March 10, 2019

Reporters who were instrumental in revealing and reporting the extent of children being separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border said they realized that they were working on something historic, a thought that got them through some very emotional moments.

Sunday at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, ProPublica’s Ginger Thompson, Lomi Kriel of the Houston Chronicle and Jonathan Blitzer of The New Yorker magazine recounted their experiences covering the story in a panel moderated by The Dallas Morning News’ Mexico border correspondent Alfredo Corchado.

Before the story gained widespread attention in 2018, the situation was slow to gain traction because many, even immigration lawyers, didn’t know the Trump administration policy was in effect.

Once the news gained steam, several galvanizing moments turned public and political sentiment against the separations, including ProPublica’s release of an audio tape of children at detention centers that Thompson worked on authenticating.

Thompson said that it was crucial to make sure the tape was real and that it be presented the right way.

“We needed to run the tape all together, no edits,” she said. “That was 24 hours of ‘Is the tape what I think it is?’… I needed to get the person who recorded the audio and get their permission to use it.”

The tape went public in the middle of a White House press briefing. Forty-eight hours later, it was played before Congress and eventually led to President Donald Trump signing an executive order ending child separations policies. Of course, the story was far from over and the fallout continues.

Even with proof that thousands of children were separated from their families, Blitzer said that one of the difficulties of reporting the story is that the Trump administration continues to deny the policy even existed and there appears to have been no plan in place to figure out how to reunite families.

“The absence in some ways gave the government armor to deny that it was systematically separating parents from their children,” he said. “… It allowed the government this bizarre form of plausible deniability that everybody had to cut through.”

The reporters covering the issue continue to work on figuring out who was responsible for making decisions that led to the separations, and why a plan wasn’t in place for reuniting families.

“They had the time to figure it out,” Kriel said. “They didn’t even have a way of keeping track of where the children were once they separated them from their parents, which is really stunning.”

One of the motivators for the policy appeared to be as a deterrent to keep Central American asylum seekers from coming, even though the process is legal.

Thompson said the Trump administration considers asylum a loophole and the policy did not work as intended.

“The only effect it seems to have had is on these families,” Thompson said. She added that the government has largely relied on advocacy groups to deal with bringing families back together.

The solution to what Trump has called a crisis at the border has created its own crisis, Blitzer said.

“The response has been so heedless, so violent, so tortured, that it created its own world of problems,” he said. “That aspect has been manufactured.”

The panelists said that they are continuing to work to keep Americans interested in these stories even after fatigue over the issue settled in.

Reporting on an issue involving children took an emotional toll on the reporters, and the enormity of the task of getting a handle on what was happening led to anxiety. Thompson said her family’s support has kept her going.

She said she thought about kids in her life when she first heard the detention center tape. She allowed herself “30 seconds of human outrage” before she went into reporter mode.

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Omar L. Gallaga is an adviser and trainer for The Poynter Institute as well as a technology and culture reporter who covered the rise of…
Omar Gallaga

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  • SXSW didn’t have a panel discussion on how to report on the extent and who is at fault on children being separated from their dead parents by illegal immigrants.