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Will the real Pocahontas please stand up?

The descendants of the prominent Native American shrug their shoulders at the anniversary of her death this week.

NEW YORK // She is among the best known Native Americans in history, but the modern-day descendants of Pocahontas, who four centuries ago married an English colonist and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, show little interest in her.

On March 21, ceremonies in the United States and England will mark 400 years since her death. But there will be no event to honour that date on the Pamunkey Indian Reservation in Virginia where her tribespeople now live.

“For the Pamunkey tribe, it’s not a big deal. She doesn’t mean a whole lot to us. Her contributions to our way of life didn’t really amount to much,” says Robert Gray, chief of the 100-person riverside community.

“We understand the English and Americans think highly of Pocahontas. We appreciate that it brings an interest to our tribe, but we just sit back and figure: if people want to worship a myth, then let them do it.”

The adulation elsewhere is clear. Disney’s 1995 movie about the free-spirited beauty won two Oscars and remains a children’s favourite. The arms of her bronze statue at the colonial site, Historic Jamestowne, have been buffed to a shine by thousands of caressing visitors over the years.

A controversial past

Yet, for the Pamunkey, who trace their origins through Pocahontas and her father, Wahunsenacawh, who led some 15,000 Powhatan tribespeople when English ships landed in 1607, the history of the unconventional young peacemaker is troublesome.

This is not just because Pocahontas symbolises a union between native American tribes and colonisers that ultimately left the natives decimated. It is also because she offers a handy way for many white Americans to gloss over a brutal past and an unhappy present.

The anniversary of her death comes as the Standing Rock Sioux tribe is losing a fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from slicing through its reservation, and US President Donald Trump uses the name “Pocahontas” as a term of abuse.

Raye Zaragoza, a musician descended from Arizona’s Akimel O’odham people, wrote a protest song, In The River, to support demonstrators in North Dakota and alert countrymen who, she says, neglect the struggles of Native Americans.

“They watch the romanticised Disney movie and dress up like Pocahontas on Halloween, but they don’t know the true story behind it or any of the real culture and customs,” Zaragoza says.

“They think that the abuse, colonisation and genocide against Native Americans are in the past. But it wasn’t only 400 years ago; it’s still happening today.”

The fact that scholars, Disney, Trump and the Pamunkey tell different Pocahontas stories is testament to the lack of records about her life. Even her name is elusive – she was also known as Matoaka, Amonute and, later, Rebecca.

Her most often-cited story is probably apocryphal. According to anecdote, Pocahontas, aged about 11, saved the life of a captive, John Smith, by placing her head over his as her father, the chief, raised his war club to execute the English colonist.

Scholars note that Smith only penned his romance-tinged version of events years after they happened. In reality, it may have been a stage-managed ruse aimed at adopting Smith and his fellow colonists as tribute-payers in the Powhatan confederacy.

Undisputed facts

But some facts about Pocahontas are not disputed. Colonists described the youth cart-wheeling outside their fort at Jamestown, living up to her nickname, Pocahontas, the “playful one”. She was involved in relations between colonists and natives that swung from friendly food-trading to open warfare and kidnapping.

She was kidnapped and held for a year, during which time she converted to Christianity. She took the name Rebecca and married John Rolfe, a tobacco grower, in 1614. They had a son and travelled to England to promote the colony to investors at fancy London soirees.

The only known image of Pocahontas shows her decked out in a trendy lace collar, ostrich feathers and other fineries – the poster child of a “civilised savage” who advertised New World opportunities to everyone from plantation owners to Anglican ministers.

It was short-lived, however. On her way back to Virginia, Pocahontas became ill and died in Gravesend, Kent, in 1617. Back home, the Powhatan confederacy rapidly declined in the 1620s under the onslaught of English colonisation.

For Chief Gray, she is a character to whom many narratives can be attached, though her embrace of a foreign faith and culture that displaced her own people renders her peripheral to Pamunkey culture.

“Some people could say she was a victim, a hero, a traitor,” says Gray, who was elected chief in June 2015, one month before the tribe won federal recognition. “But there’s not enough documentation, we just don’t know what she was thinking back then.”

