In June, Jay Root, a reporter for the Texas Tribune, went to meet a man he called Carlos at a detention center in Livingston, Texas. Carlos, a 24-year-old from Honduras, had been there for several weeks. Now he faced Root from across a plexiglass screen. Over a scratchy phone connection, Root asked, “Can you memorize my phone number?” It was their best hope of maintaining contact.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a reputation for secrecy, and immigration reporters have confronted its byzantine rules—and sometimes outright obstruction—for years. But the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy has put the agency, and its lack of transparency, on display. Reporters say that ICE’s tendency to conceal has intensified since April, when the zero tolerance policy went into effect, and children were forced to separate from their parents.
That’s what happened with Carlos, who crossed the Mexican border near McAllen, Texas, with Heily, his six-year-old daughter. Upon arriving, they were held at a processing center—he called it “la hielera,” or, “the icebox”—and several days later, Carlos was taken to immigration court. He plead guilty to illegal entry; when he was returned, briefly, to the icebox, and looked for Heily, she was gone. Later, at the detention center in Livingston, he and other migrants were promised that they would be reunited with their children if they signed a voluntary deportation form. Carlos complied—and then waited for the promised reunion.
Root’s story, reported with Shannon Najmabadi, was published at a turning point for immigrant detention centers. Around the same time, with attention to ICE rising, Jeff Merkley, a senator from Oregon, attempted to visit Casa Padre—a shelter for children in Brownsville, Texas, run by a nonprofit called Southwest Key—and livestreamed his experience. The video shows Merkley standing outside, trying to reach someone who would let him in. “These doors are closed right now,” he says. “What the administration is doing is keeping the door closed to the press and to the public of the impact of their policy.” Merkley’s account went viral. “Since that happened, everybody ramped up their security,” Mike Seifert, a member of the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and a longtime resident of Brownsville, tells CJR. “At Southwest Key, there’s barriers way way out in the parking lot.”
Root kept up with Carlos’s case—he was moved twice, first to a facility outside Houston, and then to Port Isabel, a facility in South Texas designated as the site for family reunifications—but couldn’t get in to see him, as ICE grew increasingly restrictive. (ICE declined to comment on its press policies.) In late July, however, Root came into some good news: for reasons that are still unclear, Carlos was unexpectedly released. His legal status remains uncertain—Heily’s, too—but the Tribune is working on a story.
THE ICE WEBSITE lists 105 detention sites, but there are many more. After the zero tolerance policy went into effect, efforts were made to locate the other facilities—in part using documents obtained over a three-year Freedom of Information Act battle waged by the National Immigrant Justice Center. The documents, current as of November 2017, list 1,478 sites, including jails and private facilities with which ICE has contracts. Navigating this vast network, run by federal agencies, municipal governments, and private contractors, means that reporters often have to coordinate among various authorities—and contend with changing rules. Each facility contracts a different phone company, for example, so when detainees are moved, they have to set up new accounts just to make a call.
Port Isabel, where Carlos landed, sits in a remote stretch of coast near the Gulf of Mexico. It can house up to 1,175 adults, and has a troubled record of abuse and mistreatment of detainees. “Six months ago, if you had a name, you could walk in and visit,” Root says. Now guards—staffed by Ahtna Inc., a private contractor—ask anyone who enters if they’re with the media, and it’s a gamble whether visitors will make it inside. Even if reporters are allowed to come in, they can’t—without coordinating ahead of time with a media representative—bring pens, paper, or any recording devices.
Molly Crabapple, an illustrator and writer, who was in South Texas on assignment for Rolling Stone in July, documented in a Twitter thread her experience attempting to enter Port Isabel. She had gone there to sketch inside a courtroom, about a ten-minute drive past the main gate. Crabapple had asked a friend to give her a ride; when they arrived, an Ahtna employee said the friend couldn’t drop her off and she couldn’t walk—she’d have to either drive herself inside (and ditch her friend at the side of the road) or take a cab to the door. The guard refused to explain the logic behind this ruling, Crabapple wrote, or direct her to a supervisor. The next day, at another facility nearby, the Harlingen Immigration Court, Crabapple was greeted by personnel who told her she couldn’t draw. Handing her a printout of a security directive from 2015, which the Department of Justice had sent around to the area’s immigration courts, officials informed Crabapple that she needed advance permission in order to sketch the proceedings. She went in and took notes instead. Several days later, back at Port Isabel and armed with all the right paperwork, she was told she couldn’t bring in the four markers she had with her, or her sketchbook. When she insisted, the guards relented, and let her bring in one marker and the pad. “They try to set up barriers with you,” Crabapple says. “And if you’re not aware of your rights, they expect it to intimidate you.”
