John Burnett

As a roving NPR correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett's beat stretches across the U.S., and, sometimes, around the world. Currently, he is serving as Southwest Correspondent for the National Desk.

In December 2012, he returned from a five-month posting in Nairobi as the East Africa Correspondent. Normally, he focuses on the issues and people of the Southwest United States, providing investigative reports and traveling the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. His special reporting projects have included New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its aftermath, and many reports on the Drug War in the Americas. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition.

Burnett has reported from more than 30 different countries since 1986. His 2008 four-part series "Dirty Money," which examined how law enforcement agencies have gotten hooked on and, in some cases, corrupted by seized drug money, won three national awards: a Scripps Howard National Journalism Award for Investigative Reporting, a Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists Award for Investigative Reporting and an Edward R. Murrow Award for the accompanying website. His 2007 three-part series "The Forgotten War," which took a critical look at the nation's 30-year war on drugs, won a Nancy Dickerson Whitehead Award for Excellence in Reporting on Drug and Alcohol Problems.

In 2006, Burnett's Uncivilized Beasts & Shameless Hellions: Travels with an NPR Correspondent was published by Rodale Press. In that year, he also served as a 2006 Ethics Fellow at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida.

In 2004, Burnett won a national Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for investigative reporting for his story on the accidental U.S. bombing of an Iraqi village. In 2003, he was an embedded reporter with the First Marine Division during the invasion of Iraq. His work was singled out by judges for the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award honoring the network's overall coverage of the Iraq War. Also in 2003, Burnett won a first place National Headliner Award for investigative reporting about corruption among federal immigration agents on the U.S.-Mexico border.

In the months following the attacks of Sept. 11, Burnett reported from New York City, Pakistan and Afghanistan. His reporting contributed to coverage that won the Overseas Press Club Award and an Alfred I. duPont Columbia University Award.

In 2001, Burnett reported and produced a one-hour documentary, "The Oil Century," for KUT-FM in Austin, which won a silver prize at the New York Festivals. He was a visiting faculty member in broadcast journalism at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in 2002 and 1997. He received a Ford Foundation Grant in 1997 for a special series on sustainable development in Latin America.

Burnett's favorite stories are those that reveal a hidden reality. He recalls happening upon Carlos Garcia, a Mexico City street musician who plays a musical leaf, a chance encounter that brought a rare and beautiful art form to a national audience. In reporting his series "Fraud Down on the Farm," Burnett spent nine months investigating the abuse of the United States crop insurance system and shining light on surprising stories of criminality.

Abroad, his report on the accidental U.S. Air Force bombing of the Iraqi village of Al-Taniya, an event that claimed 31 lives, helped listeners understand the fog of war. His "Cocaine Republics" series detailed the emergence of Central America as a major drug smuggling region. But listeners may say that one of his best remembered reports is an audio postcard he filed while on assignment in Peshawar, Pakistan, about being at six-foot-seven the "tallest American at a Death to America" rally.

Prior to coming to NPR, Burnett was based in Guatemala City for United Press International covering the Central America civil wars. From 1979-1983, he was a general assignment reporter for various Texas newspapers.

Burnett graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

The federal government is opening new family detention centers for newly arrived immigrants in the hope it will speed the process of considering their claims for asylum, but civil rights advocates have challenged this practice of detaining mothers and children who are caught coming into this country illegally.

Recently, a friend and I rode bicycles from Brownsville, Texas, to Oklahoma, 738 miles from the Rio Grande to the Red River, just for the hell of it. Naturally, eating was the highlight of the journey. The trip turned into a 13-mph tour of Texas's evolving food geography.

Last month, a friend and I rode bicycles 738 miles up the spine of Texas from the Rio Grande to the Red River, dodging oilfield trucks and yipping Chihuahua dogs.

All that pedaling had us burning about 5,000 to 5,500 calories every day. And so the 10-day journey — eight days of it riding into a headwind — became a movable feast.

Inside a cluster of nondescript buildings on a military base in Southern California, the big radar room at the Air and Marine Operations Center looks vaguely like NASA Mission Control.

Thirty-two federal agents sit at Dell PCs, each one watching a different region of the country, monitoring private planes that might be carrying drugs or terrorists.

They don't find many. But they watch everything larger than an eagle that moves in U.S. airspace.

Language warning: This story contains words some may find offensive.

The Highway Beautification Act will be 50 years old next year. As envisioned by Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, it was supposed to protect the natural landscape from billboards.

Ever since its passage, scenic activists and billboard companies have been at war over the views along American highways. The outdoor advertising industry says its signs are informational, and helpful to local businesses. Open-space advocates call them "sky trash" and "litter on a stick."

The Department of Homeland Security is settling a lawsuit with the ACLU, which deals with immigrants who were improperly pushed to leave the country. The suit alleged that DHS agents coerced immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to take part in a process called "voluntary departure."

When Congress thinks about border security, it often sees a big, imposing fence.

The federal government has spent $2.3 billion to build the fence — 649 miles of steel fencing, in sections, between the U.S. and Mexico, designed to help control the illegal movement of people and contraband.

It's called tactical infrastructure, and the Border Patrol says it works. But people on the lower Texas border have another name for it: a boondoggle.

Much of the American West is suffering from extreme drought this year. California is running out of water and wildfires have raged through Washington, Oregon and Idaho. But there is a bright spot out West — or, rather, a green spot. In New Mexico, unusually heavy late-summer rains have transformed the landscape.

It's a remarkable sight. The high desert is normally the color of baked pie crust; now, it's emerald.

Kirt Kempter, a geologist who lives in Santa Fe, says this transformation is far from ordinary.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

"They call me the Wolf," said the 25-year-old human smuggler sitting in front of me, sipping a Coke and stepping away for frequent cellphone calls.

"Everybody says we're the problem, but it's the reverse. The gringos don't want to get their hands dirty. So I bring them the Mexicans and Central Americans to do the dirty work for them," he says, smiling.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups sued the federal government Wednesday for its failure to provide legal representation to immigrant children in deportation proceedings.

President Obama said over the weekend that he is seeking to fast-track deportations of unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America who cross into the United States.

More than 52,000 have been caught in South Texas since October, and hundreds more arrive daily, overwhelming Border Patrol stations and overflowing temporary shelters.

But once they get here, what happens? Do they just get to stay, as the president's critics charge?

Like a marathoner at the end of a grueling race, 16-year-old Jorge Romero sits on the grass, exhausted. A county constable has detained him about a hundred yards from the Rio Grande.

For a month, Romero traveled from El Salvador through Mexico to Texas, avoiding predatory police and gangs, warding off mosquitoes and hunger.

Migrants like Romero are creating a humanitarian crisis for federal border authorities. Record numbers of Central American immigrants are crossing the Rio Grande into South Texas, overwhelming the Border Patrol's limited holding facilities.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The majority of the minors seeking asylum cross through the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. NPR's John Burnett is there this week. He joins us to tell us about the huge volume of kids crossing the border and about the conditions where some of them are now being detained. And John, you're in the city of Harlingen. What are you hearing?

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