Q&A: The New York Times’ Miriam Jordan on covering immigration now

Miriam Jordan. Courtesy photo.

In December, The New York Times published a powerful story by immigration correspondent Miriam Jordan about the undocumented cleaners employed by Trump’s golf clubs in Bedminster, New Jersey. Two months later, on February 1, Jordan reported that two-dozen undocumented employees were fired from three Trump golf clubs since her December story was published—including several of the story’s core sources.

“I have an ethical and moral responsibility to make sure I’m not harming the person I’m interviewing,” Jordan says. Gleaning information from immigration lawyers, academic research, and government agencies’ reports, Jordan decides which local stories have national appeal—and which sources vivify the impact that immigration policies have on people’s everyday lives. “I try to avoid painting a picture of immigrants as weak, helpless, suffering,” she says. “I try to let the circumstances lead the reader to make conclusions about how the immigrant is feeling or their state of mind, as opposed to ascribing to them certain qualities.”

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From covering sexual abuse in childhood detention centers to the underground “birth tourism” industry in LA, Jordan’s stories often have direct impact on the communities she covers. After reading Jordan’s story about José, a 5-year-old boy who was forcibly separated from his father after crossing the US-Mexico border, a group of readers in New York created a volunteer network that helped parents reunite with their children — buying them airline tickets and coordinating children’s transport. And after reading her story on Elsa Johana Ortiz Enriquez, 25, who was deported to Guatemala last year without her son, several high-profile lawyers used their influence to persuade governmental agencies to allow him to return to Guatemala.

Jordan spoke to CJR about populating urgent, rapidly evolving stories with sources who face unique risks in coming forward. Our conversation focused on building rapport with new sources, discerning risks inherent for undocumented subjects, locating accurate data, and navigating the Times’s stringent policies on sourcing. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

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I imagine a lot of people you interview have never spoken to a journalist before. How do you cultivate trust with a source who is undocumented, or whose family is of mixed citizenship status?

When you’re face-to-face with someone and you’re having a conversation, that contact goes a long way to winning someone’s trust. It’s a little bit more difficult over the phone.

I’m not a very methodical reporter. Say I meet someone in Tijuana who is a member of a caravan. I’ve had personal contact with them. I gain their trust by telling them that I’m trying to report accurately what people like them are going through, what their motivations are for trying to come to the United States.

 

How do you think through identifying factors, like including their full names in your story?

Some people give me their names straight away, and others have more questions—they’re a little suspicious or concerned. It really varies.

I do decline interviews with people that don’t want to give any name. If it’s a really sensitive issue, and they feel their family could be exposed because of what they’re sharing with me so they want to just use their first name, then I consider that and can ask my editors. We can also omit other information in order to protect them, such as the specific town where they live. In most cases, if someone won’t share their name, I will try to find another character to make a particular point in the story.

When I interview people, whoever they are, I ask them for their name, their country of origin, what work they do, and often their age. I strongly prefer to name people, first and last name. If someone just wants to be “so-and-so who declines to be named,” I don’t like that. I think it dehumanizes the person [to be anonymous] and also strips away the credibility of the piece. Especially when we’re talking about immigrants, it’s important to have a name in there.

 

How does the Times’s policy on anonymity affect your work?

Under our guidelines, anonymous sources should be used only for information that we believe is important, credible, and newsworthy—information that we aren’t able to obtain in any other way. We have to be careful because many readers, justifiably, become skeptical of the credibility of unnamed sources, and may question whether the sources have an agenda. Do they really exist? Did we make this all up? I have to follow certain rules if I use an unnamed source. At least one of my supervisors and one editor have to know the identity of the source and approve using it.

In reporting on the closure of the tent city near Tornillo, Texas, I knew that many undocumented teenagers had crossed the border. I interviewed someone who was very much involved in establishing that sprawling encampment, and I was able to obtain information before other media that that encampment was going to close. That source could not be named under any circumstance. And the information I got from that source could not be obtained any other way.

 

Reporter Miriam Jordan interviewing migrants in Hayward, California. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times).

 

In your December story, “Making President Trump’s Bed,” you wrote that the lead subject, Victorina Morales, understood that she could be fired or deported as a result of coming forward. Did you inform her of the risks in being named publicly?

Victorina’s story was brought to me by her lawyer, who had her consent to be interviewed. Her lawyer made very clear to her what the consequences could be, and they were both comfortable with moving forward. Perhaps the story would risk the job of some of her colleagues, but it was for the greater good of the undocumented immigrant population.

I have an ethical and moral responsibility to make sure I’m not harming the person I’m interviewing, but in most cases the subject is in a position where I’m not jeopardizing their safety or their ability to remain in the country.

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I’ve been writing about immigration for more than a decade. I’ve probably interviewed hundreds of undocumented immigrants, and I can’t think of one subject that got a knock on the door from ICE or law enforcement action as a result of something I wrote. Maybe I’m optimistic that the exposure they will be getting can in some way immunize or protect them from becoming easy bait for immigration authorities.

I can think of cases in which my stories ultimately helped individuals, because they drew attention to their plight and prompted authorities to take a second look at their case—or to take a look at their case at all. Two examples: Vilma, a mom who’s been separated from her child and is suffering because the reunification is taking so long, and Dan-el, an undocumented student at an Ivy League university who won a scholarship to go abroad but can’t leave this country, because if he was to leave he would not be able to re-enter, and this is where his family is and where his life is. In those cases, my inquiries or the articles themselves led authorities to take actions on behalf of the individuals that were beneficial.  

In the case of Dan-el, US immigration authorities did not rectify his illegal status. However, they gave him a special dispensation that enabled him to travel to the United Kingdom to study at Oxford and re-enter the United States. Normally, someone who has been in the US illegally for more than three years will not be allowed in for at least a decade, something called the “10-year bar.” And after reading about Vilma’s family, readers started a GoFundMe page and a petition calling for them to be reunited; her lawyer believes that the story drew the attention of authorities who then decided to release Vilma.

 

What was your reaction to Trump’s company firing two dozen undocumented employees after your story on Victorina was published?

The workers were terminated at several golf properties over several weeks. Still, I felt a pit in my stomach when I learned of every clutch of firings. Going into this project, I knew that workers would be fired. But I also felt certain that it was supremely important to reveal the hypocrisy: that a president who derides immigrants as criminals and rapists also employs them in large numbers to keep him well-groomed—with clothes laundered and ironed—and his luxurious resort beautiful and running smoothly.

 

What phrases or language do you try to avoid when describing a source?

I try to avoid painting a picture of immigrants as weak, helpless, suffering. I try to let the circumstances lead the reader to make conclusions about how the immigrant is feeling or their state of mind, as opposed to ascribing certain qualities to them.

 

How do you find accurate statistics with which to fact-check your reporting?

Thats a big challenge: to find data to back up trends when the official [government] data isn’t trustworthy or necessarily credible. There are experts at different think tanks, non-partisan organizations like The Migration Policy Institute or Pew Research Center that are helpful. Sometimes I call on experts there to help me locate data that could help shed light on a story. Other times, I turn to immigration attorneys and advocacy groups. Once you hear the same story about a particular issue from the umpteenth source working directly with an immigrant community, you can come to some conclusion that this is happening on a certain scale.

 

Besides immigration attorneys, what other sources do you look to for story ideas?

There are more stories that are coming to me than I know what to do with. It’s not like I’m rummaging around for stories. It’s more like one leads to another, and not necessarily on the same theme. Or the people that I talked to for one story will remember me when something interesting happens and reach out. That’s the way news stories land at my feet.

I once reported on defectors from North Korea who ended up in Salt Lake City. While in Salt Lake City, I realized that there was a large contingent of Venezuelans who had fled upheaval in their country and settled there. I kept that in the back of my mind. Fast forward to now, and the country is in major upheaval. My editors were interested in how Venezuelans already in the US were reacting. I remembered that there were sources in Salt Lake City, and I went back to my notebook to find the number of an individual that was a Lyft driver, and from there I connected to someone who started a local organization.

And then there are other stories that are off of the news. If we hear that there are children at shelters who were sexually abused, we have a story idea, but I need to populate it with people. To do so I will reach out to a panoply of people—lawyers, advocacy organizations, former aid workers. I’m just darting at every direction because I want to find examples to illustrate data or a trend. We need human voices and real examples when we write these stories.

 

I’m curious how you prioritize stories that are important when everything on your beat feels urgent—and without yielding to the Trump administration’s own agenda.

I’m always conferring with my editor, Kim Murphy, on stories. We have to be careful that we’re not just reporting on an issue.

If the administration announces a policy that will have deep detrimental impact on any particular immigrant group, even if that policy is a policy that the administration is unveiling to quote-unquote placate the base of the president’s supporters, I still have to write about it, because of its impact.

 

How would you characterize your relationship to some of your immigrant sources after a particular story about their life is published?

I have relationships with academics who have areas of expertise and economists that study immigration. Some sources I have ongoing relationships with and I quote them sparingly—I turn to them to ensure that I understand a policy or that I’m depicting some element of the law accurately.

When I’m interviewing dozens of people in the caravan, their stay there is impermanent. I know that I won’t see them again, unless I make a concerted effort. Typically, I try to send articles to sources as a courtesy and to thank them for their time. The tricky part is really when you talk to a source for a story and then they don’t end up in the piece. Sometimes they’re disappointed and they convey that in an email, that you wasted their time.

 

After it’s published, how do you measure or define the success of a story?

In this digital age, The New York Times has the ability to measure how many eyeballs an article gets. I sometimes check how many page views a story got. That is definitely one way to ascertain whether a story has been successful. And how many people cared to read it—or click on it.

But success is also revealing something that hasn’t been in the public domain. Success is getting policy-makers to pay attention to something. I recently wrote a story about the challenges to becoming a naturalized citizen. The story was not one of the most widely read stories that I’ve written, but it was circulated among policy-makers and elected officials in Washington. That’s a measure of success. Maybe the average Times reader didn’t bother to click on that story. They might have shrugged and thought, Figures, under this administration there would be obstacles to becoming American. But the fact that it was circulated on the Hill tells me, Hey, this could lead to some positive change.

I’m here to educate and enlighten our readers about how policies are impacting immigrants, businesses, and the country at large. To the extent that I can achieve that, I’m doing my job.

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Anna Furman is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, New York Magazine, and The Guardian.