John Burnett | KCUR

John Burnett

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018 and again in 2019, he won a national Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.

Though he is assigned to the National Desk, his beat has sometimes stretched around the world.

He has filed stories from more than 30 countries since joining NPR in 1986. In 2012, he spent five months in Nairobi as the East Africa Correspondent, followed by a stint during 2013 as the network's religion reporter. His special reporting projects have included working in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina, as an embedded reporter with the First Marine Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and continuing coverage of the U.S. drug war in the Americas. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.

Burnett's 2008 groundbreaking four-part series "Dirty Money"—which examined how law enforcement agencies have gotten hooked on and, in some cases, corrupted by seized drug money—won three national awards: a Scripps Howard National Journalism Award for Investigative Reporting, a Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists Award for Investigative Reporting, and an Edward R. Murrow Award for the accompanying website. His 2007 three-part series "The Forgotten War," which took a critical look at the nation's 30-year war on drugs, won a Nancy Dickerson Whitehead Award for Excellence in Reporting on Drug and Alcohol Problems.

In 2006, Burnett's memoir, Uncivilized Beasts & Shameless Hellions: Travels with an NPR Correspondent, was published by Rodale Press. In that year, he also served as an Ethics Fellow at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida.

In 2004, Burnett won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting for his story on the accidental U.S. bombing of an Iraqi village. His work was singled out by judges for the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award honoring the network's overall coverage of the Iraq War. Also in 2003, Burnett won a first place National Headliner Award for investigative reporting about corruption among federal immigration agents on the U.S.-Mexico border.

In the months following the attacks of September 11, Burnett reported from New York City, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. His reporting contributed to coverage that won the Overseas Press Club Award and an Alfred I. duPont Columbia University Award.

In 2001, Burnett reported and produced a one-hour documentary, "The Oil Century," for KUT-FM in Austin, which won a silver prize at the New York Festivals. He was a visiting faculty member in broadcast journalism at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in 2002 and 1997. He received a Ford Foundation Grant in 1997 for a special series on sustainable development in Latin America.

Burnett's favorite stories are those that reveal a hidden reality. He recalls happening upon Carlos Garcia, a Mexico City street musician who plays a musical leaf, a chance encounter that brought a rare and beautiful art form to a national audience. In reporting his series "Fraud Down on the Farm," Burnett spent nine months investigating the abuse of the United States crop insurance system and shining light on surprising stories of criminality.

Abroad, his report on the accidental U.S. Air Force bombing of the Iraqi village of Al-Taniya, an event that claimed 31 lives, helped listeners understand the fog of war. His "Cocaine Republics" series in 2004 was one of the first accounts to detail the emergence of Central America as a major drug smuggling region. But many listeners remember the audio postcard he filed while on assignment in Peshawar, Pakistan, after 9/11 about what it was like being, at six-foot-seven, the "tallest American at a Death-to-Americarally."

Prior to coming to NPR, Burnett was based in Guatemala City for United Press International covering the Central America civil wars. From 1979-1983, he was a general assignment reporter for various Texas newspapers.

Burnett graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

The pricetag for President Trump's border wall has topped $11 billion — or nearly $20 million a mile — to become the most expensive wall of its kind anywhere in the world.

In a status report last week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is overseeing wall construction, reported that $11 billion has been identified since Trump took office to construct 576 miles of a new "border wall system."

Over the past 41 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been buying up land on the lower Texas-Mexico border to protect one of the most biologically diverse regions in North America from developers and farmers.

But the Rio Grande Valley of Texas is a hotspot for illegal immigration and drug smuggling, as well as biodiversity. That's why the Trump administration is planning to build 110 miles of border wall through the valley (which is actually a river delta).

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf visited a construction site in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas on a windswept day last month and repeated a Trump administration pledge.

"We are on track to build 450 to 500 miles of new wall by the end of 2020," he told reporters. Behind him, steel panels atop a concrete levee wall, 30 feet in all, are rising from the sugar cane fields and bird sanctuaries of the valley — which is really a river delta. They are the first section of new border wall built under President Trump where there was no barrier before.

