It was for a search warrant, which seemed simple enough, but as Snell read on, a few things jumped out at him. First, the affidavit requested the use of a cell-site simulator, a device that tricks phones into providing location data by masquerading as a nearby cell tower. The device was originally designed for counterterrorism use overseas, though Snell had seen it used domestically, typically in drug cases.
But that was the other thing he found odd. The affidavit wasn’t for a drug case. It was for an immigration case.
According to the affidavit, a team of FBI and Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agents would use the device to track down and arrest Rudy Carcamo-Carranza, a 23-year-old restaurant worker from El Salvador. An undocumented immigrant, Carcamo-Carranza had entered the United States illegally on multiple occasions dating back to 2005. Twice, authorities captured and deported Carcamo-Carranza, but he returned a third time and was later involved in a hit-and-run car accident in Shelby Township, about 30 miles north of Detroit.
While no one was hurt in the collision, deportation agents started looking for Carcamo-Carranza. A year later, they applied for a search warrant to find his phone using the simulator. A judge signed off on the warrant.
Federal authorities were not required to file search warrants to use cell-site simulators until September 2015, when the Justice Department enacted new regulations requiring a judge’s approval. Still, Snell contacted several privacy and civil liberty experts to see if they had heard of an immigration case where a simulator was used like this. “Based on my reporting, it’s unprecedented, at least since 2015, where they’re disclosing that they’ve used this tool in an immigration investigation,” says Snell.
Covering immigration these days means understanding a large group—more than 43 million people—and an issue that affects every facet of life, from economics to politics to education
Snell’s story on the device and Carcamo-Carranza’s arrest ran in May 2017, making it the first time federal officials publicly acknowledged using cell-site simulators in immigration operations. While discovering the affidavit was unexpected, Snell didn’t find the tactics surprising. As he notes in the story, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, under which ICE falls, had purchased more than 120 cell-site simulators. If Homeland Security and ICE have these tools, it stands to reason they would use them in an immigration case, Snell says.
And if the story’s online comments section was any indication, many did not mind its use. One commenter wrote, “All illegals are criminals so get ’em all! …That’s one of the things we elected President Trump to do.”
With hardliners now in policy-making positions, immigration is increasingly a flashpoint in national politics, saturating the news cycle daily with stories of ICE crackdowns, policy changes (including the administration’s recent termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program), and families fearful of arrest and deportation. It routinely seeps into breaking news and other beats. During Hurricane Harvey’s assault on the Houston area, the state of Texas announced that it would not check the legal status of people arriving at emergency shelters.
It’s an issue that has added to American divisiveness across politics. According to data from the Pew Research Center, 67 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border is an important goal for immigration policy, a position shared by only 16 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners.
Covering immigration these days means understanding a large group—more than 43 million people, or 13.4 percent of the U.S. population—and an issue that affects every facet of life, from economics to politics to education. Yes, it includes issues of illegality, bans, and border crossings, but it also affects communities in other ways—such as bolstering the federal budget by contributing to the tax base.
And it requires a multidisciplinary approach to reporting to provide the necessary nuance and depth. “Almost everyone, on every beat, becomes an immigration reporter at some point,” says Cindy Carcamo, an immigration reporter for the Los Angeles Times. “Immigration has impacted many things: health care, education, the economy. Immigration law is just as complicated as tax law. It’s interwoven into the fabric of American life.”
So how are newsrooms, especially those in sanctuary cities with large immigrant populations, responding to this increasing focus? Some are using social media to reach out and enhance their interactions with these growing communities. Others are revamping and expanding their teams to better cover immigration. Many are building out new platforms to specifically capture these voices, a necessary move as immigration trends change, such as Asians outpacing Latinx immigration into the United States.
“This issue goes beyond the Mexican border,” says Jose Antonio Vargas, founder of Define American, a nonprofit media and culture organization focusing on immigration issues, and writer/director of the 2013 documentary “Documented.” “A growing number of undocumented are Asian immigrants, but we don’t really talk about them, or undocumented black immigrants, or undocumented white immigrants. They’re not at all a part of the narrative.”
