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The DACA Program with 'Dreamer'; Masha Gessen: Putin has created 'A Mafia State'. Aired 2-2:30P ET

Aired January 17, 2018 - 14:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight as the clock ticks down on the status of thousands of undocumented immigrants in America, I speak to one

such immigrant turn New York lawyer on the disappearing American dream.

Plus, a Republican senator compares Trumps attacks on the media to Joseph Stalin, renowned Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen on Trump, Putin

and totalitarians of the past.

Good evening everyone and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.

If the United States governments shuts down Friday night it could all come down to the fate of the DREAMers, the 800,000 or so young undocumented

immigrants brought into the country as children. Democrats say they'll oppose any bill that keeps the government up and running if it fails to

give the DREAMers legal protection. Meanwhile, what's lost in all of this political drama is the human drama, almost a million young Americans live

under constant fear of deportation. They can't make the most basic life choices about work or schooling or even whether to start a family.

Cesar Vargas is himself a DREAMer. He was just five years old when his mother brought him across the boarder from Tijuana to San Diego and he had

no choice in the matter. But now he's the first immigrant without legal status to join the New York State Bar. Cesar Vargas, welcome to the


CESAR VARGAS, DREAMER MEMBER: Thank you so much for having me.

AMANPOUR: So Cesar, you are a DREAMer but you must be living through a nightmare from day to day to right now not knowing your faith.

VARGAS: Well, we have a Congress who is not doing anything, a Congress that refuses to take action and you know, for myself and my family, not

only do I worry about my own future, but I worry about my mom's future. She's also undocumented and we talk -- when we talk about the DREAMers

we're also talking about the original DREAMers, we're talking about our parents who risk everything to give us a better life. So you know, for me

this is not just about myself, this is about my mother, this is our immigrant community that's facing terror really from this administration

who is targeting everyone, literally everyone.

AMANPOUR: So let me go back to what you were saying about your mother, it was your mother who brought you to the United States across the boarder

undocumented the both of you when you were just a little boy, you know, remind us, remind our viewers what it took for her to do that and what do

you remember about that if anything.

VARGAS: Well, I remember the last day that we were in Mexico, I remember her picking up from school and instead of going home we went to the -- we

want to the cathedral in town square and for me, you know, I didn't know anything about but knowing that we were -- that was the last day that were

going to be in Mexico and I remember her going to the cathedral and kneeling down and praying and you know, saying (INAUDIBLE) watch overs us,

and like a flash we were already in the U.S.-Mexico boarder. I remember the smell of what are the darkness, the rocky terrain, the lights in the

distance and all of a sudden I remember us just running, running, running, running and my mom falling down and she -- her picking me up right away.

So for me at that moment I can't imagine what must have gone in my mom's mind and heart where anything could have happened that night. She could

have been killed, she could have been raped, but the love of her children was more powerful than anything. I am living not just an American dream,

I'm living my mom's American dream and that is why I'm an attorney, that is why I'm an advocate because we need to assure that we are protecting

immigrant communities that are just aspiring for a better life and that starts with the DREAMers, that starts with the original DREAMers, our


AMANPOUR: So Cesar, that is a really moving story and the fact that you have fulfilled her dream and your own dream is amazing and I'll get to that

in a moment. But when your mother pulled you across the boarder when you were something like five years old, what did she come here to do, what was

her faith when she'd got across the boarder?

VARGAS: Well, like anything I remember when we were in Mexico, you know, she was widow, she was alone, she had no money, and she, you know, I can't

imagine her thinking, well, if I stay in Mexico not knowing whether I'm going to feed my children. I remember times when we were just eating black

coffee and sweet Mexican bread which was our dinner. So my mom took that decision like any mother would do either risk everything for my children to

ensure that they have a warm home, to ensure that they have food eat -- in their bellies.

AMANPOUR: What was her work when she came to the U.S.?

[14:04:58] VARGAS: Well, she never asks anything from anyone from the government. She used to collect cans, recycle them, she used to sell food,

baby sit and I remember when she used to take us to all those places and for me I remember when I was five years old, 10 years old, even when I was

almost a teenager, I used to be embarrassed of her taking me to this place, it becomes -- I realize that she was out there hustling and selling and

making -- and it's me. But now, I really appreciate that because she was - - she did everything to ensure that her children had everything. She did everything so that she wouldn't have to ask anything from the government.

