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Testing the border in the age of Trump

By Kevin Sieff
Testing the border in the age of Trump
Miguel checks his laundry at the Casa del Migrante in Reynosa. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Alejandro Cartagena for The Washington Post.

REYNOSA, Mexico - They agreed to pay the smugglers $12,000 to get to Florida. It was a package deal - with three chances to cross the border.

The first attempt had ended a week earlier, in the headlights of a Border Patrol truck on a South Texas ranch. Now it was time for attempt No. 2.

"Are you ready, love?" he asked.

"I can't believe we have to try again," she said.

Socorro was 55. Miguel was 52. They fell in love while pruning flowers in a northern Florida plant nursery 15 years ago, two undocumented immigrants earning minimum wage. Last year, after Donald Trump became president, they returned to Mexico, fearing deportation and the seizure of their $20,000 in savings.

Then, after a year of unemployment in their home state of Guerrero, one of the most violent in Mexico, they got a Facebook message from their American boss. Their jobs were waiting for them, he wrote, if they could make it back to Florida.

More than a year after the inauguration of a president who promised to seal the U.S. border, something surprising is happening: The number of people entering illegally from Mexican territory has jumped. Figures for apprehensions, a widely used barometer for unauthorized traffic, nearly tripled from March through May compared with the same three months in 2017. The government has intensified its crackdown on border crossers - deploying the National Guard, expanding prosecutions, separating migrant parents from children - in an aggressive attempt to stop the influx.

There are a variety of reasons for the surge. But for many migrants crossing the border, like the couple bound for Florida, their attempts are based on close analyses of Trump's policies. The president who promised a wall, who pledged to make their lives in America impossible, has not managed to shut down the vast smuggling networks that funnel people across the border.

The smugglers have a marketing campaign: Pay a flat fee to cross the Rio Grande, and you get three chances.

They are chances to make it to specific places and specific jobs, the United States' economic growth spilling over into messages from employers to potential migrants, offering positions on farms and in factories - if they can make it past the Border Patrol.

"We see the same thing over and over. The bosses call their workers in Mexico and say, 'Come, come, come,' " Sister Maria Nidelvia Basulto said.

She runs the Casa del Migrante, a Roman Catholic shelter with high white walls plastered with posters of Jesus in the border city of Reynosa. That is where I interviewed Socorro and Miguel, who agreed to send me updates as they embarked on chance No. 2. They spoke on the condition that only their first names would be used because of concerns about being identified as immigrants crossing illegally.

The husband had broad shoulders, a square jaw, an orange cap pulled low over his forehead. The wife had short, dark hair and pink lipstick. At breakfast, they picked at each other's omelets and toast and held hands.

They had arrived here on a Saturday morning in mid-April and changed out of the dirty clothes they had been wearing when the Border Patrol caught them three days earlier. They showered and shaved and logged on to Facebook. They called their children back in southern Mexico. They looked up old text messages from their employer in Florida on their phone.

"Your W-2 is ready," one message said.

"Please come by the office when you're here," another said.

Then they called the smuggler. He confirmed: Two chances left.

- - -

The next morning, after the 7 o'clock prayer, Miguel was sitting at a plastic picnic table at the Casa del Migrante, sipping coffee served by a nun.

He knew what people on both sides of the border said about smugglers, that they were criminals, preying on the desperate. But they offered the best hope of getting into Texas, and then moving on to Florida. The Border Patrol catches between 55 and 85 percent of border crossers, by its own estimate.

"It's step by step," Miguel explained, moving his finger up the table, along an imaginary map of the United States.

For $3,000, the first smuggler would take the couple from a nearby safe house to the Rio Grande. For $4,000 more, the second smuggler would take them from the river to a safe house in McAllen, Texas. For another $3,000, the third smuggler would take them from McAllen to Houston. And for $2,000 on top of that, the fourth smuggler would take them from Houston to Florida.

In total, it was a $12,000 investment - equivalent to what they could earn in Florida in six months, at $9.60 per hour.

The smugglers had increased their fees sharply under Trump but offered multiple opportunities to cross. Socorro and Miguel had been swiftly deported on their first attempt, as was once common practice for Mexicans caught near the border.

Trump is hardly the first president to announce a border crackdown, only to find migrants changing their tactics. President Bill Clinton tightened controls at major crossing points in the mid-1990s; migrants scattered to more remote parts of the border. Under President George W. Bush, Congress approved 700 miles of border fencing; agents started finding ladders and tunnels along the barrier.

"It's harder to cross now, and that means it's also more expensive," Miguel said. "But we know it's still possible."

And despite Trump's policies, many American companies still welcome undocumented workers. The nursery business is among those most in need of labor.

"There's an absolute dearth of workers, the likes of which I've never seen in my career," said Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president of AmericanHort, a lobbying firm that represents the horticulture industry in Washington.

Thanks to an improving economy, U.S. citizens who might have picked flowers or planted corn now have better options. Farm and nursery owners complain about the red tape and expense of work visa programs.

"You can't prevent people from coming if you're still giving them jobs," said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a political-science professor at George Mason University and an expert on the border.

While Socorro and Miguel waited in their plastic chairs for the next call from the smuggler, the Casa del Migrante was full of commotion. More deportees had arrived from the Texas border, about two miles away, carrying U.S. government-issued plastic bags with their belongings. Other migrants were on their way north, toward the Rio Grande.

"I'm leaving. Good luck," said a woman heading to an old job at a fast-food restaurant in Mountain View, California.

"I'm getting ready," said a man with plans to resume his job at an auto factory in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Miguel and Socorro would spend another night or two in the single-sex dormitories here, using donated toothbrushes and bars of soap in zip-top bags, smiling at the nuns who hustled around the shelter.

"We never knew too much about their plans," Sister Edith Garrido would say after the couple had left.

But the nuns did glean bits and pieces about the way border-crossing attempts had evolved.

"They get three opportunities," said Sister Maria Nidelvia. "That's the way it works now."

- --

In the first year of Trump's presidency, the number of migrants trying to cross the southwest U.S. border hit a 40-year low, a statistic Trump broadcast as proof of his leadership.

"Numbers are way down. Many are not even trying to come in anymore," he tweeted in March 2017.

The Trump administration wagered that the border was something that could be closed. It was a question of having the right deterrents, the right messaging, the right enforcement.

Then came the surge.

In April, 50,924 people were apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border. Many were Central American families and children traveling without parents, but the influx also included people like Socorro and Miguel. The figure was more than double the number of detentions in the same month a year earlier. The 2018 figure would not have been extraordinary under the Obama administration, and it marked a significant decline from the early 2000s.

