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New movies to stream this week: 'American Dharma' and more

By Ann Hornaday
New movies to stream this week: 'American Dharma' and more
Stephen Bannon is the subject of the documentary

In 2003, the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris made "The Fog of War," a masterful portrait of former defense secretary Robert McNamara in which McNamara's singular combination of protective justification and self-awareness created a fascinating, densely layered psychological profile. Morris used the same strategy to less edifying effect in "The Unknown Known," about Donald Rumsfeld. Now, with "American Dharma," the format has reached the rock bottom of diminishing returns. In this ambitious, frustrating and finally toothless film, Morris sets out to interrogate Stephen Bannon, one of President Donald Trump's most notorious advisers and, not incidentally, a filmmaker himself. Using clips from Bannon favorites such as "Twelve O'Clock High," "The Searchers" and Orson Welles's "Chimes at Midnight," Morris seeks to create a grand unified theory of Bannon's psyche, leading him in a wide-ranging conversation about his philosophical evolution from a "touchy-feely" liberal to right-wing culture warrior. When "American Dharma" made its North American debut at Toronto two years ago, Morris insisted that his aim was to "understand our enemy." But in the absence of genuinely probing questions or intellectually vigorous pushback, the film winds up letting Bannon run out the clock, flattered by Morris's attention - Bannon tells Morris that "The Fog of War" inspired him to make documentaries - and increasingly delighted when he realizes his interlocutor isn't laying a glove on him. (For a fair, engrossing and entertaining depiction of Bannon and his agenda, watch Alison Klayman's far more effective "The Brink.") "American Dharma's" final image might be the most revealing moment in a film that turns out to be a dual portrait of two men equally entranced with the spectacle of dazzling self-belief. R. Available on Topic. Contains strong language and some sexual material. 97 minutes.

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The documentary "The Donut King" tells the story of Ted Ngoy, a Cambodian immigrant who rose to the top of a multimillion-dollar empire of Southern California doughnut shops. The Hollywood Reporter calls the film "an undeniably moving portrayal of how America, in providing a home to desperate exiles, has been in turn rewarded for its generosity of spirit." Unrated. Available at and In English, Chinese and Cambodian with subtitles. 94 minutes.

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"First Vote," is a documentary portrait of several politically engaged Chinese Americans, including a gun-toting tea-party-favorite candidate in the South; an Ohio podcaster who became a citizen to vote for Trump; a liberal journalist; and a college professor teaching about race and racism. Unrated. Available at In English and mandarin with subtitles. 60 minutes.

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In the horror film "His House," a young couple from war-torn South Sudan (Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku) seek asylum in England, where they sense that their new home is occupied by a sinister supernatural presence. The Guardian calls the feature debut of British director Remi Weekes "the work of someone with a lot to say and a lot to show, hinting at a promising career both in and out of the genre." TV-14. Available on Netflix. 93 minutes.

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Tired of being dateless on festive occasions, two single strangers (Emma Roberts and Luke Bracey) agree to act as each other's platonic plus-ones for every holiday for one year in the rom-com "Holidate," only to discover that they have developed - gasp! - actual feelings for each other. TV-MA. Available on Netflix. 104 minutes.

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A sequel to Spanish director Rodrigo Sorogoyen's Oscar-nominated short of the same name - a harrowing story of a child in jeopardy and a distraught mother (Marta Nieto) - the slow-burn thriller "Madre" is set 10 years after the disappearance of a six-year-old boy. Unrated. Available at In Spanish and French with subtitles. 128 minutes.

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Billed as the first Polish slasher, "Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight" is about attendees at a rehab camp for tech-addicted teens who are terrorized by an evil entity. TV-MA. Available on Netflix. 103 minutes.

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"Political Advertisement X: 1952-2020" is the 10th edition of a collection of television ads from U.S. presidential campaigns going back to the 1950s, first put together in 1984 by media artists Antoni Muntadas and Marshall Reese, and updated every four years. Unrated. Available at 90 minutes.

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"Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb" is a documentary about the discovery, in 2018, of the tomb of an Egyptian high priest that had been untouched for 4,400 years. TV-PG. Available on Netflix. 104 minutes.

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In "The Soul of America," a documentary based on Jon Meacham's 2018 bestseller of the same name, the writer, journalist, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and presidential biographer offers insights into America's present by examining its past. TV-PG. Available on HBO. 77 minutes.

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Jaeden Martell, Chris Messina, Chloë Sevigny and John Turturro star in "The True Adventures of Wolfboy." Flickering Myth calls the film a "dark fairy tale" about a lonely, outcast boy with hypertrichosis - a condition that causes abnormal hair growth over the face and body - who goes off in search of his mother. PG-13. Available on various streaming platforms. Contains some disturbing violent content and terror. 88 minutes.

Nobody wrote songs like Billy Joe Shaver

By Geoff Edgers
Nobody wrote songs like Billy Joe Shaver
Billy Joe Shaver, who died Wednesday at 81, was considered the father of outlaw country music. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Michael Stravato

Billy Joe Shaver would tell you he was blessed and charmed, but he also couldn't hide that he knew he deserved better. Because he was better, even if he never got the hits or the theater bookings or the Country Music Hall of Fame ceremonies so many of his peers scored.

Nobody wrote songs like Shaver, who died Wednesday of a stroke at 81. Don't take my word for it: Consider the list of artists who covered him, including the Allman Brothers Band, Bobby Bare, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley and, of course, Waylon Jennings. There was no mystery as to where these songs came from.

"All of them are based on things that happened to me," he told me two years ago as we rambled through the Texas countryside in his touring van.

Shaver wrote with brutal honesty, a surgeon's precision and the swagger of the greatest saloon poets of the 20th century.

"Billy Joe writes the kind of lines that make you think that you and he are the only ones who understand him," Tom T. Hall wrote on the back cover of Shaver's criminally overlooked solo debut, 1973's "Old Five and Dimers Like Me."

There's a reason Bob Dylan once declared, in a song, "I'm listening to Billy Joe Shaver and I'm reading James Joyce."

Things that happened to me. Shaver grew up in Corsicana, Texas, poor and abandoned by an abusive father. He quit school and picked cotton for a while, joined the Navy and eventually got a job in a sawmill, where he lost most of two fingers. But Shaver still managed to learn how to play guitar. His was a life full of love, conflict and chaos. Shaver would marry and divorce two different women three different times. (Yes, read that sentence again.) His struggles with drinking and drugs ended when he found Jesus. His misery over the loss of his son, Eddy - a talented guitarist who overdosed on heroin - never subsided.

Even his religious awakening didn't soften him. He famously shot a man during an argument in 2007. The man survived and Shaver went on trial for aggravated assault. He was acquitted after testimony from his character witnesses, Willie Nelson and Robert Duvall, and then demanded that the guy give back his bullet, which was still lodged in his neck.

You could teach graduate school seminars on how Shaver constructed his songs, whether the coming-of-age tale of "Black Rose" or the heart-wrenching sadness of "Old Five and Dimers." He could also convey a range of emotions within the deceptively simple language contained in just one paragraph.

"I've been to Georgia on a fast train honey

"I wudn't born no yestday

"Got a good Christian raisin' and an eighth grade education

"Ain't no need in y'all a treatin' me this way"

Shaver was considered a pioneer or founding father of outlaw country music, which was an antidote to the slick, Nashville productions of the 1960s in the same way that punk responded to the bloated, arena-rock excesses of the '70s. But Shaver preferred to see himself as an outcast - never quite fitting in, even within that outlaw subculture. It didn't take him long to abandon Nashville, and he lived for decades in a modest home near Waco, Texas, playing gigs across the region. He wore denim tucked into denim and a cowboy hat. He tipped generously and signed most text messages, in all caps, GOD BLESS.

Though his geographic center was Central Texas, Shaver's work traveled wide. Beyond the long list of covers, he would always be remembered for contributing nine of the 11 songs on Jennings's "Honky Tonk Heroes." That 1973 album would define both of their careers.

Actually, "Heroes" almost didn't happen, as Shaver told me in 2018. The two met at a festival in 1972, where Jennings was impressed by Shaver's performance of "Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me," a song Shaver had written for Nelson. Jennings said he wanted to record it. But then he avoided Shaver. Eventually, Shaver tracked Jennings down in a recording studio and cornered him.

