Project Stories Undocumented in America

Immigration groups successfully challenge ‘anti-sanctuary’ bill in Florida

By Cadence Quaranta and Emmanuel Kizito

The phone calls started pouring into a hotline operated by the nonprofit Florida Immigrant Coalition in 2019. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) had just signed a new law, similar to those passed in Texas, Arizona and other states, that required local law enforcement agencies to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, despite so-called sanctuary policies that limit interaction with federal agents.

The number of calls to the coalition’s hotline soared from about 100 a month in 2018 to 1,000 a month after the law passed, said Laura Muñoz, the group’s director of services. Many callers were victims of crime or domestic violence who were afraid to seek help from police, Muñoz said. Others needed guidance after encounters with law enforcement.

Their stories did not surprise the coalition and other immigration watchdog groups, which sued the state alleging that the law discriminates against undocumented immigrants.

In September, a federal judge struck down significant portions of the law, saying in a ruling that the statute was “racially motivated.” Judge Beth Bloom said the state’s claim that the law was designed primarily as a public safety measure was unsupported by crime statistics. She also noted the involvement of what she described as anti-immigrant hate groups in drafting the contentious statute.

State Sen. Joe Gruters, chairman of the Florida Republican Party, told Reuters after the decision, “I look forward to this ruling being overturned.”

The state has appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The ruling did not appear to deter DeSantis, who has said he plans to expand the anti-sanctuary policies established in the 2019 law. DeSantis has defended the law as being about “public safety, not about politics.” 

Local watchdog groups say the law had sweeping implications. 

At the Hope CommUnity Center, a group serving immigrants and the working poor in Apopka, Fla., about 20 miles northwest of Orlando, immigrants told staff members that relatives had been detained and moved into federal custody. They needed help finding lawyers, finding family members, finding answers. 


Laura Pichardo-Cruz, the center’s executive director, said with former President Trump in the White House and DeSantis as governor, it was “a really terrible time to be an immigrant in America. 

“In Florida, it is doubled because we had a really unfriendly federal government and then a very unfriendly state administration,” she said.

Director of Immigration Services Elizabeth Riebel and Hope CommUnity Center Co-founder Sr. Ann Kendrick speak to community members at the Center in Apopka, Fla. The words “The Power of the Immigrant People” are written on a whiteboard at the front of the classroom. (Laura Pichardo-Cruz)

Some Florida law enforcement agents moved quickly after the law was passed. 

Eight counties detained a total of more than 200 people in fewer than two years — nearly a quarter for traffic violations and most for nonviolent crimes, according to Allan Lichtman, an American University history professor who served as an expert witness on behalf of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“For a lot of people, it felt like law enforcement was being given permission to target them,” said Nezahualcoyotl “Neza” Xiuhtecutli, general coordinator of the Farmworkers Association of Florida, a statewide nonprofit representing workers of color. “The end effect was that it made immigrant communities live in fear.”

In Apopka, Pichardo-Cruz said immigrants have reported an increased police presence in some neighborhoods with high immigrant populations.

“We know that local law enforcement is aware of where immigrants shop, where they live, where they work, the roads they take to work,” Pichardo-Cruz said.

In recent years, ICE has increased its presence in Florida in other ways.

In 2019, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri helped promote the Warrant Service Officer (WSO) program, which allows local law enforcement officers to serve ICE warrants to people in jails. The first WSO agreement was launched in Pinellas County about a month before DeSantis signed the anti-sanctuary bill.

Gualtieri has argued that the WSO program will help deputies fulfill the requirements laid out in the new law.

More than 40 Florida counties currently participate in the WSO program, which has spread to Wisconsin, North Carolina and other states.

The WSO program is voluntary. The law signed by DeSantis, however, mandates all local law enforcement to cooperate with ICE even if local officials oppose the idea.

Madison Muller contributed to this report.

Project Stories Undocumented in America

Some attribute environmental degradation to surge in migrants. Immigration groups call it: ‘The Greening of Hate.’

By Jacquelyne Germain

During the Trump administration, opposition to U.S. immigration policy conjured up images of illegal migrants with criminal backgrounds wreaking havoc on America’s legal system.   

“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” the former president said in his 2015 announcement to seek office.

Six years later, two Republican lawmakers have created images of immigrants preying on a different target: the environment. 

In mid-March, U.S. Reps. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) and Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) penned a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, demanding to know whether the surge of thousands of migrants at the southern border was posing risks to wildlife and turning federal lands into dumping sites.

The representatives cited fears about trash left behind by migrants and the vandalism of American homes and businesses.