But for Trump, the border was under siege. As the couple planned their second attempt, his administration boosted its efforts to counter migrants. The president announced the deployment of thousands of National Guard troops. He pledged to repel a caravan of asylum seekers traveling from Central America. And the administration was planning to separate parents from their children at the border, part of a new policy to prosecute all adults crossing illegally.

"Trump sent the army," Miguel said on Monday afternoon, two days after the couple arrived at the shelter. "The army!"

His wife had slept only two hours the night before. She texted weeping emoji to her daughter. "Andamos con miedo," she typed. "We're traveling scared."

Miguel's eyes got watery when he tried to comfort her.

The couple had paid the $3,000. They had told their fellow employees in Florida that they were on their way back. Their colleagues had stayed in touch during their year away. "I miss you and poppy," one co-worker had written on the wife's Facebook page. "Merry Christmas to a beautiful couple," wrote another.

On Tuesday morning, hours before the couple left to rejoin the smuggler, Sister Edith led the group of migrants in prayer.

Miguel and Socorro pretended to listen, but there was too much else to think about.

"The coyote told us to meet him this morning in Ciudad Camargo," Miguel told me after the service, referring to a town about 20 miles away.

He was growing increasingly worried as the appointment with the smuggler drew near.

"He said we'd go a different way this time, a place where there are fewer agents," Miguel said, sounding far from confident.

That April morning, in Washington, Trump had spoken at a news conference, returning again and again to the narrow river boundary the couple was preparing to cross.

"We are taking strong action to regain control over our borders and over our sovereignty," Trump said.

At the Casa del Migrante, some of the migrants were already convinced.

"I'll try under the next president," said a 34-year-old named Miguel who had lived in Minnesota and was recently deported.

He looked at the couple, a few feet away. "They're crazy to go now."

A white van arrived to take the couple to the bus station. From there, the bus to Ciudad Camargo cost about $1. I asked them to stay in touch, though I knew it could be weeks, or more, before I heard from them again.

But three hours later, Socorro logged on to Facebook and wrote me a message. They had reached the smuggler's safe house. The room was small but comfortable enough, she typed. The smuggler seemed like a decent guy.

"He gave us ham sandwiches," she wrote.

On two separate nights over the following week, the smuggler drove them to the Rio Grande with their rafts. Each time, before touching ground in Texas, they spotted the Border Patrol and paddled back.

"There's so, so much vigilance," Socorro wrote to me in a text on the WhatsApp messaging service.

I asked her whether they still had any of their three chances left. She said they did. Those quick attempts did not count.

When they crossed the river again in early May, the northern bank was clear of the Border Patrol. Their next smuggler was waiting near the river, with a car, Socorro later told me. The couple was driven north, up Route 77, which connects the border to the Houston area and the rest of East Texas. But somewhere south of the town of Sarita, where the Border Patrol maintains a checkpoint sometimes referred to as a "second border," the smuggler left them in the vast, empty ranchland, she said.

The couple wandered for three days in a stretch of South Texas so remote that dozens of migrants die there each year of dehydration, heatstroke or hypothermia.

Then Socorro pulled out her phone and began sending me a stream of texts and voice messages.

"We don't know where we are," she told me in a voice message on WhatsApp. She sounded disoriented.

And then a few minutes later: "Last night, we saw a town. It seemed close. We saw the lights."

I texted back, asking whether she had any food or water.

She responded: "We don't have any food."

I said she could send me her GPS coordinates if she wanted.

"Help us please," she said.

I knew how dangerous the conditions were in that area. But I texted back that I didn't know what I could do.

"It's 30 [kilometers] to the immigration control?" she asked.

I confirmed it was on the highway to the north, with a Border Patrol presence in the vicinity. As I typed, she sent two more voice messages.

"What are the options in the south then?" she asked.

"So there's not a way to get out of here without being detected?"

I was worried about her and Miguel. But I knew it would be wrong to offer them guidance. I didn't answer.

"How long does it take to get to Houston?" she asked.

Her voice was getting shaky.

"We've already walked so much, and we want to continue. We already spent $7,000, and we can't turn back."

I studied the map on my phone. They were about 250 miles from Houston. I told them it was too far to walk.

"I'm going to turn off my phone so the battery doesn't die," Socorro said. "I'm going to need it."

Then I heard nothing more.

- - -

Nine days later, Socorro's daughter, Rocio, called me.

"They're in jail," she said. "They were caught."

Socorro was booked into the federal government's Brooks County Detention Center as "an alien who had been previously deported." Miguel was taken to a different detention center.

Socorro was given an orange jumpsuit and assigned a lawyer, Lila Garza. "My first impression was that she was quiet and worried," Garza said.

A few days after her first court date, in late May, Socorro called me. I asked her what happened.

"The Border Patrol found us on Monday afternoon," she said.

Then she paused. "I can't. This call is being recorded."

- - -

The Trump administration intends to prosecute as many border crossers as possible, "until we get to 100 percent," Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in May - a dramatic shift from past practice in which many were quickly deported without criminal charges.

Garza's firm of five lawyers received 800 cases of border crossers, including Socorro's, in just over a week.

"She's a person who would never have been charged in the past," Garza said, citing Socorro's lack of a criminal record.

Socorro pleaded guilty this month to illegal re-entry and was sentenced to time served. When she is released, she will be taken by bus to the border and escorted to Mexican territory. She could be back in the Casa del Migrante, or another shelter like it, within days.

I asked Socorro whether her time in detention would be enough to convince her not to try again.

On the phone, I could hear her sobbing.

"I went with all of my courage. I came with all of my faith that I could make it. But I couldn't get any further. I couldn't get any further."

I asked whether that meant she was done trying to cross the border.

There was a pause.

"I don't know," she said.

There was so much to figure out. What her husband wanted to do. Whether they could survive in Mexico. I asked whether that third chance still remained with the smuggler, and she said she wasn't sure.

"We still need jobs," she said. "I just don't know what to do."

Master of celebrity: How Trump uses - and bashes - the famous to boost himself

By Marc Fisher
Master of celebrity: How Trump uses - and bashes - the famous to boost himself
President-elect Donald Trump and fight promoter Don King address the media in December 2016 in Palm Beach, Fla. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Ricky Cariot

Even in the 1980s, when greed was good and the young Donald Trump cultivated a lifestyle of gold-plated excess, the notion of a real estate developer - a landlord, for goodness' sake - becoming a celebrity and bringing famous people into his orbit seemed a bit far-fetched.

But as Trump built his gleaming Fifth Avenue tower, plastered his name on jets and a massive yacht, and surrounded himself with boldfaced names from the worlds of TV, music, sports and modeling, the boxing promoter Don King coined a name for this developer's way of winning and using celebrity: "Telesynergistic."

