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What I've learned after sharing my photos for free on Unsplash for 4 years

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Stairs in Coimbra, Portugal — one of the 460 image I uploaded on Unsplash

This editorial was originally published on Medium, and is being republished in full on DPReview with express permission from Samuel Zeller. The views and opinions in this article are solely those of its author.


What is Unsplash?

Unsplash is a website where photographers can share high resolution images, making them publicly available for everyone for free even for commercial use. It was created in May 2013 by Stephanie Liverani, Mikael Cho and Luke Chesser in Montreal, Canada.

Four months after creation they hit one million total downloads, and a year after they had more than a million downloads per month. Now there are 400,000+ high resolution images hosted on Unsplash, which are shared by 65,000+ photographers from all around the world.

Last month 2,400 photographers joined Unsplash and shared 25,000 new images (not just snapshots, some really good photography).

Here are a few examples:

Visitors in the last month viewed 4 billion photos and pressed the download button 17 million times. The average Unsplash photo is viewed over 600,000 times and downloaded over 4000 times. No other social network can give you those numbers.

Unsplash is massive, and it’s (currently) one of the best place to get visibility for your work as a photographer. Some of my most appreciated images were viewed over twelve million times and downloaded a little bit more than 125'000 times.

Here are the top nine below:

I receive 21 million views per month (677'000 per day) and 93'000 downloads (3000 per day). As a result, every day there’s one or two person that credit me on Twitter for an image they’ve used. I also get emails regularly and new backlinks to my website every week.

And it’s not just for old users who’ve been sharing for a long time, here’s the stats from someone who joined Unsplash just three days ago:

In total I’ve uploaded 460 images, they’ve been viewed over 255 million times and downloaded over 1.7 million times. Of course these are just numbers, but they are much more meaningful (and larger) than the likes you can get on Instagram or Facebook.

Designers all around the world have been making album covers, posters, article headers, blog posts, adverts and billboards with my images on Unsplash. Like many photographers I chose to turn what was idle on my hard-drive into a useful resource for other creatives.

Here’s a few examples:

That’s not all, one of my first client (when I started as a freelancer in 2016) found me on Unsplash. They’re the biggest bank in Switzerland and I did four projects for them.

One included spending a night at 3,571 m (11,716 ft) at the highest observatory in Europe, the Jungfraujoch Sphinx observatory to document it (full project visible here); the second one was much lower at the Zürich airport photographing below aircraft like the Airbus A340.

The reason why they reached out to me? They were already using a few of my Unsplash images in their global database and wanted more in the same style.

Fast forward to a few months ago, I landed a new client (a design firm) and at one of the meeting they introduce me to one of their designer. The guy said after hearing my name “I know you already, I’ve been using some of your images on Unsplash, they’re great.”

The problem with social networks

People, especially the new generation, are becoming incredibly lazy. Our attention span is lower than ever, and we get stuck in nasty dopamine loops—we literally need to check our phones multiple times a day.

Social networks make us think we need to post new work often to get good engagement and get noticed, but the truth is great photographers take a year or more to publish new projects (for example Nick White “Black Dots” or Gregor Sailer “Closed cities”). Good work will always take time, and it will always get noticed.

We all fight for attention, for likes, for numbers that will not bring us anything good. We are in that aspect devaluing our own craft by over-sharing—being tricked into becoming marketing tools for brands.

The rise and fall of Instagram

What will you do once Instagram becomes old school? I don’t know if you noticed, but Facebook are ruining the whole Instagram experience by bloating the UI and releasing features for brands.

Here’s the user interface in March 2016 vs today on an iPhone 5/SE screen:

Seriously, what the heck? I can’t even see the user images anymore when I land on their profile.

Before Facebook bought it, the app was a simple, chronological photo-sharing service. Now they’re rolling out “recommended posts” from users you don’t even follow right into your feed. The suggested content will be based on what people you follow have liked (and probably on how much brands are paying to shove their ads right into your smartphone screens).

By sharing on Instagram daily as a photographer you are basically expending a ton of effort to grow a following on a network that’s taking a wrong turn. It’s like trying to build a sand castle on a moving elevator—sure, it works. but it’s not the most effective use of your time.

Not only is real engagement dropping, soon your reach will crumble unless you pay to promote your posts. I’m running an account with a little bit over 50,000 followers, and for a post that reach 25,000 people, only 170 of them will visit the account—the rest will just merely glance at the image for a second (maybe drop a like) and keep scrolling.

People create accounts on Instagram, then stop using it after some time. Truth is, many of your followers are inactive by now, and most of the ones that are active don’t care enough about your work to even comment on it.

What’s even worse is that Instagram makes photographers literally copy each other's styles because only a few type of images can get better engagement and please the masses—think outdoorsy explorers taking pictures of forests from a drone or hanging their feet off a cliff. They’re diluting their work and style by focusing on what will grow their account.

Followers are still valuable now, but in two to three years they’ll be worthless. There’s a ton more 50k+ accounts than two years ago. Brands are now looking into accounts with 100–150k to do collaborations. Instagram is a big bubble that will blow one day, and I don’t want to have all my eggs in the same basket when it happens.

Would you take someone seriously if he told you, "I’m working on my Myspace/Flickr account every day! I got soooo many followers, I’m famous!"

I have 16,500 followers on my personal Instagram account and I could close it any day. The reason why? I also have a newsletter with over 25,000 subscribers. Guess which is more valuable and long-lasting?

Too many photographers today are forgetting that a portfolio, experience, publications and exhibitions are far more important than building up their following on a social network.

There’s still a lot of good sides to Instagram, the community aspect to start with and also the fact that there’s not yet a proper contender to replace it. It’s still (to me) the best place to discover emerging photographers and get your dose of inspiration. There’s also a great deal of photography magazines that are actively curating work on it.

The culture of the new

That’s the big problem with photography online as curator and photographer Andy Adams explains, "It’s always about the new, which inevitably means the not new drops off our radars way sooner that it should."

Social networks like Instagram and Facebook are flawed for photographers for this particular reason. They are great for brands who can afford to hire social media managers and post regularly or sponsor content.

There are other social networks that don’t rely on a feed but rather on search, for example Behance or EyeEm. Those are way better for photographers in the long term. They have a higher rate of discoverability.

The images I share on Unsplash don’t lose value, in fact there’s no difference at all between a year old shot and a week old shot. Their value are not based on time. I could stop uploading new images and still have a lot of visibility every day. Try not posting on Instagram for a month…

Here’s a real example, those two images below were shared on Unsplash in October 2014. Notice how they still gather a ton of views/download per month even after four years?

Leaving a mark

Last year in February I lost my dad to cancer—he was diagnosed just a month before in January. I wrote before on the concept of memory and digital data (See: the data we leave behind) but his sudden death made me realize how short life can be.

We always say "we need to enjoy every moment, life is fragile," but it’s impossible to understand it fully until you have lost someone close. My father had bookmarked my website, my Instagram account and my Unsplash account on his laptop, he was checking them often, he was probably my biggest fan.

What’s left of him are memories but also his files on his computer—photos of him and his art (he was doing digital art and uploaded a lot of pieces on DeviantArt). I’m grateful to have all of this to remember him.

As a photographer and artist I feel like it’s a necessity for me to also leave something behind, because we never know what will happen tomorrow.

Having some of my images on Unsplash is one way to ensure that even if I’m gone my work will keep on living. Another way is through prints and books. Speaking of which, I’m finishing my first book that will be published in April by Hoxton Mini Press.

Photography isn’t about making money as a freelance photographer, it’s also a part of us, stories of where we traveled, visual tales of our singular experiences with life. I choose to share it as much as possible because I can.

There’s one last reason why I share photographs for free and Josh summed it up very nicely in one of his Medium article, here’s what he wrote:

“Beauty has always been free. It came in the box with sunlight and eyeballs. It was granted to us upon birth as we first laid eyes upon our beautiful mothers and then mother Earth. For those of us with extreme empathy and a wide-eyed approach to seeing the world, finding the beautiful all around us and capturing it is a deep and glorious honor. Yes, you can have that image at the top for free — perhaps not because it has no value, but because I simply want you to see what I can see. I want to share in the joy of this world’s beauty. The image, in that scenario, is only a document of our mutual appreciation for it. And maybe taking money off the table in that discussion is actually what helps it remain beautiful.”

Josh S. Rose

What’s next

I feel like Unsplash is just the beginning of a new era of photography. It’s thrilling to be able to grow with it.

I was born in 1990 just before the world wide web, and I’ve seen how technology evolved for the past twenty years. I’m afraid of how addicted we have become to it. How fast paced things have become. We need more generosity, community based efforts, human curation and less algorithms driven by the need of profit. We need to slow down.

Some projects are trying to focus more rewarding artists instead of advertisers, and Ello is one of them. I’ve made the decision to stop using my personal Instagram account and switch to their social network.

But that's a topic for a different article.


Samuel Zeller is a freelance photographer based in Switzerland, an ambassador for Fujifilm and the editor of Fujifeed magazine. You can contact him here and follow his recent work on his website and Ello.