Slate senior editor Dahlia Lithwick’s beat got very busy when Trump signed the first travel ban a week after taking office. Implemented on a Friday, the initial ban prohibited all refugees from entering the country for 120 days and banned entry from Iraq and six other countries—Libya, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Iran—for 90 days. The chaos began almost immediately when federal customs agents, unsure of what to do with incoming flights, began detaining foreign-born passengers flying into the United States.
Over the weekend, anger over the ban and detainments sparked protests at airports nationwide. Several Slate reporters joined in to help cover the demonstrations. Meanwhile, Lithwick pored over the order, trying to grasp the ban’s legality. “I literally did not understand the first travel ban. Then you realize, ‘Oh, John Kelly [then at the Department of Homeland Security] doesn’t know either,’” says Lithwick, who has a law degree from Stanford.
Then came the motions, followed swiftly by federal judges issuing temporary stays on the order. Lithwick went through every legal document filed. “It was sort of the diligent work of reading what they were saying and trying to parse,” she says.
In between reading the motions, dissecting the order and interviewing several experts in immigration law, Lithwick coordinated with reporters in the field as they interviewed volunteer lawyers, many of whom had rushed to nearby airports to provide legal services, were not knowledgeable about immigration law, and suddenly found themselves with detainee clients. The story thrust Lithwick’s work into an accelerated pace she hadn’t encountered before: Reporting a legal story, with all its intricacies and litigious ambiguity, alongside the frenzy of a breaking news story.
Lithwick penned and co-wrote five stories that weekend, all covering multiple angles of the ban including the volunteer lawyers, the stranded foreign-born travelers, and the immediate injunctions from federal judges. A commentary, co-written with Daria Roithmayr, focused on how Congress should respond. Her final story, co-written with Leon Neyfakh and Mark Joseph Stern, posited an unsettling hypothetical and its legal consequences: What would happen if the administration refused to follow a federal judge’s injunction?
“Covering [the ban] as though it was like the Super Bowl is not what most legal reporters are trained to do,” says Lithwick. “But there was this sentiment that the lawyers and the judges were going to push back hard and that somebody needed to read all those pleadings and motions and filings, and try to understand and interpret. That’s not a position many of us are used to on the legal beat.”
The ban triggered a torrent of lawsuits and litigation that is continuing. The fallout presented Lithwick with another challenge. She had to stress the importance of these cases at a time when both the public and the journalists were fatigued. “The challenge was that the courts were struggling to find their lane, and it all seemed unprecedented,” she says. “The administration kept tweaking and changing things, so we never knew if the rules had shifted. Also, the public was becoming weary and finding it hard to follow, so we sensed that we could never break through.”
But with “SCOTUS Splits the Travel Ban Baby,” Lithwick and Stern demystified the Supreme Court’s June 26 decision. While both partisan factions declared victory, Lithwick reminded readers that the high court merely decided to hear the case in October and narrowed the injunction’s scope, allowing the revised ban to take effect. The high court later dismissed the appeal against the revised ban.
Still, it’s this kind of “boring dedication to words” that Lithwick says is critical to understanding the legal issues at the center of the immigration issue. That kind of reporting means reading statutes and calling academics in order to provide comprehensive analysis. “The law is glacial, and legal journalism needs to go slow,” she says.
Lithwick adds: “I feel like my job, more than ever, is to explain. If I haven’t taken something that seems technical and jargon-laden and made it explicable to a smart high schooler, then I’m not doing anything. And, yes, I do it more in the Trump era because there’s more legal stuff to unpack, but there is a heightened responsibility for legal journalists to take all the screaming headlines and say, ‘What can I explain about what just happened, whether it’s the scope, or why it happened or why it matters, or what it’s going to mean going forward.’ I think the work right now is to do that translating.”
