2018
June
01
Friday
Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Both public and private entities can summon the will to enforce good behavior.

We saw that today in Spain, where a prime minister was told “time’s up” after a no-confidence motion following a corruption scandal. We saw it earlier in the week when, on the very same day, Starbucks shut down for its long-planned awareness training on implicit bias and ABC summarily removed a star for racist tweets.

But integrity is often policed by individuals who exhibit it and expect it in others, and this week brought more evidence of that, too.

Some Google employees bridled at the tech giant’s lean into an artificial intelligence project that could essentially make death-by-drone more efficient. Facebook shareholders took that company to task for dragging its feet on addressing privacy issues.

Integrity in politics? It may be best to look at the private-citizen side. A new poll points to a surge in American youths’ confidence that, as individuals, they can have an effect on government. Especially optimistic: the 15-to-22 set, many of whom are still only aspirational voters. As recently as March only a third of them felt that way. Today it stands at 48 percent. New enforcers rising?

Now to our five stories for your Friday, including ones that highlight the importance of precision in disaster planning, of humanity in immigration enforcement, and of an openness to thinking differently in exploring space. 

1. Up, down, sideways: the trends in today’s US jobs numbers

A hard-line tack on tariffs by the United States has stirred fresh worries about a descent into trade warfare. We're watching that story. Meanwhile, unpacking today's jobs data reveals some quietly encouraging trends.

The US economy added 223,000 jobs in May, the Labor Department reported in its preliminary estimate Friday. That’s the most in any month since February, and the bigger story may be an even longer-term one. Jobs growth over the past eight-plus years has brought the unemployment rate down to 3.8 percent, a low not seen since the dot-com era (see charts below). For African-Americans, unemployment is at lows not seen in almost five decades of record keeping. But their jobless rate remains higher than that of whites, and, more broadly, the gains from economic growth remain unequally divided. Rich-poor gaps have continued to widen. But it’s notable that Hispanic and Asian Americans have seen wage gains that outpace the national average. And although overall wage growth has left many Americans wishing for more, the current expansion actually compares favorably with past cycles once you adjust for inflation. (A Brookings Institution analysis last year found the current cycle outpacing that of the 1990s.) Wage growth could improve as the labor market tightens further. That, says Bankrate.com’s Mark Hamrick, could help the many Americans who still “are living paycheck to paycheck.”  – Laurent Belsie and Mark Trumbull, Staff writers

SOURCE: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Brookings Institution
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2. What Beijing’s surge in South China Sea could mean

After years of changing “facts on the water,” Beijing all but controls a key world waterway. While Washington is flexing back, the power game is more sophisticated than just jockeying warships.

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They have poetic names – Mischief Reef, Triton Island, Fiery Cross Reef. Just a few years ago they were dots of coral in the middle of the South China Sea, baptized by ancient navigators. Today they are some of China’s most strategic military bases, dredged into artificial existence and bristling with missile systems, runways, and radar defenses. China’s claim to own most of the South China Sea has been ruled illegal by an international court. President Xi Jinping promised Washington he would never deploy military assets to the new islands. Neither has made any difference to Beijing’s drive to impose its strategic grip on a waterway that carries 20 percent of world trade. “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States,” according to the new head of US Indo-Pacific Command. And that is just one step toward a more ambitious goal, most observers say: to supplant the US as the preeminent power in Asia and the western Pacific.

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What Beijing’s surge in South China Sea could mean

Five years after Beijing began reshaping the South China Sea to suit its interests in the teeth of international opposition, China has all but taken control of the vital waterway.

China’s success in asserting an unbreakable strategic grip on the South China Sea through the creation of militarized artificial islands brings it another step closer to its ultimate goal: supplanting the United States as the preeminent power in Asia and the Pacific.

That goal may still be a distant one, many analysts say; the US Navy is still much larger than China’s, to say nothing of Washington’s network of alliances in the region that took decades to develop.  

But a recent report by the Lowy Institute, a think tank in Sydney, suggests that an increasingly assertive Beijing is rapidly closing in on Washington in the two giants’ regional power struggle. And nowhere is that more evident than in the South China Sea, the corridor for over 20 percent of world trade, which even US military officials concede is now firmly in Beijing’s hands.

“The ability of the United States to constrain China's expansion in the South China Sea has been close to nothing,” says Robert Ross, an expert in Chinese defense policy at Boston College. “It's far from clear how it can do anything more robust than it is doing” already.

Since 2013 China has assiduously sought to change the “facts in the water” in the South China Sea, taking strategic charge of the region while avoiding direct military conflict with other countries pursuing competing territorial claims and, most importantly, with the United States.

In 2015, during his first state visit to the United States, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised not to militarize the islands, a pledge he has since broken.

Mine, all mine

At first, China focused on transforming various reefs and islets into artificial islands and claiming them as its own, in defiance of international law. Then the People’s Liberation Army surreptitiously started to militarize the islands, equipping them with airstrips, radar and missile systems.

In 2016, when an international tribunal found that China’s expansive claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea had no legal basis, Beijing simply ignored the ruling and went on building islands. 

Now China appears poised to go even further.

In April, Mr. Xi oversaw the largest naval parade in China’s history after two days of military drills in the South China Sea. Last month, China landed long-range bombers for the first time at an airfield built on one of its man-made islands. Recent satellite images show newly constructed buildings that could soon be home to China’s first troops based in the hotly contested Spratly archipelago, where Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam all maintain territorial claims.

When the man-made islands are occupied, “China will be able to extend its influence thousands of miles to the south and project power deep into Oceania,” US Adm. Philip Davidson wrote in testimony to Congress in April. “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”

During a ceremony at Pearl Harbor on Wednesday, Davidson became head of the US Pacific Command, which was renamed the US Indo-Pacific Command to underscore the growing importance of India to the Pentagon.

Davidson is taking over at a time of heightened tensions between China and the US over the South China Sea. Last week, Washington withdrew an invitation for Beijing to participate in multinational naval exercises later this summer in what it called “an initial response” to China's militarization of the waterway.

Then, on Sunday, the US conducted its latest “freedom of navigation” patrol, sending two navy destroyers within 12 miles of islands in the Paracel group to challenge Beijing’s territorial claims there. Earlier this week, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said American ships would maintain a “steady drumbeat” of naval operations around the Spratly Islands.

Davidson’s predecessor, Adm. Harry Harris, said at the Pearl Harbor ceremony that while North Korea is the most imminent threat to the United States, China remains Washington’s biggest long-term challenge.

“Without focused involvement and engagement by the United States and our allies and partners,” Harris said, “China will realize its dream of hegemony in Asia.” 

High-stakes arm wrestling

Although Xi has assured the world he won’t seek hegemony, he has expressed his belief that the vast majority of the South China Sea has been “China’s territory since ancient times.” In a speech he gave last October, Xi highlighted “steady progress” in the construction of new islands as a major achievement of his first term as president.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei all have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea and are wary of China’s intentions. On Wednesday, the Philippines warned that it was prepared to go to war if its troops on bases in the South China Sea were harmed.

While the risk of a military confrontation may at times seem high, Zhang Baohui, a professor of international relations at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, says the actions both sides have taken so far show that neither wants to start a war.

“The South China Sea has become a battleground over prestige in the region,” Prof. Zhang says. “China wants to prove that its rise cannot be stopped by the US. The US wants to show the region that it’s still in charge.”

How much longer the US will remain the leading power in Asia is an open question. With a defense budget nearly four times the size of China’s, and 11 aircraft carriers to China’s two, the US is likely to retain the upper hand militarily for years to come. But Zhang says that the contest for regional primacy is about much more than military strength.

“Military is really only part of the competition. China’s game is to win primacy through its economic power,” he argues, adding that China’s economic influence in Asia far outweighs that of the United States, and is growing. “In the long-term, China establishing some kind of primacy is inevitable.”

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3. Long after Puerto Rico’s hurricane, a grim but important accounting

In the wake of disaster, identifying victims and assisting survivors is more pressing than nailing down a death count. But precision is key to future planning, and it's one reason researchers are pushing for an accurate toll in Puerto Rico.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
An SOS sign from the days following hurricane Maria remains painted on the street on March 16 in Humacao, Puerto Rico. Many in this mountain community still lack electricity six months after hurricane Maria.

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How many Puerto Ricans died because of hurricane Maria? According to Puerto Rico’s government, the answer was 64. According to a study released last week, however, it’s more than 4,600. To some, getting that number right may seem like a low priority, compared with assisting still-struggling survivors and planning for a safer storm season. But an accurate assessment is key to future planning, researchers say. Better understanding of where, and why, people were most vulnerable to the hurricane and its months-long aftermath can guide emergency planning and response. Take electricity, for example. Weeks or months without power is especially dangerous for people who rely on oxygen machines or medications that require refrigeration. The Harvard study found that one-third of deaths in the months following Maria were due to delayed or interrupted health care. One potential solution? Providing vulnerable families with solar power. “A lot is at stake with underreporting” the death toll, says Satchit Balsari, a lead investigator on the study. “The ramifications for future hurricanes are substantial.”