Shaver recounted: "He said, 'What do you want, hoss?' I said: 'Man, tell you what. I've got these songs like you said and you said you'd do an album of them, and if you don't at least listen to them, I'm going to whip your a-- here in front of God and everybody.' "

Jennings listened, took the songs and, in the end, "Honky Tonk Heroes" drew attention not just from the country music press, but also Rolling Stone magazine.

Shaver's own albums - he recorded 17 in all - never quite broke through, from his 1973 Kris Kristofferson-produced debut to 2014's "Long in the Tooth." But he never stopped working, performing as recently as January.

He had a heart attack onstage in 2001 but, rather than walk off, finished the gig and then fulfilled a commitment to tour Australia for three weeks. (He had quadruple bypass surgery after returning.) Shaver had a series of ailments over the years, including the coronavirus earlier this summer, and he had stopped playing guitar live because of a bad shoulder. But he remained intense during gigs, whether performing his nightly tribute to Eddy or arguing with someone in the crowd.

At a 2018 show at Riley's Tavern in New Braunfels, Texas, I watched Shaver start the night smiling and posing for photos with fans. But midway through his set, he got annoyed by a man in the audience who he thought didn't look enthusiastic.

So Shaver started cussing him out over the microphone.

"You're standing up in front here and you got all these damned looks on your face like you hate the (expletive) world," Shaver barked, "and you're in front of a bunch of people who like me. Why don't you come back yonder somewhere?"

He was 77.

Options dwindling for voters diagnosed with covid-19 as Election Day draws near

By Neena Satija
Options dwindling for voters diagnosed with covid-19 as Election Day draws near
Linda Harrison of Austin was tested positive for the coronavirus on July 2, the deadline to apply for mail-in ballots in Texas's primary runoff. She asked a judge to waive the requirement for a doctor's signature but was denied. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Ilana Panich-Linsman for The Washington Post.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans will be diagnosed with covid-19 between now and Election Day, leaving many scrambling for alternatives to in-person voting and injecting another dimension of uncertainty into an election already shadowed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Those voters will need to navigate an unfamiliar and varied landscape to cast their ballots. Some will be required to get doctor's notes or enlist family members to help. Others, in isolation, will need to have a witness present while they vote. Planned accommodations - such as officials hand-delivering ballots - may prove inadequate or could be strained beyond limits.

Sudden illness is an impediment to voting every election year, typically for a small number of Americans. Many provisions to help those voters apply exclusively to people who are hospitalized.

But with some 70,000 new cases of covid-19 recorded each day, a swath of Americans larger than the population of Wyoming or Vermont will probably contract the disease in the 10 days leading up to Nov. 3, which is now five days away. The number of people affected is greater still when accounting for those who quarantine not because they are diagnosed but because they had contact with an infected person.

Many of these people will already have voted or will not be eligible to vote. But for those who intended to vote in person, the options are dwindling.

In many states, deadlines for requesting absentee ballots are fast approaching or have already passed, and the limited time remaining poses logistical challenges that multiply as Election Day nears.

"We're very concerned about it," said Julie Houk, an attorney for the nonpartisan Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "People who are isolating and being careful to protect public health should not be penalized in this election for doing what medical experts are saying they should do."

In Texas, anyone needing an emergency absentee ballot now must have a signature from a doctor, chiropractor or Christian Science practitioner affirming that they have a medical emergency.

That may not be possible for Vanessa Danjuma, a middle school teacher in San Antonio who had planned to vote in person this week. Danjuma, 31, tested positive for the coronavirus on Monday and has been isolating at home, racked with body aches and a cough.

"I'm trying to come to terms with the fact that I might not be able to vote," she said by phone on Wednesday. "It's frustrating. This was a historic time to vote and get your voice out there."

Even after a reporter explained her options, Danjuma - who says she has voted in every election in which she was eligible - feared she might not be able to clear the hurdles. She does not have a primary care doctor, and family members who might have helped retrieve her ballot are all in quarantine.

In Georgia, which in the past week has reported more than 9,000 new cases, requests for mail-in ballots must be received by Friday. State law requires that in most cases, those ballots be sent to voters via the Postal Service, a method that becomes less practicable with each passing day.

Georgia counties are permitted to make an exception: Ballots may be delivered to hospitalized voters. The secretary of state's website says those requests should be initiated at least five days before the election.

Asked what voters should do if they are diagnosed with covid-19 after the deadline to request mail-in ballots, Chris Harvey, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office, said, "They can still vote in person."

In Arizona, a battleground state that added 6,000 cases to its official tally in the past week, applications for mail-in ballots were due Oct. 23. Those who missed that deadline and have been unexpectedly hospitalized can ask their county's "special election board" to deliver a ballot to them.

Pandemic-related guidance sent to counties by Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs recommends that the boards help hospitalized voters and those at a "caregiving facility." It is unclear whether counties will extend that service to those who are quarantined or isolated at home or, if they do so, whether the volume of requests will be manageable.

"Our numbers are spiking," said Alex Gulotta, Arizona state director of the nonprofit advocacy group All Voting Is Local. "There's this hard deadline for when you have to request a paper ballot. After that, you have to vote in person, and if you're not capable, the only option is this resource-intensive avenue."

Sophia Solis, a spokeswoman for Hobbs, said voters quarantined or isolated at home "should contact their county elections department to see if there are special election board opportunities."

Most states allow a voter to designate a family member or friend to collect what is often known as an emergency absentee ballot. That representative would need to hand-deliver the application to a local elections office, bring the ballot back to the voter and return with the marked ballot.

In Wisconsin, which recorded more than 25,000 new cases in the past week, every envelope containing an absentee ballot must be signed by a witness. To socially distance, the Wisconsin Elections Commission website notes that the witness "may watch the voter mark their ballot through a window, open door or other physical barrier."

In some cities, local officials and other volunteers are stationing themselves by ballot drop boxes and in city parks, offering to serve as witnesses for those who need them.

"We're painfully aware that this need for a signature might prevent some individuals from safely voting, but we're really trying hard to overcome that," said Deborah Cronmiller, director of the Wisconsin League of Women Voters. "We have what we have and we've tried to make the best of it."

Under Wisconsin law, witnesses can also serve as an "agent" for hospitalized voters, retrieving and delivering their ballots in the week leading up to Election Day. This year, the state's Election Commission decided that agents can do the same for voters who are "under a doctor's order to quarantine at a place other than a hospital."

For its March primary, Ohio expanded the definition of a hospitalized voter to include those in quarantine or isolation, allowing them to get emergency absentee ballots, but it has since rescinded that directive. Illinois never took that step, despite a plea from voter advocates.

Maggie Sheehan, a spokeswoman for the Ohio secretary of state, said that "county boards of elections must offer curbside voting for voters physically unable to enter polling locations."

Matt Dietrich, a spokesman for the Illinois secretary of state, said state lawmakers did not expand the group of people who are eligible for emergency absentee ballots. He recommended that newly diagnosed people seeking to vote check with local election authorities about curbside voting, which has been expanded in Illinois.

In the past week, Ohio and Illinois have added 15,000 and 30,000 cases, respectively.

In many states, voters began confronting these challenges on a smaller scale during the primaries, when the number of voters was a fraction of what it will be in the general election.

Austin, Texas, resident Linda Harrison was diagnosed on July 2, 12 days before the state's primary runoff. She asked a judge to waive the requirement for a doctor's signature but was denied.

"I already had my lab results that said 'covid-positive,' " said Harrison, 62, a nurse. "Those weren't good enough."

Harrison located a doctor to sign her application, just in time for an intern from the Texas Civil Rights Project to present it to an elections clerk, deliver the ballot to Harrison and return the marked ballot minutes before 5 p.m. on the day of the runoff.

Local media accounts chronicled the hurdles Harrison had to overcome to vote. After learning of her experience, advocates in Texas created a telemedicine program that connects voters with doctors who can sign their emergency ballot application ahead of the November vote.

Advocates have also challenged the constitutionality of the signature requirement in a lawsuit that is wending its way through the Texas court system.

Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton defended the requirement in his response to the lawsuit, writing that it protects against "fraudsters masquerading as late-ballot representatives and marking ballots on behalf of voters who did not, in fact, request them."

In Florida, Saturday was the deadline to request a mail-in ballot. Voters who need to quarantine or isolate after that date can send a friend or family member to apply for a ballot on their behalf. As is the case in many other states, the person can pick up and drop off ballots for a limited number of people and must fill out extra paperwork.

In Miami-Dade County, returning such a ballot on Election Day comes with a special hurdle if the representative is not a family member: Along with the marked ballot and a photo identification, the representative must present "a statement signed by a physician on that physician's stationery that, due to a medical emergency involving the voter or voter's dependent, the named voter is unable to vote at the polls and is unable to return a mail ballot in person."