“We cannot ignore the environmental impact of illegal migrants when devising immigration enforcement policy,” wrote the representatives, who, at the time both sat on the House Committee on Natural Resources. In November, the House voted to remove Gosar from committee assignments after he tweeted an altered anime video that depicted him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and swinging swords at President Joe Biden. 

For decades, groups pressing to limit immigration have advanced a link between immigration, overpopulation and damage to the environment, building on a legacy of past environmental eugenicists and eco-nativists. Websites have long included images of pristine national parks, mountains and waterfalls.

Now, with Biden promising sweeping changes to the U.S. immigration system, some groups and politicians are once again warning that America’s parks, roads and neighborhoods will suffer.

“I see it as the same old story,” said Lisa Sun-Hee Park, an Asian American studies professor at the University of California Santa Barbara who wrote a book about the environment, immigration and social inequality. “It’s not that hard for us to figure out what is actually going on underneath.”

Early conservationists who worried about the pollution of natural lands frequently talked about the threat immigrants posed to a predominantly white America, said John Hultgren, an author and environmental politics professor at Bennington College in Vermont. 

“There was a really close connection between nature and the nation,” Hultgren said. “Something that was perceived to be a threat to one was automatically filtered through that prism and seen as a threat to the other.”

Arguments tying immigration to the environment gained steam with mainstream audiences in the 1970s when the late John Tanton, an ophthalmologist from Michigan, started talking about population control. In 1997, Tanton told the Detroit Free Press that if borders weren’t secured, America would be overrun by people “defecating and creating garbage and looking for jobs.”

Tanton once chaired the Sierra Club’s National Population Committee, where he pushed the idea that overpopulation was the greatest threat to the environment.

The Sierra Club ultimately pushed back. Hop Hopkins, the club’s director of organizational transformation, said the Sierra Club has since denounced Tanton’s ideologies and advocated for immigrants’ rights.

“The Sierra Club is actively opposed to the Trump administration’s initiatives such as the southern border wall, inhumane detention and mass deportation,” Hopkins said.

A restoration sign and crane in front of a section of border wall at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument at the Southern border in Arizona in February 2020. The National Park Service was trying to keep visitors out of the area and revegetate the land, then U.S. Customs and Border Protection began border wall construction in the area. The sign and the restoration efforts predate the wall construction. Photo courtesy of Scott Nicol.

Tanton went on to create a network of organizations that have pressed to limit immigration, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the Center for Immigration Studies and NumbersUSA. 

Behind images of desert lands riddled with trash, a 2018 Center for Immigration Studies blog post noted, “Every illegal alien prevented from crossing our southern border represents about seven pounds of garbage that will no longer be left behind to potentially damage water systems, wildlife, and soil.”

Ira Mehlman, FAIR’s media director, said with nearly two million immigrants expected to cross the southern border this year, trash poses serious environmental consequences.

“These are people who are carrying everything they need on their back and they dispose of this stuff as they go, and it results in just tons of trash littering the wilderness,” Mehlman said. 

On April 1, two weeks after Gosar and Westerman sent the letter to Homeland Security, U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) appeared on a conservative talk show, warning about the environmental damage caused by migrants. 

“For all of those that are concerned about the environment, we have an environmental crisis because the migrants are running across the border, they’re trampling through the ecosystem,” she said.

Blackburn, Gosar and Westerman did not respond to requests for comment.

As climate change and other environmental threats loom, Hultgren said he fears some government leaders may continue to promote the “greening of hate.” The phrase was coined by Hampshire College professor and environmental activist Betsy Hartmann to describe how the environmental movement has been used against immigrants. 

The Sierra Club’s Hopkins said as environmental problems arise, some will seek to place blame.

“It doesn’t take much of an imagination to look ahead and guess the harm and bias that could come from scapegoating immigrants for the climate crisis,” Hopkins said. “It’s really a very dangerous idea that puts communities and people at extreme risk.”

Project Stories Undocumented in America

Documentary: Life in the Shadows

By Diamond Palmer and Irene Chang

Project Stories Undocumented in America

‘Weaponizing a machine’: Experts say Trump-era immigration changes could take years to dismantle

By Rebecca Holland and Ashley Capoot

For a young mother living in San Diego, the trip back to her native Mexico was supposed to be short: She needed only to complete a brief interview to obtain her green card in the United States.

For another immigrant, a 17-year-old from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, living in Michigan, the process to stay in the United States meant filling out an asylum application.

For many years, the path into the U.S. was more predictable. 

But the young mother was kept from returning home because of a federal regulation, enacted in 2019, that denied immigrants entry into the U.S. based on their potential financial burden to taxpayers, according to the woman’s lawyer. The 17-year-old was rejected for leaving blank spaces on his asylum application instead of writing: “N/A.”

Both became entangled in a web of sweeping changes introduced by the Trump administration that immigration groups say dramatically slowed the immigration process in the United States — or, for tens of thousands of immigrants, stopped it in its tracks.

Over four years, the Trump administration enacted more than 1,000 immigration policies across federal agencies, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), according to the Immigration Policy Tracking Project.

Trump officials said the changes were meant to overhaul an immigration system that the administration believed was beset by lax enforcement and had allowed millions of undocumented immigrants into the United States. 

Trump advisor Stephen Miller told Reuters last year that the administration intentionally created overlapping policies.

“In some distant, long-off future time when a Democrat is president, as we all have seen firsthand, it is a difficult, complex and time-consuming thing to remove a regulation or a longstanding memorandum,” Miller said in the interview.

Now, nearly a year into Biden’s presidency, immigration groups and legal experts say it could take months or years to sort through the rules that have separated families, blocked asylum-seekers and banned refugees from some of the most unstable countries in the world.

The Trump administration “took action in all these different areas, and in all of them to try to disrupt, and I would say, destroy, as much as possible the functioning of the immigration system without adopting any legislation,” Lucas Guttentag, a professor at Stanford and Yale universities who led the tracking project. Guttentag recently joined the Department of Justice to help advise the Biden administration on immigration policy.

San Diego-based immigration attorney Michelle Celleri said she spent months trying to bring the young mother from San Diego back into the United States, where her husband — a U.S. citizen — was waiting. The woman had traveled to Mexico with her newborn, intending to return within days.

The 2019 policy enacted by the Trump administration, however, allowed for immigrants to be denied visas or lawful permanent residency if they appeared unable to financially support themselves. Celleri said the young mother was denied because her family’s income was considered insufficient. 

“I did everything I could to appeal it,” Celleri said. “They wouldn’t look at anything else. No considerations.”

A lawyer with the firm that handled the 17-year-old immigrant’s case said she is still frustrated by the rejection of the young man’s entry into the United States because of blank spaces left on his asylum application. The form had space for four siblings. He listed two.

Under a Trump policy change in 2019, some immigration applications could be denied if spaces were not filled by either a response or “N/A.” 

“A child will not get the due process he is entitled to because of this absurd process,” said Susan Reed, a managing attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, which handled the case. 

Hours after taking office, Biden struck down some of the Trump administration’s most contentious immigration policies, including the so-called “Muslim ban” that turned away people from seven predominantly Muslim countries. But many Trump-era changes still stand.

No agency was more affected than U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which grants visas and processes immigration applications. Under Trump, the agency saw 492 changes in four years through executive orders, rule changes and other non-legislative measures, according to the Tracking Project. 

While executive orders can be rescinded, regulation cannot be repealed until a new regulation is written in its place, an often-lengthy process. The policy changes affected immigrants far more than Trump’s oft-contentious rhetoric did, Reed said.

“As much as Trump’s immigration policy was really populist and really ‘build the wall, rah rah,’ the biggest impact — it was very much about weaponizing a machine,” she said.

John Zadrozny, brought in under Trump as chief of staff at USCIS, defended the number of changes, calling them “pretty average,” including changes to screening and vetting asylum claims. 

“When you allow a lot of fraudulent asylum claims to go through the system, people assume all claims are bad or not sincere,” he said in an interview. “A lot of people are persecuted abroad, and by cutting the fraudulent cases, we are able to help those people.”

Of hundreds of new policies enacted at USCIS, the “Public Charge Final Rule,” which would deny entry to immigrants who had used public benefits such as food stamps, public housing or Medicaid for more than a year, created particularly steep hurdles for applicants, immigration attorneys say.

“It had an enormous chilling effect that kept people from accessing government services for public health that are actually created to try to preserve public health — against the backdrop of a worldwide pandemic no less,” said Jorge Loweree, policy director with the nonprofit American Immigration Council. 

Celleri, the San Diego attorney, said because the policy was introduced so quickly, some immigrants who once traveled freely in and out of the country found themselves unable to return.

“Families were separated,” Celleri said. “There was nothing anyone could have done to foresee that happening.”

The rule on blank spaces on applications also created challenges. If applicants did not have a middle name, for example, their applications risked rejection if they failed to write “N/A” in the corresponding space, Loweree said. 

“The blank space policy was probably one of the most thinly veiled attempts to find any way of possibly disqualifying individuals from accessing the immigration system,” he said.

The Biden administration rescinded the so-called public charge rule in March and the blank space rule one month later.

