Objective HarmBad Immigration Reporting Worsens Bad Immigration Policy

A worried-looking asylum-seeking mother from El Salvador, her 3-year-old daughter, and her 2-month-old baby wait in the early morning cold on the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Mexico, to attend their immigration hearing

An asylum-seeking mother from El Salvador, 28, her 3-year-old daughter, right, and her 2-month-old baby wait early morning on the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Mexico, to attend their immigration hearing on November 14, 2019. The immigration hearings take place in soft-sided facilities just across the port of entry in Brownsville, Texas, through a video conference with the judge. (Photo credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas)

THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S “fake news” rhetoric has left an indelible mark on the American psyche, giving people prone to believing disinformation and conspiracy theories a tidy phrase to deploy when confronted with facts that disrupt their worldview. But there are many real things to dislike about much of U.S. journalism—dehumanizing reporting, newsrooms that serve corporate interests, and the industry’s overwhelming whiteness, which leads to coverage that consistently plays to the white gaze. There are few areas where these failures are more apparent than in immigration reporting. Before the Trump administration, many outlets didn’t have a full-time immigration reporter. Apparently, the ever-growing detention system, expansion of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), increased militarization of the border, and record number of deportations were not enough cause for concentrated reporting. In any event, there has been an unprecedented level of immigration reporting across legacy and independent publications over the past four years because brutalizing immigrant communities has been a central focus of Trump’s administration.

Mainstream reporting on immigration often features two key components: an ahistorical unpacking of xenophobic and deeply inhumane policy and a keen focus on the machinations of Stephen Miller or other administration lackies who brought their latest program to fruition. If we’re lucky, an actual immigrant will be quoted to highlight the harm. This journalistic approach reveals the U.S. belief that atrocities such as family separation were a Trumpian aberration instead of the system working as it was built to. (Deportation is family separation.) Early in Trump’s presidency, longtime undocumented activists told me that their work would have to change in fundamental ways. As deportations exploded early in the Obama administration, undocumented students became obligatory activists in order to protect their parents and larger communities. This kicked off a youth-led movement in which undocumented students, also known as Dreamers, fought to end deportations and pass the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. As part of these efforts, they came out of the shadows as “undocumented and unafraid,” a strategy unthinkable to their parents’ generation. As undocumented organizer Jonathan Perez once explained to me for a piece published in Rewire.News in 2016, revealing your immigration status comes with risks and increased public scrutiny, but sharing your story publicly and connecting with a larger community also means there will be people who will mobilize to fight on your behalf if you’re targeted for deportation. 

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The organizing strategies deployed by undocumented students effectively shamed the Obama administration into stopping some deportations, for example, and providing relief in the form of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). But Trump could not be shamed. Under Miller’s guidance, the administration openly sought to weaponize existing laws to target asylum seekers, refugees, and undocumented people in new, brutal ways, and ICE gleefully reported large-scale enforcement actions against immigrants who had been in the United States for decades. The Trump mediasphere was a minefield, a daily barrage of bad news, disinformation, and “alternative facts.” But one seemingly contradictory fact remained true: Undocumented immigrants who publicly shared their stories as they faced deportation could still ensure their own safety—in defiance of an administration that did everything in its power to frighten them into silence. But, of course, there was a price to pay for speaking out. Coming out of the shadows requires making peace with a strange duality, one that necessitates sharing your most traumatic moments—the moments that make you the most vulnerable—as a way of keeping yourself safe. This comes with many challenges, including transitioning from a private person to a public figure. This process can also be dangerous: If a journalist inaccurately reports the details of an asylum seeker’s story, it can harm their case. 

Finding the Strength to Fight

I’ve reported on many asylum-seeking women over the years. I’ve watched them struggle through media interviews having had limited training on how to share their stories. I’ve seen reporters ask them the same questions over and over again, wanting to know painful details about the reasons why they can’t return to their home countries. Sometimes these questions are asked on live television, and the women feel compelled to respond through tears, once again explaining that returning home would be a death sentence. I’ve had the incredible privilege of watching these people step into their power. After a few years in the spotlight, they’ve become comfortable telling reporters, “I don’t want to talk about that.” I’ve seen previously deeply shy women confront lawmakers and speak in front of large crowds in booming voices, no longer asking to be treated humanely but demanding it. 

