2019
July
11
Thursday

In today's edition, we’ll explore shifting attitudes on immigration, the inspiring journey of a Sudanese refugee, the challenges facing Democrats vying for Latino votes, central European efforts to boost birthrates, and how humorist James Thurber was shaped by his hometown.

But first, diplomacy, by its nature, must be discreet to be effective. So when confidential cables from the British ambassador in Washington were leaked last weekend – revealing his unflattering views of the Trump administration – Sir Kim Darroch had little choice but to resign. Especially when Donald Trump tweeted, “We will no longer deal with him.”

He might have soldiered on till his retirement at year’s end, but what tipped the scales, it seems, was Boris Johnson’s refusal to back the ambassador during a televised debate. Mr. Johnson is widely tipped to become Britain’s next prime minister. He is also a champion of Brexit, pledging to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union next October, deal or no deal.

That policy, which would cut London adrift from the duty-free EU trade network, means Britain will be in urgent need of trade deals with other powers; the United States is top of Mr. Johnson’s list, though U.S. officials have indicated they intend to strike a hard bargain.

Could it be Mr. Johnson judged it politic to stay in President Trump’s good books for the sake of a trade agreement, even at the price of having “thrown our top ambassador under the bus,” as one British cabinet member put it?

Whatever his motives, this week’s events have thrown into stark relief just how many challenges Mr. Johnson will face, if indeed he becomes prime minister, as he tries to steer a new course for the United Kingdom.

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1. On immigration, is California’s odyssey America’s future?

With the nation roiled in controversy over immigration, California offers a case study in how changing demographics and evolving attitudes can reframe the issue over time.

Peter
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Oralia Sandoval, center, holds her son Benjamin as she participates in an Immigrant Day of Action rally on May 20 in Sacramento, California. Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed offering government-funded health care benefits to immigrant adults ages 19 to 25 who are living in the country illegally.

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When California voters backed an initiative in 1994 to crack down on illegal immigration, the ballot measure was titled “Save Our State.” Four years later, Californians voted to greatly restrict bilingual education.

That “woke up a sleeping giant in the Latino community,” says Lorena Gonzalez, now a member of the state Assembly and chair of the Latino Caucus. The change wasn’t immediate, but today, this is a “sanctuary state” that will not cooperate with federal officials if they carry out expected deportation raids starting Sunday. 

The story of California’s evolution on immigration may be a “window into the nation’s future,” says Mark Baldassare, president of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. He and others point to the explosion of minority populations as the catalyst for change. 

Alongside that are changes in attitudes, rooted in everyday experience. In 1998, only 46% of adults believed that “immigrants are a benefit to California,” a poll by the institute found. In 2018, 72% did. Mr. Baldassare says people are “realizing and recognizing what’s in the fabric in society and what works in California.”

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On immigration, is California’s odyssey America’s future?

California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, has a favorite point he likes to make when talking about the southern border and immigration: America in 2019 is a lot like California in the 1990s. Then he lists disturbing characteristics that he sees in the nation today: nativism, xenophobia, scapegoating, fear of the other.

His view is that California is years beyond that – exactly 25 years, if one considers the hugely divisive ballot initiative that passed by a wide margin in November 1994. Known as “Save Our State,” Proposition 187 prohibited undocumented immigrants from using social services, such as non-emergency health care. Four years later, Californians voted to greatly restrict bilingual education.

But 187 was found unconstitutional, the bilingual restrictions were later repealed, and today this is a “sanctuary state” which will not cooperate with federal officials if they carry out expected deportation raids starting Sunday. Meanwhile, the new state budget extends health care to low-income, undocumented immigrants up to age 26. It’s one step closer to Governor Newsom’s goal of health care for all, whether legal or not.

“The sea change that has occurred since the 1990s is pretty drastic,” says Garry South, former campaign manager for Gray Davis, the Democrat who won the governorship in 1998. Like Governor Newsom, Mr. South believes that the rest of the country will eventually catch up to the Golden State, a change that will be forced by demographics and economic necessity.

SOURCE: California Department of Finance, U.S. Census Bureau, Pew Research Center, Public Policy Institute of California
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

“Demographics is destiny,” says the Democratic strategist, speaking of the increase in minority populations and other changes in California and the nation. “As a whole, the United States will start looking like California and start acting like California, as more Americans start to realize that on the immigration issue particularly, it is the strength of our economy.”

Not everyone shares the view that as California goes, so goes the nation. However, the story of California’s evolution on immigration can serve as a “window into the nation’s future,” says Mark Baldassare, president of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

He and others point to the explosion of minority populations as the catalyst for change in the state. By the end of the 1990s, minority groups had become the majority in California, driven by a surge in Latinos and Asians.

Throughout that decade, that surge stirred the passions, politics, and policies here. Republican Gov. Pete Wilson demanded (in vain) that Washington either control the border or pay for the drain on state coffers caused by illegal immigration. Coming off a recession and disappointing approval ratings, he backed Proposition 187 in his reelection campaign – and won.

But that “woke up a sleeping giant in the Latino community,” says Lorena Gonzalez, a member of the state Assembly and chair of the Latino Caucus.

Everyone in her now-powerful caucus has some kind of connection to that ballot initiative, internalizing the message that friends and family should not be in California, and that they were less than equal, she says.

In the wake of Proposition 187, Latino grassroots efforts drove citizenship, voter registration, and candidacies. Latinos were elected to prominent state positions, becoming part of the power structure. Today, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a former member of Congress, is leading the state’s lawsuit campaign against the Trump administration, including opposition to a citizenship question on the 2020 census questionnaire. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the president on that case last month.