Immigration advocates say they hope the Biden administration will also tackle a backlog of applications at the agency. As Trump’s policy changes kicked in, the backlog soared by more than 100% from 2016 to 2017, the American Immigration Lawyers Association found

The group also found the average case processing time had grown by more than 91% since fiscal year 2014.

“Immigrant visas that aren’t used in the year they’re allocated go away,” Loweree said. “We’re just wasting visas.”

USCIS declined to comment.

House Democrats last month passed Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which pledged an historic overhaul of the U.S. immigration system. Loweree said the government needs to move quickly.

“What we’ve seen now is the Biden administration has done a whole lot on immigration, but they haven’t removed enough of those bureaucratic barriers for the system to start functioning in a more meaningful way just yet,” he said. 

Madison Muller contributed to this report.

Project Stories Undocumented in America

Agreements between county sheriffs and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement make fear an everyday reality for undocumented immigrants in Georgia and Maryland

Story and photos by Madison Muller

The Hall County, Georgia, Sheriff’s Department has detained undocumented immigrants on behalf of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since 2008 as part of the county’s 287(g) agreement. Participating sheriffs say the program has led to the capture of dangerous criminals. Immigrants and their advocates have widely condemned the partnerships, saying they lead to racial profiling and the disproportionate targeting of immigrants for low-level crimes, such as traffic violations.

An undocumented man in Hall County said he has feared that seeking medical attention or performing daily tasks, such as grocery shopping, could result in his detainment and deportation.

El Carreton Taqueria, a brightly colored taco stand along Atlanta Highway has been serving a mix of authentic favorites since it opened in 1994. It’s part of the area known as “Little Mexico.”

Newspaper stands along Atlanta Highway in Gainesville, Georgia, the Hall County seat and home of thousands of immigrants, distribute Spanish-language newspapers. The area has been dubbed “Little Mexico” by residents because it has become a hub for the city’s Latinx community.

A 9-year-old watches his family members play volleyball outside his home in Gainesville. The boy’s mother worked at a local poultry plant before taking a job as a taxi driver. Taxicabs are popular in Gainesville, where many undocumented people live and work, because Georgia prohibits undocumented people from obtaining driver’s licenses.

A sign advertises employment opportunities at Foundation Food Group, one of Hall County’s many poultry plants. The ad stands next to a memorial for six employees killed in a liquid nitrogen leak inside the plant in January. Immigration advocacy groups say five of the employees were undocumented. According to a statement from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board in February, “The plant had been experiencing unresolved operational issues on the chicken conveyor that appear to have resulted in the accidental release of liquid nitrogen.” In a statement to Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Foundation Food Group said it trains employees for emergencies and is “committed to taking any additional measures necessary to further ensure the safety of our employees.”

A car parked outside the Gainesville office of GA Familias Unidas, an immigrant advocacy group, reads, “estamos contigo,” — “we are with you.” GA Familias Unidas provides support and resources for the Latino community, many of whom work in the city’s poultry plants.

Immigration activists in Frederick County have repeatedly raised concerns about the 287(g) agreement, signed in 2008. On a frigid night in February, protesters demanded an end to the partnership and the removal of longtime Sheriff Chuck Jenkins.

Protesters marched in February against the 287(g) program. Sheriff Jenkins said the program has helped keep violent criminals off the streets.

A Frederick County resident peers out a window to the street below, where protesters were marching. The county’s demographic has shifted in recent years, becoming increasingly diverse.

Project Stories Undocumented in America

For undocumented immigrants in America, fear, rejection and bureaucracy linger long after Trump

By Rebecca Holland, Monique Beals, Michael Murney and Madison Muller

Damary Gutierrez Hernandez often worries more about a busted taillight than her math and science classes at Duke University.

The 23-year-old daughter of undocumented immigrants in Northwest Georgia, Hernandez said she grew up fearing that her parents could be stopped, questioned and detained by police because of their citizenship status. Even driving created angst, she said, because Georgia bans undocumented immigrants from obtaining a license.

“They are just always so aware of where the cops could be hiding,” she said. “It’s just the constant fear of having to talk to a police person, and they ask you, ‘Oh, where were you born?’ You obviously can’t lie.”

Hernandez’s parents are among the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows of mainstream America, often afraid to speak out about crime, report unsafe working conditions or stray too far from home.

Lawyers and watchdog groups say that fear intensified under President Trump, whose policy changes during his four years in office made the path to citizenship slower, harder and more expensive than ever. Dismantling those changes, experts say, could stymie policymakers for years.


  • All told, the Trump administration introduced more than 1,000 immigration policies across federal agencies, according to the Immigration Policy Tracking Project. Nearly half were launched at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the federal agency that processes immigration and asylum applications.
  • The changes, which included barring immigrants considered a potential financial burden to taxpayers, were enshrined in layers of complex regulations not easily untangled.
  • One of the most contentious policies — denying federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities — was upheld last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York, creating legal precedent with the potential to pave the way for lawmakers to create anti-sanctuary policies nationwide.
  • While creating policy, the Trump administration also launched a nationwide effort to expand immigration enforcement. The number of local law enforcement agencies participating in the controversial 287(g) program to report and detain undocumented immigrants in local jails grew from 35 in January 2017 to 150 in September 2020. In North Carolina alone, the number of agreements grew from four in December 2018 to 15 today

“I think for a lot of immigrant communities the last four years were pretty traumatic,” said Adonia Simpson, with the American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Immigration. “And there’s a lot of fear or uncertainty that’s carried over into the new administration.” 

President Obama deported more than three million people– more than Trump overall. But the Trump administration significantly reduced legal immigration, declining hundreds of thousands of green cards and reducing the number of non-immigrant visas by more than 11 million, the Cato Institute reported.

One Trump-era rule made it harder for immigrants who had used public benefits, such as food stamps or Medicaid, to obtain a green card. Another, dubbed the “Remain in Mexico” policy, called for certain asylum-seekers to await their hearings in Mexico even if they faced the threat of violence.

“There are a lot of things that impacted immigrants, like fear of what you said, fear of just being an immigrant, not falling out of status unknowingly or using a benefit that may jeopardize your ability to become a citizen later on,” said Sharvari Dalal-Dheini, director of government relations at the nonprofit American Immigration Lawyers Association

Trump argued his policies would reduce “uncontrolled immigration,” protecting Americans from financial hardships and public safety risks. Before the midterm elections in 2018, about 80 percent of Republican voters said they supported his stance on immigration, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll. 

“The Democrats have increasingly migrated to a place on this issue far from where your everyday American is. The contrast is mind-boggling,” Josh Holmes, a political adviser for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), told The Washington Post at the time. 

Hours after taking office, President Biden reversed some of Trump’s more controverisal policies as well as Trump’s so-called Muslim Ban, which had banned travelers from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.

Immigration advocacy groups say some changes came too late.

“The lasting legacy might be that a lot of people got deported by the Trump administration who shouldn’t have been deported, and they’re gone now, and it’ll be very hard for them to come back,” said Sarah Rich, senior supervising attorney for the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

Rich and others said they hope Biden will continue to press for changes. The number of interior arrests has fallen to the lowest level in years, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has issued broad new directives to limit deportations.

Biden, however, has drawn criticism for the apprehension of migrants at the border and for the expulsion of over 4,600 Haitian migrants under a policy that Trump officials said was meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

After Vice President Kamala Harris told Guatemalan migrants, “do not come,” at a June news conference in Guatemala City, the immigration advocacy group United We Dream called the statement “disappointing and shameful” in an interview with Newsweek.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at the time that the vice president was conveying that “there’s more work to be done.”

“It’s still a dangerous journey, as we’ve said many times from here and from many forums before, and we need more time to get the work done to ensure that asylum processing is where it should be,” Psaki said.

Immigration advocates say they want the Biden administration to quickly reduce a backlog of immigration and asylum applications at USCIS and create a smoother pathway to citizenship for immigrants without documentation. 

Last month, House Democrats passed Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which, among other things, aims to create a more accessible path to citizenship. Biden has pledged $100 billion to reduce the application backlog and build “more humane” asylum and border processing systems. 

Advocates are also calling for an end to the 287(g) program, which gives local law enforcement the power to enforce federal immigration law. 

“I think there is still a deep wellspring of compassion and empathy in the American people for potential new Americans who want to come here, for whatever reason,” said Rich, the SPLC attorney. “And that does make me optimistic that any lasting legacy of the Trump administration won’t actually be so lasting.”

Irene Chang contributed to this report.

Project Stories The Strong People

Recovering in Indian Country: One Family’s Journey

By Alena Prcela

SEQUIM, Wash. — When Joshua Carver hurt his back as a middle linebacker for the freshman football team, his doctor prescribed a round of pain pills. When his pills ran out, he found more at parties. When his money ran out, he found cheap heroin on the streets for $5 a bag.

Carver dropped out of high school in 2008, stole money from his family and spent many nights in the county jail, high and barely able to recall what had put him there.

Fourteen years after that first prescription, 28-year-old Carver is among hundreds of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest working to overcome opioid addiction in a region flooded by prescription painkillers and black tar heroin, a crude, sticky substance shipped in by drug cartels.

“You always think you can stop,” said Carver, a citizen of Jamestown S’Klallam, a 543-person tribe on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. “Then you go to stop and you get sick and you realize that you can’t.”

Jamestown S’Klallam, with ancestral ties to the land dating back more than 10,000 years, sits in the northeast corner of Washington’s Clallam County. In 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, doctors wrote nearly 102 opioid prescriptions per 100 residents in the county — higher than the number of prescriptions in some areas of Appalachia, seen by many as the epicenter of the epidemic.

No other county in Washington saw more heroin-related deaths in 2016 than Clallam, according to the Washington State Department of Health.

In a region dependent on logging and manual labor, experts said pain pills were widely prescribed for on-the-job injuries. The county’s proximity to the Pacific Coast also made it easier for drug cartels to ship in heroin, particularly a form of heroin found primarily west of the Mississippi.

“They’re selling it for $5,” said Brent Simcosky, director of health services for the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe. “A six-pack of beer is more expensive than heroin. There are networks where you can call and they deliver it like a… pizza.”

Jamestown S’Klallam plans to open a healing campus, where medication-assisted treatment would be supplemented by native storytelling, singing, drumming and crafting. Much like a longhouse– a traditional home for coastal Native American families– faces the water, the center would face southwest toward the headwaters of the Dungeness River.

In late 2017, the Swinomish Indian tribal community, about 60 miles northeast of Sequim, opened a similar recovery center.

For generations, tribal communities struggled to deal with alcohol addiction. The influx of prescription pills and illicit opioids created new treatment challenges, said R. Dale Walker, a Cherokee professor emeritus at Oregon Health & Science University.

Many Native American tribes are in rural areas, often plagued by high unemployment rates and limited access to education, housing and health care, said Walker, who has consulted for more than 250 tribes.

“You can just imagine that a lot of people feeling the pain want to make the pain go away,” he said.

For Carver and his family, healing centers and other services are a critical lifeline.

“Whatever it takes, it’s better than finding one of your children dead,” said Carver’s mother, Shawna Priest, a medical assistant for Jamestown S’Klallam’s family health clinic.

The current clinic provides primary care and limited addiction treatment. The tribe wants to expand existing services with the new healing campus.

The Jamestown S’Klallam tribe is paying for Carver’s college classes. He hopes to earn an associate’s degree in construction management. Soon, Carver plans to enroll his son in the tribe’s daycare program. (Daniel Konstantino/MEDILL)

On a recent afternoon, Priest sat with her children in a house near the edge of Sequim. The walls were decorated with family photos and a tiny dog named Brutus, clad in a T-shirt that read “Problem Child,” darted around the living room.

For years, 49-year-old Priest said, she would often look into her son’s bedroom when he was sleeping to be sure his chest was still moving.

“It terrified me every time I went in there,” she said. “I thought… one of these times I’m going to go in there and it’s not going to be going up and down.”

Priest’s younger daughter, 26-year-old Hannah, also struggled with opioid addiction, at times using painkillers with her brother at local parties. Later, the siblings drove together to Seattle to pick up larger, cheaper quantities of heroin.

“It’s like shopping at Costco — just horribly,” Carver said.

Carver and his sister went to inpatient treatment, outpatient care and court-mandated youth programs. Eventually, they turned to medication-assisted treatment that blocks the euphoric effects of opioids.

Carver, who has been in recovery for two-and-a-half years, is now a construction worker for the tribe and the father of Jameson, born last July. The tribe is paying around $5,000 this year to finance his construction management and business degrees. Hannah has a steady job at the tribal casino and was recently promoted.

In Priest’s living room, Carver cuddled with Jameson, who was dressed in tan corduroy overalls and dark gray lace-up sneakers. Soon, Carver would leave his mother’s house for a day at work renovating an old house into new tribal offices.

He glanced at his son. These days, Carver said, he spends most of his time worrying about Jameson, school and work, rather than the possibility of relapse.

“It’s not even a thought in my mind.”

Project Stories The Strong People

Despair, Hope and Healing in Washington’s Indian Country: A Photo Essay

By Daniel Konstantino

In Sequim, Washington, Jamestown S’Klallam tribal member Joshua Carver, 28, was prescribed pain pills for a football injury in high school and soon became addicted. He spent months in recovery and is now working full time as a construction manager and raising his infant son, Jameson, with his girlfriend (middle). His sister (left) also struggled with addiction. In 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, doctors wrote nearly 102 opioid prescriptions per 100 residents in Clallam County—higher than the number of prescriptions in some areas of Appalachia.

Carver’s younger sister, Hannah Barclay, said she also battled opioid addiction and successfully worked through a recovery program. Now 27, she works at the tribe’s casino. “It’s hard because when you’re chemically imbalanced… I didn’t care about anything at that point other than getting high,” she said.

With a combination of tribal resources and state funds, Jamestown S’Klallam is pushing to open an innovative healing center for people struggling with addiction. The center in Sequim would combine medication-assisted treatment with behavioral healthcare and traditional Native American methods. The Priest family supports the center. Here, Joshua Carver smiles at his son, Jameson, in the family home a few miles from the proposed center.

Jamestown S’Klallam tribal descendant Vicki Wallner, whose family has lived in Sequim for five generations, said she watched her son grow addicted to prescription painkillers after he injured his back in high school while working in a supermarket. Over time, she said, she began to prepare for the possibility that her son would suffer a fatal overdose. He went on to work toward recovery.

“You feel like you did everything right, and there’s a point in time where you look at this person and you see a stranger,” said Wallner, whose son has been in recovery for four years. “I think that’s the hardest part, seeing a stranger and not being able to do anything about it.”

Opioid abuse has also struck the Swinomish reservation, about 120 miles north of Sequim. There, tribal leaders have established a healing and recovery center that is generating widespread interest from other tribes and health experts, including the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe. Rita Boome-Revey lives in a recovery house operated by the Swinomish tribe. She said five of her children are in various states of addiction and recovery.
Boome-Revey, recovering from opioid abuse, said she wanted to set a good example for her children.
Boome-Revey, a mother of five, lost her youngest daughter to foster care. Boome-Revey said she wanted her daughter to live in a stable home.
In his 14 years as Clallam County sheriff, Bill Benedict said he has watched opioid abuse touch the lives of hundreds of people.

"There is the sickness, misery and even death by overdose of those afflicted, coupled with the sorrow and loss felt by families and friends. The economic costs are huge— lost wages, lost opportunities and the costs associated with many opioid-related crimes, such as burglary, theft and shoplifting. Illegal sales of heroin in Clallam County probably exceed $15 million a year. Property losses due to burglaries and thefts exceed $5 million a year. This is a lot of grief, sorrow and misery for a rural county with a population of 75,000."

Project Stories The Strong People

Undercounted and Underserved: Experts Say Opioid Deaths Overlooked Among Native Americans

By Ally Mauch

As tribes and urban Indian populations scramble to tackle the opioid crisis, inaccurate data about overdose deaths has stymied health officials and frustrated tribal leaders struggling to get the help they need.

Nationwide, nearly 2,000 Native Americans died of prescription opioid overdoses from 2008 to 2017 — the highest rate of any racial or ethnic group. Experts fear the true death count is far higher.

Graphic: Worth Chollar

In Washington state, home to 29 federally recognized tribes, researchers in a first-of-its-kind study found that opioid overdose deaths among Native Americans were underreported by about 30 percent from 2013 to 2015. That same disparity was not found among the state’s white population.

The corrected death count showed that Native Americans were 2.7 times more likely to die from opioid-related overdoses than white people.

Graphic: Worth Chollar

“When you look at health data, a lot of times you just don’t see American Indians represented at all,” said Sujata Joshi, an epidemiologist who wrote the 2018 study for the Northwest Tribal Epidemiology Center in Portland.

The problem, experts say, can be linked to death certificates. On the documents used by local, state and federal health officials, Native Americans are sometimes misclassified as “mixed race” or “other.”

The problem extends to all causes of death among Native Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a 2016 study, CDC researchers found that 40 percent of death certificates for American Indians and Alaska Natives were misclassified. The data remained “highly accurate” for other races.

Improper data  — or a lack of data — can limit grant funding and other state and federal support as tribes work to battle addiction, said research scientist Linda Stanley, with the Tri-Ethnic Center for Prevention Research at Colorado State University.

“Tribes won’t get what they deserve to have because the problems are not as well- documented,” said Stanley, who has spent much of her career studying substance abuse within Native American communities.

Some tribal organizations are collecting their own data on opioid-related deaths. The United South and Eastern Tribes, made up of those in the North and Southeastern regions, has collected opioid death data for more than a decade.

The group is one of 448 tribal organizations involved in the ongoing consolidated lawsuit in Cleveland against opioid manufacturers and distributors. Like many other tribes, the group  noted that correcting death-data gaps for Native Americans is essential.

“Comprehensively addressing the opioid epidemic is a major priority… including addressing the lack of resources, inadequate data, historical trauma, and other issues,” the group wrote in a court brief.

The chronic underreporting of death data has helped to marginalize Native Americans, said epidemiologist Samantha Lucas-Pipkorn of the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Epidemiology Center in Minneapolis. The center is one of 12 granted federal funding  to improve the reporting process.

“One of the ways that you can erase a population is by them not even appearing in state and federal data sets,” Lucas-Pipkorn said. “If an entire population doesn’t appear…[the government] can say that they’re not here — they don’t really exist.”

Without accurate numbers, tribal leaders say, funders will be less inclined to treat the epidemic.

Mary LaGarde, the director at the Minneapolis American Indian Center and a member of the White Earth Nation, said she fears the lack of death data has had a dramatic impact in her community. In 2016, Native Americans in Minnesota were nearly six times more likely to die of an opioid-related overdose than whites in the state.

LaGarde has been applying for grants to repave, clean and fence in a neighborhood playground littered with needles used by addicts. So far, she said, no funding has come through for the $135,000 project.

“Honestly, we don’t know where that funding is going to come from,” she said.

Lucas-Pipkorn, the epidemiologist, said the issue comes down to accurate reporting.

“Without data, there’s no way that you can advocate for your community,” Lucas-Pipkorn said. “Absolutely no way.”

Project Stories The Strong People

In Washington, Some Tribes Turn to Cannabis to Support Health and Healing

By Syd Stone

SEQUIM, WASH. — The Cedar Greens Cannabis shop sits just off of Highway 101, across from the serene waters of the Sequim Bay along Washington’s North Olympic coastline.

The store’s walls and floors are lined with cedar planks, and water flows under an indoor bridge that sits just beyond the entryway. In the center of the shop, customers in search of cannabis find high-concentration resins and dried buds, neatly displayed in well-lit display cases under 17-foot-high ceilings.

The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe opened the store in October, and Tribal Chairman Ron Allen said he expects sales to quickly become a “big piece” of the tribe’s revenue stream.

“We know from our sister tribes how well they perform,” he said. “Ours happens to be probably the most elegant. We took from everybody else’s structure and design and took the best of each, so we’re very confident that we designed it nicely.”

The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe is among a growing number of tribes in Washington that have turned to cannabis as a significant revenue source. In Sequim, the tribe for generations relied on enterprises ranging from shellfish companies to a casino to a family health clinic.

Revenue from the new cannabis shop will be used in part to cover addiction treatment programs, including a planned 16,000-square-foot healing center for opioid dependency.

Clallam County saw 101.8 opioid prescriptions per 100 people in 2017, far higher than the national average of 58.7, according to the CDC.

Cannabis sales pose a unique business opportunity for tribes in Washington.

Tribes on sovereign land do not need state approval to sell cannabis. The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe in September 2018 struck an agreement with the state that allows sales tax accrued from cannabis-related businesses to remain within the tribe for community improvement.

The compact is modeled after similar agreements with the state that regulate the sale of liquor, gasoline and cigarettes on tribal land, said Mike Smith, manager of Cedar Greens. The shop charges taxes equivalent to the state’s cannabis taxes — a 37 percent excise tax and 8.5 percent sales tax for recreational purchases, which, Smith said, has been vital to the tribe’s economy even in the short time the store has been open.

“Tribes are traditionally underfunded, their people are underserved,” he said, “So tribes rely on their own ingenuity to come up with and create different enterprises to help support and sustain their people.”

Allen said it was critical for the tribe to diversify its economic interests.

“A lot of folks think that your casino is the big dog on the block,” he said. “For many, many years, from the ‘90s into the early 21st century, it was, but now, it’s not anymore.”

More and more tribes in Washington are entering the cannabis industry in recent years because tribes continue to look for business opportunities which will make them competitive in the surrounding economies, said Eric Trevan, a professor at The Evergreen State College in Olympia and an expert in Tribal economies.

“I’ve seen how it can truly help, not just generate revenue for the tribes, but how it builds the economy,” said Trevan, who is a Tribal citizen of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, Gun Lake Tribe.

When tribal governments decide to enter into the cannabis business, they affirm their sovereignty as independent nations which are looking for ways to support their citizens, he said.

Just 80 miles south of Cedar Greens, the Squaxin Island Tribe has been operating Elevation, a cannabis shop, since 2015.

Mike Ogden, a Squaxin Island tribal member and manager of the shop, said profits go toward critical services in healthcare, education and employment.

“It’s definitely important that we can generate this revenue and help our community, and our people, in that way,” Ogden said.

The store was so successful by its third year that the tribe opened the first tribal marijuana grow site in Washington — Native Sun Grown. The commercial operation spans more than 5 acres and provides cannabis products to Washington’s recreational market. Washington became the first state to legalize marijuana in 2012.

In Sequim, Smith said he’s looking forward to the first summer season. Thousands of tourists will pass the shop along Highway 101, headed to Olympia National Park or farther into Sequim for its annual lavender festival in July.

“We’re on the edge of our seats to see what we can do,” he said.