You have this administration talking about immigrants taking jobs, immigrants are just sucking up services from the U.S. citizens. He is

completely fear mongering, he is completely mischaracterizing really the spirit of the -- of immigrants who would come here for a better life.

AMANPOUR: And of course her status is also currently unclear.

VARGAS: Yes, she is undocumented and I hope that I'm -- to be in the process of becoming a citizen and one day to be able to potentially her and

for her to become a U.S. citizen.

AMANPOUR: Cesar, as an undocumented person in the United States for your entire life, how on earth did you go through the legal requirements and all

the other, you know, bureaucratic requirements to basically live but also to become an attorney?

VARGAS: Well, it really doesn't take much really, it just -- it just takes what we have seen across history with immigrants whether it's a first women

attorney, the first Supreme Court justice, it's just simply having the hard work and the aspiration to live the American dream, you know. And it

wasn't hard for me, I remember being rejected because of my immigration status, receiving rejection letters from colleges because I had no social

security number, and being rejected from jobs when I submitted my resumes and they -- I got to call back saying, well, Mr. Vargas can you submit your

social security, but at the end of the day we just need to move ahead.

You know, the American dream is not about a fancy car or a big house, the American dream is about opening the doors of opportunity for others just as

others have open the doors of opportunity for me and that's what people have done across.

I would not have gone here hadn't not been by the amazing support of my teachers, professors, colleagues, local elected officials. And I think

that is what we are here, I am here because the product of so many people who have my back but also I am the product of many immigrants, dreams, who

one day want to see their children live that dream of becoming an attorney and engineer and artist and so forth.

AMANPOUR: So Cesar, when you heard President Trump, you know, talking about this particularly the other day and saying that he wanted the

DREAMers like you to be treated with heart that he wanted, you know, a bill that had, you know, love for DREAMers. He seem to want to get it done, he

seem to think that Democrats and Republicans could do it and then something flip on Thursday. What do you make of those comments?

VARGAS: Well, I definitely do think that despite everything I really do think that the Trump administration, President Trump himself does want to

do something. My concern really is the administration, is his senior advisor in immigration Steven Miller who has been an immigration hard

liner, he has a history of really just being anti-immigrant limiting both undocumented, targeting undocumented immigrants, as well as Attorney

General Jeff Sessions who one of them was the most vocal anti-immigrant senator when he was in Congress.

He needs to pull himself away from these hard liners, this extremist like Jeff Sessions and Steven Miller so he can actually work with Republicans

who want to get something done to work with Democrats who want to get something done.

AMANPOUR: Obviously, they're very concerned about the security aspect of it whether it's the wall or increased boarder security, do you have any

sympathy with those arguments?

VARGAS: Well, I don't think no one opposes boarder security, I think for me we have seen that myself, yes, let's make sure that we are having the

funds to ensure that we have the latest technology to inter see drugs to monitor of remote areas in the boarder. We want to make sure that boarder

patrol agents have the resources as well as the training to keep our nation safe. But when we're talking the wall, we are talking about a reality TV

hit, right, for the Trump administration. When he is talking about the wall he's just talking about just simply $23 billion from our taxes to pay

for something that for him think is going to look good. So with -- well, there's a difference between boarder security and a reality TV show that

this administration wants to do with the wall.

AMANPOUR: So Cesar, you know, you're attorney and you just said that you thought President Trump grew up in Queens and knows and has interface with

a lot of different immigrants and different nationalities, but do you think as some is suggesting that some of the words he's been using with racist

tinges, racial tinges could come back to haunt him, could it be, you know, in other words when people try to dissect this and put it through cost if

they do, is there a constitutional problem with some of the language that Trump and the administration are using?

[14:10:18] VARGAS: Well, there's no question that remarks that this administration has been using our races, period, there's not -- there is no

unequivocal on that. The President's statements have been racist, many of his policy have been racially underlined with like the Muslim ban, with

immigration enforcement. So there is no question about that. Now, the course have been used in the President's remarks especially on Twitter when

they are dealing with situations like the travel ban. The core has you saying that, well, the President has said that this is a Muslim ban. On

immigration, the President has said that Mexicans are rapist, now what we are seeing that countries from Africa and Haiti and the Caribbean are

shithole countries.

So there is no question that the course are seen very clearly than what we have seen unlike other times where this administration is using very clear

racial undertones that demonstrate that these policies that the administration whether it's on immigration, whether it's on foreign

affairs, they are coming from a very racial discriminatory undertone and we need to ensure that the constitution prevents that policies from being


AMANPOUR: Cesar Vargas, you are the first undocumented person to become an attorney in New York State and thanks for joining us.

VARGAS: Thank you so much for having me.

AMANPOUR: Now, our next guest is the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen whose new book as the title suggest warns that totalitarianism has

reclaimed Russia. I sat down with her to discuss this, President Putin seemingly endless reign and why she thinks that Arizona Senator Jeff Flake

is right to take to the Senate floor and compare Trump's attacks on the media to the rhetoric of Joseph Stalin. Masha Gessen, welcome.


AMANPOUR: Totalitarianism, Joseph Stalin, they seem to be having something of a rebirth these days. I mean today Senator Jeff Flake takes to the

Senate floor to excoriate President Trump about his attack on the press likening the enemy of the people accusation to what started it. Your book

is all about totalitarianism, these are big words though, I mean these are big accusations, are they really accurate?

GESSEN: Well, that's -- it's a fair question, right, and I think that the important thing to understand now and it's never been more relevant is that

in a way, this is not something that was one off in the history of humanity. We're not insured from having a repeat performance. If we

prevent it, we would have never have known, you know, how close we came to their best, but we're certainly living through a crisis and I think that

Senator Flake is absolutely right to point out the very clear way in which Trump has borrowed the phrase, the enemy of the people from Joseph Stalin.

And it actually, you know, it's not an accident that Trump did that, it does tap into a kind of mobilizational politics.

AMANPOUR: Do you really think he knows that? I mean do you still -- did his people would have used that specifically for that reason?

GESSEN: I don't think that he's conscious but I think that that sense that he has to equate himself with the nation and that anybody whose oppose to

him has to be positioned as an enemy of the nation. That isn't just there.

AMANPOUR: Your book is all about totalitarianism raising Saudi (ph) head in Russia, Vladimir Putin is the longest serving Russian leader since

Stalin who is there from the 20s to the 50s. What do you mean about Putin's Russia?

GESSEN: So what I mean is I don't think that Putin set out to build a totalitarian regime. Putin set out to accumulate power and money. So

basically, I think the most accurate description of the state that he has built as a mafia state, you know, mafia state where the patriarch of the

center who distributes money and power and everything is centered on him. When he started cracking down in 2012 in the wake of the mass protest when

he was coming in for his third term as president, he was cracking down in Russia, right, it wasn't somewhere else and Russia has a memory of 70 years

of totalitarianism. And so the habits, the behaviors, their informal institutions that he brought back to the life when he stage his political

crackdown where the habits and informal institutions of a totalitarian society.

AMANPOUR: Is it a particularly bad joke on Russia that they keep having these elections which really not contested elections?

GESSEN: Well, you know, in the Soviet Union I remember this from growing up, we had elections too. And they were called the free expression of

citizen will and the free expression of citizen will was that you were obligated to show up but there was a penalty for not showing at the polling


[14:15:01] And then you were -- obligated to put a check mark against the one name on the ballot and that was the free expression and there is

nothing free about it, there is nothing expressive about it, there is no citizenship to it, and there is no will, OK. So Russian elections are

getting very close to that sort of level of absurdity.

AMANPOUR: Of course we have an election coming up in Russia, in March barely two months away and in your latest, "New Yorker" piece you write,

there are candidates but their names can appear on the ballot only if the Kremlin allows it, there is a campaign but candidates are allowed to appeal

on television only if the Kremlin OKs it. There are usually debates but Vladimir Putin who has been in power in Russia for 18 years was running for

another six year term, doesn't dame (ph) to take part in them. There are opinion polls but their results are adjusted to fit the probable result of

the vote. And then there is the vote, but its outcome is preordained. In other words, the event scheduled for March 18, 2018, is not an election,

but it is called one. That's brilliant.