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Long after Puerto Rico’s hurricane, a grim but important accounting

Rebeka Rodríguez leans over the car console to help navigate her hand-drawn map of this small, hard-to-reach neighborhood in Adjuntas, a western mountain town. The curving pencil strokes demarcating homes and streets, and landmarks like chicken coops and bridges, don’t note the steep roads, or where they’re riddled with nearly impassable potholes. Even the paved parts were washed out during Maria.

But the color-coded key does show which households are inhabited by people reliant on medications that require refrigeration. A handful of homes are outlined in orange, meaning they’re “extremely urgent” cases – families left extra-vulnerable by hurricane Maria, whom Ms. Rodríguez’s organization worked to connect with solar power.

A new hurricane season kicks off today, but Puerto Rico is still reckoning with Maria’s deadly aftermath. A report published in The New England Journal of Medicine this week found that the death count could be some 70 times higher than the official numbers released by the Puerto Rican government last December.

Roughly 4,600 people may have died in the months following the Sept. 20 storm, according to researchers from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health – many from delayed or unavailable medical care after Maria. That’s compared to the 64 deaths attributed to the storm by the government. The disparity could come down to a number of factors, experts say, ranging from a very strict definition of what qualifies as a disaster-related death to political posturing.

But an accurate estimate of deaths following a natural disaster like Maria is vital for future response planning. Earlier this spring, damage to a single power line plunged the entire island into darkness once again, demonstrating how vulnerable Puerto Rico remains as hurricane season kicks off anew.

“A lot is at stake with underreporting” the death toll, says Satchit Balsari, a lead investigator on the study and a research fellow at Harvard’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights. “At the very least, [an accurate number] means closure for the family of a victim.” But it also affects funding and planning that can take into account where people died on the island, and why, helping first responders identify and prepare for areas most at risk in the future.

“The ramifications for future hurricanes are substantial,” Dr. Balsari says.

Keeping the lights on

The Harvard study found that one-third of deaths in the months following Maria were due to delayed or interrupted health care, and that 83 percent of homes in Puerto Rico were without electricity for more than 100 days after the storm. That’s especially dangerous for people who depend on medication that requires refrigeration, or electrical devices like oxygen and dialysis machines.

In line with communities across Puerto Rico, Ms. Rodríguez and the organization where she volunteers, Casa Pueblo, took it upon themselves to identify families most at risk to lend a vital hand. It became clear neighborhoods like the one she mapped – far removed from the town center, hard to reach by car or on foot, and inhabited by many elderly and poor residents – were extremely vulnerable to the storm’s aftermath.

“There’s a lot of inequality in Puerto Rico, but it’s something hidden,” says Alexis Massol González, Casa Pueblo’s co-founder. “And when it’s out of sight, it’s easier to overlook the vulnerable.” 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Isabel Rivera Torres and her husband Juan Cardona Lopez sit under a solar lightbulb provided by Casa Pueblo at their home in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, on March 17, 2018. The couple played dominoes to pass time after sunset during the months that they lived without electricity. Casa Pueblo is a community organization that promotes empowerment through ecological means.

Before Casa Pueblo learned of Isabel Rivera Torres and Juan Cardona Lopez’s living situation in Adjuntas, their son would go between their home and town three times a day to bring ice to keep Ms. Rivera’s insulin cold. Mr. Cardona is going blind, and they have a disabled adult daughter who doesn’t speak also living with them. They relied on the generosity of neighbors – struggling just like them to stay hydrated, fed, and healthy – to survive in the weeks following Maria.

The organization identified 10 homes like theirs to deliver solar panels, a small solar fridge, and solar lamps so that homebound residents could stay up past sunset – in the case of Rivera and Cardona, playing dominoes on their kitchen table to pass the time.

The hope is that if there’s a “next time,” the most at-risk homes will already be on the radar of those involved in community response here, Rodríguez says.

“This is really common,” says John C. Mutter, a professor of environmental science and public affairs at Columbia University. “The first person you will see after a disaster is most likely to be another citizen. That empowers citizens [to help each other] and it should,” he says.

“But that isn’t a way in which a government can absolve its responsibility for doing something in terms of recovery.”

Push for accuracy

Professor Mutter has studied how deaths are counted after natural disasters, including hurricane Katrina in 2005. He says the Harvard study, which was conducted in just a few weeks for roughly $50,000 – quick and affordable by research standards ­– was “sound.”

The research team randomly selected 3,299 homes on the island, or about 9,522 people, to survey in January. People interviewed in these homes reported 38 deaths between Sept. 20, when Maria made landfall, and Dec. 31, 2017: a 62 percent jump in mortality rate compared to the same period in 2016. They then applied that rate to Puerto Rico’s overall population (3.4 million) to estimate the total number of deaths.

