“Immigration to El Norte: Eight Stories of Hope and Peril”
View photo gallery »
Sonia Nazario, a Los Angeles Times reporter who won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing and the Polk Award for International Reporting for the six-part series entitled “Enrique’s Journey” discussed various ethical dimensions and challenges in reporting and writing these articles at an event sponsored in 2003 by the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. In reflecting on the two years she spent researching and writing this series, Nazario discussed how she dealt with Enrique and other boys who traveled from Central America and crossed the Mexican border in search of their mothers in the United States. What follows are excerpts from Nazario’s remarks.

The story was about the 48,000 or so children who come to the United States from Central America and Mexico by themselves, unaccompanied by a parent. Usually, they are following a parent, often a single mother who came here previously. These women, mostly from Central America, came to the United States thinking that the separation would last one or two years and that they would reunify with their kids and that by coming here they would be able to send money home, their children would be able to study, eat better, and that all around it would be a better situation.

My article became the story of one boy — Enrique — whose mother left Central America for the United States when he was five years old. He went on a journey to try to reunify with her and finally reunited with her in North Carolina when he was 17 years old.

He, like thousands of these children, traveled on top of freight trains in Mexico. It is a very dangerous journey. I spent some time with Enrique in Mexico while he was making his journey north. I also reconstructed parts of his journey. I followed in his footsteps and reconstructed his story through interviews and observations. I also traveled on top of freight trains with other immigrant children.

My attempt was to try to give an unflinching look at what this journey is like for these children and what these separations are like through one thread, through one child. I wanted to take the audience into this world, which I assume most readers would never see otherwise. I tried to bring it to them as vividly as possible so they could smell what it’s like to be on top of the train. They could feel it. They could see it. They literally would feel like they were alongside him. That was my goal, to follow in his every footstep.

The one thing about doing this kind of fly-on-the-wall reporting is that you’re on the frontlines. That means you are going to encounter a lot more ethical dilemmas than you would while sitting at your desk or on the phone. You’re with people, and in particular children, who are at-risk and so you have to deal with these issues directly.

During the process, I constantly asked myself, ‘Could something that’s happening cause irreparable harm to a child?’One thing I would recommend in doing these kinds of stories is to really front-load the process by asking yourself: What are the worst-case scenarios that could happen along the journey, and how would you react to them? What’s the worst thing that could happen to these kids that might cause you to intervene? You have to think these things out ahead of time, because things can happen so quickly that it’s too late to react in an appropriate way if you’re not prepared.

During the process, I constantly asked myself, “Could something that’s happening cause irreparable harm to a child?” In trying to go through all these worst-case scenarios, I researched them by spending time in INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] jails and in shelters along the border. I interviewed children who had done the whole journey and so I had a basic idea of where I would be going, what the most important scenes would be in the story, and what I would be looking for along the way. I also learned about the main dangers I would face and where those dangers would be. With that in mind, I came up with my worst-case scenarios and the steps I might take to deal with them.

Sometimes ethical dilemmas are intertwined with legal dilemmas. One of the main things that came up before even leaving on the journey was that I had planned to cross the Rio Grande with whichever child I found on the Mexican side of the border and continue on with them to their destination in the United States. I didn’t end up doing that, but that was my intention. I thought, “Okay, this child will probably not have an inner tube, this child will probably not have a snakebite kit, this child will probably not have an emergency blanket to keep warm so they don’t freeze out in the desert in Texas.”

Crossing the Rio Grande is a very dangerous challenge. Hundreds of people drown there, sucked under by whirlpools. And even after successfully making it across the river, many people don’t make the next leg of the journey, which requires walking through the desert for basically four days.

I knew that I wouldn’t do that unless I carried certain equipment with me — I just wasn’t willing to take that risk. I was going to have a cell phone, an emergency blanket, a snakebite kit, and I was going to have an inner tube, even though I’m a former lifeguard.

So the questions came up, in terms of not only the ethical issues of extending some of those things for Enrique’s use, but also in terms of the legality of entering the country. If I did not enter at a sanctioned point, then that would be a misdemeanor. And if I was with a child and I would be viewed as helping him across, then that would be aiding and abetting, which is a felony.

I did a lot of research to try to figure out what were the legal lines, aside from the moral and ethical lines. It can get kind of tricky. What I determined was that if the kid’s in trouble in the water I was obviously going to help him, but short of that I was not going to help him. He would not use my inner tube because that would be altering reality, and I didn’t want to do that, if at all possible. Overall, what was really important to me was to not intervene in any way. I think it’s really important to try to convey reality as accurately as you can. I’m already changing things just by my presence.

