SUSAN HENNESSEY To protect one's friends and harm one's enemies, that is something that is as old as justice itself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Justice Department is governed by norms, but they're breaking down. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Once there were prosecutorial norms, but does that mean it's okay?
SUSAN HENNESSEY George Washington actually personally orders the prosecution of certain individuals who were involved in the Whiskey Rebellion all the way back in 1792, and then later he orders those same charges to be dropped.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Also, a journalist followed one family for three decades, and that experience yielded a story of global immigration.
JASON DEPARLE My mom recently died and when I was cleaning out her house, I found letters that Tita had written to my mother and father when I was living with her, you know, 30 years ago, just assuring her that I was OK and not to worry, she was looking out for me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It’s all coming up after this. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, Bob Garfield is away this week. I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week began with Justice Department prosecutors recommending a sentence of seven to nine years for Roger Stone. In November of 2019, President Trump's longtime friend and former campaign adviser was convicted of lying to Congress and tampering with a witness during the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. But on Monday night at 1:48 a.m,
NEWS REPORT Overnight came the tweet from President Trump, “This is a horrible and very unfair situation. The real crimes were on the other side as nothing happens to them can not allow this miscarriage of justice.” [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And on Tuesday morning:
NEWS REPORT An official with the department tells the AP that they request seven to nine years was excessive.
NEWS REPORT The attorney general's spokeswoman says the decision to change the sentencing guidelines came before the Trump tweet and there was no communication between DOJ and the White House when it comes to sentencing guidelines. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Upon hearing the news, all four prosecutors leading the case withdrew from the legal proceedings, bringing into question the integrity of the attorney general.
NEWS REPORT President Trump is testing the independence of the Justice Department, thanking his own attorney general for taking charge of the case.
PRESIDENT TRUMP And I didn't speak to him, by the way, just so you understand. They saw the horribleness of a nine year sentence for doing nothing. You have murderers and drug addicts, they don't get nine years. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, that's not true. But on Thursday, after a flurry of negative headlines and backlash from Democrats, Barr told ABC News Pierre Thomas this:
ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR I had made a decision that I thought was fair and reasonable in this particular case. And once the tweet occurred, the question is, well, now, what do I do? And do go forward with what you think is the right decision or do you pull back because it's the tweet and that just sort of illustrates how disruptive these tweets can be. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Early reports from CNN indicated that Trump wasn't upset by Barr's remark. His admonishment was a win win for the White House. In the midst of widespread concern about prosecutorial independence, it positions one of the president's most loyal factotums as nominally independent. On Friday, Barr announced he was hiring outside prosecutors to broadly review other controversial political cases, including the one against former national security adviser Michael Flynn. So the Stone stuff could be seen as trampling on the already toppled norm of an independent Justice Department, as Slate's Dahlia Lithwick notes. Dahlia welcome back to OTM.
DAHLIA LITHWICK Thank you for having me, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE OK, so former Attorney General Eric Holder said this week that the sequence of events was unprecedented. But on Thursday morning on Morning Edition, I heard George Terwilliger, who had served as deputy attorney general under George H.W. Bush, succeeding, incidentally, William Barr. He said it's not inappropriate for an attorney general to weigh in on sentencing in such, and that, in fact, not even all the career lawyers at Justice agreed with the severity of the sentence proposed for Roger Stone. So why all the fuss?
DAHLIA LITHWICK I just don't think the question, Brooke, is whether there is sometimes dissension within the Justice Department. Of course, there is always dissension. It is an institution like any other. I think the question is, how is it possible that the attorneys found out on Fox News that their sentencing recommendation is being withdrawn and a different sentencing recommendation from their political superiors is being issued in its place. That kind of thing really doesn't happen. If it looks like Bill Barr took instructions from Donald Trump to go more lightly on a Donald Trump colleague and friend, that's shocking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How does the Barr intervention change the equation for the press? How should reporters on the legal beat adjust their approach?
DAHLIA LITHWICK The through line for me goes back to Merrick Garland in some ways, because if you remember when Mitch McConnell vowed and Chuck Grassley vowed that Merrick Garland was going to get no hearing and no vote, the legal press was left with their pants around their ankles, like sitting there saying like, but wait. Constitution, you know, this can't be right. And what we learned was this was not a law. It was not a rule. It was a norm that for hundreds of years has provided. If the president nominates somebody in the last year of his presidency, that person gets at minimum a hearing and a vote. And when that didn't happen, I think the legal press just didn't quite know how to explain that no law had been broken. It was just a cardinal norm of how governance has been done, had been shattered. And I say that only because I think that is what's happening again. There is a longstanding norm that says that there is a very, very strict line of separation between what happens in the White House and what happens at the Justice Department.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So is this the fundamental conundrum then for reporters? I mean, any person who reads the paper will think, okay, a norm is a norm. The law is what matters. But actually, in the running of the government, sometimes norms are more important than laws.