Alexis Martinez, a Honduran man who traveled with his two young sons to seek asylum in the United States, last saw them holding hands, their faces streaked with tears, bravely walking across the Gateway International Bridge into Texas — alone.

After weeks in a makeshift refugee camp in the Mexican border town of Matamoros, Martinez knew he had to send 5-year-old Benjamin and 7-year-old Osiel without him. Benjamin had contracted bronchial pneumonia, and Martinez couldn't afford any more antibiotics.

Scott Wheeler was born and raised in what's known as the Northeast Kingdom, the rugged and beautiful countryside where Vermont abuts Canada. Even so, he didn't realize he was supposed to check in with Canadian immigration authorities when driving across the border recently.

Two polite, officious Mounties tell him to make a U-turn and follow them back to the port of entry where he's questioned about his intentions inside Quebec. He explains his mistake, and eventually, the Mounties return his identification and he's free to go.

It is the 8 a.m. assembly at Cactus Elementary School, located on the bleak plains of the Texas Panhandle. Kids with colorful backpacks and sleepy eyes sit cross-legged on the gym floor while their principal kick-starts the day: "Good morning, Cactus Elementary!" The students crow in response.

Many of them come from poor villages in faraway lands — Central America, Somalia, Myanmar, Congo, Haiti — and they're clearly thrilled to be in school.

Construction has begun on President Trump's border wall between Arizona and Mexico, and conservationists are furious. The massive barrier will skirt one of the most beloved protected areas in the Southwest — Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, recognized by the United Nations as an international biosphere reserve.

On a recent drive along the borderline, a crew was transplanting tall saguaro cactus out of the construction zone.

Federal agents were patrolling the Rio Grande in an airboat between Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, in September 2012. They say a group of men in a park on the Mexican side of the river began throwing rocks at them.

"I just remember the boat. They started to shoot and they hit him in the heart, and he fell to the ground," says Priscila Arévalo, the daughter of one of the Mexican men. "We ran away. When we came back, my papa he was already dead."

One day last week in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, a fearsome gun battle broke out on the main boulevard to the airport, as drivers careened off the thoroughfare in terror while rival narcos blasted away at each other.

The Cartel of the Northeast operates with impunity here, cruising around town in armored, olive-drab pickups with Tropas del Infierno, Spanish for "Soldiers from Hell," emblazoned on the doors.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The lunch rush is over at a popular, cozy restaurant in a city somewhere in Missouri. The owner, Lynn, is sipping a glass of pinot grigio as her cooking crew cleans up.

Like thousands of other restaurants across America, Lynn's kitchen is staffed mainly with unauthorized Latino workers. She agreed to openly discuss this employment conundrum if NPR agreed not to give her last name, identify her restaurant, name the city, or even specify the type of cuisine. Like a lot of employers these days, she doesn't want to attract the attention of federal immigration agents.

As the Trump Administration prepares to accelerate construction of a border wall, Nayda Alvarez is preparing for the possibility that it will cut directly through her backyard.

Alvarez, a high-school teacher, received a letter last year from Customs and Border Protection about plans to build the wall on her family land in Starr County, Texas, that backs up to a bend in the Rio Grande.

"All this area was my grandfather's," she says. "So we've been here for about five or six generations. ... This is where we come fishing. We have our cookouts. We spend Easter here."

The Department of Health and Human Services is dramatically expanding its network of child shelters across the country in order to avoid the kind of scandal that occurred in Clint, Texas, where scores of immigrant children were warehoused together.

"There are too many kids in Border Patrol stations right now, and we're working to get them out of those stations and into HHS care," says Mark Weber, HHS deputy assistant secretary for public affairs.

Updated at 5:07 p.m. ET

The acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection plans to step down in the coming weeks, according to two agency officials, amid a public furor over the treatment of migrant children in U.S. facilities.

John Sanders is expected to make his resignation effective July 5, according to the officials, who spoke to NPR on condition of anonymity because an official announcement had not been made to agency employees.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Thousands of asylum-seekers from Central America, Cuba and elsewhere have massed in Mexican border cities, waiting and hoping to be granted legal entry to the United States. They have created a humanitarian crisis, and they're growing impatient.

Responding to that crisis, the Trump administration threatened last week to impose tariffs to pressure Mexico to block the streams of migrants who are crossing its southern border bound for the United States.

Central American migrants who were detained in a Border Patrol holding facility in McAllen, Texas, described atrocious living conditions and widespread sickness.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection shut down its largest migrant processing center in South Texas for 24 hours on Tuesday after 32 detainees got sick with the flu. This is the same location where a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy became sick, and died Monday at another Border Patrol station.

Updated 4:45pm E.T.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection temporarily suspended intake at the McAllen Central Processing Center on Tuesday, the largest migrant processing center in South Texas, after the outbreak of what the agency calls "a flu-related illness."

It is the same facility where a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy became ill last week, and died after he was transferred to another Border Patrol station.

Editor's note: This story contains descriptions and photos of human remains that some readers may find disturbing.

Border Patrol agents steer their all-terrain buggy through dense brush on the historic King Ranch. They're looking for a human skeleton.

They spotted bones earlier in the day when they were chasing a group of migrants through this pasture, and they marked the GPS coordinates. Now they're returning with a sheriff's deputy.

A Guatemalan toddler died in a hospital Tuesday night, just over a month after he and his mother crossed the southwest border and were apprehended, according to the Guatemalan consul in Del Rio, Texas.

The family entered the U.S. from the border city of Juárez, Mexico, in early April. They were apprehended on April 3 on the north bank of the Rio Grande in central El Paso, Texas, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Guatemalan Consul Tekandi Paniagua told NPR that the 2½-year-old boy "had a high fever [and] difficulty breathing."

For people familiar with the lonesome highways of far West Texas and New Mexico, it's an unusual sight: The ubiquitous Border Patrol checkpoints are all closed. Last month, Homeland Security shifted the checkpoint agents to the border to help process the crush of migrant asylum-seekers.

Otero County, N.M., is so alarmed by the possibility of illegal narcotics flowing north unchecked that it has declared a local state of emergency.

An Iraq War veteran who is not a U.S. citizen is facing deportation to Mexico over a felony conviction unless an immigration judge decides to let him stay in the United States.

Mario Garcia sits in the doorway of his tire shop in Gracias a Dios, Guatemala, a short distance from the border with Mexico, watching the unfettered flow of migrants headed north. By his estimate, up to 1,000 migrants cross over into Carmen Xhan, Mexico, every day.

"This is an open border," Garcia says, with a knowing smile. "There's no immigration control on this side or the other side. Anyone can go across freely."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Trump administration is now warning about "fake families" amid the surge of Central American migrants crossing the southern border. Border agents have noticed an uptick in adult immigrants traveling with minors who are not their children. The administration suspects foul play, but immigrant advocates say they're just trying to make it into the U.S. for a better life.

As thousands of migrant parents and children continue to stream across the U.S.-Mexico border every day, the Border Patrol is bringing in more agents and asking the Pentagon for additional help.

The Border Patrol says it needs more manpower to care for the migrants — more of whom are coming with infectious illnesses. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen says agents are on track to stop nearly 100,000 people crossing illegally this month — far exceeding last month's total.

The U.S. Border Patrol apprehended more than 66,000 migrants at the Southern border in February, the highest total for a single month in almost a decade.

The majority of those arrested were migrant families or children traveling alone or without a parent, according to figures released Tuesday by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Many of the migrants say they're fleeing criminal gangs and poverty in Central America to seek asylum in the United States.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When migrant children cross the border without their parents, they're sent to federal shelters until caseworkers can find them a good home. But everything changes when they turn 18. That's when, in many cases, they're handcuffed and locked up in an adult detention facility. The practice is sparking lawsuits and outrage from immigrant advocates.

Thousands of migrant children continue to arrive at the Southern border every month, without their parents, to ask for asylum. The government sends many of them to an emergency intake shelter in South Florida. That facility has come under intense scrutiny because it's the only child shelter for immigrants that's run by a for-profit corporation and the only one that isn't overseen by state regulators.

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