“We know it’s the Latino community that keeps California blue. It’s never forgetting what Pete Wilson put us through that pushes us forward,” says Assemblywoman Gonzalez. “I think we’ll see a similar thing nationwide after Trump.”

Along with the demographics, California has simply become a much less conservative state than it was in the early 1990s, says Mr. Baldassare, pointing out that fewer than a quarter of Californians are Republicans. That helps account for the shift in policies toward immigrants, but he says attitudes have been transformed especially by everyday life in a multicultural and multiethnic state.

“It’s been the experience of Californians in the last two decades that has really reshaped public opinion around a much more positive perception of immigrants and immigration,” he says. 

Statewide surveys by his organization show the evolution in thought. In 1998, only 46% of adults believed that “immigrants are a benefit to California.” In 2018, 72% did. A recent Gallup poll finds a similar shift nationwide since 2001.

And Californians today seem to make little distinction between immigrants who are in the state legally and those who are not. Mr. Baldassare says his polling shows 80% of Californians support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and more than 60% say they should have health care. People are “realizing and recognizing what’s in the fabric in society and what works in California.”

Bill Whalen, former speechwriter for Governor Wilson, disputes the parallel that today’s governor draws between a xenophobic America in 2019 and California in the past.

“Governor Wilson clearly tried to draw a distinction between illegal and legal immigrants, and to credit those who came here for a better life. It’s the dead opposite of [President Trump’s rhetoric of] Mexico sending ‘rapists’ across the border,” says Mr. Whalen. While the president plays up national sovereignty and an “undercurrent” of America’s culture being changed, Proposition 187 was about controlling costs and frustration over stretched public services, he says.

“For Newsom to say the rhetoric then is the rhetoric now is not true.”

Mr. Whalen does agree, however, that changing demographics – particularly the rise of millennials – could alter the nation’s immigration debate over time. According to a report this week by the Pew Research Center, the U.S. Hispanic population, based on census data, reached a new high in 2018 – though growth has slowed.

Many states are nowhere near “majority minority” demographics. But the South saw the fastest Hispanic population growth of any region. Though that’s traditionally been red-state territory, the politics of the South are slowly changing, as seen in statewide wins for Democratic politicians in places like Virginia and Arizona.

“We turned things around in California and we know that we have to continue to build a powerful political and human rights movement to win in the nation,” says Angelica Salas, in an email. Ms. Salas leads the immigrant-rights group Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. She credits Latino activism for drivers licenses, in-state tuition, children’s health care, workers’ rights, and better wages for undocumented immigrants in California.

But observers cite factors that mitigate any national trend: today’s polarization and different views in different regions. At the main Democratic presidential debate last month, all the candidates raised hands when asked if their health care plan would cover undocumented immigrants. That’s a view that will never fly in the middle of the country, predicts Mr. Whalen.

California may provide insight to the future course of the country, concludes Mr. Baldassare, but “I don’t think you can expect that the whole nation is going to look and think like California does today about immigration.” The polarization is too severe, and the demographic shifts won’t be the same everywhere. Also, he notes, “experiences won’t be the same.”

SOURCE: California Department of Finance, U.S. Census Bureau, Pew Research Center, Public Policy Institute of California
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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2. From Darfur to Israel to US, refugee refines his fight for Sudan

Which is better, education or experience? How about both? For Sudanese activist Mutasim Ali, the next stop in his quest for knowledge and influence is a second law degree in the U.S.

Peter

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Mutasim Ali, a native of Darfur, is one of tens of thousands of Sudanese and Eritreans who crossed illegally into Israel from Egypt. Israel’s government considers them to be “infiltrators” in search of work, and has tried to pressure them to return to Africa. Jailed three times and tortured for anti-government activism in Khartoum, Sudan, Mr. Ali was also detained in a desert compound in Israel with other African migrants.

In 2016, he became the first and only Sudanese asylum-seeker to be recognized as a refugee. And on Wednesday, Mr. Ali, head of advocacy at the African Students Organization in Israel, became Israel’s first African migrant law school graduate. “He is definitely one of the loudest voices that led the human rights struggle for all asylum-seekers. He’s charismatic and eloquent. He knows what he wants to say,” says Sigan Rozen at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.

Now he’s moving to Washington to pursue a master’s in law that he hopes one day to use to help bolster democracy in Sudan. “The idea is to contribute to the constitution [drafting] process in Sudan,” says Mr. Ali. “We have to start working on this now.”

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From Darfur to Israel to US, refugee refines his fight for Sudan

He fled Sudan a decade ago after being jailed for protesting the ethnic cleansing in his native Darfur. In Israel, he led a protest movement of African asylum-seekers against the incarceration of thousands at a detention center in the desert, and spent more than a year as an inmate.

Now, after becoming one of just a handful of tens of thousands of Africans to win refugee status from Israel, Mutasim Ali is about to begin another chapter in the struggle for reform in his native country. Later this month, he’ll move to Washington to pursue a master’s in law that he hopes one day to use to help bolster democracy in Sudan.

“The idea is to contribute to the constitution [drafting] process in Sudan. I want to have a major contribution,” says Mr. Ali, head of advocacy at the African Students Organization in Israel. “We have to start working on this now.”

Mr. Ali is one of tens of thousands of Sudanese and Eritreans who crossed illegally into Israel from Egypt over a seven-year period when the border fence was porous. Paralleling the U.S. administration’s approach to Central American asylum-seekers, Israel’s right-wing government considers them to be “infiltrators” in search of work, and has tried multiple ways to pressure them to return to Africa.

The son of teachers, Mr. Ali was a student in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, when government-backed janjaweed destroyed his village and forced his family into a displaced persons camp. He was jailed three times and tortured for anti-government activism in Khartoum. After fleeing Sudan, he decided to head for Israel because the Jewish state had no ties with Khartoum and because of the activism of Jewish communities condemning the Darfur genocide.

In his 10 years in Israel, Mr. Ali has gone from working in an Israeli plastics recycling plant, to being the face of the African migrant demonstration movement against detention and deportation, to becoming the country’s first African migrant law school graduate. In 2016, he became the first and only Sudanese asylum-seeker to be recognized as a refugee – a rare victory in the struggle of migrants to be granted asylum here.

Mr. Ali received his law degree from Israel’s College of Law and Business on Wednesday. In the fall, he’ll start master’s studies at George Washington University. Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, says Mr. Ali’s decision to fight for asylum together with Eritreans and non-Darfuri Sudanese was an important symbol of cross-national solidarity.

“He is definitely one of the loudest voices that led the human rights struggle for all asylum-seekers. He’s charismatic and eloquent. He knows what he wants to say, and he says it in a way that appeals to his listeners. After watching him on TV, when the average Israeli hears the word ‘infiltrator,’ he thinks of Mutasim Ali,” Ms. Rozen says.

“He’s done a great service to the community here. From the U.S., he’ll manage to do much more for his people. It’s the right move for him.”

Mr. Ali decided to pursue law while in a Sudanese jail cell, where he decided that becoming a lawyer would enable him to be a better advocate for the people of Darfur. During his year at the Holot desert detention center for Africans in Israel, he learned English and prepared an application for law school in Israel.

Picture for migrants is mixed

The results of the asylum-seekers’ movement are mixed. For the time being, government pressure on the migrants has eased. Following legal challenges heard by the Supreme Court, the government shuttered Holot. A campaign that sent about 4,300 Africans to Uganda and Rwanda over five years has petered out. A deportation plan collapsed last year. Since 2017, about 5,000 to 6,000 have left for Western countries.

On the other hand, Israel backed out of a tentative deal with the United Nations to grant thousands residency. In recent years, the government has ordered 20% of the migrants’ wages withheld for when they leave. Approximately 35,000 Africans still live in Israel in a state of limbo, without legal status and few welfare services.

As he begins a new path that will enable him to focus on Sudan activism, Mr. Ali says the status of the migrants he leaves behind in Israel remains tenuous despite the government’s abandonment of its deportation plan. “Even though there were minimal changes, the policy hasn’t changed,” he says. “The [government] narrative and discourse are the same. It could come back at any time.”

Mr. Ali’s refugee status in Israel has given him the right to travel abroad to pursue his education. It also gives him the right to vote in municipal elections. A wide smile breaks out on his face when he recalls participating in his first vote in Israel’s local elections last October.

“That was such a good feeling. I never had this opportunity in my life,” he says. “I don’t understand why people have this right and don’t exercise it.”

Though a majority of Israelis support the government’s efforts to pressure the African migrants, a vocal minority and human rights groups have sought to block deportations and improve their situation.

“The question is what to do with those that are here,” says Alon Liel, a former director general of the Foreign Ministry. “With every year that passes, it will be more difficult to expel them.”

New pride in Sudan

Mr. Ali’s relocation to the United States comes at a critical inflection point for the democracy movement in his home country. Months of street demonstrations succeeded in unseating longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir but then prompted a military crackdown last month that killed more than 120 people.

Mr. Ali says the rise of the nationwide democracy protest movement awakened a pride in his native country.

“It was mind-blowing. I never would have expected this could happen. I had already lost faith in peaceful protest,” he says. “That was the first time I was proud to say I was Sudanese. I never wanted to stand for the national anthem. I genuinely felt that [Sudan] is the country I want to be part of.”

Last Friday, the military and protest leaders announced a power-sharing agreement for the sides to jointly run the country for a three-year transitional period ahead of an election.

But Mr. Ali does not share the euphoria that broke out among demonstrators after the agreement. Instead, he worries the democracy movement is making a mistake by cutting a deal with the same militia leaders responsible for carrying out crimes against humanity in Darfur – and those accused of killing the demonstrators last month. The military, Mr. Ali warns, will use the respite in the demonstrations to find a way to split the pro-democracy movement.

“The problem is that they trusted the military; it’s the militia that killed hundreds of thousands of people,” he says. “By negotiating with them, you give them legitimacy. I think we don’t need to negotiate to make change.”

Plans for advocacy

In addition to his law studies, Mr. Ali says he plans to advocate for U.S. pressure, including from Congress, on the Sudanese government for democratic reform. However, he expects little from the Trump administration because of its ties with Saudi Arabia, which had supported the Bashir government.

“We’re disappointed with the international community,” he says.

That said, Mr. Ali says he believes that calls for democratic reform unleashed by the protest movement will be hard to put back in the bottle. Despite resistance from the military, Mr. Ali says he believes there’s an unprecedented demand among Sudanese for serious change. And for the first time, he can imagine the possibility of returning home.

“We’ve got to the middle of the way and we have to continue,” he says. “There’s no way back.’’

Karen Norris/Staff
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3. In Florida, Democrats worry Venezuela policy could drive Latinos to GOP

President Trump’s immigration policy may seem like a deal breaker for Hispanic voters. But for many Venezuelan and Cuban immigrants in Florida, fears of socialism could tip the state in his favor.

Peter
Alan Diaz/AP
A group of Cuban Americans chant pro-Trump slogans as they demonstrate their support for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Oct. 28, 2016, in Miami. President Trump’s immigration policies are not popular with Florida Hispanics. But fears of socialism could put enough in his column to tip the state.

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To win in Florida, Republicans don’t need a Hispanic majority; they only need to capture enough votes at the margins. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won a smaller majority of Latino voters there than Barack Obama in 2012 – and lost the state to Donald Trump. In 2018, the GOP flipped a U.S. Senate seat and took the governor’s mansion in two high-profile races that split the Latino vote more narrowly than in other states with big Hispanic populations.

Now, with 2020 on the horizon, both parties are ramping up their efforts. Last month, the Democrats dispatched 90 community organizers to Hispanic-heavy precincts, with the goal of registering 200,000 new voters.

Yet some strategists worry the party’s failure to take a strong position on Venezuela could cost them. “Foreign policy towards Latin America has always been where the Democrats fall short,” says Helena Poleo, a communications specialist and Venezuelan immigrant.

At the rollout for the Latinos for Trump coalition in Miami, Vice President Mike Pence hit hard against socialism. “It’s impoverished generations and stolen the liberty of millions,” he told the cheering crowd. Daniel Fontan, a Cuban exile at the rally, says he sees President Trump as a bulwark against that: “This man is defending me.”

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In Florida, Democrats worry Venezuela policy could drive Latinos to GOP

Helena Poleo couldn’t believe her ears.

The Democratic debates in Miami, which had spanned four long hours over two nights, were over. And no one had even mentioned the crisis in Venezuela. 

Candidates made obvious plays for Latino voters, says Ms. Poleo, a communications specialist and Venezuelan immigrant who’ll be voting in the U.S. for the first time in 2020. Onstage, some vowed to decriminalize illegal border crossings and showed off their Spanish-language skills. Many also took time to visit a nearby migrant children’s detention center and denounce the Trump administration’s border policy. 

But Florida is home to the nation’s largest Venezuelan population. To Ms. Poleo, the candidates’ failure to address the situation in her home country – where a struggle over the presidency has fueled an economic crisis that’s led to starvation and mass migration – was a stunning disappointment. 

“They missed a huge opportunity,” she says.

Ms. Poleo’s view, echoed by political observers, underscores one of the challenges facing Democrats in their bid to secure a larger share of Florida’s Latino electorate in 2020.

It’s true that Hispanic voters lean Democratic, and Mr. Trump’s immigration policies aren’t terribly popular with a majority of them. 

Yet the results of recent elections show that the Democratic Party has underperformed in engaging Latino voters here – enough for Republicans to gain an advantage along the margins. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won a smaller majority of Latino voters in Florida than Barack Obama did in 2012 – and she lost the state’s 29 electoral votes to Donald Trump. In 2018, the GOP flipped a U.S. Senate seat and took the governor’s mansion in two very tight, high-profile races that split the Latino vote more narrowly than in other states with big Hispanic populations.

Now, with 2020 on the horizon, both parties are ramping up their efforts in the state, with Republicans looking to build on their recent victories and Democrats laying the groundwork for a new grassroots push. A strong position on Venezuela and its neighbors, coupled with boots-on-the-ground campaigning, could help tip the scales here, political analysts say. 

“Foreign policy towards Latin America has always been where the Democrats fall short,” says Ms. Poleo, who runs the Miami-based public relations firm Influence Communications. “This is a huge issue. If we don’t hear the right things from the Democratic candidates, we’re going to swallow a bitter pill and vote for Trump – or not vote at all.” 

The Cuban effect

Though still largely Democratic, Latino voters in Florida have always leaned more Republican than those in other states. About 30% are Cuban, a population that has historically leaned more conservative than other Hispanics.

Republican candidates don’t need a Hispanic majority to win in Florida; they only need to capture enough votes at the margins. 

Former Florida Gov. Rick Scott famously spent years reaching out to a broad range of Latino communities well before he ran for Democrat Bill Nelson’s long-held U.S. Senate seat in 2018. He regularly dropped by local Cuban and Venezuelan communities and businesses, flew to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and learned to speak Spanish. 

Last November, Governor Scott won the Senate race with 45% of the Hispanic vote to Mr. Nelson’s 54%. In states like Nevada and Arizona, where Democrats won a larger share of the Latino vote statewide, Republican candidates lost their races.

Florida state Sen. Annette Taddeo, who also serves as the state committeewoman for the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, says Senator Scott’s victory shows how crucial it is for Democrats to prove that they don’t take Hispanic voters, or their issues, for granted. Like Ms. Poleo, she worries that the party isn’t doing enough to show they care about what’s happening in Venezuela – even as the crisis dominates South Florida news coverageprompts protests, and brings Latinos from different communities together in common cause.

“It affects the Cuban vote, the Colombian vote, the Nicaraguans, the people who have been here 30, 40 years and have generations of families voting,” Senator Taddeo says. “While the rest of the country may not be as acutely aware [of the Venezuelan crisis], South Florida is.”

Meanwhile, the Republican Party has aligned behind the Trump administration against Nicolás Maduro, the Venezuelan president whose socialist regime is being threatened by opposition leader Juan Guaidó.

At the rollout for the Latinos for Trump coalition in Miami on June 25 – a day before the Democratic presidential debates were set to start less than 10 miles away – Vice President Mike Pence hit hard against socialism, making it the central theme of his speech. “Latin Americans know better than most about the cost of socialism,” he told the cheering crowd, which included Venezuelan and Cuban exiles and their children. “It’s impoverished generations and stolen the liberty of millions.”