GESSEN: Thank you, I couldn't have said a better myself.

AMANPOUR: You did say it, you did say it.

GESSEN: So, I mean the question is, you know, why did they do it, why hold elections at all, and weirdly I think that it's still sort of a sign of

legitimacy for Putin. He claims an inflated number of votes even in the rig, you know, non-election, and yet sort of that large number gives him a

kind of mandate for the next six years. I'm really -- it's really difficult to explain how it works but what I think is important to

understand is that they perceive the elections as a potential stress point for the regime, which is why there is so much sort of to do around them

which is why somebody like Alexei Navalny who is the leading opposition to figure at this point can not be registered as a candidate. And why the

Kremlin is actually running its own oppositional candidate to sort of side track some of the (INAUDIBLE) subject.

AMANPOUR: Are you sure? Are you sure that she is as everybody claims too?

GESSEN: You know, I think her story is a little complicated. Yes, I am sure that she is running by arrangement with the Kremlin, I have absolutely

no doubt about that.

AMANPOUR: Well, because you got -- she said that nobody can run unless the Kremlin allows it.

GESSEN: That's exactly right. And she -- and she hasn't really made a secret events. At the same time I think she is running because I --

because she thinks she can do something by having access to the media.

AMANPOUR: I know a lot of people are very cynical about her, but on the other hand she has stood up and taken some sort of brave stances. Russia,

you're not even allowed to mention Alexei Navalny, this name. You can do it right, here we can both say it, but it's not allowed in Russia and she

stood up and confronted Putin on that. I remember obviously, everybody knows that her father the mayor of Saint Petersburg was Putin's big mentor.

But she didn't do that and she is trying to push the envelope as far as she can. Do you see any currency in that at all?

GESSEN: I do and that's -- and I think it really presents a moral dilemma for anybody sort of thinking about Russian elections. I'm thinking about

whether to vote on Russian elections. I mean I wouldn't, I'm a Russian citizen, I wouldn't vote on Russian elections because I think that no

matter how you cut a few legitimate at force by voting. At the same time I think that what (INAUDIBLE) is doing is breaking sort of the monotony of

the public space.

It is -- and a front to the monopoly that the Kremlin has on any kind of conversation. I think she is trying to push it as far as she can, the fact

that it's being done by arrangement with the Kremlin, the fact that she is succeeding on sanctioning (ph) some of the supporter from Alexei Navalny

and it makes it highly problematic, but it's one of those things, I mean -- and that's part of what makes the experience of living in Russia at the

total -- the experience of living in totalitarian society because its totalitarian society specializes in presenting people with untenable


AMANPOUR: So let's talk about Alexei Navalny because to all intents and purposes he is the most organized opposition figure even though he won't be

allowed on the ballot, he has got regional offices, he's trying very hard to create some kind of political machine. But this is all for post Putin

years, right? I mean I don't think anybody believes that they can challenge Putin now.

GESSEN: I think Navalny probably believes that he can challenge Putin now and I think that his kind of politics is the art of the impossible and that

even though I disagree with most of his positions I think that that's incredibly out marble (ph) and I think that that's exactly the way to go up

against Putin. I think that -- that the thing to understand about Navalny though is that he has not been able to create a political organization yet.

He has an amazing sort of media outlet where he investigates corruption, he publishes the results, they reach a lot of people. When he calls on people

to come out on protest, people -- hundreds of thousands of people come out but it's not political in the sense that these are not -- it's not these

people acting together. Every individual heeds his call comes out into the square and then goes bak home to reach at the TV again.

[14:20:15] And the reason that the Kremlin will not let him on the ballot is because if they do he will be able to convert that currency to an actual

political organization and that is simply not conceivable in Putin's Russia.

AMANPOUR: Back to Putin and his claim to have brought back pride to Russia. Last year he basically said that excessive demonization of Stalin

is one of the ways to attack the Soviet Union, Russia, he's very aligned with Stalin.

