America’s Renegade Retirees

U.S. News and World Report

ROSARITO, Mexico — At the sprawling beachfront Las Rocas Resort and Spa in the Mexican state of Baja California, the restaurant El Mesón serves up American-style pizza and Mexican seafood accompanied by a breathtaking view of the Pacific. To drum up more business, the restaurant is running a new campaign in local publications, with a limited-time offer.

Their advertisement shows a beaming, middle-aged couple, a silver-haired gentleman and a blond. Her arms are draped comfortably around his shoulders. “Super special!” reads the text over their heads, in English. “Seniors 50% off your check!” In the tiny print below, a disclaimer notes that the deal is available to those aged 55 and up.

That marketing focus is intentional. In 2017, for the first time in twenty years, Mexico topped the list of International Living’s annual ranking of the best places for U.S. citizens to retire. The population of Americans in Mexico is rising, in size as well as in age.

Yet most of them may be there illegally. South of the border, it’s relatively easy for U.S. citizens to live without legal documentation. In fact, some official reports indicate that illegal Americans seem to be the rule, not the exception.

One 2015 study from Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography reveals that a stunning 91.2 percent of Americans in the country don’t have their papers in order. That figure includes typos and other minor irregularities, and doesn’t appear to account for dual nationals.

The welcome many American immigrants feel in Mexico stands in stark contrasts to the way their Mexican counterparts are treated by Uncle Sam.

At the border crossing into Tijuana from San Diego, Americans can drive straight into Mexico without stopping or showing any kind of identification.

Mexicans generally embrace Americans and the influx of U.S. dollars that accompany them, and the Mexican government rarely deports Americans – typically just for very serious crime. Fines related to immigration paperwork can range from $50 to a few hundred dollars.

Conversely, under the Trump administration, even those people who grew up in the United States, brought here as babies or children, are now being deported for lacking formal documentation.

“There is a great deal of irony there,” says Sheila Croucher, author of the book, “The Other Side of the Fence: American Migrants in Mexico.” She adds, “I believe the Mexican people are remarkably adept at separating the actions and attitudes of the U.S. government from that of the American people.”

According to the U.S. State Department, around a million Americans currently reside in Mexico. But that number is only an estimate, since citizens aren’t closely tracked leaving the U.S. For its part, Mexico struggles to tally incoming visitors.

“I think it’s safe to say that over the past few years there has been a marked increase,” Croucher says. “And there’s been no indication of a reverse flow of people coming back from the towns in Mexico where large numbers of Americans have settled.”

Statistics from the U.S. Social Security Administration show that distributions to beneficiaries in Mexico increased 7.2 percent between 2012 and 2016. Yet those numbers, too, aren’t exactly reliable: many American seniors move south while keeping their old bank accounts back home.

Some of the 15,000 Americans skirt formal residency requirements by obtaining tourist visas, and renewing them every 180 days. Otherwise, a one-year temporary visa costs about $194 USD.

Cheap living, proximity and established enclaves of Americans are three top reasons why Americans are drawn to retiring in Mexico, says Jen Stevens, the executive editor of International Living.

“Part of the reason Mexico came out on top [in our ranking] is because of the dollar being so strong this year, compared to the peso,” Stevens says. “It is even more affordable now than it was a decade before.”

Hot spots for American immigrants, young and old alike, include cities and towns like San Miguel de Allende, Rosarito, the Valle de Guadalupe, Lake Chapala and Ajijic.

And with the climbing cost of healthcare in the U.S., some American retirees also view Mexico as a good option if assisted living facilities or in-home private care become necessary.

Scott Astorga of Palm Springs says he opened a small retirement home in Rosarito in June 2016. “There’s a demand here,” Astorga says. “That’s why I’m in business. It’s growing. Back in 2003, there weren’t any assisted living facilities.”

Yet some Americans find themselves unsettled by what still seems to be a fact of Mexican life: the “mordida,” or bribe.

Sean Gunderson, 57, of Arizona bought a beachfront second home in a gated community along the Tijuana-Rosarito coast in 2004.

A few years later, the former law enforcement consultant was advised to pay a bribe after the Mexican government refused to fix a typo on paperwork related to his property. The incident rankled Gunderson so much that he decided to put his house on the market, scrapping a plan to develop a multi-million dollar assisted living community in Baja California.

“If you don’t mind operating that way, as an American, you can buy influence and connections,” Gunderson says. “But for us, in terms of investing, that was the straw that broke our backs.”


“Immigration and assimilation: Finding a cultural foothold … in a gang” | Christian Science Monitor, July 7, 2013


“Immigration and assimilation: Finding a cultural foothold in a gang,” by Erin Siegal McIntyre, from the July 7, 2013 cover story package on immigration for the Christian Science Monitor. 

In 1979, at age 7, Alex Sanchez and his younger brother left El Salvador. They didn’t want to immigrate to theUnited States, but they had no choice. Five years earlier, their parents had made the journey north. The young brothers had spent most of their lives believing that their neighbors, who acted as temporary caretakers, were family.

“It was a hard transition to come into the United States to meet these new people,” Mr. Sanchez explains. “We’d been calling someone else Mom and Dad in El Salvador.”And once the family was reunited in Los Angeles, the children’s situation got even more difficult. Sanchez’s parents fought. “We started getting beat for things like not calling our dad ‘Dad,’ ” he says. His father often left the family, and his mother sank deeply into religion.

At school, Sanchez was ridiculed for not speaking English, and the other Spanish-speaking Latino kids derided his Salvadoran slang. “There was really nothing to help us to integrate into society,” he says, describing what experts call “downward assimilation,” integrating culturally but not into the mainstream culture. “It was difficult for us to understand what was happening. We just knew that we hated this country, that we hated our parents. We hated everybody and everything around us. There was no American dream. And in some ways, it became an American nightmare.”

The family moved to South Central L.A., then Koreatown. Finally, at a new school, Sanchez found a group of other immigrant children whose experiences mirrored his own – including being humiliated and bullied. Among his new clique, Sanchez found the sense of love and belonging that had eluded him since moving to the States.

“Instead of responding individually to harassment, they responded with unity,” he says. “And eventually, this became known as the Mara Salvatrucha, MS-13.”

Today, the US government recognizes the high-profile gang as a transnational criminal organization. According to the FBI, which has a task force dedicated to battling the gang, the organization operates in more than 42 states and boasts between 6,000 and 10,000 members.

At first, Sanchez says, the gang felt like home. At age 11, he got his first tattoo. By 15, he’d been shot. His adolescence was spent bouncing in and out of juvenile detention, and by 20, Sanchez had served three separate jail terms for various offenses. “For us, going to prison was a rite of passage,” he recalls today. “You got recognized by the gang; you were someone to be reckoned with.”

By 1994, after his third prison sentence, the gangster glamour of doing time started to tarnish. Sanchez was 21 and realized he wanted to turn his life around. After another arrest, he signed voluntary deportation papers, weary from the intensity of gang life. Perhaps deportation, Sanchez imagined, could serve as a vacation of sorts. 

He was wrong...

Corrida de Toros

This Sunday, I went to a bullfight at the Bullring by the Sea in Playas de Tijuana. It was my first one, and perhaps my last. I hadn’t expected the bulls to die so slowly, or express so much pain. After they’ve been stabbed, their tongues loll out of their mouths, wagging back and forth. Bulls have surprisingly long tongues. They also wail loudly: a haunting cry that reminded me a bit of a faint foghorn.

Going into it, I knew the bulls were going to be killed, and that it might be unpleasant to witness. Given the long, storied history of the corrida (bullfight), I imagined there was something I simply didn’t understand about the allure. Beforehand, various fans explained the elegance of the art– no, not sport, but art– to me, saying the matadors engaged in a delicate ballet with the animal. One man, Herman Montaño, told me that the bulls are selectively bred from Spanish bloodlines.

I taped four interviews with my new radio mic, along with lots of ambient sound: the cries of the bulls, the crowd cheering and jeering, the live band warming up and playing, the stadium sound system blasting Chino y Nacho, food vendors joking around and setting up their wares. I also stuck my microphone in front of the matador pictured above, El Zapato, as he greeted fans and signed autographs before the corrida. Aficionados (fans) thrilled to the performances, though the stadium was less than a quarter of the way full.

When I fell asleep, I dreamed of wailing bulls.

Contributed Reporting: NYT cover story

BAXTER, Minn. — Beechestore and Rosecarline, two Haitian teenagers in the throes of puberty, were not supposed to be adopted.

At the end of last year, American authorities denied the petition of a couple here, Marc and Teresa Stroot, to adopt the brother and sister after their biological father opposed relinquishing custody.

Reluctantly, Mr. and Mrs. Stroot, a special-needs teaching assistant and a sales executive with four children of their own, decided to move on.

Then on Jan. 12, a devastating earthquake toppled Haiti’s capital and set off an international adoption bonanza in which some safeguards meant to protect children were ignored.

Read the whole piece on the New York Times website! It’s by Ginger Thompson, and I contributed reporting.

Up, up, and away!

I’m speechless. After just six days- six!!- of my book being listed on Kickstarter, I’ve reached my target funding goal of $3,000.

As of today, a grand total of fifty-five people have chipped in, contributing anything from five to five hundred dollars. I really didn’t expect everything to happen so fast, but because it did, today I’m booking my tickets to return to Guatemala for a final month and a half of writing and reporting.

While I’m there, I’ll continue blogging over at Kickstarter, and I’ll also be posting to the new project site I launched last week,

Right now, the project website is simply a rough draft. I built it myself from a WordPress template, and I’m not going to shape it into an in-depth, multimedia project home until I’m finished writing and reporting the actual manuscript. Gotta take things one step at a time. But come October, after my book deadline, expect some major changes!

The site will not only house photos and audio, but source documents as well, including leaked emails, government files obtained via FOIA request, and much, much more.

“Finding Fernanda” is on Kickstarter!

Check out the details, and donate a buck or two if you can!

And yup, that’s Fernanda  herself. I took this picture of her back in January 2008, when I started reporting in Guatemala. Can a kid get any cuter?  I’m honestly not sure.

Anyway, to support my work, please check out the project profile on Kickstarter!

Thank you for your support!

Taryn Simon TED talk

Yup, this is an old TED talk, but I thought I’d post because Taryn Simon is one of my very favorite photographers. I adore her work so much I’d even intern for her (well, almost). Her books An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar and The Innocents are both worth picking up. Here’s one of her quotes referencing The Innocents that applies to almost any photographic work.

Photography’s ability to blur truth and fiction is one of its most compelling qualities. But when misused as part of a prosecutor’s arsenal, this ambiguity can have severe, even lethal consequences. Photographs in the criminal justice system, and elsewhere, can turn fiction into fact. As I got to know the men and women in this book, I saw that photography’s ambiguity, beautiful in one context, can be devastating in another.

When you’re writing a book…

Photo work tends to take a back seat. For now, my snapping is limited to the occasional assignment from my wonderful agency in New York, Redux Pictures, and some freelance clients. In terms of personal work, well, my head is pretty much swimming with information related to the investigations I’m unravelling in my upcoming book. It’s been hard to muster the energy to shooting non-cerebral work. And so, I’ve been shooting just for pleasure. Yup, I feel like an art-school kid again.

But I have to say, it’s really nice. Shooting for the love of photography is something I haven’t done in so long. My old Toyo 4×5 studio camera recently passed into her next life, and I’ve been adjusting to shooting in a different format. I dragged that poor old Toyo to so many places- leaking Brooklyn warehouses, Wyoming plains, urban California bedrooms- that her bellows finally had to be duct-taped together.

Though I’ve kept my lenses and film backs for when I can replace her, in the meantime I’ve been shooting 2 1/4 work in the same vein as the “Brooklyn Hangar” series that initially made me fall in love with large format photography. It feels strange, but I think it’s just the newness of the format. I’m using a new used Pentax 645 with just one lens. Hasselblads never felt right in my hands, and I just can’t think in a perfect square. The Mamiya systems I’ve used are just so damn heavy and insanely expensive. The Pentax is less precious, too- something I like a lot.