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tedgould
18 hours ago
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Not an Instagram user so I didn't realize how they've changed over the years. Seems like there is a lot of room for more artist focused social networks.
Texas, USA
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U.S. government shuts down amid Senate stalemate over DACA

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The U.S. government shut down early Saturday morning after Congress and the president could not come to an agreement on how to continue funding. 

Late Friday night, a House funding resolution died in the U.S. Senate when Senate Republican leaders could not convince enough Democrats — and members of their own ranks — to meet the 60-vote threshold needed to keep the government running overnight. 

The central contention over the short-term spending bill was a Democratic call to include legal protections for immigrants who came to the United States as children. 

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn spent most of Friday in the middle of negotiations in his capacity as the Senate majority whip. 

The shutdown comes after a roiling two weeks of negotiating and public fighting between congressional Republicans and Democrats and President Donald Trump. 

The development means that many government services will soon likely not be available to Texans. In past shutdowns, national parks in Texas have closed and the public has faced difficulties accessing government programs.

At the same time, Social Security checks will still be mailed, and the government will continue with services that support public safety and national security.

On Friday afternoon, Democrats and Republicans blamed each other for the impasse.

Republicans had wanted to keep the government running for another four weeks while reauthorizing the Children’s Health Insurance Program for six more years. Democrats were pushing to address the shaky legal status of immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children, known as “Dreamers.”

The impasse, no matter the outcome, had big implications for Texas. About 394,000 Texas children who are ineligible for Medicaid – the joint state-federal health insurer of last resort — are covered under CHIP, and another 249,000 Texas children on Medicaid benefit from CHIP. About 124,000 Texans are covered under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

Democrats charged that Republicans have a majority in both chambers and have ownership over a functioning government. And they further argued that Trump has so poisoned the discourse over immigration that the spending bill was a last resort of leverage to prevent the mass deportation of participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Republicans, particularly from Texas, were equally furious. They argued that while resolving DACA was not addressed, they were willing to deal on another long-stalled Democratic priority – the Children's Health Insurance Program – in exchange for another short-term spending resolution.

Cornyn took to Twitter all day with Democratic criticism. 

" guarantees more not less continuing spending resolutions," he wrote, referring to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. "His crocodile tears for military a transparent attempt to deflect from fact he and Ds prioritize debate about illegal immigration over funding the military and the Children's Health Insurance program." 

The lead-up to the shutdown was a frenzy of activity.

House Republicans typically rely on some Democratic votes to pass spending bills that are moderate enough to pass the Senate chamber as well. But this time, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi pulled her caucus' support unless a spending bill resolved contention over the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. 

While Republicans hold majorities in both chambers, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan frequently struggles to garner support from the conservative wing of his conference  – as did his predecessor, John Boehner. On the Senate side, Republicans could not pass the spending legislation without some Democratic support. 

On Thursday night, the U.S. House passed a resolution to keep the government's doors open for another month. Republicans mostly supported that legislation, but a few Democrats also supported the measure, including two Texans, U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar of Laredo and Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen. 

The two most recent shutdowns occurred in 1995 and 2013. 

The shutdown comes as DACA's future remains in a complicated legal limbo. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in October that the initiative would end in March. But earlier this month, U.S. District Judge William Alsup ruled the program would stand while a legal challenge, filed by the state of California, proceeds. Soon after, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced it would once again begin accepting renewal applications — but not new ones. 

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tedgould
22 hours ago
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Why can't we give kids the healthcare they need, help immigrants that are good for the country AND have a functioning government? Seems like playing politics for deals instead of thinking about people. All of these poll really positively.
Texas, USA
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DuckDuckGo Grew 55% in 2017, Crossing 20 Million Private Searches a Day

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DuckDuckGo Grew 55% in 2017, Crossing 20 Million Private Searches a Day

As we start 2018, we're proud to look back on a banner year for DuckDuckGo: 55% growth in daily private searches, $400,000 in donations to privacy organizations, new major partnerships with Samsung and Brave, and a lot of privacy education, all in service of our vision to raise the standard of trust online.

In 2017, people all over the world were greeted with nearly daily reminders in the news and elsewhere that their personal information isn't safe online. As a result, privacy continued its growing relevance among mainstream audiences and people came to DuckDuckGo in search of (pun intended!) peace of mind. Here, they found an improved search engine that kept people coming back, with a continued focus on relevancy, especially in local and news results.

These were just some of the driving factors behind our best year to date with nearly six billion private searches. That's up about 50% from four billion in 2016. 36% of all searches ever entered on DuckDuckGo in our ten-year lifespan were conducted in 2017 alone. We started last year averaging about 12 million private searches daily, and ended the year at about 19 million, an increase of about 55%, averaging over 15 million daily private searches for the year.

All this growth enabled us to support more privacy initiatives than ever before, with donations totaling $400,000 to privacy-advocacy organizations including Freedom of the Press Foundation, World Privacy Forum, Open Whisper Systems, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Tor Project, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). 2017 was our seventh year of making privacy donations, and we're already gearing up for a bigger 2018.

In 2017, we also reached two major partnerships with Samsung and Brave. DuckDuckGo is now a built-in search option within Samsung's Internet browser across all their devices, and also available as an opt-in search engine within Brave private tabs. Most people over-estimate the amount of protection private browsing provides. This Brave integration helps address a top misconception that private browsing mode automatically makes all searches private. It doesn't — you need DuckDuckGo for that!

DuckDuckGo Grew 55% in 2017, Crossing 20 Million Private Searches a Day

Finally, we spent a lot of effort last year on privacy education:

So what lies ahead in 2018? You can of course expect more of the same: better search, more privacy donations, more partnerships, more privacy education.

In addition, and in line with our vision of raising the standard of trust online, we have some exciting updates in store for 2018 that will help you protect your privacy beyond search. We can’t wait to share them with you, so stay tuned for announcements. In the meantime, we'd like to thank you all for your continued support and feedback, and wish you a very Happy New Year!

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tedgould
1 day ago
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Didn't realize how big DuckDuckGo is getting! Makes me hopeful people will take privacy seriously.
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Birdcage liners

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My new year’s resolution was to give up on reading Twitter and Facebook.

I gave up on the feeds because they were making me angry. A lot of times I was angry because of politics, but even on non-political things, the feeds seemed like they were full of conflict and stress.

I can’t tell you how much happier I am without them. Am I the only one that hated reading feeds? Do they make everybody unhappy? And if they make people unhappy why are they so popular?

Since I design social software for a living I feel like I should have a professional opinion on why Twitter and Facebook made me unhappy.

Let’s start with Twitter. I used Twitter to keep in touch with friends and colleagues because I cared about them. Unfortunately, those friends mostly didn’t use Twitter to share happy news and tell me how things were going. They used Twitter for bumper sticker flame wars. These were not the thoughtful long essays on blogs of yesteryear. 140 characters is too short for that.

Here’s what happened with the 140 characters. You would start out having some kind of complicated thought. “Ya know, dogs are great and all? I love dogs! But sometimes they can be a little bit too friendly. They can get excited and jump on little kids and scare the bejesus out of them. They wag their tails so hard they knock things over. (PS not Huskies! Huskies are the cats of the dog world!)”

Ok, so now you try to post that on Twitter. And you edit and edit and you finally get it down to something that fits: “Dogs can be too friendly!”

All the nuance is lost. And this is where things go wrong. “@spolsky what about huskies? #dontforgethuskies”

Ten minutes later, “Boycott @stackoverflow. @spolsky proves again that tech bros hate huskies. #shame”

By the time you get off the plane in Africa you’re on the international pariah list and your @replies are full of people accusing you of throwing puppies out of moving cars for profit.

Yeah, I get it, this 140 character limitation was just a historical accident, and now it’s 280 characters anyway, and you can always make a Twitter Story, but the flame wars on Twitter emerged from the fact that we’ve taken a medium, text, which is already bad at conveying emotion and sentiment and high-bandwidth nuance, and made it even worse, and the net result is a lot of outrage and indignation.

The outrage and indignation, of course, are what makes it work. That’s what keeps you coming back. Oooh shade. Oooh flamewar. We rubberneckers can’t keep our eyes off of it. I don’t know what the original idea of Twitter was, but it succeeded because of natural selection. In a world where the tech industry was cranking out millions of dumb little social applications, this one happens to limit messages to 140 characters and that happens to create, unintentionally, a subtlety-free indignation machine, which is addictive as heck, so this is the one that survives and thrives and becomes a huge new engine of polarization and anger. It’s not a coincidence that we got a president who came to power through bumper-sticker slogans, outrageous false statements chosen to make people’s blood boil, and of course Twitter. This is all a part of a contagious disease that is spreading like crazy because we as a society have not figured out how to fight back yet.

But Twitter is small potatoes. Facebook is where the action is. Facebook quickly copied Twitter’s idea of the “feed” as a mechanism to keep you coming back compulsively. But whereas Twitter sort of stumbled upon addictiveness through the weird 140-character limit, Facebook mixed a new, super-potent active ingredient into their feed called Machine Learning. They basically said, “look, we are not going to show everybody every post,” and they used the new Midas-style power of machine learning and set it in the direction of getting people even more hyper-addicted to the feed. The only thing the ML algorithm was told to care about was addiction, or, as they called it, engagement. They had a big ol’ growth team that was trying different experiments and a raw algorithm that was deciding what to show everybody and the only thing it cared about was getting you to come back constantly.

Now, this algorithm, accidentally, learned something interesting—something that dog trainers have always known.

Dog trainers give dogs a treat when they get something right. When they say “come,” and the dog comes, he gets a treat. Woof. I can train any arbitrary dog to do that with some reliability. But here’s what happens. Once, just once, I forget to give the dog a treat. And then the dog thinks, well, heck this, I guess “come” doesn’t always mean “treat.” So the trained behavior goes away. It’s technically called extinction: the trained behavior goes extinct.

How do we prevent extinction? By only giving treats some of the time. So the dog learns something more subtle. When my master says come and I obey, I might get a treat. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. That way, if I obey and don’t get the treat, I shouldn’t panic. I should still always come when he says come because that’s still the best way to get the most treats. Intermittent reinforcement works better.

This sounds like what Facebook was doing to me.

Rather than providing a constant stream of satisfying news and engagement with friends, Facebook’s algorithm had learned to give me a bunch of junk I didn’t need to hear, and only gave me intermittent rewards through the occasional useful nugget of information about friends. Once in a blue moon I would hear about a friend’s accomplishment or I would find out that someone I like is going to be in town. The rest of the time I would just get the kind of garbage newspaper clippings circulated by someone who had too much coffee and is misattributing the kick from the caffeine to something they just read online and now MUST share IMMEDIATELY with EVERYONE because this news story about something that happened to a baby bear is SOOOOO important to THE ENTIRE WORLD. And so 9 of out 10 things in my feed are complete garbage—last week’s newspaper lining the birdcage with the droppings already on it—but then once every two weeks I find out my niece is engaged or my best friend got a great new job or my oldest friend is in town and I should make plans to hang out. And now no matter how full the Facebook feed is of bird droppings I still have to keep going back.

Both Twitter and Facebook’s selfish algorithms, optimized solely for increasing the number of hours I spend on their services, are kind of destroying civil society at the same time. Researchers also discovered that the algorithms served to divide up the world into partisan groups. So even though I was following hundreds of people on social networks, I noticed that the political pieces which I saw were nevertheless directionally aligned with my own political beliefs. But to be honest they were much… shriller. Every day the Twitter told me about something that The Other Side did that was Outrageous and Awful (or, at least, this was reported), and everyone was screeching in sync and self-organizing in a lynch mob, and I would have to click LIKE or RETWEET just to feel like I had done something about it, but I hadn’t actually done anything about it. I had just slacktivated.

What is the lesson? The lesson here is that when you design software, you create the future.

If you’re designing software for a social network, the decision to limit message lengths, or the decision to use ML to maximize engagement, will have vast social impact which is often very hard to predict.

As software developers and designers, we have a responsibility to the world to think these things through carefully and design software that makes the world better, or, at least, no worse than it started out. And when our inventions spin out of control, we have a responsibility to understand why and to try to fix them.

This blog post has a surprise piece of good news. The good news is that Facebook suddenly realized what they had done, and today they announced a pretty major change of direction. They want the feed to leave people feeling “more connected and less lonely,” so they have actually decided to sacrifice “engagement.” Mark Zuckerberg posted, “By making these changes, I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down. But I also expect the time you do spend on Facebook will be more valuable.” That’s amazing, but it’s amazing because it demonstrates that Facebook has finally grown up and joined the rest of us in understanding that software developers are designing the future.

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tedgould
1 day ago
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Mixed feelings on this post. It gets ranty on things I agree with and encourages software developers to think about the impact of their creations. But, I feel like it overstates the impact and importance of software. It is important to understand it, but it isn't worth puffing up your ego over.
Texas, USA
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LeMadChef
3 days ago
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“As software developers and designers, we have a responsibility to the world to think these things through carefully and design software that makes the world better, or, at least, no worse than it started out. And when our inventions spin out of control, we have a responsibility to understand why and to try to fix them.”
Denver, CO

Dallas' Meadows Museum bought a landmark painting you must see

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tedgould
1 day ago
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Fortuny is an impressionist I had not heard of.
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Lost in court: A visit to Trump’s immigration bedlam

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LAREDO – In one of his first executive orders a year ago, President Trump commanded that immigration judges from across the country should be rushed to detention centers along the border, warning that an uncontrolled migrant influx was threatening the national security.

Trump said that everyone caught crossing the border without papers should be detained, including women and children and people seeking asylum. The judges were dispatched to speed up immigration court decisions on those cases and facilitate swift deportations, to reinforce the president’s message that he was making the border impenetrable.

And so in this gateway city on the Rio Grande, inside a building rimmed with barbed wire, past security guards and locked doors, immigration judges on short details started hearing cases in a cramped courtroom that was hastily arranged in March.

But seven months later, the case of Oscar Arnulfo Ramírez, an immigrant from El Salvador, was not going quickly. He was sitting in detention, waiting for a hearing on his asylum claim. And waiting some more.

The court files, his lawyer discovered, showed that Ramírez’s case had been completed and closed two months earlier. Since the case was closed, the court clerk couldn’t schedule a new hearing to get it moving again. In fact, the clerk didn’t even have a record that he was still detained.

“It’s as if he’s non-existent,” his lawyer, Paola Tostado, said. “He’s still in a detention center. He’s still costing the government and the American people tax dollars. But there’s no proceeding going on. He’s just sitting there doing completely nothing.”

Ramírez’s case was one of many signs of disarray in the improvised court in Laredo, which emerged during a weeklong visit in late October by a reporter from The Marshall Project and a radio producer from This American Life. Instead of the efficiency the Trump administration sought, the proceedings were often chaotic. Hearing schedules were erratic, case files went missing. Judges were exasperated by confusion and delays. Like Ramírez, detainees were lost in the system for months on end.

With the intense pressure on the court to finish cases, immigrants who had run from frightening threats in their home countries were deported without having a chance to tell the stories that might have persuaded a judge to let them stay.

In all, from March through December more than 100 immigration judges were sent for one- or two-week details to at least eight detention facilities near the border, in what administration officials called “the surge.” Many judges volunteered, responding to the president’s call.

In several courts, especially at the beginning, there were few cases, and the judges had little to do. In others judges were swamped. Problems of disorganization were widespread — but the court in Laredo stood out.

The administration expected the judges would hasten deportations of illegal border crossers and also help reduce the huge backlogs in the immigration courts – at last count more than 650,000 cases nationwide. A year later it’s unclear whether the surge produced significant progress towards either goal.        

The immigration courts operate differently from criminal courts. In civil proceedings, they determine whether immigrants will stay legally in the country or have to leave. They fall under the Justice Department, in the executive branch, so the president and the attorney general have considerable leeway to tell them what to do.

Before the surge, hearings for immigrants in three detention centers around Laredo had been conducted by judges sitting in a longstanding court in San Antonio, who were beamed in by video conference.  Trump administration officials wanted a faster pace. 

A courtroom for a judge was set up in a narrow, windowless room inside one detention center, which is run by a private prison company, CoreCivic.  The judge and the immigrants sit barely a few feet apart. 

Officials at the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the Justice Department agency that runs the immigration courts, were alarmed when they first saw the courtroom, insisting that it was too small to be safe for the judges and clerks. The agency “cannot and will not place its staff in a location where their safety is not protected to the highest extent possible,” a justice official wrote in an email on Feb. 24. 

But to meet the demands of Trump’s order, the court officials agreed to use the room as long as a security guard was posted next to the judge.

There were other ways the court in Laredo was different from regular courts. Although immigration courts are generally open to the public, visitors here had to pass the scrutiny of CoreCivic security guards sitting behind a thick window. A guard on duty explained that no one could enter without clearance from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the agency in charge of detaining immigrants that also serves as the prosecutor in immigration court.

In a constantly spinning sequence of rotations, each judge was coming for a two-week stint, with no overlap between one and the next. Since it’s rare for a case to be completed in two weeks, judges were left to decipher notes about decisions by judges who came before.

The clerks also came for two weeks, but not necessarily with the judges. Often judges and clerks were coming from different parts of the country, learning each other’s quirks for the first time. Two ICE prosecutors came for four-week details. Spanish interpreters, essential in a court where most immigrants are from Latin America and speak no English, also came for short-term tours.

The immigration courts, long relegated by the federal government to technological neglect, still operate with paper files. The case files, the basis of the court’s work, stayed in San Antonio, 150 miles to the north. A clerk in San Antonio was responsible for shipping files down the highway to Laredo in time for hearings. Often they didn’t arrive in time — or at all.

As a result, judges faced serial frustrations. One morning in October, the court was scheduled to begin with a hearing for an immigrant whose identity number included the digits 991. But that immigrant was not in court. The ICE prosecutor’s files showed the case was closed. The clerk’s records indicated the immigrant had probably already been deported.

There was, however, a detainee whose number included 919. But Judge Barry Pettinato, in the second week of a two-week detail in Laredo, did not have 919 on his schedule. Pettinato had come from Charlotte, N.C., an orderly court where he has a record as a capable, experienced and tough judge. After the days he’d already spent in Laredo, he gave a resigned laugh recognizing that his efforts to move things along that day had been already been foiled by a typo.

Another hearing was for a Honduran immigrant who was asking the judge to release her on bond. But Pettinato had no documents for her bond request. Her lawyer, Roel Alanis, assured the judge he had filed all the papers in San Antonio ten days earlier.

“That could explain it,” the judge said, rolling his eyes, suggesting that such delays were familiar. Without the documents the hearing could not proceed, so the immigrant would remain in detention and Alanis would have to return two weeks later from his office in Weslaco, three hours down the highway.

A third hearing could not go forward because the judge couldn’t reach the lawyer, Jerome White, on the telephone. An assistant in White’s office said afterwards that she was repeatedly dialing the court’s number, but no one was able to put her through to the judge. Although Pettinato was trying to keep a brisk pace, by the end of the morning he still had a stack of case files unopened. In a pointed aside to his clerk, the judge said there was no way he could finish all the cases he had been assigned for one morning.

For Paola Tostado, the lawyer, Ramírez was not the first client to fall through the cracks in Laredo. Even though she is based in Brownsville, three hours away, Tostado was making the pre-dawn drive up the highway as many as three times a week, to appear next to her clients in court in Laredo whenever she could.

Another Salvadoran asylum-seeker she represented, whose case was similarly mislaid, had gone for four months with no hearing and no prospect of having one. Eventually he despaired. When ICE officers presented him with a document agreeing to deportation, without consulting Tostado he had signed it.

“I’ve had situations where we come to an individual client who has been detained over six months and the file is missing,” she said. “It’s not in San Antonio. It’s not in Laredo. So where is it? Is it on the highway?”

In her attempts to free Ramírez, Tostado consulted with the court clerk in San Antonio, with the ICE prosecutors and officers detaining him, but no one could say how to get the case started again. 

Then, one day after reporters sat in the courtroom and spoke with Tostado about the case, ICE released him to pursue his case in another court, without explanation.

But by December Tostado had two other asylum-seekers who had been stalled in the system for more than seven months. She finally got the court to schedule hearings for them in the last days of the year. 

“I think the bottom line is, there’s no organization in this Laredo court,” Tostado said. “It’s complete chaos and at the end of the day it’s not fair. Because you have clients who say, I just want to go to court. If it’s a no, it’s a no. If it’s a yes, it’s a yes.”

Unlike criminal court, in immigration court people have no right to a lawyer paid by the government. But there was no reliable channel in Laredo for immigrants confined behind walls to connect with low-cost lawyers. Most lawyers worked near the regular courts in the region, at least two hours’ drive away.  

Sandra Berrios, another Salvadoran seeking asylum, learned the difference a lawyer could make. She found one only by the sheerest luck. After five months in detention, she was days away from deportation when she was cleaning a hallway in the center, doing a job she had taken to keep busy. A lawyer walked by. Berrios blurted a plea for help.

The lawyer was from a corporate law firm, Jones Day, which happened to be offering free services. Two of its lawyers, Christopher Maynard and Adria Villar, took on her case. They learned that Berrios had been a victim of vicious domestic abuse. A Salvadoran boyfriend who had brought her to the United States in 2009 had turned on her a few years later when he wanted to date other women.

Once he had punched her in the face in a Walmart parking lot, prompting bystanders to call the police. He had choked her, burned her legs with cigarettes, broken her fingers and cut her hands with knives. Berrios had scars to show the judge. She had a phone video she had made when the boyfriend was attacking her and records of calls to the Laredo police.

The lawyers also learned that the boyfriend had returned to El Salvador to avoid arrest, threatening to kill Berrios if he ever saw her there.

She had started a new relationship in Texas with an American citizen who wanted to marry her. But she’d been arrested by the Border Patrol at a highway checkpoint when the two of them were driving back to Laredo from an outing at a Gulf Coast beach.

After Berrios been detained for nine months, at a hearing in July with Maynard arguing her case, a judge canceled her deportation and let her stay. In a later interview, Berrios gave equal parts credit to God and the lawyers.

“I would be in El Salvador by this time, already dead,” she said. “The judges before that just wanted to deport me.”

As sitting judges, Pettinato and others who were part of surge details could not speak to reporters about what they saw. But officials of the judges’ union, the National Association of Immigration Judges, said the problems in Laredo were not isolated.

“We have heard frustration across the board,” said Ashley Tabaddor, a judge from Los Angeles who is the association president.  She and other union officials clarified that their statements did not represent the views of the Justice Department.  “We've definitely heard from our members,” she said, “where they've had to reset hundreds of cases from their home docket to go to detention facilities where the docket was haphazardly scheduled, where the case might not have been ready, where the file has not reached the facility yet.”

Another association official, Lawrence Burman, a judge who normally sits in Arlington, Va., volunteered for a stint in a detention center in the rural Louisiana town of Jena, 220 miles northwest of New Orleans. Four judges were sent, Burman said, but there was only enough work for two.

“So I had a lot of free time, which was pretty useless in Jena, Louisiana,” Burman said. “All of us in that situation felt very bad that we have cases back home that need to be done. But in Jena I didn't have any of my files.”  Once he had studied the cases before him in Jena, Burman said, he was left to “read the newspaper or my email.”

The impact on Burman’s case docket back in Arlington was severe. Dozens of cases he was due to hear during the weeks he was away had to be rescheduled, including some that had been winding through the court and were ready for a final decision. But with the enormous backlog in Arlington, Burman had no openings on his calendar before November 2020.

Immigrants who had already waited years to know whether they could stay in the country now would wait three years more. Such disruptions were reported in other courts, including some of the nation’s largest in Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles.

“Many judges came back feeling that their time was not wisely used,” Judge Tabaddor, the association president, said, “and it was to the detriment of their own docket.”

Justice Department officials say they are pleased with the results of the surge. A department spokesman, Devin O’Malley, did not comment for this story but pointed to congressional testimony by James McHenry, the director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review. “Viewed holistically, the immigration judge mobilization has been a success,” he said, arguing it had a “positive net effect on nationwide caseloads.”

Justice Department officials calculated that judges on border details completed 2700 more cases than they would have if they had remained in home courts. Officials acknowledge that the nationwide caseload continued to rise during last year, reaching 657,000 cases by December. But they noted that the rate of growth had slowed, to .39 percent monthly increase at the end of the year from 3.39 percent monthly when Trump took office.

Judge Tabaddor, the association president, said the comparison was misleading: cases of immigrants in detention, like the ones the surge judges heard, always take priority and go faster than cases of people out on release, she said. Meanwhile, according to records obtained by the National Immigrant Justice Center, as many as 22,000 hearings in judges’ home courts had to be rescheduled in the first three months of the surge alone, compounding backlogs.   

It remains unclear why border detention courts were chosen for an experiment in accelerated justice. In 2017 apprehensions of illegal crossers at the southwest border “were at the lowest level in 45 years,” Tyler Houlton, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman, said this month. The steepest decline in illegal migration came early in the year, after Trump, with his blunt anti-immigrant rhetoric and pledge to build a wall, won the election. From April to December, as the judge surge gained steam, apprehensions of illegal migrants gradually but consistently rose, official figures show.

In Laredo, at the same time, just about every day migrants walk across the pedestrian bridge from Mexico and approach officers in United States customs booths, saying they have no visas but they are afraid to go back home. By describing their fears, they trigger an asylum procedure well established in American law. 

Many are Cubans saying they had to escape the Castro regime. But they come from many countries, as near as Central America and as far away as India and Afghanistan. Although the overall number of asylum-seekers has dropped sharply since 2016, they still come to Laredo in a steady flow, about 4000 each month since October.  Under Trump’s policies, they are detained.  Many of those cases have to be decided by judges in immigration court.

So there is work in Laredo for a fully-staffed court with a permanent judge. Yet in late December, the Justice Department stopped sending judges to Laredo. Cases reverted to being heard by judges in San Antonio on video conference. Justice officials did not respond to requests to explain their decision.

Judge Tabaddor said many judges concluded the surge had more to do with Trump’s immigration politics than with efficiency. The courts, she said, should be “removed as a pawn in the political agendas of each administration. Throwing people from one place to another and just shuffling dockets is not going to fix the system.”

Editor's note: This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.

 

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tedgould
1 day ago
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Uhg, reacting without thinking to make a bad situation worse. I guess that's "business logic" instead of trying to bring people together to solve problems like "government logic."
Texas, USA
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