Karl Penhaul got fired from his job as an international correspondent at CNN last June, after firing off a series of (now deleted) tweets calling Donald Trump a “racist idiot” “with an ugly yellow comb-over.”
So imagine Penhaul’s surprise when last week, Trump released his latest ad, titled “Two Americas: Immigration,” featuring some of Penhaul’s own footage.
“It’s bizarre, isn’t it?” Penhaul, who learned about the ad thanks to super sleuths on Twitter, says. “What are the odds?”
Penhaul says having his footage used without his permission is “an evil of the Internet.” Rihanna lifted the same shots in her music video for the song “American Oxygen.” Besides, the clip belongs to CNN, though a source with information on the subject tells WIRED the Trump campaign didn’t license the footage.
What frustrates Penhaul as much, if not more, than all this is the fact that he says the Trump ad warps the video’s original intent.
The clip in question shows an old freight train barreling down a track with hundreds of mostly young men perched in various positions on its roof. In Trump’s ad, the video is zoomed in and tinged a slight blue, but there’s little question based on WIRED’s analysis of the video–and Penhaul’s–that it’s his shot. (The Trump campaign didn’t respond to WIRED’s request for comment on the clip’s origins.) Though the men on the train are faceless and nameless, the ad’s voiceover, which describes what the country would be like under Hillary Clinton, casts them as a clear and present threat. “Illegal immigrants convicted of committing crimes get to stay,” the voice says. “Our border open. It’s more of the same, but worse.”
It is, Penhaul says, precisely the opposite of what he hoped to achieve when he spent three long weeks back in June 2010 reporting for CNN about what is alternately called the Mexican Train of Death or The Beast. Prior to 2014, when the rail company began banning migrants from riding on it, people looking to come to the United States from Central America would climb on top of the train, and take it from southern Mexico to the southern US border. Penhaul wanted to show the world who those people are.
“Instead of them being the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US, we wanted to meet Juan and Jose and Maria,” Penhaul says, “so we could humanize the issue, so we could find out what was driving them, to find out their concerns, to know them as human beings.”
Penhaul remembers spending days scoping out the shot that eventually landed in Trump’s ad. The Train of Death, as one might expect, doesn’t run on a particular schedule, so Penhaul logged a lot of hours waiting on the side of the tracks for the train to pass. When it eventually came, he says he raced down the track, and up the rusty ladder to the top of another retired freight train. After getting the shot, he hopped on the train himself, he says, “knowing that like the other migrants you can fall off or be robbed by criminal gangs or corrupt officials.”
What Penhaul found when he got on board is what he calls a “chain of human misery,” in which immigrants from mainly Central American countries like Honduras and El Salvador, were fleeing for their safety, taking substantial risks to avoid a worse fate at home.
Along the way, Penhaul met people like Jessica Ochoa who had lost a leg the year before, after falling off the train while fleeing gang violence in El Salvador. And she was one of the lucky ones. Many die along the route Penhaul documented. But Ochoa’s journey to the United States was only postponed by the gruesome injury, not cancelled. A year and a half ago, Penhaul says, Ochoa tried again, this time taking a bus to the border, and paying gangs to allow her to cross into the US on foot.
“It would be really great to have Trump and his advisors go meet these people face to face,” Penhaul says. “We’ll see if you, as a human being, can still really make those comments.”
He also remembers meeting people like Antonio Guzman, a Guatemalan immigrant who had been deported from the US and was trying his luck again. In Michigan, before he was forced to leave, Guzman told Penhaul, he’d been named employee of the month at the Applebee’s where he worked. “Don’t tell me Antonio is a bad guy,” Penhaul says. “He’s earned money washing dishes, doing these shitty jobs in the US, and being recognized by his employer as being a good worker.”
“To see a clip pulled out of that to reinforce the kind of message that Trump is peddling is not great,” he adds.
Penhaul isn’t the only one who experienced the Train of Death this way. Author Susan Nazario wrote about one 11-year-old Honduran boy’s harrowing trip on the train for her book Enrique’s Journey. And photographer Michelle Frankfurter spent six years on and off photographing passengers on the train for her book Destino. “The conditions on the train are horrible. It’s an arduous journey and nobody undertakes that lightly,” Frankfurter says. “I consider them refugees.”
None of this is to say that Penhaul didn’t encounter the kinds of criminals and rapists that Trump infamously described in a campaign speech last year. Gang fighting and robberies are common on the route, and Penhaul says he spoke to women who began taking birth control pills before embarking on the journey, because they knew they might be raped.
But the vast majority of the people on board are victims of these crimes, not perpetrators. And Penhaul says many of the perpetrators aren’t trying to get into the US. They’re merely preying on the weak. Trump’s ad, Penhaul says, “is flipping that on its head.”