In an analysis of previously unpublished records, reporters Anna Flagg and Julia Preston found that one in three migrants detained by the Border Patrol since early 2017 was a minor under the age of 18. That was a far bigger share of detainees than had been reported before. Children and teenagers were held in cold, crowded cinder-block cells under the 24-hour glare of white lights, with stale food and no medical care, often for longer than the 72-hour limit on detention of children. A Guatemalan teenager we interviewed said she was held for 18 days in a south Texas facility.
Our story revealed for the first time and at a crucial political moment the huge number of children being held along the border and allowed them to describe their experiences. In thousands of interviews with legal services providers, children reported being yelled at, cursed, kicked and shoved by Border Patrol agents. Many young people said the food was frozen or stale and made them sick. We found that more than 220,000 of the minors, about one-third, were held for longer than 72 hours, the legal limit for border detention of children, our reporting showed.
As the Border Patrol prepared for a new influx of migrants after the lifting of a Title 42 pandemic order, our story showed the urgent need for broader reforms.
By partnering with Politico, we were able to reach a wide audience as well as political decision-makers in Washington. Politico included the story in its Playbook morning newsletter, which is read by more than a quarter million global influencers every morning. We did an Instagram collaboration with the Politico team, and co-hosted a Twitter Space with our reporters and the Politico editor. The story also had 236,000 views on Apple News.
The story also was the lead in National Immigration Forum’s June 21 newsletter, The Forum Daily. The influential immigration index, which reaches both immigrant advocates as well as pro-immigration conservatives and Republicans, quoted liberally from the story.
Our reporters wanted to make in-person, high-quality audio recordings of the unaccompanied minors in the story. This involved months of communications with them and their attorneys, to make sure they entirely consented to the interviews. The multi-hour recordings allowed the young people to recount precise details of harrowing journeys in their own words at their own pace. Finding minors who could identify and describe with certainty the border facilities where they were held was an important challenge we overcame in this reporting.
Context about the project:
Customs and Border Protection had consistently refused to acknowledge the high percentage of people it detained who were minors, including young children. Officials denied there was any urgency to create more child-appropriate conditions for holding children at the border, even though most of their facilities are little better than county jails.
Collecting this data involved months of requests to CBP and long delays for agency processing. While working to update our datasets with the most recent available data, CBP would sometimes deny requests for data they had previously released, making it necessary for us to file appeals, leading to further delays. Fact-checking the data and the results was also time-consuming as the agency was not always able to provide complete explanations of their data and potential inconsistencies.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
Combining revelations based on hard data with deeply felt personal stories is a powerful way to tell this kind of story about the harsh and sometimes life-threatening effects of border and law enforcement policies and practices.
One lesson we learned during this project was how important it was to triangulate our findings with several different sources of data. Sometimes Customs and Border Protection simply wasn’t able to give us an answer we needed about their data; but we validated our work by collaborating with other subject-matter experts. For example, historically CBP has not always provided an official figure for the percent of detentions that are kids. But organizations like the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) have found ways to estimate the number by looking at the historic reported number of family detentions, and the number of children versus adults in those families, for other years. Methods like these, which immigration researchers were generous enough to share with us, made our project possible.