Daniel Fontan, a Trump supporter at the rally who fled Castro’s Cuba in the 1960s, says he has no desire to live in a country like the one he left behind. “People suffered so much,” he recalls. 

He says he worries the U.S. is marching in that direction as liberals push back against the values that have made America so exceptional. “We are losing traditions. We are not allowed to have faith of any kind. We have to only go in one way: Their way,” Mr. Fontan says. 

President Trump, he says, has been a bulwark against all that. “This man is defending me,” Mr. Fontan says.

A real advantage

To be sure, Democrats still have a real advantage among Hispanic voters. Despite losing Senator Nelson’s seat and the governor’s race, Democrats in Florida scored key wins in Republican-held congressional districts in 2018. And a recent poll for Telemundo found that only 34% of Florida Hispanics say they would reelect Mr. Trump.

Among Venezuelans in Florida, more than two-thirds say they agree with Mr. Trump’s policy regarding their home country. But when asked which party is better able to address the problems that affect them here, 42% choose the Democrats, while just 28% choose Republicans, according to a June survey by Eduardo Gamarra, a political science professor at Florida International University. 

That said, the party is working to strengthen its foothold. In June, 90 community organizers – nearly half of whom speak Spanish – were dispatched in Hispanic-heavy precincts across the state, with the goal of registering 200,000 new voters for 2020. The party has also hired former Nelson campaign staffer Luisiana Peréz Fernandez to serve as its first Hispanic press secretary.

The Friday after the Democratic debates, Ms. Peréz Fernandez was at the studios of Actualidad Radio, a Spanish-language talk station in Doral, just outside Miami, overseeing another of the Florida Democrats’ Latino engagement efforts: a 30-minute weekly radio show called “Democracia ál Día,” which focuses on Democratic issues and is hosted by veteran broadcaster Julio Cesar Camacho. 

The program, which cost the party about $80,000, launched in May and is projected to reach about 6,000 people in Miami. The goal is to eventually expand the show to Tampa and Orlando.

“Things like this are important because it goes more directly to people,” Mr. Camacho says when they finish recording the show. 

But he laments that he didn’t have time during the episode to discuss Venezuela – where he himself is originally from – and that Democrats haven’t seen its importance the way Republicans have. “They’re wasting that opportunity,” Mr. Camacho says. “Who doesn’t want to bring their family here at this moment because of what is happening in Venezuela?” 

Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the 30% of Florida’s Hispanics who are Cuban represent a majority. 

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4. Poland and Hungary need people. Do more benefits lead to more births?

For populist governments dealing with shrinking populations, the fastest way to grow – immigration – isn't seen as viable. But convincing women to have more children is easier said than done.

Peter

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Poland and Hungary are both facing demographic crises, as their younger populations leave for better opportunities abroad, and those remaining are not having children quickly enough to make up the difference. Both countries have launched programs to incentivize an increase in birthrates through perks like cash handouts, interest-free loans, and tax exemptions. But critics say that the programs are mistargeted, expensive, and ultimately unhelpful.

Hungary’s Family Housing Allowance Program offers extremely attractive benefits, even in the assessment of ardent critics. But it is not clear how much these incentives actually change minds; some beneficiaries say that having more kids wasn’t a financial decision. And critics point out that requirements underpinning these pro-family perks skew in favor of the well-off, rather than those who need them most.

Even if birthrates increase, that doesn’t address the underlying cause, warns demographics researcher Marcin Stonawski. “In 20 years, the differences in the standard of living and earnings between Eastern and Western Europe will continue to exist,” he says. “If we do not create good living conditions in Poland, young people will go to Western Europe anyway.”

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2. Poland and Hungary need people. Do more benefits lead to more births?

Economist Amina Bojta is the living definition of a successful mother and professional, smoothly managing the schedules of her four children while holding down a government job. Her second job as “mommy taxi” – shuttling her children around after-school activities – keeps her busy from 5 to 9 p.m.

“We had kids because we love kids,” says Ms. Bojta. “We feel family is a value, that raising children has value.”

But thanks to the Hungarian government, her children will soon provide an additional value. As of January 2020, Ms. Bojta, who earns more than $60,000 annually, will no longer have to pay income tax, because she had the magic number of children required to qualify for this financial break.

This impeccably dressed professional is not the Hungarian average – neither in terms of income nor number of children. She is the exception that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán would like to become the rule as he tries to address his country’s plunging domestic birthrates.

Like nearby Poland, Hungary is facing a demographic crisis as its younger population leaves for better opportunities abroad, and those remaining are not having children quickly enough to make up the difference. But the populist governments in both countries are opposed to one of the most common solutions to such a demographic deficit: immigration.

“Instead of just numbers, we want Hungarian children,” Mr. Orbán declared in February when he announced multiple benefits to encourage larger family sizes. “Migration for us is surrender.”

Nonetheless, leaders in Hungary and Poland are discovering the hard way that encouraging women to have children is easier said than done. Many question whether such policies work or even benefit the right people.

A host of benefits in Hungary

The Family Housing Allowance Program, which was introduced in 2015 and expanded this year, is the primary government vehicle for shoring up Hungary’s population, which is falling by 32,000 per year due to a birthrate of 1.54 children per woman. The baby bonuses promised by the government in February usher in a system of tax breaks, subsidies, and mortgages that scale up with the number of children.

The measures are extremely attractive, even in the assessment of ardent critics. They include a personal income-tax exemption for married women with four children or more; interest-free loans of $36,000 to be canceled after the third child; and a low-interest loan for women under the age of 40 marrying for the first time, with a debt reduction of 30% after the birth of a second child, and full waiver after the third.

