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June 25, 2019
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Samantha Bee: Canadian, comedian, and defender of the free press

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The only job named in and protected by the U.S. constitution is journalism. But when it’s under attack from fake news, misinformation, and the supposed defender-of-the-constitution-in-chief, who looks out for the press?

Reporters have an unlikely ally in the late night comedy circuit.

Late night television has a steady stream of male comedians ready to cursorily pick apart the news of the day, often mocking the dispatches of the press — typically the government — before they turn to a light hearted interview with a celebrity to round off the night.

But not Samantha Bee. The Canadian-born comedian and former ‘Daily Show’ correspondent, is the only female comedian with a late-night show, Full Frontal, and doesn’t waste a second not holding the powers to account. Her show, which films and airs on TBS every Wednesday, offers a weekly record of the abuses of the government by bringing both the big stories and the little-read reports to her massive viewing audience.

It’s no surprise that President Trump, an ardent critic of the press, declined for the third consecutive year to attend Saturday’s White House Correspondent’s Dinner, an annual gala for the White House press corps that “celebrates” the First Amendment’s protections of free speech — often by taking comical potshots at the commander-in-chief himself. The only saving grace for the president’s would-be roasting is the dinner’s organizers, the White House Correspondents’ Association, dropped the traditional comedy set altogether after Michelle Wolf’s pointed if not controversial set last year — which Bee herself defended.

Enter Bee with her own rival event, the aptly named Not The White House Correspondent’s Dinner, a party in its third year for “the free press… while we still have one,” said Bee.

“We’re throwing the party they should be having,” she said.

WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 26: Samantha Bee speaks onstage during “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” Not The White House Correspondents Dinner – Show on April 26, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for TBS) 558325

A free meal and an hour of comedy aside, support for the press is as important as ever. With more frequent attacks on the press, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and the regular insults of “fake news,” press freedom is in a vice.

“Journalists are critical to creating an informed citizenry, to make sure we’re hold public officials account, and to get basic information about the world around us,” said Courtney Radsch, advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists, a non-profit dedicated to promoting press freedom and advocating the rights of reports across the world.

“By labeling journalists as ‘enemies of the people’,” said Radsch, a term repeatedly used by Trump, including days prior to a newsroom shooting at Baltimore’s Capital Gazette newspaper, “it creates conditions that make it less safe for reporters to work.”

Last year, the CPJ’s Press Freedom Tracker database logged over a hundred incidents — from murders to physical attacks, border searches and legal orders — involving the press.

“This constant denigration of the media as ‘fake news’ has a really detrimental impact,” she said.

Bee isn’t alone in her efforts to support the free press. Other fellow comedians like John Oliver and Hasan Minhaj use their platform to educate and inform about “fundamental issue that concern more than just journalists,” said Radsch.

Bee’s weekly half-hour show is a journalistic effort in its own right. But as a comedy show, it’s largely shielded from the near-constant attacks that the press face from the Trump administration and its allies.

With all proceeds from the dinner going to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Bee has shown to not only serve as an ally for reporters but also a staunch defender of the free press.

“No-one needs the press more than me and my show,” said Bee at the dinner. “We spend all day reading and watching and thinking about the news.”

“Journalism is essential,” she said. And then she broke into song.

Samantha Bee’s Not The White House Correspondent’s Dinner airs Saturday at 10pm ET on TBS. TechCrunch was invited as a guest.

I asked the US government for my immigration file and all I got were these stupid photos

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“Welcome to the United States of America.”

That’s the first thing you read when you find out your green card application was approved. Those long-awaited words are printed on fancier-than-usual paper, an improvement on the usual copy machine-printed paper that the government sends to periodically remind you that you, like millions of other people, are stuck in the same slow bureaucratic system.

First you cry — then you cry a lot. And then you celebrate. But then you have to wait another week or so for the actual credit card-sized card — yes, it’s green — to turn up in the mail before it really kicks in.

It took two years to get my green card, otherwise known as U.S. permanent residency. That’s a drop in the ocean to the millions who endure twice, or even three times as long. After six years as a Brit in New York, I could once again leave the country and arrive without worrying as much that a grumpy border officer might not let me back in because they don’t like journalists.

The reality is, U.S. authorities can reject me — and any other foreign national — from entering the U.S. for almost any reason. As we saw with President Trump’s ban on foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations — since ruled unconstitutional — the highly vetted status of holding a green card doesn’t even help much. You have almost no rights and the questioning can be brutally invasive — as I, too, have experienced, along with the stare-downs and silent psychological warfare they use to mentally shake you down.

