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[00:00:00]

From why in Philadelphia, this is Fresh Air Weekend, I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Today we talk to Miami Herald columnist and author Carl Hiaasen. His new novel is a hilarious mystery set in Palm Beach featuring wealthy widows, the president and first lady in some gigantic Burmese pythons. It's called Squeeze Me. We'll talk about Hyacinthe satirical takes on Florida life and about the toll the covid-19 pandemic is taking after the state open bars and beaches earlier than most places.

[00:00:32]

Also, we get an inside look at the Trump administration's crackdown on immigration with documentary filmmaker Schobel Schwartz and Christina Clezio. They got extraordinary access to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officers arresting and questioning undocumented immigrants. The series Immigration Nation is now available for streaming on Netflix. And Justin Chang reviews the new film about the inventor Nikola Tesla, starring Ethan Hawke.

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Support for this podcast and the following message come from the Glenn Levitt's new Caribbean Reserve expression, a new single malt with a bold tropical twist that is selectively finished and barrels that previously held Caribbean rum offering a sweet and smooth taste. Learn more at the Glenlivet Dotcom, the Glenlivet Caribbean Reserve, single malt Scotch whisky. Enjoy our quality responsibly. 40 percent alcohol by volume 80 proof 20-20 imported by the Glenlivet Distilling Company, New York, New York.

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If you want to know what's going on in Florida, the land of hanging chads, exotic wildlife and baseball's biggest covid-19 outbreak. A good place to start is with Carl Hiaasen, a Florida native, a longtime columnist for the Miami Herald and the author of 15 novels. His latest is a hilarious crime story set in Palm Beach involving wealthy widows, the president and first lady, a scrappy wildlife relocation specialist, and some very large Burmese pythons, which probably have something to do with the title of the book, Squeeze Me.

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We last spoke to Carl Hiaasen about his novel Bad Monkey, involving a showbusiness primate whose career was on the skids. We decided with Florida facing a viral pandemic and another potentially contested presidential election, it was time to talk again. Carl Hiaasen joins me via an Internet connection from his office in Vero Beach, Florida. Carl Hiaasen, welcome back to Fresh Air.

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I'm glad to be here.

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This story is set in Palm Beach, Florida, which a lot of people kind of it's a name they hear.

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Maybe they confuse it with, you know, Palm Springs. Describe Palm Beach and this place. Why it's a good setting for the story.

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Well, it's a it's an island. It's a barrier island right off of the city of West Palm Beach. And it's very exclusive. And it's lore goes back to the to the Kennedy compound and beyond. You know, when when JFK was president and Joe Kennedy had a place there. And then way beyond that and generations of wealth have have have fled to Palm Beach in the wintertime from the northeast. It's a sort of a traditional enclave for old money mainly.

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And it's it's very beautiful and it's very silly at the same time, which is, you know, what attracts, you know, the I am a novelist. I mean, it is it is a gorgeous place. But the the social scene is it's challenging.

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If you're writing satire, you know, this story begins with the disappearance of a woman, a wealthy widow who's a bit of a swinger. And she's last seen at a high end charity fundraiser on the grounds of a place called the Lippard House. The fundraiser is where to raise money for was it irritable bowel syndrome?

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Yes, it's obscene. It was called the you know, the white ibis ball is synonymous sort of with the with the disease or disorder. I'm sorry, I forgot to call it. Anyway, they have charity functions, you know, on a nightly basis in Palm Beach. So I had to sort of come up with some ideas for maybe some causes that had not been and had not been, you know, fully publicized. So I but it's hard to make up something wilder than what I mean, it's literally a nightly thing during the season, these big events, and they raise lots of money for good causes, but all kinds of stuff goes on there and, you know, local island scandal and romance and intrigue.

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So it seemed like a good way to start the book.

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All sorts of stuff goes on at these high end fundraisers. Well, yeah, you know, it's just the society world. I mean, you have you know, this is the this is this is this like the Hamptons with the extra sunblock, really. And and there are more plastic surgeons per square mile in the Palm Beach, I suppose, in the Hamptons. But other than that, you know, it's it's a scene. So as a writer, you're attracted.

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I don't get invited. Don't get me wrong. They're not they're not crazy enough. Invite me to a lot of these events, but the ones I've attended have been colorful and inspirational enough that I sort of filed what I was watching away and thought this would be a fun way to open a book.

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It turns out that the wealthy widow who's disappeared at this high end fundraiser met an end, which involves a snake, a huge Burmese python.

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And in a way, pythons are kind of a kind of a central character in this story.

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And that comes from something that's really going on in Florida. Tell us about pythons and their effect on the state.

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Well, we've had all you have to do is Google Florida and pythons and you'll get one. Yesterday, a story ran. This is true. A story about a woman down in South Florida opened her washing machine and there was a big ass python curled up in her washing machine and they proliferated. They started out in the pet trade. And people they get this particular species gets huge and they let them they just let him go. And Hurricane Andrew scattered a bunch of sort of the reptile farms on the edge of the Everglades.

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And they were destroyed during Hurricane Andrew and all the babies got loose. And ever since then, the Everglades and points onward have been these these snakes have taken over. And it's actually quite a serious story. They've devastated a huge part of the food chain in the Everglades, eat everything, including deers and alligators. And any snake that can eat an adult alligator is worth paying attention to. So those are real. Everything in the book about the Pythons is absolutely true.

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And they are moving northward as the climate gets warmer. They're moving northward out of the Everglades. And so, in my view, it's only a matter of time before they show up in Palm Beach. And I sort of wrote this book for four people who couldn't be there when it happens.

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We don't know them actually eating a society matron, do we? Not yet know.

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But they did find one that had a seventy four pound white tailed deer in it. And so my thought was that's that's not a big jump up to, you know, a an heiress, a petite heiress and man being somewhat elderly, not particularly quick a foot. You know, if I have been a part of a group that held a python that was 16 feet, and I'll tell you, it's formidable.

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And in this case, the society matron, Kiki Poo Fitzsimmons, disappears and I don't think is giving away too much. This all happens pretty early in the book to say that this huge python is discovered by the gardening staff, which noticed this massive bulge in the middle, concluding, oh, my heavens, that's keep you in the middle.

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I know it sounds it actually sounds sick when you describe it like that.

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I thought it would know it is a little funnier, but but the point is nature, you know, I mean, in all the novels I've written, nature is always sort of its own character. And I always root for you always just growing up in Florida, I always end up rooting for Mother Nature. And the pythons are not part of that. And and they really are kind of unstoppable. And so I just thought, well, what if this happens?

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And what if it happens that one of these events, especially when you have the kind of security levels that you have with when when the president is in town and all that stuff. So they just open a lot of sort of the subplot possibilities as well. And, you know, one at one point, the novel that the first lady is in her in a motorcade going down the street in West Palm Beach, and they have to all break to a stop, which they never try to do in those motorcades because there's a big a big dead python in the road.

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And that has actually happened. And I mean, this is how prolific these things are, but those are scenes that you sort of pick up and figure out a way to use.

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You know, maintaining appearances is important in Palm Beach. And the groundskeeper of this place that hosted the event, the Lippitt House, the last thing that they need is to have the world learn that a guest somehow ended up being digested by a python.

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They're bad for business.

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You know, this must be avoided at all costs. So they summon a wildlife relocation specialist who kind of becomes a central character in this book. Angie Armstrong, tell us just a little about her.

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Well, I like I like her tremendously. When I started writing, squeezed me the character of the Wrangler. And we have these businesses in South Florida because there's so much interaction with wildlife still that you call up somebody that you got a raccoon in your porch, you got a snake, you got, you know, a bobcat in your backyard. Whatever it is, they come and they're trained to humanely capture and remove these animals. But most of the businesses are run by guys, you know, the guys with gaily decorated pickup trucks that you can call critter removal experts.

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But I so that was the character when I started. But then I thought, God, it'd be so much more fun and interesting if it was a woman. And I and so then I went back and started over with with an. And I liked her tremendously, she's not very big and she you know, she's not what you would imagine is someone that could remove it, you know, a 10 foot alligator from your swimming pool. But she can.

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And so I just the more she was around, I liked her as I was writing the novel. And and she has a past and a history. And she she started out as a you know, as a veterinarian and worked with her dad and then went to become a state wildlife officer and got in some trouble with when she punished a poacher, that she caught and punished him in somewhat of an unusual way. And so she ended up in this job just driving this pickup truck, answering calls.

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And so she gets a call that there's a python, you know, it's another python call. So she drives out to Palm Beach and finds out it isn't really just another python call.

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She has a real sense of right and wrong. Did you spend time with people that do this business to prepare for this part?

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No, I have a friend. I have a friend who who wrangles animals. He's not an animal removal expert, but he does it for movies and stuff, you know, and for documentaries. But I see the guys around and growing up down here, I've done some of it, not not as a profession, but just out of necessity. You know, there was a you know, there was a possum under the barbecue, you know, a couple of months ago.

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So I just grabbed them. I mean I mean, just you're just that's when you're a kid and you grew up in a place like Florida, you learn how to do that stuff. But now there's a whole little industry because so many people have moved here from up north. You don't get a lot of people that naturally know how to pick up a possum. You know, I mean, most people just pick up the phone, right?

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How do you grab a possum by by the tail?

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That's what I figured. And they're and they're, by definition, laying staircase just just in case. By the time. But just in case by the tail. But, you know, I mean, I was a kid. I had pet raccoons. I had I mean, it just wasn't you know, it was sort of on the edge of the Everglades where we lived. And it wasn't there weren't you know, there weren't skate parks and shopping malls and stuff.

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You just got on your bike and you went out into the woods. And so it is a different kind of childhood. And I think that it has a part in all the books. I write even the kids' books, because I wouldn't have traded it for anything. But it certainly gives you a range of experiences and a lot of a lot of normal kids probably don't have.

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Carl Hiaasen latest book is Squeeze Me. We'll hear more of our conversation after a break. And film critic Justin Chang will review the new film Tesla about the visionary electrical engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla. I'm Dave Davies and this is Fresh Air Weekend.

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Hey, I'm Sam Sanders, host of It's Been a Minute on my show. We catch you up on all the things in news and culture, this space force. I totally missed this. What is the space for a stop in space? I don't know about space for you know what? I've been in my apartment for four months of crushing it to take you on good news without the despair.

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Listen now to the it's been a minute podcast from NPR. We're speaking with Carl Hiaasen, a native of Florida who's written about the state's politics, culture, wildlife and development for decades. He's a columnist for the Miami Herald and the author of 15 novels. His latest is Squeeze Me. You know, Florida has long been fascinating and weird and a politically divided state. And this is a broad question, but how has nearly four years of the Trump presidency affected the state?

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Well, I mean, it's hard to say if it's affected it worse than the rest of the country. But because he spends so much time here, I think his presence is is felt. And, you know, our governor you know, Rhonda Sanaz is is a big Trump guy. And, you know, he's he's like a little mini trump and in an extremely loyal and and so a lot of what's been happening in the last few months with the pandemic has been guided by him listening more to Trump than listening to actual people with medical degrees and in the whole country seen the product of that.

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I was going to ask about that. The pandemic has blazed a unique trail through Florida in some respects. And your governor, Rhonda Santos, who was a congressman until 2018, he was very active supporter of President Trump in Congress and then won a very close governor's race in 2018.

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For people who don't follow this closely, just give us a thumbnail of how he has handled the pandemic and its effects. Well, I mean, he's he's you know, he's smart, dude, he went to he went to Harvard and Yale and he he he's good, you know, he likes the numbers. So the numbers would be coming out early on in the pandemic, no matter how bad they were. He was able to say, look at this trend is going this way, this trend, and just be patient.

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We've got it. And then in back in May, he basically did a victory lap and said, look at we flattened out. We beat this thing. All you guys in the media said it was. And it just went on a rant about the media creating all this this hysteria about covid.

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And then and then, of course, it went through the roof. There was he went up to the White House, did a little dog and pony show. He brought some bought some poster boards for the president and had a photo op and talked about how Florida conquered it all. And in Florida, we just exploded with the stuff because he opened up we opened up too fast with the state, opened up too fast.

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And it was Barres Beaches, even Disney World. Right. Bars, beaches.

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Yeah, it was it was a cluster. And the result was that no sooner had that happened, that within weeks they were shutting down bars and they were become more restrictive on some of the beaches. And they're still places where this was going on. And now they're now they've had to go back and shut down the bars and they're even yanking liquor licenses of some of these places. But to hear him tell it, it's just been a natural trajectory of the of the disease, you know, which is baloney.

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It could have been prevented. In the meantime, we're now over at work.

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We're going to coming up on 9000 deaths in the state of Florida, 9000 deaths. And those are seldom mentioned when when Ronnie gets up to give his pep talk once a day. The deaths are seldom discussed in.

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And, you know, we seem to have sort of written off the elderly. There's a sense of, oh, well, they were going to die anyway. But that's not true. Some of the folks that this is ravaging, the nursing homes and the care facilities, they weren't sick. They were just their only crime was being old. And for every one of those eight thousand plus who have died, there's there's families that have been devastated. And because of this and so there will be I mean, there is being a political cost to this sort of this rosy glass half full attitude.

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Now we're opening the schools and and guess what's going to happen? I mean, guess what's going to happen with the covid testing in the public schools? It's just, you know, and it's it's sad because there will be the cost of this is not just in teachers leaving because they're scared and kids who desperately need to get back to school not being able to the the cost is there's an actual cost in human lives that isn't funny. And it is and it isn't anything but callous and cold blooded to say this is going to be the cost of keeping a few tiki bars open.

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Yeah, we'll just we'll just take the hit, will bury a few people and keep the tiki bars open.

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You know, you mentioned that he is in some ways a lot like President Trump. It is very close to President Trump. And I read that in the early weeks of the pandemic that he tended to rely on a very narrow group of people.

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I mean, I guess his wife and his chief of staff still does. So I'm just going to ask if that had changed since obviously know things have gotten more serious.

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We have a we have a we have a surgeon general in the state nobody's heard from. We've got no, it's it's been strictly political. In fact, they they they said when they ordered all schools to reopen the individual counties, could it not? School districts could make the decision to keep classrooms closed if their county if their area of the state was having a spike, all they needed to do is get the health department, their local health department to approve it.

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And then the sentence went to the health departments that said don't approve it. So what he said publicly and then what was done was to basically muzzle the health departments in every place is different. Every part of Florida is a little different. There are counties in Florida where it might be safe to physically reopen schools. And of course, in South Florida, they're delaying they're doing online, but they still have to open some of the buildings. And everybody wants the kids to go back to school.

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Everybody wants the schools to reopen. But you don't want your kid to get sick or to bring a disease home that that that kills one of his siblings or his grandfather or his grandmother or an aunt or their parents. I mean, that's just common sense you don't want. But at this point, the local health departments can't give advice to the local school districts about whether it's safe or not. The governor's people won't let them. So that's where we are.

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And there's not a medical voice to be heard on this anywhere in Florida at the sadness. It's just a bunch of political hacks around it.

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It's been 20 years since the Bush Gore presidential election came down to the Florida recount. But the state has. Kind of remained a place of closely contested elections. I mean, the last two presidential races, the last three governor's races were margins of about one percent. What should we expect in November?

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Oh, everything's going to go smoothly and wonderfully here. What do you think you'd expect? Here's what we do every every four years in Florida. Collectively as Floridians, we all pray that it doesn't come down to Florida. We this year, our bed, we're betting on Georgia. Georgia looks like it's going to screw this up even worse than Florida did. And we're looking for another scapegoat. We do not want to be the butt of Colbert's jokes every night, but the odds are of it going smoothly here.

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A very, very slim, which was interesting because the president who says, you know, mail voting is fraudulent, but no evidence whatsoever that that's true. Suddenly somebody sat him down and said, you not going to win Florida without the mail in vote because your demographic wants to mail it in. So then he comes out, said, well, OK, it's safe in Florida's the one state that's done it. Right. And we all fell out of our chairs laughing.

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Florida is is the one it's perfectly safe in Florida because he realizes that he's going to lose if there's without the mail and vote in Florida. Somebody finally did the math for him. And so apparently all the other 49 states mailing voting is bad, but Florida is great. So, you know, it's can't it can't possibly go, you know, because first of all, a pandemic, people are scared to go to the polls. This is going to be true everywhere.

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So they're just even finding poll workers to go is going to be difficult because people are afraid of getting covid-19 they can't possibly go well here. And our only hope is that it goes worse somewhere else. So we don't have all the attention on the day after the election.

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Well, that's not exactly encouraging. Apart from the pandemic and politics. What else are you paying attention to in your column in the Herald now?

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Well, there's I wish there were more to pay attention to than that. It's just it's because of these resurgence of the virus. You know, there was a time when you could go back. I mean, I used to write a fair amount about the environment and about environmental issues, but that hasn't been the focus of legislation and hasn't been the truth with the general public, has been more focused on their own safety, as they should be in the safety of their children.

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So you're right about education. You're right about the sort of coping with the pandemic. And then politics is all meshed into that. But other than that, there's there's not a lot you can you can write about. There's some sometimes there'll be some, you know, some of the travel restrictions. There's some. But it's all tied into those things because those are the that's the headlines right now. You've got this election.

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My heavens, you have to leave the developers alone. Yeah. I mean, it's killing me. But here, the other side of the coin is a lot of that stuff is slowed down, too, because of because of the economy. You know, one of the things in Florida that we've written about and the Harold's done some great stuff on is the unemployment, the back up and unemployment payments because of this incompetent administrators of this website. Where you signing up?

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I mean, there's just thousands and thousands, thousands of Floridians who who had their unemployment checks delayed, including the ones from the federal government, because it comes through the state they were delayed on. They still somehow still haven't gotten them yet. Months after this started, people that lost their jobs because the system, the website kept crashing, wouldn't let them on the stories. I mean, it's unbelievable how many people couldn't pay their grocery bill or the other rent for sure.

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Anything because they couldn't get their first unemployment check. That's been a huge scandal here. And the Sanchez has complained and complained about the company that got the contract to do that years ago, got the contract to run the unemployment program here. And yet the same company was just awarded one hundred and thirty five million dollar contract for another job in his administration.

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So to maintain Medicaid data, right? Yeah. Yeah. So I mean that to that stuff. That stuff is out there. I think there's going to be huge stories and lots of columns to write about. How much of this the the aid money, the you know, the the money that was given out to fight the pandemic was just stolen. We had that classic Florida story of the guy that, you know, got a bunch of money from the government claiming all these unemployed people claiming this coming in.