But it is not clear how much these incentives actually change minds. Those who benefit welcome the financial boons, but stress that the decision to have a first child – and indeed any child thereafter – is driven by a complex set of considerations in which money is rarely the top consideration. “It wasn’t a financial decision,” says Ms. Bojta confidently.

In Hungary, a maternity leave lasts three years, which sounds wonderful on paper, but is detrimental from a career and earning-potential perspective. Ms. Bojta opted for an extended break to raise her children, who are now 9, 11, 14, and 15. During that time, she also helped her husband, an information technology specialist, run a consulting business.

Dominique Soguel
András Hajdú is using a housing credit to upgrade apartments within the same neighborhood in Budapest, Hungary, where his three children attend school.

Today the couple have a combined annual income exceeding $100,000, several times the national average. The family plans to make use of the interest-free housing credit to buy a new apartment in the city center of Szentendre, a colorful cobbled-street town just north of Budapest, which will save the children commute time.

They will still keep for weekend use the large house they already have there thanks to an earlier loan, which they have already paid off. Ms. Bojta is aware that she belongs to the fortunate few who can afford multiple children independent of government help and hopes such benefits will help others do the same.

“This government wants to support the middle class because they are the ones who pay taxes and support GDP,” she stresses. “One part of the policy is to support the families. The other is to boost the real estate market because it creates jobs and beefs up GDP.”

Those working in the real estate market are banking on the spike in demand.

“Everyone who has three children (or more) is checking out all the subsidies they can get,” says Doron Dymschiz, CEO of real estate firm Duna House in Budapest. “I cannot imagine a young couple who just got married would not take a loan for free, no interest.”

“Many people say they would like to have a second, third, or fourth kid, but we cannot afford it,” says András Hajdú, a father of three who is using a housing credit to upgrade apartments in the same upper-class neighborhood where his children go to school. “Buying a home or a flat is a big problem.”

But critics point out that requirements underpinning these pro-family perks skew their distribution in favor of the well-off rather than those who need them most. For Hungarian sociologist Balázs Krémer, the benefits are just another example of corrupting methods, a “payoff” designed to reward supporters of Mr. Orbán.

“There are very tricky limitations on who can utilize these kinds of state subsidies,” he notes, among them marital status and prior contributions to the social security system.

As such, it’s unclear whether the benefits are worthwhile, experts say. “Financial incentives for childbearing tend to be very expensive compared to the modest number of births they actually induce,” wrote population dynamics expert Lyman Stone in an evaluation of Hungary’s efforts until 2018. “The government is spending huge amounts of money and will probably never reach replacement-rate with this strategy.”

Leaving Poland

Poland’s average birthrate is even lower than that of Hungary’s: 1.48 children per woman. The decline in fertility here is chalked up to women becoming mothers later, with their average age for having a first child today being 27 compared with 23 in the early 1990s. Economists note that the percentage of women who have no children at all and do not intend to have any is higher in Poland relative to other regional countries.

To address the demographic shortfall, the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party launched the “Family 500+” program, which currently gives every family the equivalent of $135 for every child after the second, regardless of income. And ahead of parliamentary elections in November, PiS has promised to extend Family 500+ to cover all children.

But Irena Kotowska, head of the Center for Demography at the Warsaw School of Economics, considers Family 500+ to be a waste of public money. She says that while birth increases were recorded in 2016 and 2017, they were due to a range of temporary factors, including a new option to split parental leave. Indeed, 2018 saw a decrease in births again. And she warns that the program will have a longer-term negative effect.

“In poorer, less-educated families, it causes the effect of getting used to social benefits,” Professor Kotowska says. “Women in less-educated groups are withdrawing from the labor market because of [this program]. ... These women will not later have the right to a pension, will depend on social benefits and their husbands’ support.”

A May report evaluating the program by researchers from the Warsaw School of Economics, among others, concluded that the program has not achieved its goal, although it cost $19 billion.

Aggravating the demographic challenge, Poles migrated en masse to Western Europe after entering the European Union. Marcin Stonawski, professor in the demography department of Krakow University of Economics, says investment to boost birthrates may not be enough to curb the trend.

“We have to bear in mind that in 20 years, the differences in the standard of living and earnings between Eastern and Western Europe will continue to exist,” he says. “If we do not create good living conditions in Poland, young people will go to Western Europe anyway.”

For Anna Zarzycka, a mother of four children in Poland, including one who has cerebral palsy, the government benefits have been a much-needed lifeline. “In a grocery store we usually spend about 300 zlotys [$80] per week, so this money is a huge support for us,” says the former German teacher and folk dancer. “It is better to receive cash. We know better what our needs are.”

While she is the first to value the benefits, she shares the view of critics that the decision to expand the program is a populist “preelection trick.”

“I do not think it will increase fertility rates,” she says.

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5. The not-so-secret life of James Thurber

Humorist James Thurber is often associated with New York, but his formative years in Columbus, Ohio, helped shape his approach to writing and drawing. Do hometowns mold an artist – or vice versa?

Peter
Tessa Berg/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
James Thurber’s family lived in this house from 1913 to 1917, while he was a student at Ohio State. It's now a literary arts center and museum.

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Author and cartoonist James Thurber grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where the antics of his mother, “Mame,” inspired his own sense of humor. The house where his family lived from 1913 to 1917 has been turned into a literary shrine. Thurber House, as it’s now known, doubles as a literary arts center and museum. 

This year Thurber House serves as ground zero for the Year of Thurber, a celebration that commemorates the 125th year since his birth. The celebration involves citywide events such as exhibits and readings, and on Aug. 24 the Columbus Museum of Art opens a major exhibition, “A Mile and a Half of Lines: The Art of James Thurber.” 

