Vera Farmiga on “Higher Ground”

Cross posted from Mother Jones.

Vera Farmiga, 38, is probably best known for her Oscar-nominated role as Alex Goran, playing opposite George Clooney in 2009’s Up in the Air. But the New Jersey-born actress—who now lives on a farm in upstate New York with her husband, Renn Hawkey, their two children, and some angora goats—has only recently started receiving the kind of attention she surely deserves.

Since her 1996 debut as a Broadway understudy, Farmiga has landed dozens of roles in television and films, including The Manchurian Candidate remake, The Departed, and Down to the Bone—a 2004 indie that earned her a best actress award at Sundance. Opening in theaters this week and next is Higher Ground, her directorial debut, based on This Dark World, a 2002 memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs.

An engrossing film, Higher Ground tells the story of faith discovered and lost in the persona of Corinne Walker, played at various life stages by McKenzie Turner, Vera’s kid sister Taissa, and Farmiga herself. Following a brush with tragedy, bookish Corinne and her has-been rocker husband, Ethan, find Jesus in a small, cultish evangelical community. Corinne, however, chafes against its strictures, and her crisis of faith threatens all she holds dear. The film offers a deeply critical, yet humanizing, depiction of evangelical life. I sat down with Farmiga at a San Francisco hotel to talk about her Catholic upbringing, her eyewear obsession, and why she really burns her scripts.

Farmiga in Higher Ground. Molly Hawkey/Sony Pictures Classics

Mother Jones: Okay, tell me something about yourself that can’t be found on the internet.

Vera Farmiga: Oh, it’s all out there. The myths—and they’re bastardized. They’re always inflated. Like do I burn my scripts because it’s such a…no! I burn them because I don’t have garbage disposal and we take things to the transfer station, and my scripts more often than not come watermarked. And I don’t want these scripts being sold in the East Village with my name on it. I burn them, but it’s not always because I’m a maniacal anarchist feminist.

MJ: Is it true you considered a career in optometry over acting?

VF: Yeah, I wanted to—I really did—and still might. I had a magical optometrist. One of the hardest things I ever prayed for as a kid was to wear glasses. It was an attention-seeking thing, I’m sure, like wanting poison ivy. Sure enough, my vision started to deteriorate. Literally over the course of six months, I think it vanished. It’s weird, because there’s no one in my family who has any short-sightedness. So I was introduced to one of the sweetest eye doctors ever. That’s where my little quirky spectacle collection started. I just dug him. I thought he was such a sweet human being. He was one of those people you meet and think: “I want to be just like him! I want to help people.”

MJ: Speaking of helping people, you’ve said one of your reasons for directing Higher Ground was “the pathetic excuses for female characterization” in Hollywood scripts. What do you attribute that to?

VF: I don’t know. First of all, it’s up to the actress, even if you get a really deluded characterization, to fight against it. There’s a certain rigor that we have to apply to distill representations of what it means to be a woman. I’ve taken a lot of characters where I’ve been like “Oof! It’s so watery.” That’s the challenge, you know, to flesh them out. And that job description applies to guys as well.

MJ: Do you think male characters are written less superficially?

VF: Not necessarily. Not superficial. I’m saying that the depth of exploration of the male psyche and the female psyche is uneven. I see further, deeper renderings of what it means to be a man. And I think it’s—well look, most of the central characters are male. And that’s part of it.

MJ: How did you connect with this project?

VF: [Screenwriter] Tim Metcalfe sent me one of the first drafts with the memoirs. And the memoirs read to me like a diary that I wasn’t necessarily supposed to read, and I loved that intimacy. I loved it. I felt like I was peeking into someone’s sacred, secret, spiritual diary. And I thought it was a challenging and intriguing and unique topic to talk about. It’s something everyone struggles with: conceptualizing God for themselves. Even if you’re an atheist.

MJ: I understand you were raised in a strict Ukrainian Catholic household.

VF: It wasn’t strict. It was just Catholic. I grew up in a Christian home. It’s pretty basic, and probably 60 percent of people do, and it’s no different than that story. The strictness comes with religion in general. Whether you grew up Jewish or Orthodox Jewish or Muslim, there are certain rules and regulations. But my parents instilled in me the importance of defining God for yourself. Just because I’m telling a story about a woman losing faith is not my rebellion against what I grew up in. If anything, it really affected the way I approached the story, and in fact, approach everything. I don’t judge my characters—or this community, which I came at without dukes up.

