KAI WRIGHT: I'm Kai Wright. And this is the United States of Anxiety - a show about the unfinished business of our history, and its grip on our future.
KAI: I think this is our boat coming now.
KAI: A few weeks ago, I went with one of our producers down to lower Manhattan, and I got on a ferry at 7 am, to do something New Yorkers never really do.
VERALYN WILLIAMS: The last time I was here was fourth grade.
KAI: Well, at least not as adults. Veralyn Williams was a Bronx kid.
VERALYN: So there’s a picture of me and my sister, like, leaned up against it. And that’s it. That’s my memory of the Statue of Liberty.
KAI: Well it was fourth grade. It’s a long time ago.
VERALYN: Not that long ago, Kai.
KAI: But this is one of the most visited tourist sites in all of the United States. I mean, at the peak of the tourist season, it’s something like 25,000 people a day board ferries and ride out to get an up close look at Lady Liberty.
KAI: It’s such an arresting visual, you know, you get the whole back of Lady Liberty and World Trade Center rising in the fog.
KAI: And it really is a cool experience. Honestly, I mean, you ride through New York Harbor, the skyscrapers of Manhattan receding behind you as you chug towards Liberty Island. And when you land, there are really just two things on this little island: There’s Lady Liberty, standing tall over you, and there’s now this brand new museum… which is what we came to see, actually, because the museum is meant to remind everybody why there’s a giant statue in this harbor -- and I should say, it’s not for the reason I thought.
JIM ELKIN: Hi, my name's Jim Elkin. Park ranger at the Statue of Liberty National Monument.
KAI: Thank you for having us out here, Jim. And you've been doing this since 1994.
KAI: Look, there’s no other way to say this: Jim Elkin is a geeeeek over this statue.
JIM: I personally have a connection because I've always been torn between art and nature. And besides being an incredible work of art, its location is also a migratory corridor for countless forms of biota.
KAI: Yes, he said “biota.” I love this man.
JIM: We've had a whale breach in 2016, right in front of the statue. A humpback whale.
KAI: Oh wow.
JIM: So you never know what you'll see if you're a lover of nature.
KAI: Jim taught us all these awesome little facts about Lady Liberty. And he made me see it, for the first time really, as a piece of art.
KAI: Well, take us around.
KAI: As a sculpture.
JIM: This enables the visitor to have the unique opportunity to walk face to face, right up to liberty.
KAI: It’s an exact replica of her face -- same size, same design, everything.
VERALYN: And this is copper?
JIM: And it is copper, and the other incredible...
KAI: Here’s the detail that got me: Jim reached around the side of the copper face and he showed us how thin the whole sculpture is. I mean it’s really just the thickness of just two pennies squeezed together.
JIM: So this enormously heavy looking statue is actually a very frail, fragile, dainty thing.
KAI: Liberty is fragile and requires care.
JIM: And is timeless and powerful at the same time, which is a contradiction, but fascinating nonetheless.
KAI: There are all sorts of these little metaphors and symbols in the design. I mean, first off, the work’s formal name is Liberty Enlightening the World. And she’s not standing still; she’s caught mid-stride, her robes flowing as she holds that lantern not just up, but forward — to light the way ahead. And she’s got broken chains at her feet—because it turns out, she’s stepping forward out of bondage. The Statue of Liberty was conceived by abolitionists.
Jim Elkins: So here's de Laboulaye. And he was the founder.
KAI: This is our guy.
KAI: They were French activists who had been part of the global movement to end slavery in the Americas. Now, most people are probably like me -- They don’t associate Lady Liberty with the anti-slavery movement; they associate her with the poem on her pedastal… “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But this sculpture was conceived in 1865, when the Civil War ended with the emancipation of enslaved black people. And abolitionists all around the world wanted to tell the United States: You know what? You are now a symbol of a massive idea—that freedom is universal. So they began building this massive monument to that ideal.
VERALYN: Can I ask a difficult question? I guess, like, does it live up to that ideal for a black Americans? And is that something that is thought about alongside this history?
