May 30, 2024

Editor’s note: The following collection of immigration reporting resources, story ideas and examples is the second in a series of tip sheets for new and experienced journalists covering immigration at the local and community levels. This tip sheet series is made possible through funding from the Catena Foundation. You can read the first tip sheet here.

I recently encountered a young mother and her four children: a 12-year-old boy, twin girls aged 8, and a 4-year-old eating ice cream cones beneath a shade tree in the parking lot of my local grocery store. A handmade cardboard sign rested against a nearby tree truck. It said in Spanish and English, “Somos de Guatemala, please help us.”

When I introduced myself in Spanish, Yanesy, the mother, recounted their arduous migration journey. Six months ago, they left their home in Guatemala City, where they lived in fear of gang violence, walked and rode buses to the Juarez-El Paso border, crossed, and requested asylum. A community church where I live in Las Cruces, 40 miles north of El Paso, provided them with temporary food and shelter. A kind parishioner, an immigrant herself, provided the family with a rented furnished apartment and assistance with food. Yanesy was waiting for a hearing on their asylum request. 

“My kids are enrolled in school,” she said in Spanish, beaming and pointing to the boy and the twin girls.

The boy interjected, “I’m going to learn English and help my family.”

What surprised me about the encounter is that most undocumented migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum usually move on to urban centers with established immigrant enclaves or, in recent years, to towns and rural areas in the U.S. heartland where they have family, friends or a waiting job. These burgeoning migrant resettlement locations include McKenzie County, North Dakota; Lake County, Michigan; and LaSalle Parish, Louisiana. 

After some online digging, I found various studies by the Pew Research Center, other research outfits, and the recent U.S. Census confirming this immigration trend. 

An example is this chart from a 2022 Pew Center report showing that from 2010 to 2020, the Latino population grew fastest in counties with fewer Hispanic residents. The full report is available here. 

Another discovery is this data tool from the Migration Policy Institute highlighting the geographic spread and growth in foreign-born U.S. residents over the last two decades. A caveat is that the data doesn’t indicate how long a foreigner has lived in the U.S., where they were born, or their current immigration status. The foreign-born make up 13.7 percent of the total U.S. population. 

For example, my relatively poor state of New Mexico has seen an increase in the foreign-born population from 80,514 in 1990 to 196,873 in 2020, 9.3% of the state population.

Oklahoma, not typically a resettlement location for recent migrants, had 242,754 foreign-born residents in 2020, compared to 65,489 two decades earlier. During that period, foreign-born residents grew from 2% to 6% of the state population.  

Michigan had 695,203 foreign-born residents in 2020 — 7% of the state population, double the number (355,393) in 1990.

Another report worth reading is from the nonprofit Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., which released this in April: “New census data hints at an urban population revival, assisted by immigration.” 

As I reflect on the increases, I ask myself journalism’s most important question: Why? You should, too.

Story idea No. 1

Check out your state on the MPI data tool and interview demographers, economists and immigrant advocates to learn why the number of foreign-born residents has increased. Find out where and why recent immigrants are resettling in your state — regions, cities and rural communities. What draws them there? Jobs, family connections, sponsorships? 

Speedy of the Mexican mafia

Another subject on my mind lately has been increased public awareness of the role of international criminal organizations, often called drug cartels, in smuggling migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border, an activity many claim is mainly responsible for the significant movement of people through Latin America to the U.S. We all remember the photos of long caravans. 

I was relatively uninformed about the seriousness and scope of human smuggling operations along the border when I received a disturbing phone call a few months ago. 

When I answered, I heard a woman –– she sounded young –– whimpering; then she began to sob loudly. 

“Who are you,” I demanded. For a few seconds, I thought she sounded like my daughter, who lives elsewhere. 

Suddenly, a man with a deep, intimidating voice came on the line. 

 “I’m Speedy of the Mexican mafia,” he said, calling me by my name. 

“I have your daughter. If you don’t do what I say, I will take her to Juarez.” 

My hands grew clammy, my voice shrill, and I was shaking as I repeatedly demanded his name. He said calmly: Speedy of the Mexican mafia. 

“Tell me my daughter’s name!” I yelled, startling my husband and three dogs who were nearby. 

He hung up, and I tried calling my daughter for several hours, but she didn’t answer. Although I knew she was fine, I was still terrified. We laughed when she finally returned my call, and I recounted my conversation with the menacing stranger. Later, my husband remarked. “It was a scam. There is no Mexican mafia.” 

We’ve seen and read stories of migrants abandoned by smugglers on the U.S. side of the border in tortuous desert terrain in scalding heat without water. Some die. This story in the Spanish-language El Heraldo de Juarez tells of a migrant from Nicaragua who paid smugglers $15,000 for the journey north with dollars sent by U.S. relatives.

With good reason, many journalists rarely tackle the topic of migrant smuggling to the border –– the story is too big, complex and amorphous. It’s often difficult to convince an immigrant who has paid thousands to a stranger to be smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border to talk about his or her ordeal. That doesn’t mean journalists shouldn’t try to shed light on the murky role of coyotes, the term for human smugglers, in transporting desperate migrants fleeing violence, official corruption and other dangers to the southern border. 

Available data and numbers on smuggled migrants

A recent detailed report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, in collaboration with various news outlets in the U.S., Mexico and Honduras, says that at least 111 migrants traveling in trailers through Mexico died of heat exposure, lack of oxygen or traffic accidents between 2018 to 2023. Although gathering the data was difficult and complex, and exact numbers are still unknown because of incomplete record-keeping, the report notes that during that same period, nearly 19,000 migrants — including 3,200 minors — were smuggled through Mexico in cargo trucks.

You can watch this interview with U.S. Border Patrol chief Jason Owens where he discusses the role of drug cartels and international crime organizations in the smuggling and trafficking of immigrants, as well as the added responsibility on CBP officers to save migrant victims abandoned by smugglers. It is worth noting that CBP, in press releases and interviews, has begun stressing the role of smugglers in moving thousands of migrants to the border.

The 2024 report Countering Human Trafficking from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security provides an informative overview with charts and graphics on the issue nationally for the prior fiscal year.

The Human Trafficking Institute, an independent organization that provides training and employs experts on human trafficking, has issued a report with statistics on human trafficking in each state of the union. Find the state reports here

Story idea No. 2

Interview law enforcement, human rights activists in your city and state, and community-level immigrant advocacy organizations about migrants they know were smuggled or trafficked. See if you can interview some of them, explain the purpose of the interview and where it will appear. If necessary, agree not to use their real names because this may put them at added risk of harm.

What’s up with Texas SB 4

Texas lawmakers last year passed Senate Bill 4, which makes it a crime for undocumented people to cross the southern border between ports of entry and allows local police to stop, question and deport someone they believe illegally crossed the Rio Grande. The U.S. Department of Justice and immigrant advocacy groups immediately challenged the measure in federal court. Although the state planned to enforce the law in March, the measure is on hold after a federal appeals court blocked the state from enforcing it while it winds its way through the federal court system. This guide from The Texas Tribune explains in detail the provisions of SB 4 and how it might affect migrants.

Similar restrictive immigration measures have been proposed by other states, including Oklahoma, Iowa, Tennessee, Kansas and Georgia. The U.S. Justice Department and immigration advocacy groups are challenging the measures, arguing that immigration enforcement is a federal, not a state, responsibility. Additional states are considering legislation to penalize and/or deport undocumented immigrants. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed a bill to increase prison and jail sentences for undocumented persons convicted of felonies or driving without a license. 

The following news stories explain the passage and status of recently enacted state laws that allow local law enforcement to enforce immigration provisions:

Story idea No. 3

Search for proposed legislation in your state to enact a strict immigration law. How is it similar or different from the measures passed by other states? Find out its impact on immigrants and law enforcement in your city or county if it were to pass. What do local officials have to say about it? 

Coalitions are forming to provide humanitarian aid to migrants

This story by Borderless Magazine, “After Decades of Disinvestment, Black and Latino Leaders Want ‘Profound Transformation’ Amid Migrant Crisis,” got me thinking about how ethnic, Black and different faith communities have joined forces, in some cases putting aside long-standing differences, to help recently arrived migrants. This narrative offers balance to the anti-immigrant rhetoric of politicians and others. In my southern New Mexico community, churches and nonprofits have stepped up to pool resources to help with housing, food, clothing, health services and transportation for migrant arrivals. 

Story idea No. 4

See if unlikely coalitions between local churches, nonprofits, funders and private schools have formed in your community to aid newly arrived migrants. Interview the leaders and pastors of local churches to see if they are working together to welcome new migrants. Are local hospitals and health centers helping treat the immigrant arrivals? Are city and county governments, immigrant advocacy groups, community nonprofits and regional funders pooling resources to help? If there are established ethnic groups or immigrant communities, see how they might be helping. Human crises sometimes produce unlikely coalitions. 

New book alert

Veteran broadcast journalist Ray Suarez has a new book out. “We are Home: Becoming American in the 21st Century,” released in May. The book uses the subtitle “An Oral History” because Suarez traveled across the country to capture the voices and stories of immigrants in America who now call the U.S. home. Kudos to Suarez, a longtime journalism colleague, for the accomplishment. Here’s a story about the book.

On to the lighter stuff

It was gratifying to learn that the recent Pulitzer Prize for photography this year was awarded to the AP for a series of stunning photographs showing the hardships faced by migrants as they trek by foot or on trains through deadly terrain in Latin American countries to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. The compelling and touching photos show the human face of the migrant journey.

That’s it this month. See you again soon with more immigration matters. 

Corrections: LaSalle Parish is in Louisiana, not Alabama. Additionally, portions of this tip sheet were updated to reflect exact numbers instead of approximations; the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists identified nearly 19,000 migration journeys via trucks, not at least 19,000; U.S. Border Patrol chief Jason Owens’ title was updated; and portions of the section about Texas SB 4 were reworded for greater accuracy. 


Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Zita Arocha is a bilingual journalist and was associate professor of practice in the UTEP Department of Communication from 2002 to 2019. She is founder…
Zita Arocha

More News

Back to News


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.