“There is no uniform way to do a death count” after a natural disaster, Mutter says. “In some cases, a government might make up numbers, like Haiti,” he says of an original death toll after the 2010 earthquake, which hovered around 300,000 people. Later that was lowered to closer to 50,000 deaths. There’s an incentive in overestimating a death toll, especially in poorer places.

“The really odd part is knowing that donations for people affected by disasters go with the number of people killed. That’s where the sympathy lies after a disaster – with the dead and injured,” he says.

The death toll given by the island’s government has puzzled – and angered – many.

The low count could come down to how narrowly disaster deaths are defined, such as whether deaths from delayed treatment are recorded as storm-related. Or that the government requires that all disaster-related deaths be examined by Puerto Rico’s Forensic Sciences institute, located in San Juan: a challenging request compounded by prolonged electricity and cellular outages, blocked roads, and limited access to medical facilities after the storm.

But some, including San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, are now questioning if the official death count was an attempt at a “cover up,” or if it was a way for Gov. Ricky Rosselló to pander to President Trump, who praised the island for its low death toll.

Earlier this year, a team of investigative reporters in Puerto Rico took the island’s Department of Health and Demographic Registry to court, demanding mortality data beyond November 2017, the last month the data was made publicly available.

Some new steps have been taken in preparing for this hurricane season, including upgraded communications systems like satellite phones in each municipality, reports Buzzfeed News. But there haven’t been plans made public by the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Puerto Rican government as to how the island’s most vulnerable residents will be helped in the case of another emergency.

“Communities were isolated, and they used their own force to clean and open roads. It’s led to the biggest social movement in Puerto Rico’s history,” says Mr. Massol from Casa Pueblo of Maria’s longer-term effects. “But Maria also marks a collapse on the side of the government. Can they match this community solidarity?”

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4. On immigration, Feds’ reach for low-hanging fruit prompts pushback

A federal judge in Massachusetts is leading an inquiry into a tough new immigration enforcement tactic that raises questions not only about the law, but also about fairness and humane treatment of families who self-report their status.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Fabiano de Oliveira shows the tracking device that he must wear while awaiting a decision in his immigration case. He was detained when he and his wife showed up for his green card hearing.

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Karah de Oliveira thought applying for a green card for her husband, Fabiano, was a no-brainer. She is a Massachusetts native; they have been together for eight years and they have a son, age 5. Her husband has no criminal record. They went for an immigration interview in January, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement was waiting. “We were so surprised that it could happen here. It’s a liberal state,” says Ms. de Oliveira. Immigrants married to US citizens who petition for them to stay present an easy target since they have declared themselves to US immigration services, immigration lawyers say. Now that practice faces judicial pushback in federal court in Boston. In April, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security over the separation of US citizens from their spouses and children. A 2016 regulation permits applicants to remain with their families while green-card cases are heard; the ACLU alleges ICE violated these legal protections. Last week, Thomas Brophy, the ICE acting director for New England, told US District Judge Mark Wolf that the practice has stopped and ICE agents in the six-state region would only detain unauthorized immigrants seeking legal status who posed a threat to national security or public safety.

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On immigration, Feds’ reach for low-hanging fruit prompts pushback

When the notice arrived in the mail, Juliana Junqueira was wary. A year after they applied, she and her husband, Eduardo, had an appointment with an immigration officer. It was a chance to prove that their 2005 marriage was legitimate and to put Eduardo Junqueira, an unauthorized Brazilian national, on a path to legal residency. 

Ms. Junqueira called her attorney in New York. Should they go to the interview? Was it risky for Eduardo, who had twice crossed illegally into the United States?

The attorney advised them not to worry. So they showed up at the federal building in Hartford, Conn., with all their paperwork: marriage certificate; photos of their two US-born children, ages 9 and 10; a decade of tax receipts. An hour later, an official called Eduardo’s name. The couple stood up. No, Juliana was told, not you. We only want to talk to him.

“Then I knew it. I knew something was wrong,” she says.

Ten minutes later, she was informed that Eduardo was in the custody of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. It would be another three months before she would see him again.

Juliana was furious with her attorney. “She handed him to ICE on a silver platter,” she says.

The tactic is one way the Trump administration is delivering on its promise to deport as many unauthorized immigrants as possible, immigration lawyers say. Immigrants married to US citizens who petition for them to stay present an easy target since they have declared themselves to US immigration services.

Self-reporting immigrants make tempting targets for enforcement, says Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law practice at Cornell Law School in Ithaca, NY. “If you want to increase your numbers quickly, arresting people who turn up at [immigration services] are low hanging fruit. You know what time they’re going to be there,” he says.