Of the reporters CJR spoke to, all of them said that they had been obstructed in some way from entering immigration courts, some of which are housed inside detention centers. Jacqueline Stevens, a professor of political science at Northwestern University and the director of the Deportation Research Clinic, has been fighting her way into Executive Office of Immigration Review courts, which oversee the hearings, for years. EOIR courts are supposed to be open to the public unless a detainee requests otherwise. Stevens has found, however, that ICE and DOJ employees will often claim, at their own discretion, that they are protecting the privacy of detainees by blocking access. “Policies that are invoked in the name of privacy are actually there to avoid government embarrassment,” she says.
A DOJ spokesperson tells CJR in an email, “Immigration court hearings are generally open to the public” unless “the case involves information subject to a protective order.” The spokesperson also says that when EOIR courts are inside detention centers, reporters should coordinate with ICE before their arrival.
Some journalists do cross paths with a judge who knows better than to violate the law. On a Thursday morning in June, Amber Jamieson, a reporter for BuzzFeed, arrived at a courtroom in El Paso, Texas, for a hearing on cases of separated children. In an article, she describes a three-year-old boy sitting on a leather chair, squeezed together with another child:
“What’s your name?” the judge asked.
“Es un avion!” he said, pointing to a picture book on his lap. “It’s a plane!”
Soon, Jamieson was thrown into the proceedings: an argument ensued between the lawyers for the government and those for the child over whether she should be there. After some debate, the judge permitted her to stay.
ICE’S MILITARIZED PRESENCE is most effective at deterring people, including reporters, who aren’t familiar with their rights and the rules of the court. “They scare you and intimidate you,” Debbie Nathan, a reporter for The Intercept who lives in Brownsville, says. It helps to be prepared, and to speak up. Once, during a hearing, Nathan moved from one side of a courtroom to another in order to get a better look at an exhibit. When the court took a break, a bailiff approached her and said that the judge wanted to know what she was up to. “That’s none of your business,” she recalls saying. “This is an open court proceeding.” She tells CJR that he replied, “We don’t like your attitude,” and several armed officers began to surround her. “It scared the shit out of me,” she says.
Other reporters get worn down. On Twitter, Crabapple recalled that, after jumping through all the necessary hoops to speak with a detainee, ICE informed her that she needed a particular form to be filled out more than 48 hours in advance of the meeting. But there weren’t 48 hours left in that week’s visiting hours. “They do this incredible elaborate stalling through bureaucracy,” Crabapple says. (A spokesperson for ICE tells CJR that the information about the 48-hour window is available on their website, though the relevant guidelines say “preferably 48 hours and no less than 24 hours.”)
Responding to Crabapple on Twitter, Kenny Wassus, a senior producer at New York magazine, described the 15-step process it took him to get permission to interview a detainee at the Hudson County Correctional Facility, in New Jersey. Speaking to CJR, Wassus explains that he spent weeks trying to coordinate between ICE and Hudson County officials as he prepared the necessary paperwork. No one seemed to be acting in bad faith, Wassus observed, but the people who ran things on-site had no protocol for communicating with agents at ICE. It’s “a broken system for access,” he says.
Nathan, who has managed to speak with 42 detainees at Port Isabel, has found ways to work around the bureaucracy. “I wouldn’t waste my time with ICE,” she says. By attending court hearings, finding information about detainees in the court dockets, and sending letters to the Brownsville detention center with her phone number, she has been able to make contact and sustain relationships with people inside. She has an advantage: living locally. Because of the obstacles to reporting on the detention network, she explains, parachute journalism is not a viable approach. In South Texas, she says, “This place should be blanketed with bureaus and journalists who live here.”
After following Carlos, Root decided to take the same tack: in August, he moved from his home, in Austin, to McAllen, where he is heading up a new bureau for the Tribune focused on the border and immigration. The Tribune has partnered with Time magazine and crowdfunded $75,000 to keep the office open for several months. Root hopes to meet more immigrants, and tell their stories, as much as he can.