I miss photojournalism, too, and my head is bursting with story ideas that I can’t wait to start. I swear, my idea list never shortens. But for now, “real” photo work is back-burnered. I’m shooting for the sake of shooting. And it feels good!

Haiti: Photographer Roll Call

Q. How many photographers does it take to cover an earthquake?

A. Too many for me to count accurately…

But here’s a stab at a roll call, gleaned from clips and discussions on Lightstalkers and various photo agency blogs…

Michael Appleton, NYT, Ozier Mohammed, NYT, Damon Winters, NYT, Ruth Fremson, NYT, Fred Conrad, NYT, Tim Fadek, TIME magazine, Keith Marlowe, LIFE, Jim Nachtwey, TIME magazine, Evan Abramson, Nick Weissman, James Oatway, Sam Albright, Jospeph Molieri, Jeff Antebi (NPR), Mark Ovaska, Andy Levin, Carlos Barria, Reuters, Roberto Schmidt, AFP, Chris Hondros, Getty, Eliana Aponte, Reuters, Tomas Bravo, Reuters, Gerald Herbert, AP, Thony Belizaire, AFP, Win McNamee, Getty, Jean-philippe Ksiazek, AFP, Louis Quail, Maggie Steber. NYT, Ron Haviv, People magazine, Peter Periera, Simon Biswas, Zoriah, Jan Grarup, Gary Fabiano, Joao Pina, Fred Dufour, Getty, Joe Raedle, Getty, Stan Honda, AFP, Hughes Leglise-Bataille, Willie Davis, Michael Mullady, Q. Sakimaki, Pedro Farias-Nardi, Mark Peterson, Tequila Minsky, Jeremy Cowart, James Wardell, Shayne Robinson, Jayms Ramirez, Kevin C. Downs, Rick Loomis, LA Times, Carolyn Cole, LA Times, Brian Vander Brug, LA Times, David Levine, Guardian. Bruno Stevens, Cosmos, Jeroen Oerleman, Panos, Moises Saman, Panos, William Daniels, Panos, Julie Platner, WSJ, Dominic Nahr, WSJ, Charles Ommaney, Newsweek, Peter Power, Globe and Mail, Julie Remy, MSF UK, ADRIANA ZEHBRAUSKAS / POLARIS, Alvaro Ybarra Zavala,Getty

Daniel Morel, who contributes to Corbis, is the only Haitian photographer I’ve heard of who’s getting any play. Can anyone correct me? An interview that the NYT Lens blog did with him is here.

So is that enough?

Chilenizacion de la Fotografia

What might be my last art crush of 2009: The beautiful “Chilenization of Photography” blog.

by Fernando Melo, from his collection “Concepción fotográfica” (Photographic Conception)

by Rosario Montero Prieto, from the gorgeous series “Habitaciones Paranoicas” (Paranoid Rooms)

by Marco Fredes, from the series “Cuasimodos” (Quasimodos, a central Chilean religious celebration on the Sunday after Easter)

Online Media Legal Network

There’s a brand new, pro-bono network “that connects qualifying online journalism ventures and digital media creators with lawyers willing to provide legal services on a pro bono or reduced-fee basis. OMLN supports promising ventures and innovative thinkers in online and digital media by providing access to legal help that would otherwise be unavailable.”

It’s the Online Media Legal Network at Harvard’s Berkman Center. OMLN is a brand new project of the Citizen Media Law Project.


FOIA’ing the FBI

Well, today I’m getting my FOIA requests in order, one of which is being sent to the FBI. They’re the government agency crowned with George Washington University’s National Security Archive’s “Rosemary Awards” this past March for “outstandingly bad responsiveness to the public that flouts the letter and spirit of the Freedom of Information Act” (FOIA).  The press release about it is here.

I guess it really shouldn’t be too much of a surprise- I mean, look at how their website looks, using Safari as a browser on a Mac.

Picture 1

Here’s the Attorney General’s memo that tells the FBI to shape up. Unfortunately, there’s no deadline. It sort of seems to be lip service to Obama’s January 21st mention of FOIA failure… and just this month, The FOIA Blog reported that U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that the FBI’s FOIA search system was still “devoid of the necessary elements” set forth by FOIA case law standards.

It makes me shudder to think that their agency is worse than the Department of State, who have been sitting on a bunch of my requests for over a year now. History of Phone Phreaking has a nice breakdown of how the FBI filing systems work- and how to interpret  your documents, that is, if you ever get them.

At your wits’ end? Calling FOIA officers and establishing relationships with them is super useful. I haven’t done this yet with the FBI, but it’s worked well with the DOS.

FOIPA Public Information Officer (PIO)
David P. Sobonya
Phone: (540) 868-4593
Fax: (540) 868-4995
Please call this number to talk with the PIO about the status of an existing FOI/PA request, or other FOIPA matters. Our PIO cannot answer questions about Name Check requests, all calls received for Name Check information will be referred to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
FOIPA Public Liaison Officer (PLO)
Dennis J. Argall
(540) 868-4516
Please call the PLO number if you have concerns about information received about the FOIPA after contacting either the RSC or the PIO.

Wanna know if the feds have a file on you? You can FOIA your own FBI records here– or those of your family members.

Flight of Procrastination

I’m supposed to be editing, doing another few passes through those same 80 pages. The latest in procrastination methodology? Capturing benign little yellow warblers acting viciously towards one another.

Sure, they look cute…



My boyfriend, also a photojournalist, just looked at me and smirked. “What, now you’re a nature photographer?”

Nope.  Art photographer, maybe?


Anybody wanna buy a birdfight print? I swear, some are even in focus…

Self-imposed Isolation: Gualala Writing Retreat

So I’m off into the relative wilderness (ok, so that’s a stretch, but there’s no cell service!) of Gualala, California for awhile, with the goal of whipping 80 pages of writing into decent shape. Gualala is in Mendocino county,three hours north of the Bay Area. Here’s where I’ll be in lockdown:


Unfortunately, here’s what’s outside:



Invited to PDN 30

I’ve been invited, for the second year, to apply for the PDN 30. I’m not sure who nominated me, but I’d bet it’s the good folks over at Redux. Check out the full gallery from 2009 here.


Last year, I passed on sending in work. Since I was just embarking on a year of grad school, the timing didn’t seem right. I’m sort of on the fence about submitting again this year, but I guess I have until October 16th to make up my mind.

Latest Tear: New York Times

Finally, I’m finished with grad school and back to work! My first assignment back in the photo world was for the New York Times last month.  I met NYT reporter Jim Dao in Santa Clara, California, to work on a piece about Vietnam veterans from the 11th Armored Cavalry’s Alpha Troop. Alpha Troop was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation at a banquet on the Sunday of that weekend, September 12, 2009.


One of the experiences I was able to listen to was that of 58-year-old Ray Moreno, an Alpha Troop vet. During the second day of the assignment, I stayed in the room alongside Jim while he recorded the interviews that went into the final multimedia package. Some of the stories were, expectedly, heartbreaking. The final multimedia piece can be seen and listened to on the NYT site here. The editors combined my pictures and pictures from Vietnam to make the end product, a series of slideshows that play while audio from each A-Troop vet recounts their experience.


Overall, it was a great assignment. The 11th Cav guys were a boisterous and hospitable bunch, and I felt blessed to be able to bear witness to one of their reunions. I left with a notebook packed with names, email addresses, and instructions from various vets regarding where and how to email them photos. Many of the guys there weren’t exactly fans of the “liberal” New York Times, and told me I should get a better job working for Fox News. It was also the first time I’ve ever been photographed while taking pictures- kind of amusing.

I left wondering about all the stories that will be taken to the grave by the thousands of vets who- like some members of the A-Troop- came home to shame and stigma, drowning memory in silence.

Freedom from the Press

The best part of this gig has got to be the fact that I’m not press. Since I’m staff, I don’t have to remain on a press riser. Actually, I never have to set foot on one. I’m enjoying it while it lasts.

This is the chaos inside the media center. I mean, centre.

un media

To be honest, that part looks like fun. Lots more happening than upstairs in the photo unit headquarters. Here’s a luncheon, with some presidents and heads of states.

un presserYup, I’m roaming. Sweet.