Her legacy among mainstream Americans is very different. Like the fable of Thanksgiving turkeys, the Disney-fied tale of inter-racial ardour and a harmony between two peoples offers a palatable version of early US history, says scholar James Horn.

“It’s a fantasy, and very much a white fantasy about two peoples uniting,” Horn, a British historian and president and chief officer of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, reflects.

“On the other hand, you’ve got the reality of repeated wars throughout not only the 17th century, but the establishment of a pattern of murders and dispossession in early Virginia that continued all the way down to the 19th century.”

By one estimate, the conquest of the Americas wiped out 95 percent of the indigenous population. The guns and swords of Europeans were obvious causes, although smallpox and other bugs that accompanied them probably claimed many more lives.

Legacy of conquest

A legacy of marginalisation lives on in the US today. Some 5.2 million people – 1.7 percent of the US population – identified as Native American or Alaska Native, according to the most recent Census Bureau data from 2010. According to Pew Research Centre, one in four of them lived in poverty in 2012.

On the campaign trail in 2016, President Trump tapped in to resentment among some whites that Native Americans unfairly benefit from tax-free petrol, casino-building rights and other breaks from Washington.

The Republican billionaire repeatedly mocked Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren’s claim of Cherokee ancestry by referring to her as “Pocahontas” while some of his rally crowds erupted in war whoops.

Since the inauguration, the White House web page on Native Americans has been removed and Trump has signed an executive order to clear the way for the $3.8bn Dakota Access Pipeline to proceed.

While stoking fears of Middle Eastern refugees being terrorists, and of undocumented Mexican immigrants being “bad hombres”, scholar Jim Rice says Trump also feeds on antipathy towards Native Americans among his mostly-white fan base.

“There is a widespread and profound ignorance of Native Americans that often goes so far as to think that there are no legitimately native people left, because they drive cars and have cell phones,” Rice, from Tufts University, says.

“Many people feel that Native Americans have had centuries to get over it and should no longer have what are often termed as special privileges, but are in fact constitutional or treaty rights.”

In England, the Pocahontas story is different once again.

The life-size bronze statue of Pocahontas at St George’s church in Gravesend has had its entry on the national heritage list updated and the British Library hosted a “packed day” of screenings and debates on March 18.

For British writer Kieran Knowles, whose play, Gravesend, will be read aloud there on the anniversary, the four-century mark is a rare opportunity to spotlight a run-down town of “just pound stores and charity shops all the way down”, he says.

It is also worth noting that the Pamunkey were not always so aloof about Pocahontas. Chief Gray himself spoke in London about how, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the tribe promoted an already-popular character to ingratiate themselves with mainstream America.

But that has given way to more recent efforts to “reinvigorate the language” and look back before Pocahontas to revive the pottery, shad fishing, hunting and farming skills that “have been lost from 500 years or so ago”, Gray explains.

By downplaying Pocahontas, the Pamunkey are “pushing back on the over-estimation of her importance by non-native people”, says Rice.

For him, Pocahontas is an ideal character for the nexus between historical fact, belief and present-day storytelling. Four centuries after her death, it seems that we have not yet exhausted the Pocahontas story trove.

“If we knew a little less about her, there wouldn’t be enough purchase for us to really talk and think about her so much,” Rice says. “But if we knew any more about her, we couldn’t so readily project our own concerns and preconceptions on to her.”

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera.

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The seven biggest threats to Donald Trump’s presidency

The mass of protesters converging for Trump’s inauguration is not his only headache.

NEW YORK // US President Barack Obama’s inauguration shows featured the likes of Beyonce and Bruce Springsteen. Country singer Toby Keith, who is perhaps the top name at Donald Trump’s welcome bash, does not come with quite the same stardust.

But, sadly for Trump, his kudos among pop stars is not his biggest problem. The president-elect will take the oath of office on January 20 amid widespread scepticism from the public and with ready-made enemies in US spy agencies, the business community and even his own Republican Party.

On the surface, Trump’s feisty use of Twitter and his bullish handling of reporters at a recent press conference make him look the alpha male. But his bravado masks vulnerabilities seldom seen by those about to enter the Oval Office.

Before the billionaire property magnate is sworn in on the steps of the US Capitol on Friday, Al Jazeera spoke to Washington insiders about the headaches Trump is likely to suffer during his first 100 days of rolling out plans to make America great again.

1. Public opinion
Trump lost the popular vote on November 8 by 2.9 million votes, only winning the election via a superior tally in the Electoral College. The latest CBS News poll showed only 32 percent of respondents had a favourable view of him, lower than George W Bush (44 percent) and Obama (60 percent) when they were first sworn in.

According to Pew Research Center, most Americans want Trump to publish his tax returns, worry about him using the Oval Office to line his pockets and think he has explained his policy goals poorly. Others fret about his impulsive behaviour, which was on show again with recent Twitter tirades against the actress Meryl Streep, and John Lewis, a civil rights icon.

Trump’s efforts to reopen factories on US soil are popular in mostly white rust-belt zones, but his appeal in these areas may ebb as he cuts healthcare plans for the poor. “Those who voted for him will soon see that his policies will impact them negatively as well,” Susan Smith, from the Muslim Peace Fellowship, a think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

2. Protesters
Not everyone heading to Washington on Friday will cheer the 45th president’s oath-taking. Officials have struggled to find enough space for protesters to stage some 25 rallies over the weekend. The biggest is the Women’s March on Washington, which will draw some 200,000 people decrying threats to abortion laws, affordable healthcare and equal pay.

Other groups will spotlight everything from ending war to legalising marijuana. Environmentalists are irked by Trump’s claim that climate change is a Chinese hoax. Big rallies will also take place in Los Angeles, Chicago and other major cities in the US and globally.

Veteran protester Paul Kawika Martin, from the anti-war group Peace Action, was sceptical about the impact of rallies, which are not likely to match the scale of those against the Iraq War of 2003. “Big street protests are slowly going the way of dinosaurs,” Martin told Al Jazeera.

Others activists, such as Khury Petersen-Smith, praise recent gains made by the Black Lives Matter race justice movement and the Standing Rock oil pipeline protests.

“We cannot only put our faith in elected officials,” Petersen-Smith told Al Jazeera. “We need to harness grassroots power, keep immigration police out, turn college campuses into sanctuaries and work locally to create pockets of resistance.”

Of course, hundreds of thousands of others will head to the capital to root for the next commander-in-chief, including the motorcycle cavalcade Bikers for Trump and the attendees of the Deploraball shindig.

3. Republicans
Trump’s fans were always the grassroots folk who turned out in droves to his campaign rallies, not well-heeled apparatchiks in Washington. The latter would have preferred Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or another established Republican candidate to lead the party.

That said, members are broadly falling into line behind Trump in pursuit of nixing Obamacare and other bullet points on the right’s agenda. But troubles persist. Rubio and John McCain, an Arizona senator, kicked up a fuss during hearings for Trump’s appointees.

They worry about Kremlin-backed hackers swinging the election and Trump’s admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Others fear Trump’s antipathy to trade deals and his sniping at European and Asian allies. Pundits question whether members will tire of his excesses and pro-Moscow outlook, and point to soon-to-be Vice President Mike Pence as a potential successor.

“Trump gives the far-right most of the policies that it wants, but he’s also deeply problematic,” Jonathan Cristol, a fellow at the World Policy Institute think-tank, told Al Jazeera. “Pence will also deliver what they want, while also being a typical, bland, mid-western, far-right-leaning Republican.”

4. Democrats
The election effectively handed Republicans dominance of the White House, Congress and Supreme Court. Many Democrats are now second-guessing the choice of Hillary Clinton to run against Trump over the affable leftist Bernie Sanders, and wondering whether the party should swing left.

Dozens of Democrat politicians will boycott the inauguration as the Trump backlash begins.

“The Democrats went into post-election shock, but that will wear off as they retreat, strategise, get re-energised and return,” said Martin. “They won the popular vote in November and will look to make significant gains in the House of Representatives in the 2018 mid-term elections.”

5. Liberal mayors
Democrats lost big in the election, but still hold sway in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other US metropolises. These hubs have track records for blocking federal government immigration crackdowns and have earned monikers as “sanctuary cities”.

Trump, meanwhile, has talked of deporting “bad hombres” among the US’ 11 million undocumented migrants, creating Muslim registries and re-introducing the “stop-and-frisk” policing tactic that can single out blacks and Latinos.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio rejected such policies and said he would refuse to let Trump “tear families apart”. Other Democrat mayors agreed, and can limit cooperation with the US Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other deportation agencies.

“If mayors stand up, like so many have, we can block deportation forces from entering our cities, looking for undocumented people, kicking down doors and breaking up families,” Cathy Schneider, an urban politics scholar at American University, told Al Jazeera.

“Our cities must become bastions of protection for our citizens and immigrants.”

Washington can retaliate by freezing funds to defiant mayors, but the outcome would be unpredictable and messy. “It’s hard to say who would win, but the administration must pick its battles carefully,” added Martin.

6. Spymasters
Intelligence chiefs are doubtless bad people to irk.

Trump did just this when he said he was a “smart person” who did not need the daily intelligence digests that his predecessors received. This month, US spooks said Russia tried to sway the election outcome in Trump’s favour by hacking and other means.

Trump rejected their conclusion and slammed them for the bogus reports of mass-casualty weapons that led to the Iraq war. His links to Moscow faced renewed scrutiny after an unsubstantiated report that Russia had compromising evidence against Trump.

“We will see more leaks to the press about the ineptitude of the Trump administration and about Trump’s ties to Russia as time goes by,” said Cristol.

Washington bureaucrats are not likely to confront Trump directly, but have other weapons, said Martin. “They know the system and how to resist what they don’t like. We see this happening in the intelligence community already; and there’s more pushback to come.”

7. Corporations
So far, businesses are dancing to Trump’s beat. General Motors, Wal-Mart and others have announced plans for job-creation or re-locating factories to US soil. This is in line with Trump’s plans to create US jobs and build home-grown manufacturing by taxing imports.

They also fear his wrath: Trump’s criticism that drug firms were over-charging for medicines saw their stock tumble. It works for now, but executives may turn on Trump should his mooted trade war with China go awry, disrupt the global supply chains that enable much US business and ultimately hurt US workers.

“If Trump messes up the world economy, there’ll be lots of rich, powerful corporations with legions of lobbyists to resist him,” said Martin.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera.

On trial: the destruction of history during conflict

Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi to plead guilty to destroying sacred sites in Mali. Will other sledgehammer-wielders take note?

NEW YORK // When the Roman Emperor Jovian ordered the burning of the Library of Antioch in the 4th century AD, there was nobody around to make him answer for what ancient Syrian culture buffs deemed a “barbaric act”, according to records.

Modern history is littered with cases of wartime razing, from the levelling of Dresden to the Taliban’s Buddha demolition at Bamiyan. Politicians have been slow to crack down on ruinous acts, but experts hope that this month the curve will bend in the right direction.

Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi is expected to plead guilty to war crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague after allegedly destroying holy and historic sites in Timbuktu as his al-Qaeda-linked group swept across Mali in 2012.

For heritage lovers, it is a watershed moment. The first ICC prosecution solely for tearing down monuments will deter other wreckers, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, they say.

“The case sets an important precedent by demonstrating, once again, that these attacks on heritage are really attacks on people,” said Tess Davis, a director of The Antiquities Coalition, which seeks to end ISIL-style racketeering.

“We’ve seen it before, from the Nazis to the Khmer Rouge and the Taliban, and we must end impunity for these crimes.”

The ICC has probed the events in Mali since 2012, when Tuareg rebels seized chunks of the country’s northern deserts and desecrated mosques, shrines and monuments in Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

French and Malian troops pushed them back in 2013.

According to prosecutors, al-Mahdi, a former teacher in his 40s, led an anti-vice squad called al-Hesbah, which acted for the Islamic court of Timbuktu, while he was a member of Ansar Dine, a Tuareg rebel group allied with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

He is accused of directing attacks on nine mausoleums and the Sidi Yahia mosque in Timbuktu, a trade hub that became Islam’s “intellectual and spiritual capital” in Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries, according to UNESCO.

In broad daylight, pickaxe-wielding men tore down mud-brick walls in front of television cameras. Mahdi himself spoke on screen, using the alias Abu Tourab, to declare the structures “forbidden” under Islam.

Some 4,000 ancient manuscripts were lost, stolen or torched during the group’s reign. Fatou Bensouda, ICC prosecutor, decried an “irreplaceable” loss of history “felt by the whole of humanity, and at the expense of future generations”.

Al-Mahdi, from Agoune, 100km west of Timbuktu, the so-called “City of 333 Saints”, was later detained by officials in neighbouring Niger and handed over to the court in the Netherlands, where he is in custody.

He is expected to plead guilty at the start of a week-long trial, which can be seen online. It will hear from lawyers, expert and character witnesses and a representative of nine victims before its three judges retire to consider the outcome.

If convicted, al-Mahdi faces jail, a fine and reparation payments to victims. Lawyers contacted by Al Jazeera estimated sentences of between four to 10 years, but said it was hard to predict how the ICC would balance the needs of justice in its first plea bargain.

According to heritage buffs, the case is needed now more than ever.

The Middle East hosts many ancient and valued sites.

“In a matter of days, weeks and months we’ve lost entire chapters of history and sites and objects that had survived for millennia. We’re losing so much from the cradle of civilisation on our watch,” said Davis.

ISIL famously destroyed The Temple of Bel and other sites among the 2,000-year-old ruins of Palmyra, in Syria, and smashed up many statues from the ancient Assyrian era after seizing the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2015.

But less well-known strikes on buildings belonging to Shia Muslims and Yazidis – groups that ISIL views as heretics – are more worrying to Davis, who sees heritage-trashing as a “red flag of an impending genocide”.

According to Lisa Ackerman, an official of the World Monuments Fund charity, heritage destruction in the modern-day Middle East compares to Europe’s intra-Christian violence of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Back then, an “incalculable number of sculptures was destroyed for being the wrong expression of Christianity,” Ackerman told Al Jazeera. In both periods, religious puritanism led to blood and toppled towers, she added.

The ICC’s Bensouda has spoken of prosecuting atrocities in Iraq and Syria but is hamstrung by the court’s limited jurisdiction. Ackerman and Davis both said that global rules on preserving heritage lack teeth.

The ICC builds on national and international laws that mention protecting valued sites in wartime, such as the Lieber Code, signed by then US President Abraham Lincoln after the Civil War, and The Hague Conventions.

Laws accompany practical steps. In World War II, conservators removed statues from plazas and stained-glass windows from churches across Europe to save them from aerial bombing raids, said Ackerman.

Similarly, many relics were shipped from Mosul’s museum to Baghdad before ISIL rolled into town.

Not every effort has worked. In the Balkan wars of the early 1990s, “blue shield” markers on historic sites, used to discourage attacks, were instead used by commanders to target buildings that were valued by an enemy ethnic group.

“They were used for the exact opposite purpose for which they were intended,” said Ackerman.

The ICC treaty outlaws hits on “buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments” and hospitals. But, in a crucial caveat, it permits acts that advance “military objectives”.

This is problematic. In World War II, Allied officials said bombing Dresden and other cities helped shatter German morale, slow the Nazi war machine and end the conflict. The same justifications are available to modern-day generals.

Meanwhile, historic sites are targets for other aims. The thick walls and high ground of Crac des Chevaliers, a fortress in western Syria, were as useful to rebel fighters in 2012 as they were to the Crusader force that built them 800 years earlier.

Syrian army generals knew this too, and bombed the castle’s chapel to dust.

The so-called “military necessity” waiver is among the toughest legal aspects of wartime conservation. Some examples of destruction are clear-cut – neither al-Mahdi’s mosque-trashing nor Nazi Germany’s Kristallnacht served a military purpose.

But other examples are trickier. Did US troops err by toppling Saddam Hussein’s statue at the end of the Iraq War? Was Al-Qaeda’s Pentagon hit on 9/11 a reasonable target, given the group’s military goals?

And, hypothetically, if ISIL chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were holed up in a historic citadel, would US warplanes be correct to bomb the building – killing the leader but destroying a prized landmark in the process?

Experts are divided on such tough questions.

Tim Slade, the director of The Destruction of Memory, a movie on the topic, said he wanted generals to think twice before pulling the trigger, but acknowledged that they are “weighing up various factors” in split-second decisions.

Others take a tougher line. For Nada Hosking, a director at the Global Heritage Fund, a conservation group, there are no exceptions and buildings deserve similar protections to people. “It has to be a law across the board,” Hosking told Al Jazeera.

For Ackerman, the key is keeping better inventories of valued sites and objects, especially in poorer countries, and protecting them when fighting starts. For Davis, the ICC needs to be able to flex its muscles more easily.

According to Harvard Law School scholar Alex Whiting, progress is slow, but gains are palpable.

“When the US invaded Iraq, there was chaos, looting and the destruction of art and culture. No one had prepared for it at all,” Whiting told Al Jazeera.

“This process is about drawing attention to the importance of those things. Hopefully, more care will be paid in the future.”

This article originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Challenging US ‘rocket docket’ child removals

Is fast-track deportation for 60,000 migrant children from Latin America obstructing due process?

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES – Jorge Chapa knows the US government wants him deported back to Ecuador – but the 15-year-old struggles with the finer details about his case.

“I don’t know what happened. My case has not been closed yet,” Chapa told Al Jazeera after his immigration hearing in lower Manhattan last week.

He is among tens-of-thousands of Latin American migrants who are being deported in a fast-track process that was introduced this year to tackle a surge in unaccompanied children reaching the United States.

“I didn’t want to live without my parents,” said Chapa. He was caught at the US border 18-months ago in an effort to join his family. “My dream, since I was a little child, was to meet my father. We spoke on the phone. I saw photographs. But I never met him.”

Ecuador is relatively safe, but some 60,000 unaccompanied children have been caught at the US frontier this year who hail from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – countries that are riven by drug-gang violence.

The murder rate in Honduras in 2012 was higher than the rate of Iraqi civilian deaths at the peak of the insurgency in 2007, according to the Center for American Progress, a think-tank.

‘Real danger’

Rights campaigners worry that children such as Chapa face a fast-track process that doesn’t afford enough time to build a strong case.

“They may be unfamiliar with America’s legal system, its notoriously complex immigration rules,” Beth Werlin, a lawyer at the American Immigration Council, told Al Jazeera. “The burden is on applicants to show that they qualify for asylum.

“This cannot be done in a short time and children could be deported and face real danger back home.”

Children who are caught trying to cross the US border are apprehended and sent to state-run shelters before being put in the care of relatives or community groups as they await deportation hearings.

New York state is home to the largest number of child migrants after Texas. Fast-tracked hearings – also known as “rocket dockets” – are taking place across the US in response to the influx of illegal arrivals.

At a recent hearing in Manhattan’s Immigration Court, teenage girls were neatly dressed. Boys had the wet-look hairdos of Latino football stars. They sat on pews as Judge Frank James Loprest went through the 29 cases.

Many had no lawyer. One teen brought his school report card for the judge, hoping good grades would lead to US residency.

“If we get an attorney, should we bring them with us to the next hearing?” an anxious family member asked the judge through a translator.

Cartel fears

Others had lawyers and are fighting deportation. Case notes detail murderous drug cartels that would make a normal childhood back home impossible.

“Gang members go from home to home in Central America to recruit these children,” said Gabriel Salguero, the pastor of a New York church who runs shelters for young migrants. “They demand that the children work for them and join the gang. If the child doesn’t join, there are consequences.”

US President Barack Obama introduced fast-track deportation hearings and other measures in the face of a surge in young Central American migrants.

A survey last month by the Pew Research Center found 53 percent of Americans support accelerated deportations – even if some children who are eligible for asylum are sent home.

Protesters have rallied outside crowded Texan detention centres with banners saying: “No illegals.”

Some children migrate for better schools, jobs and to join US-based relatives. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, says about 60 percent need protection. An ever-greater proportion of girls and under-12s show up at the border, suggesting that cartel violence is getting worse.

