Country/area: United States

Organisation: San Diego Union-Tribune

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 24 Feb 2020

Credit: Kate Morrissey, Lauryn Schroeder, Ruby Gaviola, Michelle Guerrero, Nelvin Cepeda, Michelle Gilchrist, Celina Tebor, Alejandro Tamayo

Project description:

“Returned” reveals the dysfunction of the U.S. asylum system through data analysis and human storytelling and explores ways the system could be reimagined.

The second and fourth installments of the four-part series include extensive data analysis. All of the installments were published in 2020. The final part came out on December 27, 2020.

We are including a link to the full series for judges to explore for context, and we will use the additional links to call out specifically which pieces of the series have a data focus.

Impact reached:

Through a year-long data analysis, international reporting trips to Nicaragua and Honduras, review of court records, public records requests for immigration documents and interviews with myriad experts who interact with the system on a regular basis, the reporting team immersed readers in the asylum system in a four-part series.

What the team revealed was an asylum system plagued since its creation by shortcomings, biases and disparities, a system that granted life-saving protection to some while returning others to their deaths.

It is the first piece of journalism to show systematically how various factors can influence asylum outcomes and weave together to create a capricious and unjust system. And, it is the first to create an interactive way for readers to experience those disparities.

The statistical analysis is the first since a 2007 academic study to show a correlation between judges’ work histories and their asylum decisions, and it is the only known journalistic endeavor to independently verify this finding.

The robust data analysis and human details of individual cases in “Returned” makes understanding the system much more accessible for all. 

Immigrant rights advocates told lead reporter Kate Morrissey that they used “Returned” in conversations about asylum and the border with President Joe Biden’s transition team. Those conversations led to policy changes and legislation introduced on the first day of his administration.

“Returned” has been welcomed by professors of law and political science who are now using the series, and its interactive component based on the data analysis, as a teaching tool.

“My students and I found your work humane and rigorous, detailed and big picture, and it really brought home the enormity of the asylum process in such a vivid way,” Andrés Besserer Rayas, a New York-based professor, wrote to Morrissey after using the piece in his class.

Techniques/technologies used:

Using R, data reporter Lauryn Schroeder and lead reporter Kate Morrissey constructed a database from the immigration court data posted by the Executive Office for Immigration Review on its FOIA Library website.
Morrissey and Schroeder also built a database of immigration judges’ biographical information based on records published by the Executive Office for Immigration Review as well as information available in news clippings, judges’ online profiles and in some cases phone calls with judges themselves.

Schroeder also used R to run the statistical tests necessary to look at discrepancies in asylum outcomes among many different variables.

Programmer Ruby Gaviola used D3 to create an interactive graphic embedded in Part II to allow readers to explore asylum outcome discrepancies among a variety of factors including the case’s location, the asylum seeker’s nationality and the year the case was decided. The visual movement of dots in the graphic as they regroup based on the reader’s selections helps the reader understand just how different these outcomes can be. 

Gaviola used Twine, combined with Javascript, to create an interactive experience of the U.S. asylum system that allows readers to make decisions and see how their cases might turn out. This piece, called “Where will you end up?” uses gamification techniques in a way that is respectful of the seriousness of the topic.

Schroeder also used R to analyze data from the United Nations about forced displacement for the series’ fourth installment. The results are available embedded in the piece in several interactive graphics created with Flourish.

What was the hardest part of this project?

The data from the Executive Office for Immigration Review included more than 50 million rows of records and was rife with errors and missing information. Officials with the Executive Office for Immigration Review refused to provide any guidance on the database’s contents.

Few journalists have attempted to do their own analyses of this immigration court data, and fewer still have been successful.

The majority of the code has been published on GitHub so that more journalists can feel empowered to work with this data. Morrissey and Schroeder detailed the extensive issues they found in the data in the side bar “Asylum data stymied by errors, missing information.”

The task of gathering biographical information for immigration judges was also an intense effort because of the number of judges. There are hundreds who heard cases during the decade of data analyzed.

Programming the interactive experience that allows readers to make decisions and receive different outcomes was also complex. Each location, including cities, states and detention centers, where asylum seekers could end up had to be mapped to the correct immigration court, and each court had to be mapped to its possible pool of judges. The Twine infrastructure had to be modified to include randomization of certain aspects and to store readers’ selections along the way in order to determine where they would end up.

In reporting the stories of asylum seekers, the reporting team had to take great care not to cause harm to their sources.

That included strategic planning for fact-checking the asylum case of a young woman from Nicaragua who worried the Ortega regime would target the family members she left behind.

What can others learn from this project?

Morrissey and Schroeder published much of their R code and analysis files on GitHub to empower other journalists to work with immigration court data from the Executive Office for Immigration Review. The reporting team believes strongly that more journalists working with this data will only lead to more accountability from a government agency that, for the past four years, has manipulated statistics for political propagandizing.

Beyond this service to the furtherance of data journalism, the series also serves as an explainer for an incredibly complicated federal system.

The immigration system is one of the most complex legal systems in the country. And asylum is one of the most complicated parts of immigration law — the primer published by the American Immigration Lawyers Association to guide attorneys through asylum cases is 1,680 pages long.

Many are not aware of exactly how it works even if they have interacted with the system themselves. Government officials, lawyers and journalists often make mistakes when describing how the system operates.

“Returned” also serves as an example of how to cover asylum in a way that is respectful to asylum seekers and refugees. Many reporters sensationalize their stories and portray them as stereotypical victims rather than as human beings with full lives and agency. “Returned” is very careful not to do this. 

Project links: