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'I felt hate more than anything': How an active duty airman tried to start a civil war

Series: The Insurrection

The Effort to Overturn the Election

It was 2:20 p.m. on June 6, 2020, and Steven Carrillo, a 32-year-old Air Force sergeant who belonged to the anti-government Boogaloo Bois movement, was on the run in the tiny mountain town of Ben Lomond, California.

With deputy sheriffs closing in, Carrillo texted his brother, Evan, asking him to tell his children he loved them and instructing him to give $50,000 to his fiancée. “I love you bro," Carrillo signed off. Thinking the text message was a suicide note from a brother with a history of mental health troubles, Evan Carrillo quickly texted back: “Think about the ones you love."

In fact, Steven Carrillo had a different objective, a goal he had written about on Facebook, discussed with other Boogaloo Bois and even scrawled out in his own blood as he hid from police that day. He wanted to incite a second Civil War in the United States by killing police officers he viewed as enforcers of a corrupt and tyrannical political order — officers he described as “domestic enemies" of the Constitution he professed to revere.

Now, as he texted with his brother and watched deputies assemble so close to him that he could hear their conversations, Carrillo sent an urgent appeal to his fellow Boogaloo Bois. “Kit up and get here," he wrote in a WhatsApp message that prosecutors say he sent to members of a heavily armed Boogaloo militia faction he had recently joined. The police, he texted, were after him.

“Take them out when theyre coming in," the text read, according to court documents.

Minutes later, prosecutors allege, Carrillo ambushed three deputy sheriffs, opening fire with a silenced automatic rifle and hurling a homemade pipe bomb from a concealed position on a steep embankment some 40 feet from the deputies. One deputy was shot dead, and a second was badly wounded by bomb shrapnel to his face and neck. When two California Highway Patrol officers arrived, Carrillo opened fire on them, too, police say, wounding one.

“The police are the guard dogs, ready to attack whenever the owner says, 'Hey, sic 'em boy,'" Carrillo said in an interview, the first time he has spoken publicly since he was charged with murdering both the deputy sheriff in Ben Lomond and, a week earlier, a federal protective security officer at the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Oakland.

When Carrillo was finally subdued on June 6, cellphone footage captured him shouting at deputies as they led him away, “This is what I came to fight — I'm sick of these goddamn police."

For Carrillo, that final frenzied expression of rage marked the culmination of a long slide into extremism, a journey that had begun a decade earlier with his embrace of the tea party movement, libertarianism and Second Amendment gun rights, before evolving into an ever-deepening involvement with paramilitary elements of the Boogaloo Bois. The militant group is known for the distinctive Hawaiian shirts its members wear at protests, often while brandishing AR-15s and agitating for the “Boog" — the group's shorthand for civil war.

Carrillo's arrest was also an omen of something larger and even more ominous: the rise of a violent insurrection movement across America led by increasingly extreme and aggressive militias that seek out opportunities to confront and even attack the government. Examples of this broader insurrection abound, from October's foiled plot to abduct Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to the leading role militia groups such as the Proud Boys and Oathkeepers played in the violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

While militias have long been active in the United States, groups tracking extremist violence have reported notable increases in paramilitary activity over the past year, and the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the director of national intelligence have all issued stark warnings in recent months about an elevated threat of violence from domestic extremist groups.

ProPublica, FRONTLINE and Berkeley Journalism's Investigative Reporting Program also uncovered new evidence that some military service members have embraced extremist ideology. The news organizations identified 15 active-duty members of the Air Force who, like Carrillo, openly promoted Boogaloo memes and messages on Facebook. On Friday, the Pentagon announced new measures to combat extremism inside the military. The Biden administration, meanwhile, is increasing funding for preventing attacks by militias, white supremacists and other anti-government groups, The New York Times reported this month.

“These groups want to be instigators, the frontline of the civil war that is going to happen in this country," said John Bennett, who was the special agent in charge of the FBI's San Francisco Division at the time of Carrillo's arrest.

“The scary thing," he added, “is a lot of people in these groups that we're seeing now are your neighbors."

An examination of Carrillo's life and his path to radicalization, based on extensive interviews with him, his family, his friends and his fiancée, along with a review of hundreds of pages of court records, previously undisclosed text messages and internal militia documents, revealed startling new details about the threat posed by the Boogaloo Bois.

Experts in extremist militia groups have long regarded the Boogaloo Bois as having no real hierarchy or leadership structure. But in piecing together Carrillo's activities and militia contacts, law enforcement officials were stunned to discover the extent of coordination, planning and communications within the group.

Not only was Carrillo in regular contact with a wide range of prominent Boogaloo Boi figures around the country, records and interviews show, but two months before his arrest Carrillo had joined up with a heavily armed, highly organized and extremely secretive Boogaloo militia group in California that called itself the “Grizzly Scouts."

“This group was different," Jim Hart, the sheriff of Santa Cruz County, where Ben Lomond is located, said in an interview. “There was a definite chain of command and a line of leadership within this group."

In a federal indictment unsealed on Friday, prosecutors said Carrillo and four members of the Grizzly Scouts, including its leader, “discussed tactics involving killing of police officers and other law enforcement." The indictment also alleges that the same four Grizzly Scouts tried to thwart a criminal investigation into their activities by destroying evidence of their communications with Carrillo and each other.

In nearly two hours of interviews conducted in Spanish and English, as well as in a letter dictated to his fiancée from Santa Rita Jail east of Oakland, Carrillo talked about the evolution of his anti-government ideology. While he would not discuss any of the criminal charges against him, Carrillo spoke at length about his continuing allegiance to the Boogaloo Bois and patiently explained how the movement's “revolutionary thought" could offer a rationale for attacks against law enforcement officers who he or any other Boogaloo Boi thinks are violating the Constitution. “I pledged to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic," he said.

Not once did Carrillo express pity or remorse over the deaths of Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller, the deputy sheriff, whose wife was pregnant with their second child, or David Patrick Underwood, the security officer at the Oakland federal building, who made a habit of donating to local baseball youth organizations.

Becoming a Boog

Born in Los Angeles in 1988, Carrillo had an early childhood marked by episodes of domestic violence. According to family members, his father, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who worked as a tree trimmer, repeatedly assaulted his mother, who was from Burbank, California. Given up by his parents as a toddler, Carrillo and Evan, his older brother, were taken in by other members of their family, and at age 5 he was sent with his brother to a tiny rural village in Jalisco, Mexico, where they lived on their grandparents' farm. A couple of years later, the Carrillo boys returned to California to live with their father, eventually settling in Ben Lomond, a remote two-stoplight town in the Santa Cruz Mountains. After graduating from San Lorenzo Valley High School, Carrillo said he joined the Air Force in 2009, the same year he married his childhood sweetheart. In an interview, Carrillo's father denied the family's allegations of domestic violence, but otherwise declined to comment. Carrillo's mother would not speak on the record for this article.

According to Carrillo, his ideas about politics and the role of government began to take shape in the Air Force. “Before, I was confined to a little bubble," he said in an interview, referring to his upbringing in Ben Lomond, population 7,000. Once he joined the Air Force and met others from around the world, “talking to people changed my whole views," he said. He followed a well-worn path that began with a fierce attachment to gun rights, which in turn led him to libertarianism, and then an enthusiastic embrace of the tea party movement.

By 2012, Carrillo was a registered Republican who supported Gary Johnson, the presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party, and Ron Paul. He attended Second Amendment rallies and advocated for expanded gun rights on a Facebook page set up for a group of self-described Christian “patriots."

In 2015, while stationed at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah, Carrillo was in a car accident that left him hospitalized with a concussion and head lacerations. Family and friends said the crash affected his mental health. “He wasn't himself," Evan Carrillo said in an interview. “He was usually very talkative, very social. I was the quiet one. And now it was like talking to a wall."

At the time, Carrillo was a security forces officer in the Air Force. According to his siblings, his mental health issues were serious enough that the Air Force took Carrillo's gun away for several months. (The Air Force said it could not immediately locate the records it needed to comment about this incident.)

He became even more withdrawn, family members said, after his wife committed suicide in 2018 shortly after he confessed to cheating on her yet again. He spoke of wanting to kill himself and started living out of a van, leaving it to his in-laws to look after his two young children. “He was just in complete disconnect of how people should live and who he was," said his sister, Ruby.

And yet months after his wife's suicide, Air Force records show, Carrillo was serving as an apprentice in Phoenix Raven, an elite Air Force security unit that is dispatched to protect aircraft and air crews in global hotspots. At the time, Carrillo was stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Northern California, but his apprenticeship with the Ravens also gave him special training in combat techniques, explosives and advanced firearms proficiency at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst near Trenton, New Jersey.

According to the Air Force, Carrillo completed the 24-day Phoenix Raven qualification course in New Jersey in late 2018, then returned to Travis Air Force Base to become “fully mission qualified as a Raven." From July to November of 2019, Carrillo served as a Phoenix Raven Team Leader in Kuwait and other countries in the region, the Air Force said.

In an interview, Carrillo said he was introduced to the political ideology of the Boogaloo Bois through friends in the Air Force and on the internet. The 15 active-duty airmen identified by the news organizations as openly promoting Boogaloo content on Facebook worked at bases around the world, including eight who, like Carrillo, served in the Air Force security branch.

When asked about these active-duty airmen, the Air Force said in a statement that personnel who participate in extremist groups are in “direct violation" of Defense Department regulations. “Supporting extremist ideology, especially that which calls for violence or the deprivation of civil liberties of certain members of society, violates the oath every service member takes to support and defend the Constitution of the United States," the Air Force statement said.

On Friday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the Pentagon to take a series of immediate steps to counter extremism in the military.

It is unclear precisely when Carrillo began associating with the Boogaloo Bois, but according to a sworn statement from an FBI agent he was in direct contact with prominent figures in the group by December 2019.

The next month, prosecutors allege, he bought a $15 device that converts AR-15 semiautomatic rifles into fully automatic machine guns, making the purchase through a website that advertised to Boogaloo Facebook groups and promised to donate some of its profits to the family of Duncan Lemp, who became a Boogaloo martyr after he was killed in a police raid. Carrillo also began incorporating popular militia memes and imagery into his Facebook posts, and was in touch online with a growing circle of Boogaloo Bois. “A lot of people in the movement knew who Steve was," Mike Dunn, the leader of a Boogaloo faction in Virginia that calls itself the Last Sons of Liberty, said in an interview.

Carrillo's girlfriend, Silvia Amaya, said she noticed a distinct shift in Carrillo's behavior at around this time. He struggled with insomnia and was increasingly “shut off in his own world," she said in an interview. He talked frequently about how “a war would start soon," echoing the core belief of Boogaloo followers.

The Grizzly Scouts

On March 14, 2020, prosecutors allege in court filings, Carrillo received a text message from Ivan Hunter, a Boogaloo Bois leader in Texas. The message reads like an instruction to get ready for action. “Start drafting that op," Hunter wrote to Carrillo. “The one we talked about in December. I'ma green light some shit." In response, Carrillo wrote, “Sounds good, bro!" Soon after, Carrillo sought to join the Grizzly Scouts, a newly-formed California militia group that had proclaimed its “affinity for Hawaiian shirts," the best-known symbol of the Boogaloo Bois, in its profile page on mymilitia.com.

The Grizzly Scouts, also known as the 1st Detachment of the 1st California Scouts, are based in Turlock, a small city about 100 miles southeast of San Francisco. According to federal prosecutors, the Grizzly Scouts had a Facebook group called “/K/alifornia Kommando" that proclaimed their desire “to gather like minded Californians who can network and establish local goon squads." (Among the Boogaloo Bois, the word “goon" refers to a single member.)

On April 10, 2020, according to records obtained by the news organizations, a member of the Grizzly Scouts who goes by the alias BoojerBro1776 emailed Carrillo an extensive packet of application materials, 31 pages in all. (“On boarding," read the email's subject line.) The documents, never before publicly disclosed, are an odd blend of corporate instruction manual and chilling playbook for armed military action.

New recruits were asked to abide by a social media policy and to sign both a non-disclosure agreement and a release of liability. The application itself offered this bit of corporate boilerplate: “If this application leads to employment, I understand that false or misleading information in my application or interview may result in my release."

At the same time, the documents make clear that the Grizzly Scouts intended to do more than simply meet up in the woods for occasional target practice. A policy on the Grizzly Scouts' dress code begins this way: “Since the time man realized we could kill each other to gain something, men have donned uniforms and have gone to battle." The documents, which describe the Grizzly Scouts as an “armed Constitutional militia," go on to decree that black will be worn “while conducting covert/clandestine operations," and stress the importance of wearing approved Grizzly Scout uniforms “to mitigate any potential battlefield confusion."

“Our Areas of Operations can take us from the dirt to downtown in a blink of an eye," the document states.

The documents also make clear that Carrillo's military background, in particular his advanced combat and weapons training, provided exactly the qualities the Grizzly Scouts wanted in its recruits. The Grizzly Scouts' members — law enforcement officials say the group had attracted 27 recruits — were given military ranks and roles based on their level of military training and prior combat experience. Some Grizzly Scouts were designated “snipers," others were assigned to “clandestine operations," and some were medics or drivers. Whatever their role, all were expected to maintain go kits that included “combat gauze" and both a “primary" and “secondary" weapon.

Two weeks after receiving his application materials, Carrillo joined the Grizzly Scouts for a weekend of training — or “church," in the group's vernacular. In keeping with the Grizzly Scouts' desire for secrecy, Carrillo was vague with Amaya, his girlfriend, about where he had been and whom he was with. Aware of his history of cheating, Amaya imagined the worst and insisted he take her along the next time he planned to meet with his mysterious new friends. “I was very angry and jealous," she said.

On May 9, the couple loaded their car with guns and bulletproof vests and headed toward a ranch in Mariposa County, not far from Yosemite National Park, to meet the Grizzly Scouts for another training session. Along the way they met up with Jessie Rush, the “detachment commander" of the Grizzly Scouts, whose LinkedIn profile says he is a U.S. Army veteran now employed by a private security company. Rush, also known as “Grizzly Actual," reminded them not to take photos, but otherwise raised no objections to Amaya's presence as the Grizzly Scouts went through various shooting drills.

Rush, one of the four Grizzly Scouts now charged with concealing evidence of their communications with Carrillo, declined to comment.

When asked in an interview about his involvement with the Grizzly Scouts, Carrillo responded evasively. “How did you figure that out?" he asked in Spanish when first pressed about his ties to the group. Later, Carrillo professed little understanding of either the aims or activities of the Grizzly Scouts. “We were just getting to know each other," he said.

According to prosecutors, however, Carrillo held the rank of “staff sergeant" in the Grizzly Scouts, and, as with other members of the group, he was given an animal nom de guerre: “Armadillo."

Combat Mode

George Floyd's death in Minneapolis on May 25, 15 days after Carrillo's last training session with the Grizzly Scouts, galvanized the Boogaloo faithful. In online postings, they spoke of Floyd's death not only as an example of egregious police misconduct but as an opportunity to stoke chaos that could be blamed on the Black Lives Matter movement. The resulting racial unrest, they hoped, would accelerate the long-awaited “Boogaloo" — the final conflict, a second Civil War.

Two days after Floyd's death, Carrillo's Boogaloo friend Ivan Hunter drove from Texas to Minneapolis. Armed with an AK-47-style semiautomatic rifle, Hunter fired off 13 rounds into an abandoned Minneapolis police precinct where hundreds of protesters had gathered, prosecutors allege. Prosecutors say Hunter yelled, “Justice for Floyd!" before disappearing into the night with several other Boogaloo Bois who had come to Minneapolis to provoke civil strife. Hunter, eventually arrested in San Antonio, was charged with participating in a riot and is being held without bail; his defense lawyer declined to comment.

For Carrillo, Floyd's death confirmed his view of the police as little more than willing instruments of a corrupt and tyrannical political order bent on destroying the Constitution. “I felt hate more than anything," he said in an interview when asked about Floyd's killing.

“The Boogaloo revolution is against the government," he explained, “but the police is basically the government's dog on a leash."

