When the US-Mexico border is local news

Migrants detained by US Border Patrol in El Paso. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

It was March when Aaron Montes first learned about the Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas. Montes, a reporter with the El Paso Times, had been on a ride-along with two US Border Patrol agents, both of whom are regular sources of his, since morning. In an SUV, on the dirt roads that line the strip of land between the US border fence and the then-dry Rio Grande riverbed, they came upon many migrants, who the agents encouraged to continue along the fenceline to a facility where they could claim asylum. In the afternoon, Montes and the agents spotted four young boys, who seemed exhausted and apprehensive as the agents approached. 

Winds had picked up, and the sky was darkening. The agents didn’t want to leave the kids to hike alone to a border facility and risk becoming stranded, so they radioed for backup. When a second vehicle arrived, three of the boys loaded in; the fourth rode with Montes and the two agents. They drove to a facility on the east side of El Paso, where many migrants are in-processed. The agents took the boy inside. When they emerged, Montes asked what would happen to the boys. They’d likely be sent to Clint, with the other unaccompanied minors, he was told.

“That was new to me,” Montes says. “Of course, I started asking questions.” Why were kids being held there? What was the process at the Clint facility? He got few answers, however. The agents weren’t stationed at Clint, and such questions would need to be fielded by higher authorities. Overhead, a storm looked ready to break. The three decided to call it a day.

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Montes remained curious about the Clint facility. But he and others at the El Paso Times were primarily concerned, at the time, with a crowded encampment that US Customs and Border Protection had erected under the Paso del Norte International Bridge, which connects El Paso with Juárez, Mexico, immediately across the border. (This story would soon make national headlines, as it came to light that hundreds of migrants were being held outside, exposed to the elements, for days on end.) Montes was also already at work on another, still ongoing, investigation, in addition to his regular duties on the city government beat.

About 800,000 people live in El Paso, and Juárez is home to nearly 1.5 million. With just 20 editors and reporters in the El Paso Times newsroom, staff can easily feel overwhelmed. “I think about the stories I hear from migrants, what I hear from advocates, lawyers, people in government,” Montes, who is an El Paso native, says. “I lose sleep knowing that it will take time to get to all those stories.”

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In national outlets, the US-Mexico border comes up as a series of flashpoints: a young girl crying for her aunt, tear gas fired on a crowd at a closed Port of Entry, and, most recently, the squalid conditions for children at Clint. But for journalists in communities such as El Paso, the border is part of daily life, and the “crisis” is more of a slow burn. At all times, local reporters say they find themselves surrounded by unturned stones, each with the potential for nationwide scandal.

 

The Clint story broke in late June after lawyers obtained access to the facility and passed on the horrors of what they saw to journalists. Politicians and presidential candidates came in force to posture and stump, as the story unfolded in zigzags; children were removed from the facility and then, days later, returned.

Editors at The New York Times wanted to give readers an in-depth look at the facility in Clint. If they hoped to get such a piece out quickly, while Clint was still in the news cycle, then they would need a mass of reporters on the project, including ones with local expertise. Marc Lacey, The New York Times’s national editor, called Tim Archuleta, executive editor of the El Paso Times. He proposed a collaboration. 

The combined team worked through the July Fourth holiday, compiling over two-dozen interviews with people on all sides of the intersecting issues at hand. The resulting story, which was published online on Saturday and appeared in both papers on Sunday, provided a thorough portrait, including both the history of the Clint facility and the overcrowding and filth that had prompted talk of a humanitarian crisis. Many of the perspectives reflected in the story—a number of insider accounts from Border Patrol agents, as well as accounts from area power brokers and residents—were thanks to the El Paso Times’s reporters, Lacey tells CJR.

“You know, the El Paso Times could have done a piece like this on their own, and us, too, no doubt,” Lacey says. “But by teaming up we complemented each other’s strengths and brought together a very comprehensive story in a very short amount of time.” The story was stronger as a result, he says. 

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Archuleta, who is new to his position at the El Paso Times (following six years as editor of the Corpus Christi Caller Times), agrees the benefits of collaboration were mutual. It can be difficult, he explains, for a smaller newsroom to tackle robust investigations while also covering breaking news for a large local audience and filling a daily paper. “It’s awesome to get a chance to step back and do something more in-depth that brings added context to what’s happening here.” Leaders at both The New York Times and the El Paso Times say they hope to work together again.

As Archuleta sees it, collaboration between newsrooms ensures that local expertise yields optimal impact, especially on sweeping issues such as the border and immigration. The El Paso Times is a member of the Gannett-owned USA Today Network, as is the Corpus Christi Caller Times. Built-in to the network, Archuleta says, are frequent opportunities to pool resources and knowledge. In 2018, The Arizona Republic and the USA Today Network received the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting, for a package that examined the many implications of Trump’s proposed border wall. Archuleta describes the effort—the product of input from dozens of journalists—as a powerful testament to collaboration as local news dwindles.

 

Inevitably, national attention will shift again from El Paso, if it has not already. The story, of course, always continues.

In March, following public outcry over the facility under the Paso del Norte bridge, migrant families were quickly relocated. Within months, however, another outdoor encampment had cropped up immediately adjacent to bridge, in which hundreds of people were exposed to searing heat. 

“None of the national media were here, but those of us who cross the bridge regularly could see them right there, below us,” Lauren Villagran, who recently joined the El Paso Times, says. “It’s burning hot, and I can see them hand-washing clothes in paint buckets.” Villagran—a longtime border and immigration reporter who has covered those issues from both sides of the US-Mexico border—wrote about the new encampment. Her story ran in both the El Paso Times and USA Today, but it didn’t catch on nationally otherwise; even for Villagran, it didn’t feel like a major story. “We’re beating the drum here constantly,” she says. “But it can be very hard, because we become used to some things that you realize aren’t actually normal.”

The story of the border, though, Villagran says, is often distorted by the nationwide rancor. “The way that national news of the border is completely consumed by border security and politics is very far from our reality here,” she says.

Daniel Borunda, another El Paso native who started at the El Paso Times in 1997, says the national immigration debate might benefit from a local’s understanding of the people involved. The vast majority of migrants, for instance, aren’t sneaking across the border. They often seek out border officials. Similarly, federal law enforcement doesn’t present as the monolith that it might sometimes appear. Many Border Patrol agents in fact come from, or are members of, the communities they police, where Border Patrol is sometimes one of the largest and better-respected employers. A slim majority are Latino, and some are immigrants themselves.

In reality, Borunda says, the border story in El Paso is also an economic story, a family story, a social story. The reverberations of national policies emphasize local and personal angles. Tighter security on the international bridge means thousands of workers lined up at 3am to get to their jobs on the other side of the border by 7am, even though the commute is a matter of just a few miles. Threats to shut down the border send shockwaves through families with members on both sides, and worry students who cross the border for class.

Villagran agrees. “I have a whole pile of stories I want to write as a border reporter that have nothing to do with immigration, about families and culture, the life we all lead here,” she says.

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Andrew McCormick is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewMcCormck.