John Burnett

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.

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"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?

This political primary season has seen an unprecedented use of guns to get votes. Republican hopefuls across the country are appearing in political ads firing guns and holding political events around firearms.

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.

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As part of the open carry movement, some gun rights activists in Texas have been carrying loaded rifles into restaurants to assert their second amendment rights. A growing list of national chains has pushed back, though, instituting no-guns policies in response. Even the National Rifle Association has publicly rebuked the Texas long-gun enthusiasts. NPR's John Burnett covers a street demonstration by a particularly aggressive chapter of the open carry movement in Fort Worth, Texas.

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Federal border security agents have sharply reduced intercepts of general aviation aircraft, following complaints by pilots that excessive police action at small airports is restricting the freedom to fly.

An official with U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Air and Marine Operations told NPR his agency has heard pilots' grievances and the program is being altered so as not to needlessly affront law-abiding pilots.

In recent years, more and more pilots have reported their aircraft stopped for warrantless searches by aggressive officers.

In earlier times, white missionaries traveled from Europe and America to sub-Saharan Africa to save souls.

Today, the trend has reversed. Evangelists from the global south are targeting Americans and Europeans they say are ripe for Christian renewal.

There is no greater example than the Redeemed Christian Church of God. This ambitious Nigerian denomination has established its North American headquarters in Texas, and its goal is nothing less than becoming the next major global religion.

Picnickers in a riverside park in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, react in horror as a man in a yellow baseball cap named Guillermo Arevalo lies on the bank of the Rio Grande, bleeding to death.

It's a warm Monday evening in September 2012. He has just been shot by an agent on a U.S. Border Patrol airboat on the river. The Border Patrol says the agent shot at rock throwers and that the incident is under investigation.

A new religious statue in the town of Davidson, N.C., is unlike anything you might see in church.

The statue depicts Jesus as a vagrant sleeping on a park bench. St. Alban's Episcopal Church installed the homeless Jesus statue on its property in the middle of an upscale neighborhood filled with well-kept townhomes.

Jesus is huddled under a blanket with his face and hands obscured; only the crucifixion wounds on his uncovered feet give him away.

The reaction was immediate. Some loved it; some didn't.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.

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And I'm Melissa Block, coming to you this week from member station KERA in Dallas.

Flip on Daystar television at any hour of the day and you'll likely see the elements of modern televangelism: a stylish set, an emotional spiritual message and a phone number on the screen soliciting donations.

Based in a studio complex between Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, and broadcasting to a potential audience of 2 billion people around the globe, Daystar calls itself the fastest growing Christian television network in the world.

The Internal Revenue Service considers Daystar something else: a church.

The Sinaloa Cartel, headquartered on Mexico's northern Pacific Coast, is constantly exploring new ways to launder its gargantuan profits. The State Department reports that Mexican trafficking organizations earn between $19 and $29 billion every year from selling marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines on the streets of American cities.

The international drug trade goes in two directions: Narcotics go north and money goes south. All the drug profits made on the streets of U.S. cities like Chicago and Atlanta and Dallas are funneled down to ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border where they're smuggled back into Mexico. In 2012, one federal agency alone, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, seized $411 million in cash hidden in vehicles, mostly heading south.

The intrepid tourist who visits the market in the border city of Matamoros will find her between the onyx chess sets and Yucateca hammocks. She looks like a statue of the Grim Reaper dressed in a flowing gown. She is Santa Muerte, or Saint Death.

Originally revered as an underground folk saint in Mexico, her popularity has jumped the Rio Grande and spread to Mexican communities throughout the United States.

Pastor Jamie Coots, a 42-year-old Pentecostal preacher and third-generation snake handler from Middlesboro, Ky., spoke to NPR in October about his unusual way of leading church services.

"We sing, we preach, we testify, take up offerings, pray for the sick, you know, everything like everybody else does," he said. "Just, every once in a while, snakes are handled."

On Saturday night, Coots was handling three rattlesnakes at his small church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, when one of them bit him on his right hand.

The space company SpaceX has identified a remote spot on the southern tip of Texas as its finalist for construction of the world's newest commercial orbital launch site.

The 50-acre site really is at the end of the road. Texas Highway 4 abruptly ends at the warm waves of the Gulf surrounded by cactus, Spanish dagger and sand dunes.

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They say an oilman has to be a gambler, but can he be a prophet?

Zion Oil & Gas, based in Dallas, is a publicly traded company that believes it is commanded by the Bible to search for oil in Israel, both to help the Holy Land and make money for investors. The 22 employees of Zion Oil in Texas and Israel, and many of its 30,000 investors, believe the company is on a mission from God.

With mainline religious congregations dwindling across America, a scattering of churches is trying to attract new members by creating a different sort of Christian community. They are gathering around craft beer.

Some church groups are brewing it themselves, while others are bring the Holy Mysteries to a taproom. The result is not sloshed congregants; rather, it's an exploratory approach to do church differently.

Leah Stanfield stands at a microphone across the room from the beer taps and reads this evening's gospel message.

Two weeks ago, NPR reported on a group of Pentecostals in Appalachia who handle snakes in church to prove their faith in God. The story got us thinking: Why are the handlers bitten so rarely, and why are so few of those snakebites lethal?

Deep in the hills of Appalachia, there's a mournful, beautiful style of church music that hasn't changed since the 18th century.

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