JIM: It does, because this statue gets to the bottom of what our ideals are, what we strive to be. We don't necessarily have to realize them, but we attempt to realize them throughout our lives. That we wish to be free. We wish to be happy and it's not always achievable. But we try. It's a struggle.
KAI: Yeah, a struggle. I’ve been talking about Reconstruction this season -- that brief period following the Civil War when there was such promise. When the grand ideas of this country -- equal opportunity; liberty and justice for all -- were first written into our Constitution. But here’s the irony that occured to me after visiting Lady Liberty: President Grover Clevand presided over her official dedication in the fall of 1886. He would also shortly go on to preside over one of the most bleak periods in American history. Historian Eric Foner says that by the early 1890s, just a few years after the statue’s dedication, the Reconstruction era was definitively over and the country had begun to reverse all that work that had been done to create a interracial democracy after war.
ERIC FONER: Around 1891 or 92, Frederick Douglas in a speech said, you know, we are living at a time when principals that we thought had been firmly established are being challenged and overthrown. We're in a post anti-slavery world, he says. And in a way, we're like that too. Principles that one thought had been established, are under challenge now.
KAI: Certainly, the principles we’ve come to associate with the Statue of Liberty are under very real challenge now.
DONALD TRUMP CLIP 1: You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.
DONALD TRUMP CLIP 2: Yet left wing politicians support sanctuary cities that release criminal aliens directly into the American community [crowd boos].
KAI: And what I discovered when I looked back at the period that followed Reconstruction is that when those who opposed racial equality came back to power, they didn’t only undo the gains black people had made. They also laid the foundation for today’s ugly fight over immigration.
JULIAN CASTRO: They are using section 1325 of that act, which criminalizes coming across the border, to incarcerate the parents and then separate them.
KAI: In this episode Seth Freed Wessler is going to tell the story of a few sentences, written into the law in the grim period after Reconstruction, by a man who wanted to make America white again. And those sentences are now shaping the lives of huge numbers of people who show up at our border, whether they’re seeking asylum or just looking to work and to be with family. Seth is a reporting fellow with Type Investigations. He’s a journalist I’ve worked with a lot over the past decade. And he begins, in a small town in Mexico, called Ojinaga.
[Sound of bells]
SETH FREED WESSLER: So Ojinaga, it sits just on the U.S.- Mexico border -- just across from the Rio Grande River. Sort of picture this dry, expansive arid land and these dusty streets that stretch out of the town. It’s a really beautiful place.
[Sounds of Seth arriving at church]
KAI: And so why were you there?
SETH: Well I went there actually to attend a memorial service for a man named Carlos Aguirre Venegas. He was a father of three young kids. A Mexican citizen, who died really young. He was just 30 years old.
[Sounds of people singing in church]
SETH: His service was held in a village in a little church just outside of Ojinaga. Carlos’s uncles and his aunts and his cousins and his mother and their community had all gathered there. There were a bunch of little kids running around.
[Sounds of kids]
SETH: I can stay here with them if you want.
SETH: And it’s there where I met Carlo’s partner, Berenice.
BERENICE: We’ll see the horses in a little while, okay?
CHILD: No, I want to touch him!
SETH: She’s in her mid 30s, long brown hair, wearing jeans and a plaid shirt. She was talking to all of the relatives, making sure to talk to everyone.
BERENICE: This is Anna Maria right here. Santa Maria, it was like his second mother.
SETH: And then we went to the spot where Carlos was buried.
SETH: Can you tell me, where are we?
BERENICE: Right now we are in the cemetery of La Esmeralda, Carlo’s hometown.
SETH: We stepped out amongst all of these white gravestones and wooden crosses in the ground.
SETH: Can you just read what it says on the wood?
BERENICE: Um, it says Carlos Aguirre Venegas. Diez de Octubre del dos mil catorce.
SETH: And just beyond the cemetery and this town that we’re in is this gorgeous mountain range. And it stretches between the US and the Mexican sides of the border.
BERENICE: Sierra. That’s pretty much how we look...
SETH: And that hit me because Carlos was somebody who spent a lot of his time moving over that border, back and forth between Mexico and the US, without documentation.