Now that practice faces judicial pushback in federal court in Boston. Eduardo was freed on May 8 after ICE was found to have violated his rights while in custody. This ruling led to a broader inquiry into ICE’s tactics by US District Judge Mark Wolf, who questioned why it was necessary to separate families who were seeking legal status for unauthorized members.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Fabiano de Oliveira, who is facing deportation, and his wife, Karah, an American citizen, pose in the living room of her parents' home, where they live with their young son, in Beverly, Mass. Fabiano was arrested by ICE earlier this year when they went for a green card interview.

Last week, ICE officials testified that the practice of sending agents to immigration interviews had begun after President Trump set new priorities for detentions. Thomas Brophy, the acting director for New England, told the court that the practice had been stopped and ICE agents in the six-state region would only detain unauthorized immigrants seeking legal status who posed a threat to national security or public safety.

Judge Wolf, a Reagan appointee, is due to hold further hearings next week. He has yet to rule on broader allegations that ICE violated the constitutional and statutory rights of immigrants. Whatever he rules would likely only apply in Massachusetts, which is already stony ground for immigration raids.

Immigration lawyers worry that self-restraint may not hold without judicial checks.

“I think the statements [by ICE officials] were designed to contain the damage that’s already been done,” says Jeffrey Rubin, an attorney in Boston. His firm, Rubin Pomerleau, now represents Eduardo Junqueira as well as two other former ICE detainees in similar circumstances.

Class-action lawsuit

In April, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit in Massachusetts against the Department of Homeland Security over the separation of US citizens from their spouses and children. It noted that US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued a 2016 regulation that permits unauthorized applicants to remain with their families while green-card cases are heard, and alleges that ICE violated these legal protections.

Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, says a legal process had been turned into a trap that ensnared families, a trap that echoes the separation of parents and children seeking asylum at the Mexican border. “The government’s strategy seems to be to dissuade people from seeking immigration benefits to which they’re entitled,” he says.

In both circumstances, parents are taken away from their children by design, he says. “That is not a byproduct of the strategy. The family separation is the strategy.”

One ACLU plaintiff, Lucimar de Souza, a mother of three in Everett, Mass., was detained by ICE around the same time as Eduardo. Wolf ordered her release on May 8. Last week, Wolf had a video played in court of Ms. de Souza’s emotional reunion with her son.

Wolf asked Mr. Brophy, the ICE director, how many children he had. “Three,” he replied.

"Did you think what it would be like to face the threat of deportation and stay separated from your children for five or six weeks while you await a hearing?" Wolf asked rhetorically.

A spokesman for ICE declined to comment on its practices in New England, citing the ongoing litigation. Federal ICE officials have repeatedly said that no classes of “removal aliens” were exempt from enforcement of deportation orders.

A spokesperson for USCIS says its officers notify law enforcement agencies when they come into contact with immigrants who have criminal or civil warrants, and the same applies to deportation orders. “The originating law enforcement agency has the discretion to decide whether they intend to apprehend the individual or not,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

For lawyers advising clients on whether to seek green cards for unauthorized spouses, these arrests present a dilemma, says Heather Prendergast, an immigration attorney in Cleveland, Ohio. “That risk has always been out there, but it was really remote. Three years ago I would have told a client, yes, technically you are out of [legal] status, so it could happen.”

Still, she argues on balance it’s better to petition for legal rights than wait to be caught, which could happen at a routine traffic stop.

Ms. Prendergast, who chairs the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s liaison committee with ICE, says there’s no public record of how many self-reporting immigrants have been detained or how widespread the practice is.

She says it may be a particular tactic in jurisdictions such as California and Massachusetts, where ICE agents get limited cooperation from law enforcement agencies. Last year, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that ICE detainers – requests to turn over arrested individuals for deportation – were unconstitutional.

'We were so surprised ... it could happen here'

Living in a blue state lulled Karah de Oliveira into thinking that applying for a green card for her husband, Fabiano, was a no-brainer. She is a Massachusetts native; they have been together for eight years; they have a son, age 5. He has no criminal record. So they filed in 2016. They went for an immigration interview in January, and ICE was waiting.

“We were so surprised that it could happen here. It’s a liberal state,” says Ms. de Oliveira, who works for a software company. 

Fabiano was handcuffed and told he had ignored a final deportation order, which he says he never received. “All I could think of was my son and my wife,” he says. If deported to Brazil, he would be barred from returning for 15 years.

The Obama administration created a waiver for unauthorized green-card applicants with US spouses to prevent family separation. For successful applicants, deportation orders could be lifted by a judge.

Like other workarounds, it was predicated on Congress eventually enacting immigration reform. But like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, it was not by itself a fix. “It shows how broken our immigration system is,” says Mr. Yale-Loehr, who has practiced immigration law for 35 years. “This is the worst time in my career that I’ve seen for immigrants.” 

Fabiano spent a month in ICE custody in a state prison. He met other immigrants, including those arrested in similar circumstances. Some chose deportation, unable to see a way out. Fabiano’s lawyers got him released, subject to ICE supervision, including an ankle monitor. The immigration officer certified their marriage before he was detained, which entitles him to a work permit. (He’s a house painter.)

Still, the threat of deportation hangs over him. He puts his odds of staying at 50/50.

“No, it’s higher than that,” insists de Oliveira, ever the American optimist. There’s no reason to deny him, she says. “He’s got a family here.”

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5. Sand dunes on Pluto drive scientists to reframe some ‘knowns’

How do you explain the “impossible”? To account for dune formations on Pluto, planetary scientists had to look outside their existing framework of understanding.

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Scientists didn’t expect to find windblown dunes on Pluto. In fact, it was thought to be impossible given the weakness of winds there. But images captured by the New Horizons space probe reveal patterns on the dwarf planet’s surface that look remarkably like dunes. For planetary scientists, encountering impossibilities is just part of the job. “We're forced to think outside the box when we see these strange worlds,” says Lori Fenton, a planetary scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. Sometimes, that means drawing inspiration from others. Conversations with scientists in other disciplines can prompt creative ideas to resolve planetary puzzles, Dr. Fenton says. That’s just what has happened with the Plutonian dune mystery. A team came together to propose a mechanism that might explain the presence of dunes on Pluto in a paper published Thursday in the journal Science. The interdisciplinary nature of that team was key, says the study's lead author, Matt Telfer, a lecturer in physical geography at Britain’s University of Plymouth: “We needed each other.”

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Sand dunes on Pluto drive scientists to reframe some ‘knowns’

Pluto was shrouded in mystery until NASA’s New Horizons probe zipped by the dwarf planet almost three years ago. As images transmitted back to Earth, Pluto went from a fuzzy dot to a complex world. Between towering mountains, flowing nitrogen ice glaciers, and blue skies, surprises abounded.

But after spotting a striped pattern on the edge of the Sputnik Planitia ice plain that looked remarkably like sand dunes found on Earth, scientists were left scratching their heads. Dunes on Earth require strong winds to form, and Pluto’s atmosphere was thought to be far too thin for such winds to exist on the dwarf planet. And yet there the stripes were.

Since the dune-like features were first revealed in New Horizons images, scientists have debated whether or not they are indeed dunes, and how they may have formed. How could something that seems impossible be right there before their eyes?

For planetary scientists, encountering impossibilities is just part of the job. These scientists have to think beyond what they know, keeping an open mind and collaborating with others to put as many possibilities on the table.

That’s just what happened with the Plutonian dune mystery. An interdisciplinary, international team came together to propose a mechanism that might explain the presence of dunes on Pluto in a paper published Thursday in the journal Science.

When the images started to come back from New Horizons, “we looked at these things and said, ‘My goodness, they look like dunes’,” says Matt Telfer, lead author of the paper and a lecturer in physical geography at Britain’s University of Plymouth. But “how is this possible given the low atmosphere that we’ve got here?”

Karen Norris/Staff

Pluto’s atmosphere is 0.001 percent as thick as Earth’s. On Earth, the thicker atmosphere means that winds can be strong enough to lift sand grains into the air, and then carry them along the surface of the planet. 

At first, Dr. Telfer and his colleagues struggled to come up with a scientific basis for the existence of such windblown formations.

Then, in what Telfer calls a “serendipitous moment,” Eric Parteli, a computational geoscientist at the University of Cologne in Germany, approached the team. According to Dr. Parteli’s calculations, just enough of a wind could blow on Pluto to carry grains of ice along the surface to form dunes. The problem was that it wasn’t strong enough to loft those ice grains in the air in the first place. 

Rather than seeking an explanation based on processes found on Earth, the now-interdisciplinary team began thinking about other active processes on Pluto that might provide that initial lift. To shift their frame of reference, they turned to the make up of the region where the dunes appeared: a mixture of nitrogen and methane ice.

Given those ingredients, the team identified a possible mechanism to loft grains. Although Pluto is far from the sun, some sunlight does reach the surface and can heat it up enough to cause nitrogen to sublimate (turn directly from a solid to a gas). Because nitrogen sublimates at a lower temperature than methane, the team surmised that the rising gas might create enough upward pressure to loft the still-solid methane grains just enough for a thermal wind to take it from there.

Not everyone thinks that this mechanism is a slam dunk explanation, or even that there are certainly dunes on Pluto.

“That’s the funny thing about images of other worlds’ surfaces,” says Lori Fenton, a planetary scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. “We take these images and it’s really hard to interpret what we see, so we try to apply what we know from Earth and what we’ve explored and confirmed on other worlds. So they’re sort of testing a hypothesis there, and they’ve got some evidence that supports it. But until we go back to Pluto, we won’t know for sure.”

NASA
Images taken during New Horizons' flyby of Pluto in July 2015 reveal dune-like patterns (bottom right) along the edge of a mountain range on the dwarf planet's Sputnik Planitia ice plain.

Getting creative

Dunes have appeared in surprising places before. They show up on Mars, Venus, and Saturn’s moon Titan.

For Ralph Lorenz, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and a member of the radar team on NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn, finding dunes on Titan was not anticipated. In 1995, Dr. Lorenz wrote a paper explaining why the Cassini mission would probably not find dunes on Titan, but it turned out that about a fifth of the moon is covered in giant dunes.

“So that prediction was spectacularly wrong,” Lorenz says. “And that was great. That’s why we do science. We get a kick out of having to reevaluate the world.”

Neither Pluto nor Titan are the most surprising places scientists have found a bedform (a windblown feature that could be dunes or ripples). A pattern that looks just like a bedform was spotted by the European Space Association’s Rosetta probe on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014. It surprised scientists, says Dr. Fenton, but there are already a few different ideas being discussed about how a windblown feature may have formed on an airless body.

“It takes us by surprise, we look at each other, and then we slowly start to throw out ideas and test them,” she says.

Scientists start by making sure that they’re really seeing what they think they’re seeing. Inferring a landscape feature based off patterns seen from orbit can be difficult because many things can form similar basic patterns, says Ryan Ewing, a planetary scientist at Texas A&M University.

At the start, planetary scientists keep an open mind about what planetary processes could possibly be at play.

“[Planetary scientists] read a much broader literature than a lot of scientists do,” Fenton says. “And it’s simply because we need to draw ideas from these disparate fields and see if these ideas might apply to some crazy environment out there in the solar system somewhere.”

For many scientists, that means being social. Some of the most interesting ideas can come out of casual conversations in the hallways at conferences with scientists in other disciplines, or by hearing a scientist in another field’s wild theories that might prompt you to think about your own topic in new ways.

Telfer says the interdisciplinary nature of the team working on the Plutonian dune question was key. “We needed each other,” he says.

This helps scientists stay humble, too. “Everyone wants their hypothesis to be the one that is most consistent. If you’re not careful, people can get entrenched in their thinking and be unwilling to change,” Dr. Ewing says. But a team setting pushes people to defend their hypothesis, a process that improves the science.

Planetary scientists have to be open to any possibility – or even impossibility – just by the nature of their research. “We’re forced to think outside the box when we see these strange worlds,” Fenton says. “It’s the reason I study planetary science, because we’re always seeing new things that are completely out of the range of what we would expect.”

Karen Norris/Staff
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Spain’s grand example for Europe

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Today, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was ousted by parliament in a no-confidence vote. He was the first prime minister to be unseated since Spain returned to democracy four decades ago. Last year, Mr. Rajoy was also the first prime minister to testify in a criminal case, one involving members of his own party. He has not been charged in what has become modern Spain’s biggest corruption scandal, but a judge questioned his credibility as a witness. The public shift toward holding leaders responsible for corruption began after Europe’s 2011-12 financial crisis exposed shady deals between politicians and businesses. Before then, most voters were tolerant of officials dipping into the public purse for personal gain. Part of the shift was reflected in the rise of two new parties that have run on anti-corruption platforms. The new prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the Socialists, was forced to rely on these nontraditional, corruption-fighting parties to oust Rajoy. Now Mr. Sánchez needs to follow the new mood and bring more transparency and accountability to government. Other countries in Europe with systemic corruption might wish to follow Spain’s example.

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Spain’s grand example for Europe

Europe has never seen anything quite like it.

For the past six years, prosecutors and judges in Spain have been on a roll against corruption, backed by rising demands for accountability in government. Hundreds of politicians have been indicted for graft. A member of the royal family was convicted of embezzlement. Even the top anti-corruption prosecutor was forced to resign last year for using an offshore tax haven.

But after a court sentenced 29 people last week over a giant kickback scheme linked to the ruling Popular Party, this new mood against impunity reached a moral highpoint.

On June 1, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was ousted by parliament in a no-confidence vote. The long-serving leader was the first prime minister to be unseated since Spain returned to democracy four decades ago.

Last year, Mr. Rajoy was also the first prime minister to testify in a criminal case, the one involving members of his own party and known as the “Gürtel” (“belt” in German) case. He has not been charged in what has become modern Spain’s biggest corruption scandal. But a judge questioned his credibility as a witness in the case.

The public shift toward holding leaders responsible for corruption began after Europe’s 2011-12 financial crisis hit the Spanish economy and exposed shady deals between politicians and businesses. Before then, most voters were tolerant of officials dipping into the public purse for personal gain, according to experts and polls. They even returned politicians to office despite charges of corruption against them.

Part of the shift was reflected in the recent rise of two new parties, the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) and anti-austerity leftist party, Podemos (We Can), that have run on anti-corruption platforms. They have eroded the power of the traditional center-right Popular Party and the Socialist Party.

The new prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the Socialists, was forced to rely on these nontraditional, corruption-fighting parties to oust Rajoy. In the past, the Socialists have suffered their own scandals and have lost much of their popularity.

Now Mr. Sánchez needs to follow the new mood and bring more transparency and accountability to government. Other countries in Europe with systemic corruption might wish to follow Spain’s example.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

United, not divided

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For today’s contributor, a politically charged breakfast with friends became an opportunity to better understand the unifying effect of God’s love.

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United, not divided

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It was a beautiful sunny morning when I went to meet some friends for breakfast at a restaurant in a neighboring town.

Shortly after I arrived at the restaurant, the conversation turned to politics. Before long my friends and I were engaged in a heated discussion. Some of the guys became loud and started using offensive language to make their point; they had very little tolerance for other opinions. Although these were people I had known and worked with for many years and I knew them to be candid, I was still taken aback by their aggressiveness. In fact, I was so embarrassed by the tone of the conversation, I considered getting up and leaving.

Political discourse today can be harsh, to say the least. In some cases, it has led to violence between those who hold differing opinions. Too often we fall into choosing a particular side of a debate and then react with frustration or anger if the other side wins.

Right there during that breakfast, I began to think more deeply about this atmosphere of divisiveness and what I could do to contribute to a fuller sense of unity. Trying to temper that morning’s heated discussion with words would have been inadequate. The situation illustrated clearly to me that the complexity of various issues often inflames emotions and creates feelings of powerlessness.

However, I thought of something I’d learned from studying Christian Science: that another name for God is Mind and that this one divine Mind is the true governor of all – including each of us, God’s spiritual creation. I’ve found that when there’s conflict, the path to reconciliation begins with acknowledging everyone’s relation to God, which helps us find a sense of unity with one another. There is no disunity, no room for factions, in this Mind, which created us as its own harmonious expression, the sons and daughters of God.

These ideas are a powerful basis for not getting drawn into the divisive political atmosphere so prevalent today. It seems from all that we read, hear, and see that some groups or factions within society want to fuel conflict and hatred regardless of the issue. Yet I’ve found hope in the Bible, which teaches that “God is love” (I John 4:8) and that we must “love one another,” as Christ Jesus said (John 13:34). Through Christian Science I’ve learned that it is natural to love because our true nature is loving, expressed in qualities such as patience, respect, and kindness – qualities of limitless divine Love that we include as God’s children.

Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, wrote in her book “Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896”: “… Love is the Principle of unity, the basis of all right thinking and acting; it fulfils the law. We see eye to eye and know as we are known, reciprocate kindness and work wisely, in proportion as we love” (p. 117). Animosity and hatred cannot exist within an atmosphere where divine Love is expressed, since Love is supremely powerful and always present. In view of this, the belief that hatred can extinguish love makes as much sense as thinking that darkness can prevent the light of day from appearing. It’s just not possible! As a poem by Mrs. Eddy explains, “Love hath one race, one realm, one power” (“Poems,” p. 22).

The next time I met the same group of friends for breakfast, we had a great conversation. We continue to meet fairly regularly, and on the occasions when the conversation turns to politics, we talk in a much more civil manner.

We can all play a role in addressing divisiveness, acknowledging that we are united in God’s love and putting that into practice in our own daily lives.

​Adapted from an article published in the April 30, 2018, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

Meeting a need

Ahmer Khan
People gather to eat at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, in western India. Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion, introduced this idea nearly 500 years ago: A place should exist where people, regardless of religion or social status, could sit together as equals and eat the same food. Today, 200,000 rotis (Indian flatbread), 1.5 tons of dal (lentil soup), and other food is served to about 100,000 people here every day. The Golden Temple, the largest free kitchen in the world, is staffed 24 hours a day by volunteers, who may stay for hours, weeks, or even longer. Funding for the kitchen is managed through donations from all over the world. For more images from the Golden Temple, click the button below.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( June 4th, 2018 )

Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

See you Monday. We’ll be looking at promises by Nigeria’s president, ahead of elections, to bring internally displaced people home from camps – and at what makes that a surprisingly complicated prospect. 

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