Covering immigration in the time of Trump

January 27, 2020
A man and his child look through the border wall in Tijuana towards the US city of San Diego. Photo by Omar Martinez/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

In 2019, news outlets detailed the origins of America’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy and the ways in which it fractured families. They revealed the sprawl of private detention facilities, the prevalence of ICE’s use of isolation cells, and the mechanisms by which domestic law enforcement agencies monitor immigrants, as well as the journalists who cover them. And they showed the unique vulnerabilities sewn into the fabric of everyday life for immigrants in the US. 

CJR and Migratory Notes surveyed ten journalists in as many cities about their work covering immigration during the Trump administration. Respondents cover immigration full-time or as freelancers; some focused exclusively on immigration, while others cover it alongside other beats. Most held their current positions prior to the 2016 US elections, though several began their jobs after Donald Trump took office. Some had spent just a few years covering immigration, while others had covered the topic, off and on, for decades.

ICYMI: Reporting on immigration in a private contractor’s world

Taken together, their accounts evoke a quickening, often chaotic beat that continues to suffer from a lack of transparency. Reporters shared their desires for greater support—in the forms of trauma training, language resources, and tips for expanding their networks of sources, among others. Many spoke of the work’s serious psychological and emotional tolls, and declared that the job is more important than ever.

“I feel outraged, frustrated, and helpless every day,” Julia Preston, a contributing writer for The Marshall Project who has covered immigration for more than a decade, says. “So it’s an important time to be a journalist.”

Below, CJR includes a selection of responses, which have been edited for clarity. Migratory Notes, our survey partner, recently published its list of standout immigration stories from 2019; read the list here, and subscribe to its weekly newsletter, tracking immigration news and policy, here.

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How has your coverage of immigration changed since Trump took office?

Daniel Connolly
Investigative reporter, The Commercial Appeal (Tennessee); author, The Book of Isaias

Before Trump, I almost never wrote about immigration detention or deportations, because they were quite rare in non-border areas like Memphis. During the Trump administration, I have written about those subjects extensively.

Jude Joffe-Block
Independent journalist, based in Arizona

I went from covering immigration and the border as my daily beat for the Phoenix NPR member station KJZZ and its Fronteras Desk network to becoming an independent journalist right around the time Trump took office, so my role changed, too. But what I have noticed is a ton of policy changes/court challenges moving at a faster pace than ever before, increased attention and focus on the beat, increased risk to immigrant sources, increased polarization.

Nicole Foy
Investigative reporter, Idaho Statesman

Increased detention of people through Idaho county jails. Also, immigration court cases are extremely delayed in Idaho. Our court is out of Salt Lake City, and our detained cases are in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. When they transferred Salt Lake City judges to help with detained cases in Tacoma, they pushed all Utah (and, thus, Idaho) cases back a year, minimum. Idaho is also seeing far more Central American asylum cases in the last year than we ever have.

Paola Marizan
Bilingual journalist, WNIN (Indiana)

Before Trump, I felt that I could talk about more than just immigration when it came to the Hispanic/Latinx/Immigrant communities, but now it’s more of that than health care, language barriers, and education coverage.

Monica Campbell
Senior editor & reporter, PRI’s The World

In some ways, my coverage has not changed. I reported on challenges and policy changes affecting migrant and immigrant communities—ranging from detention conditions, changing border enforcement, and what it means to live without papers in the US—under Obama and beyond. What’s changed, beyond real policy changes under Trump and an intensification of anti-immigrant rhetoric, is that more people outside of the immigrant community are paying attention—more people are alarmed at how the immigration system and enforcement operates in certain situations.


Have you found it more difficult to access data, detention centers, or other sources of information? 

Alice Driver
Freelance journalist based in Mexico

Yes, as a freelancer I have found it impossible to get access to any detention center (even when I was working with National Geographic).

Kate Morrissey
Immigration Reporter, San Diego Union Tribune

It is difficult to get informative, on-the-record responses from this administration regarding immigration issues, but I remember struggling with this under the previous administration as well. I also have had trouble getting access to certain spaces, particularly Border Patrol stations. I finally toured one of our ports of entry for the first time late last year after asking to see it for months and months.

Susan Ferriss
Senior reporter & editor of immigration reporting, Center for Public Integrity

This is a major problem today. We have had to resort to lawsuits to obtain some information that should be accessible. Key parts of information was being withheld for reasons that are arguably indefensible and that also mask key data.

Julia Preston
Contributing writer, The Marshall Project

I feel the media need to engage in a broader effort to litigate to open up the immigration courts and the immigration system in general. The entire system is shrouded in bogus privacy restrictions that mainly serve the interests of the authorities. The lack of transparency is outrageous. The Marshall Project stands ready to work with a few partners to develop a legal strategy.

Teo Armus
Former race and immigration reporter, Charlotte Observer; currently at Washington Post

In short, yes. Given North Carolina counties’ changing policies on ICE detainers, I was particularly interested in looking at the past few years of detainer requests issued in ICE’s Atlanta Area of Responsibility—and how many of those requests were honored by local law enforcement under new and old policies. While Syracuse’s TRAC [Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse] had collected detailed data on this front through Spring 2018, the researchers there told me last year that ICE had started to withhold more of this information.


What issues go under-covered in the national conversation?

Anh Do
Staff writer, Los Angeles Times

Among what’s under-covered is the topic of undocumented Asians in the national debate—I often hear them say “it’s not just a Mexican dilemma” and that’s totally true.

Migration Protection Protocols/Remain in Mexico implementation started here. At first, there was limited coverage on the national level, but that has changed in the months since. 

I think immigration courts are undercovered in general. We have a big immigration court in a Memphis building that’s only a four-minute walk from my office. They’re handling thousands of cases, people travel hundreds of miles to appear in cases, and important stories are happening all the time. I know this, yet I only occasionally visit immigration court.

The ripple effect of the processing backlog on peoples’ lives. How intensified anti-immigrant rhetoric affects the lives of young people from immigrant communities, including effects on health and academic performance. 

I’m one of the only regular immigration reporters in the state, and one of the few covering the issue for Northern Rocky Mountain/interior Pacific Northwest states like Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and Colorado outside Denver. Undercovered issues out here are the long distances immigrants travel for court or while detained because of distant detention centers, distant immigration courts, and very few local immigration resources. For example, until last year, when Idaho immigrants were released from ICE detention, the only DOJ-certified pro-bono immigration resource on the list they receive was in Montana.


How do you cultivate sources? 

Foy: Through advocates, immigration lawyers, social media, and my own community. My church has a lot of Central American asylum seekers right now, for example. I have not had much success with immigration-authority and bureaucratic sources, and would love some ideas and training on building that network.

For immigration authorities: understand that, except for the highest levels, the people are not necessarily the policies. There are many federal agents, officials, and civil servants who were drawn to public service and are just trying to do their jobs well. If you treat them with respect, they will respect and help you. And you can better determine who are the real bad guys.

I explore different communities in person—spending significant amounts of time on the streets and at cultural, political, religious, and educational events, including on weekends. I visit the same people at their homes and on the job, to get dual glimpses of their roles and impacts in a given Asian group. I also find quite a lot of sources on Facebook and often “cold call” them on that platform, introducing the paper and the story we’re pursuing via Facebook Messenger. In general, older Asians and Asian Americans use Facebook more than other social media pages—this is one good way to find them. For younger Asians and Asian Americans, I turn to Instagram.   

I tried to reach out to as many different people as possible: informal community leaders, heads of local nonprofits, influential business owners, church leaders, and government officials focused on outreach. The immigrant community in Charlotte is relatively tight-knit, so showing up at major events (like government town halls in immigrant neighborhoods, the annual Latin American festival, or a back-to-school fair at a Latino community center) meant I often saw familiar faces, could chat informally about possible stories, and started to build a rapport with people who could vouch for me across town. The editor of the local Spanish-language newspaper was also generous in helping me identify sources with less of a “grass-tops” role in town. My best sources on the beat, however, were the exceptionally kind janitors in our newsroom—all immigrants themselves—who offered thoughtful feedback on story ideas and what was resonating in their homes and neighborhoods.


How do you balance your reporting against the threat of immigration-related consequences for your subjects?

Foy: My preference is to avoid describing someone’s immigrant status if at all possible. I wouldn’t want someone to be able to guess who is undocumented and who is not by virtue of how I describe them across my stories. In the past, I’ve been asked to emphasize sources’ legal status when possible so readers don’t assume “the worst.” I would greatly appreciate any type of standard I could point editors to so that I don’t have to have this fight in the future without backup. 

I’m much more likely now to agree with not naming people. 

I do my best to make sure that the subjects of my articles are informed about what it means to have their stories, names, and faces in the newspaper before they decide whether and how to participate. If I don’t feel like they are fully understanding what they are agreeing to—either because of education level or something else—I may choose to go a different direction with if and how I use the information that they give me. In some circumstances, particularly in cases of domestic violence survivors or cases in which someone’s life is in serious danger, I may not fully identify the subject after discussion with my editor.

I tend toward using people’s full name and photos, even if they’re unauthorized immigrants. But no two situations are exactly the same, and the Trump administration’s actions have made me more mindful of the consequences. In one recent case, I spoke with five different attorneys to determine the potential consequences of writing about a specific immigration situation. My advice for reporters trying to figure this out is to slow down, take care, consult experts.

I never move forward with a story without going over in great detail with them, in their language, what it means to speak with a reporter. Often, I may be the first reporter some people have spoken to. There can be no assumptions that someone is aware of how their story may be distributed, seen, shared, and what that may mean for them and their loved ones. 

PREVIOUSLY: Between immigration authorities and the people they cover

Brendan Fitzgerald is senior editor of CJR.