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How the pandemic derailed and deepened my reporting on immigrant communities

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

How the pandemic derailed and deepened my reporting on immigrant communities

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Francisca Porchas, the founder of the Latinx Therapist Action Network
Francisca Porchas, the founder of the Latinx Therapist Action Network, which offers affordable services to immigrants and those advocating for them.
(Photo via Valeria Fernandez)

Perspective matters in journalism. I’ve long been an engaged journalist, as the writer Linda Villarosa would say. The experience of living through the pandemic, as a first-time mother and an immigrant journalist, has permeated every single aspect of my reporting. From breastfeeding during sleep-deprived nights while reading news of the death toll to juggling childcare with my husband and our babysitter, these moments have given me new windows into what others are going through. 

One of my first lessons I had to learn, after setting unattainable expectations, was that this year was different. I wasn’t going to be the over-productive, overachiever reporter I had been for 18 years. The world was forcing us to change how we report, and my reality was changing in my new role as a mother.

For my 2020 National Fellowship project, I set out to research how indigenous, immigrant communities and people of color have been organizing before and during the pandemic in communities of care to find support and healing. I focused on Arizona.

The stress of my own personal experiences led me to dig deeper into how immigrant women were faring through the pandemic, especially mothers. That resulted in a series of stories in Spanish and English that featured the voices of women who were holding the burden of the pandemic and working to make things better for others.

Most of my reporting was with Spanish-speaking people and so was my audience at Radio Bilingüe. These were some of the communities most affected by COVID-19, many of them essential workers living in multigenerational households, without access to health insurance due to their immigration status. I had to keep in mind how my reporting could directly be of service to these communities, or help fight disinformation rather than being prescriptive of the problems already taking place with these populations. 

Social distancing requirements meant I couldn’t engage with people in the ways I’ve done before, which made it especially difficult to reach people concerned about their immigration status. I relied on sources I’d built throughout the years and community organizations to reach women over the phone. Since I couldn’t build trust face to face, I did it one phone call at a time. Some of the conversations carried on for over four months. 

In these conversations, I heard about the perfect storm, the sum of inequalities predating the pandemic. I heard about their fear of accessing health care services due to the “public charge rule,” which has been in the books for decades, but as rewritten by the Trump administration, would deny immigrants a green card based on their use or the likelihood they’d use certain public benefits. The modified public charge rule, and the threat of its reimposition even when it was temporarily blocked by the courts, had a chilling effect on immigrants afraid to ask for social or health care services even when they were eligible.

They were also concerned about facing discriminatory treatment within the medical system, because they had experienced it in the past. And finally, there were some like Olga, an undocumented mother, who was ready to die at home from COVID-19 rather than go to the hospital and leave their family with a medical bill. 

“If I’m going to die, I’m going to die at home. I don’t want to go to the hospital,” she told me.  “I don’t want to leave behind more problems than the ones we already had before this disease.”

All of these issues had been reported in the media, but there was one small aspect that had fallen through the cracks, especially in the reporting for Spanish-speaking communities. Under the CARES Act, hospitals could request federal funds to reimburse the cost of treating uninsured patients with COVID-19, if that’s the main treatment they received. Those participating in that program are not supposed to bill uninsured patients regardless of their immigration status.

I reported on this the first story of my fellowship series in Radio Bilingüe. This story was extremely important to report on for the immigrant community. Many people were choosing to stay home, just like Olga, fearing hefty medical bills. And there were widespread reports of people receiving exorbitant bills for their hospital stays, which further perpetuated those fears. Without this information, people would avoid engaging with hospitals if they got a bill. But with this knowledge, some of them I was contacted by after the article came about said they had gained the confidence to advocate for themselves.

Another story that came about from talking to immigrant women was subtle, too. I wanted to look at the impact the pandemic was having on immigrant pregnant women. That’s when I met Elisama. The 28-year-old Guatemalan was in labor when a doctor told her she had tested positive for COVID-19. Originally, I thought that was going to be the focus of the story: the treatment that women received in hospitals. But as I continued conversations with Elisama over four months, my focus shifted from the impacts of the public charge rule to the fact that women like her often faced the challenges of postpartum depression with no support. Elisama didn’t experience a severe case of COVID-19, but she faced other types of consequences, both financial and emotional.

After these detours, I returned to look at the organizations that were focused on healing and were driven by social justice missions. One had created a network of mental health therapists to bring affordable services to immigrants and those advocating for them. The pandemic only underscored many of the stressors they were already experiencing, including anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric from politicians, discriminatory policies, systemic racism, housing insecurity and financial instability.

But the network funded by immigrant women was proposing an alternative that affirmed their identities and used their faith and culture to heal trauma, anxiety and depression. They were able to connect people in different corners of the country through online workshops and social media to magnify their support systems and educate them on mental health.

Another group of indigenous and Latinx women, the Cihuapactli Collective, reframed the narratives around food during the pandemic to go beyond the idea of charity, instead focusing on building community and reconnecting through nutritional foods with ancestral roots. This reconnection offered a way to build resilience and fight isolation.  

Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned through this fellowship and reporting journey is that journalists are not immune to the mental health toll of the pandemic. It’s OK to be lost, because our very curious natures come with the ability to flip our own challenges and turn them into new questions. For me the answer moving forward is listening more. 

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This month marks the sober anniversary of the police killing of George Floyd, which ignited global protests and renewed efforts to reform or dismantle policing. In our next webinar, we’ll examine the price society pays for a criminal-legal system that disproportionately arrests, punishes and kills Black people. And we’ll look at how reporters can best cover this evolving story in original and powerful ways. Sign-up here!

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