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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Lloyd Austin, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, made a surprise visit to Ukraine to start the week.

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LLOYD AUSTIN: The United States stands with Ukraine, and we're going to be with them for the long haul.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ukraine also had a different visitor this week, snow. And that matters because as temperatures drop, military strategists believe Russia may attack the power grid again. And additional U.S. aid to Ukraine, at least for the moment, is not guaranteed.

INSKEEP: NPR's Nathan Rott is in the Ukrainian capital with a status report. Hey there, Nate.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

INSKEEP: I hope you've got your winter weather gear...

ROTT: Always.

INSKEEP: ...Ready to go. OK, good, and a good pair of boots. Why was Austin in Kyiv this week, do you think?

ROTT: So Austin says it was to show Ukrainian leadership that the U.S. is still committed to the country, as you heard him say, for the long haul. And that is, you know, certainly meaningful here, with winter approaching, people bracing for more power blackouts and fighting slowing on the front lines, or at least expected to do. But I think Austin's audience wasn't just Ukrainian leadership. As you well know, U.S. Congress is still debating whether to approve a new block of funding for Ukraine that the Biden administration has been asking for, and the administration has said that current funding for Ukraine could run out in a couple of months.

INSKEEP: Yeah. When you think about it, I mean, every rocket that the Ukrainians fire, every shell that they fire, that's money. That's often U.S. dollars. So how significant is it for Ukraine that the pipeline for funding - it's not at the end, but you could see an end?

ROTT: Yeah, I mean, look if the U.S. stops giving military assistance to Ukraine it would be a very big deal. But we're not there. The European Union is steadfast in its support, so Ukraine is still getting support, you know, supplying Ukrainian soldiers with tanks and missiles and trainings and other aid like air defense, winter gear. You know, here in Kyiv, air defense systems have been critical to protecting people and critical infrastructure from Russian missile and drone strikes. Both nights this weekend, Russia launched waves of drones at the capital. And the folks we've been talking to say that they expect those kinds of long-range attacks to really ramp up here as temperatures drop and fighting slows on the front lines.

INSKEEP: Similar to previous winters, I guess.

ROTT: Exactly. I mean, yeah, last winter, Russia made a concerted effort to really make life miserable for as many people as it could here in Ukraine, attacking power plants, heating facilities, electrical infrastructure. We've seen how Ukraine is bracing for that again this winter. You know, they put in sandbags around electrical substations, repairing and restringing power lines. But there's no doubt that this is going to be a really tough winter ahead.

INSKEEP: Nate, I have to note there were analysts and Ukrainians almost euphorically predicting big offensive gains this year, 2023. There was a much hyped offensive this year that seems to have dropped off.

ROTT: Yeah, I mean, look, Ukraine, Russia - neither side has made significant territorial gains over most of the last year. And we were talking to soldiers about that in the Donetsk region - that's far eastern Ukraine - last week, asking them how they're doing. They were saying, look, we're really tired. Here's an artillery man who goes by the call sign Zvyn. Soldiers don't give their names because of security regulations.

ZVYN: I think it's because we are not see the movement.

ROTT: Yeah.

ZVYN: Yes? So the movement - and last year we saw that. We were happy with, so the mood was in a high level. And now it just - we understand what we - we will do what the commanders will say. It's not a problem. Yeah. But we're just tired.

ROTT: And I think that's true for most people in Ukraine, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Nathan Rott in Kyiv, thanks so much.

ROTT: Yeah. Thank you.

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INSKEEP: For many migrants, the first glimpse they get of America is three open-air camps in the cold.

MARTIN: Migrants crossed the border and are turning themselves in at the camps in Southern California, and they say it is the Border Patrol that is instructing them to wait in one of the open-air locations while they await processing. The camps are at the edge of Jacumba Hot Springs, Calif. The town has around 600 permanent residents and now also each day hundreds of temporary ones.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jasmine Garsd visited these camps recently. Hey there, Jasmine.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What did you experience?

GARSD: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is the cold. It was so cold. I was wearing a jacket, and I was freezing out there. And migrants, many underdressed - they end up making makeshift tents with pieces of tarp, sticks, old clothing. There's no water. There's no food. There's little to no bathrooms. And people get so cold they pick up brush and make bonfires. I mean, it looked like a scene from a refugee camp, but the difference is there was no infrastructure or official human aid. I mean, we're talking about as many as 300 people at a time at each camp. Many are children, and there's just no food provided. People have to go to the bathroom out in the open.

INSKEEP: Did you say there's no official humanitarian aid of the kind you would expect?

GARSD: No. I mean, in any other situation like this, you would expect to see the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, the National Guard. But here it's just locals from the town of Jacumba and volunteers going to hand out supplies and do basic first aid. I spoke to one woman named Karen Parker. She was born and raised in this area. She's a retired social worker, and she goes down there a few times a week. She told me at times she's had to use veterinary medications on people. Here she is describing what she sees at these camps.