Amaya said Floyd's killing “unleashed the worst" in Carrillo, who in the days that followed behaved, she recalled, like a man who was preparing for battle. “It's a great opportunity to target the specialty soup bois," Carrillo wrote on his Facebook page on May 28, using Boogaloo slang for federal law enforcement agencies. That night he shocked Amaya by proposing marriage, presenting her with a $25 turquoise blue silicone ring and promising to replace it with a diamond ring later.

The next day, Carrillo left Amaya's house. According to prosecutors, he picked up another Boogaloo Boi, Robert Justus Jr., and drove to downtown Oakland. It was 9:15 p.m., and crowds had gathered on Oakland's streets to protest and mourn Floyd's death. Meanwhile, blocks away, the two men drove a white Ford van around Oakland's federal courthouse, where David Patrick Underwood, a federal protective security officer, staffed a two-person guard hut. Prosecutors say Carrillo was in the back seat near the sliding door, carrying a short-barreled rifle, a “ghost weapon" with no serial number, making it almost impossible to trace. According to the FBI, it was an illegal machine gun optimized to fire bursts of shots automatically, with an added silencer.

Hours before, Carrillo had posted on Facebook that if “it's not kicking off in your hood then start it." Now, according to prosecutors, Justus drove toward the guard hut while Carrillo slid the van's door open and fired multiple bursts, killing Underwood and seriously wounding a second guard. “Did you see how they fucking fell?" Carrillo said as the van drove off, according to an account Justus gave investigators after turning himself in.

“In his mind, Steven was on a mission just like in the Air Force, except the enemy was the police," Amaya said.

A lawyer for Justus, who has been charged with aiding and abetting Underwood's murder, declined to discuss his client's alleged involvement with the Boogaloo Bois. Instead he pointed to court filings that describe what Justus told investigators. According to those records, Justus insisted to investigators that he felt he had to participate because he was “trapped in the van." He also claimed he told Carrillo, “I am not cool with this," and tried to think of ways to “talk Carrillo out of his plan," only for Carrillo to respond by pointing a rifle at him and asking if he was “a cop or a rat."

The shooting of both guards aligned neatly with Boogaloo ideology. “Use their anger to fuel our fire," Carrillo had written on Facebook that morning. “We have mobs of angry people to use to our advantage." Sure enough, some conservative commentators rushed to blame Underwood's murder on antifa and Black Lives Matter protesters.

Four hours after Underwood's death, Carrillo received a text message from Hunter urging him to attack police buildings, court records show.

Carrillo's response: “I did better lol."

That weekend, when Carrillo returned to Amaya's house, he seemed “on edge and distracted," she recalled. He asked for a week's leave at Travis Air Force base and sent $200 to Hunter, congratulating him for “doing good shit out there." Most of the time, she said, Carrillo was glued to Facebook, following the news and commenting on viral videos of police clashing with protesters. “Who needs antifa to start riots when the police do it for you," read one of his posts.

In the days after the Oakland shooting, Carrillo communicated regularly with Rush and other members of the Grizzly Scouts on a WhatsApp group they called “209 Goon HQ," prosecutors say. (The area code for Mariposa County, home turf of the Grizzly Scouts, is 209.) Via WhatsApp, they repeatedly made references to the “Boog" and “discussed committing acts of violence against law enforcement," prosecutors allege.

On Saturday, June 6, Carrillo drove to his father's house in Ben Lomond. It was about 2 p.m. when Gutzwiller, a sergeant in the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office, and two more deputies arrived at the property, which was guarded by a dog wearing a bulletproof vest and monitored by security cameras. They were responding to a call from a passerby who had spotted a suspicious white Ford van loaded with what appeared to be firearms and bomb-making material. When the deputies learned the van was registered to Carrillo's father, they pulled up to his house to question him.

The deputies did not realize Carrillo was above them, perched just 40 feet away in a covered, well-concealed position up a steep embankment, aiming the same “ghost" weapon that prosecutors say he had used in Oakland.

Based on the WhatsApp text messages that prosecutors say he sent at this time, Carrillo appeared to be trying to guide his fellow Grizzly Scouts on how they could join forces with him in a coordinated attack on the law enforcement officers gathering to search for him.

“Theyre waiting for reenforcements," he texted.

And this: “Theres inly one road in/out. Take them out when theyre coming in."

According to police, Carrillo “sniped" Gutzwiller, killing him with a single shot to the chest. Another deputy was also shot in the chest, but was saved by his bulletproof vest.

During the mayhem and bloodshed that followed, Carrillo engaged in a running gun battle with law enforcement officers, hurling pipe bombs and hijacking vehicles. In his own blood, he scrawled “BOOG" and “I became unreasonable" and “Stop the Duopoly" — all common Boogaloo slogans — on the hood of a car he had stolen. And at some point, he sent one more WhatsApp message to his fellow Grizzly Scouts: “Dudes i offed a fed."

For all of Carrillo's urgent appeals for reinforcements, there is no indication any Grizzly Scout tried to come to his aid. While questioning Carrillo's fiancée in August, Henry Montes, an investigator for the Santa Cruz County District Attorney's Office, offered a possible explanation. Some members of the Grizzly Scouts, he said, had told investigators that Carrillo was too extreme for them. “The things that he was saying made them think he wants to kill policemen," Montes told Amaya, according to a recording of the interview obtained by the news organizations.

“We spoke with some people who were no longer part of that group because they were afraid of Steven," Montes said.

A Jailhouse Wedding

In interviews, Carrillo's siblings describe a brother who suffered from years of severe mental health problems and didn't get the support and medical treatment he needed from the Air Force. “I could see his pain," Carrillo's sister, Ruby, said.

Over two hours of interviews, Carrillo himself did not attribute any of his actions to mental illness. Instead, he forthrightly proclaimed his support for the Boogaloo Bois and repeatedly challenged what he views as misconceptions about the group.

“I just want to say, the Boogaloo movement, you know, there's a lot in the paper that I feel like people don't understand," he said. “And that is the Boogaloo movement, it's all inclusive. It includes everyone. It's not a thing about race. It's about people that love freedom, liberty, and they're unhappy with the level of control that the government takes over our lives. So it's just a movement, it's a thought about freedom. It's just a complete love for freedom."

Meanwhile, as Carrillo sits in jail awaiting trial, his political evolution continues. In a letter he wrote to reporters in October, he referred to Joe Biden as a man who “sniffs kids," echoing QAnon, a pro-Trump conspiracy theory that falsely accuses the Democratic Party of running a Satan-worshipping child sex-trafficking ring.

Carrillo's defense lawyers declined to comment.

Amaya continues to stand by Carrillo. “I know him, and I think he can change," she said.

On Christmas Day the couple exchanged vows through a video call from the Santa Rita Jail. “I love your lips, baby," Carrillo told her.

She promised to love him “forever and always."

When are taxes due?

Series: The ProPublica Free Tax Guide

Free, Fact-Checked Tax Information. That's All.

The IRS is struggling under a mountain of paperwork and grappling with outdated technology, and in the past year it has been tasked with distributing stimulus checks three separate times.

When are taxes due?

2020 federal income tax returns for individuals are now due on May 17, 2021. The IRS announced in March that its tax deadline would be pushed back from the usual date, April 15. “Even with the new deadline, we urge taxpayers to consider filing as soon as possible, especially those who are owed refunds. Filing electronically with direct deposit is the quickest way to get refunds," IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said in the statement.

The deadline for paying federal income tax for individuals has also moved to May 17, 2021.

Am I eligible for the new tax deadline?

This new deadline applies to individual taxpayers, including individuals who pay self-employment tax.

Do I need to file for a tax extension to be eligible for the new deadline?

No. Taxpayers are automatically eligible for the new deadline.

Does the new deadline apply to all taxes?

No. This applies to all individual tax filers, and it does not include trusts, estates, corporations and other noncorporate tax filers. Quarterly estimated taxes for individuals are still due April 15, 2021, too.

There's a good chance the new deadline applies to your state taxes. As of April 2021, most states have either followed the IRS' lead and delayed their tax deadlines until May 17, or have extended their deadline further. But each state is different. Here is an updated list of how each state has approached its 2021 tax deadlines in response to the coronavirus.

Can I still file for an extension?

Yes. Individual taxpayers can still ask for an extension to October 15, 2021, by filing Form 4868.

Will my tax refund be delayed?

No. The IRS says that most tax refunds are still being paid within 21 days of filing. The IRS encourages taxpayers to file electronically with direct deposit as it's the quickest way to receive your refund. While the IRS continues to accept paper forms, it has a severe paperwork backlog and strongly urges e-filing. Here's how to track your tax refund.

If I already filed and set up automatic payments, will those automatically be delayed until May 17?

No. If you used IRS Direct Pay or its Electronic Federal Tax Payment System and set it up to take your tax payment out of your account on April 15, it will still do that. You can change the date there manually, so long as you do so two days before the scheduled payment. If you authorized an electronic funds request, you can contact the U.S. Treasury's financial agent two days before the scheduled withdrawal date at 888-353-4537 to reschedule.

Do I have to pay to have my taxes prepared with the new deadline?

No.

And if you made less than $72,000 in 2020, there is almost certainly free and easy software you can use to file your taxes. Even if you made more than that, you might still be able to file for free using tax prep software.

For reference, here is how to file your state and federal taxes for free in 2021.

About this guide: ProPublica has reported extensively about taxes, the IRS Free File program and the IRS. Specifically, we've covered the ways in which the for-profit tax preparation industry — companies like Intuit (TurboTax), H&R Block and Tax Slayer — has lobbied for the Free File program, then systematicallyundermined it with evasive search tactics and confusing design. These companies also work to fill search engine results with tax “guides" that sometimes route users to paid products. ProPublica's guide is not personalized tax advice, and you should speak to a tax professional about your specific tax situation.

Trump officials skirted rules to reward politically connected and untested firms with hefty pandemic contracts: documents

A top adviser to former President Donald Trump pressured agency officials to reward politically connected or otherwise untested companies with hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts as part of a chaotic response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the early findings of an inquiry led by House Democrats.

Peter Navarro, who served as Trump's deputy assistant and trade adviser, essentially verbally awarded a $96 million deal for respirators to a company with White House connections. Later, officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency were pressured to sign the contract after the fact, according to correspondence obtained by congressional investigators.

Documents obtained by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis after a year of resistance from the Trump administration offer new details about Navarro's role in a largely secretive buying spree of personal protective equipment and medical supplies.

But they also show he was among the first Trump officials to sense the urgency of the building crisis, urging the president to push agencies and other officials to “combat the virus swiftly in 'Trump Time'" and cut through the red tape of the federal purchasing system.

In another communication, Navarro was so adamant that a potential $354 million contract be awarded to an untested pharmaceutical company that he told the top official at the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, “my head is going to explode if this contract does not get immediately approved."

Navarro did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The committee's work backs up investigations by ProPublica and other news outlets into the more than $36 billion the federal government has awarded, much of it without traditional bidding and with little scrutiny, to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

At least five of the committee's lines of inquiry are exploring issues reported by ProPublica, including the $96 million no-bid deal for respirators that was ordered by Navarro, a $34.5 million deal signed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that fell apart and ended with a contractor pleading guilty to fraud, a contract for masks awarded to a former Trump administration official, and the revelation that FEMA had paid millions to a contractor with a history of fraud allegations for unusable and unsanitary fake test tubes.

In a letter describing the subcommittee's findings, Democrat James Clyburn of South Carolina and members of the committee told President Joe Biden's emergency response team that Trump's lack of action worsened the health crisis.

“The President rejected calls from governors to ensure that the country had sufficient (personal protective equipment) and other supplies to address the crisis, leading to severe shortages and forcing states and cities to compete on the open market," they wrote.

The committee asked officials overseeing FEMA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, along with the director of the National Archives, to provide records detailing Navarro's actions and the circumstances behind several questionable contracts awarded in response to the pandemic, which has left more than 550,000 Americans dead and many more suffering.

“In the absence of a coordinated national plan, various White House officials pursued ineffective, ad hoc approaches to procuring certain supplies. Recently obtained documents show that White House officials pushed federal agencies to issue non-competitive contracts for certain pharmaceutical ingredients and other items — some of which would not be ready for many months or even years — even as acute shortages for surgical masks, nitrile gloves, gowns, and other items continued," members of the subcommittee wrote.

The respirator deal, with Airboss Defense Group, a subsidiary of Canadian company Airboss of America, was reported by ProPublica in April 2020 after a highly unusual entry in federal procurement data indicated the contract had been directly ordered by the White House. The Trump administration provided few answers about the award, but records the company provided to Congress indicate the firm used an influential consultant to connect Navarro with Airboss CEO Patrick Callahan.

Retired four-star Army Gen. John Keane, whom Trump had recently awarded the Medal of Freedom, reached out to Navarro on behalf of Airboss and the company got a phone meeting with the White House Coronavirus Task Force, emails show. The emails indicate that the company delivered an initial batch of respirators to FEMA before any contract was awarded, and the company upped its production on the promise that the White House, and Navarro, would make a contract official. Emails indicate the company expected to be paid upfront, at contract signing. The federal government typically doesn't pay until a contract is agreed to and a product is delivered.

Airboss' parent company nearly tripled its sales in large part because of the deals Navarro helped broker, the subcommittee wrote, and saw a $12 million increase in profit from April to June 2020. The company said it hadn't seen the subcommittee's letters but defended its work with FEMA.

An Airboss spokesperson said in a statement that the company is “proud of its successful efforts to rapidly respond to the urgent requests of the then White House Coronavirus Task Force to help supply the U.S. Government with urgently-needed PPE equipment to save lives, and protect our front-line healthcare professionals in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. Within days of the request, ADG mobilized its extensive U.S. PPE manufacturing capabilities, and vast supply chain network to produce and begin delivering this critical equipment."

In a separate contract negotiation, this time for generic pharmaceuticals, Navarro pressured FEMA and officials leading the effort to beef up a depleted national stockpile to award a potential $354 million deal to Phlow to make drug ingredients. In an email pressing BARDA officials Navarro wrote:

“This is a travesty. I need PHLOW noticed by Monday morning. This is being screwed up. Let's move this now. We need to flip the switch and they can't move until you do. FULL funding as we discussed."

Democrats on the subcommittee noted that Phlow had never before received a federal contract and had incorporated just a couple months earlier, in January 2020. ProPublica left a message with a company spokeswoman, who has not yet responded.

In another public letter this month, the subcommittee expressed concern that Robert Stewart, the CEO of Federal Government Experts LLC, which was awarded a no-bid $34.5 million contract with the VA and a smaller deal with FEMA, wasn't cooperating with its investigation.

This contradicts statements his lawyer made before a federal district judge just weeks before, that Stewart was helping congressional investigators, as he pleaded guilty to multiple counts of fraud. Stewart did not immediately respond to calls and text messages.

A police union contract puts taxpayers on the hook to defend officers when the city won't

Even among the hundreds of videos capturing the violent police response to Black Lives Matter protests last year, this one stood out.

A muscular male officer, in a navy blue shirt with “NYPD" across the back, lunged at a young demonstrator, shoving her several feet and sending her crashing to the ground on a street in Brooklyn.

In a video shot by a reporter and shared widely on social media, the woman, Dounya Zayer, can be seen clutching her head and writhing in pain after she tumbles to the asphalt.

The mayor called the officer's actions “absolutely unacceptable," the police commissioner said internal affairs was investigating and, 11 days after the incident, the district attorney announced criminal charges against the officer, Vincent D'Andraia.

Zayer, 21, went on to file a lawsuit alleging that D'Andraia had violated her right to free speech, and last month, the city's Law Department, which almost always represents officers sued for on-the-job actions, told D'Andraia it wouldn't defend him in court.

It looked like the city was cutting the cop loose, a step rarely taken in the hundreds of lawsuits filed every year against NYPD officers. But while a city lawyer won't be representing D'Andraia in court, it turns out New Yorkers are still paying the law firm that is representing him in the case.