“He never forgot where he was from, and in fact, never really left there in his imagination,” says David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, the magazine where Thurber earned international fame. Although Thurber lived the balance of his life on the East Coast, he tapped into his memories of living in Columbus for many of the stories he wrote. 

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The not-so-secret life of James Thurber

The three-story Victorian-style house at 77 Jefferson Avenue nestles among ordinary-looking homes in this Midwestern city. It’s handsome but not grand; yet to many in Columbus, the building is hallowed literary ground. 

From 1913 to 1917 future writer and cartoonist James Thurber, then an undergraduate at Ohio State University, and his family were renters here. For the past 35 years, Thurber House, as it is now known, has been decorated to suggest its appearance during the era of its most notable tenant, doubling as a literary arts center and museum. 

Inside, the house is no less ordinary: Its cramped bedrooms and too-narrow hallways are enhanced only by the knowledge that Thurber once roamed them, a fact visitors are reminded of throughout the residence, which is decked out with Thurber-related artifacts and memorabilia.

Tessa Berg/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
James Thurber’s typewriter sits on a desk in his bedroom. His house on 77 Jefferson Avenue in Columbus, Ohio, is now open to the public.

“He never forgot where he was from, and in fact, never really left there in his imagination,” says David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, the magazine where Thurber earned international fame. 

Scholars say that Thurber benefited from his middle-of-the-road background. In his day and ours, Columbus has been considered a bellwether city: Products are routinely test-marketed here, and the halls of government are home to both a Democratic mayor and a Republican governor. 

“Columbus is so typical,” says James Tootle, a Thurber expert. “The fact that it’s so mainstream, it’s so common. The experiences that he had, anyone could’ve had them. And, therefore, that keeps his writing fresh.”

This year Thurber House serves as ground zero for the Year of Thurber, a celebration that commemorates the 125th year since his birth. The celebration involves citywide events such as exhibits and readings, and on August 24 the Columbus Museum of Art opens a major exhibition, “A Mile and a Half of Lines: The Art of James Thurber.” 

Thurber’s work, including stories and cartoons gathered in such noted collections as “My World – and Welcome to It,” often centers on the dashed dreams and frustrations of average people. For example, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” one of his signature stories that was adapted for film, asks us to accompany its protagonist on his often preposterous adventures. 

“It reminds me of the ‘Seinfeld’ TV show in a way, that it’s just everyday things,” Mr. Tootle says of Thurber’s work, pointing to the chapter “The Car We Had to Push” in Thurber’s Columbus-centric memoir, “My Life and Hard Times.” “Well, everybody’s car breaks down at one time or another. We’ve all had that, but he makes a story out of it.”

James Thurber for The New Yorker

Born in Columbus in 1894, James was the middle son of Charles and Mary Thurber. His father was an official in the Republican Party, but his mother, who was also called “Mame,” provided him with his most significant inheritance: a sense of humor.

“Mame Thurber was an absolute character,” says Michael Rosen, the founding literary director of Thurber House and curator of the upcoming show at the art museum, who describes her as an inveterate practical joker. “She would put on costumes,” he says. “She [did] voices.”

Thurber, who did not leave Ohio State University with a degree, took a stab at straightforward journalism as a reporter for The Columbus Dispatch but eventually decamped for New York, where he caught on as a writer at The New Yorker in 1927. Mr. Remnick credits Thurber and E.B. White with setting a style for the magazine in its early days. “They establish this voice that is a combination of wonderment and the opposite of wised-up sophistication,” Mr. Remnick says. “But, at the same time, there is a certain assurance to the voice.” 

Today Thurber is at least as well-recognized for his loose, sketchy, not particularly well-proportioned cartoons. “I remember him saying that he could whistle while he drew,” says Rosemary Thurber, his daughter from his first marriage to Althea Adams. “He drew so quickly and freely, much easier than his writing process of refining and polishing until he had just the right words, just the way he wanted them.”

In fact, Thurber’s metamorphosis from amateur doodler to respected cartoonist came about by happenstance. “He would go to other people’s offices and fill their pads,” says Mr. Rosen, adding that White first took note of the charm of the drawings. “E.B. White gathered them up. They brought them to the publisher, spread them out on the floor,” he says.

Mild-mannered dogs were a frequent subject. “The presence of a dog – unlike a presence of a crazy-looking lamp or a misshapen sofa – does represent a kind of calm in this shaken-up environment,” Mr. Rosen says. Yet some drawings would be called sexist today: The humorist tended to draw women as bullies and men as milquetoasts. “We sort of look at some of the men and women and think, ‘Well, that’s a little chauvinistic,’” says Mr. Rosen, who considers both genders to be “confused” in Thurber’s drawings. “I think, in general, they look like they’re survivors, that the men and women are mostly startled by the contemporary time they find themselves in.”

Thurber, who died in 1961, was an East Coast resident for the balance of his life, but he remained tethered to Columbus through his family, and he continued tapping the town for inspiration. 

Thurber was known for taking pen and ink to the places in which he lived. At The New Yorker, he marked up a wall at the magazine, which has been saved. “They chiseled two of the images off the walls to preserve them in a museum-like way,” Mr. Remnick says. “One is a self-portrait, and one is of a kind of football scene.” And actor Sam Waterston, the current owner of Thurber’s final house in West Cornwall, Connecticut, remembers remodeling the pantry when he made a startling discovery: “When we were taking out the cabinets, we found a Thurber dog drawing on that yellow scratch paper that everybody had.”