King struggled to define the term - something about a person who uses his image to "transform dreams into living reality, in minimal time, at megaprofits" - but a new word seemed vital to describe what Trump was doing.

Trump knew instinctively that he could enhance his own stature by being seen with celebrities, and he also knew he could do it by breaking the rules and bashing some of those same famous people.

No other president has come to the White House as deeply schooled in the methods and madness of the American craft of celebrity. And no other president has used celebrities in quite the same way - both as inspiration to mold policies and as foils to entertain and satisfy his political base.

In recent weeks, Sylvester Stallone led the president to pardon the early 20th-century boxer Jack Johnson. Then Trump met with Kim Kardashian West, who pressed him for clemency for Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old drug offender who had served 22 years of a life sentence. Trump commuted the sentence, and then called Kardashian West on her cellphone to deliver the news.

Meanwhile, Trump has continued to attack celebrities he thinks his supporters will eagerly turn against. He disinvited the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles and the NBA's Golden State Warriors from White House visits, and he took to Twitter to attack Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour, filmmaker Michael Moore and Meryl Streep, among others.

Just after ABC canceled Roseanne Barr's rebooted sitcom because the star had compared former White House adviser Valerie Jarrett to an ape, Trump blasted TBS comedian Samantha Bee for referring to Ivanka Trump with a crude slur. Via tweet, the president asked: "Why aren't they firing no talent Samantha Bee for the horrible language used on her low ratings show?"

A few other presidents - notably, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama - came to office as charismatic celebrities, attracting big names from Hollywood and sports who were eager to attend state dinners or take in a movie with the First Family. But Trump revised the script: Although most celebrities didn't flock to his side, he brought some into his policy-making process.

"Trump is very different from other presidents in that he has no regard for process," said Bruce Miroff, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Albany who studies presidential leadership. "So it's unlikely that anything will reach him through the usual Washington process. He likes to make decisions by instinct, and that allows prominent celebrities to solicit him for their causes. He gets to play the regal role, issuing decisions from above them."

Trump works this way because "he doesn't have the cachet that brought a Frank Sinatra to Kennedy and Reagan," Miroff said. Although Barr and Kanye West have praised him on Twitter, "Trump is more radioactive to liberal celebrities than any other president. When you have (the actor) Scott Baio vouching for you at the Republican convention, you're on weak ground."

Celebrities have been both useful and threatening to Trump for most of his career. As a real estate developer, Trump craved the respect of industry leaders, politicians and the New York Times, even as he attacked such institutions as elitist. Trump's attitude toward celebrities has followed the same pattern, a provocative mix of seeking their approval and attacking their privilege.

Trump wanted to be New York's biggest builder, but even more than that, he wanted to be a grand American showman whose name was synonymous with a high-end, aspirational brand. He knew - both instinctively and through the tutelage of his mentor and lawyer, Roy Cohn - that a key way to build that brand was through celebrity, both his own and the reflected fame of Big Names.

Starting in 1973, Cohn injected the young Trump into his whirl of social events, introducing Donald and, later, his new wife, Ivana, to the likes of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, gossip columnist Cindy Adams and cosmetics magnate Estee Lauder.

On his own, or posing as "John Barron," his fictitious PR man, Trump would call newspapers and TV stations, urging them to cover his appearances with the famous. Trump started attending Manhattan's hottest parties in the company of photogenic women he had recruited by calling modeling agencies.

As he told Playboy magazine in 1990, "The show is Trump, and it is sold-out performances everywhere."

False reports about celebrities could be just as good as the real thing: When Trump Tower opened in Manhattan in 1983, Trump touted rumors that Prince Charles and Princess Diana were buying an apartment in the building. In his book "The Art of the Deal," Trump called it "the sale that never occurred" yet boasted that it was "the one that most helped Trump Tower."

After Trump bought the Palm Beach estate Mar-a-Lago in 1985, he spread the word that Diana, Madonna and other big names were joining his new club, even though local newspapers reported that there was no basis for such rumors.

Shannon Donnelly, a longtime society reporter for the Palm Beach Daily News, fielded Trump's calls urging her to cover each celebrity appearance at Mar-a-Lago. She recalled Trump taking Jay Leno around from table to table to chat with guests at one charity event, and William Shatner spending an evening with Trump at another ball.

"I don't know if he was the one adoring the celebrities or they were there to adore him," she said.

Trump often adopted ideas he'd been pitched by celebrity guests, but, as Donnelly noted, "Any member of the club could get his ear. You don't have to be a celebrity to influence him. He's always asking people what they think he should do."

Some big names grew wary of appearing to be too close to Trump. Michael Jackson owned an apartment in Trump Tower and attended a young Ivanka Trump's ballet performances. But Jackson, like Whitney Houston and Liza Minnelli, declined invitations to Trump's 1993 wedding to Marla Maples, reportedly because Trump had left his first wife, Ivana, for Maples in a bitter public drama.

"It's just like I was afraid of, I'm the biggest name here," Howard Stern complained that night to the New York Daily News.

But, at wedding No. 3, to Melania Knauss, the A list showed up. The guests in Palm Beach included Bill and Hillary Clinton, P. Diddy, Billy Joel, Derek Jeter, Matt Lauer, Katie Couric, CBS chief executive Les Moonves and then-NBC television president Jeff Zucker.

That was in 2005, the heyday of Trump's NBC show "The Apprentice," which won strong ratings at first, giving its main character a big national publicity boost. Later, Trump literally surrounded himself with notable names on its offshoot, "Celebrity Apprentice," and some of his guests on that show have made return appearances in the Trump White House.

Kardashian appeared on both shows, and her sister was a contestant on "Celebrity Apprentice." When she met the president in the Oval Office, she broke the ice by joking that "I am here because I really want to know why you kicked Khloe off," as she recounted on NBC's "Today" show.

The next day, Trump said he was considering pardoning Martha Stewart, the lifestyle mogul who was a host of "Celebrity Apprentice," and commuting the sentence of another contestant, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who also appeared on the show.

Trump retained the title of "Celebrity Apprentice" executive producer even after becoming president. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway defended that decision, saying that even presidents "have a right to do things in their spare time." She compared Trump's role on the reality show to Obama's regular golf games.

As Trump entered the White House, experts suggested that he'd have to shift gears from creating spectacles to the inglamorous work of governing. But Trump thought that the same tactics that got him elected would serve him well in office.

In New York, Trump had realized that his celebrity protected him from consequences for his affairs and corporate bankruptcies. Similarly, in the White House, he understands that the same excesses that made him steady tabloid fodder for decades exempt him from the standards usually applied to politicians. He is, instead, judged as sports and entertainment celebrities often are, permitted a range of behavior that would bring down a politician.