MJ: Are you still religious?

VF: Religious would mean that I belong to one very particular denomination. And I’m someone who can sit in a Buddhist temple, and I can sit with Pentecostals or with Orthodox Jews, and I still feel like I am in tune with all of them.

MJ: But do you observe…

VF: Do I observe holy days and holidays? Yeah, the ritual is very important to me. It’s part of being Ukrainian Catholic. So every holy day we’re baking pierogis and not eating meat. Do I pray? Yes. Prayer is very important to me. You don’t necessarily have to be religious to pray. I’m incredibly spiritual. There are like tens of thousands of denominations; I don’t fit in any one of those denominations comfortably. But I have a very personal relationship with God. It’s hard to talk about because it is so personal. I also have a lot of frustration with religion—organized religion—because it’s man-made, because it’s man-regulated. And it has nothing to do with my relationship with God.

MJ: How familiar were you with evangelical Christianity when you took on this film?

VF: I’ve sat in many evangelical churches. I have a lot of friends within that community. Spending time with Carolyn Briggs was of utmost importance. But I felt like I wouldn’t be perceived as a dilettante on the subject matter because it’s part of my childhood. I felt like I had enough voyeurism to tell the story.

MJ: How have evangelicals responded to the film?

VF: So far, everybody that I’ve talked to at film festivals, or pastors—I’ve spoken to pastors and tastemakers—have been extremely grateful for such an honest portrayal. There’s a pastor who wants to use this as a teaching tool for inspiration and for appreciating honesty. Because it takes a lot of courage to say: “You know what? I’m trying to grasp this but it’s kind of ungraspable, divine mystery. But I admire your faith.” Like [Corinne] says to the pastor: “It’s a struggle for me more than it is for you.” And I need to acknowledge that because with that acknowledgment comes growth. Yes, she’s ambivalent. But these are the moments in our lives that force us to relearn and reorient.

MJ: Do you think that kind of open-mindedness is lacking among evangelicals, or with organized religion in general?

VF: I think that’s probably a challenge. [Laughs.] Because evangelical Christians are so passionate for their concept of God and firmly believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. And nobody gets to the Father but by him. That’s zest, that’s fervor, that’s passion. I don’t know, my dad is someone who, that’s his ticket to heaven, but he’s someone who doesn’t argue. He can sit down with a Jehovah’s Witness. He can sit down with a Mormon and with someone Jewish—I’ve seen him do it over the course of my life—and relate and love them and discuss and find connection. And that’s Christ-like. [Laughs.] It’s really personality-pending. I’m sure there will be people who will say this is Satan—this film. But my only job as an actress—as a storyteller—is to provoke discussion. Those are the best sermons. Not the ones that instill dogma.

MJ: This film was quite the family affair.

VF: Yeah, at least 8 or 10: Taissa [her sister], Renn [her husband], my grandma, Renn’s grandma, Molly [Renn’s sister].

MJ: Even Fynn, your three-year-old, has a cameo as Corinne’s baby.

VF: Yeah, therapy sessions in the future, I know. [Laughs.] I am a mom. You know, my kid was young. I need to bury my face in his chunky thighs; that gives me energy, so he needed to be on set. He was the right age. He’s incredibly photogenic. I mean, you see he’s like a little creature. Those scenes work because of Fynn. And it’s only because I was in the room—like, he saw me in his periphery and all these cameras were undaunting. It’s probably some of the worst parenting I’ve ever done, like forcing him to cry on camera. I didn’t force him to cry—we turned the cameras on when it was 3 a.m., and he really just wanted to go to sleep. But it’s cheap labor! You have a certain budget you gotta work with, and family comes cheap. [Laughs.] And Taissa [who plays a young Corinne] for obvious reasons—it was crucial, that bridge from adolescence to adult. I could fudge everything else, but I thought that was the one key transformation.

MJ: When I watched Higher Ground, I couldn’t help but think of Michele Bachmann. Did she enter into your thoughts?

VF: Not at all. I don’t really think about Michele Bachmann too much, in all honesty. I think if I thought of Michele Bachmann, I would’ve had to have forced Corinne to walk back [to evangelicism] at the end. No, that’s a conservative Christian skew. But I’d love to see what she thinks about the film.


The Great East Coast Earthquake of 2011 Explained

Cross posted from Mother Jones (co-written with Tim McDonnell).

The East Coast got a little taste of West Coast-style geology on Tuesday afternoon with a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that shook buildings—or at least rattled nerves—from North Carolina to Canada. The quake’s epicenter was about 3.5 miles beneath tiny Mineral, Virginia, about 40 miles northwest of Richmond. While the quake certainly created some anxious moments, it was still about a thousand times less powerful than the Fukushima quake in March. So what happened, exactly, and what does it all mean?

What was the damage? Structural damage from the quake appears to have been limited, but cell phone service was disrupted up and down the seaboard. Yep, cell phone disruption…and that’s about it. The absence of mass destruction prompted some Twitter users to make funny jokes about the quake. But then we found out that the National Cathedral and possibly the Washington Monument were both damaged, which isn’t funny.

Okay, so why should we even care? One reason is that nearby nuclear power plants are only designed to withstand a magnitude 5.9-to-6.1 quake, leading the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to shut down at least two Virginia plants even though an NRC spokesman said that “as far as we know, everything is safe.” One plant lost power just after the quake and turned to diesel generators for backup. Still, the event raises questions about the safety of nuclear power plants and what the impact of a really big quake could be.

Why was the quake so widespread? It could be because the quake was so shallow, or because East Coast crust is older than West Coast crust and therefore carries seismic energy more efficiently. National Geographic explains:

Earthquakes in the central and eastern U.S. are typically felt over a much broader region than on the West Coast.

“A magnitude 5.5 eastern U.S. earthquake usually can be felt as far as 500 kilometers [300 miles] from where it occurred, and sometimes causes damage as far away as 40 kilometers [25 miles],” according to the USGS.

Being far from plate boundaries, the older and denser continental crust is much more like a solid sheet of bedrock than the fault-filled crust on the West Coast, allowing seismic waves to travel farther.

Ground shake near the quake. Courtesy USGS

Intensity of shaking in the quake's vicinity.: Courtesy USGS

Was global warming behind the quake? Probably not. In general, the jury is still out on whether a link exists between earthquakes and global warming. Although scientists haven’t conclusively tied geological disturbances like earthquakes and volcanoes to climate, some point to evidence that the impacts of global warming might not be limited to the atmosphere. As Grist‘s Christopher Mims reported after the Fukushima earthquake, “At a 2009 conference on the subject, experts outlined a range of mechanisms by which climate change could already be causing more earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic activity, albeit of a scale and nature quite different from Friday’s tragedy.”

Does this quake make another East Coast earthquake more likely? Possibly. As we reported after Japan’s Fukushima earthquake, there is some evidence that when a quake occurs, stress is relieved in one area of a plate and transferred to other parts of that plate.

How did DC’s exotic fauna react? The Smithsonian National Zoo released a statement detailing the reactions of everything from apes (who ditched their lunch and took to the trees seconds before the quake hit) to snakes (crazed writhing) to panda bears (who were characteristically unperturbed).

Where was Obama during all this? The prez was out golfing on Martha’s Vineyard, which also felt the quake. It was a good day to be out of the White House, which took its fair share of shaking (keep an eye out for the rooftop snipers):

Update: 11:40 pm Pacific Time: The SF Bay Area got a small 3.9 jolt a few minutes ago. Which is ironic because….this. (^CJ)

America’s War on Mosquitoes

My photoessay on the US military’s quirky, bizarre, and racist propaganda campaign to combat malaria within its ranks during World War II ran this weekend on MoJo. It even features a guest appearance by a young Dr. Seuss, who as I discovered, was a rabid interventionist and prolific wartime comic. I’m pretty sure WordPress doesn’t do photoessays, so I can’t post in this space, but do click here to check it out.

Politicians, Meet Your Constituents: Top 10 Awkward Moments

Cross posted from Mother Jones.

We journalists fancy ourselves quite good at asking probing questions of politicians. But as Rick Perry reminded us on Monday, sometimes queries from the crowd reveal the most about a pol’s true colors. It all began with a simple enough question during a backyard gathering in Iowa: What would Perry do about the Federal Reserve? To which Perry said this:

It remains to be seen what impact, if any, Perry’s suggestion of Texas-style justice for Fed chief Ben Bernanke will have on his nascent presidential bid. It was, however, a reminder of one important way ordinary people can impact the political process (and perhaps an explanation for rumored presidential aspirant Paul Ryan’s decision to start charging constituents $15 to attend his town halls). From the inspiring to the depressing to the downright bizarre, here’s a look back at some great moments in citizen-pol encounters.

1. April 19, 1960: JFK tackles the Catholic question.

Echoing widespread concern about the prospect of America’s first Catholic president, an audience member at a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, asked Senator John F. Kennedy how he could preach “democracy on one hand and support an authoritarian view on the other in which he took orders from above”—an obvious reference to the Pope. Kennedy rejected any contradiction between his religious and political beliefs. He proclaimed, “I am going to go to church where I please regardless of whether I’m elected president or not.” Five months later, Kennedy sounded similar notes in a historic speech at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.

2. October 15, 1992: Candidate Clinton shows his empathy.

In the first-ever presidential town hall debate during the 1992 election, one audience member’s question about how the national debt had personally affected the candidates exposed the “empathy gap” between President George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Bush hemmed and hawed, but Clinton seized the opportunity to show that he could “feel your pain.”

3. March 16, 2004: “I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”

Rarely has a presidential candidate self-inflicted so much damage with so few words. After sewing up the Democratic nomination in early March, Kerry appeared before a group of veterans at West Virginia’s Marshall University in a bid to boost his commander-in-chief cred heading into the general election. Instead, asked by an audience member about his vote against an $87 billion supplemental appropriation for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kerry said, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” His campaign’s desperate attempts to walk back the remark proved futile as the conservative attack machine pounced to paint Kerry as a dishonest, windsurfing, French-speaking flip-flopper.

4. December 8, 2004: “You go to war with the army you have…”

As the American body count climbed in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld faced a lukewarm reception from US troops at a town hall in Kuwait, and he didn’t do himself any favors. Asked by Spc. Thomas Wilson of the Tennessee National Guard why soldiers had to resort to armoring their vehicles with scrap metal from local landfills, Rumsfeld callously replied, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” He then added this comforting observation. “You can have all the armor in the world on a tank, and a tank can be blown up.”

5. July 23, 2007: YouTube question opens foreign-policy rift in Democratic field.

In the first debate of its kind, CNN presented the Democratic presidential candidates with questions submitted by the public via YouTube, and one opened the largest policy divide to date between the leading contenders for the nomination, then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Stephen Sorta from California asked the candidates whether they’d be willing to meet with the leaders of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela without preconditions. Obama said he would. Clinton, and later John McCain, slammed Obama for his foreign-policy naivete.

6. October 12, 2008: Joe the Plumber becomes Republican cult figure.

On a campaign stop in Holland, Ohio, Samuel J. Wurzelbacher (a.k.a. “Joe the Plumber”) confronted Obama about his plan to increase taxes on Americans making more than $250,000 a year. Obama’s clumsy reply about “spreading the wealth around” quickly became fodder for right-wing pundits, and Joe the Plumber grew into a household name. In the presidential debate three days later, he was mentioned no fewer than 25 times. Since then, Joe the Plumber has weighed in on everything from the economy to Middle East policy, and last year he was elected to his Ohio county’s Republican Party central committee.

7. April 27, 2009: Condoleeza Rice channels her inner Nixon.

Visiting Stanford, where she served as provost before joining the Bush White House, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice succumbed to a Nixonian moment under student questioning. Asked whether waterboarding is torture, Rice replied, “The United States was told, we were told, nothing that violates our obligations under the Convention Against Torture, and so by definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture.”

8. August 18, 2009: Barney Frank hits back at health care hysteria.

Members of Congress returning home for the August 2009 recess faced a barrage of incendiary rhetoric from constituents at town halls, as rumors of death panels freely flowed. Back in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was having none of it. When one woman asked the longtime congressman why he was supporting a “Nazi policy,” Frank retorted, “On what planet do you spend most of your time?” He then added: “Trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining-room table. I have no interest in doing it.”

9. April 6, 2010: Bartergate/Chickengate.

Asked at a candidate forum for her alternative to Obamacare, Nevada GOP Senate hopeful Sue Lowden suggested bartering with doctors. She proceeded to double down on the answer, explaining later, “You know, before we all started having health care, in the olden days, our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor.…I’m not backing down from that system.” Predictably, Lowden’s “chicken” plan spawned many a YouTube parody. Lowden, until then the front-runner in the race, lost handily in the June primary to tea party darling Sharron Angle.