The county recorded 3,500 new cases in the past week.

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The Washington Post's Emma Brown contributed to this report.

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

Yes, Black Americans are entitled to reparations. We've earned them.

By michelle singletary
Yes, Black Americans are entitled to reparations. We've earned them.


Advance for release Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, and thereafter

(For Singletary clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)


(c) 2020, The Washington Post

EDITOR'S NOTE: In a 10-part series titled "Sincerely, Michelle," Michelle Singletary gets personal about common misconceptions involving race and inequality. This is the sixth column in the series, but each column also stands alone.

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Dear Reader,

Some of my happiest moments were nursing my three children. As I looked down at their faces, their fingers tangled in my hair, I felt enormous peace and joy.

I never took nursing my babies for granted because of one story my grandmother told me about her enslaved great grandmother, Leah Drumwright. Even her last name belonged to the plantation owner.

Leah, who was caring for her own infant, was forced to nurse the baby of the White woman who owned her. And there was one strict rule.

She could only nurse her Black baby on her right breast. Leah's left breast was reserved for the White baby. The reason she was given was that the left breast is closer to the heart, making the milk healthier, and the best milk must be given to the White infant.

One evening, overwhelmed from exhaustion after cleaning and cooking for the plantation owners, Leah was caught in the kitchen feeding her own Black child on her own left breast.

Seized with the power of privilege fueled by rage, the White mother smacked Leah hard across the face. She followed the slap with a "whipping," according to my grandmother.

This story of the beating Leah endured that day has been passed down through the generations of my family. It's still very real and raw for me as another example of the indignities and brutality experienced by millions of Black people, and not just during the 246 years they were enslaved in America.

But this isn't a story about Leah's left breast. It's about theft.

It's about the legal systems in America that permitted robbing Blacks, literally to the extent of stealing a mother's milk from her baby, and that can't be fully undone unless the thievery is redressed.

The institution that empowered that White woman to segregate Leah's breasts also seeded discriminatory policies that blocked Blacks from building wealth. The centuries of injustice, dear reader, should be reason enough to make a case for reparations.

My family tree harbors another crime. Except on rare occasions, children conceived through the rape of enslaved women didn't benefit from the wealth of their White fathers. These White men never paid child support for the Black children they fathered. They were the ultimate deadbeat dads.

Black people have been systematically robbed. They have been denied the right to their own bodies; separated from their siblings, spouses, and children; and forced to work for free. After the Civil War, many purchased land, only to see it stolen. Prosperous Black towns were looted and burned. Blacks have been beaten and killed because of their race, denied the right to vote, and prohibited from living in certain neighborhoods. They were and still are discriminated against in the workplace and prevented from earning fair and equal pay.

"An unsegregated America might see poverty, and all its effects, spread across the country with no particular bias toward skin color. Instead, the concentration of poverty has been paired with a concentration of melanin. The resulting conflagration has been devastating," wrote author Ta-Nehisi Coates in a landmark 2014 article for The Atlantic entitled "The Case for Reparations."

Many people contend that reparations to the descendants of Blacks enslaved in America shouldn't entail millions of individual checks but investment in community institutions or restitution by companies that benefited from slavery.

A new book on reparations recommends a number of possible compensation programs, including the establishment of a trust fund that could make grants to eligible Blacks to help start a business or buy a home.

"While it makes complete sense to seek recompense from clearly identified perpetrators, … the invoice for reparations must go to the nation's government. The U.S. government, as the federal authority, bears responsibility for sanctioning, maintaining, and enabling slavery, legal segregation, and continued racial inequality," write William Darity and A. Kirsten Mullen in "From Here to Equality: Reparations For Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century."

Darity is a researcher, economist, and professor of public policy and African American studies at Duke University. Mullen, who is married to Darity, is a writer and lecturer who focuses on race and politics.

Darity and Mullen revisit the broken promise of 40 acres of land for each freed Black family in the South after the Civil War. On orders from President Abraham Lincoln, Union General William Sherman in 1865 issued Special Field Order No. 15, authorizing the redistribution of land confiscated or abandoned by Confederates, including miles of coastline along South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

It's important to point out that the concept of land distribution came from Black ministers who were advising Sherman on a remedy for the atrocities of slavery. They had the right idea, which was to work with the federal government to create a path to economic stability and self-sufficiency for Blacks.

After Lincoln's assassination, President Andrew Johnson, a Southern slaveowner, nullified Sherman's order.

"Had that promise been kept - had ex-slaves been given a substantial endowment in southern real estate - it is likely that there would be no need for reparations to be under consideration now," Darity and Mullen write.

Equality in America needs to follow a policy of "ARC," the authors believe: acknowledgment, redress and closure.

Acknowledgment is a work in progress. A Washington Post-SSRS poll last year found that two-thirds of Americans, 67%, say the legacy of slavery still affects society.

But that is where things stall. Only 29% of Americans approved of cash payments to the descendants of enslaved people, according to a 2019 Gallup poll.

Americans bristle at paying reparations to Blacks. Individuals become defensive, arguing, "I didn't enslave anyone."

"The case we are making isn't about individual guilt," Darity said in an interview. "It's about national responsibility. And historically, this has involved direct payment to the victimized community."

Your ancestors may not have owned slaves, but America benefited from the institution of slavery. Segregation and voter suppression gave advantages to White Americans in the form of cheap Black labor, reduced employment competition, and the power to elect politicians who enacted laws that worked in the best interest of Whites and against equal opportunities for Black people.

"The reach of slavery was far from contained in the American South, and the economic effects of slavery were far from limited to the South," Darity and Mullen write. "The destruction of African families and clans was a key element in the wealth equation for America. Black lives were the price paid to lay the foundation upon which the nation was built."

Redress is part of the American justice system. People sue for correction and also for pain and suffering. After decades of national denial, the federal government issued an apology and cash payments to Japanese Americans held in internment camps during World War II.

You keep insisting that slavery was too long ago to deserve reparations. But it's not that long ago if you think in terms of generations rather than years, Darity said.

My own lineage illustrates that point. Leah Drumwright's son, Byrd Drumwright, my grandmother's grandfather, was born into slavery. Byrd's son, Tobie, lived under the brutality of Jim Crow. Tobie's daughter, my grandmother, was marginalized by segregation laws. My mother was a mother herself by the time the Civil Rights Act was passed. I was born just three years before the Voting Rights Act. Even now, with the Nov. 3 election, voter suppression measures are undermining this fundamental right. Despite my success, I've experienced racism. My children have also encountered racism.

So, no, the legacy of slavery does not dwell in the long-forgotten past for Black people. It's our now.

You may see reparations as an unearned handout. But put yourself in that kitchen, being beaten for breastfeeding your own child. Consider the generations of Blacks who have been victimized and terrorized by systemic racism. Reparations are about seeking justice for that which was stolen.

And that makes reparations the most logical, most American, way of recompense.



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Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook ( Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

Let's avoid another Bush v. Gore

By fareed zakaria
Let's avoid another Bush v. Gore


Advance for release Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, and thereafter

(For Zakaria clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Fareed Zakaria

We know that elections have consequences, but we are often reminded that ideas do, too. That link between abstract ideas and real-world results could prove especially fateful on the day after the presidential election.

At stake is the idea of judicial originalism, which holds, in the words of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, that the U.S. Constitution "means today not what current society, much less the court, thinks it ought to mean, but what it meant when it was adopted." While this assertion has a seductive simplicity, it's worth noting that this is simply one theory of how the courts should function. The Constitution itself never directs that judges should rule in this manner. In fact, the United States is unusual among advanced democracies in its practice of treating its constitution as a quasi-religious text whose meaning has to be divined chiefly through detailed textual analysis.

Judges in most advanced democracies would argue that all laws are inevitably interpreted based on a mix of original understanding, evolving societal standards and core democratic values. And even in the United States, liberals and conservatives alike accept important deviations from originalism. Otherwise we would still have segregated schools, prohibitions against interracial marriage and laws outlawing homosexuality -- all of which were deemed unconstitutional by judges who used the 14th Amendment of the Constitution to do so, even though that amendment was passed at a time when all three arrangements existed and were clearly deemed legal and permissible.

Many conservatives have argued that originalism is the only way to ensure that judges stay restrained and modest, not imposing their views on a society that did not elect them. (Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. refers to this as calling "balls and strikes.") And perhaps the self-styled originalists would accomplish their goal if they actually practiced what they preach. But in fact, the new breed of judicial activists seems to be abandoning the restraint that Roberts prizes and is simply seeking conservative outcomes, using whatever means necessary.

The original sin was the 2000 Supreme Court Bush v. Gore decision, when conservative justices flagrantly violated their long-espoused principles to achieve their preferred political aim. The Constitution is crystal clear that states have final authority over the selection of their electors during a presidential election. Courts had long upheld that view.

And yet, in Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court shut down Florida's recount using a tortuous and novel interpretation of the 14th Amendment, which was ratified to give equal rights to Blacks in 1868. The writers of that amendment could not possibly have meant that it prohibited different counties within a state from using their own approaches to counting ballots in an election -- an utterly unrelated issue and something that was widespread in 1868 when the amendment was passed.

In a brilliant podcast series, "Deep Background," Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman outlines this hypocrisy to Jeffrey Sutton, a federal appeals court judge who sees himself as a conservative originalist. Sutton's response -- to my ear -- was that he believed Bush v. Gore had been wrongly decided.

And, in fact, after the ruling, judicial conservatives rarely cited or celebrated its rationale. Scalia's response was usually three words: "Get over it" -- not exactly an intellectual argument. Privately, according to Evan Thomas' reporting, Scalia said he thought the decision was "a piece of shit." In the most telling admission of its illogic, the majority opinion contains the remarkable guidance that the decision should be viewed as a one-off and not cited as a precedent -- contrary to the intended function of Supreme Court rulings.

Feldman's podcast series -- which is well worth listening to -- highlights a growing divide between conservatives who viewed originalism as part of a philosophy of modesty and restraint and new activists who are untroubled by the hypocrisy and simply seek conservative outcomes. It is these activists who have been able to weaken Obamacare (clearly violating the original intent of the legislature that passed it) and invent new rights for corporations that had never before been found in the Constitution (as they did in the notorious Citizens United case).

All this might come to a head next week. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that ballots sent before the end of the election that arrive up to three days late should be counted. The Republican Party appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which deadlocked 4-to-4, with the new conservatives plus justices Samuel Alito Jr. and Clarence Thomas expressing willingness to intervene, and the liberals, plus Roberts, acting as the voices of judicial restraint.

On Wednesday, if Trump is ahead in Pennsylvania, the Republicans will again ask the court to shut down the vote count. This time, the court cannot deadlock since there is now a ninth justice, Amy Coney Barrett. She will have to decide whether she actually believes in the ideas she and Scalia espoused -- or whether, like her mentor, when the stakes are high, she will choose power over principle.

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Fareed Zakaria's email address is

Some statistics to enliven election night

By george f. will
Some statistics to enliven election night


Advance for release Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, and thereafter


By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Never mind the geysers of overheated 2020 rhetoric about a constitutional crisis. Tuesday evening the nation will likely know that Vice President Walter Mondale's elegant words of concession on election night 40 years ago are still apposite: "The American people quietly wielded their staggering power, and peacefully, without intimidation, made their choice." The following data can help clarify the nature of this year's choice.

Because of what Drew DeSilver of the Pew Research Center calls "the electoral vote inflation factor" -- one of the electoral college's many benefits -- Joe Biden's victory, which will be decisive in the popular vote, will be even more so in electoral votes. Since the politics of mass mobilization began in America with the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, the winner's share of the electoral vote has averaged 1.36 times the popular vote share. For example, in 2012 Barack Obama won 51% of the popular vote but 62% of the electoral vote (332 of 538). This inflation factor was especially dramatic, and civically beneficial, in 1960, when John Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in the popular vote by a minuscule 0.16% (112,827 out of 68,832,483 votes cast). But Kennedy had a 15.6% electoral vote advantage (303 to 219; 56.4% to 40.8%). This was 97.5 times his popular-vote margin, which gave the nation a sense of a decisive election.

So, on Wednesday many Democrats might have kindlier thoughts about the electoral college. Because Democratic candidates lost two of this century's first five presidential elections while winning the popular vote, many Democrats have called for abolishing the electoral vote system and adopting election by direct popular vote. This year, the electoral vote inflation factor favoring Biden should have the wholesome effect of dampening Democrats' enthusiasm for abolition.

Trump, no stickler for precision, said that in 2016 he won a "massive landslide" of electoral votes. In 45 of the 57 preceding elections the winner received a larger percentage of those votes than Trump's 56.5%.

In all five of this century's elections, 37 states have voted for presidential candidates of the same party. Twenty-two of those states have favored Republicans. None of the 15 Democratic states will vote for Trump. Biden might win three of the Republican states -- Arizona, Georgia and Texas. In 2016, Donald Trump won more than 56% of the vote in 17 states -- but not in those three. Georgia is one of eight states where more than half the voters under 40 are nonwhite. Florida, the most important swing state, is another. This is the first year when a majority of eligible voters under 40 in Texas are nonwhite.

In 2000, George W. Bush became the first person to win the presidency while losing the North. In 2004, he was reelected because he carried Ohio with 50.8% of the vote: John Kerry would have become president if he had switched 73,350 of the 5.6 million votes cast. Ohio was the only large state Bush carried outside the South. Starting with the election of 1896, when the state chose Ohioan William McKinley, Ohio has backed the winner in all but two of 31 elections: In 1944, it favored Thomas Dewey (whose vice-presidential running mate was Ohio Gov. John Bricker) over President Franklin Roosevelt by just 0.36% of the vote, and it chose Nixon over Kennedy in 1960 by 6.56%.

The decline of political competitiveness is apparent in these numbers: In 1976, 20 states were won by five percentage points or less. Jimmy Carter won Texas with 51.1%, and President Gerald Ford carried California and Illinois with 49.3% and 50.1%, respectively. In 2016, 11 were. In 1976, a majority of House seats were won by 10 points or less. In 2016, most were won by at least 20 points. The average margin of victory was 36.6 percentage points. Democrats defeated Republicans with an average of 67.4% of the two-party vote, Republicans won with 63.8%.

Finally, if, as seems likely, the turnout percentage of this year's eligible voters soars past the 2016 level (55.67%) and past the highest level since after WWII (63.3% when Dwight Eisenhower ended the Democrats' five-election winning streak by defeating Adlai Stevenson in 1952), credit the president for motivating voters unhappy with him. Remember the story of which Winston Churchill was fond, about the man who received a telegram reporting the death of his mother-in-law and asking for instructions. The man telegraphed back: "Embalm, cremate, bury at sea. Take no chances."

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George Will's email address is

Around the world, all eyes are on the U.S.

By david ignatius
Around the world, all eyes are on the U.S.


Advance for release Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, and thereafter

(For Ignatius clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON - As Election Day approaches, there's a reckoning ahead for countries that placed big bets, pro and con, on Donald Trump. For foreign leaders who stroked Trump and prospered during his presidency, there's potential danger if he loses to former Vice President Joe Biden. For those who defied Trump, there's opportunity.

Talking with foreign officials in recent weeks, I've been struck by the intensity of their interest in what happens on Nov. 3. They have studied up on the electoral college, the quirks of mail-in voting, the prospect of post-election violence in the streets and disputes in the courts. To say the world is watching does not begin to describe the global focus on the United States.

Among America's traditional allies -- Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Australia -- there's a yearning for renewed collaboration and coordinated policy. Foreign leaders miss U.S. leadership, despite our occasional past arrogance and mistakes. Diplomats tell me the prospect of a second Trump term is as puzzling and unsettling to them as it is to many Americans.

But attention on the United States is hyperfocused in a half-dozen world capitals where Trump's disruptive foreign policy has had the greatest consequences, positive and negative: Russia, North Korea, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran. These are the potential flash points in the interregnum between the Nov. 3 balloting and Inauguration Day on Jan. 20 -- and no doubt beyond.

Nobody made a bigger bet on Trump in 2016 than Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump, for whatever mysterious reasons, has let Putin run full throttle. He doesn't challenge Putin's election interference, his reported bounties on American troops in Afghanistan, or even what U.S. and foreign officials tell me is Russia's willingness to attack its enemies anywhere, even on U.S. soil, much as intelligence defector Sergei Skripal was poisoned in Britain in March 2018.

Putin signals occasional interest in cooperative diplomacy with Trump, on controlling nuclear weapons and stopping the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But if Trump is on the way out, how does Putin consolidate the gains he's made during the Trump years? Containing this reckless Russia is necessary, whoever wins.

