Key issues to consider when telling stories of the undocumented

Published on
August 17, 2017

It is true that one of the main challenges of reporting on undocumented communities is finding sources willing to talk to you. It takes persistence to gain their trust and respect their privacy, so they can speak truthfully about their experiences. It requires trying to tell their stories in a way that audiences can connect with and then hopefully understand what it really means to live without papers in the United States.

But even when as a reporter you have built a connection with these people, when you have dedicated months to learn about them in their homes and communities, when you have established a communication channel that is careful, honest and open, certain events out of your control happen. It could be a setback in immigration policies, news about a raid in the neighborhood, a federal executive order, a family mourning for a deported person, a heinous hate crime that has shaken them to the core. And then they call you and tell you: “I don’t feel I want my story to be public anymore.”

During my reporting as a 2016 National Health Journalism Fellow, I faced these types of situations at least 3 times with my main sources. Aiming for a solution-oriented narrative in my stories, my project focused on innovative community or individual initiatives helping undocumented immigrants with mental health issues stemming from their migration experience or their current integration challenges. The sources of stress, anxiety and fear immigrants face in this country are many. They have increased in the current political climate.

Nevertheless, a network of Latino mental health professionals as well as members of the community are working closely with these immigrants to support their healing process.

I interviewed undocumented students at UC Berkeley long before the 2016 presidential election in a house where they lived together. I had the chance to talk to them after classes and at their night meetings. And then one day in early September, as the tensions on the campus increased due to the students’ opposing political views, a cardboard brick wall next to a paper cutout of Donald Trump was brought to the campus by conservative activist James O’Keefe. The incident sparked protests as dozens of students linked arms and chanted “undocumented and unafraid!” Some of them were trolled online and started receiving threats. They didn’t want to be in my piece anymore.

Then, when reporting on a therapy used for US Veterans (EMDR) that is finding success among traumatized immigrants, there was a moment when the federal shift in prioritizing deportations of immigrants with criminal records to basically everybody who is undocumented, scared one of my sources. Her first reaction was to call me and decline to participate in a video story in order to protect her family.

I also had the chance to speak with undocumented kids from different schools in the Bay Area. Although some were shy, others were all too eloquent and willing to share their experiences in detail. Most of the parents agreed to let their kids tell their story, but on the condition I use just their first names. Later, one mother called me and rescinded permission to use what her daughter had shared with me, after she and her family had reunited.

As a reporter, I understand and empathize with all these feelings. But I still want to tell their compelling stories. Not merely to honor my promise to my publisher but because it is crucial their voices be heard.

One of the things I learned is not to try to convince my sources that their fears of being jeopardized by appearing in my stories are unfounded, because I don’t know that for certain. But what I do know is that if journalists are compassionate listeners, we can validate our sources’ feelings and the potential benefits of telling their story, not just for them but for their communities. And we together with our sources can explore angles and formats. We have the traditional journalistic options of giving the sources their anonymity, changing their names or blurring their faces. But the most important thing is to involve them in the storytelling. Involve their lawyers. Involve their therapists and involve their relatives. Discuss with them what could be told, and what should not be.

Is it important to report how many times a person crossed the border or committed a DUI offense? Would those pieces of information enrich the story or complicate their case? If there are fights in their own inner circle because of the stress they have been experiencing, is that something that needs to be told? If someone has been diagnosed with a major depression and this is a term they don’t feel quite comfortable using to describe their sense of hopelessness and sadness, is it not better to use their own words and let professionals to explain the psychology behind it? If there are minors involved, are they aware of the significance of details they are telling about their journey or their families?

When interviewing kids particularly, an important thing to keep in mind is that they are still trying to understand the concept of being undocumented. They could have been brought to this country at a very early age. They could have enrolled in school without knowing what a social security number means. Therapists found that some of the unaccompanied minors who crossed the border in hazardous conditions tend to normalize such things as walking in the desert for six straight weeks, or being far from their families. When dealing with kids, reporters should be especially sensitive. No matter what their age, revisiting their past could be re-traumatizing.

Discussing mental health issues is still a taboo within the Latino community, and frequently people express their emotions in Spanish, the language that connects them with their brain and memories. I am a bilingual reporter and I found this to be a huge advantage when listening to the description of feelings as there is something cultural attached to it. The key is not to overlook how those bi-cultural dynamics work.

Finally, I stand by the principle of not sharing stories with sources before publication. It’s a rule that should apply fiercely to reporters when trying to hold people accountable. But when dealing with traumatized people who are not fully aware of the implications of coming out of the shadows -- not unusual in undocumented communities -- reporters should share story quotes with them. If need be, show them a piece of video or audio you are working on. Keep them posted on how the writing is going, times of publication and final outcome.

If you are documenting a therapy process in which the sources are recovering from trauma, be mindful of showing their strength, resilience and success. This allows the story of something painful to become inspirational. And that is extremely valuable for our sources, our audiences and society at large.