That's because every year, the city treasury effectively bankrolls a union-controlled legal defense fund for officers. The little-known fund is financed in part by a direct city contribution of nearly $2 million a year that is expressly intended to pay for lawyers in civil cases like D'Andraia's, where the Law Department has decided an officer's conduct is essentially indefensible. Or, as the police union's legal plan puts it, “when the City of New York fails or otherwise refuses to provide a legal defense."

The money isn't supposed to be used by the union, the Police Benevolent Association, “in any action directly or indirectly adverse to the interests of the City," according to a 1985 letter memorializing the deal that established the annual taxpayer contribution. But the agreement doesn't define those “interests," and the city is typically a co-defendant in such cases, as it is in the lawsuit by Zayer. So even as the city might distance itself from an officer, it could still argue that the government's legal interests are best served by its employee having robust legal representation.

“It's not bad public policy to invest and make sure that all sides have adequate representation," said Zachary Carter, who ran the Law Department from 2014 to 2019.

But critics say that subsidizing such defenses could undercut police accountability by sending a message to officers that the city will back them no matter what.

“The bottom line is this is scandalous," said Joel Berger, a lawyer who specializes in police abuse cases and who, in the 1990s, served as a senior official in the Law Department who decided when the city should withdraw representation of officers. “It was a sweetheart deal with the union and it should never have been agreed to."

Neither the mayor's office nor the Law Department would address detailed questions from ProPublica about the fund, including how the city squares paying for the defense of officers it won't represent with the provision stipulating that the money not be used for any purpose “adverse to the interests of the City."

The Legal Services Fund of the Police Benevolent Association has in recent years paid for the representation of an NYPD officer accused in a lawsuit of slamming a 75-year-old man with Parkinson's disease against the hood of a car after the man talked back to the cop, and has paid to defend another officer who court papers charge tackled an unarmed, chronically ill, 4-foot-8-inch, 85-pound man and shocked him with a stun gun.

The message to officers, said Zayer's lawyer, Tahanie Aboushi, is that the city will help shield them from some of the consequences of even their most egregious conduct.

“Maybe you're going to be disciplined," said Aboushi, who is a candidate in the race to be the next Manhattan district attorney, “but getting a lawyer, paying for a lawyer, understanding the accountability that comes from a lawsuit — they're completely insulated from that."

It is the sort of protection that, in the last few decades, has proliferated in police labor agreements across the country, often negotiated behind closed doors, with little attention paid to the public policy implications.

But in the reckoning that has followed George Floyd's killing, many Americans are rethinking how the country is policed and unions are facing particularly pointed questions, not just in Minnesota or in New York, but also in city halls, in state legislatures and at negotiating tables across the country.

“There is a whole set of what I've labeled 'special privileges' that employees in other contexts don't enjoy," said Samuel Walker, an emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a national expert on police accountability. “It's been a very secretive development, and the lack of any organized opposition until just recently has kept it secret."

The violent police response to many Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country in the weeks after Floyd's death only intensified calls for sweeping changes in American policing.

In New York, the furor after Floyd's death pushed through the long-sought repeal of a state law that made police disciplinary records secret. And last month, the city beat back a legal challenge by the PBA and other unions that had sought to block the release of those records.

But Mayor Bill de Blasio, who campaigned as a champion of police reform, has been criticized for his embrace of the NYPD, particularly during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. As he prepares to leave office at the end of the year, many of the leading candidates to succeed him have promised a new approach to policing.

Still, it's a long way from the campaign stump to the negotiating table, and even after the events of the last year, the police unions — and the power and protections entrenched in their contracts — will pose a formidable test for the next mayor. The PBA's contract expired in 2017 and will remain in force until a new one is approved, so it will almost certainly fall to the new administration to negotiate the next labor deal and to decide whether to take on sacred cows like the legal defense fund.

ProPublica pieced together the origins of the defense fund by reviewing tax records, studying labor agreements and examining other city documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Law.

Like anyone charged with a serious crime, an officer facing criminal prosecution has a right to a defense lawyer. But the deal establishing the city's contribution to the fund was specifically designed to pay for defending officers in civil litigation, where an officer could face a substantial monetary judgment.

The deal, struck by the then-police union head and the city's top labor negotiator, created what has become an annual taxpayer contribution that amounts to $75 per officer. The legal services fund takes in another $3.7 million every year from the union's health and welfare fund, a city-funded entity that provides health insurance and other employee benefits. That portion of the defense fund can be used for legal representation, too, though not in those lawsuits where the city has said it will not represent the officers.

All told, the defense fund takes in about $5.5 million a year, which the PBA pays to the Manhattan law firm of Worth, Longworth & London to represent officers, tax filings show.

A spokesman for the PBA, which represents about 25,000 rank-and-file officers, didn't respond to detailed questions about the fund.

While the PBA was the first to secure the city contribution, the annual $75-per-member taxpayer funding for civil defense has been replicated in the contracts that cover thousands of NYPD sergeants, lieutenants and captains.

The union representing the 9,000 jail guards who run the violence-plagued Rikers Island complex and other city jails secured a $75-per-member city contribution to their defense fund as well. Correction officers are frequently sued over allegations of prisoner abuse and neglect in New York City, suits that have led to multimillion-dollar settlements and, in recent years, a federal investigation and monitoring agreement. And the union representing jail wardens, deputy wardens and assistant deputy wardens gets a $189-per-member contribution for civil defense, according to their contract.

New York City's mayoral primaries are on June 22, and de Blasio's staunch support for the NYPD has made police accountability a key issue in the race to succeed him, especially among candidates with their own ties to oversight and reform of the department.

Candidate Maya Wiley, once a close adviser to de Blasio and later the chair of the city's police oversight board, said she would renegotiate the police union contract to ensure better accountability. A Wiley spokesperson said the taxpayer money going to officers' civil defense should go to gun violence prevention or “a dozen other, better ways to ensure public safety."

Another mayoral candidate, Comptroller Scott Stringer, plays a key role in police accountability, reviewing and approving every settlement reached in civil cases brought against police officers. But a campaign spokesman said Stringer wasn't familiar with the defense fund provision of the PBA's contract and that his policy staff was now looking into it. Mayoral hopeful Eric Adams was for many years a prominent reform voice within the NYPD, rising to the rank of captain and co-founding the group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. But Adams, now the Brooklyn borough president, didn't respond to questions.

In New York, the rare rollback of police union protections has typically come only when a case of police brutality seized the public conscience and compelled political leaders to act. Even then it can take years.

For decades, NYPD officers involved in shootings or other incidents of potential wrongdoing had two full days to consult with lawyers before being questioned by internal affairs investigators. But after officers sodomized a Haitain immigrant with a stick in the bathroom of a Brooklyn police station in 1997, the so-called 48-hour rule emerged as a key obstacle in the investigation.

In negotiations to settle his lawsuit against the city and the police union, the man, Abner Louima, and his lawyers called for the rule to be scrapped. It wasn't until 2002, during labor negotiations with the police union, that city officials moved to extract the provision from the agreement, asserting that the police commissioner had broad authority to oversee disciplinary matters. That prompted a yearslong legal battle, which the union ultimately lost in 2006.

Removing a union benefit that has been renewed for decades is possible, but it's hard to do, said Victor Kovner, who served as the city's chief lawyer under Mayor David Dinkins in the early 1990s. “And hard doesn't begin to suggest how challenging it would be," he said.

Stephen Rushin, a professor at Loyola University School of Law in Chicago and an expert on police contracts, said that the key question is whether the legal costs of officer misconduct, however cities choose to cover them, lead police departments and their officers to change the way they operate.

“How do we make cities internalize the costs that their officers are generating through their misconduct with the public?" Rushin said.

The NYPD has about 35,000 officers and the Law Department usually represents them when they're sued in civil court in connection with on-the-job conduct and takes responsibility for paying out settlements or any punitive damages a jury might award. In fiscal year 2019, the city paid $220.1 million in settlements and judgments for police-related cases, city comptroller data shows.

But when the Law Department concludes that an officer likely acted outside “the scope of his public employment and in the discharge of his duties" and violated internal disciplinary rules, city lawyers can withhold representation, according to a 1979 state law. Of 562 cases naming police officers as defendants in 2019, the Law Department declined to represent the officers in just 48, according to the Law Department.

That's where the PBA's defense fund steps in.

The law firm it contracts with, Worth, Longworth & London, has handled legal matters for the PBA since 1998, including high-profile criminal and internal disciplinary cases. One partner, Stuart London, represented the police officer who in 2014 put Eric Garner in a deadly chokehold when the officer faced both a grand jury and an NYPD disciplinary hearing. Another firm partner represented the officer who was brought up on departmental charges after tackling former tennis pro James Blake in a 2015 encounter that turned out to be a case of mistaken identity.

Though the defense fund has existed for decades, there has been little scrutiny of it. Many lawyers who represent New Yorkers in police brutality cases said they didn't know of the fund's existence until asked about it by ProPublica. The office of the city comptroller, which can audit union accounts that receive taxpayer dollars, last examined the PBA defense fund in 1994.

London and two attorneys from his firm who handle civil defense cases didn't respond to questions about the fund or Officer D'Andraia. A person who answered a cellphone number listed for D'Andraia hung up when ProPublica called and inquired about the officer's defense. In court papers, the lawyers said D'Andraia was acting in his official capacity as a police officer at the time of the incident but otherwise denied Zayer's allegations. D'Andraia is due back in court in the criminal case in October. He's represented by Stephen Worth, a partner at the same firm representing him in the civil case. Worth hasn't responded to a message seeking comment.

How to file your state and federal taxes for free in 2021

Most Americans are eligible for free tax-preparation services, but the truly free options can be hard to find. If you're not careful, you could end up using a service that says it's free but demands payment after you've spent time entering your information.

Now that the IRS has pushed the deadline for 2020 taxes to May 17, you have even more time to make sure you're using the service that's right for you.

How do you file online for free?

If you make less than $72,000 a year, you can find free tax filing options at the IRS Free File webpage.

Here are Free File options from TurboTax, TaxSlayer and others. (H&R Block has left the Free File program since last year.)

Each site has its own eligibility requirements, so be sure to find one that will be free for you.

It can take a bit of effort to find an option that fits your situation. Try using the IRS lookup tool to find the right one. Most of the options provide tax prep for both federal and state returns.

Best for: People who make less than the income cap and want a convenient and easy way to file online.

If you make more than $72,000 a year, you may have access to free options offered by several commercial tax prep companies, like Intuit (TurboTax), H&R Block or TaxAct.

But buyer beware: Some companies use a variety of tactics to try to wring money out of you, often only throwing up a paywall after you've gone through the trouble of inputting most of your information.

The widely advertised "free" options are typically only really free based on which tax forms you need to file. Which forms are free and which will trigger a demand for a fee depends on the company. So read the fine print before you decide.

  • Here is the list of forms supported by H&R Block's "free online" version.
  • Here is the list of forms supported by TaxAct's "free" offer. Click the tab labeled "forms."
  • Here is the list of forms supported by TurboTax "Free Edition."

Credit Karma also offers a free tax filing service for "all supported forms," but the company tries to monetize your personal tax data by using it to target you with advertising.

Best for: People who don't qualify for Free File but have income only from a standard job and perhaps a bank account, and who want to file online.

If you're in the military, you can use MilTax, a service provided by the Department of Defense that uses a version of H&R Block's tax software. It is available for free to active-duty service members as well as those in the National Guard or the reserves, as well as their families. There are no income or tax form restrictions. There are also free, in-person options to get tax help if you are in the military or family — see the section below.

You can also get free advice from a professional who understands tax issues specific to the military. The phone number is 800-342-9647, or you can live chat with them.

Best for: People in the military, guard or reserves and their families.

How can I get personal tax help for free?

You can qualify for the IRS' Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program if you:

  • Make less than around $57,000 a year, OR
  • Live with a disability, OR
  • Speak limited English.

You can qualify for the IRS' Tax Counseling for the Elderly program if you:

  • Are at least 60 years old.

These programs match you with IRS-certified volunteers across the country who can help with free basic income tax preparation and electronic filing. You can use the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance locator tool or call 800-906-9887 to find someone to help you. Keep in mind that some locations may require an appointment.

Best for: People who are confused by the tax process and want someone to help walk them through the process.

If you're in the military and want individual tax help, you can get freein-person tax help on many U.S. military bases worldwide. Military.com's base guide is a good place to start.

Best for: People in the military and their families who want advice from someone who knows the ins and outs of military tax filing.

Why is TurboTax charging me?

If you make less than $39,000 a year (or $72,000 if you're in the military) and TurboTax is telling you it costs money to file, you are probably using the wrong version of TurboTax. Don't worry, there is a way to access the truly free version.

As ProPublica reported in 2019, TurboTax purposely hid its Free File product and directed taxpayers to a version where many had to pay, called the TurboTax Free Edition. If you clicked on this "FREE Guaranteed" option, you could input a lot of your information, only to be told toward the end of the process that you need to pay.

You can still access TurboTax's Free File version. This version is offered through the Free File agreement.

TurboTax's misleading advertising and website design directed users to more expensive versions of the software, even if they qualified to file for free. After our stories published, some people demanded and got refunds. Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, faces several investigations and lawsuits over this practice. The company has denied wrongdoing, and has moved to acquire other free tax-preparation companies like Credit Karma.

Following ProPublica's reporting, the IRS announced an update to its agreement with the tax-preparation companies. Among other things, the update bars the companies from hiding their Free File offerings from Google search results. It also makes it so each company has to name their Free File service the same way, using the format: IRS Free File Program delivered by [COMPANY NAME].

What's the difference between TurboTax's "Free Guaranteed" and IRS Free File Delivered by TurboTax?

TurboTax Free Edition is not always free. It has only been free for tax returns that the company defines as "simple." That often means people with student loans and freelance income actually have to pay to file. Look for Intuit's "IRS Free File Program delivered by TurboTax." This year, you are eligible if you:

  • Make less than $39,000 a year, OR
  • Make less than $72,000 a year and serve in the military.

What is Free File, and who is the Free File Alliance?

The Free File Alliance is actually a group of tax companies that — contrary to the name — is in the business of charging people to help them file their taxes. They spent a lot of money to make sure that the IRS didn't develop its own free tax filing service that would compete with what they have to offer. As part of the new Free File Alliance deal, the IRS is now able to offer a competing service, but it's not doing so this year.

The Free File Alliance companies have agreed to offer free tax filing for a certain percentage of the population based on income. Head to the IRS website to see which option is the best for you. These are the companies in the alliance:

About this guide:

ProPublica has reported extensively about taxes, the IRS Free File program and the IRS. Specifically, we've covered the ways in which the for-profit tax preparation industry — companies like Intuit (TurboTax), H&R Block and Tax Slayer — has lobbied for the Free File program, then systematically undermined it with evasive search tactics and confusing design. These companies also work to fill search engine results with tax "guides" that sometimes route users to paid products. This guide is not personalized tax advice, and you should speak to a tax professional about your specific tax situation.

Update, March 17, 2021: This post was updated to reflect that the IRS has pushed the deadline for 2020 taxes to May 17.

Here's how to send tips and documents to ProPublica securely.

For more coverage, read ProPublica's previous reporting on the IRS or the tax prep industry.

Kristen Doerer is a reporter in Washington, D.C. Her writing has appeared in PBS NewsHour, The Guardian and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among other places. Follow her on Twitter at @k2doe.

Portrait of Justin ElliottJustin Elliott

Justin Elliott is a ProPublica reporter covering politics and government accountability. To securely send Justin documents or other files online, visit our SecureDrop page.

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Karim Doumar is an assistant editor at ProPublica.

For some transgender asylum seekers, fleeing a dangerous migrant camp meant being left behind

For the past five months, Valery Sanchez has shared a cramped two-bedroom apartment here with about a dozen gay and transgender migrants, waiting patiently but desperately for her asylum case to be heard across the border in Texas.

From her bedroom window, the 19-year-old transgender woman can see the site of the makeshift migrant camp in Matamoros that she fled months earlier, fearing for her safety.

At its peak, the camp, a collection of ramshackle tent structures in a park abutting the Rio Grande, ballooned to 3,000 migrants under the Migrant Protection Protocols, a policy established by President Donald Trump. Starting in 2019, the MPP program forced a total of more than 71,000 migrants seeking asylum to wait in Mexico until their cases could be considered by judges in U.S. immigration courts.

Sanchez said she escaped Honduras in February 2020 after strangers beat her and left her for dead because of her gender identity. She spent the next eight months at the makeshift camp in Matamoros, but fled after other Central American migrants harassed and assaulted her and her transgender friends, telling them they would end up "dead in the river," she recalled.

Sanchez never doubted her decision to leave until earlier this month, when President Joe Biden's administration allowed nearly all of the 700 migrants at the camp to cross into the United States as part of a broader rollback of the MPP program, also known as "remain in Mexico."

Over a little more than a week, the fetid camp, which lacked running water and had sparked public health and safety concerns, was emptied in collaboration with the United Nations, a first at the U.S. border. The tents that had cluttered the Matamoros riverbank across from Brownsville, the southernmost point of the border between Texas and Mexico, were gone.

Advocates praised Biden for moving to eliminate one of the most visceral symbols of U.S. immigration policies under Trump. The camp had become notorious for the miserable conditions endured by migrants, drawing international attention as a U.S.- sanctioned refugee settlement.

But in closing the camp, the Biden administration strayed from its own guidelines to prioritize vulnerable migrants like Sanchez who have pending court cases, essentially allowing some in the camp to skip the line. Many migrants whose asylum cases had already been denied or who otherwise didn't qualify for entrance were allowed into the U.S. to be processed, stoking confusion about who gets in and who doesn't.

Department of Homeland Security officials said admissions from the camp were based on "urgent humanitarian concerns" and in consideration of keeping families together.

But officials involved in emptying the Matamoros camp, who were not authorized to speak publicly, said pressure in the U.S. and Mexico also factored into the decision to prioritize migrants from the camp. Last month's record freeze in Texas and Northern Mexico added to alarm about conditions.

Sanchez and her housemates feel they are being punished for having sought a safer place to live. Had they stayed at the camp, they would be in the U.S. already, but now they are forced to wait.

"We didn't leave the camp because we wanted to," Sanchez said. "We had to."

She is among tens of thousands of migrants in urgent situations who are so far left out.

"The distinction between who qualifies for relief and who doesn't is pretty arbitrary," said Jodi Goodwin, an immigration lawyer in the Rio Grande Valley who works on MPP cases. "It's a huge, messy problem for the Biden administration."

"Too Much Chaos"

About 40,000 migrants, a majority of those sent back across the border under the MPP program, have already been denied asylum or otherwise had their cases terminated, according to federal statistics. Only a tiny number have been approved for protection; the rest are still pending. Typically, after a judge rejects an asylum petition in the U.S., migrants are required to return to their home countries.

Many rejected migrants remain in Mexican border cities under perilous situations, hoping for another opportunity under Biden. His administration has not said if it will offer migrants with closed cases a second chance at asking for asylum. Goodwin and other lawyers said many claims were wrongly dismissed.

Trump made immigration a cornerstone of his campaign for office and his presidency, arguing that under previous administrations the U.S. had been too lenient and that regulations should be tightened to prevent immigrants from entering the country.

During his own presidential campaign, Biden noted that Trump was the first U.S. president to make asylum seekers wait in another country. He promised to undo some Trump-era immigration policies, including MPP, saying they were inhumane.

"That's never happened before in America," Biden said during a presidential debate last year. "They're sitting in squalor on the other side of the river."

The Biden administration halted the MPP program and in February began the process of allowing into the U.S. the 25,000 migrants with pending court cases. About 2,200 of those migrants have been admitted so far, including almost everyone from the Matamoros camp, according to the U.N.

They will now be allowed to live in the U.S. while they await hearings in civil immigration courts that have an average backlog of more than two years, according to federal statistics.

U.N. and U.S. officials said migrants with open cases are being processed as quickly as possible, emphasizing that those who have waited the longest and are most vulnerable should be permitted to enter first.

"The Matamoros camp became a visible symbol of a much larger problem," said Yael Schacher, a historian who serves as a legal advocate at the global organization Refugees International. "But this is just a tiny, very visible population of a much larger group that is in many cases as vulnerable or more so."

Newly confirmed Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has urged patience as the administration reconstructs a "dismantled" immigration system.

Biden officials have said that, under Trump, the U.S. decimated avenues to seek asylum, including returning unaccompanied migrant children without legal protections, and cut foreign aid that had been intended to improve conditions in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. The administration has promised reforms such as shortening the amount of time it takes to adjudicate asylum claims, but has not yet provided specifics.

"We have had to rebuild the entire system," Mayorkas said Tuesday in a statement. "As difficult as the border situation is now, we are addressing it."

Since taking office, Biden has grappled with an influx of migrants fleeing desperate conditions and hoping that the U.S. immigration system will be more welcoming under a new administration. In February, U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehended more than 19,200 migrants with their families, about 9,450 unaccompanied children and nearly 71,600 single adults, according to federal statistics released last week. The total of just more than 100,000 migrants was a 28% increase over January and the highest monthly number since June 2019.

Mayorkas said Tuesday that the U.S. is "on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years," in part because of worsening conditions in Central America. A decision by the Biden administration to stop automatically expelling migrant children under a public health order invoked by Trump last March also resulted in an increase of unaccompanied minors entering the U.S.

That has forced the opening of extra facilities and left children in poorly equipped Border Patrol detention centers, which are intended for adults, for longer than the law allows. On March 13, Biden announced that he was deploying the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the border to help care for unaccompanied children.

Mayorkas and other federal officials have said that the border remains closed while the Biden administration tries to reconstruct legal avenues for those seeking protection.

"It's going to take time," said DHS spokesperson Sarah Peck. "In the meantime, the border is not open, and people should not make the journey to reach it."

The confusion stemming from the camp's closure has added to uncertainty about how the Biden administration is more broadly handling immigration cases involving migrants at the border.

Outside of MPP, the Biden administration is rejecting nearly all migrant adults and some families under the public health order from last March, which invoked COVID-19 as a reason for turning them away. At the same time, the government is allowing some newly arrived migrant families to enter in south Texas, pointing to a lack of shelter space because of new regulations in Mexico.

"Now it's a bit of being at the right place at the right time," said Savitri Arvey, a researcher on migration at the University of Texas at Austin. "That causes panic and misinformation."

As the Matamoros camp was dismantled, new arrivals pitched tents outside of the park where it had stood. Asylum seekers in Tijuana, Mexico, across the border from San Diego, began forming their own camp at that border crossing, hoping to encounter a similarly speedy process. The Tijuana camp has grown to as many 1,500 people since mid-February, representatives from legal advocacy organizations have said. DHS officials warned that such tactics wouldn't help.

"Physical presence at the U.S. border has not and will not be a means for gaining access to this phased program to address the Migrant Protection Protocols," agency officials said in a statement to ProPublica and the Texas Tribune.

Charlene D'Cruz, an attorney with Lawyers for Good Government who works on MPP cases in the Rio Grande Valley, said the conditions in the Matamoros camp were on par with some of the worst refugee settlements she had witnessed in Greece. But D'Cruz said that prioritizing the camp without offering solutions to the larger number of people suffering in Mexico after being returned under MPP is political "tap dancing."

"There's too much chaos in an already very chaotic system," D'Cruz said. "We need more transparency about what's going to happen next and who is going to be included."

Left Behind

Dinora Cruz doesn't understand how U.S. authorities don't see her as vulnerable or in need of protection.

Cruz, who was returned to Matamoros under the MPP program in 2019, said she pleaded her case to an immigration judge. She explained that gang members had sexually assaulted her twice in Honduras after extorting her for protection money for the convenience store she ran.

Once, she said, gangs broke into her house, firing a bullet that scraped her finger, leaving a deep, jagged scar. After a second attack on the street, she filed a police report with Honduran authorities. They noted in the report that the assault had left her with "serious psychological damage."

She could no longer pay the extortion money and lost her business.

"The gangs threatened that if I did not give them money, then I would never see my kids again," she told U.S. authorities at the border, according to her processing paperwork.

Without a lawyer, Cruz said, she struggled to complete her asylum application in English and articulate in court why she qualified. She said the immigration judge told her that she hadn't provided enough proof and rejected her case in January 2020, just before the pandemic shuttered such courts.

Many migrants still waiting to enter the U.S. arrived at the border shortly after Trump's MPP policy began in early 2019. Many of their cases were denied in tent courts that were not open to the public. Advocates denounced the legal proceedings, which included mass hearings through video conferencing with poor translation, according to lawyers.

Ariana Sawyer, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, likened the hearings to "kangaroo courts." She said many migrants' claims were not properly adjudicated. Of the more than 71,000 migrants returned to Mexico under the MPP program, less than 8% had legal representation. The U.S. government does not provide attorneys to immigrants in such civil deportation proceedings.

Many waited across the border in dangerous conditions. More than 1,500 were killed, kidnapped or assaulted in Mexico while waiting for their court dates, according to tallies by Human Rights First and other international groups.

After the program was implemented, judges granted asylum or other forms of U.S. protection to only about 650 migrants in the MPP program, according to federal data analyzed by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

The Trump administration also made multiple changes to immigration courts, which according to the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C, reduced the asylum grant rate to the lowest in decades.

The measures created a broader crisis at the border.

"The Matamoros camp ultimately contained only a tiny fraction of those asylum seekers subjected to this cruel border policy," Sawyer said.

Because a U.S. judge had dismissed Cruz's asylum claim, Mexican authorities also revoked her permission to stay and work there lawfully while she awaited her fate in a Texas court. Now she and her two boys, 9 and 10, are living in Mexico illegally. The children have not attended school for more than a year.

Cruz said she is too afraid to return to Honduras. Another woman sent back under the MPP program, who works at a clinic for migrants outside of the Matamoros tent camp, allowed Cruz to stay for free in her rented room.

But the woman has a pending asylum case under MPP and has been told by the U.N. that she will soon be allowed to enter the U.S. under the Biden's administration's rollback of the program.

Without a job and with no other options for housing, Cruz doesn't know how she will take care of her boys once the woman leaves.

Desperation Remains

The Rev. Juan Sierra, who oversees a migrant shelter in Matamoros, stood outside of the tent camp earlier this month as the U.N. began processing migrants to enter the U.S. Sierra was relieved that they would no longer be living in unsafe conditions, but he feared that the city's two available shelters would not be able to accommodate the remaining migrants and those who continue to arrive daily.

"The camp isn't suitable anymore for people to live," Sierra said. "But if they take away the camp, we don't have enough space."

Sierra said his facility can house only about 120 migrants under pandemic protocols. The city's second shelter is much smaller.

He said the U.S. and Mexico must come up with a clear plan for processing migrants seeking asylum and other protections. Otherwise, Sierra said, migrants could resort to entering the country in increasingly dangerous ways.

"Migrants are going to get criminal groups to go to the U.S., and people are going to die," Sierra said. "Hopefully both governments come up with a humanitarian solution."

Rhonda Fleischer, a migration program specialist at UNICEF, which is involved with the dismantling of the MPP program, said migrants are fleeing not only endemic gang violence and poverty but the aftermath of two deadly hurricanes in Central America last year. Many are also searching for employment after months of severe COVID-19 shutdowns obliterated the few available jobs in their countries.

"There is nothing for people anymore," Fleischer said. "I hear the call for people to wait, that the U.S. is working to find solutions for people who genuinely need protection."

Nonetheless, she said, "there are families in situations in Central America in which they are in life-or-death circumstances."

In Matamoros, the tent camp is gone, but the desperation remains.

Sanchez, still living in her crowded apartment with other gay and transgender migrants, checked Facebook for updates on her closest friend, Natasha Mayorquin, who also had a pending case and was let into the U.S. last week as part of the MPP rollback.

The sprawling settlement is no longer visible out Sanchez's window. At night, she instead looks out and sees the lights of Brownsville. She thinks about her friend, now on her way to North Carolina.

"I feel pretty alone," she said.

Like thousands of migrants across the border, she clings to hope that she'll be next.

Lomi Kriel

Lomi Kriel is an investigative reporter for the ProPublica-Texas Tribune Investigative Initiative.

What is the earned income tax credit (EITC), and do I qualify for it?

ProPublica has covered how budget cuts at the IRS have made it harder for the agency to ensure that the billionaires of the world pay up, but the cuts haven't affected everyone equally.

In short: Wealthy taxpayers haven't faced as much scrutiny.

For people who claim the earned income tax credit, also referred to as the EITC, earned income credit or EIC, the audit rate has gone down less steeply than it has for wealthier taxpayers. Recently, a person claiming the credit has as much of a chance of being audited as someone making 20 times more money.

But that shouldn't deter you from claiming it if you are eligible.

(Here's why).

What is the earned income tax credit (EITC)?

The earned income tax credit is a tax credit meant to help working people with low or moderate incomes. Claiming the credit when you file your taxes may reduce how much you owe or, better yet, give you a refund.

You can receive as much as $6,660 in tax credit, depending on your status. It's for this reason that the EITC is one of the most popular tax credits, even if it's one of the least understood.

Who can get the EITC?

  • Individuals: If you're filing taxes as a single filer without kids, you must have made less than $15,820 a year to claim the credit.
  • Parents: If you have a kid or have taken a young family member into your home, you should see if you qualify for the EITC. As a single person with three or more kids, filing as head of household, you can make as much as $50,594 a year and still claim the credit.

How do I figure out if I qualify for the EITC?

The best way to figure out if you qualify for the EITC is to use the IRS' EITC Assistant, an easy-to-use guide that will ask you yes-or-no questions to determine if you're eligible.

There are a few basic qualifications for the EITC:

  • You must have earned income from wages, a salary or a business (state unemployment insurance payments count).
  • You must be a U.S. citizen or legal resident.
  • You must have resided in the U.S. for more than half the year.
  • If you're married, you must file your taxes jointly.
  • To claim a child, you must have a qualifying child.

Lastly, there are earned income limits. For the 2020 tax year, your adjusted gross income must be less than:

Earned Income Tax Credit Adjusted Income Caps

For the category that you're in, you must make less than this much before exemptions and deductions to claim the credit.

Filing StatusZero childrenOne childTwo childrenThree or more children
Single filer or head of household$15,820$41,756$47,440$50,594
Married, filing jointly$21,710$47,646$53,330$56,844

Who is a qualifying child?

The full IRS guidelines on whether your child is a "qualifying child" are here, but let's review the basics. Your child must:

  • Be your child (including adopted, step and foster children); sibling (including half and stepsiblings); or a descendant of your child or sibling, such as a grandchild, niece or nephew.
  • Have been younger than 19 at the end of 2020, or younger than 24 if they're a full-time student. If they do not meet these age requirements, they must have been permanently disabled before the end of 2019. They also must be younger than you.
  • Lived with you in the United States for more than half the year.
  • Have a valid Social Security number.

Will I be audited if I claim the EITC?

As ProPublica has reported, people who claim the EITC are audited at a higher rate than those who do not claim it. While you are more likely to be audited if you claim the EITC, the audit rate is still less than 2%. In 2019, 39% of audits were of filers who claimed the credit. Here are some tips for what to do if you're audited.

One reason for the high rate of audits is that people often claim the credit in error. But also, budget cuts at the IRS mean there are fewer people to review audit documents. It's much more expensive for the IRS to audit wealthy taxpayers, and it claims it can't do so without more funding. The American Rescue Plan Act, the stimulus package that Congress passed in March, allocated nearly $1.5 billion to help the IRS update systems and implement new tax code rules, but it's unclear how quickly that money will lead to faster service.

In 2018, the top 1% of taxpayers by income were audited at nearly the same rate as EITC recipients, who typically have an annual income under $20,000.

When will I get my refund?

If you take the credit, by law, the IRS cannot issue your refund before mid-February 2021.

In 2015, Congress passed the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act, which permanently expanded the EITC, but delayed the payment of EITC refunds for taxpayers who file before mid-February.

You can always check the status of your return on the IRS' Where's My Refund page.

Previously: How to File Your State and Federal Taxes for Free in 2021

About this guide:

ProPublica has reported extensively about taxes, the IRS Free File program and the IRS. Specifically, we've covered the ways in which the for-profit tax preparation industry — companies like Intuit (TurboTax), H&R Block and Tax Slayer — has lobbied for the Free File program, then systematically undermined it with evasive search tactics and confusing design. These companies also work to fill search engine results with tax "guides" that sometimes route users to paid products. This guide is not personalized tax advice, and you should speak to a tax professional about your specific tax situation.

Here's how to send tips and documents to ProPublica securely.

For more coverage, read ProPublica's previous reporting on the IRS or the tax prep industry.

Kristen Doerer is a reporter in Washington, D.C. Her writing has appeared in PBS NewsHour, The Guardian and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among other places. Follow her on Twitter at @k2doe.

Justin Elliott and Paul Kiel contributed reporting.

Tinder and OkCupid could soon let you background check your date — for a price

When dating app behemoth Match Group announced on Monday a "seven-figure" investment in a startup called Garbo, which aspires to help app users conduct background checks on prospective dates, it was the fourth significant safety initiative the company had announced since the start of last year. The company had previously hired a new head of safety from Uber, announced a review of its practices relating to sexual assault response and invested in another startup, Noonlight, which provides tools such as a phone-based panic button that can alert law enforcement if a user feels threatened.

Match Group first began unveiling its new steps days before the chair of a subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform announced an investigation of dating app safety early last year in the wake of what he called "extremely troubling reports." Those reports included an in-depth examination by Columbia Journalism Investigations and ProPublica, which revealed that Match Group screens for registered sex offenders on its paid Match.com app but does not do so on its free apps, which include OkCupid, PlentyofFish and Tinder. "There are definitely registered sex offenders on our free products," a Match Group spokesperson acknowledged to CJI and ProPublica at the time.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee followed suit, citing the CJI and ProPublica article and targeting Match Group in particular. Legislators called on the company to disclose its efforts to "respond to reports of sexual violence." U.S. Reps. Ann Kuster, D-N.H., and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., urged the company to conduct screening checks and "provide a basic level of protection" for both free and paid users.

Match's latest step this week involves plans for a screening check. It consists of an investment and partnership with Garbo, a nonprofit that seeks to make background checks easier, equitable and more affordable. "We have always been committed to improving safety and investing in the latest technologies across our products," a Match spokesperson said. "We are partnering with Garbo because we believe in this platform and its mission that people should have access to these types of information."

Garbo lets users search for criminal records (excluding those for small-time drug possession charges and traffic violations) about their prospective dates. According to Garbo's website, its technology appears to be in its early stages of development. As of September, Garbo's beta pulled results for a number of large counties in New York state — but no other states — and only for active cases, not past ones.

Match Group plans to expand the service's coverage to include past cases and other states, according to a company spokesperson. Match's investment will go toward hiring, product and leadership roles. Match said it will also devote resources outside of that contribution to getting the product up and running, first on Tinder — in theory, by the end of the year — and then on its other platforms. The company hopes the technology will be used outside of the dating app ecosystem as well.

Public pressure impelled Match Group's initiatives, according to Carrie Goldberg, a victims' rights attorney who represented Garbo founder Kathryn Kosmides in a gender-based violence case that inspired the nonprofit's creation. Calling the ProPublica and CJI article "a game changer," she said, "I've been dealing with crimes that happened through dating apps for seven years, and it's literally the first article of its kind that looked at it as a serious problem and then motivated members of Congress to care."

But critics of the dating app industry were not placated by the company's latest step — not least because Match has acknowledged that customers will have to pay to use the background checking service. (The Match spokesperson said the company is "still working out the pricing structure," but it wants to ensure that the "background checks are at a price point where it's accessible to our users.")

"Physical safety shouldn't be placed behind a paywall," said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., who launched the first congressional investigation. "If Match Group wanted to show us they are serious about protecting people, they would make this feature available to all users at no cost."

Krishnamoorthi's fellow Illinois Democrat, Schakowsky, echoed his view in an emailed statement: "While this may appear as if Match Group is taking safety more seriously, it's hard to tell whether this is an attempt to pad their bottom line or promote safety on the platform." (The company's investment appears modest compared with the $746 million in operating income that the company made on $2.4 billion in revenues in 2020.)

Schakowsky has drafted a bill known as The Online Consumer Protection Act that would force dating apps and other social media companies to be more transparent with users about their terms of service. The legislation, which her office said will be introduced in the coming weeks, would require dating platforms to enforce their rules designed to prevent fraud and abuse and hold them accountable when they do not.

In ProPublica and CJI's first article about sexual violence and dating apps, Carole Markin discussed her rape, which occurred after she was connected, via Match.com, to a man with six convictions for sexual battery. She subsequently sued, seeking to force the company to conduct background screening. As a result of her suit, the Match.com site agreed to screen for sex offenders, but the company did not extend the practice when it acquired new dating apps.

Asked about Match Group's latest step, Markin expressed mixed views. "I'm thrilled it's happening," she said. "But I sued in 2011. Look how long it's taken.

"Brian Edwards and Elizabeth Naismith Picciani are reporting fellows for Columbia Journalism Investigations, an investigative reporting unit at the Columbia Journalism School. Funding for CJI is provided by the school's Investigative Reporting Resource and the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Update, March 18, 2021: After this article was published, Match's spokesperson emailed to note that "While the pricing structure [for background checks] is still being determined — any proceeds will go directly to Garbo, a nonprofit, to fund the costs of these searches and its availability to the wider community. Match Group will not receive any profits." She added that such background information has "historically been difficult to access and cost prohibitive."

Senator says censorship in Turkey raises “serious questions” about Facebook's commitment to free expression

Facebook's move to censor social media posts of a Syrian militia group in 2018 at the request of the Turkish government raises serious questions about the company's commitment to free expression, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee wrote in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday.

ProPublica reported last month that Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's No. 2 executive, personally OK'd a decision to censor the group, known as the People's Protection Units or YPG, blocking its page from being seen within Turkey's borders. Managers at Facebook were concerned that not doing so could lead to a complete shutdown of their platform within the country.

"I am fine with this," Sandberg wrote in an email reply that included Zuckerberg and Joel Kaplan, Facebook's vice president of global public policy, according to emails obtained by ProPublica.

In response to the report, Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and prominent Facebook critic, is demanding answers to more than a dozen questions, including: what Facebook internal decision-making process led to the block; how the Turkish government threatened to take action; if posts on other Facebook-owned entities, like Instagram, were also blocked; and if users in Turkey or in other countries were aware posts on their feeds were being restricted.

"Facebook's decision to censor content raises serious questions about the company's commitment to values like free expression, particularly as authoritarian leaders around the world grow bolder in their efforts to silence criticism," Wyden wrote to Zuckerberg. Wyden further asked how Facebook's decision comports with the company's stated commitments to uphold human rights principles as a member of the Global Network Initiative.

In response to Wyden's letter, a Facebook spokesman said in a statement: "We always strive to preserve voice for the greatest number of people. This means we only restrict content that is illegal but doesn't break our rules when we have a valid legal basis to do so and our international human rights commitments are met. This decision met both of these requirements. We are transparent about content we restrict based on local law in our transparency report, and we are independently assessed on our international human rights commitments every two years."

Facebook reported more than 22,000 instances of content-blocking worldwide during the first half of 2020, the most recent period for which data is available.

Last month, Wyden and Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate's intelligence panel, led more than three dozen other senators in urging President Biden to press Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on taking his country "down an increasingly authoritarian path."

In early 2018, as Turkey attacked the Kurds in Syria's Afrin District, emails showed Facebook's policy toward the YPG page was centered on keeping the platform operational, not on human rights. "The page caused us a few PR fires in the past," one Facebook manager warned. Turkish lobbying included warnings from the chairman of BTK, the country's telecommunications regulator.

Facebook contends that not complying with Turkey's demands would have led to a much more sweeping consequence: a wholesale blocking of the platform that would have deprived its millions of Turkish users of access to Facebook. The company told ProPublica it was complying with a legal order and had been previously blocked in Turkey, including a half-dozen times in 2016.

The Turkish request to Facebook also came as officials arrested hundreds of the country's own residents for criticizing the military operation. Three years later, YPG's photos and updates about the Turkish military's brutal attacks on the Kurdish minority in Syria still can't be viewed by Facebook users inside Turkey.

Do you have access to information about Facebook and its content-blocking that should be public? Email jack.gillum@propublica.org. Here's how to send tips and documents to ProPublica securely.

Jack Gillum

Jack Gillum is a senior reporter at ProPublica based in Washington, D.C., covering technology and privacy.

Only two NYPD officers face serious discipline from a watchdog’s investigations into abuse of Black Lives Matter protesters

Nine months after racial justice protests swept across New York City and videos showed police punching, kicking and trapping demonstrators, the city agency responsible for investigating abuses has revealed the number of officers who have so far faced serious disciplinary charges.

Two.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board released the figures on Tuesday after ProPublica reported that the CCRB was declining to disclose how much progress it had made on protest cases. The new numbers show about 60% of the agency's 297 protest-related cases are still open.

CCRB investigations can take a long time, about eight months on average. Its investigations into the summer protests have been slowed in particular by a lack of NYPD cooperation, as ProPublica detailed last week, and agency staffers have been discouraged from confronting the NYPD. After our reporting prompted pointed criticism from a City Council member and others, CCRB officials promised at a public board meeting last week to release figures as soon as possible.

So far, the agency has only been able to fully investigate 37 cases. About 75 cases were closed before a full investigation could be completed. Sometimes civilians did not follow up or decided to withdraw their complaints to pursue lawsuits.

The relatively few completed investigations have resulted in 14 complaints being substantiated so far. In 12 cases, the CCRB has recommended relatively minor punishment, which is to be decided by the officers' commanders. In the other two, the CCRB has moved for departmental disciplinary trials.

The CCRB said in an emailed statement on Wednesday that one of the two cases involved an officer who appeared to flash a white power sign, and the other concerned an officer who allegedly hit a protester with a baton.

The chair of the CCRB, Rev. Frederick Davie, also acknowledged at a City Council hearing on Tuesday that investigators have faced a challenge "around access to information from the Police Department."

As ProPublica's story last week noted, CCRB staffers emailed superiors that the NYPD repeatedly said it had no body-worn camera footage of an incident, only to have investigators later discover that there was, in fact, footage. In response to questions, the NYPD said in a statement last week, "We have spoken with senior executives at the CCRB who state they do not have any complaints" about footage.

The CCRB's statement Wednesday also said investigators have had difficulty identifying officers "due to the Police Department not keeping track of where officers were deployed and due to officers wearing protective gear with incorrect shield numbers."

The release of information about the protest cases comes as the city and the NYPD face increasing pressure to change the discipline process for officers. On Tuesday, state legislators introduced a bill to strip the NYPD commissioner of final authority over discipline. The move follows a New York City Council resolution in January calling for the legislature to act.

As ProPublica has detailed, commissioners have often used their discretion to overturn not only the CCRB's recommendations for punishments but also rulings by NYPD hearing officers and even guilty pleas agreed to by police officers.

Allegations of misconduct by officers can also be investigated by the NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau, and the department has said that investigations of some protest encounters have been referred for disciplinary action. The department did not respond to a request this week for comment about the status of any discipline stemming from protest cases.

Mollie Simon contributed reporting.

Portrait of Eric Umansky Eric Umansky

Eric Umansky is a deputy managing editor for ProPublica.

Biden opened temporary legal status to thousands of immigrants. here’s how they could end up trapped.

President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats are working to rescue immigrants who've been living in the U.S. for decades under a "temporary" legal status. But the Biden administration is simultaneously extending that same status to hundreds of thousands more immigrants — putting them at risk of getting caught in a similar limbo.

The problems posed by the temporary protective status program came into focus last week when the administration used executive authority to grant the status to as many as 300,000 Venezuelans and about 1,600 Burmese currently in the U.S. who are deemed unable to safely return home because of humanitarian emergencies in their countries. Activists and some elected Democrats are pushing the Biden administration to issue more TPS grants for immigrants whose home countries are suffering from war, natural disasters or other emergencies, including Haitians who arrived in the U.S. after 2011 and Cameroonians.

But right now, there is nothing to ensure that any of these immigrants will have a path to eventual citizenship. Although the House of Representatives is working on bills that would create such a path for those who already hold TPS — most prominently the Dream and Promise Act, which the House will vote on this week — those proposals do not apply to the people who are getting temporary status now, or who might get it in the future.

This threatens to leave them in a state of uncertainty that has become all too common in the 30 years since Congress created the TPS program: The relief is often not exactly temporary, but it's not exactly permanent either.

Sociologist Cecilia Menjívar of UCLA calls TPS "liminal legality," a fragile status that leaves immigrants at the mercy of changing political winds. Many of those holding TPS have lived in the U.S. for nearly half their lives, hampered in their careers and ability to plan for the future with no hope of ever achieving citizenship under current law (despite working legally and becoming the backbone of key sectors like construction in many parts of the U.S.).

President Donald Trump threw the tenuousness of TPS into sharp relief when he attempted to strip protections from 95% of the immigrants who benefited from it, providing what Erik Villalobos of the National TPS Alliance called a "wake-up call" for many immigrants who had grown comfortable in the U.S. and relied on TPS to remain there. (Among them were Villalobos' own parents, Salvadoran immigrants at risk of losing their TPS under Trump before Villalobos was able to sponsor them for green cards in 2018.)

A lawsuit successfully ran out the clock on Trump's efforts, and the Biden administration thus far has taken a generous approach, extending TPS to new countries and renewing existing grants. But the uncertainties of the last four years have led both immigrants and elected Democrats to realize that, in Villalobos' words, "we might need to look at what 'temporary' really means."

Under current law, the "temporary" in TPS is supposed to be a stopgap solution for migrants who may return home in the foreseeable future, after their country bounces back from a momentary crisis. Congress created the program in 1990, after years of frustration with President Ronald Reagan's refusal to grant relief to Salvadoran immigrants in the U.S. who'd fled that country's brutal civil war. Congress mandated TPS's use for El Salvador and authorized the executive branch to add countries to the list if they went through armed conflict, natural disasters or some other "extraordinary and temporary conditions" that made return unsafe. It set no caps on the number of people who could be granted the status.

After 18 months, the government is supposed to reevaluate and decide anew whether a given country is still in crisis and needs its TPS extended. If so, TPS holders are able to apply for another work permit (with its attendant $500 fee). If not, they are forced to choose between staying in the U.S. as unauthorized immigrants or going back.

But over its history, TPS has often morphed into something beyond a stopgap. Recovery, in practice, takes a long time.

The last time a country in the Western Hemisphere was designated for temporary protections was in 2010, when TPS was granted for Haitians in the United States after a debilitating earthquake. The status was extended three times by the Obama administration. When the Federal Register announced the third extension, it noted that while "most of the earthquake rubble has been cleared" a half-decade after the event, government buildings hadn't yet been rebuilt and most ministries were still operating from temporary facilities.

Venezuela's crisis appears just as intractable. Its economic and medical systems had collapsed even before the COVID-19 pandemic, causing the largest refugee crisis in the Western Hemisphere. In December 2019, the United Nations refugee office estimated that over 4.5 million Venezuelans had fled the country. It currently estimates that 5.4 million Venezuelans are displaced abroad, most of them in neighboring Colombia.

Advocates and some politicians spent years urging the Trump administration to extend TPS to Venezuelans currently in the U.S., to no avail. Finally, on Trump's last night in office — with no explanation for the delay or the last-minute change of heart — he issued a proclamation giving them a similar but less formalized grant of protection (known as deferred enforced departure). Trump's move attracted so little fanfare that Venezuelans celebrating Biden's TPS grant last week often appeared unaware they were already allowed to seek work permits.

Meanwhile, immigrants with TPS are living their lives in the United States — working, settling down, getting married, raising U.S.-born children. Some immigrants have held TPS for decades — 79,290 Hondurans with TPS have been living in the U.S. since 1998, and 247,412 Salvadorans since 2001. In a survey of these two groups in 2016, researchers found that the median TPS holder was 43 and had been in the U.S. for 20 years — nearly half their life. Nearly one-third owned homes; nearly two-thirds had children who were U.S. citizens.