North Korea, too, placed a big bet on Trump. The "love letters" between Trump and Kim Jong Un and the showy summits may have suggested to Kim that he could have it all -- economic development without full denuclearization. Kim this year has been relatively restrained on nuclear and missile testing, refraining even on the 75th anniversary of his ruling party on Oct. 10. But if Biden is elected, will a petulant Kim want to send a defiant message? Watch that space.

China stroked Trump for his first year but ended up on his enemies list, anyway. The Chinese are playing a long game, with ambitions that transcend particular administrations. But it's noteworthy that before the U.S. election, Beijing has been signaling its "red lines" regarding Taiwan. That's another crisis waiting to happen, post-election, if the Chinese decide to assert their interests during an interregnum, when the United States is preoccupied.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan deftly massaged Trump's ego as he projected Turkish military power in Syria, Iraq, Libya and now Azerbaijan. The Turkish leader was so aggressive in filling the vacuum Trump opened that he angered even the Trump team. A new administration might place sanctions on Turkey. But Erdogan will remain a master of Trump-style bullying tactics even if Trump is gone.

When it comes to mutual back-scratching, Trump's relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may top the list. Trump boasted that after the murder of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, "I saved his ass" by maintaining congressional support for the kingdom, according to Bob Woodward's book, "Rage." Supporters of MBS, as the Saudi leader is known, have recently spun a fanciful theory that Democrats plotted a coup against him; perhaps they wanted to mobilize Saudis against pressure from a Biden administration. If U.S.-Saudi ties weaken with a Biden victory, Russia and China (and in a different way, Iran) may seek to exploit the vacuum.

Trump's prime target overseas has been Iran, which is probably the country hoping most fervently for his defeat. Iran has been cautious in the months before election, waiting for a new American administration that might reengage Tehran and revive the nuclear agreement Trump trashed. But Biden isn't likely to be a pushover on Iran, and the Iranians may seek leverage through aggressive moves, post-election.

When the United States is distracted or in transition, foreign nations can make mischief. It's not an October Surprise we should be worrying about anymore, but a November, December or January one.

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Contact David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost

Trump accidentally admits he's abandoned working women

By catherine rampell
Trump accidentally admits he's abandoned working women


Advance for release Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, and thereafter

(For Rampell clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Catherine Rampell

NOTE FOR EDITORS: This is the second column being sent by Catherine Rampell today. This is a shorter column on working women, and the other is a longer essay on the Trump administration's "paper" border wall. You are welcome to use either or both columns.

At a rally Tuesday, President Donald Trump made his closing argument to the suburban women unpersuaded by his dog whistles and kidnapped migrant children: Hey, at least I'm helping your hubbies find jobs.

"And you know what else? I'm also getting your husbands - they want to get back to work, right?" he said. "They want to get back to work. We're getting your husbands back to work, and everybody wants it."

There are a couple of ways to interpret these tone-deaf remarks.

One is that Trump is sexist and still believes that "putting a wife to work is a very dangerous thing" and only men are expected to bring home the bacon. Perhaps. Trump's defenders would remind us, though, of the women he has appointed to senior-level positions (Kellyanne Conway, etc.). Heck, the president's daughter Ivanka even wrote a book called "Women Who Work." So surely her dad is aware such ladies exist.

There's another, slightly less chauvinist reading of Trump's remarks, albeit one equally damning. It's that Trump knows 21st-century women expect to hold down jobs and provide for their families; he also knows he has utterly failed to help them do so. In highlighting the (relatively) higher numbers of men finding jobs, the president tacitly admits he has altogether abandoned working women.

In the past few months, employment among women has plummeted, with about 6 million fewer women working today than in February. Men have also lost a lot of jobs, but they've recovered more ground than women have. The number of men working is down, on net, by "only" 5.2 million.

Women have also dropped out of the labor force in droves -- that is, they are neither working nor even looking for jobs. The trends are especially stark among "prime working age" women, those 25 to 54 years old. Since February, nearly twice as many prime-working-age women as men have exited the labor force (1.7 million vs. about 926,000, respectively).

Why have women fared worse? Partly because of the industries more likely to employ women, such as retail, leisure and hospitality, and health care. These have all been hit especially hard by the coronavirus pandemic, which has reduced shopping and dining outside the home and routine medical visits.

But the problem isn't limited to women's career choices (or options). Schools remain closed for in-person learning throughout much of the country, and child-care facilities are operating at reduced capacity if they're open at all. Doting grandparents who might normally pinch-hit on child care are less available because they're at higher risk for covid-19.

Whatever fragile work-life balance American families had going before the coronavirus has collapsed -- with women disproportionately bearing the fallout.

As of this summer, 1 in 5 working-age parents said the reason they weren't employed was that covid-19 had disrupted their child-care arrangements, according to a Census Bureau report. Among those not working, women ages 25 to 44 were nearly three times as likely as their male counterparts to blame child-care disruptions for their inability to work.

And as the pandemic wore on -- and it became clearer the Trump administration had no plans to curb the virus that had shuttered schools and workplaces -- the share of women pulled out of work because of child-care demands grew.

Those "Women Who Work" are on their own, it seems. Indeed, Trump had abandoned them long before covid-19 broke out, despite occasional attempts to pinkwash his record.

Once upon a time, Trump pledged another Nixon-goes-to-China presidency: that he'd usher in the traditionally Democratic priorities of helping parents overall and working moms especially, including through paid leave and affordable child care.

Trump signed into law parental leave for federal employees last year -- as a concession to Democrats in exchange for Space Force. Other than that, though, Trump's pro-women and pro-family pledges have been largely cast aside.

His administration stopped collecting data that helps reveal pay inequities by gender (and race). His promised universal paid leave for parents of newborns never materialized. Then, early in the pandemic, a glimmer of progress: Congress gave workers emergency paid time off for illness and child care through the end of 2020. Though temporary, these programs were a lifesaver to struggling families.

Trump's response? To issue regulations severely restricting eligibility for this paid leave. (A judge blocked his regulations in August.)

Similarly, Trump's main attempt to make child care affordable was signing a tax credit that primarily helps the wealthy. He has asked Congress to cut federal funding for child-care and related children's programs. (Congress ignored him.) And in more recent coronavirus relief negotiations, the administration has lowballed Democrats who want to give generous relief to struggling child-care facilities.

Usually, Trump hand-waves away his poor track record on "working women's" issues. It's refreshing to hear him admit, even if accidentally, how much he's let us down.

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Catherine Rampell's email address is Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

Trump didn't build his border wall with steel. He built it out of paper.

By catherine rampell
Trump didn't build his border wall with steel. He built it out of paper.


Advance for release Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, and thereafter

(For Rampell clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Catherine Rampell

In the middle of his first year in office, President Donald Trump endorsed a bill so radically anti-immigrant that even most Senate Republicans couldn't stomach it.

Trump claimed the bill would create a "merit-based immigration system that protects U.S. workers and taxpayers." The measure would have replaced the country's current employer- and family-centered system with a points-based program, awarding immigrants points for criteria such as age and "extraordinary achievements," though the only two achievements that would have earned points were Nobel Prizes and Olympic medals.

But the debate around "merit" helped disguise what would have been the bill's most consequential effect: slashing legal immigration levels in half. Even for Trump loyalists, this was beyond the pale. The bill went nowhere, and several months later, the Senate voted 60 to 39 against advancing a similar proposal.

As it turns out, the president didn't need Congress after all. Without ever signing a single immigration law or completing his famous wall, Trump has cut the flow of foreigners by executive fiat. This fiscal year, the United States is on track to admit half the number of legal immigrants it did in 2016. This would bring levels of legal immigration down to what they were in 1987 -- when the U.S. population was about a quarter smaller, substantially younger and less in need of working-age immigrants than it is today.

If this milestone has gone mostly unremarked, it's by design. It has been achieved through backdoor, boring-sounding, bureaucratic decisions. Small-bore and esoteric though many of them are, collectively they have crippled the legal immigration system and choked the flow of newcomers into the United States. Through hundreds of administrative changes, the machinery of the U.S. immigration system has become even slower, more cruel and more absurd than it was before.

Americans may assume that most of what Trump has done, at least in the field of immigration, can be undone by Joe Biden, should he be elected. But immigration analysts, lawyers and federal officials warn that the country's immigration infrastructure will remain crippled long after Trump leaves office. Numbers of newcomers may be depressed for years, if not longer, diminishing the country's economic growth, global influence and its cherished role as a beacon of freedom and opportunity.

