News Brief: Immigration Rule, Jail Conditions, Hong Kong Protests

Aug 13, 2019
Originally published on August 13, 2019 6:29 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Give us your tired, your poor - those lines etched on the Statue of Liberty by poet Emma Lazarus are part of our common understanding about what America is, what it has stood for since its founding. Yesterday a top immigration official in the White House, Ken Cuccinelli, said he's, quote, "certainly not prepared to take anything down off the Statue of Liberty." But at the same time, a new administration rule will fundamentally change who gets to come to this country.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah. So this rule targets immigrants who use public assistance, like food stamps, housing vouchers, Medicaid. Under the new regulation, those immigrants will find it far more difficult to extend their visas or get permanent legal status in the United States. Here's how Cuccinelli, the acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, outlined the reasons behind the move yesterday at the White House.

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KEN CUCCINELLI: President Trump's administration is reinforcing the ideals of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility, ensuring that immigrants are able to support themselves and become successful here in America.

MARTIN: NPR's Pam Fessler has been following this and joins us. Good morning, Pam.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So we just heard Ken Cuccinelli say there, this is about self-sufficiency, personal responsibility. I mean, these are things that the Trump administration has talked about for a while. Why is this happening now?

FESSLER: Well, we've always had a policy in the U.S. of restricting immigrants who might become a public charge - that's somebody who relies primarily on the government to survive. But the law was all written very vague. And what the Trump administration is doing is greatly expanding the kinds of aid that can be held against a green card applicant to include nutrition aid, health care. If their - looks like they're going to use it at any time, their application could be denied. And we should note that we're talking about individuals who are in the country legally.

MARTIN: Right, people who have already come through legal means.

FESSLER: Right.

MARTIN: They just need some help from the government to make ends meet, in some cases.

FESSLER: And legally - yeah. And legally entitled to these benefits.

MARTIN: Right. So immigration activists, I imagine they're not too pleased. What are they saying?

FESSLER: That's right. They're really angry. They predict that millions of immigrants and their families are going to be affected and that this is part of a broader campaign by the Trump administration to target both illegal and legal immigration and that it's especially targeted at low-income individuals.

MARTIN: Right, this is about poor immigrants.

FESSLER: Right, the advocates say these people are basically being told they are not welcome. Here's Marielena Hincapie, who's executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.

MARIELENA HINCAPIE: This is part and parcel of the larger strategy that this administration has, which is basically, let's make immigrants' live so horrific and impossible that they will either hide because of fear or that they will self-deport.

FESSLER: And Rachel, we're already seeing an impact. Even when rumors began spreading that the administration was going to do this, social service providers, health care providers, started seeing immigrant families pulling out of programs like Medicaid and food stamps, even if they were for their American-born children, because they were worried about what impact it might have on their status.

MARTIN: So what happens? Do any of these groups try to challenge this rule?

FESSLER: Oh, yeah (laughter). We're expecting lots of litigation. The National Immigration Law Center announced within seconds of Cuccinelli's announcement that it plans to sue to block the rule from going into effect October 15. They say the administration did not give sufficient weight to the tens of thousands of objections raised during the rules process. They also contend that it's racially motivated, that it's meant to discourage people of color from entering the United States, which is something that the administration denies.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Pam Fessler for us this morning on this story. Thanks, Pam. We appreciate it.

FESSLER: Thank you.

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MARTIN: NPR has been investigating the conditions that prisoners and guards face at a jail where Jeffrey Epstein died.

GREENE: Yeah. So this is called the Metropolitan Correctional Center. It's a detention facility in Manhattan, and this is where Epstein was being held on charges of sex trafficking before he was found dead in his cell on Saturday. The Department of Justice is now demanding an investigation. This is Attorney General William Barr speaking yesterday.

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WILLIAM BARR: I was appalled and frankly angry to learn of the MCC's failure to adequately secure this prisoner. We are now learning of serious irregularities at this facility that are deeply concerning and demand a thorough investigation.

MARTIN: NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre has been looking into this and joins us. Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, broadly, what kind of reputation does this jail have?

MYRE: Well, it's really known for a lot of these high-profile figures that have been held there before and during their trials. We're talking about the mob boss John Gotti, the financial fraudster Bernie Madoff, the drug lord "El Chapo" Joaquin Guzman and now Jeffrey Epstein. It's also known for pretty tough conditions there. Prisoners usually stay six to 12 months while they're going through the legal process. Very limited education or recreation facilities.

And I spoke with David Patton. He's the head of the Federal Defenders of New York. Now, this is a nonprofit that represents several hundred of the roughly 800 prisoners that are there at any given time. And he said some of their clients, or actually many of their clients, are often initially held at Rikers Island. Now, this is the New York City jail notorious for rough conditions. And here's what he said about it.

DAVID PATTON: When we first meet them, they'll ask us if there's any way they can go back to Rikers because, as terrible as the conditions are there, it can be worse at the MCC.

MARTIN: Wow, they'd rather go back to Rikers. But getting back to the security element of this, Greg, El Chapo? I mean, this is a guy who was famous for breaking out of prisons, so security, you would expect to be airtight.

MYRE: Well, exactly. And in addition to the cases I've just mentioned, like El Chapo, you've had high-profile terrorism cases, I mean, dating back to the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 and then more after 9/11. But the MCC, as it's known, like many other federal jails and prisons, is considered understaffed.

And this is according to Eric Young. He heads the federal union that represents correctional officers. He says there are simply too few officers working too many hours in overtime shifts. He says this problem is chronic, and there's thousands that need to be hired nationwide. And here's what he said about the MCC.

ERIC YOUNG: We've been ringing a bell. I could tell you there are dozens and dozens of missing correction officers at the MCC.

MARTIN: So they feel like they've been raising the red flag here. Attorney General Barr has promised a thorough investigation. But what about all those folks you talked to; are they expecting any changes to come down the pike?

MYRE: They're really quite skeptical. Eric Young, the union leader we just talked to, he said that he had raised these concerns with El Chapo, that we needed - they needed more staffing there and had to bring in additional officers from elsewhere. And David Patton, the defense attorney, said he's been doing this work for 18 years. It's been chronic problems. Medical problems - medical issues and mental health issues for the prisoners have never been sufficiently addressed, in his view.

MARTIN: Wow, lots of problems. NPR's Greg Myre on that story. Thanks, Greg.

MYRE: Sure thing, Rachel.

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MARTIN: All right, we're going to focus in on Hong Kong again because anti-government protesters are back, occupying the international airport for a fifth consecutive day.

GREENE: Yeah, this is a major airport, so a big mess for passengers, travelers. All flights were grounded there yesterday because of these demonstrations. And in the face of these escalating tensions, propaganda outlets in China have now been releasing videos showing military vehicles gathering near Hong Kong's border.

MARTIN: All right, we've got Mary Hui on the line. She's a reporter with Quartz magazine, based in Hong Kong. And she was at the airport watching all this unfold. She joins us on Skype. Mary, so protesters, they're back at the airport; I understand not as many as before, but still, they clearly see occupying this particular space as a good way to get their message across. Why do you think?

MARY HUI: I think for them that comes down to really two reasons. One, it really hits the government where it hurts - the pocket. The airport, its direct, indirect and associated economic impact, it really adds up to about 5% of the city's GDP, so that's where they want to hit the government. At the same time, it's also a highly symbolic place. They can get their message across, out to international travelers and, yes, internationally, people are fascinated by airports as a hub of - as the symbol of globalization.

MARTIN: Right, sure. And as soon as people across the world are inconvenienced by a particular hub being closed down, then people pay more attention. I mean, let's talk about China's response to this. David mentioned that there's this video circulating that shows Chinese military vehicles apparently assembling at this border city, you know, an hour and a half or so away from Hong Kong. What are we to make of that?

HUI: Yeah, so China really has been ramping up their rhetoric over the past two weeks. They're calling the protests radical and violent, that it's starting to show signs of terrorism. And kind of within that context, we've seen more kind of saber-rattling from them with the news of these armored trucks gathering. Earlier, we had reports of about 190,000 officers police officers doing a drill ahead of the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China.

I think all that of course needs to be taken with a grain of salt. China really won't stand to gain anything from sending in People's Liberation Army troops into Hong Kong. And at the moment, I think a lot of this talk about military and troops being across the border is just lots of saber-rattling.

MARTIN: I mean, we talked about this the other day, but what is the breaking point here? I mean, protesters are digging in. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's chief executive, doesn't appear to be giving into any of their demands. I mean, mainly, they want her out, right?

HUI: Exactly. I think given kind of the escalation in police tactics this Sunday, there's been some talk on forums and in online chat groups about whether this is the way to go, this kind of disruptive, fast-moving, unpredictable forms of protest with a lot of disruption. And we have a major march planned for this Sunday, and people have asked to have it be completely peaceful. And perhaps that is where the protesters need to focus their energies on.

MARTIN: Just briefly - is there one protester who stood out to you; any anecdote you could share about what these people are telling you?

HUI: One woman yesterday at the airport told me, in response to the violent scenes on Sunday, she cried herself to sleep, woke up crying, and every time she thinks about the violence, she cries again. That was quite touching. And this is certainly an emotional moment for everyone in Hong Kong.

MARTIN: Mary Hui, reporter with Quartz magazine, based in Hong Kong. Mary, we appreciate you taking the time. Thanks for sharing your reporting.

HUI: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "INTROSPECTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.