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Journalists share experience covering US border issues and family separation

Journalists share experience covering US border issues and family separation

Naomi Harris | September 19, 2018

In May, the Trump administration implemented a family separation policy to discourage people from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border as part of a zero tolerance approach to immigration. The policy received a lot of criticism, and activists, policymakers and the public called for unifying the families.

According to a court filing in August, hundreds of children were still separated from their parents, CNN reported.

Four journalists were reporting near the U.S.-Mexico border and El Salvador as part of an International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) fellowship. When they received the news of the policy, they started covering what was happening as the media attention increased.

They sat down with IJNet to discuss their experiences and share their tips and recommendations for journalists that are interested in covering the border and immigration.

Find the story

“I was given an assignment by The Los Angeles Times to go meet up with the migrant caravan in Oaxaca, and from there I was given further opportunities from The New York Times to continue working with that group of people,” said freelance photographer Meghan Dhaliwal.

Dhaliwal, based in Mexico City, reports on migration and was familiar with the topic. She photographed the migrant caravan because she knew the group was organized.

“With family separation on the border, [my team] was looking for someone to enlighten us on an experience that we weren’t privy to,” she explained.

Initially, reporters and officials were not allowed inside detention centers, as one U.S. elected official found he was blocked from entering a detention facility in Texas. Instead, journalists relied on using different angles to report on the story.

Sarah Kinosian, a freelancer based in Central America, reported on the migrants deported back to their countries, some without their children. She documented the efforts of a single father trying to get back his daughter.

“I headed to the deportation center that received migrants deported from the United States and Mexico,” Kinosian explained. “That’s where they fill out the form and say why they left. I ended up meeting a father who had been separated from his daughter and had been deported.”

Her interview with this father, Arnovis Guidos Portillo, emphasized the issue of deporting parents without their children, said Kinosian.

“His story very much encapsulates the whole problem from start to finish,” she said. According to Kinosian, the father fled twice and was deported each time. On his third attempt to enter the U.S. he asked for asylum due to death threats back home. Instead, he was separated from his daughter and once again sent back.

Along with telling powerful narratives of parents searching for their children, reporters searched for communities and organizations trying to help migrants during the policy’s implementation.

“It’s not just about the families being separated,” said Tamara Merino, a photographer who was on assignment for National Geographic. “There’s another side to show, so we did an investigation in the field to find organizations and people helping in both the U.S. and Mexico.”

Along with her partner, Lujan Agusti, she documented, through narrative-driven photography, the story of migrants crossing the border from Mexico into Eagle Pass, Texas, and those helping them. For example, they interviewed a priest in Mexico who provided food and a space to rest for migrants and a U.S. sheriff who “would turn a blind eye,” said Merino.

Verify sources and understand policies

As these journalists found sources to interview and photograph, they still faced challenges, including navigating a complicated legal system and validating sources’ information. These challenges were exacerbated by the short timelines that are characteristic of reporting breaking news.

When covering migration, it is crucial to review policies as immigration laws change depending on the country, according to Dhaliwal. So she recommends journalists pay attention.

“Understand the law as it stands and as it changes,” said Dhaliwal.

Kinosian spent three days under a tight deadline, but she still made it a priority to verify as much information as possible.

“You ask for the verification, you ask for the comment and whenever you can, you ask for documents,” Kinosian said. She also advises reporters to ask for passports and alien numbers because it helps to find the ICE locator.

Train for potential dangers

Merino was reporting in a challenging environment, and she relied heavily on the safety training she received as part of her IWMF fellowship.

“I think the most important thing is to stay calm. We acted really well because we were trained for those situations,” she said.

Hostile environment training, like that which Merino received, can be expensive, especially for freelance journalists. However, there are a number of organizations that offer monetary support for journalists, including the Rory Peck Trust, the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues and more.

Stay motivated

Children are still separated from their parents, and the number of parents deported without their children is still unclear. The ACLU continues to “pursue the issue further with the administration,” stated CNN.

Although the situation is challenging, Lujan Agusti, who documented the U.S.-Mexico border with Merino, is motivated to continue photographing stories like those discussed in this article as a way to increase empathy for the children and families involved.

“I think [the public’s] problem is that we don’t have empathy towards others,” Agusti said. “What I’m trying to do is [share] the stories close to people so they understand why this is happening.”

The four journalists spoke of their experiences as IWMF fellows on a panel, Great Reporting on U.S. Border Issues, at the National Press Club this past summer.

Main image, courtesy of Meghan Dhaliwal, shows a group of young Central Americans walking from one shelter to another after the first shelter ran out of room in Tijuana, Baja California Norte, Mexico, on day 31 of their journey to the U.S.-Mexico border. 

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