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A New York moment:
When I’m not out and about reporting, I spend most of my working hours writing in coffee shops around New York, and the coffee emporium where I feel most comfortable is Starbucks. Indie coffee shops have that extra-tasty espresso, but they often lack bathrooms (public restrooms in New York are vital and hard to come by), friendliness, or any food beyond a $7 cup of granola.
Many hipster coffee shops in New York now eschew Wi-Fi and power outlets in an attempt to drive out the laptop worker bees like me. I’ve found they also blare music to try to prevent people from sitting in there on work phone calls. I get it: New York is a busy place where every square foot is in high demand.
But by comparison, big corporate Starbucks is an oasis of hospitality sitting on nearly every other block in Manhattan.
At every store, Starbucks offers Wi-Fi, a seemingly infinite menu, good seating, and bathrooms (well, usually). And now it has subscription partnerships with newspapers from The Wall Street Journal to The Tennessean—so when customers log on to the abundant, free internet, they have access to dozens of subscription-only news sources. Chris Arnade, author of Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (short-listed in our Books of the Year issue), recently made the point that Starbucks is becoming more welcoming to “the back row,” in a way that McDonald’s already is.
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Last week I made a trip to McAllen and El Paso, Texas, to meet with U.S. Border Patrol agents. In McAllen I met an agent who’s been serving in Border Patrol for 18 years. He told me something that I think underscores the real crisis at our border: The human cost of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), aka the “Remain in Mexico” policy.
“I don’t let my kids go anywhere in Mexico,” the agent said. When I told him I was planning to go to Matamoros, the Mexican city just across the border from Brownsville, he shot me a look of concern: “You be careful out there in Matamoros.” He then pulled out a blank sheet of paper and sketched out a basic map of some of the cartel wars going on in Mexican border towns along the Rio Grande Valley.
Perhaps that’s why this agent says he isn’t particularly in favor of MPP. Under the policy, U.S. immigration officials send all asylum-seekers from Spanish-speaking countries back to Mexico to await their court proceedings. I’ve written about some of the consequences of MPP, including how it significantly affects the asylum-seeker’s due process in immigration court. And now here was a senior U.S. Border Patrol agent acknowledging that it is not safe in Mexico—the very place we’ve sent tens of thousands of asylum-seekers.
The U.S. Department of State’s own travel advisory webpage puts Matamoros’ home state of Tamaulipas under a “Level 4” warning, or “Do not travel.” It warns Americans of “violent crime, such as murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault.” U.S. government employees are not allowed to travel between cities in Tamaulipas on interior Mexican highways due to the risk of armed criminal groups attacking public and private passenger buses.
I decided to follow the State Department’s advice for its employees. Instead of going deep into the interior as I sometimes do in Tijuana (a city under “Level 2” travel warning—“Exercise increased caution”), I stayed close to the border in Matamoros. Mainly, I just wanted to see for myself the conditions there, since our government has sent more than 11,000 asylum-seekers back to this city.
I didn’t need to travel far. Within a five-minute walk from the international bridge, I saw hundreds of tents pitched all over a public park near the Rio Grande. Many of these tents were covered with black garbage bags to protect from the rain. In this informal tent city, more than 1,200 people—mostly families from Central America returned to Mexico under MPP—live outdoors in the cold and heat. Some have court dates booked into next year.
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On Sunday morning before church, Pastor Youngman Chan arrived at his local polling station—a Catholic elementary school in Kowloon—surprised to find a long line snaking down the block. Last year, he was able to walk right into the building, but now he had to wait 45 minutes in order to cast his vote for the local district council elections.
This was the first time Hong Kongers had gone to the polls since the pro-democracy protests began in June, and many viewed it as a referendum on the movement. “For pro-establishment supporters, it’s a fight for survival,” Chan said as he waited in line with his wife. “For pro-democracy supporters, it’s a time to show the opinion of the people.”