So there is actually political benefit to be gained - at least among his supporters - by continuing his nasty feuds with celebrities such as Rosie O'Donnell, Cher, Graydon Carter or Megyn Kelly.

Other presidents, too, have realized the power of celebrities to burnish their own images. Bill Clinton went on Arsenio Hall's late-night talk show to play the saxophone, and Richard Nixon made a cameo appearance on TV's "Laugh-In." Obama did this more extensively, slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon on "The Tonight Show," while his wife rapped with Missy Elliot on a song boosting girls' education. Obama's 2008 opponent, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., ran a TV ad called "Celeb" that linked Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton and accused him of being "the biggest celebrity in the world." On his way out of office, Obama threw an all-night bash at the White House that featured Streep, Tom Hanks, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney.

But Trump, in his relationship with celebrity, as in so many other areas, is unique. In one sense, he has stepped back from the celebrity-politician axis that seemed so prominent during the Clinton and Obama presidencies. In his campaign, Trump blasted Obama for being too close to Hollywood types, and since taking office, Trump has avoided the White House Correspondents Dinner, which has become a symbol of the blurring of lines dividing celebrities, journalists and politicians.

But if there appears to be some distance between Trump and many celebrities, that's not for lack of trying on his part. Elton John, Garth Brooks and Celine Dion all turned down feelers about performing at the inauguration.

What Trump got instead were the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Rockettes and Jackie Evancho, who had appeared on "America's Got Talent."

Sensitive as ever to criticism that he hadn't scored top names, the then-president-elect boasted on Twitter that "The so-called 'A' list celebrities are all wanting tix to the Inauguration. ..."

And Trump was quick to embrace the shout-out he got from West in April. "The mob can't make me not love him," West wrote. "He is my brother."

The president told Kardashian West in the Oval Office that she and her husband were giving his popularity among black voters a significant boost. Donald Trump Jr. called it "a cultural turning point."

The episode brought on the cognitive dissonance of a panel of conservative Fox News commentators praising a rapper who had blasted George W. Bush.

"Once in a while, people come along and they break the mold. Kanye is one of them. Donald Trump is one of them," Fox's Jesse Watters said. Trump "was out, you know, at nighttime taking lots of pictures with other celebrities. And people admired his entrepreneurship, his flashiness, his style and his wealth, and the women that he hung around with. ... You can't underestimate what's going on here."

Near the border, different buses take migrants on starkly different paths

By Maria Sacchetti
Near the border, different buses take migrants on starkly different paths
Marco Carias, who at 41 years old is fleeing threats in Guatemala, talks with Luis Guerrero, who helps migrants, at the McAllen, Texas, bus station on Tuesday. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Maria Sacchetti

MCALLEN, Texas - Buses from America's most controversial immigration jail roll into this border city all day long, transporting parents - and sometimes children - to starkly different fates.

Some families are deposited together at a small depot downtown, free to head to their next destination and begin new lives in the United States while they await hearings or seek asylum in the backlogged immigration courts.

But other buses take the adults alone to a forbidding black office tower nearby, where they stand in shackles and handcuffs as a federal magistrate judge rapid-fire convicts them of illegally entering the United States, virtually assuring their deportation.

Since the Trump administration announced in May it would prosecute 100 percent of all people caught crossing the border illegally - even if that meant separating parents from their children - advocates for immigrants say the system is overwhelmed and leading to sometimes haphazard results.

Migrants facing similar dangers in Central America have ended up on dramatically different paths.

Some are "lucky," said Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. Others, she said, are "sent to serve time."

The disparities are most vivid in the Border Patrol's Rio Grande sector, where the highest number of families are crossing illegally into the United States, nearly 37,000 so far this year.

Parents and children apprehended crossing the border are typically taken to Customs and Border Protection's sprawling processing center on West Ursula Avenue, in a faded industrial park on the outskirts of town. Hundreds have been separated inside the facility, which is ringed by tall, tan fencing and uses interior chain-link fences to separate groups of detainees.

Nationwide, nearly 2,500 children have been taken from their parents since mid-April, according to Homeland Security.

"It's happening every day," said Efren Olivares, racial and economic justice director at the Texas Civil Rights Project who interviews adults at the U.S. District Courthouse before they are prosecuted, typically for the misdemeanor crime of illegally entering the United States. "They're really ramping up the numbers. This week is worse than last week."

At the federal courthouse, 19 parents were separated at the Monday morning session. It rose to 34 by Tuesday morning, when the diverging paths unfolded on a two-block stretch of downtown McAllen, a mostly Hispanic city of 142,000.

Immigration officials released Marco Carias, a 41-year-old farmer from Guatemala detained for crossing the border last week in the Texas town of Roma, even though he had been deported in 2005 and could have been prosecuted for the more serious crime of illegally reentering the United States.

Carias said he hoped he was released because he has a bona fide claim for asylum. In a red shopping bag he carried the police reports from when his son, now 17, was abducted when he was 10. The assailant had recently resurfaced and threatened the entire family.

But his records show an immigration officer released him because of a "lack of space."

"I guess it depends on who you get," he said before boarding a bus to California.

Federal officials also cited the space shortage when they released a 21-year-old single mother from Honduras and her 1 1/2-year-old son, Josua, who floated across the Rio Grande on a crowded raft last week.

She said she is seeking asylum because she fears gang violence, a criteria Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently ruled is unlikely to prevail in immigration courts.

Before she left for the United States this month, she said, she had not heard that the U.S. government planned to separate parents from children and prosecute everyone who crossed the border illegally. Still, she said she would not have changed her mind.

"My life was in danger, my son's life," she said, holding the boy, her son, his new Spider Man sneakers tucked into her bag, as they waited for a bus to New York. "I can't live in my country."

The released migrants wore ankle monitors and must contend with check ins with ICE and, eventually, hearings in immigration court. They could eventually lose their cases and be ordered deported.

But they had support from volunteers at the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center, a welcoming spot across from the courthouse where migrants can get a bowl of hot chicken soup, take a nap or watch a soccer game on a big-screen TV. Volunteers hand out razors, boxes of diapers in different sizes and fliers for the bus stop that says, "Please help me. I do not speak English. What bus do I need to take?"

These migrants have a chance of staying in the United States, unlike most of the 120 or so adults who faced Magistrate Judge J. Scott Hacker on Tuesday in U.S. District Court.

Just before 2 p.m. about 50 migrants - mostly men - shuffled into the courtroom in arm and leg shackles, filling three rows of wooden benches.

The judge handled them all at once, pointing to each person as if he were a preacher at Sunday services. He asked each how they came to America. Almost everyone had crossed the Rio Grande in a boat or a rubber raft. Some swam across. One man said he walked until the water covered his head.

"I will accept all your guilty pleas," he said

About half were sentenced to time served because they had no prior records.

The rest faced more serious consequences, including a young man wearing a Yankees T-shirt who spoke perfect English because he was raised in the United States. He had been deported for drunken driving and had tried to sneak back in.

Abel Guerrero, the federal public defender, tried to speak for each one, explaining many repeat offenders were trying to join their families in Texas, North Carolina and Massachusetts.

A man with three convictions for illegally reentering the United States received 60 days in jail.

"You should know better by now," Hacker admonished him.

Another man had been apprehended 11 times and had two recent convictions for illegally coming to the United States.

Guerrero said the man is trying to visit his mother in Houston. "She is sick. She's actually dying of cancer," he told the judge. He said the woman has seven months to live.

Hacker sentenced the man to two months in jail, after which he - like the others - could be deported.

Most of the migrants had nothing to say, but three women asked when they would see their children again. After the parents and children are separated for the criminal prosecutions, the children are sent to shelters run by U.S. Health and Human Services.

"Hopefully," the judge told one woman in response, "those officials will reunite you with your child."

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Video: The Washington Post's immigration reporter, Maria Sacchetti describes what happens to migrant after crossing into the U.S.(Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

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By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER

EDITORS -- The following Charles Krauthammer column was originally published on Dec. 13, 1985. It's the first of two pieces from his archives that we are resending, at no charge for publication. Krauthammer died Thursday, June 21, at age 68. Find additional memorial content at syndication.washingtonpost.com/nss/special.

A Lutheran minister once called comets the "thick smoke of human sins," a hypothesis that finds little support nowadays among scientists. They prefer to see comets as big dirty snowballs trailing tails of gas and enthralled by gravitation. And coming not from God but from the equally ineffable Oort cloud, a gigantic shell far beyond the solar system where aspiring comets spend eons of quiet desperation until disturbed by some celestial accident and called to race toward the sun and make men weep.

Except that men don't weep anymore. Halley's Comet may have brought victory to the Normans in 1066, heralded the descent of Turkish armies on Belgrade in 1456, and, in 1910, killed Mark Twain and then Edward VII. This time around all is forgiven. After all, it knows not what it does. And we know what it is: a forlorn mass of rock and ice, a few miles across, caught in endless revolution around our sun. Now an object, not an omen, it is the source not of panic but of curiosity. Five earthly spacecraft have been sent to greet it and snap its picture.

Science has thoroughly desacralized the universe. It is in the language. When in the last election Walter Mondale warned against militarizing "the heavens," the usage seemed quaint. After Neil Armstrong and George Lucas, what's up there now is simply "space." The heavens were a place for angels, gods and portentous messengers. Space is home to extraterrestrials, the Force and now snowballs cruising through emptiness.

Don't get me wrong. I am not pining for the days of the witch doctor. Things are much better now. There are costs to demystifying the universe and turning it over to science -- the ubiquity of Carl Sagan is among the heavier ones -- but the gain is great.

Halley's, like the rest of space, is friendly now, tamed. This will probably be the first time in history that Halley's will bring wonder unalloyed with fear. Halley's has turned into a celebration, a scientific romance.

The romance is in the return. Halley's comes back, always exactly on time. After its current pass, it will travel 3 billion miles away from Earth and then turn to revisit your children. It is the grandest reminder that an individual can behold of the constancy of nature. This, because of its cycle: it returns about every 75 years, once in a lifetime.

The sun rises regularly, too, but so often that we can't help being dulled to the wonder of its rhythm. And what rhythms, beyond that of the familiar year, really touch us? Sun spots come every 11 years, and what layman cares? Economists are forever coming up with "long waves" (50 years) and other putative business cycles. Even Freud's theory of neurosis was built on the notion of a distant return, the return of the child to the mind of the man. Such cycles can most charitably be called speculative.

Others are merely too long. The ice age will be back too. Fit that in your calendar. Halley's alone is made to human scale. Its span is precisely a lifetime. Birth and death are perhaps the only events that match Halley's periodicity. And neither is nearly as reliable. Birth and death come with regular irregularity (to borrow a term from cardiology). Halley's you can count on.

We know, for example, absolutely nothing about what the world will be like in 2061. Except one thing. In that unimaginable year, a year whose very number has an otherworldly look, Halley's will light up the sky.

One price of demystifying the universe is that science, unlike religion, asks only how, not why. As to the purpose of things, science is silent. But if science cannot talk about meaning, it can talk about harmony. And Halley's is at once a symbol and a proof of a deep harmony of the spheres.

The great author of that harmony was Newton. And one of the earliest empirical demonstrations of his gravitational theories was provided by his friend, Edmond Halley. Twenty-three years after the great comet of 1682, Halley deciphered its logic. He predicted its return in 1758. Halley died 17 years before he could be proved right. The return of the comet was a sensation. It made Halley immortal. True to its nature, science wed the comet forever to the man who did not discover it, but was the first to understand it.

This time around, there will be no sensation. Halley's will give one of the worst shows ever. This may be its dimmest apparition in more than 2,000 years. What we will celebrate, then, is not the spectacle, but the idea.

Halley's is a monument to science, a spokesman for its new celestial harmonies -- and an intimation of mortality. It is at once recurring and, for us individually, singular. This will be my only Halley's and, if you're old enough to read this without moving your lips, your last one too, I'm afraid.

Halley's speaks to me especially acutely. As it turns around the sun, the midpoint on its journey, I will be marking the midpoint in mine, or so say the Metropolitan Life tables. Our perihelions match. Mark Twain was rather pleased with the fact that he came in with Halley's and would go out with it. Ashes to ashes, Oort to Oort. Hail Halley's.

Charles Krauthammer's email address is letters@charleskrauthammer.com.

(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group

The central axiom of partisan politics

By charles krauthammer
The central axiom of partisan politics

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER COLUMN

(SPECIAL COLUMN FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Krauthammer clients only)

By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER

EDITORS -- The following Charles Krauthammer column was originally published on July 26, 2002. It's the second of two pieces from his archives that we are resending, at no charge for publication. Krauthammer died Thursday, June 21, at age 68. Find additional memorial content at syndication.washingtonpost.com/nss/special.

To understand the workings of American politics, you have to understand this fundamental law: Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.

For the first side of this equation, I need no sources. As a conservative, I can confidently attest that whatever else my colleagues might disagree about -- Bosnia, John McCain, precisely how many orphans we're prepared to throw into the snow so the rich can have their tax cuts -- we all agree that liberals are stupid.