When I think about this trajectory, I think of Hilda Ramirez, an indigenous asylum seeker from Guatemala who fled familial violence. For six years, she and her son, Ivan, have mostly been confined—first in a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center, then in a family detention center, and now in a church in Austin, Texas, where they have been in sanctuary since 2016. While Ivan, 14, now has a visa, Ramirez has an open deportation order. She lost her asylum case, partly because she was forced to answer questions in Spanish when her primary language is Mam.

Asylum-seeking children wait in line to get supplies that were brought to them by volunteers from the United States in Matamoros, Mexico. An asylum-seeking mother stands to the side carrying a baby while looking at the camera.

Asylum-seeking children wait in line to get supplies that were brought to them by volunteers from the United States on October 22, 2019 in Matamoros, Mexico. Mexican authorities estimate that more than 1,000 asylum seekers live in the encampment. (Photo credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas)

Spending years in sanctuary takes its toll. “Every day is the same,” Ramirez says. “Imagine every day is the same for years.” But the asylum seeker has not resigned herself to a life of confinement. She has actively fought her deportation every step of the way and has become a leader in the nationwide sanctuary movement. When I first met her in 2018, she had left the Austin church to secretly travel to North Carolina and meet with other sanctuary leaders to develop deportation defense campaigns. A month later, she rolled out her campaign and publicly left her church, risking deportation so she could visit then-Texas Congressman Will Hurd, tell her story, and demand freedom. In the years since, she has spoken frankly to media outlets about the deeply unjust U.S. immigration system. ICE has continued to target her, choosing to use its time and legal resources during the pandemic to levy hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines at Ramirez and other outspoken asylum-seeking women in the sanctuary move-ment. Weaponizing a previously unused section of the Immigration and Nationality Act, ICE is trying to charge Ramirez and others $799 for each day they’re in the United States without authorization. 

Ramirez says that being a fighter is not something that comes naturally to her. Growing up, she was both the subject of and witness to gender-based violence in all its forms. It sometimes seemed as though everywhere she looked—in her home and in her community—women were dying “because of the abuse they suffered from men,” she says. “That’s how I grew up, with a lot of abuse around me. It makes you vulnerable. It makes you feel like you don’t mean anything, like you don’t have any value.” The first time she can remember sticking up for herself was when she and Ivan were in family detention. She says that she and other indigenous women were routinely verbally abused, but she hit a breaking point when Ivan got sick. He had a mouth infection and a swollen face, and was vomiting and experiencing nosebleeds. Ramirez feared for his life but received no help from the medical department at the detention center. “I would cry for help, ‘Help me! Help me! My son is dying!’ The only thing they said was, ‘You came to this country. No one brought you here. If you don’t like it here, then go back to your country,’” Ramirez says. That’s when she decided to participate in a hunger strike, which got the media’s attention. She spoke to a journalist and pleaded with the public to help her get free. Until this point, she had never interacted with the media. 

“I was very shy. I was always quiet, and I was quiet about the injustices that were happening around me,” Ramirez says. “That first interview was the beginning of my fight, and I did it for my son. I do everything for my son. It took me a long time to find the strength to fight, but someone needed to speak up. The people need to know what is happening to immigrants, and if it is my destiny…to go through these difficulties, that’s the way it is. But I’m not going to stay quiet.” It has been a wild and bumpy media ride for Ramirez, who’s had to learn to shut down prying interview questions that jeopardize her family’s safety. Communicating with journalists who speak only English has proven to be a frustrating experience that usually results in a lot of information getting lost in translation. There was also the time she did an interview with a Guatemalan journalist, unaware it would broadcast in her hometown. She received a flurry of messages from women in her family, upset that she shared details about familial abuse. 

Angelica, a Mexican asylum seeker, makes a braid for her daughter Ximena, in a migrant camp where they live in Matamoros, Mexico.

Angelica, 25, who is a Mexican asylum seeker, makes a braid for her daughter Ximena, 8, in a migrant camp where they live in Matamoros, Mexico on November 19, 2019. (Photo credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas)

A pair of shoes at a migrant camp is seen on the edge of a dirt mound in front of the Rio Grande.

A pair of shoes at a migrant camp is seen in front of the Rio Grande, which is the natural boundary between the United States and Mexico in Matamoros, Mexico on December 22, 2019. (Photo credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas)

Oneita Thompson’s experience of dealing with the media while confined in sanctuary has also been challenging. In September 2018, when the mother of seven and her husband entered sanctuary in Philadelphia with their two U.S.-citizen teenagers, a flurry of wide-ranging media coverage followed. Most of it was thoughtful, though Oneita and her husband, Clive, were referred to as “illegal aliens” and “immigration fugitives,” inhumane language and factually incorrect information that made her bristle. When immigrants enter sanctuary to avoid being deported to countries where they fear for their lives, their attorneys report their whereabouts to ICE. As Oneita often says, “fugitives” don’t report their whereabouts to federal authorities. In all the coverage the family received, one fact was always missing: The Thompsons are likely the first Black family to publicly take sanctuary. They’re asylum seekers from Jamaica who came to the United States in 2004, after Clive was threatened by members of the same gang who brutally murdered Oneita’s brother in 1999. They applied for asylum, which was ultimately denied after a very long and expensive legal process. However, they were allowed to remain in the United States as long as they regularly checked in with ICE. 

For more than 12 years, the Thompsons lived, worked, and raised their children in New Jersey, never telling a soul they were undocumented. “I did not want [anybody] to know my status. I didn’t want people looking at me different or feeling sorry for me,” Oneita says. “I wanted to be this person who is just working, bringing home a paycheck, and being an American family, even though it’s not on paper.” Everything changed for the Thompsons in 2018. Once Trump took office, ICE began targeting undocumented immigrants like them for deportation. On August 21, 2018, ICE called Clive at work and told him that he and Oneita needed to purchase one-way tickets to Jamaica and leave the country by August 29. The couple decided to take sanctuary so as not to be separated from their mixed-status children. It was a “nightmare” scenario, Oneita says, forcing her to publicly come out as undocumented. “When I tell you I was scared to death, I was scared to death. I was also scared to be Black and entering sanctuary. I never heard of Black people doing that or coming out as undocumented,” she says. (There are Black-led immigration organization, including the Haitian…and UndocuBlack Network.) “I always worried about how the media would write about us and how the public was going to take us and the color of our skin,” Oneita adds. “It was just the hardest thing for me to do.”

For undocumented people who need to signal boost their stories in an effort to create some semblance of safety, engaging with the media remains a necessary evil, no matter how high the stakes.

I wasn’t fully aware of Oneita’s fears when I first spoke with her in summer 2019. She seemed like a passionate and charismatic speaker who felt comfortable speaking to journalists. The first time I visited her in sanctuary in Philadelphia, she began the interview by asking me a series of questions, such as whether I had any experience writing about Black people. I was relieved she felt comfortable asking me questions and getting clarity on what kind of journalist I was and how I would shape her story. As it turned out, she had vetted me and knew I was the daughter of an immigrant. She also said she felt more at ease with me because I am a woman. “I just think in dealing with the media, those are questions that have to be asked. They are hard questions to ask, but I need to know what I’m getting myself into,” Oneita says, explaining she regularly researches the journalists who request interviews with her to see how they cover stories related to immigration and race.

An “Imperfect” Immigrant Goes Public

Alejandra Pablos has developed similar strategies, though unlike Ramirez and Oneita, her introduction to the press has been more gradual and on her own terms. Pablos was in good hands the first time she was the focus of reporting. Respected longtime immigration reporter Aura Bogado visited Pablos at Arizona’s Eloy Detention Center in 2013. Then 28, Pablos had spent the past two years of her life in detention after “being accused—and sometimes convicted—of nonviolent crimes, the most serious of which was driving while intoxicated,” Bogado reported for Colorlines. Unlike the hundreds of other immigrants detained alongside her at the facility, Pablos was a green card holder and has been in the United States since she was a baby. Since her first stint in detention, Pablos has been an outspoken activist as a member of the Latinx organizing hub Mijente as well as We Testify, a leadership program for abortion storytellers that provides training to those, like Pablos, who want to publicly share their stories about accessing abortion care.

In the years since her release, Pablos’s immigration status has become more tenuous after she was placed in deportation proceedings and lost her permanent resident status. In March 2018, she was detained a second time during a check-in with ICE, which she says was their form of retaliation for protesting the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) earlier that year. Although she was released on bond 43 days later, she’s been fighting to stay in the United States since being denied asylum in December 2018. Pablos was one of a handful of high-profile, outspoken activists the Trump administration targeted, and her detainment sent shock waves through the reproductive justice and immigrants rights organizing spaces she inhabits. Her asylum denial was a major blow, as Pablos fears persecution if she is deported to Mexico, where abortion is largely illegal and activists routinely receive death threats. Still, she remains hyper-public—doing media interviews and writing her own story for outlets such as ELLE, launching her #KeepAleFree website, participating in panels with women such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and even being the subject of an upcoming documentary. Her reasons are twofold: She knows being public keeps her safe, and she’s earnestly interested in educating people about “crimmigation,” the intersection of criminal law and immigration law that ensnares countless immigrants each year.

In front of the border wall, people hold protest signs that project messages of solidarity with the words “Let Them Cross” and “Free Them” for those who were seeking asylum in the United States.

In front of the border wall, people hold protest signs that project messages of solidarity for those who were seeking asylum in the United States (and were sent back to Mexico under the "Remain in Mexico" policy) and those that are in detention centers on October 14, 2020 in Brownsville, Texas. (Photo credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas)

Pablos says she knows telling her story as an “imperfect” immigrant makes things more complicated as both journalists and the American people don’t always think a person with a criminal record deserves the same column space and empathy as “kids in cages.” After her first detainment, Pablos prepared herself for the lion’s den that is U.S. media by telling her story at gatherings with other undocumented people. These were mostly safe spaces where she was able to find her footing. After her second detainment, however, her story went viral, and she found she had less control of the narrative. Still, she believed that every time her story was published or broadcast, someone who had the power to help change her life circumstances was watching. “This made me feel really empowered, but it also made me feel scared because I don’t really know what’s going to happen to me. I don’t know if ICE is going to come for me. I don’t know if a racist is going to find out where I live or try to attack my family,” Pablos says. “In a way, I don’t feel like I have freedom of speech. Everything I say publicly has to be calculated and strategic.” 

When a right-wing outlet picked up Pablos’s story, publishing her mug shot and photos from her social media, it shifted how she thought about journalism. As an activist, Pablos knows the power of storytelling and understands the media can be an effective tool for spreading a message—but as a person with a highly sensitive immigration case who is being targeted for deportation, she has started to view coverage as a potential form of surveillance that can have dangerous consequences. But for undocumented people who need to signal boost their stories in an effort to create some semblance of safety, engaging with the media remains a necessary evil, no matter how high the stakes. “People always be like, ‘Do you have a communications team? Can we work with your PR team?’ Truth is, my deportation defense team is made up of my homegirls who are organizers in their communities. We make up the fucking PR team,” Pablos says. “It’s just so weird to deal with all of this. Unless you’ve been in this situation, I don’t think you can understand how I feel the most safe when I am telling my story. I feel like people have my back. When I am sharing my story, I feel like something is going to change. That’s why I keep telling it.”


by Tina Vasquez
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Tina Vasquez is a writer and editor from the Los Angeles area. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.

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