I was curious what they knew about me. With my green card in one hand and empowered by my newfound sense of immigration security, I filed a Freedom of Information request with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to obtain all of the files the government had collected on me in order to process my application.

Seven months later, disappointment.

USCIS sent me a disk with 561 pages of documents and a cover letter telling me most of the interesting bits were redacted, citing exemptions such as records relating to officers and government staff, investigatory material compiled for law enforcement purposes and techniques used by the government to decide an applicant’s case.

But I did get almost a decade’s worth of photos, taken by border officials, entering the United States.

Seven years of photos taken at the U.S. border (Source: Homeland Security/FOIA)

What’s interesting about these encounters is that you can see me getting exponentially fatter over the years while my sense of style declines at about the same rate.

Each photo comes with a record from a web-based system called the Customer Profile Management Service (CPMS), which stores from a camera at port of entries all the photos of foreign nationals visiting or returning to the U.S.

Immigration officers and border officials use the Identity Verification Tool (IVT) to visually confirm my identity and review my records at the border and my interview, as well as checking for any “derogatory” information that might flag a problem in my case.

The government’s IDENT system, which immigration staff and border officials use to visually verify an applicant’s identity along with any potentially barring issues, like a criminal record (Source: FOIA)

Everyone’s file will differ, and my green card case was somewhat simple and straightforward compared to others.

Some 90 percent of my file are things my lawyer submitted — my application, my passport and existing visa, my bank statements and tax returns, my medical exam and my entire set of supporting evidence — such as my articles, citations and letters of recommendation. The final 10 percent were actual responsive government documents, and some random files like photocopied folders.

And there was a lot of duplication.

From the choice files we are publishing, the green card process appears highly procedural and offered little to nothing in terms of decision making by immigration officers. Many of the government-generated documents were mostly box-ticking exercises, such as verifying the authenticity of documents along the chain of custody. A single typo can derail an entire case.

The government uses several Homeland Security systems to check my immigration records against USCIS’ Central Index System, and verify my fingerprints against my existing records stored in its IDENT system to ensure it’s really me at the interview.

USCIS’ Central Index System, a repository of data held by the government as applications go through the immigration process (Source: FOIA)

During my adjustment-of-status interview with an immigration officer, my “disposition” was recorded but redacted. (Spoiler alert: it was probably “sweaty and nervous.”)

A file filled out by an immigration officer at an adjustment of status interview, which green card candidates are subject to (Source: FOIA)

Following the interview, the immigration officer checks to make sure that the interview procedures are properly carried out. Homeland Security also pulls in data from the FBI to check to see if my name is on a watchlist, but also to confirm my identity as the real person applying for the green card.

And, in the end, two years of work and waiting came down to a single checked box following my interview. “Approved.”

The final adjudication of an applicant’s green card (Source: FOIA)

It’s no secret that you can FOIA for your green card file. Some are forced to file to obtain their case files in order to appeal their denied applications.

Runa Sandvik, a senior director of information security at The New York Times, obtained her border photographs from Homeland Security some years ago. Nowadays, it’s just as easy to request your files. Fill out one form and email it to the USCIS.

For me, next stop is citizenship. Just five more years to go.

Read more:

California moves toward healthcare for more, not yet healthcare for all

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 It was way easier for candidate Gavin Newsom to endorse single-payer health care coverage for everyone than it is now for Gov. Newsom to deliver it.

Yet hardcore advocates say they’re pleased with the moves he’s made thus far—even if it may take years to come to fruition.

“This is a governor that is operating from a compass of action,” said Stephanie Roberson, government relations director for the politically powerful California Nurses Association, which hasn’t exactly been known for its patienceon the issue.

Newsom has taken two tacts. He’s asking the Trump administration to let the state create its own single-payer system offering coverage to all Californians—a move almost everyone regards as a very long shot. And he’s also pushing specific ideas to expand health care coverage to hundreds of thousands of still-uninsured Californians—a move that seems much more do-able.

During his campaign, Newsom promised the nurses that he would make it happen. But the state can’t do it alone. That’s why he sent a letter to the federal government right out of the gate, asking the administration and Congress to set up an “innovation waiver” to allow California to create its own single-payer system.

Experts say there is little chance the Trump administration will give the state the go-ahead on this.