This is likely to be true even if the next president tries to roll back, one by one, every single action Trump has taken.

- - -

The immigration system is effectively two separate systems -- one that deals with legal immigrants, and another with those who are not authorized to be in the country. (Some people, such as those who enter without permission as a means to request asylum, straddle both systems.) In recent years, more than 1 million people have received legal permanent residence (i.e., officially "immigrated") annually, with an additional 9 million or so receiving temporary "nonimmigrant" visas to study, travel, work and so on.

The vast majority of immigrants living in the United States came here legally. Only about a quarter of the foreign-born are unauthorized; that is, they either crossed a border unlawfully or -- much more often -- overstayed their visas.

For years, the overall population of legal immigrants has been growing while the population of unauthorized immigrants has been shrinking. Since the housing bubble burst in 2007 -- well before Trump took office -- more undocumented people have been leaving the country than have been arriving. Despite these trends, the president has repeatedly suggested the country is being overrun by "illegals."

From the start, Trump's rhetoric has targeted these undocumented immigrants.

The president -- the son and grandson of immigrants -- says he has no problem with people who come to America "the right way" and "obey the laws." "I want people to come in," Trump said during the 2016 campaign. "I want tremendous numbers of people to come in, and we are going to have that big, beautiful door in the wall."

This turned out to be a big, beautiful lie. Under the leadership of Stephen Miller, Trump's chief adviser on immigration matters, administration officials have been ordered to "close every opening, shut every door, close every loophole and then some," according to a senior Department of Homeland Security official quoted in Jean Guerrero's chilling new biography of Miller, "Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda." Every immigrant possible -- whether here lawfully or not, professional-class or blue-collar, entrepreneur or scientist, adult or toddler -- would be rejected, deported or repelled.

To the extent that Americans are aware of such policy changes, they're probably only familiar with the more gothic, telegenic horrors -- particularly those visited upon unauthorized immigrants.

That is: the nursing babies separated from their mothers when they crossed the border, amid the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" family-separations policy for asylum-seekers; the abrupt deportations of undocumented immigrants who were otherwise law-abiding pillars of their communities, some of whose U.S.-citizen spouses even voted for Trump; or the initial, chaotic implementation of the Muslim ban (later rebranded a nondenominational "travel ban").

In Trump's most distorted visions, such policies would be reinforced by an electrified border wall surrounded by a moat filled with alligators. These conditions were designed, by the admission of administration officials themselves, to be vividly, infamously cruel, so they might better deter would-be immigrants.

The problem, of course, is that infamous cruelty is a double-edged sword. Immigrants learned of such policies, but so did Americans, many of whom preferred that their country not be wantonly inhumane. After news coverage of Trump's zero-tolerance policy for asylum-seekers prompted public outrage, for instance, the administration scaled back family separations.

So, Trump officials simultaneously pursued another strategy for keeping out legal immigrants, one that's more resilient to public opinion because few realize it exists: They built a barrier not of steel and reptiles but of paperwork.

The legal immigration system, to be clear, has long been broken. But since Trump took office, his aides have undertaken some 450 mostly technical, executive actions that have disfigured the system almost beyond recognition. Some changes rig the criteria for who counts as a "good" immigrant so that virtually no one qualifies. Some essentially try to trick still-eligible applicants into filling out their paperwork incorrectly. Yet others involve the government simply failing to process applications or issue new documents, in at least one case blaming "printer problems."

These shifts, among countless others, mean that to reach Trump's "big, beautiful door," immigrants must now navigate an obstacle course crisscrossed by riddles and red tape.

For instance, one rule is allegedly designed to make sure immigrants who apply for green cards (or other visas) can financially support themselves when they get here. This might sound reasonable enough, until you consider how that standard is assessed. The regulatory language says an application can be denied if an official decides that the immigrant might someday use government benefits, "at any time in the future."

What criteria are used to predict this? Among other things, the mere fact that a person is applying for a green card is considered a strike against an immigrant's application . . . for a green card. (Asked to explain this apparent Catch-22, a spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said, circuitously, that officials must consider an applicant's "prospective immigration status and expected period of admission as part of the totality of the circumstances analysis.") This self-defeating policy alone, known as the "public charge" rule, is expected to reduce legal immigration by hundreds of thousands of people per year.

Other changes have ruled out, or attempted to rule out, entire categories of once-eligible immigrants. For example, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued an edict in 2018 that severely restricted asylum for victims of gender-based or gang violence; other rules since have further narrowed eligibility standards, or tried to. Restrictions on asylum quickly became self-perpetuating. As the administration made asylum harder to obtain, approval rates plummeted, and officials pointed to lower and lower rates as justification for ever-more-draconian policies.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security has repeatedly instituted policies that result in the expulsion of asylum-seekers without allowing them to seek asylum. These likely violate both U.S. law and international agreements on human rights. Thousands are living in filthy tent cities across the southern U.S. border under Trump's "Remain in Mexico" program -- whose official, more Orwellian name is "Migrant Protection Protocols."

Often, the administration cites concerns about "national security" (physical or economic) to shut out immigrants. This excuse has been deployed frequently during the coronavirus pandemic. Somehow, children were labeled a risk to national economic security, on the apparent premise that even a 7-year-old might steal an American's job. Applicants for O-1 visas, the type awarded to individuals with "extraordinary ability," were similarly refused, with the government citing security concerns.

Even for visa applicants who still have a shot at qualifying, the process will soon become more expensive, at least if the administration prevails in ongoing litigation regarding an across-the-board increase in fees. The cost for a naturalization application, for instance, would nearly double, from $640 to at least $1,160.

Costs have risen indirectly, too. Common immigration forms are longer and more complicated. When Trump took office, the main "adjustment of status" form for green-card applicants was six pages long, with eight pages of instructions; the form has since stretched to 20 pages, plus 45 pages of instructions, not including the additional reams of supporting evidence and peripheral forms now required. (An update to the form and instructions, recently proposed by the administration, would be even longer.)

What's more, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has essentially booby-trapped many of these forms. Applications can be rejected or denied if any fields are left blank -- even if the field in question isn't applicable. Examples: a blank field for a middle name, when the applicant doesn't have a middle name; or no address listed for a deceased parent; or only three siblings named, when the form has space for four. Forms have even been rejected when applicants wrote "NA" instead of "N/A" -- that slash apparently indicating a critical measure of the applicant's merit.

Over the first six months that this "no blanks" policy was in place for one category of visa, half of all such applications were rejected because of it, according to a recent lawsuit. (An agency spokesperson said the policy helps adjudicators confirm an applicant's identity and eligibility and that "Ensuring an application is complete from the beginning saves both the applicant and the agency time and resources.")

Likewise, forms expire with little or no notice, replaced by nearly identical new forms, and applications already mailed with the old version get rejected.

Yet another new policy, introduced in 2017, encourages government officials to completely reinvestigate applications for extensions of existing visas, even when nothing about the case has changed. In practical terms, this means immigrants who have lived and worked here for years, sometimes in the exact same job, have to painstakingly re-document things they'd already proved to previous immigration officials long ago, like whether they have a college degree or what they do day to day. The process can end with an unwelcome surprise. Immigrants who have laid down roots -- bought a house, paid taxes, enrolled their U.S.-born children in local schools -- can abruptly be told to leave the country. That computer programming position you've held for a decade, and that previous immigration officers considered to be a "specialty occupation"? Doesn't sound so special after all.

"This is not just about due diligence," said Anis Saleh, an immigration lawyer in Miami, who estimates that about 70% of his skilled-worker visa applications now get slapped with more "requests for evidence," often to prove things already copiously documented. "It's harassment, intended to discourage, delay, obstruct people from coming here. They're papering you to death."

Denial rates for, say, extensions of visas for skilled workers have roughly tripled, from 3% during the five years before Trump took office, to 10% midway through fiscal 2020, according to a recent report from the National Foundation for American Policy. Denials for new skilled-worker visas have roughly quadrupled over the same time frame (from an average of about 7% to 29%).

Those rates may rise further under rules introduced this month that impose stricter requirements for high-skilled workers. Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and also serving as the senior official at USCIS, recently told reporters that about one-third of the people who have applied for such visas in recent years would now be denied.

Even when such visas are issued, they're sometimes rendered worthless: Until a recent court challenge, USCIS had been issuing skilled-worker visas that under the law should have been good for three years but were instead marked as expiring within weeks or even days of issuance. In some cases, the visas had expired before they were even mailed out.

