united states project

Texas reporters shut out of immigration court

Officials are fast-tracking deportation hearings for Central American migrants, and journalists who once got a welcoming media campaign now find locked doors
August 13, 2014

AUSTIN, TX — A story in today’s Houston Chronicle takes readers inside an immigration courtroom to report on accusations that the federal government is failing to provide detained migrants with due process and ignoring credible asylum claims. The piece focuses on Central American women and children recently apprehended near the South Texas border and then shuttled to the newly-built, remote detention center in Artesia, New Mexico–some 200 miles from El Paso and not far from Roswell.

Although The Chronicle had dispatched investigative reporter Susan Carroll to Artesia, the glimpse of the facility was obtained via teleconference from a Virginia courtroom.

On the monitor, a petite, dark-haired, middle-aged woman is escorted to a seat directly in front of the camera. She is soon flanked by a young woman in jeans and a bright green T-shirt, and a slim young man with a dark blue shirt and luxuriant sideburns. How old are these two? The deep shadows on the monitor make it hard to tell. Eighteen? Twenty?

No. Younger. The boy gives it away: Just before the judge begins speaking, he grins and gives a little wave to the camera.

In style and substance, the story reflects the challenges for reporters covering the influx of Central American migrants as the federal government mounts an energetic publicity campaign while shutting off access to the detention facilities and placing migrants’ court hearings beyond the scrutiny of the press.

On July 28, investigative reporter Carroll traveled to the Artesia detention center on the grounds of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) to report the story. In the preceding days she had exchanged emails arranging access with media representatives for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which oversees the facility, and the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) within the US Department of Justice, which manages immigration court matters.

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But after Carroll arrived at the security gate, she was told she would not be permitted into the immigration hearing. The initial reason given was that Carroll was attempting to access asylum cases, which are generally closed to the public. However, the open docket immigration court cases scheduled for the day likely included a mix of situations. If an asylum case arose, the immigration judge could and would clear the courtroom.

Carroll sent an ICE spokesman an email: “It’s a master calendar hearing. It is open by law. I confirmed with EOIR. Legally, you need to let me in. I gave two days’ notice I was coming. I am not asking for any asylum information from you. I am not asking for a media tour. I am simply requesting access to a court proceeding that is open under the law.”

They did not grant her access. But the Chronicle was allowed to observe the hearing from Virginia, where the presiding judge was holding court in Artesia via teleconference. The Chronicle (a Hearst paper) sent Hearst Newspapers’ Washington Bureau Chief David McCumber to observe the hearing.*

In a subsequent statement to the Chronicle and also provided to CJR, ICE cited security concerns at the Artesia facility where the immigration court is housed. According to the statement: “For these detention center locations, ICE personnel must be available to ensure appropriate security procedures are followed when escorting visitors at the center.”

“They are essentially insisting that reporters need clearance to get to the courts,” she said. “And I’m arguing, we don’t need clearance. They are open.”

In an email, I asked ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok why the Chronicle was given access in Virginia to what was initially described as a closed-door hearing. In an emailed response, the ICE spokesman said the Virginia hearings are not held within ICE detention facilities. If there was a circular logic for barring press, that answer closed the loop.

The issue of press access to immigration hearings, specifically at the Artesia center, is an urgent one. On Aug. 1, the Los Angeles Times reported on problematic housing conditions and an outbreak of chicken pox at the Artesia facility. The information was drawn from a report by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general. Other recent news reports have relied on descriptions provided by pro-bono attorneys volunteering at the facility. For example, in an Aug. 6 Vox.com story, an attorney describes the court process in Artesia as a “shitshow.” Another legal advocate granted access to the Artesia facility told The Hill on July 24 that conditions inside are “horrific” and that migrants are being denied due process rights. In a July 23 Texas Observer story, an immigration attorney talked about the “hurry up and deport” approach at the facility.

Carroll told me that this is “exactly what happens when the government restricts access. We have to quote other people, but that’s not how anybody wants to do business.”

The Texas Observer‘s investigative reporter, Melissa Del Bosque, who specializes in immigration issues, added that lack of access to the courts is particularly troubling because the federal government has placed the Central American cases on an expedited review process, the so-called “rocket dockets.” “So it’s difficult to document to what’s happening to them, if they are getting due process and if the law is being applied to them or if they are seeking asylum,” she said.

But in other instances, the federal government seems eager to fling open the doors to the press. Two months before Carroll hit a shut door at Artesia, the government organized a press tour of the facility, before the migrants arrived. Del Bosque characterized such tours as “sanitized dog and pony shows.” “The toughest thing for journalists is ever being able to speak with them [the children] once they are in a facility,” she said. “It’s nearly impossible.”

On the southern border, in the Rio Grande Valley, Jared Taylor, a metro editor for the McAllen newspaper, The Monitor, has noticed an uptick in the availability of public information officers with the US Border Patrol. Taylor said the Border Patrol has been granting more “ride alongs” in which reporters tag along on the patrols. In one instance, he said, the public information officer invited a photographer on a tour.

As with Artesia, when construction of a new facility in Karnes City, Texas, 50 miles southeast of San Antonio, was complete, reporters were invited in for a look. “Feds to show off Karnes City immigrant facility,” a San Antonio television station reported July 31. “Federal immigration officials on Thursday sought to show the softer side of immigrant detention,” reported the Associated Press, “complete with cartoon wall murals, stuffed animals, playgrounds, snacks and a hair salon at a South Texas facility that will house women and their children who crossed the border illegally.”

Despite the media show, some reporters were able to extract a solid story. Austin-based pubic radio station KUT reached behind what they described as “a huge PR campaign to show how kid friendly the facility in Karnes City is.” The result was a fine piece that questioned the role of private prison companies in operating the immigration detention centers and explored whether a prison model was best suited for people who are not incarcerated. The report included important context about the Geo Group, the politically influential prison company. “In Texas, GEO Group manages both prisons and mental health hospitals; over the years it has settled lawsuits for at least 11 deaths and dozens of sexual assaults.”

For its part, the Chronicle brilliantly turned its lack of access into a stylistic asset to reinforce the story’s purpose. By constructing a narrative from the Virginia courtroom, the paper’s reporters show an immigration review system that, like the image of the migrants presented to the judge via the monitor, is distorted and distant.

*CORRECTION: This line has been updated to correct David McCumber’s title.

Mario Garcia is CEO of Garcia Media and senior adviser on news design at Columbia Journalism School.