Pulitzer Center Update

What Does It Mean to Seek Asylum in a Pandemic?

Midway through the webinar, Maria Hinojosa’s phone rang. It was Josué, a Honduran refugee who had recently left Tapachula, Mexico, turning back home in desperation. “As a journalist there's nothing that I can do,” she said. “I just have to listen to him in his desperation.”

Still journalists play vital roles in telling these stories of individuals and communities while also holding governments accountable through their reporting. The Pulitzer Center’s Talks @ Pulitzer Focus on Justice webinar on Thursday, July 30, 2020, highlighted those ideas along with the concepts of deconstructing narratives of dehumanization and increasing government transparency. Ann Peters of the Pulitzer Center moderated the conversation between three Pulitzer Center-supported journalists: Hinojosa, Anna-Catherine Brigida, and Maria Zamudio

Discussing her Pulitzer Center-supported project “The Moving Border,” which examines U.S.-Mexico policies preventing individuals from seeking asylum at the U.S. border and moving them farther south, Hinojosa recalled her many experiences crossing back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico, especially in her youth. She contrasted the frightening experience of entering the United States–a green card could be taken away, documents could be demanded–with the experience of entering Mexico, where she never worried about being asked to produce papers. “That now happens in Mexico, throughout the southern border, the northern border.”

Brigida spoke about her Pulitzer Center-supported reporting, detailing the challenges facing migrants and asylum seekers amidst the pandemic. She described how overcrowded and unsanitary conditions have facilitated the spread of COVID-19 in ICE detention centers. With politicians using the pandemic to justify restrictive immigration policies, Brigida addressed the role that recent deportations have played in exporting the virus to other countries.

Zamudio highlighted the difficulties she faced in accessing public records and introduced viewers to her Pulitzer Center-supported project “Exiled Soldiers,” which reports on deported veterans. She spoke about a recent COVID-19-related pause on citizenship ceremonies, highlighting how the pandemic has exacerbated the challenges already facing individuals. “Until you get that certificate, you are not a citizen. If you get arrested and convicted of a felony, you're done,” she said. “It may not be a big deal to us, but it is it is absolutely a big deal to the people that are living it, because a delay like that could add years to someone's adjustment of status.”

“If it wasn't for this kind of reporting that is relentless and consistent, it would be a story that's in a black hole—and in many ways is still in a black hole. This work is so important because we're just scraping a little tiny way to see through,” Hinojosa said about covering immigration policy. “Our work has increased a hundredfold because we're not just telling these stories, we’re systematically deconstructing policy. This work is not just about these lives. It's about returning policy that is supposed to be according to the narrative of this country. As journalists, we're having to hold this country accountable to the policies it says it was founded upon.”

The following is an edited transcript of the conversation and Question & Answer segment of the webinar, moderated by Peters. Portions of this text have been revised for clarity and/or length.

Ann Peters: You talk about a policy wall, rather than a physical wall. Can you go into more detail on what that has meant for those individuals, especially the asylum seekers?

Maria Hinojosa: What's happened between the Donald Trump administration and the progressive leftist administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the President of Mexico, is that these two men have collaborated together through policy to create a policy wall where people get stuck. Remember how we would see and hear about them at the border: Donald Trump could talk about the masses of people trying to get in and break down that wall or fence. Those people are not there now because they're down at the border of Mexico and Guatemala, and this is happening with the collaboration from the Mexican government. As a Mexican woman, I grew up in Chicago and crossed into Mexico every single year of my life, usually by car. There was a very clear distinct childhood memory of getting into the United States and feeling like immigration could take away our green cards at any moment, versus how we felt when we got into Mexico where there were other concerns, but there was not this notion of being stopped and asked for your papers. That now happens in Mexico, throughout the southern border, the northern border, and to me, to be able to document that, to be able to show it, to be able to put a face on that, was really important because the politics of this country have always affected the region. This is yet another way in which the politics of this country have affected not only Mexico, but the entire region.

AP: You also talk about President Trump's Migrant Protection Policy (MPP), or the Remain in Mexico policy. Less than a dozen asylum seekers were allowed to enter the U.S. since late March. These are numbers, but what is this in terms of the individual impact?