Tessa Berg/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
The walls of James Thurber’s bedroom closet bear the signatures of notable visitors, in keeping with the humorist’s own habit of drawing on the walls of homes he lived in.

Yet it is Thurber House that best serves as a memorial to him. Each summer a writer-in-residence occupies a space on the third floor. Cleveland novelist Kevin Keating remembers his first night there last August. The scene could be something out of “The Night the Ghost Got In” from “My Life and Hard Times.” “A big picture hanging on the wall beside my bed came crashing down on top of me,” Mr. Keating says. “I thought, ‘There’s my introduction to Thurber.’” 

Of course, the master would have probably embellished a few details. Says Mr. Keating: “I think Thurber would probably have it where I run screaming from the house and then manage to lock myself out."

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The Monitor's View

To frame the good or shame the corrupt? Africa’s choice.

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A new survey reveals this note of progress in Africa: 53% of people believe they can make a difference in the fight against corruption. The few African countries doing well against corruption, such as Gambia, can serve as role models. Yet other factors, such as new digital watchdog tools and a rising middle class, also account for the new optimism that individuals can bring about honest and accountable leadership.

The most important factor is integrity in the election process. Only 41% of citizens are satisfied with how democracy works in their country. The survey found 15% of Africans have been offered a financial incentive to vote for a particular party or candidate.
Africa is home to many of the world’s most corrupt nations. Yet “naming and shaming” countries or their leaders may not be enough. One alternative is to “name and frame” examples of success. Gambia is now one. The speed of its turnaround sends a message of a new moral norm. Just knowing what is both good and possible can motivate Africans to expect better of themselves and their leaders.

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To frame the good or shame the corrupt? Africa’s choice.

One turnaround story to watch in Africa these days is Gambia. Three years ago, the small West African state ousted a corrupt regime. It has since greatly improved its democratic governance. In a new survey by Transparency International, more than half of Gambians say their government is doing a good job in the fight against corruption. By contrast, more than half of all Africans say corruption is getting worse in their country.

“After 22 years of patrimonial rule, where the misuse of state resources was normal, Gambians seem to have placed their trust on their new democratically elected representatives, who have vowed to uphold political integrity and deliver results for ordinary citizens,” concludes Transparency International.

Gambia’s relative success helps break the myth that corruption in Africa is endemic. In fact, the same survey reveals this note of progress: 53% of Africans believe ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption.

The few African countries doing well against corruption, such as Gambia and Mauritius (which has the lowest bribery rate) can serve as role models. Yet other factors, such as new digital watchdog tools and a rising middle class, also account for the new optimism that individuals can bring about honest and accountable leadership.

The most important factor is integrity in the election process. Only 41% of citizens are satisfied with how democracy works in their country. The survey found 15% of Africans have been offered a financial incentive to vote for a particular party or candidate.

Still, says Richard Jurgens, editor of Africa in Fact, Africans’ approval of their leaders has slightly increased over the past 20 years. He cites better economies, internet activism, and urbanization as reasons. These trends compel citizens to ask questions about the motives of officials. They expose “cracks in leadership capabilities, the quality of public administration, inconsistencies in the rule of law and breaches of basic liberties,” he writes.

Africa is home to many of the world’s most corrupt nations. Yet “naming and shaming” countries or their leaders may not be enough. One alternative is to “name and frame” examples of success. Gambia is now one. The speed of its turnaround sends a message of a new moral norm. Just knowing what is both good and possible can motivate Africans to expect better of themselves and their leaders.

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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.

Enough love for all

Whether in school, at work, or in communities at large, exclusion of others can be all too common. But there is an alternative and even healing standpoint to the mistaken concept that love is a limited commodity.

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Enough love for all

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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There are times in which one can feel like an outsider, left out of a circle of friends, co-workers, neighbors, or any situation where people gather to share experiences and just do things together.

This feeling of “left out” makes a sad assumption that there isn’t enough love to go around – that love is a limited commodity that can be used up or run out.

A big problem with feeling that love is limited is that we are likely to start doing things that can cause this to seem even more true, such as hoard friends, gossip, or lobby for others’ exclusive time or attention – all of which create greater division, hard feelings, and hurting hearts.

But there is an alternative. We can begin to think from the standpoint of God’s all-inclusiveness. If God is All – all good, all-powerful – and God is Love, as the Bible makes clear, there are absolute and infinite resources of Love for every individual. Everyone has an inherent ability to feel the inclusiveness of this divine Love. It’s our very nature to do so because we each are the spiritual sons and daughters of God, who has given each of us the endless capacity to love and feel loved.

All is all, and there is not a speck of space where one is not included in the infinite circle of divine Love’s care and inclusion. It’s simply not possible for Love to run out. Time and again I’ve found that when I realize more clearly that this is true, practical evidence of this Love – such as hope, comfort, and healing – comes into my life. Then it’s possible to think in terms of everyone being included in God’s love, and no one being excluded. Each of us can experience this!

There is infinite Love … more than enough for us all.

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En mémoire

Benoit Tessier/Reuters
Dassault Rafale jet fighters of the French air force fly over statues of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel during a rehearsal for upcoming Bastille Day celebrations, in Paris, July 11, 2019. Bastille Day celebrations kick off on July 14 with a military parade along the Champs-Elysées and culminate in an evening fireworks display.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( July 12th, 2019 )

Thanks for joining us today. Come back tomorrow when we’ll have an article on the Jeffrey Epstein affair. People seeking justice against the rich and powerful have often faced an uphill struggle. This case offers some hope of progress.

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