Less than a month after a legal settlement ended this policy in May, the agency allowed a contract to print green cards and work permits to expire, effectively discontinuing them. Immigrants continued to be approved for these vital documents but stopped receiving them in the mail, because the printers had literally been shut off. (A spokesperson said this summer the agency had planned to bring printing in-house but could not add staff to do the work because of an ongoing hiring freeze.)

Administration officials will stop at nothing -- including having the government do nothing -- to slam the door on immigrants.

In some cases, the government has refused to process applications even when legally required to do so. This summer, the Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration's effort to terminate the popular "dreamers" program protecting unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States as children. The court ruled that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program must continue, yet Trump's acting secretary of homeland security issued a memo directing his department not to process any new DACA applications.

The administration has also repeatedly suspended the admission of refugees, the highly vetted immigrants fleeing persecution and violence who apply for haven while still abroad. ("Asylum seekers" are similar to refugees, in that they're also fleeing persecution; but the term "asylum seeker" refers to people who are either already in the United States or arrived at a port of entry, and thus deal with a different set of vetting procedures.) The 2020 fiscal year closed with about 11,800 refugees resettled in the United States; over the three decades pre-Trump, the United States averaged more than six times that figure annually.

Across the entire month of October, zero refugees will arrive, because Trump dragged his feet in signing the official paperwork allowing refugees to be admitted in the fiscal year that just began. When he finally did sign the document this week, it newly ruled out thousands of refugees who had previously expected to be allowed in.

These and hundreds of thousands of other would-be immigrants have been trying to do as the president says, and get in line. But this "line" is not linear; it is more like the labyrinthine, interlocking, dimension-defying stairways found in an M.C. Escher print, with every 10th step or so a disguised trapdoor.

- - -

One might assume that Trump's changes to the immigration system can be easily undone -- particularly since they were put in place unilaterally through executive actions (and refusals to do the work of government).

To be sure, many of the president's immigration policy changes have already been reversed, paused or have yet to take effect. Nearly every major regulatory or processing change to the immigration system has been challenged in court: the public-charge rule, terminating DACA, asylum restrictions, fee increases, efforts to make it more difficult for military service members to become naturalized, the slowdown in printing of green cards, and more.

And the administration has an overwhelming record of legal failure, according to a database of major Trump regulatory actions maintained by the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University's School of Law. In nearly every immigration case that has had some sort of resolution, a court either ruled against the agency or the relevant agency withdrew the action after being sued. Which says something about the legal chops of the people writing these policies or the quantity of corners being cut -- possibly both.

Other regulatory actions would also likely be reversed by a new administration. But such reversals would happen slowly, if at all.

"In the Trump administration, immigration has been by far the highest priority," says Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute who has analyzed the administration's many actions changing the immigration system. "There's no way it would be the highest priority under a new Democratic administration. Probably, there's a good chance it wouldn't even be in the top five, given everything else going on."

Some rollbacks might be bad politics for Joe Biden, too. For example, the temporary visa program for skilled workers -- which Trump has curtailed -- has vocal critics within the Democratic base.

A future Biden administration would probably "make a big show of reversing some big actions," Pierce said, such as the travel ban that primarily affects people in Muslim-majority countries. But she doubts that the next president "would pour the same energy and resources into the immigration agenda as the Trump administration did," particularly when it comes to the hundreds of seemingly small policy changes that collectively create impenetrable barriers.

The Trump administration has employed every bureaucratic tool available to change policies: not just formal regulations but also presidential proclamations, memos, attorney general opinions, even editing personnel manuals. Some executive actions, such as the current moratorium on issuing green cards to anyone applying from abroad, could be quickly undone by the same means. But changes implemented through the formal rule-making process -- which the administration has used of late to codify some informal changes into more permanent policies -- would take longer to unwind. If a Biden administration were to follow the law on the (cumbersome) notice-and-comment process to change regulations, efforts to repeal some Trump policies would move slowly.

Indeed, there is ample evidence that Trump officials are counting on bureaucratic slowness to prolong the life of their agenda if they lose power. "It's not like someone shows up on day one and can stop doing regulation A, B or C," Cuccinelli recently told CBS News. "Anyone looking to undo all that is going to have a lot of work to do."

Anti-immigration groups, meanwhile, have already announced they would sue to stop efforts to unwind Trump's policies.

The Biden campaign, for its part, has released a long position paper on immigration, with 16 commitments for major policy changes in the prospective administration's first 100 days, plus several dozen other initiatives. They include -- as Pierce anticipates -- high-profile targets such as the public-charge rule, the ceiling on refugee admissions, Pentagon funding being siphoned to the border wall and, yes, the "Muslim ban." The language is also a little wishy-washy on policy rollbacks that might draw flak from the party's populist, working-class flank.

Let's assume for a moment that a newly elected President Biden is able to swiftly rescind or replace Trump's most restrictive executive actions on immigration. Even that step would not undo the damage the current administration has inflicted. The immigration system's scars will outlast Trump's proximity to power for at least three reasons: the diminished "pipeline" of immigrants over the past few years; damage to the institutions that support the immigration system over the same period; and the erosion in the United States' reputation as a hospitable, predictable and safe place to immigrate.

First, the pipeline. We've already missed out on several years' worth of noncitizens who would normally have come to this country and entered the pipeline for green cards or eventual naturalization. These are refugees who were vetted but never resettled here; asylum-seekers blocked by restrictive new criteria; skilled workers whose employment-based applications were denied; and the family members who might follow these "missing" newcomers.

Even if the next president reverses the policies restricting entry of these groups, the years without many thousands taking initial steps to enter the pipeline means fewer people will become U.S. citizens, which would lead to lower levels of permanent immigration even after Trump leaves office. Absent a major change to the law -- such as eliminating some of the intermediate steps needed to apply for a green card -- the flow would take some time to speed up again.

Moreover, the pipeline is leaking -- partly thanks to covid-19, partly thanks to the blitz of regulatory changes the administration has introduced in the months leading up to the election. The White House appears to be working overtime to cram in last-minute restrictions to immigration lest Trump get voted out; USCIS alone may issue two dozen more regulations this quarter, according to an internal agency document showing rule-making priorities.

Already, international student enrollment has been falling for several years, thanks to visa issues as well as other concerns (e.g., high tuition, xenophobia, gun violence). This fall semester, however, those colleges and universities that are fully online have no new international students because the administration is only issuing visas to new students if their courses meet in-person, even during a pandemic. State Department data show that issuance of student visas across all schools in fiscal 2020 declined around 70% from the previous year.

Another rule announced in September would limit most student visas to four years, rather than the duration of a student's program of study. This could effectively block enrollment in most STEM-related doctoral programs, since they typically take at least six years. Right now, in many of these fields, such as engineering and computer science, a majority of degrees awarded go to students from abroad.

Historically, international students who have spent years training and socializing in the United States have chosen to stay after graduation. Annually, more than 70% of doctoral students have said they planned to remain here, according to National Science Foundation data going back to 2012. Among the doctoral students here today, though, many are struggling to get work visas; and, again, this year's newly admitted class never arrived at many schools because classes were forced online.

Beyond the gaps and blockages in the pipeline, the Trump era has also badly damaged the government machinery necessary to screen and admit immigrants who wish to move here. Chief among the victims is the agency that handles most of the legal immigration system: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Many career civil servants at USCIS were attracted to its traditionally pro-immigrant, humanitarian mission. Unlike counterpart agencies focused on law enforcement (such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement), USCIS's objective -- as evidenced by its very name -- is to provide services to immigrants and those who depend on them. It helps refugees escape persecution. It helps companies bring in the high-achieving talent they desperately need. It helps Horatio Alger-types build new lives in the United States and someday swear allegiance to this country.

But under Trump, the culture and priorities of USCIS have shifted away from helping eligible immigrants come here when the law allows -- and toward hunting down excuses to keep immigrants out.

Its mission has changed in a literal sense: In 2018, the director of the agency rewrote its mission statement, deleting references to a "nation of immigrants" and to immigrants as "customers" whom the agency serves. (Referring to immigrants as customers, he said in a statement, promoted "an institutional culture that emphasizes the ultimate satisfaction of applicants and petitioners" instead of enforcement of the law.) USCIS has put its money where its mouth is, budgeting more than twice as much funding for fraud detection and prevention in fiscal 2020 as it did in fiscal 2016, biennial fee reviews show.

Employees not on board with the agency's new ethos, or actions, have either been reassigned or pushed out. From fiscal 2016 to 2019, the number of employees leaving each year rose from 856 to 1,124, an increase of 31%.

"There's just a significant brain drain across the department," said Elizabeth Neumann, former assistant secretary of counterterrorism and threat prevention at DHS from 2018 to 2020. "People got fed up with dealing with all the tinkering, and the politicization."

It doesn't help, of course, that USCIS spent much of this spring and summer threatening to furlough about 70% of its 19,000-person workforce because it is running out of money. These financial problems threaten to slow agency operations for years to come.

USCIS is funded almost entirely by user fees. It has been going broke in large part because it costs a lot more money to harass immigrants than it does to efficiently process their applications. With workers required to hunt for frivolous reasons to reject otherwise-eligible applicants, and with more of those "requests for evidence" issued, applications of every sort take increasingly longer to process. A citizenship application, for instance, takes roughly double the time (10 months) to process today as it did in the four years preceding Trump.

The threatened furloughs have been called off, at least for now, but the agency is still on shaky financial footing. To compensate, private contracts have been narrowed or canceled, further gumming up the works. Even if USCIS shores up its finances -- it had consistent annual surpluses at the time Trump took office -- these contracts will take time to rebid.

Similarly, the Trump administration has reshaped the immigration courts, which are a branch of the Justice Department, driving out long-serving judges and appointing anti-immigrant hard-liners to a powerful appellate board. One such appointee had previously denied more than 96% of the asylum requests before him and had been the subject of formal complaints of bias. The administration also changed the hiring process to make it more difficult to remove these appointees, helping to insure that Trump's "reforms" outlast his time in office.

Other institutions involved in immigration have been weakened, too. For example, the U.S. refugee admissions program is a public-private partnership between the federal government and nine nonprofit national resettlement agencies, which operate through hundreds of small affiliates that engage faith groups, civic organizations, volunteers and former refugees. Federal funding for these organizations is mostly tied to the annual number of refugee admissions. Because refugee admissions have plummeted, so has funding.

As a result, more than 100 local offices, roughly one-third of all such affiliates, have closed since 2016, according to Refugee Council USA's executive director, Adam Hunter. Reopening all of these offices -- and rebuilding their networks with local employers and others who helped new arrivals -- wouldn't be simple.

Turning these networks back on, said one senior resettlement agency official, is not like flipping a switch.

Finally, there's the harm to the United States' reputation. This "nation of immigrants," of course, had a long, ugly history of demonizing immigrants well before the Trump administration came to power. Likewise, the immigration system was dysfunctional well before Trump took office.

The Immigration and Nationality Act, which became law in 1952, is probably second only to the tax code in complexity. The byzantine, and arguably racist, system that Trump inherited includes annual quotas that leave Indian nationals in decade- or even century-long queues while allowing Icelanders to swiftly become permanent residents.

Previous administrations were also not exactly kindhearted to those living in the shadows. Mistreatment of migrant children and other abuses occurred on President Barack Obama's watch, too.

But the past few years have been unusually rough on Uncle Sam's brand. Arbitrary changes in policy, processing delays, hateful rhetoric and attempted fee increases have driven away global talent. Policy changes reversed by courts have created costs and uncertainties for immigrants already here and those contemplating coming. Even if a less xenophobic administration reversed some Trump policies, immigrants could not be certain what climate might persist.

"An election could definitely change this, but consistency is really the key, you know?" Utkarsh Mehta, a student from India at Washington State University, told me.

Mehta has weathered numerous reversals about whether he was even allowed to study journalism in the United States, as well as online vitriol from classmates and alumni who told him that students like him don't belong. As he has become aware of how difficult it will be to obtain a work visa after graduation, he sometimes kicks himself for not enrolling in schools he was admitted to in Canada or Britain. High school classmates who made different choices seem to feel much more secure, he reports.

His advice to other Indian students contemplating studying in the United States? "Broaden your options, do not stick to the U.S.," he says. "In case you're really keen on the U.S., please remember, they can kick you out anytime."

Other countries are already taking advantage of such fears. Canada and Australia are heavily recruiting international students with the goal of getting them to lay down roots after graduation and contribute to their adopted economies. Both offer welcoming rhetoric and faster, more predictable admissions processes. The number of U.S. residents who advanced through Canada's flagship program for skilled immigration skyrocketed between 2017 and 2019, Georgetown University's Zachary Arnold recently found. Successful applications from U.S. noncitizens -- people living here who didn't have U.S. citizenship - rose at least 128% during this period.

After waiting more than seven years to obtain a green card in the United States, Ajay Patel, an engineer at a major tech firm, applied for permanent residence in Australia. "I received the equivalent of the Australian green card within three months of [my] application, based on my skills and without ever setting foot in Australia," he said.

Word of frustration with and mistreatment by the U.S. government filters back to immigrants' home countries. In the years ahead, talented immigrants who have other options are more likely to take them.

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Driving away immigrants is not merely a betrayal of U.S. history and values. It's also bad for the country's interests in the narrowest, most selfish sense.

Immigrants are net-positive economic and fiscal contributors to the United States, as has been documented most recently by a massive 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. That is, immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in federal benefits.

This is true even of refugees who come here penniless and destitute. A separate 2017 report produced by the Trump administration found that refugees are net-positive fiscal contributors. After 10 years in the United States, the average resettled refugee paid $4,600 more in taxes annually than they received in public benefits. (The administration tried to suppress these findings, but they ultimately leaked and were published by the New York Times.)

When the children of immigrants grow up, the National Academies found, they are "among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors in the U.S. population, contributing more in taxes than either their parents or the rest of the native-born population."

A mind-blowing 44% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children, according to one analysis. Recent research has found that immigrants are net job creators and that they play outsize roles in high-growth U.S. entrepreneurship; and that more restrictive immigration policies -- often intended to preserve job opportunities for native-born Americans -- perversely lead to more offshoring. Firms end up increasing their overseas employment if they can't bring the workers they desire into the United States.

We need these driven, working-age immigrants and their children to power our economy -- and to keep government programs such as Social Security solvent.

We also need them to keep the country competitive -- scientifically, militarily and culturally.

Immigrants make up roughly one-third of scientists and engineers in the United States, according to the National Science Foundation; foreign-born workers account for 45% of all doctorate-holders in these occupations. For generations, from the Manhattan Project to today's Operation Warp Speed coronavirus vaccine effort, immigrant scientists have contributed their talents while also enriching the contributions of their U.S.-born colleagues.

There's a historical analogue for what we might expect from recent policy changes: The restrictive U.S. immigration policies that started in the 1920s resulted in a large decline in scientists from Eastern and Southern Europe. For decades afterward, the fields that these blocked scientists specialized in showed substantially less innovation. "American scientists became less productive as a result of not being able to work with the foreign-born," said New York University economic historian Petra Moser.

If, as a country, we wish to continue reaping the economic, scientific and geopolitical benefits of being an attractive destination for global migrants, Americans must reckon with the hostility toward foreigners that has raged in recent years. That means more than reversing the current president's depredations; it requires something much more difficult: actually fixing the U.S. immigration system.

As a country, the United States must show the motivation and capacity to operate a humane, functional immigration system. Such a system would make good on our obligations to those fleeing persecution and violence; prioritize for enforcement actions and removal proceedings those who present a danger to Americans; treat all immigrants with dignity, including those who are detained; give hard-working immigrants the chance to prove themselves and contribute to the economy; and reward vetted, driven individuals with a predictable pathway to legal work, permanent residence and eventual naturalization.

Immigrants need to know, with some degree of confidence, that if they stay on the right side of the law, they won't be subject to endless harassment, indentured servitude or deportation. This requires fixing the many problems that predate Trump, such as the interminable green-card backlog and the uncertainty for undocumented immigrants brought here as children. It requires rescinding virtually all Trump-era administrative and regulatory actions. It also requires addressing serious structural issues revealed by Trump's tenure: whether through deliberate or accidental delegation of duties by Congress, the executive branch has acquired too much discretion over the immigration system, making it ripe for abuse. Congress must codify more of the country's obligations to immigrants, such as a minimum floor for refugee admissions and the due process owed those mistreated by our system.

In his series of recent, last-chance-before-the-election regulatory announcements, Trump has made clear just how much more damage he intends to inflict upon our immigration system if awarded another four years in office. But even if he loses, dismantling his legacy will take time, resources and political capital from Trump's successor -- and from the rest of us, too.

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Catherine Rampell's email address is Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

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