As thousands headed to the airports to protest that weekend, millions more turned to their computers and phones to voice their opinions online. Hashtags like #travelban started trending, and that gave Hannah Wise an idea.
Moving beyond well-established narratives within the Latinx and Middle Eastern communities is a challenge in immigration coverage
Wise, the engagement editor for The Dallas Morning News, emailed her editors that Saturday and asked if she could put together a Google Form, a quick and free online survey, asking immigrant readers to share their stories with the paper. She had used Google Forms before to solicit readers, but for smaller stories, like one on college debt.
The form was simple. It requested the user’s name and contact information (phone number and email), then asked if they were an immigrant. If they were, the form asked them to share their stories. Wise embedded the form onto a page on DallasNews.com and waited. Within a day, she had more than 50 responses from immigrants spanning 30-plus countries. That the form generated so many responses in such a short time demonstrated how engagement can help develop story ideas and leads, Wise says.
“As newsrooms get smaller and smaller, we have even more of a limited scope of experience and knowledge within the building,” she says. “We cover a metropolitan area that’s nine counties. Millions of people live here, and we cannot have a one-to-one understanding of every single person’s experience on any given day. If I can ask them to share with us, [those responses] can inform our reporting and what questions we’re asking on their behalf.”
Crowdsourcing also connects reporters to a larger audience rather than depending on nonprofits and activist groups that share the same stories to multiple outlets or promote their own agendas. “This is a good way for us to find stories that might go untold,” says Wise.
One response caught Wise’s attention. It was from a 25-year-old man named Ibrahim Yousif, a former U.S. Army translator during the Iraq war who had since immigrated to Plano, a suburb north of Dallas. His brother, a Minnesota-based lawyer, and his family were visiting relatives in Iraq when the travel ban went into effect, stranding them overseas.
The next day, Wise passed Yousif’s information to Brendan Meyer, a general assignment writer for the Morning News’s How We Live section, which builds feature stories off the news cycle. Meyer reached out to Yousif, who was eager to talk. “He wasn’t surprised when we called,” says Meyer. “He filled out the form for a reason.”
Within hours, Meyer was inside Yousif’s home, interviewing him about his family’s dilemma. As a translator, Yousif worked with U.S. armed forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom before moving stateside in 2012. He later became a permanent resident and received green cards for his brother, his brother’s wife, and their children.
With the initial ban in place, Yousif feared for the safety of his brother and other family members still in Iraq, which included his parents and fiancée, due to his involvement with the U.S. military. That fear prompted Yousif to find a way to publicize his story and garner attention, and help secure an attorney if necessary. When he found Wise’s callout for immigrant stories related to the ban, he quickly filled out the form. “I wanted to speak out for the unspoken,” Yousif says. “I decided to make sure that readers understand that not just refugees are affected, but also a lot of people who actually wore the uniform.”
Using the Google Form spreadsheet was a first for Meyer. In the past, he relied on leaving contact information at the end of his stories, hoping that “people would write in with story ideas or pitches,” he says. Instead, the form provided a list of responses, complete with names, contact information, and summaries of their stories. Now, thanks to some embedded lines of code on a webpage, he had a breaking-news feature story within 24 hours. “I loved it,” Meyer says. “If we could somehow condition our readers to look for these callouts for whatever topic and write a short blurb with their contact information, that would be incredible.”
Wise and others at the Morning News are looking at ways to capitalize on this kind of engagement. “Anecdotally, community members tweeted or emailed saying that they were happy to see us reaching out in that way,” Wise says. “That goodwill in the community is the most valuable part of this strategy.”
As for Yousif, he’s happy he could get his story out. He’s also grateful that his brother, wife and family could return to the United States shortly after a federal court granted an injunction against the initial ban. However, he’s still waiting to hear back from the State Department on whether the rest of his family can receive green cards and come to America. And he worries about his plans to travel to Iraq to visit his family. Despite his status as a legalized citizen, he fears he won’t be allowed back into the country.
