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El Paso Immigration Center Is Dangerously Overcrowded, Inspector General Warns

U.S.|El Paso Immigration Center Is Dangerously Overcrowded, Inspector General Warns

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The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General used this photo in a report to show crowded holding cells at an immigration facility in El Paso. The government shielded the faces of detainees.CreditCreditDepartment of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General

Severe overcrowding at an immigration facility in El Paso presents an immediate risk to the health and safety of hundreds of migrants being held there, with some of those detained standing on top of toilets in crowded rooms just to find air to breathe, a federal watchdog said this week.

In a report issued Thursday in which it calls for immediate action, the United States Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General detailed several striking observations about the conditions at the El Paso Del Norte immigration processing center gathered during unannounced inspections in early May.

Despite federal standards saying that people should generally not be detained for more than 72 hours, some people were held in “standing room only” cells for weeks, the report said. Investigators found that there was limited access to showers and clean clothes, the report said. Some people were “wearing soiled clothing for days or weeks,” the report said.

Investigators found 155 people in a cell that was supposed to hold 35, and 41 people in a cell that was supposed to hold eight. Nine hundred people were being held at the center on one day in May — far exceeding its capacity of 125.

“We are concerned that the overcrowding and prolonged detention represent an immediate risk to the health and safety not just of the detainees, but also D.H.S. agents and officers,” the report said.

The Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on the findings on Friday night.

But in a May 28 letter responding to the inspector general’s findings that was included in Thursday’s report, the Department of Homeland Security said it had been taking steps to address the overcrowding but was “not equipped to accommodate a migration pattern like the one we are experiencing now.”

The department said that since early May, it had operated “a weatherproof and climate-controlled soft-sided structure” at the El Paso center that could hold up to 500 additional people. Officials will begin operating a new holding facility with room for up to 800 people at the end of July, the department said.

The department said it was planning to build another processing center in El Paso that could hold an additional 1,800 people and would be ready in about 18 months.

“Congress can also help by working on targeted solutions to restore integrity to our immigration system and remove the incentives for families and children to cross our border illegally,” the department said in the letter.

In response to the department’s plans for expansion, the inspector general’s report reiterated that the “dangerous overcrowding” required “immediate action.” The report said that the crowding could increase the spread of illnesses, and that “rising tensions among detainees could turn violent.”

The report did not recommend any specific actions for the department to take.

The report was yet another illustration of how a surge of Central American migrants arriving at the country’s southwestern border in recent months, particularly as families, has strained the capabilities of America’s immigration system and fueled concerns about the migrants’ care.

El Paso in particular has displayed many of those challenges. On Thursday, immigration officials said that the Border Patrol took 1,036 people into custody there after they had arrived at the border together in the largest group ever encountered.

In March, immigration officials set up a makeshift encampment under a bridge in El Paso to detain hundreds of migrants in a military tent.

Such encampments are just one way that immigration officials have responded to the influx of migrants.

To some, the report’s findings were not surprising, but instead supported claims about the substandard treatment of detained migrants.

“This has been happening for a really long time,” said Erika Andiola, chief of advocacy for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or Raices, a nonprofit organization that provides low-cost legal defense services to immigrant and refugee families in Texas.

Ms. Andiola said federal officials needed to stop detaining migrants at the border. She said money should be diverted from the “militarization of the border” — for example, increased surveillance — to more humanitarian goals like providing food or medical care to migrants.

“We’ve been sounding the alarm on this for a while now,” she said.

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Weighing Peloton’s opportunity and risks ahead of IPO

Exercise tech company Peloton filed confidentially for IPO this week, and already the big question is whether their last private valuation at $4 billion might be too rich for the appetites of public market investors. Here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons leading up to the as-yet revealed market debut date.

Risk factors

The biggest thing to pay attention to when it comes time for Peloton to actually pull back the curtains and provide some more detailed info about its customers in its S-1. To date, all we really know is that Peloton has “more than 1 million users,” and that’s including both users of its hardware and subscribers to its software.

The mix is important – how many of these are actually generating recurring revenue (vs. one-time hardware sales) will be a key gauge. MRR is probably going to be more important to prospective investors when compared with single-purchases of Peloton’s hardware, even with its premium pricing of around $2,000 for the bike and about $4,000 for the treadmill. Peloton CEO John Foley even said last year that bike sales went up when the startup increased prices.

Hardware numbers are not entirely distinct from subscriber revenue, however: Per month pricing is actually higher with Peloton’s hardware than without, at $39 per month with either the treadmill or the bike, and $19.49 per month for just the digital subscription for iOS, Android and web on its own.

That makes sense when you consider that its classes are mostly tailored to this, and that it can create new content from its live classes which occur in person in New York, and then are recast on-demand to its users (which is a low-cost production and distribution model for content that always feels fresh to users).

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‘Dark Phoenix’ has the worst opening in the X-Men franchise’s entire history. Damn.

Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique in 'Dark Phoenix'
Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique in ‘Dark Phoenix’

Image: Doane Gregory / 20th Century Fox

By Heather Dockray

The X-Men can’t save everything — including their own movies.

Dark Phoenix, one of the most beloved storylines in the X-Men comic books, nonetheless debuted to a record low for the franchise this weekend. The film grossed just around $33 million at the domestic box office, compared to the 2016 opening of Deadpool, a spinoff, which grossed over $125 million opening weekend. Even The Wolverine debuted to $53 million in 2013.

The differences couldn’t be more stark.

The film, which is the twelfth in the X-Men series, currently has earned a meager 22 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics calling the series “middling,””clichéd,” and “unsatisfying.

Some reports blame the marketing for Dark Phoenix‘s poor performance. Before opening, director Simon Kinberg revealed that Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence, would die in the film. 

And it wasn’t like there was much competition this weekend for moviegoers. The Secret Life of Pets 2 opened to just $46 million this weekend.

International box office numbers have yet to be released. Still, Fox-Disney, who produced the film, should be a little bit anxious. The movie cost nearly $200 million to film.

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Stick Your Own Samples In The Cheetah SpecDrum

The Sinclair ZX Spectrum was a popular computer in the 8-bit era, and particularly so in its homeland of the United Kingdom. It was known more for its low cost than its capabilities, but it gained many add-ons over the years. One of those was the Cheetah SpecDrum, which turned the Spectrum into a rudimentary drum machine. [PianoMatt] wasn’t happy with the original drum samples, so he set about loading a custom kit into the SpecDrum.

The SpecDrum software initially came with extra sample tapes, so [PianoMatt] knew it was an achievable task to load in custom samples. Starting by loading the software in an emulator, the RAM was then exported as raw data and loaded up in Audacity. After some experimentation, it was determined the samples were stored in 8-bit format at a sample rate of approximately 20 kHz. With this figured out, it was then possible to load replacement samples directly into RAM through the emulator.

However, this wasn’t enough for [PianoMatt]. Further digging enabled him to reverse engineer the format of the replacement sample tapes. Armed with this knowledge, [PianoMatt] then generated his own tape, complete with proper headers and labels for each drum sound.

It’s a tidy effort to bring a more modern sound to a now positively ancient piece of hardware. We’d love to hear a track with drums courtesy of the SpecDrum, so we’ll keep an ear out on Soundcloud. Mucking around with old sound hardware is a popular pastime in these parts – we’ve even seen people go so far as to build bespoke Sega chiptune players from scratch. 

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Circuit Bending Those Adorable Voices

Leapfrog make some pretty awesome kids electronics. Especially admirable is the low cost, the battery life, and the audio quality of these devices. This circuit bending hack takes advantage of those audio circuits by turning the Alphabet Pal into your lead vocalist. The performance in the demo video begins with some impressive tricks, but just wait for it because by the end the little purple caterpillar proves itself an instrument worthy of a position beside that fancy Eurorack you’ve been assembling.

The image above provides a great look inside the beastie. [Jason Hotchkiss] mentions he’s impressed by the build quality, and we have to agree. Plus, look at all of those inputs — this is begging to leave toyland and join the band. With an intuitive sense that can only be gained through lots of circuit-bending experience, he guessed that the single through-hole resistor on the PCB was used to dial in the clock speed. That made it easy to throw in a trimpot for pitch-bending and he moved on to figure out individual note control.

All of those caterpillar feet are arranged in a keyboard matrix to detect button presses. After pulling out the oscilloscope for a bit of reverse engineering, [Jason] grabbed a PIC microcontroller and added it to the same solder points as the stock ribbon connector. The result is that the buttons on the feet still work, but now the Alphabet Pal also has MIDI control.

Take a look at the writeup for full details, and the video after the break to hear it in action. If you’re a fan of circuit-bent toys, this pretty pink keyboard hack always impressed us, especially the spring reverb that was added!

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Adding Bluetooth Control To A Benchtop Power Supply

In 2019, it’s possible to kit out a lab with all the essentials at an even cheaper price than it has ever been. The DPS3005 is one such example of low-cost equipment – a variable power supply available for less than $50 with a good set of features. [Markel Robregado] wanted a little more functionality, however, and got down to work.

The crux of [Markel]’s project is improved connectivity. A Texas Instruments CC2640R2F Launchpad is employed to run the show, with its Bluetooth Low Energy capability coming in handy. A custom smartphone app communicates with the Launchpad, which then communicates with the power supply over its Serial Modbus interface. Through the app, [Markel] can set the voltage and current limit on the power supply, as well as switch it on and off. This could prove useful, particularly for remote triggering in the case of working with dangerous projects. Sometimes it pays to take cover, after all.

We’ve seen power supplies modified before; this pot mod for higher precision is a particular treat. If you’ve hacked your bench hardware for better performance, let us know. Video after the break.

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Stop Feeling Bad If You’re Not Saving Every Penny to Buy a Home

If you feel a little behind on your homeownership goals—or if you’re wondering whether homeownership should even be one of your goals—don’t worry. First, you’re not alone. Second, it’s harder to save up for a home than it’s been in a long time.

A recent CNBC article on the difficulties of saving up that down payment noted that it now takes nearly a decade to accumulate the cash:

Housing expenses such as rent and insurance add nearly three years to the time it takes a typical renter to save up for a 20% down payment on a median-priced home. That’s according to home and apartment rental site Hotpads, which is owned by Zillow. That’s because the typical renter spends about 34% of his or her income on housing. It takes the typical renter about eight years to save for a down payment, if they are able to sock away about 16% of their income each year. And of course, in some locations that’s easier to do than in others.

Eight years, if you can set aside 16% of your income each year in addition to the 34% you’re likely already putting towards housing costs.

Plus the 15% you’re supposed to be putting towards retirement.

And that three-month emergency fund you’re trying to save up.

And debt repayment.

And so on.

If you’d like a different perspective on homeownership than “just keep saving,” Curbed recently published a longread on why we’re currently in an affordable housing crisis:

Nearly two-thirds of renters nationwide say they can’t afford to buy a home, and saving for that down payment isn’t going to get easier anytime soon: Home prices are rising at twice the rate of wage growth. According to research from the advocacy group Home1, 11 million Americans (roughly the population of New York City and Chicago combined) spend more than half their paycheck on rent. Harvard researchers found that in 2016, nearly half of renters were cost-burdened (defined as spending 30 percent or more of their income on rent), compared with 20 percent in 1960.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition found that a renter working 40 hours a week and earning minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment (i.e., not be cost-burdened) in exactly zero counties nationwide. In other words, it isn’t possible.

Although the entire piece is great, and you should check it out if only for the charts and graphs, the tl;dr is that finding an affordable home these days is hard. So is finding an affordable apartment.

Moving to a lower cost-of-living area can help, but only to a certain point—and only if you can find equivalent work in your new location. I’ve written a lot about how moving from Seattle to Cedar Rapids, Iowa has improved my finances, but that’s in part because I was able to take my freelance career with me when I moved. Also, even though my monthly rent is half of what it used to be, my loft-style studio apartment is only 448 square feet (that’s 14 feet by 32 feet, if you’re curious).

So if you feel like you should be a homeowner by now, or should be setting aside more money for that down payment, or should be living in an apartment that’s bigger than a one-car garage, well… I mean, I can’t tell you how to feel, but I can suggest that you not beat yourself up over it.

Because the math isn’t in your favor right now.

One more tip: if you’re thinking about homeownership because you’ve heard it could be a good long-term investment, remember that you can always just put your money into investments.

As financial blogger Paula Pant puts it:

Are you better off:

  1. Tying up your cash into a home
  2. Finding an alternative investment, coupled with a rent payment?

Any cash that’s tied up in home equity, including the down payment, is locked into a lifetime of just-keeping-pace-with-inflation.

This opportunity cost, combined with the additional overhead of homeownership, can (in many markets) negate any advantage that comes from owning.

If you decide to go that route, don’t feel bad if you’re not putting every extra penny into your investments. Save what you can, buy and hold, and let your net worth grow.

And if you feel like it, you can always take money out of those investments and use it on the down payment for a home.

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How I Increased My Net Worth by $27,000 in Six Months

According to You Need a Budget (YNAB), my total net worth is currently $108,940.66.

That’s $6,193.91 higher than it was at the beginning of last month.

$11,657.14 higher than it was two months ago.

It’s $27,213.44 higher than it was six months ago, when I switched my budgeting app from Mint to YNAB and began focusing on growing my net worth as quickly as possible.

I wasn’t expecting the numbers to grow quite this fast, honestly.

So let’s look at how they did.

Moving to a lower cost-of-living area

In November 2017, I moved from Seattle to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This move, which I wrote about in detail for Vox, cost me $5,929.10. (This includes travel, shipping my belongings, buying new furniture, etc.)

It also cut my expenses by close to $1,000 a month, much of that in rent costs.

This means it took about half a year for the move to “pay for itself.” After that, any money I saved by living in a lower cost-of-living area became, for lack of a better term, pure profit.

The move also improved my quality of life considerably—I’m closer to family, I’ve joined community and arts organizations, and I can finally afford to live in an apartment that isn’t held together by mold and grime.

It was a win-win, on all counts.

Working towards financial independence

Moving to a lower cost-of-living area decreased my expenses, which enabled me to think differently about my future. With more money comes more options—not just today, but years down the road.

It took me a little over a year to think about what I might do with these new options—or to even realize I had them. My expenses were lower than my income, I was regularly putting money into my retirement and brokerage accounts, and I wasn’t really thinking about long-term growth; I figured that would take care of itself.

Then I received an advance reader’s copy of Grant Sabatier’s book Financial Freedom: A Proven Path to All the Money You Will Ever Need.

This book blew my mind. More importantly, it made financial independence seem achievable, even for someone like me who earns around $70K annually (pretax).

I read Financial Freedom three times, cover-to-cover. I did all the exercises and plugged my numbers into Sabatier’s online calculators. I realized that with my current expenses, I could “retire” and live off my investments as soon as those investments hit $750,000—which, at the time, the calculators predicted would take twelve years to achieve.

Of course, I’m not really planning to retire in my late 40s. I’m both a writer and a novelist; we tend to keep working until our final hours. But I’m also realistic. I’ve been a freelancer for seven years, but I can’t guarantee my web writing career will last another seven; even if there’s still the same demand for articles and content, I may start getting passed over for fresher faces with a better grasp of pop/youth culture.

Plus, I might have different demands on my time in the future, which might make it harder to devote as much time to freelancing (or other jobs).

So I’m looking at this financial independence plan as a type of insurance, really. The freedom, to borrow Grant Sabatier’s term, to cut back on my freelancing if I have to. To spend more time writing novels, or caregiving, or taking care of my own health, or whatever might come next.

Investing as much as possible

Once I knew that “all I had to do” to achieve financial independence was get myself a $750K investment portfolio, I began asking myself how I could get there as quickly as possible.

This meant investing as much as possible. Pouring every extra dollar into my IRA or my SEP IRA or my brokerage account. (Freelancing has this interesting quirk where every dollar you put into either a traditional IRA or a SEP IRA is counted as an “above-the-line” tax deduction, which means that the more I’m able to put in those accounts, the less I have to pay in taxes and the larger ACA health insurance subsidy I’m entitled to take. This provides a huge incentive to max out both accounts, which I did in 2018.)

According to Vanguard, $4,729.49 of my $27K net worth increase came from investment returns. That’s 18% of the total growth.

Increasing my income

The other way to reach that $750K portfolio as quickly as possible was by increasing my income. As a freelancer, this is easier for me to do than it might be for someone with a traditional job; I’m the upper limit on how much I can earn, after all. (At least until I get to the age where clients might start wanting to replace me with someone younger.)

So I picked up some new clients, including some higher-paying clients. My income is currently higher than it’s ever been, and it looks like it’ll stay that way for the next few months at least—and yes, I’m already thinking about how I’ll cover the income gap if/when one of my freelance gigs ends.

This is the part where I have to mention that my income jump coincided with my decision to stop running The Billfold (and that a portion of my 2018 SEP IRA contributions came from money I had originally set aside for Billfold operations, after closing everything out and paying the freelancers, the vendors, the accountants, and the lawyers). If you’re not familiar with my entire career arc—and there’s no reason why you should be—I spent five years writing and editing for The Billfold, a personal finance site that was part of the Awl Network. When the Awl Network stopped publishing in early 2018, they asked me if I would be interested in running The Billfold as its own project, which I did for a year.

It would be very, very easy for me to write this post as a story of consistent growth and triumph, but realizing that I could no longer keep The Billfold going—and then deciding to accept that realization, after going through every single stage of grief—did not feel particularly triumphant. It was both a personal and a career failure; worse than that, it meant telling a community of readers and commenters that the site they’d been visiting every day for years was going to stop publishing.

And then, once it was over, everything got better—for me, anyway. (I know many Billfold readers still miss the site.) In many ways it was like leaving Seattle for Cedar Rapids; the decision was not easy, people were sad to see me go, and I still miss many aspects of living in the city. But once I was settled into my new life, I knew I’d made the right choice.

Living the frugal life

There are a lot of reasons why I am able to save as much money as I currently save—I’m single, I’m healthy, I have no children, I live in a low cost-of-living area, and I’ve been growing my freelance career for nearly a decade.

I also don’t own a car.

I cut my own hair.

I spend, on average, $55 a month on dining out.

I find one shirt I like and buy nine of it, so I never have to think about what to wear. Plus, I rarely look in the mirror and think “I need a new outfit because I don’t like the way I look today.” (If all my clothing looks the same, I always look the same—which means I always feel the same way about how I look.)

I do a lot of really frugal, kinda weird things in the name of keeping my expenses as low as possible. I eat the same things every day: breakfast is Huel plus a banana; lunch is Huel plus an apple; dinner is quinoa, which I buy in bulk, cooked with frozen vegetables and spices and served with a side of cottage cheese plus frozen blueberries for dessert. I visit the library probably three times a week (okay, that one isn’t that weird). I got rid of Netflix, and I only subscribed to HBO long enough to catch the last season of Game of Thrones.

I try to save money wherever I can, so I have the freedom to spend money on things like self-publishing my novels and spending a week in Walt Disney World.

Now I’m living the frugal life so I can work towards financial freedom as well.

In case you haven’t done the backwards math: in order for me to hit financial independence with a $750K portfolio, I need to keep my monthly expenses around $2,500. That’s not difficult for me, in part because I’ve been living very frugally for a very long time. Whether it becomes more difficult in the future—well, we’ll have to see. That’s why I’m looking at this financial freedom project as insurance, rather than the point at which I’ll never have to work another day in my life.

The calculators have already updated my target goal date from 12 years to 10 years.

We’ll see how my net worth changes over the next six months.

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