KAREN PARKER: Scabies, parasites, necrotic, scorpion bites.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Seizures.

PARKER: Seizures.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Diabetic emergencies.

PARKER: Yes. Broken bones, burns, lots of burns.

GARSD: And as winter approaches, she and other volunteers say they're getting increasingly worried.

INSKEEP: I want to zoom out a little bit from these camps and figure out what is happening here. Of course, you're on the U.S.-Mexico border. There are a lot of people who try to cross at different places. Exactly how are migrants getting to those three camps and why?

GARSD: So there's a gap in the U.S.-Mexico border wall. It starts in Jacumba, and it's several miles long. And people cross through there and hand themselves over to Border Patrol, asking for help, and Border Patrol takes them to these camps and tells them to wait.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. They cross over, and they find a Border Patrol agent and say hello.

GARSD: Yes. In fact, as I was driving down there, I was flagged by migrants from Turkey who had just crossed. They were exhausted, and they asked me, please call Border Patrol. It was shocking, but these people have been told this is how you will be allowed to stay in the U.S. I spoke to one young man at the camps. He is Kurdish from Turkey. His name is Ramazan Bishar (ph). He said he was escaping government repression, which is why he turned himself over to Border Patrol.

RAMAZAN BISHAR: My plan is just get my green card and stay here all of my life. We will stay. We don't have any choice.

INSKEEP: OK, so that's a classic story, but why would it be that these particular migrants or asylum-seekers would end up in these open-air camps, out in the cold?

GARSD: Well, I asked Customs and Border Protection multiple times for an explanation. I've gotten no answer. I think one of the main problems is that official asylum processes can take months on end, and some people are getting desperate enough to just cross the border on their own and hope for the best.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jasmine Garsd, thanks very much. Really appreciate it.

GARSD: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: Millions of Americans, my family among them, will travel this week for Thanksgiving.

MARTIN: The Transportation Security Administration, the TSA, is bracing for more air travelers than ever before, but this comes at a time when the U.S. aviation system is showing signs of strain.

INSKEEP: NPR's Joel Rose covers transportation and joins us now. Hey there, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, at least I won't be flying. But those who do, what are they - what could they expect?

ROSE: Yeah, the number of people flying now is actually higher a little bit than it was before the pandemic. TSA is expecting to screen a record number of people, 30,000,000 in total, in the 12-day period that started last Friday, culminating on Sunday after Thanksgiving, which could be the biggest single-day total ever. Today and tomorrow are also going to be very busy. Road travel is not quite back to pre-pandemic levels yet, but it's close. AAA is forecasting the third-highest total ever, about 49 million people on the roads.

INSKEEP: Can't wait to be one of them. Is the aviation system, though, ready for the increased volume?

ROSE: There are serious concerns about that. The Federal Aviation Administration commissioned a safety review by outside experts after a series of close calls on runways across the country this year. That group issued a 52-page report last week, and the group had major concerns about the shortage of air-traffic controllers that has left many key air traffic facilities short-staffed. That's forcing controllers to work overtime and grueling schedules. The group also raised concerns about outdated equipment and facilities. The report says, quote, "urgent action" is needed to maintain safety.

INSKEEP: OK, is the FAA having an urgent response?

ROSE: Well, the newly commissioned FAA administrator, Mike Whitaker, says the agency welcomed that report. Whitaker told reporters yesterday the agency is already taking some steps to speed up the hiring of more air-traffic controllers. That includes hiring qualified students directly from aeronautical schools and using new high-resolution training simulators to take some of the pressure off of the agency's training academy in Oklahoma. And Whitaker says he's also looking at ways to improve the success rate for trainees.

MIKE WHITAKER: There's a fairly high failure rate in the academy and in facilities. My initial focus has been on how to make these numbers go up quickly without lowering standards.

ROSE: But there really are no quick fixes here. It takes a long time to train air-traffic controllers. The FAA has a thousand fewer of them than it did a decade ago, and at the current hiring rate, it's just barely keeping up with retirements.

INSKEEP: OK, let's assume the air-traffic controllers keep the planes flying in the way that they should. What experiences should people expect in the cabin when they're traveling?

ROSE: Full planes and crowded overhead bins. I talked to Sara Nelson, who's the head of the union that represents flight attendants. Here's some of what she told me.

SARA NELSON: The holidays have always been a time period that flight attendants sort of dread going to work, because the flying is much harder. You have inexperienced people. You're answering more questions. There's fewer of us, which then often means that passengers are trying to work things out between each other, and you don't have a referee there right at the start.

ROSE: Nelson says please keep all of that in mind and be nice to your flight attendant and your fellow travelers. She says, thankfully, most people are.

INSKEEP: Excellent advice. Thanks very much, Joel. Really appreciate it.

ROSE: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR transportation correspondent Joel Rose. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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