We mean this, of course, in the nicest way. Liberals tend to be nice, and they believe -- here is where they go stupid -- that most everybody else is nice too. Deep down, that is. Sure, you've got your multiple felon and your occasional war criminal, but they're undoubtedly depraved 'cause they're deprived. If only we could get social conditions right -- eliminate poverty, teach anger management, restore the ozone, arrest John Ashcroft -- everyone would be holding hands smiley-faced, rocking back and forth to "We Shall Overcome."

Liberals believe that human nature is fundamentally good. The fact that this is contradicted by, oh, 4,000 years of human history simply tells them how urgent is the need for their next seven-point program for the social reform of everything.

Liberals suffer incurably from naivete, the stupidity of the good heart. Who else but that oracle of American liberalism, The New York Times, could run the puzzled headline: "Crime Keeps On Falling, but Prisons Keep On Filling." But? How about this wild theory: If you lock up the criminals, crime declines.

Accordingly, the conservative attitude toward liberals is one of compassionate condescension. Liberals are not quite as reciprocally charitable. It is natural. They think conservatives are mean. How can conservatives believe in the things they do -- self-reliance, self-discipline, competition, military power -- without being soulless? How to understand the conservative desire to actually abolish welfare, if it is not to punish the poor? The argument that it would increase self-reliance and thus ultimately reduce poverty is dismissed as meanness rationalized -- or as Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y., put it more colorfully in a recent House debate on welfare reform, "a cold-blooded grab for another pound of flesh from the demonized welfare mothers."

Liberals, who have no head (see above), believe that conservatives have no heart. When Republicans unexpectedly took control of the House of Representatives in 1994, conventional wisdom immediately attributed this disturbance in the balance of the cosmos to the vote of the "angry white male" (an invention unsupported by the three polls that actually asked about anger and found three-quarters of white males not angry.)

The "angry white male" was thus a legend, but a necessary one. It was unimaginable that conservatives could be given power by any sentiment less base than anger, the selfish fury of the former top dog -- the white male -- forced to accommodate the aspirations of women, minorities and sundry upstarts.

The legend lives. Years ago it was Newt Gingrich as the Grinch who stole Christmas. Today, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman declares the Bush administration the moral equivalent of Jean-Marie Le Pen, France's far right, xenophobic, anti-Semitic heir to European fascism. Both apparently represent the "angry right." But in America, writes Krugman, it is worse: "Here the angry people are already running the country."

This article of liberal faith -- that conservatism is not just wrong but angry, mean and, well, bad -- produces one paradox after another. Thus the online magazine Slate devoted an article to attempting to explain the "two faces" of Paul Gigot, editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal. The puzzle is how a conservative could have such a "winning cocktail-party personality and talk-show cordiality." Gigot, it turns out, is "Janus-faced": regular guy -- "plays basketball with working reporters" -- yet conservative! "By day he wrote acid editorials ... by night he polished his civilized banter [on TV]."

A classic of the genre -- liberal amazement when it finds conservatism coexisting with human decency in whatever form -- is the New York Times news story speaking with unintended candor about bioethicist Leon Kass: "Critics of Dr. Kass' views call him a neoconservative thinker. ... But critics and admirers alike describe him as thoughtful and dignified."

But? Neoconservative but thoughtful and dignified. A sighting: rare, oxymoronic, newsworthy.

The venerable David Halberstam, writing in praise of the recently departed Ted Williams, offered yet another sighting: "He was politically conservative but in his core the most democratic of men." Amazing.

The most troubling paradox of all, of course, is George W. Bush. Compassionate, yet conservative? Reporters were fooled during the campaign. "Because Bush seemed personally pleasant," explained Slate, "[they] assumed his politics lay near the political center."

What else could one assume? Pleasant and conservative? Ah, yes, Grampa told of seeing one such in the Everglades. But that was 1926.

Charles Krauthammer's email address is letters@charleskrauthammer.com.

(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group

If Melania really doesn't care, then who does?

By ruth marcus
If Melania really doesn't care, then who does?

RUTH MARCUS COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE. (This replaces the column that would usually be for release Sunday, June 24.))

(For Marcus clients only)

By RUTH MARCUS

"I Really Don't Care. Do U?" So First Lady Melania Trump advertised, in large letters on the back of a jacket made superfluous by the muggy summer weather, as she traveled to and from visiting migrant children at a Texas shelter.

It was impossible to divine with certainty what Trump was trying to communicate, except to know that the huffy official response -- "There was no hidden message," her communications director insisted -- was obviously untrue, unless in the sense that the message was not hidden at all, but emblazoned on the back of the jacket.

When you leave the house, you may grab whatever ratty sweatshirt is at hand. Not Melania Trump, former fashion model. The last news-making jacket that she wore was a $51,000 floral applique number from Dolce & Gabbana. Did the first lady have this one, off the rack from Zara for $39, stashed in her closet, awaiting the perfect moment?

In any event, the #ItsJustAJacket claim, and the accompanying lecture to the media to "spend their time & energy on her actions & efforts to help kids -- rather than speculate & focus on her wardrobe -- was, as things tend to be in Trumpworld, quickly contradicted by the president, who advised that the nonexistent message was actually a middle finger to "the Fake News Media." The first lady, he said, "has learned how dishonest they are, and she truly no longer cares!"

Yeah, right. It was a message to the traveling press -- just one that required two tries and presidential interpretation to deliver.

But the more interesting, and more answerable question, may be why Melania Trump's self-proclaimed insouciance felt so unnerving. I think it has to do with our national craving for a sense that someone, anyone, in this depraved administration retains some moral compass and basic human decency. If not Melania, then who? If not now, when?

Donald Trump is unsuited for many aspects of the presidency, none so much as the president's role as healer-in-chief. We are suffering from the national trauma of hearing the cries of children separated from their parents, possibly permanently. But this president cannot alleviate that trauma; he is the one who chose to inflict it.

Consider the reputational and political damage that accrued to George W. Bush with his incompetent and seemingly unfeeling -- recall the famous airplane flyby -- response to Hurricane Katrina. But Katrina was an act of God. The crying children are an act of Trump.

And so this administration must outsource its compassion. To some extent, this is convenient for the president, too. Trump does tough, and leaves the soft stuff to the women around him. Hence his eagerness to announce, as he backtracked from his lock-'em-up approach, that Melania Trump -- "My wife feels very strongly about it" -- and his daughter Ivanka had implored him to do so.

"The dilemma is that if you're weak ... if you're really, really pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people," Trump said Wednesday. "And if you're strong, then you don't have any heart. ... Perhaps I would rather be strong, but that's a tough dilemma."

He would rather be strong -- the Trump presidency in a nutshell.

Which leaves us with Melania Trump. Is it possible that she meant to say that she didn't give a hoot about the children? But she didn't seem like someone who was being dispatched to Texas under duress -- more like someone who was signaling, as best she could, that she did not back this immoral program.

Convict Melania Trump of selfish complicity, maybe -- certainly of a relentless failure of self-awareness with her #bebest insistence that she cares about combating cyber-bullying. Say that she issued a pre-reversal statement notable for its mealy mouthed evenhandedness.

Still, that was more than Certain Others could choke out (Ivanka Trump, that means you, as my colleague Karen Tumulty noted.) And a sitting First Lady was never going to go full Laura Bush, comparing her husband's policies with the internment of Japanese-Americans.

Perhaps this is too kind to Melania Trump, and it is more accurate to understand her as calculating collaborator than prisoner in a gilt-encrusted cage. Yet one of the astonishing aspects of the family separation debacle has been that no administration official -- not a single one -- had enough of a moral compass to quit in protest.

And so we are reduced to grasping at the crumbs of compassion tossed by Melania Trump. If she really doesn't care, no one in this benighted administration does. Which may well be true but does not make it any less tragic.

Ruth Marcus' email address is ruthmarcus@washpost.com.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

The real hoax about the border crisis

By catherine rampell
The real hoax about the border crisis

THE MILLENNIAL VIEW

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Rampell clients only)

By CATHERINE RAMPELL

It's all a hoax. A great big hoax.

Not the family separations, the babies alone in cages, the drugged immigrant children, the stolen toddlers too traumatized to speak, the wailing children whom Ann Coulter slanders as "child actors."

Sadly, those cruelties are all too real.

The hoax is the premise that President Trump's administration has invented to rationalize such crimes against humanity: his narrative that America has been "infest[ed]" with hordes of crime-committing, culture-diluting, job-stealing, tax-shirking, benefits-draining "aliens."

No part of that description is remotely true. Yet the Trump administration seems to have successfully shifted the national dialogue away from "(BEG ITAL)Do(END ITAL) we have a border immigration problem?" to "What's the right way to (BEG ITAL)fix(END ITAL) our border immigration problem?"

Truly, it's bizarre. Unauthorized border crossings have been falling over time. In fact, apprehensions of unauthorized immigrants along the Southwest border last fiscal year declined to about 300,000, the lowest level since 1971, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. They've risen in recent months, though year-to-date they're still below historical levels.

Let's say you believe, though, that even those numbers are too high, because of the calamities these immigrants have been inflicting upon America's public safety, culture and economy.

Trump, after all, suggests that even one border-crosser is too many, since most come bringing crime, drugs and general bloodthirst.

In fact, immigrants in general, and undocumented immigrants in particular, commit crimes at far lower rates than native-born Americans. That includes violent crime, according to research from the Cato Institute. Another recent study, published in the journal Criminology, found that states with larger shares of undocumented immigrants tended to have (BEG ITAL)lower(END ITAL) crime rates. The finding jibes with lots of earlier research, too.

Which makes sense: Most immigrants want to stay off law enforcement's radar. One wrong move, after all, could get them deported -- in some cases, to their death.

So let's consider the (BEG ITAL)other(END ITAL) claims that Trump makes about our supposed alien infestation, such as foreigners' alleged assault on our culture and values.

The gothic horrors of a "taco truck on every corner" notwithstanding, recent waves of immigrants have actually proved themselves reasonably adept at assimilating into American culture. Particularly those given the opportunity to escape the shadows.

"Immigrants are now more assimilated, on average, than at any point since the 1980s," according to a 2013 study by Jacob L. Vigdor for the Manhattan Institute, using metrics such as English-language ability and intermarriage rates.

But maybe you say immigrants' real damage is economic, as those not-at-all-bigoted "economic nationalists" claim. Immigrants are stealing our jobs, our benefits and shortchanging Uncle Sam!

This is a curious claim to make in a labor market with 3.8 percent unemployment. Nonetheless, let's consider what the research says about the longer-term relationship between immigration levels and job market health.

There's reason to believe that new immigrants may depress wages for earlier waves of immigrants who have similar skill sets. However, recent studies suggest that immigration (both authorized and unauthorized) actually boosts labor force participation rates, productivity and wages and reduces unemployment rates for native-born American workers, whose skills these immigrants tend to complement.

But don't these people drain the public coffers?

Immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, pay taxes -- taxes that fund government benefits that in many cases they are not legally eligible to collect.

A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that the net fiscal impact of first-generation immigrants, compared to otherwise similar natives, is positive at the federal level and negative at the state and local levels. That's due mostly to the costs of educating their children. When their children grow up, though, 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." In other words, by the second generation, immigrants are net-positive for government budgets at all levels.

What about the most destitute immigrants who come here, though? Surely they're sucking the government dry!

Nope.

An internal government report (BEG ITAL)commissioned by Trump(END ITAL) found that refugees brought in $63 billion more in tax revenue over the past decade than they cost the government. Finding those results inconvenient, the administration suppressed them, though they were ultimately leaked to The New York Times last year.

It's hard to comprehend how Trump has so successfully hijacked the national conversation around immigration. With virtually no facts on his side, he has managed to fabricate a multipart border emergency, and convince a majority of his own party that this imagined emergency necessitates state-sanctioned child abuse. Sadly, Trump's manufactured crisis has now led to very real tragedy.

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

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Charles Krauthammer, a diagnostician of our public discontents

By george f. will
Charles Krauthammer, a diagnostician of our public discontents

GEORGE WILL COLUMN

(SPECIAL COLUMN FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Will clients only)

By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON -- When he was asked how to become a columnist, Charles Krauthammer would say, with characteristic drollery, "First, you go to medical school." He did, with psychiatry as his specialty because, he said with characteristic felicity, it combined the practicality of medicine and the elegance of philosophy. But he also came to the columnist craft by accident. Because of one.

It has been said that if we had to think about tying our shoes or combing our hair we would never get out of the house in the morning. Life is mostly habitual -- do you actually remember any details of driving home last evening? The more of life's functions that are routinely performed without thinking, the more thinking we can do. That, however, is not how life was for Charles after his accident.

In 1972, when he was a 22-year-old student at Harvard Medical School, he was swimming in a pool. Someone pushed the diving board out, extending over a shallower part of the pool. Charles, not realizing this, dove and broke his neck. At the bottom of the pool, "I knew exactly what happened. I knew why I wasn't able to move, and I knew what that meant." It meant that life was going to be different than he and Robyn had anticipated when they met at Oxford.

He left two books at the pool. One was a text on the spinal cord. The other was Andre Malraux's novel "Man's Fate."