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And he went out and bought a Lamborghini first thing he did. And it turns out he didn't have as many employees as he told. And yet he got the check and he went out and bought a purple Lamborghini or so. That's a classic Florida story. Of course, he probably moved here just to do that.

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Well, Carl Hiaasen, I wish you comfort and good things for your state. Thanks so much for speaking with us again.

[00:24:36]

No, Dave, it was great talking to you and. And I appreciate you taking so much time, Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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His latest novel is Squeeze Me the Name.

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Tesler is most commonly associated today with a popular electric car brand co-founded by Elon Musk. But the new biographical drama Tesla introduces us to the man behind the name, the visionary electrical engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla, who's played in the film by Ethan Hawke. The film, written and directed by Michael Almereyda, is now streaming on video on demand platforms. Our critic Justin Chang has this review.

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The writer and director Michael Almereyda is making some of the most thoughtful and inventive biographical dramas of any filmmaker working today. He's fascinated by the lives of scientists and intellectuals. But rather than merely rattling off their accomplishments, he uses the medium of cinema itself to explore how their minds actually worked. A few years ago, he directed Experimenter, a portrait of the controversial researcher Stanley Milgram that played its own sly psychological games with the audience. His new film, Tesla, is a quieter Moutier affair than experimenter, but it has the same invigorating playfulness.

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It unfolds as a series of funny, sad vignettes from the life of Nikola Tesla, the Serbian American inventor who has often been relegated to a historical footnote as the younger, hipper rival to Thomas Edison. But Tesla, played here by a superb Ethan Hawke, looms ever larger these days in the public imagination. He's been a character in novels, video games and quite a few movies like The Current War and The Prestige, in which he was played by none other than David Bowie.

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Tesla doesn't follow the usual cradle to the grave biopic trajectory. There are oddball comic asides, like the scene where Tesla and Edison attack each other with ice cream cones. Needless to say, the movie tells us that didn't really happen. Sometimes the narrator interrupts the action to run Google searches on the characters, a nifty little fact checking device that also underscores the story's relevance. It connects Tesla, a pioneer in the field of wireless communications, directly to the Internet technology we use today.

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Aside from the occasional leaps forward and backward, the movie is told in mostly chronological order. It begins in the 80s, not long after Tesla, who was born in what is now Croatia, has emigrated to New York City. There he gets a job working for Edison, played with snappish, wit and a rich vein of melancholy by Kyle McLauchlan. Tesla is developing a new project, a motor that uses alternating current, a more efficient system of harnessing electrical power than Edison's direct current method.

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Edison feels threatened and refuses to support Tesla's work, as the younger man bitterly notes in a letter to a friend.

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Dear Sogeti. I'm finding my way and Edisons machine works. Well, there's always too much to do. Not enough time, never enough money in constant fixes, upgrades, emergencies, etc. only sleeps and expects everyone around him to sleep even less. He talks to everyone, but is incapable of listening. He has no interest in my voter. You know, the Profarmer. Nothing grows in the shadow of an oak, Edison is just one of many powerful older men with whom Tesla will cross paths over the course of his tumultuous career, Jim Gaffigan gives an enjoyably big hearted performance as the engineer and entrepreneur George Westinghouse, who funds the Tesla motor and makes it a force to be reckoned with.

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Later, Tesla finds a chillier patron in the banker J.P. Morgan, who gives them the modern day equivalent of four million dollars to build a wireless communication system, only to bulk when the project leads Tesla into ever more bizarre realms of study. At one point, Tesla comes to believe he might be receiving secret transmissions from Mars. Hawk, who starred in America's offbeat Shakespeare adaptations Hamlet and Cymbeline, gives a beautifully internalized performance as Tesla. He nails the essence of a deep thinker who likes the solitude and who's more comfortable at home with his notebooks than he is out and about in society.

[00:29:26]

The movie does hand a prominent role to an Morgan JP Morgan's daughter, memorably played by Eve Hewson. She becomes a close friend of Tesla's as well as a kind of stand-in for the audience through her tender, yet sharply perceptive gaze. We come to appreciate this man's genius, but we also register the pride and shortsightedness that will again and again prove to be his undoing. Tesla has been a long time in the making.

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Almereyda wrote the script decades earlier, but it languished for years until the financing at last came together.

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Watching the finished movie, I couldn't help but feel that Almereyda empathizes instinctively with Tesla, not because the director sees himself as some sort of fellow visionary, but because he knows that in science as well as in filmmaking, bold thinkers often run afoul of naysaying benefactors. Tesla is a deeply unconventional movie, but never in a self-congratulatory way. The gifted cinematographer Sean Price Williams gives the interiors a rich Amberg low cast initially by candles and later by electric bulbs. A world that might have seen stiff and static is instead wildly in flux.

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The movie is a hypnotic experience. You might be thrown by some of the weirder touches, like the wildly anachronistic scene in which Tesla stands in front of a microphone and sings a 1985 British pop hit.

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But I loved its crazy daring. It reminds us what a modern creature Tesla was, a figure from the past who never stopped pointing the way to the future.

[00:31:04]

Justin Chang is a film critic for the L.A. Times. He reviewed Tesla. Coming up, we'll talk with documentary filmmakers Joel Schwartz and Christina Clojure. Their new six part series, Immigration Nation, is now streaming on Netflix. This is Fresh Air Weekend.

[00:31:20]

How do we reinvent ourselves? And what's the secret to living longer? I'm a new shahmoradi. Each week on NPR's TED Radio Hour, we go on a journey with TED speakers to seek a deeper understanding of the world and to figure out new ways to think and create. Listen now.

[00:31:40]

Support for NPR comes from w h y y presenting The Pulse, a podcast that takes you on adventures into unexpected corners of health and science, plastic and the guts of deep sea creatures crying after anesthesia, building your own Internet. Each episode is full of fascinating stories and big ideas. The pulse available where you get your podcasts or at w.h. Why? Why, dog? This is Fresh Air Weekend. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're not going to yell out in the hallway through a closed door, man, is how we do business.

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Please open the door so we can talk to you.

[00:32:23]

That's the sound of an immigration raid getting underway in the new six part documentary series Immigration Nation, now streaming on Netflix. Our guests today are the series co directors and co-exist with producers Christina Eulogio and Shaul Schwarz. They spent three years filming immigration enforcement actions and their effects after President Trump took office and they had remarkable access to agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. As you'll hear, the filmmakers relationship with ICE deteriorated sharply after the agency saw rough drafts of the planned episodes.

[00:32:58]

The series follows ICE agents, their supervisors and spokesmen, activists, immigrants and their families, and even a smuggler who guides migrants across the U.S. border for hefty fees. The stories are compelling, and they raise questions about the impact of the Trump administration's crackdown on immigration. Shaul Schwarz and Christina Claudio have collaborated on several previous documentaries, including the Emmy Award winning films A Year in Space and Trophy. Schwarcz spent time around the U.S. Mexican border for his 2013 film Narco Cultura, which premiered at the Sundance Festival in 2013.

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Schwartz and Claudio join me via Skype from Brooklyn.

[00:33:37]

Well, welcome to Fresh Air, both of you, and congratulations on the documentary.

[00:33:42]

So let's begin with the immigration arrests that we just heard. A bit of that opens the series. You want to just explain what's happening here a bit and then we'll listen and talk a bit more about how they get in.

[00:33:55]

Well, we are in New York City with fugitive operations. That's part of ice that basically gets what they refer to as targets. And the alien, I'm using their terminology, an alien that's committed a crime and they are looking to basically make an arrest to that individual.

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In doing so, ICE usually does some pretty work and some kind of detective work to know where the individuals at or what's the best way to approach it.

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And usually the individuals on these task force start very early in the morning. And the scene you are seeing is when they're knocking on a door, I'd say just after 6:00 a.m. in the Bronx. Right.

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And we'll just note that there are quite a number of ICE officers sort of lined up in the hallway. So let's hear what happens. This is briefly edited for length.

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Let's listen point.

[00:34:59]

We're not going to yell out in the hallway through a closed door, man. That's how we do business. Please open the door so we can talk to you later on. Sorry to bother you. It's great to talk to you. We don't all have the command post, but I want to show you some pictures. We will, of course, be using this address. Oh, all right. Come in. Yeah. If you want to put your name in an animal.

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Right. Think people are using the bathroom.

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They're not telling me, you know, I can use the living room. I'll tell you everything that I gave up. I'm going to look I'm going to explain to the daughter what's going on. I'm the support of what is actually a federal offense to come back in the country. I would want for his arrest. Can I see the warrant? I'm not obligated to show it to anybody. I have one person. I'm not in here without it. I have a warrant for his arrest.

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I got to take him to the southern district of New York. He's going to be remanded today.

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OK, but can I see any paperwork? You know, I'll give you a lot of paperwork. Say that you guys have permission to come in here. Oh, no, I have I have a warrant for him, and I know he lives here. So if I'm in here, plus you open the door and let me in.

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And that's from the documentary Immigration Nation, which is co-director by our guest, Christina Clezio. And Shaul Schwartz.

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You know, I've heard immigration attorneys advise people whose lack legal status that if ICE officers show up at your door, you're not obliged to open the door, you're not obliged to let them in, which some might find a little strange, given that they're federal officials. Talk a bit a little bit about what we are hearing here and how ICE officers manage the rules to get into an apartment in a circumstance like this.

[00:36:38]

That is correct. Usually, if it's an administrative warrant, which a number of these warrants are with fugitive ops teams, they are not allowed to just enter a property unless they are given permission. So what generally happens is they knock on the door, they call it a knock and talk, and they convince the individual inside if they believe that the target that they're going after is in the apartment or is using the address, they use all sorts of tactics as you here to get access to the apartment.

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And then at that point, they can make an arrest and detain the individual that they were targeting. And so in this situation, because they only have an administrative warrant, they need the individual to open the door and if not, they usually have to leave, right.

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So what begins as open the door, ma'am, so we can talk ends with. I don't have to show you the warrant. Correct.

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It's it's a cat and mouse, if you will, for the ICE agents who work in fugitive operations.

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There's a lot of prep work that goes in. They want to get in that door. They're they're there. They've woken up early.

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They're keen to get their arrests. This is also during an operation. You know, when when Trump came into power, there was this push to install fear, if you will, to know that there's activities. New York City, I was upset they didn't see cooperation from the local police. And they wanted to make a point that if you're not going to play along, we're going to get out there and we're going to take people, you know, specifically, they go after what's called targets.

[00:38:13]

Those are the people who both have an immigration offense and some kind of other criminal act that could be small or big. But there's also what's called a collateral arrest when you encounter people that are at that address that are simply here with an immigration offense. So this was part of an operation that was called Keep Safe. And it was kind of a push back to the city to show that they will be aggressive and they will get out there.

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You know, they they begin when they knock on the door by saying policía police, are they police? They are police, but that is a tactic they are literally taught. The idea is like if they say ice, the door is not opening as far as they're concerned.

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And just to add to that, you know, I think what we started to see during this period of time is that there was much more awareness of ICE officers coming to doors early in the morning. And so there was also a push back from immigration advocates and immigration lawyers to know your rights to state to individuals that you're not obliged to open the door if somebody comes to your door and says that their immigration. And so I had to get creative with their tactics.

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And so they're trained to say police are trained to convince them to open the door. Just a was sad to say that, you know, this is we're looking for somebody that's using this address. And generally we saw most people comply with that, but others don't. And so there was always a pushback is that they would go to a number of doors in the morning and, you know, they would maybe be able to enter into one out of five apartments or one out of six.

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And as time went on through this period of time, we saw that getting increasingly more difficult for them.

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And you noted that there would be a target person for the arrest. But then if there are other people there who don't have legal status, they would arrest them to typically call them collaterals and they like to get the numbers up. There's a moment here where we hear the officer involved in the raid that we heard. I think his name is Brian, talking about how this whole collateral thing didn't sit so well with him.

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Let's listen. I don't really I don't do collateral. I just don't think it's right. Like, if I get somebody that's not cooperative, it's a different story. But if you let me into your house and talk to me, I'm not going to roll your fingerprints and arrest you just because you're here illegally. I know it's my job, but I you know, I got guys that are aggravated felonies that I'd like to catch. I don't care about the guy that's my is on business and cooperating with me.

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Just for the sake of numbers, anyway, interesting, isn't it? In immigration nation, I think one of the most fascinating things about this six part documentary is how many ICE agents you get in candid moments expressing opinions.

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I want to play a couple of them here besides those. One is a couple of officers. And this is in Charlotte, North Carolina, where ICE has gone on an aggressive enforcement campaign after a new local sheriff was elected who terminated a program in which people arrested locally would be routinely turned over to immigration authorities.

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So I decided to react to that by going out and arresting people into the community, which created quite a reaction. And what we're going to hear here is a couple of ICE agents returning from one of these actions where they've arrested several immigrant.

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My last stop on the gold goes, What are you doing? So you're under arrest for use. You can't arrest us for being here illegally anymore.

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Is it really you can't arrest us for being here illegally anymore? They told me at a press conference that this is a sanctuary place and you're not allowed to arrest me anymore.

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They did. They lied to you.

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And want to play one more clip and we'll talk.

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This is another officer, Mike, who is working along the U.S. Mexican border, driving along in a pickup and sharing his view of his job. Let's listen.

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I can't tell you how exhausting it is day in and day out to be putting cuffs on people that you want to. You can't blame one iota for what they did. They didn't kill their wife. They didn't set off a bomb somewhere. They didn't rob a bank doing exactly what I would do in their situation, which is to try to come here. I don't like that about my career, but I still think it's important to do it and I put my personal feelings aside, which, yeah, maybe that's what every Nazi said.

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Right. And I put my feelings aside, but I actually believe in the cause of trying to enforce some sort of sovereignty over our borders. And no one's figured out a better way to do it yet.

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And that's from the documentary Immigration Nation, a six part documentary series now streaming on Netflix co, directed by our guest, Shaul Schwarz. And Christina Closure. This is a remarkable look inside of eyes.

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Did most officers have some ambivalence about arresting and deporting these people who many of whom they had to see is pretty desperate about seeking to better their lives?

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I'd say some. I think some did. I think perhaps the majority did not or didn't show it quite.

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But, you know, ISIS is a big agency and there's definitely all kinds of shades of officers. There was definitely overall an involvement during the Trump era that kind of went from the top down of this, proud to do the job and to push back and to show. So I think we show that in the show of the no game and the people kind of really feeling, you know, I remember when we started, they said, you know, now we're supported.

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The gloves are off. And there was a lot of people felt excited about that. They get to do their job in their language.

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But, you know, there are certainly officers that were different and questioned that. I remember we spend a lot of officer a lot of time with an officer called Judy in New York.

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And I think she questioned from the beginning her tactics and her showing discretion to how to do her job was less offensive way and really trying to to minimize the situation.

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So I think we saw all shades of of reactions. You know, the last episode of this series takes us to the border where Customs and Border Protection, you know, seeks to stop people who are coming across the border. And there are also officials of ice. And it's what I guess the investigation and security division is that what it's called, our homeland security investigations.

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Right. You have a little anecdote of one agent who is also a paramedic who assists people who are dying, starving and dehydrated in the desert.

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He gets a call on the radio that there's a guy out on the road who's in pretty bad shape. He finds them and he's a young Guatemalan man who is lost. And the agent could see from the truck that he has little spines and thorns and barbs in his lips, which tells him he was so desperate he was eating the cactus.

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Yeah. I mean, this unit is an elite border patrol unit called Forestar Border Trauma Search and Rescue. And their role is complex because they are tasked with one helping those that they find lost in the desert and to then detaining them. And so there's this complexity that happens. And I think when the officer approaches him on the side of the road, he had already seen he had seen this before. This wasn't the first time that he found a migrant that had crossed and spent 15 days in the desert and had to eat cactuses and had no water.

[00:46:01]

And so their job is to help them. But then at the same time, the flip side of that is because are still a law enforcement agency, that individual was detained. Right. He literally picks the barbs out of his lips and tongue and then before he arrests him. Exactly.

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It's an amazing moment where, again, if you look at it in the cat and mouse, the cat gets a mouse, helps them for a second, but everybody and the immigrant is thankful.

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But it's just the sheer information that we saw kind of unfold of the immigrant saying that he was left to die and someone else has died and that he's walked 15 days and how dehydrated he is.

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And even I mean, this was near Tulsa and he asks them if he's next to L.A., just the confusion.

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And it was to us and to our cameraperson, Eric's filming there.

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It was so haunting to see. But I think for the agents on the ground, this is the reality. This is something that happens day to day. And there is this kind of feeling we got there and elsewhere filming the show that they're almost desensitized in a way to that.

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And even as he helps, right after the young Guatemalan man is taken by the ambulance, he talks to one of his colleagues and say how fun this area is and how they kind of chase people.

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And there's a duality of this chase that leads people deeper into the desert where they might die and at the same time, seeing this agent, being able to change his hat on and be very kind and picking out the thorns and helping and perhaps saving lives.

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Did you need to get specific permission from everyone that you filmed? I'm wondering what kind of legal and ethical issues come into play when you're, you know, filming, you know, an arrest or some other operation?

[00:48:01]

Sir, we did get specific permission from anybody that we filmed in any of the characters that we profiled throughout the series. It became tricky, especially when we were embedding with ICE, because, for example, when you go to a door with ice at six a.m. and knock on the door, we needed to make it very clear from the outset that we were not with ice, that we were independent journalists, and that we were requesting to come in and document.

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A lot of times people would say, no, you know, I'm not interested in we would back off and wait outside and others would say, yes, you can come in and document. I think people wanted to record what was happening. And so after that, we would follow up with them again and say, you know, we need you to sign releases. You know, we would like to tell your story. We'd like to continue on.

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And so those were the processes we take. And even when we were in detention centres, we had a protocol that we would need individuals that we spoke to to sign releases.

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And, you know, now that it's come out, we've had great response from a lot of the immigrants and from some of the ICE agents, but predominantly from the immigrants coming back and kind of saying, you know, oh, my God, this this has come to life and and just seeing what they went through. And we're grateful for those who took the leap of faith and gave us the trust to tell their story.

[00:49:19]

Well, Cheryl Schwartz, Christina Clezio, thank you so much for speaking with us. Thank you. Christina Clezio and Saul Schwartz are co directors and co producers of the six part documentary series Immigration Nation, now available for streaming on Netflix.

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Fresh Air Weekend is produced by Teresa Ma'aden Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller, our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, they Challoner, Seth Kelly, Joel Wolfgramm and Kyla Latimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly CVN Esper.

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For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.