10. April 19, 2011: “When you have your town hall you can stand up and give your presentation.”

Rep. Sean Duffy’s (R-Wis.) April town hall seemed civil, his constituents firmly but gently pressing him on the details of the Ryan budget. That is until one man in the audience challenged the congressman’s contention that health care reform had taken $500 billion out of Medicare, triggering Duffy’s epically passive-aggressive response: “Let me tell you what. When you have your town hall you can stand up and give your presentation.”

Special thanks to Ari Melber at The Nation for his early contributions and Micah Sifry, whose initiative on citizen questions at the Personal Democracy Forum this project grew out of. Front page image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

No Cameras for Mubarak Trial

It’s been awhile since I last took to this space–except to cross-post MoJo stuff–so let me first say that it’s good to be back. I want to turn to a topic that I’ve spent much of this year discussing: the legal travails of Hosni Mubarak.

Since I last weighed in on the subject, we’ve seen the spectacle of the former Egyptian dictator actually placed on trial–steel cage and all. That this has unfolded at all is in itself something extraordinary after all the uncertainty that’s shrouded everything from Mubarak’s health to the military council’s willingness to follow through on its pledge to try its former boss.

But the mere act of bringing Mubarak to trial is not enough. The world–and the Middle East in particular–is scrutinizing Egypt’s every move. That’s why the presiding judge’s decision on Monday during the second day of the trial to bar television cameras from the court room is so distressing. The reason given was that it was too distracting for the lawyers, who apparently were trying out their best Johnny Cochran impressions for the cameras. Who knows what the real reason was? Maybe that was it.

But not only does the absence of TV coverage rob us of a historic spectacle and the Egyptian people of some much-needed catharsis, but more importantly, it undercuts the credibility of the proceedings immeasurably. A fully open, transparent process could have gone a long way toward restoring confidence in the rule of law and setting a precedent for fair, open trials in a country where people continue to be prosecuted in secret military tribunals. Instead, the judge has castrated the proceedings before they’ve even really begun.

The Mubaraks seem pleased with the ruling (apparently, Hosni’s son Gamal made some celebratory gestures after it was announced), but the credibility of Egypt’s legal system–and hopes that this trial could move Egypt beyond recriminations and old feuds–are the undoubted losers.  If Mubarak is acquitted–or found less guilty than the masses expect–all hell is sure to break loose. Regardless of the merits of the court’s decision, the trial will be viewed by the angry crowds in Tahrir as a sham, the fruits of a conspiracy by the military elites to save the skin of one of their own. If Mubarak is convicted, not only will Egyptians be deprived of the cathartic experience of seeing the once-great dictator humbled (as they did on the trial’s first day when was Mubarak was wheeled into the defendant’s cage–even if it all did seem somewhat less than enlightened) but above all, they will lose out on seeing justice in action, brought to its rightful conclusion.

The judiciary, which over the Mubarak years conducted itself with a surprising amount of independence, had a unique opportunity here, with practically the entire country glued to the television set, to educate the public in the rule of law and set a benchmark going forward. By denying the transparency that Egyptian people had demanded and come to expect, it’s rendered its own work meaningless. The final verdict will be spun by Mubarak’s supporters and his detractors to conform to their ready-made narratives, and confidence in the rule of law will, if anything, suffer.

That’s a steep price to pay for preventing a bunch of lawyers from donning their theatrics for the cameras.

Hash in the Holy Land

Cross posted from Mother Jones.

In a move expected to increase medicinal marijuana use six-fold by 2016, the Israeli government on Sunday approved new guidelines for medical marijuana. The Health Ministry, in coordination with the police and national anti-drug authorities, will oversee of the distribution and use of Israel’s marijuana. Until recently, these functions were carried out exclusively (for the entire country) by a single doctor.

According to the official statement: “This is in recognition that the medical use of cannabis is necessary in certain cases.”

The announcement predictably triggered snarky rejoinders about a government conspiracy to reduce hundreds of thousands of demonstrators protesting the cost of living to hazy passivity. But in fact, Israel has long held a distinguished place in pro-marijuana circles. It legalized cannabis to treat extreme symptoms in 1999, becoming one of the first countries to do so. The program was slow to take off—in 2009, only about 700 Israelis had prescriptions—but that number has since grown to 6,000. Marijuana is now approved for patients for conditions including fibromyalgia, cancer, HIV/AIDS, and multiple sclerosis, as well as for Israel Defense Force veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

And inevitably, some have proposed marijuana as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this clip from 2009, one young activist explains (in Hebrew) from his perch atop the grave of Israel’s first prime minister how weed can help advance the peace process.



