have the beds. It’s because they don’t have the beds.” The place I went to today, Annunciation, they have 500 beds. They said they had about 100 people there, and they anticipate that by the end of today they were going to have 150. People. And they had capacity for 500. And that’s just one facility. That’s just that one facility. And they said, “We have capacity to send people to our other partners and facilities.” And they themselves, they told us, “CBP is not being forthright.”

Are the CBP agents breaking laws that could be enforced? Like, have these guys arrested and tried? It sounds like they would be violating the Geneva Conventions if those applied, but it’s not a war. So is there something that you could do to—

I mean, there is international law with respect to asylum, I believe. So I think it’s something we could check in there, but I know that this is, I mean this is part of the work of the Oversight Committee, right? And so one of the things that I intend on doing when I go back, and I know Rashida and quite a few others, we intend to bring this back to the chairman, and see what we can actually do on this. They’ve been working on it for some time, but we need to add urgency to it.

But this is also an additional issue where we have subpoenaed, we had to issue a subpoena to DHS, because we’ve requested tens of thousands of records, and they will not hand over a single thing. They will not hand over any documents.

Really?

Nothing.

Just to CPB, who you put in a request to?

DHS!

To DHS.

And their record book, because we’re requesting records across, we’re requesting records from, I imagine, HHS, CBP, ICE, and they’re not being compliant.

Are they like, I mean, I know about FOIA. Are they claiming some kind of exception, like we need more time because this is involves interagency communications—

I mean, we hear all sorts of excuses in oversight. 

I would like to think that it would be harder for them to bullshit you than it is for them to bullshit me, but that may not actually be.

The problem is that we know that they are bullshitting us, but it’s this endless war of letters. We send a letter. They send a letter back. We send a letter. They say, “Here’s 10,000 documents.” And they’re all, like, completely irrelevant pieces of paper that they dug up from random-ass [places], but not the things that we asked for. And so it becomes a legal battle, so then we just recently issued a subpoena, then a subpoena gets challenged in court. So I feel like we will get something, but it takes time. And it takes the legal power that we have.

Are you satisfied with the trip? Did you see everything that you came here to see?

I mean, yes and no. Yes, in that I’m satisfied that I saw these facilities. No, in that it was very clear that they disappeared hundreds of people. They disappeared them.

Like, disappeared disappeared?

Yeah, like, they’re gone. I think they dumped them in Juárez, according to what people were saying.

Yeah.

Which was completely unnecessary because these shelters could have them. But instead, they’re dumping them, I think deliberately, in dangerous communities to victimize them as a form of punishment.

They’re gone. They’re gone. We don’t know where they are. But people, repeatedly, there were hundreds of people here “X” days ago, and they took them somewhere. We don’t know where they are. That’s what people tell us.

Update (7/2/2019): Customs and Border Protection declined to answer direct questions about the visit through a spokesman. Instead it offered a statement describing the congressional delegation’s tours as a “frank and transparent discussion.” The force said that “migrants in custody receive three meals a day and have access to clean drinking water,” and that allegations of mistreatment are reported to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General and the CBP Office of Professional Responsibility.

Indeed, on Tuesday, the DHS inspector general released a report showing dangerous overcrowding, underfeeding, filth, and dangerously prolonged detention times at other Texas facilities. One senior manager called the situation a “a ticking time bomb.”

The CBP statement sent in response to this interview noted: “Any employee found to have violated our standards of conduct will be held accountable.”

Jonathan M. Katz is a freelance journalist, author, and ASU Future of War Fellow at New America. You can sign up for his newsletter, “The Long Version,” at katz.substack.com.

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FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2019 demands.

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