That Wise’s form generated responses from immigrants of various nationalities illustrates a challenge in immigration coverage: How do journalists move beyond well-established narratives within the Latinx and Middle Eastern communities?
Since 2010, Asian immigration to the United States has outpaced Latinx immigration, according to the Pew Research Center, with Asians projected to surpass Hispanics by 2055 to become the country’s largest immigrant group. So why aren’t these other groups part of the conversation? “People aren’t sure how to talk about it in the context of the immediate news,” says Traci G. Lee, digital editorial manager for NBC Asian America, a multimedia site launched in 2014 that focuses on news, features, and video documentaries that elevate Asian-American and Pacific Islander voices.
A “boring dedication to words” is [sometimes] critical to understanding the legal issues at the center of the immigration issue
When it comes to immigration, Lee says, the news cycle is often inundated with more familiar narratives of Latinx communities or refugees from countries such as Syria. Yet, many forget that the largest U.S. refugee resettlement effort came when more than 1 million refugees from Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, and Cambodia immigrated to the States between 1975 and 1992. “There are so many of those threads that, if it’s not immediately in the news cycle, they’re not going to get talked about,” Lee says. “That’s the issue with the deportation of Cambodian refugees. If I wasn’t focusing on a site about Asian-American news, I might not even be talking about it today.”
The subject of Cambodian refugees came up back in summer 2016, when Lee and documentary filmmaker Sahra V. Nguyen brainstormed ideas for a docu-series. Lee wanted something for video-sharing platforms like YouTube and Vimeo—short and sharable, yet in-depth and visual—an objective of hers since joining NBC Asian America in 2016. “We still do that news-of-the-day stuff; we also wanted this element of content creation,” says Lee, whose background includes work as a digital producer for MSNBC. “I’m somebody who grew up on the internet. I read the news online before I see it on TV most days. I consume YouTube videos and social media all the time. I saw that we needed a place like that for NBC Asian America.”
Nguyen pitched Lee on the removal and deportation of more than 600 refugees back to Cambodia since 2002, a subject that’s interested her going back to her high school and college days—“I was really involved in community organizing,” she says—and given the political climate, revisiting the subject seemed timely. “Deportation, under the larger umbrella of immigration, was something all the presidential candidates were talking about,” says the Brooklyn-based Nguyen, whose parents are among the refugees that immigrated following the Vietnam War.
Coupling that family connection with a desire not to exploit the relatives of those deported by capturing their pain on film, Nguyen opted to focus more on the organizers and activists. “I really had to try to find a balance between getting a well-rounded story, but also not asking them to revisit anything too traumatic,” she says. “I wanted to raise awareness of the issue, but I also wanted to shine a spotlight on a lot of the modern civil-rights leaders. We don’t really talk about folks in these positions until years after their time.”
Together, they produced “Deported,” a five-part video series that ran in March 2017. In the series, Nguyen focused on the 1Love Movement, a Philadelphia-based group that worked on behalf of the families of Cambodian deportees with the goal of ultimately bringing them back to the United States.
Their removal stems from the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, a 1996 bill that not only expanded the types of crimes that could lead to deportation, but allowed for that broader classification to be applied retroactively. This resulted in more than 15,000 Southeast Asian Americans receiving orders of removal—78 percent of which were based on old criminal convictions. A subsequent repatriation treaty signed in 2002 allowed Cambodian refugees who had not filed for citizenship to be deported, forcibly if necessary, for misdemeanor crimes.
Conducting interviews and taping their activities over a four-month span, Nguyen highlighted 1Love’s work with the Cambodian community, which ranged from helping family members prepare to speak before governmental officials to organizing rallies, marches, and other events.