Paralyzed from the neck down, he completed medical school, did an internship and, one thing leading to another, as life has a way of doing, became not a jewel in the crown of the medical profession, which he would have been, but one of America's foremost public intellectuals. Nothing against doctors, but the nation needed Charles more as a diagnostician of our public discontents.

During the 1980 presidential campaign, Charles wrote speeches for the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Walter Mondale, who did not realize -- neither did Charles -- that the campaign harbored a thinker who soon would be a leading light of contemporary conservatism. Dictating columns when not driving himself around Washington in a specially designed van that he operated while seated in his motorized wheelchair, crisscrossing the country to deliver speeches to enthralled audiences, Charles drew on reserves of energy and willpower to overcome a multitude of daily challenges, any one of which would cause most people to curl up in a fetal position. Fortunately, with more brain cells to spare than the rest us have to use, he could think about doing what was no longer habitual, and about national matters, too.

Charles died at 68, as did, 19 years ago, Meg Greenfield, the editor of The Washington Post's editorial page. For many years, Meg, Charles and this columnist met for Saturday lunches with a guest -- usually someone then newsworthy; now completely forgotten -- at a Washington greasy spoon whose name, the Chevy Chase Lounge, was grander than the place. Like Meg, Charles was one of those vanishingly rare Washingtonians who could be both likable and logical. This is not easy in a town where the local industry, politics -- unlike, say, engineering; get things wrong and the bridges buckle -- thrives on unrefuted errors.

Medicine made Charles intimate with finitude -- the skull beneath the skin of life; the fact that expiration is written into the lease we have on our bodies. And his accident gave him a capacity for sympathy, as Rick Ankiel knows.

Ankiel was a can't-miss, Cooperstown-bound pitching phenomenon for the St. Louis Cardinals -- until, suddenly and inexplicably, he could not find the plate. Starting the opening game of a playoff series at age 21, the prodigy threw five wild pitches and his career rapidly spiraled far down to ... resurrection as a 28-year-old major league outfielder, for a short but satisfying stint in defiance of F. Scott Fitzgerald's dictum that there are no second acts in a life. As Charles wrote, Ankiel's saga illustrated "the catastrophe that awaits everyone from a single false move, wrong turn, fatal encounter. Every life has such a moment. What distinguishes us is whether -- and how -- we ever come back."

The health problems that would end Charles' life removed him from the national conversation nine months ago, so his legion of admirers already know that he validated this axiom: Some people are such a large presence while living that they still occupy space even when they are gone.

George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Trump is hurling a wrecking ball toward the trans-Atlantic alliance

By david ignatius
Trump is hurling a wrecking ball toward the trans-Atlantic alliance

DAVID IGNATIUS COLUMN

(Advance for Friday, June 22, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, June 21, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Ignatius clients only)

WRITETHRU: 4th graf, adding penultimate sentence: "The sessions weren't for attribution, but some of the speakers agreed to comment on the record."

By DAVID IGNATIUS

BRUSSELS -- A bright banner at NATO's lavish new headquarters here proclaims the core conviction of the trans-Atlantic alliance: "We are together. We are strong." But the words seem a bit hollow these days, as President Trump escalates his attacks on America's traditional European partners.

Trump's "America First" policies have shaken many of the nations that looked to Washington as their ally and protector. He has imposed steep tariffs on European steel and aluminum imports and is said to be preparing similar tariffs against European automakers. He hectored European leaders at this month's G-7 summit meeting and refused to sign the communique -- and suggested that Russia rejoin the elite group, even as Europe tries to resist Moscow's aggressive policies.

Europeans were dazed and in denial during the first year of Trump's presidency, but they're now talking about ways to fight back. That was the message of a gathering here this week of European and American foreign-policy experts to discuss the "Crisis across the Atlantic." Conference participants described the rupture as "toxic," "an electric shock," "an unraveling" and a possible "train wreck."

"This is the most serious trans-Atlantic crisis in 70 years, because the Europeans do not believe that Trump is committed to the European Union, NATO or the democratic values that are the foundation of the alliance," argued Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state who directs the Aspen Strategy Group, which helped organize the meeting. The sessions weren't for attribution, but some of the speakers agreed to comment on the record. (I was invited as a member of the strategy group.)

Europeans and Americans say they fear that trans-Atlantic tension may disrupt the NATO summit planned here next month. Trump is scheduled to attend, but his possible meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, before or after, may overshadow the NATO session. And Trump may use the Brussels gathering to lecture Europeans anew, widening the fissure.

"A NATO summit has only one deliverable, which is cohesion and solidarity," notes Douglas Lute, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. "The likelihood is that we'll come out with disagreements on the communique," which could produce a "destructive summit."

Trump's pique at Europe has been evident since the first days of his presidency. As one conference attendee put it, the European Union represents everything Trump hates: It's multilateral, liberal in its social policies, committed to free trade, anxious about climate change and, worst of all, unwilling to pay enough for its defense.

A special Trump target has been German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who leads Europe's strongest economy. With Merkel facing unrest within her governing coalition, Trump this week took the astonishing step of attacking her government in what amounted to a presidential intervention in German politics. "The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition," Trump tweeted. Even by Trump's standards, this was a shocker.

What's new is that Europeans are pushing back. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas last week blasted Trump's "egoistic policy of 'America First,'" and said that "the Atlantic has become wider" during his presidency. "That world order that we once knew ... no longer exists," he lamented.

Europe's retaliation starts with what Maas called "appropriate countermeasures" against the steel and aluminum tariffs. Europeans here talked of a broader effort to develop independent European security policies, so that nations are less dependent on a newly unreliable America. Francois Heisbourg, a French security expert, urged Europeans to "speak softly and build a big stick."

Mark Leonard, who heads the European Council on Foreign Relations, argued that Europe should stop "appeasement" of Trump and focus on its own security interests. This stance was endorsed by Philip Zelikow, a former State Department official who teaches at the University of Virginia. He cautioned against fretting before the NATO summit: "Will the good Donald Trump show up or the bad one? Will he praise us or spank us? This is infantilism."

The Euro-American confrontation will deepen if the Trump administration follows through on its threat to impose secondary sanctions against European companies that do business with Iran, after the U.S. has withdrawn from the nuclear deal. One former senior EU official argued that Europe should respond not simply with a "blocking statute" that checks American reprisals, but with its own countersanctions against American companies.

If you've grown up in the benign shadow of the trans-Atlantic alliance, and viewed this partnership as a pillar of global peace and prosperity, these are strange times indeed. It took seven decades to build this structure, but the wrecking ball that is the Trump presidency is assaulting it, piece by piece. Here's hoping he fails.

David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

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