The woman's story was beyond horrible. In her native Honduras, she said she'd witnessed the murder of her cousin by a criminal gang -- and that members told her they were coming for her and her 5-year-old son next. The woman gathered up her child and fled, undocumented, to America, begging for asylum.
Her tale was certainly plausible. For much of the 2010s, the small Central American nation with rampant crime and drug-gang activity has had the highest murder rate in the world, and more than 5,000 people were slain there in 2016.
And so she was coming to a place where the most famous landmark is a statue that asks the world to "[g]ive me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." But in 2017, the government of the United States has a different line on these matters. Last Thursday -- at the very moment that the U.S. House of Representatives was voting for a massive tax cut for the wealthy that would be funded by reducing Medicaid for our poor -- the woman and her son were just hours away from getting sent back to the violent homeland they'd tried so desperately to flee.
"Twitter, it's urgent," wrote Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, who spent most of the momentous day (along with a state rep from Delco, Leanne Krueger-Braneky) that the House was voting to strip 24 million citizens of health insurance in a frenetic effort to at least save two people. In addition to calling attention to the case on social media, Casey pressed it with anyone who'd listen -- getting through to White House chief of staff Reince Priebus at one point -- but to no avail. The two were flown back to Honduras that afternoon -- as Casey's very public effort to intervene also infuriated President Trump's Homeland Security Secretary, the retired general John Kelly.
The episode felt like the exclamation point on the one area where Trump, for better or worse, has kept his promise to the American voters, by trashing our former reputation as the world's most welcoming place for refugees -- political, economic, or otherwise. Reports of raids by Immigration Control and Enforcement, or ICE, are on the upswing -- and migrant communities are terrified. The number of people attempting to cross the border is said to be down sharply -- but so is international tourism. Going forward, the Trump administration has floated plans that would also reduce the numbers of legal immigrants coming to America.
In Economic 101 terms, Team Trump is using its control of the apparatus of government to create scarcity in the America immigration market. Limiting the supply should increase the economic demand -- especially since there are still many folks who'd be thrilled to come here with the comfort of the seal of approval of the U.S. government. That's particularly true in prospering yet constricted societies like China.
Someone who seems to have figured that out is the family of Jared Kushner -- the Trump son-in-law who by dint of his hard work and intelligence is fast becoming the second most influential person in the nation, right behind his wife Ivanka's dad. Kushner and his kinfolk are the owners of a large real-estate development empire in New Jersey and New York.
Now....did you know this? That since the early 1990s, the American government has had a program called the EB-5 visa that bestows green card status and a quicker pathway to possible American citizenship on foreign nationals who invest at least $500,000 in certain types of development projects in the 50 states. That's right -- while our body politic clashes over border walls and mass deportations -- we have a program for the very wealthy that, according to Sen. Diane Feinstein, "says that U.S. citizenship is for sale." Mainly to Chinese millionaires. In recent years some 75-85 percent of the 10,000 or so annual EB-5 visas have gone to people from China.
I didn't know about the visa program, but the Kushner family certainly did. Last year, the Kushner Companies built a Trump(!!)-branded luxury high-rise in Jersey City with some $50 million raised from Chinese investors who got to cut to the front of the citizenship line. Developers like the Kushners love this program because normally investors fret about seeking the best possible return on their investment; here, it's all about the green card, regardless of how risky the project might seem.
And a few things have changed this year. Donald Trump is now the president and Jared Kushner works out of the West Wing; in fact, one of the many portfolios he carries around is overseeing U.S.-China relations. This weekend, Kushner's sister, Nicole Meyer, and other Kushner representatives were back on the road again in Beijing and Shanghai, now trying to sell $500,000 stakes -- and a green-card shortcut -- for a new Jersey City project. Reporters from the New York Times and the Washington Post attempted to crash these parties, with mixed results. The developers were definitely not happy to see them.
"The Shanghai event, at the opulent Four Seasons Hotel, was patrolled by burly security guards who screened those in attendance and kept journalists outside, in an elevator lobby," the Times wrote in a triple-bylined account. "The organizers had refused on Saturday to allow late registration as word spread of the Beijing event. One guard at the Shanghai event was heard saying that at least some of the participants would be leaving through a private back exit."
Still, the journalists saw enough to suggest the Kushners were not shy about promoting the developer family's new direct pipeline into the White House that sets American immigration policy. In Beijing, the Times reported, there was praise for Jared Kushner and his sister told attendees that "the project in Jersey City 'means a lot to me and my entire family'” -- shortly before a slide featuring Trump was flashed. One would-be Chinese investor told the Times: “The Trump relationship is an extra point for me.”
After the brouhaha, Kushner representatives insisted that the new Jersey City project was one of a basket of investments that Jared Kushner sold off in January before assuming the awesome duties of...presidential son-in-law. Perhaps, although just like with the president himself, Kushner and his wife Ivanka still hold many ties to their business empire -- with little or no transparency as to what they own or don't own. Whatever they own, the weekend's report made it clear what the Kushners are offering to wealthy Chinese: The winking impression that U.S. government influence is for sale to the smart money.
The American system just doesn't know what to do about such blatant conflicts of interest on such a massive scale. This country has never had a situation where the president and two of his top advisers, who happen to be his daughter and his son-in-law, have so many business entanglements, many of them outside of our borders, at the same time they're making key policy decisions. The Trump/Kushner families have swamped our system with grift -- and they're getting away with it.
But this story felt even more troubling than usual. At the very same moment that the Kushners were touting American visas for Chinese cash in their dodgy Jersey investments, Homeland Security and ICE were not only shipping that 5-year-old boy back to Honduras and potential doom, but the fallout was spreading from a late April ICE raid at a mushroom farm in Chester County, just west of Philadelphia, the first enforcement action of its kind since the 1990s. None of the four men with criminal backgrounds that ICE claimed to be looking for were at the farm -- but 12 workers with no record were handcuffed and detained. Said the head of a non-profit that services the Latino community -- and has seen many of its clients vanish since the raid: “People are afraid to leave their houses.”
If only those mushroom farm laborers had $500,000 for the investment of a lifetime in the Kushner family and in beautiful downtown Jersey City! They'd be in like Flynn! OK, maybe not like Flynn, but they'd still be doing a productive job that farmers have a hard time filling with American citizens, instead of sitting in a jail cell, waiting to be flown home in handcuffs.
It all underscores how we live in a nation where integrity gets sold to the highest bidder, whether it's the hedge-fund trader on Central Park West who wants your cancer-treatment money to lower his income taxes, or the Chinese investor playing for U.S. citizenship with a marked deck of cards. This is the kind of unfairness that Trump promised his 65 million voters he would fix -- and that he and his minions are now making 100 times worse. I am absolutely terrified at what comes next.