The other thing about intervening is that you really don’t want to be viewed as anything other than what you are. You don’t want to be viewed as an arm of law enforcement in Mexico, for example, because a lot of people will stop talking to you. And when they view you as a journalist, they’re still suspicious, but you have a fighting chance there. But if you start to intervene, it can raise the suspicion level.

For me, the dividing line was whether or not I felt the child was in imminent danger. Not discomfort, not “things are going really badly,” not “I haven’t eaten for 24 hours.” I knew that once I intervened in a significant way, I could not use that kid in the story. I would have to start over totally. Luckily, I worked for an employer who abided by those principles and had already put a lot of money and a lot of time into doing the story. But that was clearly in my mind, the dividing line: If a kid is in imminent danger, you act.

As a reporter, you have to accept that you’re going to see a lot of misery and, with children in particular, that’s really hard. You’re going to see them go through really, really difficult things, especially with this kind of fly-on-the-wall reporting. But I think that brings an immediacy and a power to the story of being there, witnessing it, showing it in a present tense that you don’t otherwise get. You might see a kid struggle for a couple of weeks to come up with the money to call Honduras to obtain a telephone number he needs to finally talk to his mother. Sometimes you have to watch that play out to be able to write a really powerful story. Those aren’t often things the public understands very well. I got some e-mails that basically said, “Aren’t you a human being? How could you do this?”

The bottom line on all this is that I try not to do anything I can’t live with. I try not to do anything that keeps me up at night. And I try to think about some of these decisions before I start my reporting and continue during my investigation.

Naming Sources vs. Granting Anonymity

To me, using a last name is an essential component of credibility in a story. I had never written a story where the main character was not fully identified. Originally, Enrique’s full name was in the story. However, through the [editing] process, it was obvious that that wouldn’t be possible in the end.

RELATED ARTICLES
Also by Sonia Nazario
· “Preparing for the Journey”
· “On the Narrative Approach”
· “On the Ways of the Road”
When I deal with kids, I always get written permission from a parent. I carry forms with me in English and Spanish saying that it’s okay to interview my child, it’s okay to photograph them, and it’s okay to use this all in a newspaper story. The first time I met Enrique’s mother, Lourdes, she signed that paper. She was fine with it. She gave one stipulation when she signed — that we would not divulge the specific town where she lived in North Carolina. She, like many immigrants in North Carolina, had heard that a Raleigh paper had done a profile of an immigrant, identified him fully, identified his workplace and, not long after that, the INS showed up and arrested him and all his colleagues at the grocery store where they worked. So she — and every immigrant in North Carolina — was aware of this case. She asked if I wouldn’t name her hometown. So I actually wrote that into the form, that I would not do so. But that was the only stipulation she or Enrique gave.

I was very concerned about their safety and protecting their anonymity. First, I tried to do something kind of half way. I thought about using only one last name — often Latinos have two last names. With Enrique and his mother, I was going to use the last name that was harder to track, because they hadn’t used it in the United States. But that was summarily rejected by the top editor as not being direct and honest.

We had a computer researcher do an extensive search to see how easy it would be to find Enrique or his mother. At one point they had applied for something that made it even easier to track them. Based on that, I requested to the two editors I was working with that we withhold both last names of anyone who might be in danger of being traced by the authorities. The editors agreed with that. We included an explanation when the piece ran in the Times. It said, “The Times’ decision in this instance is intended to allow Enrique and his family to live their lives as they would have had they not provided information for this story.” In essence, the name was withheld so they would not be penalized for working with us throughout two years to try to illuminate this issue.

One thing that made me feel better about that decision was that there were all sorts of relatives in the footnotes and story who were fully identified. And in retracing Enrique’s footsteps, I tried to find anyone and everyone who he could remember had interacted with him along the way. There were people who had helped him after he’d been beaten on top of the trains and the like. Those people were identified fully. His family could vouch for his story in Honduras, and I included as many people as I could find who could vouch for his journey. I felt this really bolstered the credibility of the story.

I was still a little worried about not using his full name. It was uncomfortable but necessary. The readership reaction confirmed that we made the right decision. I didn’t get any response from the readers asking why we hadn’t put his last name in. I did get messages saying: “Thank you for not listing his last name. That was the right thing to do.”

In February 2006, “Enrique’s Journey” was published as a book by Random House and is available in English and, in Spanish, as a trade paperback.

Most popular stories from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment