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IIRIRA – Heard Of It?

In September 1996, then President Bill Clinton signed into law the “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.”  Having been very aware of the political headwinds at that time, I admit that I do not remember this legislation or this particular bill signing.  It was, however, the third in a series of what are now seen as very conservative policies turned laws that Clinton signed during the lead up to his second term.  The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (welfare reform) and finally IIRIRA would become a part of the Clinton legacy Democrats now want to forget.   The Crime Bill has resulted in the mass incarceration of millions of American citizens (and the privatization of prisons) and IIRIRA has made it incredibly difficult if not impossible for a majority of undocumented immigrants, regardless of the reason for their undocumented status, to become legal.

In a future post, I plan to discuss the reasons for Clinton’s lurch to the right, some of which you may recall.  Newt Gingrich and his 1994 “Contract with America” and the resulting yet short lived Republican Revolution being one.  But this post will focus on immigration reform, or at least an aspect of it that I have discussed in the past.

At what point do we actually solve the problem?

Good question.  Depending on where you read this, immigration may not be a topic you consider on a daily basis.  I confront it daily, primarily out of being an interested political junkie.  But working in technology, particularly for a software firm based in Silicon Valley, immigration and the ability to secure the skilled labor necessary to meet the demands of the business is a daily priority.  And let me offer some advice to parents:  your job is not only to keep your kids in school but also to ensure that they excel in science, math, and technology because those subjects will form the basis for the jobs of the future.  Your kid will not be able to secure a “middle class” lifestyle (however you define that) for 60+ years on a high school education alone.  They need degrees in higher education or technical trade training and right now, our universities and colleges (2 or 4-year schools) and vocational schools are not producing enough graduates with the right skills for the jobs of the future.  More on that below.

I am exhausted by the American dialogue on immigration.  Absolutely exhausted.  And while I will get to our political leaders in a moment, I want to first start with you – the American citizen because it is YOU – US – that is the core of the problem.  We continue to be led down a conversation path about immigration that has absolutely nothing to do with the actual immigration problems facing the country.   Think about it.  If I told you that the fundamental issues facing the United States economy in the next 30 – 40 years were climate change,  a rapidly declining labor market and thus tax base would you agree?  I suspect that you could point to climate change and agree that “yes, I understand that to be the case.”  But the declining labor market and tax base is never discussed and is certainly not part of the immigration debate and yet, this issue has profound implications for the next generations.

In one of my first Facebook posts, I told my own immigration story or at least one fourth of it detailing the legacy of my Dad Orville’s paternal family who emigrated from Germany in the 1840s.   My story was a little different from what you might typically read.  First, all of my “first generation” ancestors emigrated several generations ago meaning that all the DNA required to make “me” has been in the United States for well over a century.  Second, the post’s objective was to understand why and maybe just when during that century or more did immigration and citizenship become viewed as something that should be difficult for others to attain.  If you read that post, you will see that I use my Dad as an example of how a lot of people view immigration today.  The “Wall” = “Keeping People Out.”  The “Wall” = “Make it Difficult to Be a Citizen.”  Something changed in the 5 generations between Casper and Orville and I suspect something likely changed between your ancestors and you too.

If you are firmly against immigration, then nothing here will change your mind.   So please, save yourself some time, close the back button and move on to something more enjoyable.  However, if you fall into the camp that believes that maybe there is more to the issue than what you hear from your leaders and certainly from the Republican Party and conservative media then I beg you to do your homework.  The information coming out of the White House and the GOP led Congress is absolute nonsense and worse, if passed into law will not only NOT Make America Great Again, it will permanently set us behind in fields of technology, research, and scientific advancement.

The REAL Immigration Issues

There are a few immigration issues I just refuse to discuss anymore.  Why?  Because they are stupid.  Which ones are they?  Well – if Kris Kobach, Stephen Miller or Jeff Sessions think they are a problem, then more than likely they are stupid and based on bad data (or no data).  Kobach gave an interview on Friday about why Trump should end DACA and gave as an example how some were “gang bangers” and thus, we should end the entire program.   If you are a fan of Kris Kobach, then you and I will likely not communicate well on immigration because my general sense is that while he is probably intellectually “smart,” his public policy positions belong to an age that never lasted more than a few years.  Why?  You guessed it.  Because they were stupid.