The whole “pot for peace” thing hasn’t quite caught on. But the medicinal advantages of marijuana have received support from rabbis. Despite concerns that marijuana use might violate certain Jewish teachings, such as to avoid medication unless there is no alternative, the Jewish Daily Forward wrote last year that “most Jewish thinkers on the issue have concluded that all these concerns are trumped by the Jewish imperative toward compassion and the sanctity of life.”

The American pro-legalization movement has taken notice, claiming Jews as allies. One post on, a libertarian website “inspired” by GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul, might have slightly overstated the case though: “Both Orthodox and Reform Jews believe Marijuana is a Mitvah (sic). A Mitvah holds all the weight of the commandments. A Jew is Obliged to Disobey the Law to fulfill a Mitvah as a mandate of the faith.”

Unfortunately for Stoner Nation, a survey of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot, or biblical commandments, fails to reveal reference to any cannabinoids. And as for Israel, well, it might not turn out to be the new Amsterdam after all. The 420 Times, reacted ambivalently to Israel’s announcement, noting that the government would be responsible for dispensing the weed.

According to the self-proclaimed “magazine of medical marijuana and natural healing”: “It would seem that is better than nothing, but Canadian patient’s (sic) haven’t had a very good experience with the cannabis their government is responsible for. The quality can often be below par, which is not a good attribute for medical marijuana.” Total bummer, dude.

States Undeterred By ICE Letter on Secure Communities

Cross posted from Mother Jones.

Last Friday, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, John Morton, breathed new life into the Secure Communities debate by sending a letter to 39 governors that terminated the program’s memoranda of agreement with the states, insisting that ICE did not need the states’ approval to implement S-Comm.

Under S-Comm, the FBI shares the fingerprints of suspects booked by state and local law enforcement with the Department of Homeland Security. ICE then places holds, or detainers, on those it believes are in the country illegally. To date, tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants have been deported through this process, which has become a lightning-rod issue for pro-immigrant groups and which ICE hopes to implement nationwide by 2013.

If the intent of Morton’s letter was to settle the question of who can and cannot choose to participate in S-Comm (New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts have all tried to opt out in recent months, citing the obstacles the program presents to law enforcement), it doesn’t appear to have had the desired effect. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s spokesman told the Boston Globe over the weekend that Patrick intends to continue opposing S-Comm. And in California, where opposition to S-Comm has flourished, Morton’s effort to clear the way for its national implementation also looks to be foundering. The TRUST Act, which passed the State Assembly and is now pending in the Senate, would leave it up to each of the state’s 58 counties to decide whether to participate. Quintin Mecke, the communications director for Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, the TRUST Act’s sponsor, said Ammiano remained committed to the bill, although he would be considering possible amendments in light of Friday’s letter.

Jon Rodney of the California Immigrant Policy Center, which is cosponsoring the legislation, said yesterday that ICE’s recent actions only “show that we need the TRUST Act more than ever.” He added in a follow-up email today: “It’s certainly possible ICE would try to bully localities and states into participating in the deeply flawed program. This is exactly why we need the state of California’s strong leadership—to demand accountability and transparency from ICE and to protect victims and witnesses of crime upon whom successful community policing strategies depend.”

Nor has San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey, who made waves in June by announcing that he would no longer honor ICE detainers for individuals booked on minor misdemeanors or domestic-violence charges, been cowed by Morton’s latest dispatch. According to his chief of staff, Eileen Hirst, Hennessey and other local officials were informed last year by ICE’s assistant director for field operation, David Venturella, that localities were not bound to honor ICE detainer requests. Morton’s letter, she claimed, therefore has no relevance to current policy.

Reached for comment, an ICE spokesperson would not speak directly to San Francisco’s policy, except to say in an email, “ICE anticipates that law enforcement agencies will comply with the detainer though ICE has not sought to compel compliance through legal proceedings.”

What this all means for S-Comm’s future is unclear. Considering its history, that’s fitting: A review of ICE documents (PDF) by the Center for Constitutional Rights and Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law last summer found “widespread confusion” within ICE about the implementation of the program, particularly over states’ ability to opt out.

“Do I think ICE is confused? Yes, across the board,” Mecke said. “Or maybe just really Machiavellian.”