DAHLIA LITHWICK The truest lesson of impeachment was just that, that there is a longstanding norm that says you don't go around asking foreign countries who very much are reliant on your millions of dollars of foreign aid to possibly intervene and get up a research against your electoral opponent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That was kind of explicit, though. That was one of the few things that the founders kind of said personal gain, bribing foreign governments. You know, that kind of thing.
DAHLIA LITHWICK And yet we had an awful lot of the Republicans in the Senate and certainly some of Donald Trump's lawyers saying if no explicit law was broken, then there can be no impeachment. And you see that with Donald Trump not turning over his tax returns, simply a norm, self-dealing so that the Secret Service is paying, you know, millions of dollars to his businesses-- just a norm. To me, it just shows how reliant we've been on these soft norms or even very hard norms. And now we're learning they're just awfully flimsy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE After this president was elected, we spoke to Masha Gessen, who was then writing for the New York Review of Books. Now she's at The New Yorker. And we asked her about her experience of Putin, about whom she's written literally volumes in the midst of all this talk of a looming American autocracy, we asked her what lessons should we take from Russia? And I was skeptical at the time of one of those lessons. She said, your institutions will not save you.
DAHLIA LITHWICK I was struck by the exact same line. It was scary, but I also just thought, our Justice Department is a monster. It is a machine helmed by people who have devoted their life to text in law and rules and right and wrong. And even if we don't agree on details about how policies are implemented, we agree on what justice is. And so I remember thinking, you know, the generals will save us and the Justice Department will save us. I guess I'm a little surprised at the extent, Brooke, to which the foreign service has stepped in. We've seen silent lawyers say, I'm out, I can't do this anymore. But it hasn't been this public explanatory proposition the way we've seen from the Foreign Service. And I wonder--
BROOKE GLADSTONE Because no hearings.
DAHLIA LITHWICK Well, because no hearings. And I also think the culture of the Justice Department is such a small ‘c’ conservative culture of a deep, deep, abiding belief that the president may change, but the Justice Department doesn't. I wonder if some of it is just people who genuinely believe from the bottom of their hearts that if they stay on, they could mitigate the worst of it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What about the official statements that come from institutions like the Justice Department? I have never seen an administration so steeped in lies. We get a lot of information from government institutions, departments. Can we trust them at all anymore?
DAHLIA LITHWICK I've been doing this long enough to remember covering the Justice Department during the era of the torture memos and Guantanamo and even then we could disagree on the merits of, you know, the CIA torture program. But the claims that black is white and up is down and right is wrong and deep state have really, really changed everything. Once you're in a situation where you assume that the Justice Department is going to tell you something that is not true about how this Roger Stone sentencing kerfuffle happened, you're in really, really pernicious territory, not just as a journalist, but as a citizen. The thing that scares me almost more than anything is that I think we're starting to see a narrative that is being paved with President Trump's threats to the sentencing judge in this case, Amy Berman Jackson, claims about the prosecutors who walked off the case and how they're all steeped in corruption. I worry that we are really starting to see in real time complete collapse of the norm that the people at the Justice Department are, by and large trying to do good bipartisan work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's Trump's rhetorical trick, crooked Hillary and so forth. Creating a kind of quick synaptic pathway between a phrase and a person or an institution. The phrase fake news, which has migrated so enormously from its original meeting as news cranked out at offshore clickbait sites to any report that Trump doesn't like has now taken root. And then you mentioned this deep state trope that was in a New York Times headline not long ago.
DAHLIA LITHWICK That's what I mean when I say we're normalizing it. If you just keep reinforcing the language that there is such a thing as a “deep state”, this is a fantasy. There is no deep state. At the end of the day, what it serves to do is completely dilute public confidence in the Justice Department. People stop trusting the Justice Department to be truthful. So it goes way beyond Roger Stone and his sentence. It's the same with the news stuff. We see public confidence in the news plummet. And this is the other hallmark of authoritarianism. It's not just breaking the institution, it's breaking public confidence in the institution. And that is a move that when it's directed at the entire justice system, really goes to the heart of what rule of law means. If you cannot trust that the bad guys go to jail and the good guys are exonerated, then I don't know what we're all doing here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Dahlia, thanks very much.
DAHLIA LITHWICK Thank you, Brooke. Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate and hosts the podcast Amicus. Coming up, how the notion of prosecutorial independence evolved and how hard it may be to recover once lost. This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. As Lithwick warned us, the erosion of American norms is happening on many fronts. The erosion of faith in good information, the erosion of impartiality of federal investigators, the erosion of trust in the law itself. It doesn't help that so many of the president's fans in the media, including Lou Dobbs, are cheering it on.
LOU DOBBS And by the way, I don't want to hear any crap about an independent Justice Department. This Justice Department, as does everyone, worked for the president. It is part of the executive branch. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's not crap, but it is squishy because it's not backed by law. According to Susan Hennessey, executive editor at Lawfare and coauthor of Unmaking the Presidency: Donald Trump's War on the World's Most Powerful Office. Long before the tradition of law enforcement independence had coalesced, American presidents often chose who to prosecute or protect.
SUSAN HENNESSEY George Washington actually personally orders the prosecution of certain individuals who were involved in the Whiskey Rebellion all the way back in 1792. And then later, as the case develops over time and the policy equities change, he orders those same charges to be dropped. And so striking examples of a president sort of personally getting down in the weeds of sort of individual cases. John Adams actually orders the prosecution of specific newspaper editors under the Sedition Act. And then when Thomas Jefferson comes to power, he orders those charges to be dropped. And so in the early republic, there is a rich history of presidents essentially acting like an attorney general. However, we have to keep in mind that the Constitution doesn't say anything about an attorney general. The Justice Department isn't even created until 1870. And so we're talking about a context in which there is no Department of Justice. And there also is very, very limited sort of federal statutory law.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You wrote that there is a pervasive myth that this norm about prosecutorial independence is purely a creature of the post Watergate era. Right? But it actually stems back well before Nixon all the way to FDR.
SUSAN HENNESSEY So certainly Watergate is the point at which we start to establish rules for how the White House communicates with the Department of Justice. But even prior to that, this notion that law enforcement is supposed to be removed from political interference already is a shared understanding. And one place we can point to is in 1940, Robert Jackson, who later goes on to become a Supreme Court justice, delivers this speech cited by federal prosecutors. To this day, the former deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, used to cite the speech quite often. The two sections that are sort of most powerful are when Robert Jackson talks about the most dangerous power of the prosecutor is that he will pick people that he thinks he should get rather than cases that need to be prosecuted. And this is this really important idea, this notion that prosecutorial discretion can be abused, because really you could prosecute or at least investigate just about anyone because of this really, really sprawling federal criminal law. And so they have to pick the cases where the proof is most certain and the greatest public good is served. And that within that discretion is where the danger of political abuse creeps in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your book, you write, indeed, the soft spot in the federal government, as Trump understood, even if his detractors did not, was not the NSA. It was not any of the programs the agency's prolific leaker, Edward Snowden, had revealed. It wasn't the drone program, the soft spot, the least tyrant proof part of the government turned out to be the U.S. Department of Justice. Why was that the soft spot?
SUSAN HENNESSEY Because it is the area in which the protections against political interference are normative rather than statutory, in which the protections really depend on good faith and on people being willing to follow the rules. Because when Donald Trump says, I have the absolute right to do what I want with the Justice Department, as you said just the other day regarding interference in Roger Stone's case as a constitutional matter and as a purely legal matter, he's actually right. And yet he is describing a deeply corrupt and corrosive vision.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You wrote, without control of the Justice Department,, the would be tyrants tool kit is radically incomplete. And you quote David Frum writing about Viktor Orbán's Hungary, who describes the system of justice there as essential to Orbán's undermining of democracy. Day in and day out, he wrote, the regime works more through inducements than through intimidation. As one shrewd observer told me on a recent visit, this is the part that got me, “the benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.”
SUSAN HENNESSEY Yes, so this touches on a really important and underappreciated feature of the way law enforcement can be abused. There's a lot of focus on offensive use of law enforcement, right? So the president using the Justice Department to target his political opponents. People like Hillary Clinton, for example. But the defensive side in which the president cultivates impunity for his friends. Roger Stone can lie to Congress, can lie to federal prosecutors, and that Donald Trump can come in and either through political interference in the sentencing recommendations or potentially eventually through a pardon, can erase the consequences for him. That actually undermines the structural separation of powers. It undermines the system by which the president and the executive branch can be held accountable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We've used some historical examples of presidents who've tried to leverage law enforcement for personal and political use. Maybe examples that are too early to be relevant. But as you've noted, Trump does the same thing with more recent examples. Here's one reported by The New York Times in 2018. Read aloud here on CNN.