In the third episode of the series, 1Love co-directors Mia-lia Boua Kiernan and Naroen Chhin worked with the U.S. Human Rights Network to bring special rapporteurs from the United Nations Human Rights Council to one of the network’s regional meetings. Kiernan and Chhin made their case against Cambodian deportation to the rapporteurs, from the unfairness of penalizing ex-offenders who have served their time to the United States secretly negotiating a repatriation agreement without notifying those it would affect. “People have these broad strokes about what social change or activism looks like, but to see the inner workings of an activist’s brain … it’s incredible to witness,” Nguyen says. “There’s so much work, so much brainpower and critical thinking. You can’t just jump into it. It takes real training and development.”
With her familial connections and past advocacy of the subject in mind, Nguyen reached out to and interviewed representatives from ICE and the United Nations. “When I was working on the project, I approached it with an open mind,” she says, “being very clear and intentional that I needed to separate my personal opinions from the pursuit of journalism. It’s possible to have a perspective on an issue and pursue fair reporting. As humans, all journalists have a perspective inherent to their own experiences when pursuing a topic. The fairness comes in how we navigate the conversation and the process—by not pursuing a perspective, but rather, asking open-ended questions, never leading, and allowing the subjects to express themselves however they want.”
Nguyen flew to Cambodia, traveling with Kiernan, Chhin and the rest of 1Love to meet with their counterparts in Phnom Penh, deportees who have struggled to adjust to life in a country whose language and culture seem foreign, despite their heritage. “When my cousin brought me to where I was going to be living, it was just like me entering prison for the first time,” says Chally Dang, a 1Love Cambodia organizer, in the series. Dang was deported in 2011 following a 1999 conviction for aggravated assault; he was paroled in 2003. “I feel like I’m being detained all over again because I’m just forced into a little box, placed in a country [that] I know nothing of.”
Empathy is key to telling immigration stories
The group’s objectives in Cambodia were two-fold. First, they helped the deportees in Cambodia organize, holding workshops on communicating with government officials, reaching out to non-government groups, and strategizing with lawyers. Later, organizers met with government officials and learned that the Ministry of Interior already had reached out to the U.S. Embassy and requested that the United States suspend all deportations to the country until the repatriation agreement could be revisited. While U.S. officials rejected the request but agreed to a discussion, the Cambodian government had taken it a step further, no longer issuing travel documents to Cambodian-born U.S. residents who face deportation due to felony convictions, effectively halting the repatriation program.
These steps could lead to deportees like Dang returning to the United States someday. And the deportees’ hope to see their families again is palpable in the series’ fifth and final episode. There, Nguyen records a long take of the deportees and organizers leaving the meeting, at first stunned as they process the news, then jubilant to the point of tears. “Regardless of history or shared experiences, journalists should always navigate the process with the code of ethics in mind. The goal is to connect and communicate a truth between subject and audience, so that the audience can form the best possible understanding,” Nguyen says. “That being said, in addition to the code of ethics, one can facilitate the process of exploring the subject matter with compassion, kindness, and empathy.”
Empathy is key to telling immigration stories. “Families here who contribute to the economy, who have strong ties and are part of the community are made to feel that, at any moment, their lives could be in danger,” says Sabrineh Ardalan, assistant director at the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program and an assistant professor at Harvard Law School. “That missing [personal] piece is important in terms of helping the public understand what these policies mean.”
That’s not always easy to do, says Judy London, a lecturer at the UCLA School of Law and directing attorney for the Immigrants’ Rights Project at Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm. The administration’s emboldening of ICE agents and constant rhetoric against undocumented immigrants have caused many to shy away from sharing their stories, even those with legal status protections. They fear that ICE will retaliate either against them or their family members. “People like me in the past would want to share these stories with journalists, but our obligation is to protect our clients,” London says. “Any story that could possibly lead to a client being identified, we can’t go forward with. That’s a chilling effect across the board. The stories need to be told, but it’s much more difficult to tell them.”
Despite that trepidation, many immigrants went on the record when they spoke with Carcamo, the L.A. Times reporter, for a story last February on how people living in the U.S. illegally were dealing with the added scrutiny due to the president’s executive orders. It’s a standard that Carcamo strives for with her sources, knowing full well that exposure could possibly lead to deportation.
Carcamo has a lot of experience working with the immigrant community. A native of Los Angeles, she has spent the last eight years covering immigration, first as a reporter with The Orange County Register and later with the Times as a national correspondent covering the Southwest.
In the past, immigrants were more willing to speak freely, Carcamo admits. And while walking the streets of Santa Ana in Orange County to report the story, she found that many, legal or not, were leery about talking on the record. But she remained steadfast on transparency. Yes, the story would run both in print and online, and everyone would be able to read it, including immigration officials. Ultimately, she found undocumented immigrants willing to talk. “I want them to be aware before they make a final decision,” says Carcamo. “Some were totally fine with going on the record with their full names. You eventually find people, but it takes a lot more work.”
Her sources included a 33-year-old wife and mother, a 62-year-old man with no criminal history, a 57-year-old street peddler, and grandmother raising her deceased daughter’s child. All undocumented, they spoke about their fears of being arrested, detained and deported. They were concerned about leaving their children with family members. They wondered aloud why they couldn’t live the American dream along with everyone else, just because they didn’t have proper documentation of their legal status. But they all spoke on the record.
Carcamo, however, did honor their requests not to be photographed, or she had them photographed in a way that obscured their faces. And recently, she’s begun to accommodate sources who are living in the U.S. illegally and want their last names withheld. She states in the story that the person was fearful of being targeted.
“Now more than ever we need to continue to use, create and curate content that will help people see that undocumented immigrants are your neighbors” —Jose Antonio Vargas, writer/director, Documented
Times reporters Andrea Castillo, Ruben Vives, and Corina Knoll co-reported and wrote the story with Carcamo, turning the daily story around in a few hours. That extra support is indicative of a new, larger, more informal team tasked with handling daily immigration reporting. The added help allows Carcamo to continue covering immigration, but also focus more on enterprise stories.
A recent enterprise piece by Carcamo highlighted an issue that’s been largely ignored outside the immigration community: Businesses that hire undocumented immigrants as cheap, profitable labor despite having federal mandates to check their status through a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services database called E-Verify. A few states, including Texas, Arizona, South Carolina, and Alabama, require businesses to use E-Verify to screen out undocumented workers, but they lack the infrastructure to supervise the screenings. Punitive damages are either miniscule or nonexistent. The result is a system that “crack[s] down on people in the country illegally while largely giving a pass to those who illegally hire them,” Carcamo wrote.
“The story is really not so much about E-Verify,” she says. “It’s about the great hypocrisy in the immigration debate.”
Carcamo spent weeks reaching out to think tanks, nongovernment organizations, and legislators from several states to pull together the story. She also gathered data from groups like the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, and the Pew Research Center, while reaching out to right- and left-leaning nonprofits. She interviewed former ICE officials, business association presidents, and legislators from both sides of the aisle.
It’s important, Carcamo says, to look past the rhetoric for credible information from all sides, especially now as many evaluate the cost and benefits of immigration programs like DACA. Following the Trump administration’s announcement in September to phase out the program over the next six months, think tanks varied on the potential economic fallout. While the Cato Institute estimated the U.S. economy could shrink by about $280 billion over the next decade, the left-leaning Center for American Progress pegged the shrinkage over that period at $430 billion. Carcamo mentioned nonpartisan groups like the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research center at Syracuse University, and the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., as go-to sources. “They’re not activists, they’re researchers,” she says.
Reaching this level of detail is crucial to covering immigration in sufficient depth. “If you define ‘American’ as a set of values—as a belief in working hard for a better life for you and your family, a belief in religious freedom and contributing to your communities—then absolutely undocumented immigrants embody what it means to be American,” Vargas says. “Now more than ever we need to continue to use, create and curate content that will help people see that undocumented immigrants are your neighbors.”