GESSEN: He's not aligned just with Stalin, he is also aligned with Ivan the Terrible in his written, this fascinating new narrative for Russian

history that is kind of seamless that excludes the Terrible revolution or the Bolshevik Revolution, so it's a grand imperial history that goes from

Ivan the Terrible to Peter the Great to Stalin to Putin. So these are all, you know, terrifying strong man leaders. But I think that's very much how

he sees Russia, he sees Russia primarily as an empire and also as a country that has all empires feel inside, you know, as an empire that's constantly

under siege and needs to be fighting the rest of the world.

AMANPOUR: Edward Lucas of "The Times" here has written, indeed it can be easy argue that for most Russians the Putin era is something of a golden

age, never in the country's history have so many lived so well so peacefully (ph) and so proudly. I mean that's the dilemma, right?

GESSEN: I think it's less true now than it was a few years ago, but certainly Russia enjoyed unprecedented prosperity from the year 2000 until

2008 mostly because Putin got extremely lucky with the oil price. Russia finally run through his hard currency reserves as of last week. The

reserve fund has been liquidated, there's no money left.

AMANPOUR: That news came and went very useful (ph).

GESSEN: Well, we're having a little bit of trouble paying attention to Russia in the western world, we're just, you know, we're only interesting

in whether Russia elected Trump.

AMANPOUR: OK, well, let's talk about that. I think you do feel and you've written that everybody is way too obsessed and focused on that issue.

GESSEN: Well, I'm actually more concerned with how it's distracting people from what Trump is doing than from what Putin is doing although I have

great sympathy for my colleagues back in Moscow foreign correspondence who haven't really done a real Russia story in a year because all they're

writing about is the Russian gate history.

AMANPOUR: It was interesting to read one of your experiences being with Putin and you know, we've got the S words that Trump used and you described

Putin using the word D-head I mean I really almost say don't want to say. You can say it if you want but how did that affect you?

GESSEN: It was -- well, at that point I had just written a book about Putin so I was primarily interested in Putin as a character. It's not that

I was particularly offended but as a highly educated middle class Jewish lady from -- middle age Jewis lady from the center of Moscow I opt to have

fainted when he used that kind of language in front of me.

AMANPOUR: Because it's just not done in Russia, right?

GESSEN: It is absolutely not done, it is -- it is absolutely not done, I mean first of all it's not done, second of all it's not done in mixed

company, third of all it's not done in anything but in intimate setting. And it's not done across sort of professional lines across class lines,

across gender lines, it's not done. And the fact that he did it was to me it pointed up two things, one is that he sort of lost his sense of his

audience. He talks the same way to everybody. He is always talking as though he were in the barracks. I mean he's a trained KGB recruit, he used

to be able to pitch his speech to where he is talking to, but after 12 years in office he'd completely lost that ability or the desire to try.

But the other thing is that of course by using that kind of language and the kind of rhetoric and he uses them all the time, he's really degraded

the Russian publics hear when that's become acceptable and I think that there's -- that gives us reason to worry and I think that's happening in

the U.S. and we need to pay attention to that.

AMANPOUR: And there seems to be and Russia seems to be at the ahead of this group of countries, the Che Guevara countries if you like, the home

for people who are anti-American, isn't that what Putin has created out of Russia today because there are a lot of people around the world who support

him, who support his policies whether it's in Syria or elsewhere.

[14:24:58] GESSEN: Well, Putin has part of his appeal and he does have appeal to a lot of Russians, part of his appeal has been sort of promising

to make Russia great again and to make Russia great again he has to position Russia in opposition to an enemy. No enemy is greater enough to

be the enemy of the great Russia other than the United States. So anti- Americanism is very much a part of his politics. He doesn't get to be important unless the United States is dangerous, and of course in Syria, I

mean you watched Russian television reports on the war in Syria pretty much every time, they will talk about how they are confronting the Americans

there, not the Syrian opposition but the Americans.

AMANPOUR: Masha Gessen thanks so much.

GESSEN: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And that is it for our program tonight and remember, you can listen to our podcast at any time and see us online at And

of course follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for watching and goodbye from London.