NEWS REPORT Mr. Trump said he had expected his top law enforcement official to safeguard him the way he believed Bobby Kennedy as attorney general had done for his brother and Eric Holder had done for Barack Obama. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do you think about those analogies?
SUSAN HENNESSEY The notion that Eric Holder was a politically motivated actor, I would suggest are not well supported by evidence. That said, certainly the Kennedy’s had close relationship and there is more of a question there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's a popular Fox News trope.
NEWS REPORT President Kennedy made his brother the attorney general, and yet, you know, Donald Trump gets a little advice from his son in law and all of a sudden that's grounds for impeachment. [END CLIP]
SUSAN HENNESSEY Ordinarily, when we point to Bobby Kennedy defending JFK or sort of being his politically motivated and highly loyal attorney general, we're describing a bad thing. Congress actually passes the law to prevent nepotism and the federal government as a response to this. And instead, Donald Trump says, I really respect him for that. And so what Donald Trump is expressing admiration for is this deeply corrupt division by which the attorney general is not the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, but is the protector in chief of the president personally.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That was the central failure of Jeff Sessions.
SUSAN HENNESSEY The original sin that Jeff Sessions committed was the recusal from the Russia investigation. And Donald Trump openly attacks him for this, undertakes this campaign to get Sessions to change his mind. And what we see early on is actually Republicans in Congress pushing back. We see Lindsey Graham say:
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM If Jeff Sessions is fired, there will be holy hell to pay. Any effort to go after Mueller could be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency. [END CLIP]
SUSAN HENNESSEY And then Graham actually comes up with a new position, which is, well, the president's entitled to have an attorney general he has confidence in. But let's just wait until after the midterm elections. We can actually trace the erosion of constraints and the ability of Donald Trump to increasingly test the limits of the politicization of the Justice Department.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So if we see the slow disintegration in the norm, I mean, we heard Elizabeth Warren vow that if she were president, her administration would investigate Trump. And you think that's a terrible idea, it’s in your view just a reiteration of Donald Trump promising to lock up Clinton.
SUSAN HENNESSEY Kamala Harris early on the primary made an even more overt suggestion saying that, you know, of course, Donald Trump would be investigated. And that's something that I think is quite satisfying and even logical to many people who believe that there is evidence that the president, his administration are committing crimes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There is evidence, right?
SUSAN HENNESSEY The issue here is not whether or not a prior presidential administration or prior president would ever be investigated. It's who should be making those decisions and why and on what basis. And when a political candidate suggests an investigation as part of their candidacy that is political, we shouldn't want to hear pledges from candidates to investigate any particular specific individual, whether a political opponent or anyone else.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So. How do you propose we begin to reconstruct, rebuild, reconstitute the norm that has worked in the past?
SUSAN HENNESSEY We should want to hear presidential candidates talking about reestablishing these norms by saying that they will appoint an attorney general who upholds the rule of law, shares the values of the apolitical administration of justice, and then the candidates should pledge to not interfere with that person.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you think if we had four more years of Trump, it will be very much harder to reestablish those norms?
SUSAN HENNESSEY I think not just harder, but potentially impossible. Throughout the book, we chart the ways in which the American presidency has changed over time and the way we determine whether or not various presidents attempts to breach norms, whether or not those are just weird blips that occur for four years or eight years is whether or not future presidents do the same thing. And really, reelection is the form of ratification. When a president breaches a norm and then loses reelection, that is viewed as repudiation by the American public. And so we see later presidents come in and act differently because they get the message. But if he isn't rejected by voters, then politicians will seek to emulate it. There also is probably an opportunity here for Congress. Maybe some of these things that we have relied on as a matter of normative constraint should be incorporated into statutory law and actually become rules that the president is required to abide by.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You gently admonished me earlier for bringing up Washington, given that the country was structured very differently back then. But if we go back even further, as you noted in your book to the first book of Plato's Republic, then we actually can encounter Trump in a kind of funhouse mirror.
SUSAN HENNESSEY I think it is important that we embrace and examine the full scope of U.S. history. But there's always sort of a temptation to cherry pick examples to remove them from their context and we see Trump defenders doing this quite often, right. Sort of pointing to prior presidents that have done particular things. See, look, he's not really all that different or this isn't really abuse. And you mentioned Plato's Republic and this notion of the purpose of justice being to protect one's friends and harm one's enemies. That is something that is repudiated and rejected by Socrates. Right. So so both the idea that justice is is the pure expression of political power or some base notion of karma and people getting what they deserve that is understood for centuries to represent a corrupt vision. And I think that's why it's really so remarkable that in 2020 we have a president of the United States that openly embraces that vision and carries it out in practice. And I think it's disturbing that we're seeing an increasingly muted response. And if we accept what is fundamentally a corrupt notion of justice, even if all of the processes and procedures look the same and there's still a Department of Justice, even if we see the same structures, right. The U.S. attorney's office and an attorney general underneath those structures will be a form of constitutional rot.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Susan, thank you very much.
SUSAN HENNESSEY Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Susan Hennessey is the executive editor of Lawfare and the co author of Unmaking The Presidency: Donald Trump's War on the World's Most Powerful Office.
The president twitches his thumbs to influence the justice system, but the justice system wants, as they say, to be free. And that includes law enforcement. Local police departments are required under the Freedom of Information Act to disclose information about staffing and operations. So to the National Agency is in charge of immigration and border control--CBP and ICE. But under the Trump administration, those agencies have aspired to greater secrecy. The Daily Beast’s Betsy Swan have reported on their efforts in 2018 to join the ranks of the “intel community.” Agencies like the CIA, DIA and the NSA that have sweeping powers to surveil, detain and inquire without the risk of the public finding out, usually. But they were rebuffed in those efforts. ICE was granted enhanced spying power, however, and late last month, you could say CBP won second prize. It was redesignated a security agency like the FBI and Secret Service and would no longer have to comply with FOIA requests. We know this because of a memo signed by CBP. Is acting chief Mark Morgan leaked to Ken Klippenstein, D.C. correspondent for The Nation. He says the agency is shielded now in crucial ways from the public's prying eyes.
KEN KLIPPENSTEIN Exempt from disclosure now is information concerning CBP officials. What their role is within the agency are, how much they're paid. Things that part of this designation were completely public. You know, when you compare that to, say, local police, you can see a police badge, can see their name, you can verify what their role is, who they are. That now will be something that CBP can push back against and not release if they so wish. When you're deprived of information not just about the agency generally, but also what the individuals that comprise it are doing and what their revolving door relationships are lobbying that may exist. It obscures a whole lot that were before the public a sense of how these institutions really function.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is there a piece that you've read or maybe that you've written recently that simply couldn't have been possible under this change?
KEN KLIPPENSTEIN Anytime you see either children or individuals dying while in CBP custody, it's going to become impossible for the public to find out. If there was a case of negligence, we're not going to know who was involved in this death. The courts and lawsuits provide another avenue to learn these things, but it's much more cost intensive. That takes a lot more time than it would to just file a FOIA request. So these deaths, as we've seen, not just in CBP, but in Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in other DHS Homeland Security subcomponents, a lot of that will become much more difficult to learn about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you said that the memo was signed by the acting CBP commissioner. It's just the functionary running that office now, I guess. Do you have any idea with whom this originated?
KEN KLIPPENSTEIN Well, that's part of my frustration with the story, is I reached out to them for comment and they never responded to my request for comment. And I contacted them repeatedly. And I'm not the only reporter for whom this has been a problem. So when their public affairs doesn't respond to me and I'm no longer able to learn under FOIA requests, what's going on, what do we have left to learn about what's happening?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you think that American citizens might be inclined to let this go because it thinks that doesn't affect them? And would that be a reasonable assumption?
KEN KLIPPENSTEIN I think that Americans probably would think that. However, you have to look downstream from that. Every news article you read, many of them are based on open records. Agencies like CBP and ICE, these are agencies concerned with primarily individuals on U.S. soil who perhaps are not citizens. I don't think it's a very wise idea to presuppose that that means that those will be the only individuals who are targeted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So how permanent is this re designation? Could this be undone by some future Democratic administration?
KEN KLIPPENSTEIN Yes. My understanding is that a future president could reverse this. The question is, if they will. Because just to take in his example, the Patriot Act and the post 9/11 changes to the intelligence apparatus that we have and how that interacts with civil liberties, we saw a considerable contraction in the privacies and freedoms that we enjoy and President Obama did reform a lot of that, but he didn't set it back to what it was pre-9 11. And so the question to my mind would be how much of it are they going to be willing to rollback?
BROOKE GLADSTONE What about the argument that the administration would make that this protects people when their personal information is in public view, then they can become targets.
KEN KLIPPENSTEIN My first question would be then why they don't make that argument publicly? Why didn't they tell Congress this? Why did the public have to learn about this new designation because a document was leaked to me? In addition to that, why didn't they answer my questions once I obtained it? To their credit, they did verify the authenticity of the document to an NBC affiliate that posted it subsequent to my report, but generally the administration has shied away from articulating much in the way of a sort of rationale. You know, that makes me nervous. It certainly did not come out of nowhere. This is a push by the administration generally to beef up the powers and privileges of the immigration authorities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ken, thank you very much.
KEN KLIPPENSTEIN Thanks much for having me,
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ken Klippenstein is The Nation's D.C. correspondent. Coming up, how hanging out with a family for 30 years can open up the whole world of global immigration. This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. As the Trump administration ramps up immigration enforcement, we turn to a story that gives a lesser told perspective on American immigration. For 32 years, New York Times reporter Jason DeParle followed the story of the Villanuevas: three generations of a family that made their way from the slums of Manilla to Houston, Texas, and who are the subject of his latest book, A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves. Back in 1987, at the age of 26 and five years into his journalism career, DeParle found himself in search of a greater purpose.
JASON DEPARLE The last set of stories I did in New Orleans was on the charity hospital system and my sources were largely young residents who are just a few years older than me then. I thought they were very romantic figures they could take. Somebody came in with a gunshot wound and stitched them up and all I could do is write about them for the daily Fishwrapper.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He made his way to the Philippines to figure out what to do with his life. He wanted to understand poverty. So he moved into the slums, renting some floor space in the home of a woman named Tita.
JASON DEPARLE She was a mother of five kids who had moved from a farm 50 miles away into the slums of Manila initially to work in a factory and make money and got married and settled down in a shantytown there. Her husband, Emmett, was a guest worker in Saudi Arabia, a pool maintenance man at a Saudi airbase. Tita was raising her five children on the money he sent back.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what kind of life was she living?
JASON DEPARLE Tita had a double life, a life of drudgery as a mother of five children in a shanty in Manila, washing, scrubbing, cooking all day and looking after these kids. But she had this really rich inner life. And she was a part of this slum uplift group, which was revolving around the question, what would Jesus do if Jesus lived in a shantytown? They had Bible studies and livelihood projects and they went to protests. And Tita's role in the group was in the co-op store, she brought in 2,000 eggs a week. She was the buyer of the eggs and she stacked them under a fluorescent light in her shanty to keep away the rats.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you were there for eight months. You slept on the floor. You aren't the only one.
JASON DEPARLE Tita and her five kids slept upstairs. And there are four of us sleeping on the floor downstairs. My mom recently died and I was cleaning out our house. I found letters the Tita had written to my mother and father when I was living with her 30 years ago, just assuring her that I was OK and not to worry that she was looking out for me. As those 20 years pass, all five of the kids have become migrant workers just like their father.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You focus on one of them. You meet her when she's fifteen. Her name is Rosalie.
JASON DEPARLE Yes, she's the middle of Tita's five kids. She uses her father's remittances to make the leap from the slums to nursing school. If you're gonna pick a kid with the drive to get out of the shantytown, I don't think you would've picked Rosalie. She's very shy, diffident. There were others who were stronger or more self-confident or more outgoing, more academically gifted. Years later, I got her high school transcript, and the most revealing element of her transcript wasn't her grades, it was her attendance through four years of high school when the Philippines was literally in revolution. She never missed a day. Eventually gets a job in Saudi Arabia, moves to the Persian Gulf with her hopes of getting to the U.S. Initially, I felt really sorry for her, like poor Rosalie has to go to Saudi Arabia. Her way of telling it, it was lucky me. I get to go. The poorest of the poor don't get to migrate. They can't afford to migrate. The book takes its title from a conversation I had with Tita’s sister, who was watching her siblings who had gone abroad, come home and build cement block homes. She was living in a grass hut, and she turned to her husband, encouraging him to go abroad as well, and said to him, A good provider is one who leaves and that kind of became the family motto.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is a monumental theme in your story. It's pivotal. You realize that the story of immigration is much bigger than is usually told.
JASON DEPARLE Tita’s one of eleven siblings, 9 in her generation went abroad or had siblings or did. Then if you picture a second generation of cousins, there's 45 first cousins on one side of Rosalie's family. Twenty five of them have made the leap from shantytown squalor to a middle class life at the cost of spending most of their life as guest workers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And the Philippines is exceptional with regard to this kind of foreign employment because the government actively supports it. But it is by no means unique in relying on these remittances. In the book, there's a numbers statistic that you keep returning to and it's that global remittances that is to say the money sent home is more than three times the foreign aid budget worldwide.
JASON DEPARLE Migration is the world's anti-poverty program. Emmett when he left the Philippines--
BROOKE GLADSTONE Rosalie's father, Tita’s husband.
JASON DEPARLE He was a pool maintenance man in Manila. When you went to do exactly the same work in Saudi Arabia, his salary rose tenfold. When the Ellis Island immigrants came to the U.S., they could expect to maybe triple their earnings from what they were getting in Europe. Now a low skilled migrant coming to the U.S. might expect to make seven or eight times as much. So the economic rewards to migration are just much greater than they've ever been.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Your book spans three generations. And it isn't just about grandparents, mothers and children. It's about cousins and their individual stories.
JASON DEPARLE Not everyone is successful. Some of the families lost their incomes being cheated by unethical middlemen. Some people went abroad and wound up losing their marriages to adultery or becoming alienated from their kids. Tragic story where one character, the worker on a cruise ship wound up losing his leg.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The coping strategies that they used to try and maintain their marriages, or to offer parental guidance are unique to the era.
JASON DEPARLE Emmett, the father, went abroad in 1980 when he wanted to communicate with the family. He would make a cassette tape. They get it. Weeks later, they'd all gather and listen to it. They'd make one, and send it back, and that could take two months. By the time his children are abroad, they can keep in touch with their children instantaneously. Rosalie could know what her kids had for breakfast. Sometimes she would just put a Skype connection on just to listen to the sounds of them laughing back in the Philippines or hear the sounds of a rooster crow. The other thing that happens in the course of the 30 years is that migration feminizes so the first generation when Emmett went, was mostly men doing male work in Saudi like construction, you know, building roads and bridges. When the second generation goes, because it's largely women going as caregivers and nurses and when they go, all of them leave children behind.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Rosalie's family does embody a number of these trends that you're talking about. Her husband Chris was compelled to follow her because she was a stunningly empathic and skilled nurse, much the bigger earner. You get into the specific and the personal challenges of their integration into American life.
JASON DEPARLE Rosalie gets her big break in 2012, a hurricane has hit Galveston Island, destroyed the hospital, and it can't get enough American nurses to come back onto the island. So they started hiring foreign nurses. Rosalie was one of twenty, 19 of them were women. So you had 19 or so men trailing spouses following the women. Most of the men experiencing downward mobility.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's funny, normally when we think of upward and downward mobility, we don't separate the wives and the husbands if it's the wife who's following along.
JASON DEPARLE The guys are all dealing in one way or another with a kind of blow to their male ego. And that became a theme all the nurses had to deal with. When it first happened, I think the hope among feminists was it would be a story of upward empowerment, it was a lot more complicated than that because the men were upset and the women felt like they needed the men in their families. They need strong men for their children. So the women end up bending over backwards in all kinds of different ways to make the men still feel like they're respected and the head of the household. In Rosalie's case, she took out the mortgage in her name alone and put her and her husband's name on the deed. So he would feel like he owns the house even though she was paying for it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's talk about some numbers here, how immigration expanded in the last century.
JASON DEPARLE In 1924, we passed a very restrictionist immigration law aimed at keeping out basically Italians and Jews. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson passed a law taking away those discriminatory quotas and opening up immigration again. But he promised that neither the numbers would rise nor the demographic mix would change. Those were two profoundly wrong predictions. Instead, the foreign born share, the population is now near all time highs. It's close to 14 percent, then 85 percent of the people have come since 1965 have come from the developing world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In the history part of your book, one of my favorite moments was an effort by a congressman, a 14 term Democrat from Ohio, Michael Feighan, to tweak Johnson's bill so as to ensure that the majority of immigrants would still be Anglo white. Johnson wanted skills to be a determinant of whether you'd get in or not. And Feighan said, no, no, no, it should be if you have family here on the assumption that you'd be able to keep the same demographic mix because those families are here. But he didn't think about a whole bunch of immigrants, including a lot of Filipinos who were already here.
JASON DEPARLE Exactly. We now think of family-based immigration as being a leftist idea, right?
PRESIDENT TRUMP Chain migration is one of the disasters. you allow one person in and that one person brings in ten or twelve people. [END CLIP]
JASON DEPARLE The people that want to restrict migration want to make it a skills based system as opposed to a family based system. In 1965 it’s exactly the opposite. The family system was set up to be restrictive because the people who didn't want more immigration figured if you had to be related to somebody who was already here, you basically get white immigration. But they didn't understand is that it was still a small part that would come through other means and let people coming from the developing world that had the biggest incentive to bring their relatives. And I think that's important to remember if you're trying to grasp the complicated nature of the current moment where we have two competing narratives right at the national level, we have a narrative of pure political conflict. The Trumpian anti-immigrant wing versus the expansionist Democratic Party that embraces a majority minority country. At the daily lived level, it's often much more a story of acceptance. I think about Houston deep in red state America, where Rosalie wound up. When I was growing up, Houston was a city of honky-tonks and rodeo's and if you'd told me they were going to be Hindu temples in the suburbs of Houston, I would have predicted a great amount of conflict. Right. And instead, it's an extremely pro-immigrant city that celebrates its diversity. And I think both narratives are important to keep in mind, both the acceptance and the conflict. If you don't have both in mind, I think you're not getting the full story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There's a relatively low crime rate in many border towns like El Paso.
JASON DEPARLE If there's a single Trump criticism of immigration, it's that it causes crime. And yet virtually every study ever done on immigrants and crime has shown that immigrants have lower crime rates than the native born.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And yet vitriol spews out on this issue regularly from the man in the White House. And it may have been what put him in office, at least in part.
JASON DEPARLE But again, we can't think of immigration as only being the story of national political conflict. It's also the story of Rosalie in the hospital ward, taking care of people from every walk of American life and earning their deep gratitude from 80 year old African-American sharecroppers to aging, affluent white engineers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You are like the Zelig for this family. There at so many crucial moments and you frequently offer a helping hand, a call to a consulate to fast track a visa or a call to an emergency room doctor. You have blended the roles of reporter, confidante, friend.
JASON DEPARLE By the time I decided to write the book, I'd known them for 20 years. I'd lived with them. I was kind of quasi-kin, you know. The time you mentioned about the consul was the only time, I think, where I really questioned whether I should do something. And what happened in that incident was Rosalie had been approved for her visa, but she hadn't gotten it yet and she was about to miss her plane. I had a meeting with a official in the embassy and I was trying to decide, should I mention this or not. And at that point, I think that the friend and journalist issue was in conflict because the journalist part of me thought it would be better if actually she didn't get the visa. She missed the plane. She would've been late to her job in Texas and would've made a point that for all the talk of open borders, they're not so open. It would have illuminated I think the struggles that even a privileged migrant like a nurse has. So on one hand, I want to just let the story play out naturally. And on the other hand, Rosalie been trying to get to the head states for 20 years and this seemed like a very nice official in the embassy and she immediately knew what to do and took care of it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you weren't specifically thinking too much about the so-called Heisenberg effect on all of this. I mean, you're there, you're asking questions of the parents, asking the kids to consider their lives in ways that kids often would not.
JASON DEPARLE I did an earlier book on a group of welfare families. I was gonna follow them for some years and see how they did leaving the welfare system. I was very worried in that instance that I didn't want to change the story by observing it. What I ended up deciding that no matter what I did, it wasn't gonna change things, that the dynamics that family were deeply established.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Back in December of 2018, my co-host Bob spoke with the writer Masha Gessin. She suggested that the media spend one day only reporting on immigration stories and help us understand the scale of the issue. She also thought it was important to focus on individual stories. You must feel that putting very detailed faces on the problem is key.
JASON DEPARLE It was just a great privilege and a daily joy to just hang out with them, whether it was with Tita in the slums 30 years ago or her grandchildren in the Texas public schools. Obviously I kept going because I wanted to offer a detailed story and I thought it had a global importance, but it was also just a lot of fun to tell.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jason, thank you very much.
JASON DEPARLE Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jason DeParle is a reporter for The New York Times. His book is called A Good Provider is One That Leaves.
That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, and Jon Hanrahan, and Asthaa Chaturvedi. We had more help from Anthony Bansie and Eloise Blondiau. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Hahn. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
UNDERWRITING On the Media is supported by the Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the listeners of WNYC Radio.