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Lessons from the field: Medical services and conditions in detention centers for immigrants

Lessons from the field: Medical services and conditions in detention centers for immigrants

Picture of Alonso Yañez

Although when I did the initial pitch to investigate the conditions and medical services in detention centers for immigrants I was aware of how big the system is -- 400,000 people went through it last year -- I didn’t imagine I’d get so many valuable lessons in various aspects.

Aside from the opportunity to meet and network with other passionate colleagues working in the fellowship and the satisfaction of doing something that contextualizes stories we cover everyday -- trying to talk about the hows and whys and not just focusing on the who, what, where, when -- what this project leaves me are several lessons about the long-term effects of detention centers in the U.S. and also how to organize the production of a multimedia bilingual project.

Among the main points made in the story, one thing that stands out for me is the existence of an artificial and arbitrary “bed mandate” that forces ICE to lock up 34,000 people on any given day. This type of quota exists only in the immigration system and is a priority to eliminate for immigrant rights advocates. Another thing that’s important to understand is that, despite improvements in standards in recent years, there are three different types of guidelines being applied in the 250 centers. That, added to a lack of coordination between immigration authorities and the places where they’re contracting (state, county or private entities), results in a disorganized detention system filled with accidents, a reflection of a broken immigration system that our political leaders can’t fix. Meanwhile, deaths keep adding up.

One interesting thing about the story was talking to people involved in the subject and hearing their concern about the long-term effects this detention system could have for the country. Terrorist attacks worsened anti-immigrant sentiments in the U.S. and caused the enactment of laws that affect immigrants directly. However, they don’t only affect immigrants but also millions of American citizens with undocumented parents. The separation of these American families generates a serious impact that limits their academic, professional and economic development, condemning a group of citizens to live under the shadows, marginalized and trapped in the cycle of poverty. That’s a tragedy for our democracy.

Another factor that caught my attention while doing the story was the growing influence of lobbyists for private prison corporations in Washington. For example, not only were lobbyists in the room when Arizona’s SB 1070 was drafted and enacted, but also their work was fundamental in establishing the “bed mandate.” On top of that, congressmen from the bipartisan Gang of 8 that tried to push immigration reform also have received substantial contributions from private prison corporations.

This project also taught me several professional lessons. Even though I had worked on bilingual multimedia projects before, what was new and challenging was coordinating with several colleagues from other news outlets and mediums, with different objectives and ways of working. Communication is key to make clear all commitments and goals.

Since the intention was to develop a multimedia package where various elements were spread out throughout a text that would be the spine of the project, my biggest tip is to start reading and talking to people as soon as possible. Only with that research is it possible to visualize some sort of initial direction for the story and have some goal for the development of videos, maps, and timelines, which have to fit in like pieces in a puzzle to provide more info and keep the reader engaged. Evidently, after the field work and more research is done, that direction will change and that’s OK. The unexpected is fantastic. But it always helps to have some initial direction.

It’s also important to keep in mind the parsimonious manner in which government agencies respond to journalist requests. It’s recommendable, aside from preparing very few concise questions for them, to keep them aware of the deadline and the need for an answer from them. Follow-up is key.

Last but not least, I consider it important today to be a little like the salmon and swim against the current to push for the development of pieces like this one. Today there’s a toxic mentality in journalism (a fallacy) that underestimates audiences with 400-word texts and 2-minute videos -- “because of their attention span” -- and I sense the root is that it's easier, less expensive and less tedious to work on that type of content. Sometimes we grow comfortable with a formula, but the truth is that no good story can be developed in 400 words or 2 minutes. There are several examples of great, in-depth journalism that has had viral success. Pretending that people only should consume cookie-cutter content is detrimental for our audience, our profession and our democracy.


The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 National Fellowship will provide $2,000 to $10,000 reporting grants, five months of mentoring from a veteran journalist, and a week of intensive training at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles from July 16-20. Click here for more information and the application form, due May 5.

The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 Symposium on Domestic Violence provides reporters with a roadmap for covering this public health epidemic with nuance and sensitivity. The next session will be offered virtually on Friday, March 31. Journalists attending the symposium will be eligible to apply for a reporting grant of $2,000 to $10,000 from our Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Find more info here!


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