Senators Tom Cotton (R – AR) and David Purdue (R-GA) have introduced the RAISE Act (Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment) with the strong support of the Trump White House.  If passed, the RAISE Act would make an already bad immigration policy even worse because it REDUCES legal immigration by 50%.  Yes.  I said reducing legal immigration is bad.  Very bad.  Let me explain.  (It does more than that but the legal reductions are what I want to discuss first).

I assume that you have shopped in a grocery store lately.  Most Americans do this at least once a week.  If you are like me, you start in the produce department and methodically go from the fresh fruits and vegetables to the bagged lettuces, “already pre-cut and washed vegetables” and organic options.  I am not much of a price hawk but my Mom and sister are; they scour the flyers every week and know exactly what is on sale.  But even though I do not watch prices as closely as I should, I know that bananas are the cheapest fruit I buy and grapes and apples the most expensive.  And every once in a while I’ll grab a bag of tangerines, particularly if they are in season.  Sometimes, if I’m feeling creative I’ll pick up a spaghetti squash or butternut squash that has been zoodled into curls (like curly fries).  I mentioned the price before because the cost is a big deal to a lot of American families, especially when it comes to food.  Food is one of those “must haves” and produce is high on the list of items that nutritionists say keeps you healthy.

Thing is:  A LOT of what you see in your grocery store depends on migrant labor – legal and illegal.  Now I say “A LOT” because I do not know the exact percentage.  It depends on the season, the location of the store and the produce of course.  It also depends on who does the research.  Obviously, by its very nature migrant labor is hard to quantify.   Some researchers have published studies indicating that up to 70% of migrant workers are undocumented while others put the number much lower.  But for purposes of this conversation which is “real immigration problems we need to solve” the issue is this:  American consumers expect high quality, safe produce available at their local supermarkets for reasonable prices.  Currently, that demand is met by US growers throughout the country relying on migrant workers that are not American citizens.  Some may have guest worker visas but the government limits them to numbers that do not meet the demand and thus, people cross the border.

The same is true for the services and construction industry.  There are already reports that rebuilding in Houston and surrounding areas will be delayed and more expensive because the local legal labor market is not plentiful enough to meet the demand.

Now let’s talk about the issues associated with migrant labor, particularly undocumented migrant labor.  For liberals like me, we cringe at the thought of capitalists taking advantage of human desperation; of poor working conditions and low wages; back breaking work and long hours.  Undocumented workers are subject to abuse and worse, human smuggling so of course, we all want that stopped.   But those issues do not dismiss the business need and demand that brought the workers to the farms in the first place and it is a travesty and an embarrassment to our government that we cannot solve it through our immigration policy.

Senator Tom Cotton has advocated for the RAISE Act and in doing so has stated unequivocally that immigrants are taking jobs from American citizens; that there is “no job that an American citizen will not do if employers pay them a high enough wage.”  Honestly, I almost spit out whatever I was drinking at the time I heard this.  I have to hand it to Senator Cotton on his audacity and bravery.  He must really hope that his fellow Arkansas are incredibly stupid and that business lobbyists that donated to his campaign missed that interview.  None of that is true.

First on the topic of immigrants taking jobs from American citizens.  In the area of highly skilled and educated labor – no they are not.  I alluded to that point earlier.  There is a reason why Silicon Valley is up in arms over DACA and the RAISE Act.  There is a reason why business has come out against Trump’s stance on immigration and it is not because they want cheap labor in the United States.  If they really wanted cheaper labor, they would ship more jobs overseas.  No, Silicon Valley – tech firms, the ones that will drive the next scientific and digital revolution in areas of artificial intelligence, want labor resources right here.  In America.  They do not want to mess with copyright infringement or risk their source code being hijacked in a foreign country.  Mark Zuckerberg and all the Titans of Technology he represents want smart programmers sitting right here in the United States of America.  The problem is that for the last couple of decades, the American education system (to no fault of my teacher friends) has not produced ENOUGH of those very resources with US Social Security Numbers.  Let me say that again for Senator Cotton and anyone else who failed basic macroeconomics:  demand for skilled labor is greater than the supply of that resource.   This results in wage and benefit increases.  But at a certain point, the laws of supply and demand cannot be met with wage and benefit increases alone.  You have to adjust the supply.  Employers can jack up wages and increase benefits only so much without creating a feeding frenzy of employees bouncing from firm to firm.  The solution is to increase the supply.  And in this case, the solution is education and immigration.   Education takes time so we must look to immigration to fill the gap.

But the RAISE Act does the opposite.  It decreases the number of visas available and applies a point based system of merit to determine recipients. (Note – a merit or skills based determination is a valid reform and certainly something that I could support.  At this time, I have not reviewed the contemplated provisions in the RAISE Act, save the English requirement, which I do not support.  For generations, immigrants have learned English once they have arrived on our shores and there is absolutely no reason to change that expectation now.  But merit or skills in general – such as knowledge of a specific technology or certain education level is valid and similar to what we do today).  Decreasing immigration, at the same time, that the United States is experiencing a decrease in our own birth rate is perhaps one of the more assinine ideas coming out of Washington.   We are on our way to a labor shortage crisis and while yes, this will help us reach full employment (which we are essentially at today with an unemployment rate at 4%, the end result of not meeting labor demand is a systemic and sustained loss in productivity.  That result has far reaching implications that will have a noticeable impact on every American family.  

But what about the unskilled labor Amy?  The jobs on farms and maybe the service industry?  Senator Cotton said that Americans would do any job if employers paid them a high enough wage.  Let’s take him at his word.  What might that look like?

Migrant labor is just that:  migrant.   The resources needed in citrus and fruit orchards, vegetable fields and wherever they grow nuts are seasonal.  Before the crackdown at the border, stemming from the1996 IIRIRA law, migrants would cross the border sometimes on a daily basis, work in the fields and then cross back.  After the crack down, migrants tended to cross the border once with their families and settled finding it too risky to go back and forth.  But even then, workers moved from town to town and sometimes state to state, depending on the crop and the season.  Because they were undocumented, they were paid lower wages and had no benefits (no health care, no Social Security, etc).  Families may have stayed and settled but the breadwinner likely moved around each year.

Studies have shown that American citizens are not interested in the migrant lifestyle, nor do they want seasonal work.  Perhaps most importantly – and this is huge – in the area of farming, a switch to a native born labor market would result in a higher cost to the consumer.  You know all the noise about Whole Foods and their ridiculous prices?  Well, get ready for the same at a supermarket near you.  Furthermore, studies continue to demonstrate that immigration does not negatively impact long term wages and employment, especially for those with skills and with degrees.  (Hint:  stay in school, develop a skill, trade or get a degree).  In short, Americans are less mobile (they do not want to move around) and have higher salary and benefit requirements which if met, would have downstream ramifications that would lead to inflation.  Everybody hates inflation.

The RAISE Act not only limits legal immigration (and I think it gives Trump money for his ridiculous wall – which, we already have.  It’s called, ‘The Rio Grande’) but REPLACES our existing focus on refugees and reunification of families.  I believe (am really emphasizing ‘believe’ here and am not speaking with certainty) that our current immigration focus of family unification stems from our involvement in Southeast Asia (Vietnam).  As a result of our pull out, a great many South Vietnamese citizens who had cooperated with the United States were put in danger by the invading North Vietnamese communists.  Naturally, the US government wanted to extract as many of these “collaborators” as possible as leaving them behind would likely mean torture and death.  Getting them and their families, often extending beyond just their spouse and children became a priority.

Additionally, over the course of the war, US soldiers fathered an unknown number of biracial children (is that the right word?) and while this detail of history has slipped under the radar, I have anecdotal evidence to suggest that having a Vietnamese (or Cambodian, or Thai) birth certificate that listed an American father got you at least a second glance by US immigration officials.  Sponsorship of an American citizen was required and certainly the process for bringing over one’s immediate family was slow, but it was possible – if you could prove that you had American DNA coursing through your veins.

The focus on family unity continues today and should not be replaced by a skills or merit based system rather the latter should be in addition to what is currently in place.  In fact, the entire system needs to be reformed including the citizenship, visa and green card process as from an outsider’s perspective, it is incredibly inefficient and expensive.  The goal of the process should be to let people in, not keep people out (unless they pose a security risk).

DACA:  Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

Pursuant to my irritation with repeatedly having the wrong immigration conversation, I will attempt to limit any vulgarity in regard to feelings toward the Trump Administration and DACA.

Given that the President has committed himself to “making a decision on DACA” in the wake of about a dozen state attorneys general threatening to sue the federal government if it does not revoke the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order, there have been many articles and news clips explaining the Obama era program.  I will not repeat them here.  I do however hope that you have educated yourself on this program and the implications of its revocation.  Given the content and arguments in this post, it would be asinine to revoke protection for 800,000 or so DACA beneficiaries, putting them at risk for deportation without replacing it with a better program that would put them on a pathway to citizenship or at least give them permanent residency status. Absolutely asinine.  Other countries – say Canada – would take them and then Canada will benefit from the education and training these young adults learned in the United States.  Stupid.  Absolutely stupid.

At its core, the DACA executive order (issued in 2012) is about kids brought to the United States by their parents at an age in which they were unable to choose for themselves.  Hard liners, like the aforementioned Kris Kobach, will first say that Obama exceeded his executive authority (a valid argument) but when pushed and asked whether DACA should be replaced by legislative action, Kobach says “No.”  His argument is that DACA recipients take jobs from Americans (refuted above), some are gang bangers (Kris should read the provisions for eligibility) and perhaps the most absurd argument, “legislative action would be seen an ‘amnesty’ and a signal to others that they too can come to the United States by breaking the law and being rewarded for it.”  The number of “wrongs” in this statement defies logic and facts so let me just say this:  most immigrants come to this country for economic opportunity and to meet US labor demand.  So to Kris, I would say this:  we would not need legislative action on the back end or “amnesty” as you say if the legislature did their fucking job in the first place and ensured that American businesses had a flexible and working immigration system that met its needs.  That means that during economic booms, we let more people in and during recessions, we let in fewer.  it also means that we stop lying to people, suggesting that DACA recipients are gang bangers when they most certainly, in the main, are not.

David Jolly, former Congressman from Florida appeared on Chris Hayes’ “All In” last night as he often does to provide the Republican perspective on policy issues.  He discussed the Republican Congressional response to the 2012 executive order establishing DACA and said that he bought the argument that Congressional leadership distributed that it was an overreach by the executive and that immigration policy should be left to the legislature.  As a side, I agree with this position and suspect that when President Obama releases his memoir he will too.  Further, I suspect that his defense will be that he felt that he had a moral imperative to address both these children and parents of American citizens (parents that had come here as undocumented immigrants and then had children in the United States who were then considered citizens).  Congress had failed to act on either many times.

Jolly shared that after criticizing the President from the House floor he went to the Republican leadership and asked when they would be introducing comprehensive immigration reform.  He was shocked with leadership’s response.  They would not be introducing a comprehensive reform package, despite their criticisms because the Republican Party (the base and the establishment) was against it.  The real reason that the GOP did not want to support DACA in 2012 – and why they have bitched about it for the last 5 years – is because they do not want to fix a problem that they know exists.

Let that sink in for a minute.  The Republican Party knows that this country has an immigration problem and they do not want to fix it because it is not politically viable to do so.  The Republican establishment – elected officials – at least those that are not standing next to Kobach – see immigration as I have outlined and recognize the issues as I do.  They know what needs to be done.  But the GOP base has been whipped into a frenzy by talk radio, Sean Hannity, and Trump and now believe that we have a much different problem than we actually do.  Thus, the GOP, the party of Lincoln and Reagan, are taking action and support a President that may take action to undo immigration policies that actually HAVE solved one of our problems, albeit temporarily.   Does that make any sense?  

It is this ridiculous and frankly self-destructive policy making process that has resulted in my regular cursing and yelling at the television whenever the subject of immigration is discussed.  Sadly, it does not even matter to me if sometimes my facts are wrong.  We have legislators who cannot legislate.  We have “policy advisors” who are clearly not “advising” on policy and my favorite, we have 32-year-old bald jackasses speaking from the podium of the press secretary, insulting journalists and delving into the history of the Statue of Liberty, all the while not answering the questions asked by said journalists on the immigration policy supported by the president.  

So how do we fix this?

I have been spending a lot of time thinking about just how the fuck we got here and more importantly, when and how we get out of it.  The crux of the question is how a relatively benign conservative approach to governing and an alternative to the New Deal turned into an anti-globalist, nationalist and xenophobic movement that elected an anti-establishment reality TV host and questionable real estate entrepreneur as President of the United States.  At what point did the caboose come off the rails?  No, not just the caboose Amy, the entire freaking train.

When it comes to immigration, I agree that we need to enforce the law.  But for years, activists and business leaders have petitioned government officials because the laws are antithetical to American values and perhaps more importantly, do not support our economic goals.  Government officials have either not listened or have chosen to listen to louder voices.  I certainly have an opinion here but at this time, I will choose not to insult any of my readers.  Regardless of the reason, our immigration policy has not kept up with the demands of the marketplace and in fact, is now on the verge of moving in the opposite direction which would make the situation much worse.  And perhaps more importantly – it would make my job and those of my peers, much more difficult.

So how do we fix it?  Remember how mad you were about the possibility of losing your health care insurance?  How about you Kansans and Iowans that are fired up about Trump potentially canceling or pulling out of NAFTA?  I know you are lobbying your legislators to stop that nonsense because you know it will be a death nail to your grain exports.  I doubt that anyone from the pharmaceutical lobby reads my post but if there is, remember how y’all went to the mat when Bush 43 proposed the Medicare prescription drug benefit and you lobbied hard to keep the federal government from negotiated drug prices?

The consistent theme of each of these examples is push back from constituents.  Hard lobbying and Senators and Congressmen and women worried that they will lose their jobs.  The Resistance has proven to be effective and now it needs to be applied to immigration law.  Yes, let’s focus on DACA and push for a real legislative answer that provides these kids a pathway to citizenship, but let’s also address their parents and the other millions of undocumented immigrants that have been here for years and are contributing to the American economy.  Opponents call it amnesty.  Trump calls it “amnity.”  (The liberal media replays that clip a lot and it makes me laugh every time).  Do we really care about the word or its meaning?  If we did, we would not have elected a President who makes words up with regularity.

In no particular order, here’s what I care about:

  • Bananas and red delicious apples that do not cost a fortune (Dark red and crispy.  If they are at all mushy, do not bother).
  • Broccoli and other vegetables that I pretend I like including various kinds of lettuce all of which do not cost a fortune.
  • Almonds, walnuts and dried cranberries that do not cause a fortune.
  • The internet and having it go really fast all the time (yes, the fortune thing but also I like bells and whistles that I can only have if smart people invent them).
  • A better tablet and smart phone – an upgrade say every 2 years.   Some kind of improvement that I can then show off to the guys at work.  (Again – this requires smart people)
  • Finding a new team member after only a few interviews.  I hate interviewing so finding the right candidate right away is HUGE.  (I need a good candidate pool and sometimes those candidates are not in the United States)
  • Technology that even I can use (stuff that does not require any special knowledge).  (So smart people to build smart technology)
  • Medicare and Social Security.  I would like it to be there when I retire.  To do that we need a consistent tax base.
  • My niece and nephew’s multi-cultural experience including their ability to speak multiple languages.  I also want them to be comfortable with kids who look different.  (This should be obvious)

The last bullet is this:  I care that America is not hypocritical.  We go back and forth on this when it comes to immigration and I have said before that Emma Lazarus’s poem, ‘The New Colossus’ (the poem that was not part of the original Statue of Liberty but was added later as Stephen Miller reminded us all from the press secretary’s podium) is more of an ideal that we seek rather than the reality that we are (all the time).   But seeking to be a “more perfect Union” means that we are not perfect now.  We make mistakes and like human beings, we try to be better.  Reversing ourselves in regard to immigration policy is not only stupid, it is self-destructive.  And Americans should spend time researching it because taking the word of our leaders, particularly those who want to reverse progress clearly have other motives in mind.

History always tells the truth

History never lies.   It may lay dormant for a while and you may ignore it lest it make you feel uncomfortable.   You can subscribe to off the wall blogs that publish unfounded and completely irrational commentary based on vapor but eventually, you will be called out.  Sometimes people live their entire lives in the bubble.  It is safe there and remarkably easy to navigate life and death.  In the bubble, everything is black or white;  it is either right or wrong, there is no gray.  Outside of the bubble, we have to make judgment calls and weigh cost versus benefit.  Most importantly, we have to do things that risk our comfort zone and that is a scary proposition.

But when it comes to immigration, the hard line never ends well because there will ALWAYS be an outcome that we did not expect or one by which we will be embarrassed.


In 1939, the MS St. Louis set sail from Germany bound for Cuba with 900 Jewish refugees on board.  Its captain, Gustav Schröder was on a mission to find a home for everyone fleeing Nazi persecution.  They were turned away from Cuba, Canada, and the United States before setting sail back to Europe.  Schröder found homes for the refugees in mostly European countries but historians estimate that at least one quarter was killed in concentration camps.  At the time, the United States had extremely restrictive immigration laws that applied a quota system per country.  Priority was given to immigrants from western and northern Europe thereby discriminating against those from eastern and southern European countries and Jews.  Immigration policy in the 30s was shaped by economic insecurity, isolationism, antisemitism, nativism and national security; there were concerns that Germany might send spies or agitators disguised as refugees or immigrants (sound familiar?)

To be fair, the United States did accept over 100,000 immigrants feeling German persecution, many of whom were Jews.  But the process was long and officials did not make it easy even after they knew what was waiting for European Jewry.

The point of calling out the MS St Louis is not to embarrass or force an apology for decisions made during the Franklin Delano Roosevelt era.  I would hope that those apologies had already been offered.  But it should serve as a humble reminder and also a statement that history does not judge selfishness and nativism positively.   Rolling back DACA without a legislative alternative will not be judged in a positive light by the annals of history.  Nor will our government’s refusal to embrace comprehensive immigration reform.  But you know, perhaps what you should be thinking right now is what your ancestors said about our government’s decision to turn the MS St. Louis away.  Yes, we were in the midst of an economic crisis – no doubt about it.  We can look up the unemployment rate the time and I am sure we will find that it was high.   But is that what is memorialized in the National Holocaust Museum?  I highly doubt it.  So how did your grandparents feel when they heard about the MS St. Louis?  Do they even know?  I have a feeling that Casper’s great grandson, my grandpa Carl probably did not know and I am afraid that if he did he likely just shrugged shoulders and went back to the field.  In short:  I bet he did and said nothing.

I have a friend who I have known for years.  When I first got to know him, immigration did not come up and honestly if it had and I had learned his position (which was essentially, ‘send them all back where they came from,’) I would have likely not spent much time with him.   He comes from a decent Midwestern family with what the media would call, “good Christian values” until of course, he starts talking about all the illegals.

My friend has kids who are still at an impressionable age and I wonder what they pick up when their father makes random comments about “illegals.”  Do they look at anyone with Hispanic heritage or a Spanish accent and think “you do not belong?”  Do they dismiss their father’s opinion as just some crotchety white guy’s old fashioned ideas?  I do not know.  But there is a risk that they internalize at least a small part of what they hear and that in and of itself puts them at risk for integrating and successfully navigating social constructs in the 21st century.  He is handicapping them without even realizing it.

The first step to fixing our immigration system is understanding it.  I have said this before and will continue to say it:  given the internet and the instant access to so much information, there is no excuse for ignorance.  Make sure you know your sources, but educate yourself.  And then, pay attention and take this and other issues as seriously as you do health care policy.  DACA may not affect you or your family directly but it affects someone’s family directly and most likely it affects someone’s Christian family directly.  And yes, I do keep bringing up “what I learned in Sunday School,” but it does continue to be relevant.  I an pretty sure that resisting Trump if he rolls back DACA and telling your representatives that you expect them to fix this legislatively or you will vote against them in the next election (and then actually doing it) fell into one of the many lessons taught in the basement of St. John’s United Church of Christ.

Our country has a lot of issues but a lot of them can be fixed because we have control over all aspects of the problem.  But we are not even talking about the real problems with immigration rather, the debate is over a stupid wall (that we do not need – border security is doing just fine on its own) and now what to do with 800,000 people who are actively working for American companies or going to school.  To me, these are the easy problems to solve.  But if we cannot get past this because the Republican Party has fallen back to positions we held in the 30s, then we are in for a long ride.  And I for one, have no interest in being on that train.

– Amy, September 2017

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