“He’s making a statement and sometimes making statements is important—even if there’s little chance of making progress in the immediate future,” said Gerald Kominski, senior fellow at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. “It’s a way of drawing a line in the sand.”

It’s also a way to stave off criticism from advocates, said Jesus Ramirez-Valles, director of the Health Equity Institute at San Francisco State University. “He can say ‘I tried it’ and there is no risk on him. If he doesn’t do what he promised, then he is risking opposition.”

Federal permission would also require Congress to support a new waiver system—one that would allow the state to redirect funds that usually go to the federal government, such as Medicare income taxes, to a state funding authority that would manage and pay for a single-payer health care system, Kominski said. Current waiver systems do not allow for this type of financial management by the state. Other states have used existing waiver programs for permission to set prices or to implement additional requirements, but not to collect federal money.

“You have to ask for the money,” said Roberson of the nurses union. “We are not going to sit on our hands and hope something is going to happen. This strengthens the governor’s commitment to Medicare for all.”

Meantime, Newsom is tackling the block of 3 million uninsured California residents by chipping away at the edges—proposing spending to help struggling middle-income families buy health insurance, and providing state coverage to some undocumented young adults.

He’ll need approval from the Legislature, now a supermajority of Democrats, many of whom have supported similar ideas in recent years.

Two intertwined proposals in his budget would offer hundreds of thousands of middle-income families additional state subsidies to buy health insurance, and require every Californian to obtain health coverage or pay a tax penalty.

This “state mandate” would replace the controversial federal mandate—a central component of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare— that the Trump administration recently canceled. A few other blue states were quicker to create a replacement state mandate, but California’s progressive lawmakers were wary of penalizing people who failed to buy health insurance unless the state also cushioned the blow by offering people more subsidies to lower the costs.

Newsom also proposes to use $260 million in state funds to extend Medi-Cal, the government health program for people who can’t afford insurance, to low-income undocumented immigrants ages 18 to 26.

It’s a classic “Resistance State” action for Newsom, as California tries to counteract the Trump administration’s federal moves to undermine Obamacare. Last year a joint UCLA and UC Berkeley study found that the uninsured rate in California would rise to nearly 13 percent by 2023 if nothing is done at the state level to prevent it.

Since the Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare was enacted, California’s uninsured rate has dropped from about 17 percent to roughly 7 percent. Roughly half of those 3 million remaining uninsured are undocumented immigrant adults who don’t qualify for assistance.

If Newsom’s plan is approved, California would offer additional subsidies to families that earn between 250 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level and already receive some federal help. The state would also start offering state-sponsored subsidies to households that earn between 400 and 600 percent of the federal poverty level, up to $150,600 for a family of four, who currently do not qualify for any assistance. Families that earn above 400 percent of the federal poverty level make up 23 percent of the state’s uninsured, according to data from the UCLA AskCHISprogram.

The federal poverty level for 2019 is set at earnings of $12,140 for one person and $25,100 for a family of four.

The budget does not include cost estimates for the additional subsidies but Newsom intends to pay for the expansion by having the state collect penalties from Californians who forego insurance.  His budget proposal estimates that the mandate penalty could raise about $500 million a year, similar to what about 600,000 Californians paid to the federal government when it had a mandate and collected its own penalties.

Peter Lee, who directs the state health insurance exchange Covered California, praised Newsom’s proposals during a recent board meeting.

“Not only does his initiative propose an individual penalty show courage,” he said, “it shows some thoughtfulness about the challenges that middle-class Americans face.”

Enrollment for Covered California, which recently ended, was down 15 percent over last year. Lee said the elimination of the federal penalty is partly to blame.

A draft affordability report Covered California is preparing for the Legislature concludes that if Newsom’s two proposals—expanded subsidies and a mandate—are adopted, enrollment could rise by nearly 650,000 people.

Funding the subsidies with penalties is, of course, a bit of a Catch-22: The more successful California is in getting people to obtain health care, the smaller the penalty fund to pay for the subsidies that help fund that care.

“You’re accomplishing your goal, but you’re taking away revenue,” Kominski said.  “This is the kind of problem we should be happy to have.”

The conundrum is reminiscent of the state’s tobacco tax, which was intended to deter people from smoking. Success has meant a drop in the amount of money the tax brings in.

Despite what many see as dismal prospects for single-payer in California so long as the Trump administration can quash the state’s waiver request, the California Nurses Association is undaunted. They’re working on a soon-to-be-introduced single-payer bill, more detailed than the version that died in 2017. That one carried a $400 billion price tag, more than three times the state’s annual budget, lacked support from then-Gov. Jerry Brown and was scant on details. The new version, nurses union rep Roberson said, will be specific about how single-payer would work and how it would be paid for.