"For TPS holders, the fact that many of them have been here for so long — I think it just proves that nothing is temporary, if you're giving someone the opportunity to create a livelihood here," Villalobos said.

Asked what would happen to such people if they lost their status, Menjívar balked: "Goodness, I cannot even fathom." For one thing, she said, they'd be unlikely to leave on their own if stripped of protections; they'd just become unauthorized immigrants living in the shadows, and they'd have to be "shackled and forced on planes" if the U.S. wanted to ensure their departures. Deportees would find themselves isolated. "They wouldn't have a source of living, they'd lose everything they have, their family," Menjívar said. "It amounts to a social death in many ways."

But while living in the U.S., they're continually reminded of their marginal status. By bureaucratic definition, they're not even immigrants — technically that term is reserved for someone who is on track to reside permanently in the United States. "Even the fact that they have to renew it every 18 months," said Menjívar, "indicates to them that it's not secure."

That threat became much more real under the Trump administration. "Temporary means temporary," Trump's first Department of Homeland Security secretary, John Kelly (later the White House chief of staff), said when warning that Haitians would likely lose their protections in 2017.

In its first 18 months, the administration announced end dates for TPS for Haitians, Hondurans, El Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Sudanese people and Nepalis, amounting to 95% of TPS holders. Often, while the administration pushed for declaring the countries "recovered" from their temporary crises, diplomats lobbied for their citizens to be allowed to stay in the U.S. In 2019, Salvadoran foreign minister Alexandra Hill used a joint press conference with then-acting DHS secretary Kevin McAleenan — which was ostensibly held to celebrate the countries signing a "cooperative agreement" that would allow the U.S. to send asylum-seekers to El Salvador — to stress the importance of continuing TPS for Salvadorans.

Meanwhile, TPS holders from different countries organized to protect themselves, ultimately forming the National TPS Alliance and spurring a lawsuit against the Trump administration.

Federal judges prevented Trump from stripping TPS designations while they evaluated whether his administration had violated federal law by not properly deliberating the options and weighing expert opinion. (Emails produced as part of the lawsuit revealed that DHS had asked analysts to supply evidence that conditions in Haiti were improving to justify terminating TPS; a Trump appointee complained that a memo on Sudan, meanwhile, "reads like one person who strongly supports extending TPS for Sudan wrote everything up to the recommendation section, and then someone who opposes extension snuck up behind the first guy, clubbed him over the head, pushed his senseless body out of the way, and finished the memo.")

While the matter played out in court, the DHS kept extending the validity of TPS holders' work permits. When the 2nd Circuit ruled last fall that the Trump administration could end TPS for the affected countries, DHS had already extended immigrants' work permits through October 2021. The Biden administration is expected to return to the pre-Trump status quo and continue the extensions.

But the saga was a chilling reminder of life's fragility under TPS. In the fall of 2017, even before the Trump administration moved to terminate TPS for Salvadorans, a study of Central American immigrant parents found that the overwhelming majority of TPS holders were anxious about their futures and the prospect of being separated from their children. Nearly half of TPS holders surveyed scored as "highly distressed" — twice the rate of unauthorized immigrants.

Living as a temporary resident confines people to the margins in other ways as well. TPS holders make more money than unauthorized immigrants, but they're less likely to be homeowners — an indication, Menjívar wrote in a report last year, that "long-term uncertainty undermines plans for the future." And while the overwhelming majority work, they don't show the same patterns of economic integration over time that permanent immigrants do — more-educated TPS holders, for example, don't necessarily hold more lucrative or skilled jobs than their less-educated counterparts, indicating that they're not able to fully put their education to use.

At the same time, new forms of liminal legality have blossomed. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, another form of executive relief that requires regular renewals, is another fragile status that could be terminated or struck down by the federal courts at any time. Asylum-seekers often spend years in limbo waiting for their applications to be reviewed, since both immigration courts and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices are severely backlogged.

Biden and congressional Democrats want to give most people in these groups the ability to apply for permanent legal status, with the option of eventually seeking citizenship. Democrats have recently embraced the idea that immigrants with TPS should be allowed to expedite their path to citizenship — and that they should be legalized even if the unauthorized-immigrant population in its entirety is not.

What the Horrific Crash on the Border Says About U.S. Immigration Policy

One option for addressing the issue posed by extending TPS to Venezuelans and Burmese people would be to amend the existing legalization bills in Congress. Even as the House votes on the Dream and Promise Act, Democrats are still debating whether it and similar piecemeal bills legalizing some groups of immigrants should be the legislative priority, or whether they should push for a single broader overhaul of the immigration system — like the U.S. Citizenship Act, based on Biden's "day one" immigration plan. A previous version of the Dream and Promise Act got seven Republican votes in 2019; many Republicans currently oppose any bill that would legalize unauthorized immigrants without increasing funding for border enforcement or restricting asylum for those arriving in the United States.

A representative for Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the lead sponsor of the U.S. Citizenship Act in the Senate, said that he'll be "exploring ways" to ensure relief for Venezuelan TPS holders. Sponsors of the Dream and Promise Act did not reply to requests for comment.

But even if immigrants granted TPS are included in the bill as it goes through Congress, neither bill includes any provision that would change the TPS program itself, meaning that any immigrants protected after the bill was signed would still be in danger of getting stuck in that in-between status.

'This is serious': America's drinking water is disturbingly easy to poison -- and cybersecurity experts are sounding the alarm

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On Feb. 16, less than two weeks after a mysterious attacker made headlines around the world by hacking a water treatment plant in Oldsmar, Florida, and nearly generating a mass poisoning, the city's mayor declared victory.

“This is a success story," Mayor Eric Seidel told the City Council in Oldsmar, a Tampa suburb of 15,000, after acknowledging “some deficiencies." As he put it, “our protocols, monitoring protocols, worked. Our staff executed them to perfection. And as the city manager said, there were other backups. ... We were breached, there's no question. And we'll make sure that doesn't happen again. But it's a success story." Two council members congratulated the mayor, noting his turn at the press conference where the hack was disclosed. “Even on TV, you were fantastic," said one.

“Success" is not the word that cybersecurity experts use to describe the Oldsmar episode. They view the breach as a case study in digital ineptitude, a frightening near-miss and an example of how the managers of water systems continue to downplay or ignore years of increasingly dire warnings.

The experts say the sorts of rudimentary vulnerabilities revealed in the breach — including the lack of an internet firewall and the use of shared passwords and outdated software — are common among America's 151,000 public water systems.

“Frankly, they got very lucky," said retired Adm. Mark Montgomery, executive director of the federal Cyberspace Solarium Commission, which Congress established in 2018 to upgrade the nation's defenses against major cyberattacks. Montgomery likened the Oldsmar outcome to a pilot landing a plane after an engine caught fire during a flight. “They shouldn't celebrate like Tom Brady winning the Super Bowl," he said. “They didn't win a game. They averted a disaster through a lot of good fortune."

The motive and identity of the hackers, foreign or domestic, remain unknown. But Montgomery and other experts say a more sophisticated hacker than the one in Oldsmar, who attempted to boost the quantity of lye in the drinking water to dangerous levels, could have wreaked havoc. They're skeptical of the city's assurances that “redundant" electronic monitors at the plant protected citizens from any possible harm. “If the attackers could break into the lye controls," Montgomery said, “don't you think they could break into the alarm system and alter the checkpoints? It's a mistake to think a hacker could not introduce contaminated water into our water systems." Oldsmar officials, citing the ongoing investigation, declined ProPublica's requests for an interview or to address emailed questions about the city's cybersecurity practices.

The consequences of a major water system breach could be calamitous: thousands sickened from poisoned drinking water; panic over interrupted supplies; widespread flooding; burst pipes and streams of overflowing sewage. (This is not merely theoretical. In 2000, a former municipal wastewater contractor in Australia, rejected for a city job, remotely manipulated computer control systems to release 264,000 gallons of raw sewage, which poured into public parks, turned creek water black, spilled onto the grounds of a Hyatt Regency Hotel and generated a stench that investigators called “unbearable." The man was sentenced to two years in prison.)

In congressional testimony on March 10, Eric Goldstein, cybersecurity chief for the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, described the Oldsmar incident as illustrating “the gravest risk that CISA sees from a national standpoint." He said it should be “a clarion call for this country for the risk that we face from cyberintrusions into these critical systems."

Grave warnings have sounded for years. As far back as 2011, a Department of Homeland Security alert advised that hackers could gain access to American water systems using “readily available and generally free" internet search tools. Such admonitions have abounded in recent years. Booz Allen Hamilton's 2019 “Cyber Threat Outlook" called America's water utilities “a perfect target" for cyberattacks; a 2020 Journal of Environmental Engineering review found “an increase in the frequency, diversity, and complexity of cyberthreats to the water sector"; and the Cyberspace Solarium Commission's March 2020 report warned that America's water systems “remain largely ill-prepared to defend their networks from cyber-enabled disruption."

Despite the warnings, and some high-profile breaches dating back a decade, the federal government has largely left cyberdefense to the water utilities. For years, it relied on voluntary industry measures, dismissing any need for new regulation. Then, in 2018, Congress included a provision addressing cybersecurity in a 129-page water bill that covered everything from river levee repairs to grants for school water fountains.

The requirements were less than demanding. Every U.S. water system serving more than 3,300 customers was obliged to conduct a self-assessment of the risks and resilience of its physical and electronic systems and prepare an emergency-response plan. Different-sized utilities got different deadlines; for the smallest covered by the law, such as Oldsmar, the self-assessment must be done by June 30, 2021, more than two and a half years after the law was signed. (Oldsmar had completed its cybersecurity review by early November but hadn't yet incorporated its recommendations in the city's emergency response plan before the February hack, according to a statement provided by the city manager.) Tens of thousands of U.S. water systems with fewer than 3,300 customers were exempted entirely from the law's requirements.

Those utilities required to perform a self-assessment were not obliged to submit a report to any government agencies. The utilities merely had to attest to the Environmental Protection Agency that they had conducted the assessment. The 2018 legislation also provided $30 million for grants to help water districts deal with “risk and resilience" problems, including cyberattacks. But Congress never appropriated that money.

The water provisions fall far short of federal requirements (including penalties for violating those rules) and funding aimed at protecting electricity infrastructure, according to Montgomery. “An assessment's a good thing," he said. “But this is well short of what we require from energy companies. We have developed a tool for self-identification of problems. But if you're really bad at cybersecurity, I'm not sure your self-identification is going to solve the problem."

He also pointed to low staffing at the EPA's Water Security Division. “The water security office is a handful of people, probably three," Montgomery said. “It historically has not done much, if any, cybersecurity work. This is the product of 20 years of low prioritization." The agency's most recent report to Congress on “Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs," submitted in 2018, identified $472.6 billion in long-term priorities, but it didn't mention the word “cybersecurity" once in its 75 pages.

An EPA official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, agreed that the agency had only “a small team" devoted to water cybersecurity but said Oldsmar “and other recent incidents have highlighted the importance of the priority and the investments we need to make."

The origins of the problem are clear. The vast majority of the nation's water systems are small and publicly owned, with limited resources and aging infrastructure. As they turned to digital systems and monitors to boost efficiency while saving money and staff, they failed to install the safeguards and carry out employee training needed to secure the resulting vulnerabilities. “Every one of them had one guiding principle over the last 50 years: increased automation to lower the size of the workforce to keep costs down," Montgomery said. “Along with that, there should have been an investment in the cybersecurity of the infrastructure. But that did not happen."

Traditionally focused on physical risks, such as natural hazards, burst pipes and on-site intruders, most water systems also have little or no in-house IT staff. The pandemic, which encouraged remote management, has only made the problem worse. In testimony last month to the House Homeland Security Committee, former CISA Director Chris Krebs called Oldsmar's vulnerability “probably the rule rather than the exception. ... These are municipal facilities that do not have sufficient resources to have robust security programs. That's just the way it goes."

The industrial control systems that water districts use to manage valves, pipes and other infrastructure are notoriously open to attack. A 2018 study by IBM and a private security company found 17 major vulnerabilities in equipment widely deployed in “smart cities," a term that refers to municipalities that manage a wide array of their systems — anything from water treatment plants to parking meters and street lamps — via the Internet. Among the security problems: Every product the group examined was still using the default passwords (such as “admin") they came with in the box, allowing “even the most novice hacker to easily gain access to these devices." A 2018 study by the firm Positive Technologies reported that it was able to penetrate nearly three-fourths of industrial organizations it investigated, revealing gaps offering hackers “plenty of opportunity to access critical equipment." The most common vulnerabilities: remote-access networks, obvious passwords and software so old that the manufacturer had stopped making fixes to protect against intruders. The report found that vulnerabilities known for years often “remain untouched, because organizations are afraid to make any changes that might cause downtime."

These industrial control systems are considered such obvious targets that hacking contests use them as quarry. At the DEFCON computer security conference, an “ICS Village" let curious programmers try to break into devices set up inside a Las Vegas hotel room — demos not connected to real-life systems — in an effort to expose weaknesses. At the event in 2018, one water pipe control system, likely used for a commercial building, had its computer screen defaced with graffiti-type messages.

The exact number of attacks on water utilities remains unknown. Many go undetected or unreported, and no federal law requires disclosure, even to regulators or law enforcement. Michael Arceneaux, managing director of the Water Information Sharing and Analysis Center, an industry group promoting cybersecurity, said water systems often refuse to reveal breaches, even to his group, out of fear that they will somehow reveal their vulnerabilities to other hackers. “It's not something members wanted potentially floating around in some database."

The episodes that have been made public reveal a growing array of threats, from random vandalism and disgruntled employees to identity theft and ransomware.

In Oldsmar, for example, the FBI and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which are jointly investigating, have already revealed multiple lapses. The attack took place at the city's water treatment plant, which purifies groundwater for drinking using filters and chemicals, including small amounts of sodium hydroxide. Commonly known as lye, it is used to reduce the water's acidity. (In considerably stronger concentrations, sodium hydroxide is also a chief ingredient in drain cleaner.)

The hack began around 8 a.m. on Feb. 5, when a plant operator noticed someone had remotely accessed the computer system that monitors and controls the chemical levels added to the water. The hackers entered through a remote access software program called TeamViewer. The city had actually replaced TeamViewer six months earlier, but it never disconnected the program, according to county Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. Logging into the system remotely was a breeze: The water plant's computers all used a single shared password, required no two-factor verification and had no firewall in place protecting the controls from the internet, according to FBI findings described in a Massachusetts state advisory. A final vulnerability: All the computers were still running on Windows 7, a decade-old, discontinued operating system; Microsoft had stopped issuing regular software updates to plug its security vulnerabilities in January 2020.

After noticing the hacker's morning log-in, Gualtieri later said at the press conference, the plant operator “didn't think much of it" and didn't contact anyone since other city employees routinely accessed the system remotely. (It's not clear why the attacker's use of the replaced TeamViewer software didn't immediately raise concern.)

The hacker reappeared about 1:30 p.m., this time visibly taking over the computer, mousing around for three to five minutes and opening the plant's control system software. After ratcheting up the water's sodium hydroxide level from 100 parts per million to 1,100 parts per million, the intruder departed.

After watching all this, the Oldsmar plant operator quickly lowered the sodium hydroxide level and called his boss. The city contacted the county sheriff's office nearly three hours later, at 4:17 p.m., according to an incident report on the event.

Oldsmar officials maintained that the public was never in danger. They noted that it would have taken at least 24 hours for poisoned water to start flowing out of kitchen taps, and that even if the onsite operator hadn't intervened, the plant had backup systems monitoring the water's chemical balance that would have sounded alarms long before then.