BERENICE: There’s the main river right there. On the other side, I don’t know if you see that little house way over there. That’s actually like a ranch. That little ranch sometimes when they’re trying to cross over to the United States they pass through there. Because I remember Carlos would point it out to me all the time. And the cemetery is actually the perfect view to your way out of here.
SETH: Carlos Venegas was born and raised in this little town. And it's a town where forever, for certainly as long as he could remember, as long as his mother could remember, people would cross back over between Mexico and Texas to work because they had family there. And all his life, he sort of assumed that's what he would do. And so one day, when he was still a teenager around the year 2000, he set off over those mountains and headed to the house in Texas where his aunt lived. [Microphone handling noise]
SETH: Do you remember when Carlos made the decision to come over for the first time?
JUNIOR LUJAN: I don't remember exactly how old he was. But I’m guessing around 18...
SETH: Junior Lujan was Carlos’s cousin. And he said Carlos just showed up one day after walking three days and four nights into Texas. JUNIOR: I remember he got -- when he got here he was hungry, you know, thirsty. His feet were so blistered up like, man. It was like he couldn't walk for a whole week. He actually just sat and laid in bed until his blisters went down. But he was just excited that he got here to start working, trying to find a better life, you know.
SETH: Carlos got a job in construction. Roofing mainly. And from time to time he’d go back to Ojiana, where his family was.
SETH: How many times do you think he came?
JUNIOR: Ah, man. I'm saying at least four or five times minimum. I mean, I'm pretty sure it was more than that.
SETH: For years, the border was a thing you crossed to work, to spend time with family. It was a relatively permeable thing. And sometimes people would be stopped. Most often they’d be deported. Carlos had been sent back to Mexico a number of times. And in fact, that’s where he met Berenice.
BERENICE: Our parents were friends.
SETH: She was actually from his town in Mexico.
BERENICE: So I've known him since we were way young.
SETH: But she had a green card in the U.S. and she was living in Odessa, Texas.
SETH: What did you notice about him? Do you remember that? BERENICE: Hi kindness, his kindness, his tenderness, his... Out of like the whole bunch of his friends, he was the only one that -- wouldn't… that all of his little hitting words like, “Oh my God.” “Gorgeous.” Stuff like that. I mean, he wasn’t the type of person that would be at bars, would be at parties. I mean, Carlos never stepped foot in a club. He didn’t even know how to dance. That wasn't his thing. And that attracted me to him a lot.
SETH: Berenice and Carlos got closer. They settled in Texas together. They had a family. But at the time this was happening -- in the mid-2000s -- the border was really starting to change. Instead of just sending people back, deporting them, federal officials, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice began to treat this act of crossing the border as a crime. And in 2011, Carlos was picked up by a police officer after a traffic stop and charged with the crime of entering the U.S. after having been previously deported. And a federal judge in Texas sentenced Carlos to 13 months in a federal prison. Just as he and Berenice were expecting their second daughter.
BERENICE: I got to go to his visitation a week after she was born. Went and took her in. He got to see through a video camera, because that's how visitations are there. It's through a little video camera and TV. And I kept like raising the baby. He's like, “Oh my God, I can't see her. She's so tiny.” And he was like, “I wish I could touch her,” because he was never able to be there.
KAI: Okay, Seth. Let’s just back up here for a minute. There’s obviously tons of conversation about the way the immigration system doesn’t work. A lot of people agree on that point. A lot of people, though, do think that crossing the border ought to be a crime. So I guess my question is: When did that become true? When did we start criminalizing crossing the border?
SETH: Well, there are actually two separate laws. They’re called section 1325 and 1326 of the US criminal code -- illegal entry and illegal re-entry. You can think of them as one. And it has this long and really ugly history.
KAI: What do you mean?
SETH: Well, its origins date back almost a century to the late 1920s when there was really a frenzy over keeping the United States white.
KAI: Right, it’s the 1920s. We are decades removed from Reconstruction at this point. And Jim Crow has been established through a reign of violence that is really about asserting the dominance of white people in the United States.
SETH: And this period is also about using immigration policy to control the racial demographics of the United States. The early 20th Century was a period of really significant immigration of Italians, and Jews, and Eastern Europeans… people leaving Europe and settling in the United States in really big numbers. And in lots of ways during this period, lawmakers were trying to make sure that immigrants who were gonna be allowed in, that they were people who they considered at the time to be white.
SETH: And if they weren’t they weren’t white, they weren’t gonna be allowed in.
SETH: Asian immigrants were excluded outright. And for many other immigrant groups, Congress imposed strict numerical limits -- quotas to limit immigration from certain countries to a very small number of people. But when it came to Mexicans, that was more complicated because the border was something that people were crossing all the time. You couldn't simply say only this many people can come.
KAI: Right, because you don't come by ship. You can walk across.
SETH: You don't come by ship. Um, remember that we're only about one human life away from when Texas was part of Mexico at this point. People's families were split between the two sides of this thing that we called the border. It was a pretty porous place. And it made those very same white supremacists very nervous because all of a sudden the country was changing and it threatened the idea of the United States as a place of white power. And so at the very same time that we know about campaigns of lynching, legal and extralegal ways of suppressing black power in the south and all over the country, there's also tremendous violence in the west and the southwest against people who are or are perceived to be Mexican. Huge numbers of lynchings there too.
KAI: Of Mexican -- Mexican people are lynched?
SETH: Huge numbers, hundreds…
KAI: I didn’t know that.
SETH: ... and hundreds of Mexicans who are, who are hung and killed, murdered by vigilantes, by sheriffs, even by the Texas Rangers.
SETH: And it’s in that environment that we get a man named Coleman Livingston Blease.
KAI: Okay, so who was this guy?
SETH: Blease was a Democrat. He was a former Governor of South Carolina who went on to become a Senator from the state. He was a right-wing firebrand. A master stump-speaker, apparently. Totally opposed to government regulation of any kind. And a fact that I found fascinating about him -- was that he was born at the peak of Reconstruction.
KAI: Oh wow, so he really saw the moment when white supremacy was on its knees.
SETH: Right, just as blacks in the South were gaining real political power, real political rights. And as he entered public office, Blease drew his strength from white farmers and mill workers -- even though he totally opposed worker protections that would have helped them. And he was this totally unrepentant racist.
KELLY LYTLE HERNANDEZ: He was one of the very few people who publicly advocated for lynchings.
SETH: Kelly Lytle Hernandez is a historian at UCLA. And it’s her research, it’s her writing that has really given us a really clear understanding of Blease and what he did.
KELLY: This is a person who, at the height of lynching, when so-called good society would simply avert their eyes to mass lynchings, he would go to the floor of Congress and recite anti-black poetry that would advocate for lynching.
KAI: We’re not gonna play it because it’s just that awful. But what was Blease’s role in this debate over Mexican immigration?
SETH: Well, at the end of the 1920s, Blease introduces this pair of laws that make crossing the border into a crime -- to say, if you cross over this line in the earth, you become a criminal. And we can do all of these things to you that we’ve decided we are allowed to do to criminals. We can throw you in prison. About 45,000 people were prosecuted criminally under this law in the decade after it passed.
HERNANDEZ: I think it's very important to know who gave us this idea and this notion that a person crossing the border is committing a crime and becomes this thing called a criminal. This is a strategy of the 1920s to create post-emancipation forms of inequity and repression in the United States. It's happening in Jim Crow and it's happening in our immigration laws.
KAI: And is that the same law? That's the law that's on the books today?
SETH: Yeah, that's the law that's essentially been on the books since 1929. But, it generally hasn’t been used. Except for the first decade after the law was passed, it lay pretty much dormant. Immigration enforcement, you know, it ebbed and flowed. People were deported more and less, but generally people weren’t being prosecuted criminally for crossing the border.
KAI: And why was that?
SETH: There are a couple of reasons. One was that it was just expensive. It was laborious to take undocumented immigrants and try them before a federal judge. The other one is that once we’re in the Cold War, it looks pretty bad for the United States to be throwing people who are migrating into pens. It’s not a good look for this democracy.
JOHNSON: Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker. Mr Ambassador Goldberg...
KAI: Which brings us to 1965. In a ceremony on Liberty Island, of course, President Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act.
JOHNSON: The immigration policy of the United States has been twisted and has been distorted by the harsh injustice of the national origins quota system.
KAI: That law abolished the quota system that had limited the number of immigrants that the US could accept from specific countries.
JOHNSON: Now under the moment which has welcomed so many to our shores, the American nation returns to the finest of its traditions today.
KAI: Most people know about the Voting Rights Act or the Civil Rights Act -- these massive legal changes that grew out of the civil rights movement. Some call this era the second Reconstruction -- another time when there was a real effort to live up to the post-Civil War Constitutional amendments, to really create a multiracial democracy. And that political climate, it mattered for immigration too. Johnson’s 1965 immigration law set the US on track to be a whole new, truly multiracial society. It was by no means perfect, and almost everybody agrees it still needs to be reformed. Still, between then and the year 2000, the immigrant population grew rapidly -- and they did not come from Europe. Three-quarters of all people who have immigrated since then, have come from Asia and Latin America. Honestly, it’s exactly the kind of migration that Coleman Livingston Blease was trying to prevent.
And you know what? For years, this was not a particularly controversial idea.
BRYANT GUMBEL: It's 8:52 here in New York. I'm Bryant Gumbel. We understand that there has been a plane crash...
KAI: But then… after two planes crash into the World Trade Center, everything changes.
REPORTER: Oh there's another one, another plane just hit. Right - oh my God...
SETH: In the wake of these attacks, the federal government went looking again for ways to crack down on immigrants, to shore up the borders, to exclude people.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Good evening, I’ve asked for a few minutes of your time to discuss...
SETH: And one of the things that the Bush administration found...
GEORGE W. BUSH: The United States must secure its borders...
SETH: … is this long dormant law...
GEORGE W. BUSH: This is a basic responsibility of a sovereign nation.
SETH: … that made it into a crime to cross the border.
KAI: This law introduced and created back in 1929 for the explicit purpose of keeping America white.
SETH: Yeah, the way it works is that if border control catches someone, they’ll be charged with a misdemeanor, sent to a prison for a short period of time, and then deported. And if they cross back in, they can be charged again, this time as a felon and sent to prison for a year, two years, maybe even longer for some people.
KAI: And what are the numbers we're talking about here? I mean, what was the change?
SETH: So if you look back to the early 1990s, it’s a few thousand people a year being charged criminally for crossing the border. But by the end of the Bush administration, something like 70,000 people a year are being charged criminally for illegal entry and illegal reentry.
KAI: And then the Obama administration comes and there’s an expectation that there was gonna be real immigration reform but that’s not how it worked out.
SETH: No, it’s not and the Obama administration really ramped up immigration enforcement, and prosecuted more people than even Bush did for crossing the border.
KAI: And I can recall, President Obama -- He used to say that thing about like, we're targeting criminals. We're not interested in everyday people.
BARACK OBAMA: If you're a criminal, you'll be deported. If you plan to enter the U.S. illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up.
SETH: The fact is that the Obama administration deported hundreds of thousands of people just for being undocumented. But to the extent that officials were targeting people with criminal convictions, the convictions we're talking about -- they’re largely these criminal convictions: People convicted of crossing the border, convicted of something that for most of US history, we didn't treat as crime.
KAI: Which then leads us to Donald Trump and his leaning all the way in on this criminal idea.
REPORTER: More than 3,300 immigrant separation have been separated in the US and the vast majority of them are still wondering when they will see their loved ones again.
REPORTER ON THE GROUND: Tienes miedo que te van a separar de su hijo? Are you afraid they’re going to separate you from your son?
INTERVIEW SUBJECT: Si, mucho miedo. Es mi hijo...
REPORTER ON THE GROUND: Yes he’s my son and I love him she says. I have carried him throughout my journey. Dahlia says she did not know that she might be separated...
SETH: We all remember these horrible stories, that are still happening, of families being separated at the border, of parents and children being torn from each other. The Obama administration rarely went that far.
REPORTER: Can you imagine the horror that these children must be going through…
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: It's a moral policy to follow and enforce the law. REPORTER:... when they come across the border and they’re with their parents…
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Jim.
REPORTER: ...And then suddenly they're pulled away from their parents? Why is the government doing this?
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Because it's the law and that's what the law states.
SETH: What Trump administration officials said was that they had to do this to people crossing the border, because that's what we do when we criminally prosecute somebody and send them to prison.
KAI: Mm hm.
KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Parents who enter illegally are by definition criminals.
SETH: We don't send people's children with them to federal prisons. We take their kids away.
KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Illegal immigrants have put their children at risk.
KAI: It's really striking to think about like, so this thing, this sort of poison pill created by a white supremacist Senator back in 1929 lays there in our law until we have this horrible national event in 9/11. And one president after another, across the ideological spectrum -- They just slowly escalate it.
SETH: Yeah, in 2019, the last data that we have: 106,000 people were prosecuted criminally for illegal entry…
KAI: That’s crazy.
SETH:... or illegal reentry far above any other category of crime.
KAI: It's the new war on drugs.
SETH: It’s very much like that, and it's leading to this swelling of our prison system.
KAI: So what did all of this mean for Carlos Aguirre Venagas? That’s next.
[Microphone handling noise]
SETH: Alright. Test, test, test. So maybe we can start. Can you just like, sort of say where we are and orient me a little bit.
BERENICE: Okay. We are at my apartment...
SETH: I sat down with Berenice in Odessa, Texas.
BERENICE: We're like, right in the middle of Odessa.
SETH: She lives about a four-hour drive from Ojinaga, that little town where she and Carlos are from.
BERENICE: As you saw, Odessa is not very big at all.
SETH: And after Carlos spent more than a year in federal prison for crossing the border, that’s where he was deported back to.
KAI: And did his family go with him?
SETH: Well, no. It’s hard to find good work in Mexico. And Berenice would have been making only a fraction of what she could earn in Texas if she had followed him. So she stayed.
BERENICE: He lived in Ojinaga and I lived here in Odessa, Texas. So I knew it was going to be a struggle of a life. I knew it was gonna be a life that was gonna be incomplete always. Him over there, me over here.
SETH: Carlos rented a small apartment in Ojinaga. And Berenice says she would often make the four hour drive down to see him there on Fridays after she finished work. And the two of them took turns taking care of their kids.
BERENICE: He'd keep them for like a week, two weeks period. And then I would go and get them on the weekend and then I’d bring them back with me. Or when I would go, I would take groceries and stock up the refrigerator for the week. I mean, every pay period I would go.
SETH: But without Carlos being able to work in the US, Berenice had to work all the time to keep her family up and running.
BERENICE: I would work up to two to three jobs.
SETH: What jobs were you working?
BERENICE: I was working at La Paz. That's a tortilla factory. I was working at Jalisco’s. That is a little drive through little restaurant. And I was a waitress at China-Mex. So I was waitressing. Then I was cashiering. And then I was cooking.
SETH: How many hours a day?
BERENICE: I would go in at 7:00 in the morning, 7:30 to open at 8:00 o'clock at La Paz. I would get out around 6:00. I would go straight into Jalisco’s, get out around 11:00, 12:00 at night. And on days that I’d have off, I would waitress at China-Mex. I would get home sometimes at 11:00, midnight. I mean, the girls would be asleep already, but I would wake up at 6:30, 7:00. I'd wake them up like, hey, mommy’s here. Cook their breakfast. Everything. Get them ready for daycare. Drop them off. Get out and they get out of work. Pick them up. Go drop them off at another sitters. My sister’s. Go back to work again. Go pick them up...
SETH: And for Carlos, Berenice says it agonized him. He just really wanted to be back with her in Texas, to make life easier for her, to be there with his family more than just these periodic weekend visits that they had.
BERENICE: He'd be like, “You don't even get to enjoy your daughters. Your daughters are in daycare day and night.”
SETH: Do you remember any specific conversations about his wanting to be back here?
BERENICE: Every Sunday, when it was going to get time for me to come back, that would be the conversation always. Always. He's like, “I'm getting tired of this life. You over there me over here. I know that I can’t provide for you out here like I can provide for all there. I know being in the United States I can make more and be more for you.” That was always his conversation, always.
SETH: Carlos, he stuck around in Ojinaga for a couple of months. But at some point just wasn't going to work for him. I mean...
KAI: Because he couldn't see his kids.
SETH: His kids were hours and hours away. His children were his life.
SETH: He said all the time to Berenice, “This is why I work. Everything I'm trying to do is for my kids so they can have something that I didn't have.” And so one day he walked back over the mountains and he made his way back to the house that they shared in Texas. And started working again on a team of roofers driving around Texas, earning money again allowed Berenice to stop working three jobs.
KAI: And what kind of risk was he taking when he did that? I mean, he’d already done prison time over this very thing.
SETH: It was a big risk. That law that Coleman Livingston Blease put into place, it meant that because he came back after he was deported he could be charged as a felon. And it means that he could end up serving even more time in prison. And Berenice says that in the area where they lived, immigration enforcement was everywhere.
BERENICE: They're always doing retenas is what they're called. And...
SETH: What does that mean?
BERENICE: What that means is that they will stop traffic and start asking people for their documents, making sure that they're legal here in the United States. If you cannot provide with a valid driver's license, valid I.D. or your birth certificate, they'll take you in.
SETH: You know, all the time he was kind of looking over his shoulder And just three months after he arrived, Carlos was arrested again. And this time he was sentenced to another 14 months in federal prison.
KAI: And when was that? What year was this?
SETH: This is in 2013.
KAI: So it’s under Obama.
SETH: That’s right. And here’s a whole other part of this story: We’ve built this vast system of prisons that are privately run and are only for immigrants
SETH: Exclusively. Federal prisons that are segregated on the basis of citizenship, places that are running under far less stringent rules. And the one that Carlos was sent to -- it’s called the Eden Detention Center in Eden, Texas -- was run by a company that’s now called Core Civic.
KAI: A private company that is benefiting from the program of mass incarceration that you’ve already described.
SETH: Core Civic has hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts with the federal government. And there are several other companies like it.
KAI: And there are far fewer rules for these companies for how they run their prisons compared to public prisons.
SETH: Yeah, I investigated more than a dozen large, private, federal prisons, exclusively for non-citizens. And what I found is that they’re set up to save money, and to do that, they weren’t required to follow all of the normal federal requirements. People locked up in them have been complaining for years that they’re abusive, they’re dangerous, they’re poorly run. And the federal government knew this. They knew that these places weren’t operating up to par.
KAI: So once Carlos was there, was Berenice back to visiting him through a video monitor?
SETH: No. The prison had what was called “contact visits.” Which were better. You know they were expecting their third child at this time. Berenice says that actually she was having contractions around the time that he was arrested.
SETH: So when she would visit he could at least now see their children.
BERENICE: He could sit there, eat with us. Conversate. He could hold my hand. Very barely. I mean. He could just touch. He couldn't just sit there and hold it. He could hold the babies. The babies could sit on him. He could be able to get them and be kissing them and all.
SETH: How long were visits for?
BERENICE: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. I would sit there the whole 6 hours. Five hours. It is hard with a little baby, especially because they only allow you to take in one diaper and one bottle of formula. So you try to have a baby, have just go through one bottle in a six hours period. It's impossible.
SETH: But the thing that happened to Carlos after he ended up in this Core Civic’s prison, was that when he got there, he tested positive for having latent tuberculosis. And, as is common when that happens, he was put on this really powerful antibiotic. And it’s a drug that’s known to have this side effect for some people that can cause severe liver damage, which means that you have to monitor people who are on this antibiotic. But what I found in the course of my reporting is that Carlos was left on this drug, which everybody knows is dangerous, for weeks after he was supposed to be taken off of it. And he started to become sicker and sicker.
BERENICE: And I was like, “Hey, you’re turning yellowish.” He's like, “I haven't been feeling good. I've been getting dizzy. I've been disoriented. There's times that I can't even sleep.” You know I was like, “Have you been to the medics?” He goes, “I go every day. They return me back to my cell.”
SETH: In fact, Berenice said, what the prison had told Carlos was that if didn’t keep taking this drug, that he’d lose his visitation privileges. That he wouldn’t be able to see her or their children.
BERENICE: And I was like, “Carlos, you just look like your swollen,” because he would hold my hand and he couldn't grip it. He couldn't close his hands. I mean, my hand would barely even fit in between his fingers.
KAI: How long had he been on this drug by this point?
SETH: This went on for months.
BERENICE: So in October when I went, his eyes were completely yellow. To a point where you could see like a layer, a thick layer of coating on his eyeballs. I mean, when he hugged me, he didn't even have the strength to squeeze me like he usually did.
SETH: And shortly after that visit, Berenice got a call from a prison official saying that Carlos had been moved to intensive care and that she should come right away. And when she got there, she found Carlos was unconscious, and that he was handcuffed to the hospital bed.
BERENICE: I was in there. I was the only one in there. I was the only one in there every single day. I lasted in that ICU room tied down to that bed with him for five days. I fought for five days for them not to get him off life support. I believe in miracles. I was hoping for one. They unplugged Carlos. He took a deep breath. I had him in my arms. He didn't last, not even five minutes alive. The whole time he was handcuffed to that bed. Even after he was dead. Never did they take his handcuffs. They had him cuffed from his legs, wide open from his arms. Carlos was so swollen that those handcuffs were literally clawing into his skin. This was a father. This was a husband. This was a son. This was a brother. He had someone waiting for him.
SETH: After Carlos died I spent months investigating the case. CoreCivic didn’t respond to my questions. But I obtained Carlos’s medical file, and I sent it to a bunch of doctors to give it a read, to evaluate. And they were clear that leaving him on that drug very likely led to his death. That it was negligent healthcare, they said.
KAI: And you found dozens of cases like this.
SETH: There were dozens of people just like Carlos who were sent to these prisons that the federal government itself knew weren't operating up to standards, that they were failing, that they were dangerous. Dozens of people who died in the wake of botched medical care, many of whom were locked up because we reinstituted this policy, to lock people up for crossing the border. A law meant to keep the country white.
[Sound of church bells]
SETH: Berenice and her daughters can still drive to Ojinaga, to the graveyard where Carlos is buried.
CHILD: What is that thing?
SETH: It’s a recorder. It picks up the sound.
CHILD: Could I even hear?
SETH: Mmm, hm. You want to hear it? Put these on.
SETH: Now, say something.
CHILD: I miss my dad because he’s my favorite and I love him.
SETH: Do you remember your dad?
CHILD: He used to be alive with us. A long, long time ago and I pray every day, when he has a candle I come every single day with his picture because I love his grave.
SETH: And how old are you?
[Sounds of church singing]
SETH: Maybe it’s time to go back in. What do you think?
KAI: You know, what sticks with me is that this policy of prosecuting and locking people up for crossing the border -- it was part of Jim Crow. Anti-Mexican ideas and anti-black ideas -- they were of a piece -- something that functioned together, to keep white people in power over the United States government, its economy and its social structures. And I cannot miss the fact, that in both cases -- for Mexican immigrants and black people alike -- criminal justice was, and remains, a crucial tool in that work. When we call somebody a criminal, we can do lots of terrible things to them. I should add that in the wake of Seth’s initial reporting on Carlos’s case and others like it back in 2016, the Obama Administration ordered the closing of private prisons like the one where Carlos Venegas died. In 2017, when Trump took office, he reversed that order. And last year, the facility where Carlos was locked up started operating again.
The United States of Anxiety is production of WNYC Studios.
This episode was reported by Seth Freed Wessler, in partnership with Type Investigations. The interviews with Carlos’s family were recorded in 2015, shortly after his death, and originally published in The Nation magazine.
The episode was edited by Christopher Werth and Karen Frillman, who is also our executive producer.
Cayce Means is our technical director.
Our team also includes… Emily Botien, Jenny Casas, Marianne McCune, Jessica Miller, and Veralyn Williams…
With help this week from…Mchelle Harris, Bill Moss, Kim Nowacki and Joe Plourde.
Our theme music is written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Brand.
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Thanks for listening.