“We’re not eradicating providers, we are not seeking to dismantle hospitals,” she said. “The fundamental structure of healthcare delivery will stay in place, what we are changing is how healthcare is financed.”

And if the Trump administration rejects the waiver request? Roberson sees other paths to a state single-payer system, including petitioning the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, or trying to set up a system under Affordable Care Act provisions.

If the nurses union and other single-payer advocates end up pursuing those other avenues, the question becomes whether Newsom will as well.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Hola Code tackles the real migration crisis

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After spending eight months in an immigration facility in the United States, Abimael Hernandez made the tough decision to return to Mexico.

He had spent 14 years in Florida and was leaving behind his wife and three children to return to Mexico so that he could go through the process of returning to the United States legally.

Hernandez didn’t want to live in fear of being pulled over by police, he longed to own a car in his name and he didn’t want his immigration status to be illegal any longer.  

Upon his return to Mexico, Hernandez had worked in construction, call centers and sold CDs before finally being given an opportunity that made a return to the United States less appealing. Hernandez now works as a software developer at Ignite Commerce in Mexico and has integrated well into the country that he at first struggled to identify as home.

Hernandez’s struggle to adjust and adapt to life in a new country mirrors that of other migrants who are returning to Mexico. And ongoing U.S. government attempts to put an end to the DACA program instituted under President Barack Obama, an initiative which protected as many as 800,000 unauthorized migrants that had come to the United States as children,are pushing many others along the same path.

For the people facing an increasingly hostile environment for migrants who choose — or are forced — to return to Latin America, little support awaits.

What tends to lie in store for these deportees and returnees in Mexico is usually low paying service employment. For those with an undocumented status especially, no collateral in Mexico leads to problems in accessing finances, whilst having spent the majority of their lives in the United States, barriers in the Spanish language mean some returnees fail to be accepted into the Mexican education system. 

Though there are some government initiatives aimed at supporting deportees by providing shelter and food, this usually bilingual cohort is prone to unemployment, as well as the mental struggle assigned to the frustrations of reintegrating into a country that many can’t identify with.

It is the hardship of reintegration that inspired the foundation of Hola Code, the only Mexican startup of its kind that currently runs in the country. Founded by CEO Marcela Torres just last year, Hola Code is coined as hackers without borders and is a startup that offers a coding boot camp for migrants, ensuring that this young generation, new to Mexico, does not slip under the radar.

Geared at supporting the integration of deportees, the startup is prepping Mexicans to enter into a high-demand sector through an intensive five-month software development training programme that gives the students qualification, even though many have started from scratch.

‘‘We don’t know of any social enterprises or even regular startups that are actually tackling migration in Mexico,’’ Torres recently told TechCrunch. Although migration and deportations continue to make headlines, it appears that Hola Code might be the only Mexican startup trying to do anything about it.

Backed by San Francisco-based Hack Reactor, the Mexican organization costs nothing until graduates have secured a full-time job, and pays their students a monthly stipend without any bureaucratic red tape.

Collectively venturing into Mexican society with peers in a similar position, most Hola Code students also don’t plan to return to the United States and want to use their skill set in the ever-growing Mexican tech ecosystems. For former student Hernandez, he remains grateful for the support network that Hola Code became for him.

‘‘If Mexico had more opportunities like Hola Code I think returnees would definitely think about not going back to the United States and other countries,’’ he said.

The question now remains as to how international policies will continue to affect Latin American families in the future.

‘‘You create the program in the hopes that one day that you will run out of work,’’ CEO and co-founder Marcela Torres ambitiously explained.

MISSION, TX – JUNE 12: A Central American immigrant stands at the U.S.-Mexico border fence after crossing into Texas on June 12, 2018 near Mission, Texas. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants’ country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

The bittersweet reality is that Hola Code has, in fact, blossomed within the past year with now over 400 monthly applications from Mexicans and also Central American migrants that are seeking refuge in the country. Although the organisation celebrates the achievements of their alumni, who tend to quickly ascend into well-paid tech jobs across Mexico, the coding boot camp is never short of work and is now looking to open an office in Tijuana to be closer to the border.

The journey for the startup’s female founder, one of a small number of women in Mexican tech leadership, has also not been an easy feat.

‘‘It’s very difficult for a woman that has designed a business plan and has ideas to be taken seriously,’’ Torres explains. ‘’It took me a long time to find the original investors that would believe in my idea and in my capacity, as well, to run the organization because this is the first startup that I have executed.’’

The cultural burdens that still exist in Mexico is a reality that deters many women from entering into the entrepreneurial scene within the country. From finding investors to promoting an idea, it is the issue of being taken seriously which is most effective at stalling Mexico’s female entrepreneurs.

‘‘I think that it’s important for younger women to start seeing us out there trying to take risks and thinking that they can do it as well. Even if they’re not successful, that it’s something that is available and achievable for them.’’

Confronted by her own hurdles in becoming the tech leader of Hola Code today, however, her organization does much more than just in-depth coding. From encouraging young Mexican women to leap into business and tech, to helping each student find a job, Torres speaks of the hope, security, and routine that every Hola Coder gathers as they become immersed in Mexican life through this community.

‘‘Helping them navigate the expectations of  how to start a career in tech is one of the things that we work on and therefore it means that they develop the right skill set, and once they finish the program, to be able to successfully jump into big areas such as banking.’’

MCALLEN, TX – JUNE 12: Central American asylum seekers wait for transport while being detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The group of women and children had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained before being sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants’ country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Former student Miriam Alvarez is now a software engineer for SegundaMano. Growing up in the United States, Mexican Universities did not accept her US documents and she too began working in a call centre before hearing about the project, applying just days before the application deadline. ‘‘It’s ok to not know everything, but you should always be open to trying new things and learning something new,’’ Alvarez said, speaking of the broader messages that Hola Code delivers.

The overwhelming lessons that all Hola Code’s alumni praise is how the boot camp delivers more than just coding, but also important life skills that allow for the transition to Mexico to be easier. Through reasoning and problem solving, many are grateful for the structure and direction that Hola Code provides Mexicans new to the country.

Though many of their students had joined Hola Code feeling ‘American,’ the values that the group provides adds to the larger picture of Mexico’s growing tech scenes.

‘‘The biggest challenge for the tech sector in the country is access to human capital and the second one is retaining the talent.’’  By fine tuning the country’s coding talent pools with bicultural young developers that speak English, Spanish and also JavaScript, the organisation contributes to growing tech hubs such as Tijuana, Guadalajara and Mexico City which are increasingly gaining global attention.

Hola Code is one of just a few life-changing organisations filling the gap in an immigration story that is seldom covered by the media.

Providing social mobility to people that have been forced to return through education, employment and exposure to tech pioneers, Hola Code’s alumni are spreading the message of integration through education far and wide across the globe.

As long as the fragility of migration continues to be tested, however,  Torres and her team have work to do in their mission to produce Mexico’s next pioneering coding generation.

That GoFundMe to build a border wall is issuing $20 million in refunds

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A Trump-inspired GoFundMe campaign that raised $20 million to ostensibly to build a wall on the southern U.S. border will refund every cent. Run by Brian Kolfage, a veteran with a track record of questionable business practices, the project defied all logistical considerations with its proposal for a “simple and straightforward” plan to build the wall. That didn’t stop the fund from attracting the attention of 337,559 donors at the time of writing.

Surprising perhaps no one beyond its donors, the campaign collided with reality, with Kolfage coming to the realization that “the federal government won’t be able to accept our donations anytime soon” given that there is no actual mechanism through which it could do so. On the campaign page, Kolfage newly disclosed his plans to form a nonprofit, “We Build The Wall, Inc.” that would hold onto the donations until the federal government is able to accept them or until all of the donors eventually forget the project altogether.

Initially, donors were told that their money would be refunded if the goal for the project was not met. On December 22, the project’s language changed, removing any mention of refunds if the goal was not met. With that, the project appears to have run afoul of GoFundMe’s policies.

Kolfage claims that he has formed an advisory board that features war privatization enthusiast and brother of the Secretary of Education Erik Prince and the also ethically questionable former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach who lost his race this past November.

While Kolfage might be in good company, it sounds like GoFundMe will be automatically handing back every bit of the $20 million he raised before getting called out changing the terms of the campaign. Donors who still want their money to go to Kolfage will need to opt in specifically.

“If a donor does not want a refund, and they want their donation to go to the new organization, they must proactively elect to redirect their donation to that organization,” GoFundMe told The Hill. “If they do not take that step, they will automatically receive a full refund.”

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