MH: The image that I have right now is of Suzy and Zoé. This is a mother and a daughter who left Honduras because the amount of corruption and insecurity for a woman. They left because their lives were at stake. When they end up in a shelter in Juarez, the little girl is sexually assaulted, we believe in the middle of the night. She just wakes up naked one morning. They are kidnapped from the street, taken from a bus stop. They had to escape and run for their lives. They are exactly the people who are waiting in the line to try to present their case. They're stuck. The last I heard from them is that their meetings have been postponed. They have no place to go. When we talk about these questions of policy, we used to be able to get into ‘well there's this policy and there's that policy,’ the policy now is that it's shut down. We have to really think about how we report on something that has been built up, not over one year or two years or even four years. The Obama administration, the George W. bush administration, the Bill Clinton administration. Even the Reagan administration. We have to deconstruct this because these are people who came to the United States because they heard somewhere, maybe in the history books, maybe in the blinking lights on the Statue of Liberty that say come here, maybe because they have heard the history of their own countries, and they know that people have come here when they are desperate, so they believed the same. And now they are stuck. Look at that. I'm getting the phone call from Josué right now. I can't speak to him because I'm with you. He's calling me desperate, because he ended up leaving Tapachula again and going back to Honduras because he was starving. He’s calling me and as a journalist, there's nothing that I can do. I just have to listen to him in his desperation. That's what it looks like—it looks like human beings who are desperate, and as a journalist, who's been covering this, jesus, they get into my heart. And that's why they call, because as a journalist, we have to show a human connection to their stories. Otherwise how dare we ask them to take time to speak to us. We have to show this emotion, because this is real. That's why I think that journalists allow ourselves to remain human. And that I think is a central conversation that we as journalists have to have.

AP: What are you seeing now in terms of the current situation for individuals, especially now with the COVID-19 pandemic? You've also been doing some other reporting related to detention facilities here in the U.S., so fill us in on some of that.

Anna-Catherine Brigida: The idea for the Pulitzer Center-funded project with The Texas Observer was to show how these people in already vulnerable situations were going to be affected by the pandemic. There's guidelines of following social distancing, but how do you follow those guidelines when you're at a shelter in a Mexican border city–there are 60,000 asylum seekers who are stuck in Mexican border cities under MPP–or how do you practice social distancing and keep yourself safe when you're in ICE detention, which, for years, activists have been saying are just inviting a public health crises because they're very horrible conditions. Our first part of the series focused on MPP programs. We followed that in a few different cities, cities along the Texas-Mexico border. Now basically almost everyone who crosses the border is immediately expelled, either back to Mexico or to their home countries, under another very restrictive Trump administration policy that's been justified by the pandemic. We wanted to share those different stories of people in different parts of their immigration journey. Our second part of the series will focus on conditions in ICE detention and how that has been exporting the virus to countries like Guatemala, who are already struggling and their health systems and can't really handle these cases.

About close to 200 Guatemalan deportees have tested positive for the coronavirus after returning. That's after ICE has implemented for more measures like testing, screening and saying that they would not send detainees with coronavirus. When you're talking about a cell that fits up to 75 people, and ICE says they've reduced that population, you're still not looking at good conditions that allow people to social distance. What we've heard from people in detention is that they feel very vulnerable. They feel like they don't have the conditions or the resources to be able to protect themselves. They feel like officials are not taking care of them. There's also a mental health total of what's been happening and the feeling that they don't have information about what's happening. Many activists told us that they receive a lot of frantic calls and sometimes the deportees are just responding to the lack of information that they have. They may see that someone from their cell is taken out and they don't know if that person is going to hospital—they don’t know if that person is being released. People feel vulnerable. They feel like they can't protect themselves. And I just want to say that's not a coincidence. That is a direct result of intentional policies that has been carried out for years, decades, and across multiple administrations.

AP: You mentioned that those deportations of the non-citizen veterans were really an unintended consequence of a law back from 1996. Walk us through some of their stories, and also some of the challenges you encountered even just trying to get access to public records on this information.

Maria Zamudio: The Trump administration has fundamentally changed the way that we adjudicate asylum cases. That's important because when the system was created, it was created in a way that people could come in here and claim asylum, have an interview at the port of entry, and then continue with the cases in a more lax way. This idea that you have to wait for your turn in a third country is something that Trump introduced. It is something that Trump talked about during the campaign trail and it is something that he made sure would happen. What we're seeing is people essentially living in makeshift communities right across the border from the Brownsville Port of Entry. That's creating a lot of issues—they don't have running water. When I was there in January, parents were so upset that their kids were getting sick because they're literally living in a tent outside with no running water, no actual bathrooms, no medical attention at all. The parents were making the decision to send their kids alone. None of them knew that COVID-19 was going to hit this badly—the parents thought that they were making a better decision for their kids. They're having to live with these real consequences. I think that it is really important to write and showcase stories about immigrants, but it's also very, very important to showcase the policy because these policies have a huge impact.

I'm attracted to these stories about policy because there are so many unintended consequences. I want to make sure that everybody understands that it is really difficult to cover immigration because of the lack of transparency. Unlike someone who gets arrested in Chicago, where I can pull the arrest report, I can pull the charging documents, I can go to court, I can follow the case. Within the immigration context, we don't have that. There is a charging document-the notice to appear-that we don't have access to. When I've tried to get access to that, for example, I have to have the immigrants sign a waiver, then file a Freedom of Information Act, and wait between six to eight months, if not more, to get this information. When it comes to reporting on detention centers, it's the same issue. You don't really have access to understanding what's going on in these cases, right. We have to be really careful and demand more transparency because it matters when we're trying to figure out exactly what is happening. This administration has shifted policy so much that it is important for us to try and keep tabs on every single policy change, because they're trying to restrict and rewrite immigration policy through these small memos, things like MPP, the new DACA memo. We have to be really careful and we have to be really diligent when covering these issues.

AP: What can the journalism community, or individual journalists, do to shore up emerging journalists?

MH: I'm the first journalist-in-residence at Barnard College, and I have several students who are hoping to go into the world of journalism. I explained to them that it cannot be a passing fancy. This is hard. We need a lot of journalists and we need lawyers. We need lawyers who are going to push this while we continue to do the work of humanizing because ultimately, everything that we're talking about is based on the consistent dehumanization of these people. I was one of the first who was saying do not use the term illegal. These are not illegal immigrants. There's no such thing as an illegal immigrant. There was pushback and we were criticized for having a political agenda. I learned that from Elie Wiesel who survived the Holocaust. He was the first one who said that the first thing that Nazis did was to declare the Jews and gay people to be an illegal people. This is not new. And the fact that it's been repeated again, honestly is oppression for all of us. 

MZ: When we are thinking about the kinds of stories that we want to see, I tend to focus more on policy stories, rather than identity stories. I am on a team that focuses on issues of race and class in Chicago, one of the most segregated cities in the country. But we do it from the lens of policy because we know that there's a lot of people writing about identity, and that's great. But I think that we need to go further than that, because we need to really explore how systems work, and whether they're doing the thing that they were supposed to be doing. We're identifying things that aren't working. And we're quantifying it, and we're identifying why it’s a problem and I think that's what we really need. What I've been doing and what I would suggest younger journalists do is understand which agencies are at play. A lot of times immigration is really difficult and its reactionary—there's a campaign to keep one person in Chicago, then everybody is covering that story. I think we need to take a step back and really understand which agency is responsible for what, what are they doing, how are they changing these policies. For example, USCIS did not have any citizenship ceremony. This is the oath that you take right before you get your certificate. They did not do any Zoom ones. They didn't do any of them in person. Until you get that certificate, you are not a citizen. If you get arrested and convicted of a felony, you're done. There are a lot of people who are legal permanent residents waiting for their citizenship ceremony so that they can go up in the list when they're claiming a family member to stay in the country legally.

It may not be a big deal to us, but it is it is absolutely a big deal to the people that are living it, because a delay like that could add years to someone's adjustment of status. I would really want other reporters to think about the kind of journalism they want to do and I would really encourage them to start digging into investigative journalism. The Ida B. Wells Society offers incredible training—Ron Nixon started that with Nikole Hannah-Jones. This work is stressful. You end up absorbing a lot of the trauma that these that these immigrants are sharing with you, which is why it's important to do stories with policy elements, so that you can create change. Yes, it is about humanizing, but it is also about making sure that the truth is out there and making sure that we are treating people with justice.