A small number of other incidents present the nightmarish “what-if" scenarios that scare experts, particularly from so-called state actors. Both Russia and Iran have been implicated in such accounts, according to government reports and legal actions. One such episode occurred in 2013, when a state-backed hacker sitting at his keyboard in Iran breached the computer controls at the Bowman Dam in suburban Rye, New York, with a presumed plan to open the sluice gates. The gates happened to have been manually disconnected at the time for maintenance, and the dam was actually just a narrow, 20-foot-high structure holding back a babbling brook. Federal intelligence officials speculated that the Iranians had actually intended to seize controls at the massive Arthur R. Bowman Dam in Oregon, where similar actions would have flooded thousands of homes. A federal indictment later charged that the Bowman Dam hacker worked for Iran's Revolutionary Guard and was part of a seven-man team that successfully breached America's biggest banks, paralyzing their computer servers and blocking customers from accessing their accounts online. The hacker remains at large, and on the FBI's “most wanted" list. In 2019, Revolutionary Guard hackers struck again, deploying malware to launch an ultimately unsuccessful attack on a municipal water system in Israel.

In recent years, three U.S. states — New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — decided to go beyond the federal rules and adopted tougher cybersecurity measures for the water utilities within their borders. After passing new legislation, New Jersey required all public water systems with internet-connected controls to develop a cybersecurity risk-mitigation plan within 120 days, submit it to the state, create a process for reporting all cyberattacks and join a special state-government clearinghouse promoting strong cybersecurity practices. Connecticut launched a “Cybersecurity Action Plan" and began holding private annual meetings with each of the state's largest water (and other) utilities to scrutinize the adequacy of their cyberdefenses.

For its part, New York amended its public health law to require water systems to conduct assessments of their susceptibility to cyberattacks and submit them to the state within a year. A team at the state comptroller's office has also conducted seven cybersecurity audits of municipal water systems, in each case posting the audit publicly while reserving some findings for confidential briefings to avoid offering hackers a road map of vulnerabilities. Its audit of the city of Syracuse's water system, for example, found shared user passwords and accounts that hadn't been disabled long after employees left the city. The Binghamton audit discovered a video on the water department's own webpage showcasing the treatment plant's controls.

“There's a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done to shore up the systems," said assistant New York state comptroller Randy Partridge, who oversees the water system audits. Since January 2019, he said, his auditors have issued 239 findings at various municipal facilities (including water systems) regarding weak password security alone. “It's a health and safety risk for any resident that lives in our local government. No community can really survive for any length of time without access to potable water."

Arthur House, who served as Connecticut's chief cybersecurity risk officer, said: “I hope it doesn't take the poisoning of a lot of people or a catastrophic shutdown for people to say, 'Omigosh, this is serious.' The federal government has to have a role on this. You cannot leave something that would cripple us as a country solely in the hands of 50 different states."

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By Peter Elkind and Jack Gillum

Over 700 complaints about NYPD officers abusing Black Lives Matter protesters -- then silence

It was one of the most brutal police responses to last year's Black Lives Matter protests.

As hundreds of demonstrators were marching peacefully in the Bronx on the evening of June 4, New York Police Department officers blocked their way from in front and then behind, trapping the protesters in an ever-tightening space that footage shows ultimately spanned about three car-lengths.

Officers soon waded into the crowd, pepper-spraying, kicking, punching and swinging their batons. “People were being stampeded, they would try to get up and they'd get hit again," recalled Conrad Blackburn, a criminal defense lawyer who was there as a legal observer. “People were bleeding from their heads, with cuts all over their bodies. People couldn't breathe. They couldn't see."

About 60 protesters and bystanders were injured, according to Human Rights Watch. A video the organization compiled captures the terror in people's voices. “We're being crushed!" one person screams. Another voice pleads, “Mommy!"

At the demonstration, overseeing the NYPD's response, was the top uniformed officer, Chief of Department Terence Monahan.

A recent federal lawsuit by New York State Attorney General Letitia James that Monahan “actively encouraged and participated in this unlawful behavior." Other on the protests have also offered scathing criticisms of the NYPD's response.

But one voice has been conspicuously quiet: The agency whose sole responsibility is to investigate NYPD abuse of civilians.

The New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board, or CCRB, received about of officers abusing Black Lives Matter protesters across the city last year. But it has not yet released any findings from investigations into those complaints.

The CCRB declined ProPublica's request for an accounting of the status of its investigations. It won't say how many investigations have been closed and how many are still open. Most critically, it won't disclose how many officers have been charged with misconduct.

The NYPD also did not respond to ProPublica's questions about any discipline stemming from abuse of protesters.

The lack of disclosure comes as New York City has moved toward more transparency in police discipline. A federal court recently cleared the way for the city to make NYPD officers' disciplinary records public. Both the and have now published officers' disciplinary records, though critics have the limitations of the databases.

Created nearly 70 years ago, as a part of the NYPD, the CCRB has long been cautious about crossing the department it is charged with investigating. It is currently overseen by a 15-member board, with members appointed by the mayor, city council, public advocate and police commissioner.

Internal CCRB communications about its investigations into the NYPD response to the protests give a glimpse of the dynamics involved: They show progress on the investigations has been slowed in part because of the NYPD's recurrent lack of cooperation — which ProPublica has — and the CCRB leadership's own caution about confronting it.

In October, the then-deputy chief of the CCRB's investigative unit, Dane Buchanan, emailed the agency's executive director, Jonathan Darche, to say that investigators were “ready to schedule Chief Monahan for an interview." Buchanan asked Darche whether he'd like to discuss it first “or should we just have an investigator reach out to his office to get his availability?"

Darche, who reports to the board, responded that he would handle it himself and raise it in a meeting with the NYPD the next day.

Buchanan continued to check in, but the issue went unresolved for months. Monahan was reportedly for an interview to be conducted last Friday, just after he had announced he was retiring from the NYPD after 39 years. The move means Monahan would no longer be subject to departmental discipline.

As Monahan said he was retiring, Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed him to help run New York's COVID-19 response. At a press conference, de Blasio deflected a question about choosing an officer under investigation, , “I think the message this sends is that we're moving the recovery forward."

In a statement, the CCRB told ProPublica it was “not prepared to interview Chief Monahan in October" and that “it intends to release a report detailing the factors that complicated its investigations into the police response to last summer's protests." The CCRB said it will share the results of investigations once they are closed and once federal litigation, such as the attorney general's suit, is over.

Emails show CCRB staffers had repeatedly raised red flags about the NYPD's failure to produce evidence. “We continue to be plagued with false negatives in protest cases," one staffer emailed in the fall, referring to instances where the NYPD claimed it had no body-worn camera footage of an incident only for the CCRB to later discover footage exists.

Another email cited an example where an officer mentioned in an interview she had activated her body cam during a confrontation with a protester. The NYPD had told the CCRB that no such footage existed.

“Allegations of us not providing BWC footage is false," the NYPD said in a statement, referring to body-worn cameras. “We have spoken with senior executives at the CCRB who state they do not have any complaints and are pleased with the Departments response to providing BWC video."

Other records were also matters of contention. “We are hitting a critical point with the protest case documents," Buchanan wrote in October, referring to police records that could help the CCRB identify both officers and civilians. “Many of them have been outstanding for a long time."

The CCRB did decide to go public about one roadblock. Officers had been refusing to do interviews by video, which the agency was using because of the pandemic. Hundreds of cases were stalled as a result. After the CCRB announced an emergency hearing about it in August, the NYPD officers to participate in video interviews.

But the CCRB stayed quiet on other impediments, and staff were sometimes discouraged from raising them even with the NYPD itself. The agency's then-head of policy, Nicole Napolitano, wrote in a September email that she had been barred from asking the NYPD about its policies for retention of protest footage. “I just spoke with Matt, and he's not a fan of me asking TARU any questions," Napolitano wrote, referring to the CCRB's general counsel, Matthew Kadushin, and the NYPD's Technical Assistance Response Unit.

In the same email, Napolitano noted that she had proposed writing a public report on the NYPD's response to the summer protests but that Kadushin had instructed her not to, saying it was too early.

Napolitano, Buchanan and two other senior staffers, who together had more than 50 years of experience at the agency, were laid off in November in what the CCRB has described as a needed cost-saving restructuring. (The four staffers declined to comment for this article.)

Emails show Buchanan had continued to follow up about the status of interviewing Monahan until the day he and the others were let go.

The four former staffers filed lawsuit in January claiming that they were fired in part for “demanding greater accountability and transparency with respect to the handling of complaints of police misconduct against NYPD officers." The suit, which asserts the four were illegally retaliated against for raising concerns, says Darche “often skewed CCRB policies with a view towards currying favor with the NYPD and/or the Mayor's Office."

In one example from 2019 described in the suit, Darche objected to the term “bias based policing" and warned that any employees who used the phrase would be disciplined or fired.

The CCRB declined to comment on the former employees' lawsuit and did not make Darche or Kadushin available for interviews. The agency pointed to a previous statement by the chair of the CCRB, who was jointly appointed by the mayor and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. “The difficult but necessary restructuring the CCRB went through last year was motivated by a need for change during this difficult financial time for the City," said the chair, the Rev. Fred Davie.

A City Hall spokesperson also at the time that the mayor “supports that step forward."

The CCRB's lack of independence has long stirred friction within the agency and with City Hall and the NYPD. Its powers have expanded over the years, most notably when it was given subpoena power in the early 1990s. But the agency, which has about 215 staffers and a $20 million budget, does not have direct access to body camera footage and other NYPD records. Instead, it effectively has to rely on the cooperation of the NYPD, which has a budget of nearly $6 billion and is the most powerful agency in city government.

The NYPD has repeatedly been cited for overly aggressive responses to large protests. “It is deja vu all over again in some ways," the head of New York City's Department of Investigation after issuing a scathing report on the NYPD's response to the Black Lives Matter protests.

During the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, an NYPD commander on the scene told hundreds of peaceful protesters, “," then a few minutes later ordered them arrested.

A federal judge later ruled there was “." The city eventually settled a lawsuit over the NYPD's RNC response for .

The commander at that scene? Terence Monahan.

Nothing is being done in Georgia to prevent violent threats against election workers from happening again

On Nov. 30, 2020, as Georgia slogged through the second recount of its presidential election results, a man in Ohio perusing Twitter came across what he later described as a “call for action" to protect polling locations across the country. His response was to drive more than 500 miles to Gwinnett County in the Atlanta suburbs. He began surveilling the Gwinnett County elections office — and livestreaming his vigil on Twitter.

At around 11 a.m. on Dec. 1, the Ohio man zeroed in on two workers — both Gwinnett County IT employees — who he decided, absent any evidence, were illegally removing “Chinese servers" used for voting tabulation. He “felt he needed to be a patriot and take action," according to a Gwinnett County police report of the incident. From his black pickup truck, he recorded video of the two men putting equipment in their car. When they drove off, he followed them.

The Ohio man quickly gained thousands of viewers and retweets for his livestream, partially by repeatedly tagging the Twitter account @CodeMonkeyZ, a now-suspended major disseminator of QAnon conspiracy theories. A viewer in Oklahoma called the police department in Gwinnett's county seat, Lawrenceville, complaining that the two county employees were mishandling voting equipment and that police should stop them. (The Lawrenceville Police Department also got complaints from Kansas and Utah about alleged ballot cheating that callers claimed to have seen on livestreams.)

The suspicious cargo the workers loaded into their car actually had nothing to do with elections: They'd stopped by the voter registration office to pick up new desk phones to distribute across the county. Gwinnett County elections supervisor Kristi Royston had warned her employees to be mindful of their surroundings, particularly as groups of people concerned about election fraud had been gathering at the county elections office that day, and encouraged staffers to “buddy up" before they went out.

The black pickup followed the Gwinnett County employees' car for nearly 10 miles: first, to a gas station, where no one got out of their vehicles — the two employees later told police they were trying to lose their tail — then to a gated county water treatment facility. One of the employees called 911, waiting in the car to keep the situation from escalating.

After police arrived, one of the IT workers said he had no interest in pressing charges and “just wanted [the Ohio man] to leave him alone," according to the police report. Police let the Ohio man off with a warning. He did not respond to requests for comment; ProPublica is not naming him because he hasn't been charged with a crime.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation received an increase in “threat information and tips" — including death threats against elected officials and election workers — in the wake of November's presidential election and throughout the Senate runoff campaigns that followed, according to bureau public information officer Nelly Miles. Despite this, there have been next to no arrests and little follow-through by lawmakers.

ProPublica could identify only one case of a Georgia elections-related threat since November that led to an arrest: an Albany, Georgia, man who according to police yelled a racial slur at and threatened a campaign worker who had left a flyer at his house. No arrests were made in any of a dozen or more high-profile cases of politically fueled threats against Georgia's governor and secretary of state, all of its state legislators, Fulton County's district attorney, and election officials and workers in several counties.

For nearly a year, election administrators across the country weathered the pandemic while facing an unprecedented number of attacks and threats — leading many officials to resign or retire. Since November, the situation has been especially tense in Georgia, after a combustible chain of events: a Democratic presidential win in the state for the first time since 1992, the Trump campaign's many challenges to the state's election results and recounts, newly elected U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene's support of baseless conspiracy theories and comments promoting violence against Democratic officials, two runoff races that would determine which party took control of the U.S. Senate, and a leaked phone call in which Trump pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find" enough votes to reverse his loss, to name a few.

“Georgia certainly was one of the top places that we were looking at for threats to election officials," said Nealin Parker, co-director of the Bridging Divides Initiative, a project based at Princeton University. The initiative has teamed with the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a nonprofit conflict-research organization, to create the U.S. Crisis Monitor, which analyzes political violence and demonstrations in the U.S.

According to the U.S. Crisis Monitor, Georgia saw paramilitary activity — by such militant far-right groups as the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers, or the Proud Boys — at more than twice the rate seen at demonstrations taking place nationwide between the November election and President Joe Biden's Jan. 20 inauguration. At least eight Georgians have been arrested for their alleged roles in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

But arrests for politically motivated incidents at the state or local level in Georgia remain rare.

Gwinnett County Solicitor-General Brian Whiteside has vowed to prosecute anyone who threatens or assaults an election worker, which is a felony under state law. Even though police didn't file charges in the IT incident involving the Ohio man, Whiteside is investigating it; he said that, if a law has been broken, “our job is to be a preventive agency and enforce the law." Otherwise, he said, “what type of message do you send to people when they do this? That it's going to be lawless?"

Whiteside also said there needs to be a special division of state government tasked with investigating election-related crimes. “I have a deep fear that somebody is going to get hurt out here," he said. “Because they're not making enough preventive arrests when these incidents happen."

Around the same time as the Ohio man followed the Gwinnett County IT employees, social media users circulated videos of a voting-systems tech who was doing some work at a Gwinnett elections office. The videos show the tech walking away from one election workstation with a USB drive, then inserting the drive into a nearby laptop. Social media users accused him of stealing or changing voting data. (The part of the video with the USB drive was a “smoking gun," wrote one.) The tech actually was transferring data to the laptop in order to use Microsoft Excel, which wasn't installed on the first computer, according to a Reuters fact check.

The tech's home address was shared across social media; one Twitter user posted a warning that he was “committing treason" and included a picture of a noose. This prompted Georgia elections official Gabriel Sterling to ask of then-President Trump in a widely covered press conference: “Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone's going to get hurt, someone's going to get shot, someone's going to get killed."

In November, a video that drew 5 million views on Twitter falsely accused a temporary elections worker in Georgia's Fulton County of rigging votes. The worker told WABE that he changed his appearance and went into hiding for three days.

In the time between the November election and the January runoffs, Gov. Brian Kemp told reporters about death threats on social media against him and his family; Raffensperger reported a text message that said, “You better not botch this recount. Your life depends on it," sexualized threats against his wife, and people trespassing on their home property; an aggressor followed a Georgia election worker home and called him a racial slur; and Georgia Elections Director Chris Harvey received an email with his address, a photo of his home, and the message: “Your days are numbered. The FBI can't save you. ... Every time you leave your house in the morning, make sure to say goodbye to your family, as you may not see them again."

A couple of days before the January runoff election, employees in 10 Georgia counties — all of which lean Republican — received threatening emails about explosives at polling places. Sheriff's deputies and other police in those counties increased their presence at polling places during the election, and Spalding County Sheriff Darrell Dix said the GBI later traced the email to an overseas server. As with the other incidents, no arrests were made.

Unlike in Georgia, recent high-profile, politically motivated threats in other states have resulted in charges and arrests. In November, authorities in Norfolk, Virginia, arrested a man for threatening to bomb a polling place. The same month, a New York man was arrested and charged with making threatening interstate communications after allegedly using social media to issue an apparent threat against U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer and to write that he wanted to “blow up" an FBI building. After Republicans on the elections board of Wayne County, Michigan, initially refused to certify November election results in favor of Biden, the U.S. Attorney's office charged a New Hampshire woman with sending threatening messages — allegedly including photos of a bloodied, naked body — to a Republican member of that board.

The Michigan Attorney General's office also filed charges this year against multiple people for making threats to public officials — including a Georgia man who in September allegedly left a threatening voicemail for a Michigan judge who had ruled in favor of Biden in a case related to mail-in ballots.

“It is unacceptable and illegal to intimidate or threaten public officials," Michigan attorney general Dana Nessel said in a statement. “To those who think they can do so by hiding behind a keyboard or phone, we will find you and we will prosecute you, to the fullest extent of the law. No elected official should have to choose between doing their job and staying safe."

Georgia state Rep. Scott Holcomb, a Democrat who represents parts of Atlanta's northeast suburbs, said he and all state legislators received multiple emailed threats after the November election. Holcomb said he'd be interested in exploring tougher penalties for crimes committed against election workers. But first, he said, lawmakers need to get a sense of the pervasiveness of the problem.

“What we need to really think through is whether or not 2020 and '21 were aberrations, with the dramatic increase of threats of violence against election workers," he said. “Or is that the new norm? And if it's the new norm, then we really need to be prepared to address it."

And yet, even as misinformation gave rise to a mounting number of threats against election workers and polling places, there's no centralized way to track every threat in Georgia.

The GBI oversees a multi-agency “fusion center" called the Georgia Information Sharing and Analysis Center, which logs threats and tips and shares information with the FBI and other agencies. The GBI's Miles described GISAC as one part of the state's threat-monitoring system. But the GBI does not keep a statewide tally of politically motivated threats, which could fall under a variety of statutes, including intimidation of election workers, trespassing or terroristic threats.

The absence of a centralized system can make it difficult to detect patterns or spikes. That's not uncommon: Law enforcement officials in Arizona, Vermont and Michigan told ProPublica that election-related threats in their jurisdictions are not comprehensively tracked at the state level.

“It's hard to think of anything more urgent when we're talking about election security than protecting election officials and election workers," said Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Project at the Brennan Center for Justice. “If we can't accomplish that, then our elections are in real danger. And right now, as far as I can tell, it's being mostly ignored."

As for the types of changes that state or federal lawmakers can make to safeguard elections workers and officials, Norden pointed to a bill introduced last year by U.S. Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker that proposed stronger protections for federal judges following the murder of a New Jersey federal judge's son. Norden said election workers would benefit from similar protections, including the ability to shield personal information from public view, training on how to maintain online privacy, and new threat-management capabilities for the U.S. Marshals Service.

Gwinnett County elections supervisor Royston, who's worked in Georgia elections offices for more than two decades, said last year's presidential election was unprecedented for her staff. Royston is thinking ahead to 2022, when Georgia is likely to see a heated gubernatorial race (potentially a rematch between Kemp and Stacey Abrams) and another U.S. Senate race (the newly elected Raphael Warnock, who's filling the remaining two years of Sen. Johnny Isakson's term, is almost certain to face a Republican challenger).

Last year, the combination of the pandemic, new and contested elections equipment, looming threats, and scrutiny from all over the country forced Georgia election officials to be “reactive," Royston said. “I think now that we've experienced that, we can say, 'Okay, what do we need to plan for in case we have that again?'"

How inequity gets built into America’s vaccination system

It's a fact that simply being eligible for a vaccine in America doesn't mean that you can instantly get one. Yet the ability to get to the front of the line isn't the same for everyone. ProPublica has found that, whether intentionally or not, some vaccine programs have been designed with inherent barriers that disadvantage many people who are most at risk of dying from the disease, exacerbating inequities in access to health care.

In many regions of the U.S., it's much more difficult to schedule a vaccine appointment if you do not have access to the internet. In some areas, drive-through vaccinations are the only option, excluding those who do not have cars or someone who can give them a ride. In other places, people who do not speak English are having trouble getting information from government hotlines and websites. One state is even flat-out refusing to allow undocumented workers with high-risk jobs to get prioritized for vaccination.

The vaccine supply is too low to inoculate everyone who is eligible, and competition for appointments is fierce.

"My nightmare scenario is that we have this two-tiered health system where there are people who are wealthy, privileged or connected, and then there's everybody else," Dr. Jonathan Jackson, director of the Community Access, Recruitment, and Engagement Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, told ProPublica. "Once we hit that saturation point where the first tier has all gotten their vaccines, the narrative will shift to blame. It'll be 'Why haven't you taken care of this yet?'"

If you or your family members are experiencing difficulty getting a COVID-19 vaccine because of economic barriers or other inequities, or if you design vaccination plans and can share solutions or challenges related to fair distribution, please fill out our questionnaire below. If you prefer to call or text, you can get in touch at 202-681-0779 in English or Spanish.

For People With Disabilities, It Can Be a Struggle Just to Access Their Appointments

From the moment her 69-year-old father, Jose Balboa, became eligible for the vaccine in January, Kristine Mathason spent part of each day on the phone and online trying to get him a shot. She found available appointments a few times, but couldn't find a way to actually take her father to the vaccination sites. Balboa is paralyzed on his left side after a stroke and needs a wheelchair to get around. In Miami, where he lives, most vaccine sites are drive-up only.

Mathason doesn't have a van that can accommodate Balboa's wheelchair, and she isn't able to lift her father out of it. To move him between his bed and the chair, his home health aides use a patient lift. This isn't possible when trying to get him into a car, Mathason said, as the door gets in the way of either a lifting device or two people trying to support him at once. In the past when family members tried to move him, Balboa fell.

Mathason said she was "willing to jump through all the hoops" to get Balboa the vaccine. "He's super high-risk: He's diabetic, he had a stroke 17 years ago," she said. "He has high blood pressure. My half brother who lives with him works at a restaurant, so that's like a high-risk job. We do our best."

Mathason checked out every other avenue she can think of, but each was a dead end. She looked into renting a van, but she's been out of work because of the pandemic and couldn't afford it. She thought about Uber, but wheelchair access and the cost of waiting in a drive-through were prohibitive. "He's just one of those people who unfortunately is falling through the cracks," she said.

A county service offers scheduled rides for seniors, but it only provides drop-off services and wouldn't take Balboa through a drive-through. There was an additional Catch-22: The scheduled rides require 24 hours' notice for pickup, but the local hospital that offers walk-up appointments schedules them less than 24 hours in advance. The health department in Miami-Dade County directed questions to the Florida state health department, which did not respond to requests for comment.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 14% of adults in Florida have disabilities that affect mobility, which the CDC defines as serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs. While some people with mobility limitations may be able to access a car more easily than Balboa, he and his family were left with very few options.

"I just wish they had thought about people like my dad," Mathason said. "What about the people who don't have a me who's trying to move heaven and earth to get him an appointment? What about the people who just don't have a car and can't get anywhere?"

After more than a month of searching, Balboa got a call from the medical center he goes to for doctor visits. The center had gotten a supply of doses, and they picked him up and took him to the site in one of their wheelchair-accessible vans. On February 24th, he got his first shot.

If You Can't Access or Navigate the Internet, You Might Have Fewer Options

Eneyda Morales, a 40-year-old mother of three in East Hampton, New York, was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago and is still undergoing treatment. Four days a week, she works at a bagel shop near her home. "I'd like to get a vaccine because of the health issues I have and because I work in a place where I have to serve people," Morales said in Spanish. But she's not sure how she's actually going to get a vaccine; while many Americans are hunting for information online, Morales doesn't own a computer, nor does she know how to use one. She has a smartphone, but she primarily uses it for simple searches like looking up addresses. The only computer at her home is the one her 8-year-old daughter's school provided for classwork.

New York state has a vaccination hotline for scheduling appointments by phone, but only for vaccines administered at state-run sites. The state site closest to Morales is about 60 miles away, an hour and a half by car. If Morales wants to get an appointment closer to home, she'll need to contact local hospitals and pharmacies directly. The state hotline's automated message tells callers that the quickest way to get information about eligibility and appointment scheduling is online.

Morales plans to seek help from OLA of Eastern Long Island, a local nonprofit, to schedule an appointment closer to home on one of her days off. Without their help, she said, she wouldn't know where to begin searching.

Some states that have tried to provide offline options for booking vaccine appointments have stumbled. A phone line set up in Maryland was inundated with callers, who complained of being put on hold and then hung up on. In Tennessee, Shelby County's decision to allow internet users to sign up first meant all the slots were snapped up by those with web access before phone appointments even opened.

About 10% of U.S. adults don't use the internet, according to the Pew Research Center. Americans who are older, have less income, have less education or are nonwhite are less likely to go online, researchers found.

People Who Don't Speak English May Have Trouble Getting Information

Gladys Godinez, the daughter of retired meatpacking workers, is an organizer for Solidarity with Packing Plant Workers who lives in Lexington, Nebraska. Her parents, like many of the immigrant workers she represents, are not fluent in English. Nebraska's Spanish-language vaccine website offers a hotline to schedule appointments by phone. Godinez wanted to see what people in her parents' situation were up against if they didn't have a tech-savvy English speaker to help, so she called the number on Feb. 2. She said it took 15 minutes for someone to pick up the phone; that person answered in English.

Godinez said she was told that no one who could speak Spanish was available. She tried to insist: "I said, 'Please, I would really like to be able to register for the vaccine.' I said it in Spanish. She said, 'We don't have anybody that can talk to you in Spanish.' So I just said 'gracias' and hung up."

Nebraska's Department of Health and Human Services said that since Feb. 13, 25% of each hotline shift is staffed by fluent Spanish speakers, but each call center agent can connect with interpretation services as needed. A spokesperson for the department did not comment on Godinez's experience.

Language isn't the only potential barrier facing immigrant workers in Nebraska. In January, Gov. Pete Ricketts was asked if undocumented immigrants in meatpacking facilities would be included in the state's upcoming vaccination push. His response was discouraging: "You're supposed to be a legal resident of the country to be able to be working in those plants. So I do not expect that illegal immigrants will be part of the vaccine with that program."

Godinez said the governor's words did a lot of damage even for people who are legal residents. "That scared a lot of individuals," she said. "Just Spanish-speaking individuals living their life, they have legal status, they're already scared of being profiled. Now here is your governor saying, 'Sorry, not sorry, undocumented workers are not going to get the vaccine.'"

Later that day, the governor's communications director tweeted that "while the federal government is expected to eventually make the vaccine available for everyone in the country, Nebraska is going to prioritize citizens and legal residents ahead of illegal immigrants." Nebraska's Department of Health and Human Services told ProPublica that proof of citizenship is not a requirement to receive the vaccine.

The federal government, even under the Trump administration, has encouraged undocumented immigrants to get vaccinated. According to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation about immigrant vaccine access, Arizona has specifically prioritized undocumented immigrants, while Virginia and New Jersey have prioritized migrant workers. Several states, including Utah, have emphasized that undocumented immigrants are eligible for the vaccine and their personal information will not be shared with authorities. Oregon and Washington have discussed doing outreach to immigrant communities to make sure they have the right information.

Health care workers and advocates are also trying to make access to COVID-19 vaccines more realistic for undocumented residents. In Baltimore, local nonprofit CASA de Maryland is hiring people to knock on doors to share vaccine information and pushing for its Baltimore office, located in a COVID-19 hot spot, to become a vaccination site.

Vaccine Sites That Are Drive-Through Exclude People Without Cars

Los Angeles's Chinatown is about a mile from Dodger Stadium, one of the largest vaccination sites in the country. Despite the short distance, many of the neighborhood's seniors have no way to get vaccinated at the stadium; the site is drive-up only, and many of them have no cars. Sissy Trinh, executive director of the Southeast Asian Community Alliance, which has been providing aid to families in Chinatown and nearby Lincoln Heights during the pandemic, said community members face various hurdles that local government and testing sites haven't accounted for.

Along with lacking access to cars, many of the seniors served by SEACA primarily speak Chinese dialects, Vietnamese, Khmer or Spanish and aren't internet users. Trinh and her colleagues have been scrambling to figure out how to get these seniors vaccinated. They considered hiring Ubers or Lyfts, but the cost of paying drivers to wait in line would be too high for the small nonprofit. SEACA also can't bus the seniors together to a vaccination site for fear of exposing them to potential infection.

In late February, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that the city would send a mobile vaccination clinic to Chinatown and a few other neighborhoods prioritized for their medically vulnerable residents. The city reserved 800 doses for Chinatown. SEACA helped get them to residents, scheduling appointments from its waiting list of 2,500 people, translating documents for them and recruiting volunteers who are fluent in Cantonese, Taishanese, Teochew or Vietnamese.

Trinh said she's excited that some doses are finally reaching seniors in the neighborhood, but she wishes officials had started planning for this when the pandemic started. "I know a lot of people were rushing to figure out how to get PPE to people and updating stay-at-home orders," she said. "But there should have been a dedicated team to figure out the vaccine rollout." Los Angeles officials said they hope to open additional mobile clinic sites by the end of March.

In Pima County, Arizona, health officials are also using mobile clinics to bring vaccines to high-risk residents. Baltimore and Fort Worth, Texas, are among other places attempting to overcome transportation barriers by using mobile sites.

Unclear Communication Leaves People Anxious and Unable to Plan

James, 82, lives in Chesterfield County, Virginia, outside of Richmond. (He asked to be identified only by his first name for privacy reasons.) Like many Americans, he turned first to his primary care physician for information about the vaccine. "I contacted my physician's office to find out if they'd let me, as a patient, know when I'd get the vaccine, and they said, 'Oh, no, no, we're not going to do that.'" They instead directed him to the Virginia Department of Health. So James went on the state health department's website. "I filled in all their little boxes, and that was it — I never heard a word," he said. "I had no idea whether I'm registered or not." He also tried registering on his county health department's website, and had the same experience. "You don't know whether you're talking to a computer or to a garbage can," he said. "When you're filling it in, where does the form go? I'm concerned that when I finally get to go to the vaccine site, someone's going to say I'm not registered."

James contrasted the experience to online shopping: "When you go buy something off the web, you get an immediate response from the vendor saying, 'Thank you for your purchase.' Why can't they do that? Say thank you for your registration?"

Virginia's initial vaccine registration system indeed provided no email confirmation, but the new system, implemented on Feb. 16, now provides "an immediate acknowledgement on the screen" as well as an email or text message, according to health department spokesperson Melissa Gordon. She added that "it is not practical to give an exact place 'in line' or estimated appointment time frame, because clinics are put together based on capacity, eligibility and equity drivers that change over time." The only thing the email confirmation can do, she said, is to "notify the recipient that their information had been transferred to the new statewide system and no other action was needed." Residents who signed up under the old system, including James, eventually got an email to acknowledge their registration, albeit weeks after they filled in the form. Gordon added, "Unfortunately, it may be several weeks or months before everyone can get an appointment."

Confusion over "When's it going to be my turn?" has only increased as states start to expand access to people with underlying health conditions, with criteria that can be hard to interpret. Some Massachusetts residents with asthma, for example, are at a loss as to whether they qualify, WBUR recently reported. Massachusetts has "moderate to severe" asthma on its list of eligible medical conditions, but what counts as "moderate" asthma is ambiguous.

James has been waiting for the vaccine so he can safely visit his children and four grandchildren, who range in age from 11 to 28. In the absence of information from his local health department, he's been relying on the news to glean details about the rollout. He said he read about one couple who drove nearly five hours each way from the Richmond area to Abingdon to get a vaccine. James thinks it's not worth going that far, especially since that could involve an overnight stay somewhere. "I'll just sit around and wait and mind my p's and q's," he said.

The experience so far has made him "lose faith in the whole process," he said. "The president can get on TV and say he's purchased 600 million, 600 billion of these things, and I say, 'Fine, but where is this stuff? Tell me, when is it going to be on my street?'"

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