‘Enforcing the law is critical’

David Inserra, from The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think-tank, said poor enforcement of existing immigration laws encourages more Central Americans to risk the journey northward.

Perils include the hired “coyote” people smugglers and dangers on “La Bestia” – or “The Beast” – a network of Mexican cargo trains.

“Enforcing the law is critical to dealing with both the current influx of children and preventing even larger influxes of illegal immigration in the future,” Inserra told Al Jazeera.

“Rather than letting non-enforcement be the solution to this problem, the US should better enforce its laws and also work with the governments of Central America to combat crime and violence in order to create more stable societies.”

The number of unaccompanied children caught along the southwest US border almost halved in July from a month earlier to 5,508, or about 177 a day, the US Department of Homeland Security said.

UNHCR’s Leslie Velez said this may be because migrant flows decrease in hot summer months. Stepped up efforts by US and Mexican anti-immigrant patrols may have also caused the decline, she added.

“I follow this every single day and I’m not quite sure,” Velez told Al Jazeera. “We see planes going back to Central America with deportees. Some children and young families have communicated that they do fear for their safety, and did not feel they had an opportunity to tell their story.

“There are conflicting reports and the dust hasn’t settled on this.”

‘Heart-wrenching debate’

Earlier this month, Vice President Joe Biden said young migrants were the “single most significant, heart-wrenching and divisive thing that’s happening in terms of the immigration debate right now”.

Obama has lamented that the US has a “broken system” of immigration, and that Congress is deadlocked on the issue.

Congress rejected Obama’s request of $3.7bn for more judges, drones and border security. A sweeping bill that would have created paths to citizenship for some 11 million illegal immigrants to the US is not expected to become law.

Critics say immigration has become a political football between Republicans and Democrats, without either side getting close to a solution.

“It’s a logistical challenge, but the US could accommodate 60,000 kids,” said Sarnata Reynolds, who conducts research on the US-Mexico border for Refugees International. “Lebanon, a tiny country, has 1.5 million Syrian refugees and much less capacity to deal with them.

“US foreign policy involves telling countries in the Middle East and Africa to open their doors for influxes of people. The great irony is that the US is shutting its own doors.”

Back in New York, Chapa awaits his next court date in October. Until then, school and a dishwashing job at a Portuguese restaurant will keep him busy.

He talks about the $13,000 his parents paid a human trafficker; how he almost drowned in a river at the US border; being caught by frontier guards; the detention centre; meeting his father for the first time at JFK Airport; and his quest for US residency.

“If I don’t get it, that’s gonna be so sad for me. It’s gonna destroy my dream,” he said.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera.

Picking up the pieces in riot-struck Ferguson

Residents count the cost of violence after black American teenager shot dead by white Missouri police officer.

FERGUSON, UNITED STATES // Webster Morris clears up broken glass from the night-time looting of his clothes store in central Ferguson – the epicentre of protests over the police killing of an unarmed black teenager that has turned increasingly violent.

The shattered windows of Fashions R are covered with plywood that is daubed with dripping red crosses and the words “Oh blood”, lyrics from a religious song. Glaziers are out of stock and new panes would get smashed anyway in ongoing protests, he said.

“We’re Christian but the people who are looting, they don’t care nothing about the Church,” Morris told Al Jazeera. “They wouldn’t care if we put Jesus himself up there. This ain’t about them. It’s about letting the community know we’re gonna stay.”

Like many in this downtrodden suburb of St Louis, Morris has conflicting views on the protests that followed the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, who was walking with a friend down a residential street on the afternoon of August 9.

Deploying the Missouri National Guard was a smart move, Morris said, if troops stop looters while letting peaceful protesters air grievances. But the killing of 18-year-old Brown fits a local narrative that white cops are “untouchable” in a mostly black neighbourhood, he added.

“If one of us had shot a police officer, we would be in jail and prosecuted,” said Sylvia Ekford, an assistant in Morris’ store.

‘One law for them, one law for us’

This perception of perverted justice echoes across Ferguson, after 11 days of increasingly violent protests that have resisted rubber bullets and tear gas and raised fresh questions about US race relations nearly six years after Americans elected their first black president.

The officer responsible, Darren Wilson, is not in jail but suspended with pay as the shooting is investigated. Some suggest Wilson may have acted in self-defence. Witnesses say Brown was shot while holding his arms up to surrender.

“The police have one law for them and one law for us,” said Sherman Hawkins, a cleaner, while sipping a beer in his parked car on West Florissant Avenue, a street of mostly fast-food joints, pawn shops and charity thrift stores.

“It’s meant to be the same for everybody. If it had been a black guy who shot somebody on the street, they would have been locked up straight away. So why’s he not in jail? That don’t make any sense.”

US President Barack Obama speaks of a “gulf of mistrust” between police and residents in places such as Ferguson. “In too many communities, too many young men of colour are left behind and seen only as objects of fear,” he said on Monday.

Ferguson, a suburb of some 21,000 people, has a long history of race tensions. Black residents, about 65 percent of town’s population, complain about bad schools, worse job prospects, and harassment from a police force that is 94 percent white.

‘Sundown towns’

Ekford said she sits in the store with doors open, watching the daily soap opera of police shakedowns.

“Let’s see how many times they stop people today. We take a tally and it’s always kids who can’t afford it, getting five or six tickets at a time, knowing that they can’t afford to pay it – $500 when they got jobs paying $8 or less an hour,” she told Al Jazeera.

“The police need the revenue, that’s why they’re writing up all these tickets.”

Jim Loewen, a former sociologist at the University of Vermont, said Ferguson’s race tensions are rooted in a history of so-called “sundown towns”. Police forced blacks to exit white-only suburbs before sunset during the segregation era.

Ferguson was 85 percent white in 1980, but a white-flight in recent decades swung the demographics to 67 percent black by 2012. White families left for whiter neighbourhoods in fear of crashing property prices as their community was ghettoised, he said.

“It’s a second-generation problem: an overwhelmingly white police force with sundown town attitudes. They racially profile. They think they can completely disregard people’s rights because they think they’re doing it in the service of their town,” Loewen told Al Jazeera.

Race is a factor. Black and white Americans view Ferguson’s protests differently. A Pew Research Center survey found that blacks are about twice as likely as whites to say that Brown’s shooting “raises important issues about race”. Whites are more likely to say it has been overblown.

Elizabeth Kneebone, a poverty analyst at Brookings Institute, said it is about money. As Ferguson got blacker, it also got poorer. Unemployment rose from five percent in 2000 to more than 13 percent in 2012. In the same period, those with jobs have seen pay cheques shrink by one-third.

Ferguson’s tensions were ignited by a killing, but the conditions are seen elsewhere across the US, Kneebone added. The number of suburban neighbourhoods in which more than a fifth of residents live in poverty more than doubled from 2000-12.

“There have been rapid changes in the demography of poverty this past decade,” she told Al Jazeera. “There are more people in poverty in the suburbs now than in cities, which are ill-equipped for growing poor populations and lack a leadership structure that reflects the community’s make-up.”

Military solution?

For Michael McPhearson, director of the anti-war group Veterans For Peace, the take-home message from Ferguson is how protest crowd-control increasingly resembles the military hardware he witnessed in use by US forces overseas.

He pointed to camouflage kits and military-grade body armour, short-barrelled assault rifles and armoured trucks – perhaps even a mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle, which protects troops from roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I fought in Iraq and didn’t have that much gear, even though I was facing real soldiers carrying loaded AK-47s,” he told Al Jazeera. “All this equipment creates a mentality and raises the stakes on a situation to make it much more likely that people will get killed.”

Back at the bashed-up clothing store, Morris checks that his new window panels can withstand another night’s rioting. Angry crowds down the street are growing. There are rumours of Molotov cocktails, guns and trouble-makers in from New York and California.

“I don’t care how many police you bring in, the only way you can stop someone who’s angry and hurt is to shoot them,” he said.

“We’ve been pulled over so many times. We’ve been arrested so many times. There are so many people who have no fear. Some of these young people don’t care about life anymore.”

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera.