Immigration Stories Need Immigrant Voices

Immigrants at a makeshift camp located between the Rio Grande and the U.S.-Mexico border fence in El Paso, Texas. (John Moore / Getty Images)

There has been much speculation over what the ending of Title 42 will mean for U.S. immigration. The policy, which former President Donald Trump issued during the Covid pandemic, allowed U.S. immigration authorities to turn away migrants at the Mexican border over public health concerns. As of Friday, migrants can apply for asylum, a process that begins with a screening for “credible fear” of persecution or torture if the person is sent back to their country of origin. The process can take years as the case moves through the immigration court system. Those who don’t meet the criteria could be deported.  

Whether we see an influx of migrants at the border, or the effects of a stricter deportation policy that President Joe Biden is rolling out, journalists need to be careful about describing and talking to undocumented people. Here are a few tips to consider when covering immigration. 

Do more than look at data. Talk to people.

Sign up for our newsletter! Right Arrow

Reporters love polls and experts. Polls give us a snapshot of how people are feeling about elections and so-called hot-button issues like immigration. Experts have ostensibly studied these issues for years and can give an analysis of what’s at stake. But while both are important elements to telling a news story, neither can replace the insight of talking to the people directly impacted by these issues and events. 

If you’re reporting on the effects of policies like Title 42, ideally you want to be able to speak to people at the border. If that is not possible, it’s important to include voices of those who have gone through the asylum process, or family members of those who have or have not been turned away at the border. What does this policy look like in action? 

When covering the impact of immigration on a given community or region, talk to people who have recently emigrated and settled there as well as those whose families have lived there for generations. If reporting on what people think about immigration policies, be sure to talk to people of different races and ethnicities, ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, political affiliations and immigration status.  

Approach undocumented people with respect 

While you should never just drop into a community and assume everyone will want to speak to you — even if you speak the same language — interviewing asylum seekers and undocumented people takes a special sensitivity.  

Someone who is undocumented or is in a mixed-family status may be afraid to speak to the media — they likely don’t want to draw attention that they believe could get them deported. As a reporter, you never want people to feel uncomfortable or forced into talking to you. Here are a few things to consider:  

  • Identify yourself. When you approach people, explain who you are and who you work for. Share the type of story you’re working on and any past relevant work. If someone is worried that the police, ICE or Border Patrol will come after them, remind them that you are not law enforcement. You are there to tell their story. 
  • Explain the process. If they are not comfortable being on camera or using their full or real name, talk to them about what they are comfortable with — initials, first name, being on camera with their face disguised, being photographed but not identified. If the interviewee wants some kind of anonymity, you may need to talk to your manager or standards department first. 
  • Respect their wishes. NBC-10 News Anchor Grace Gómez says she tells people who may not be comfortable going on camera that what they say today could help change the situation. But she doesn’t push too hard. Once they say no to being on camera, she said, “I’d rather get them off camera, conceal their identity and get the sound bite, rather than forcing them or not having a sound bite.” 

Be careful with language when reporting on immigration status

When covering immigration, it is also important to be thoughtful with the language in your story. Here are some terms to describe people who leave their country, for fear of safety or otherwise, according to Amnesty International.  

  • Refugee: Someone who has been forced to flee their home over war, violence or persecution. The government or the United Nations has the power to determine whether someone meets the definition of a refugee, based on “well-founded fear.” 
  • Asylum seeker: Someone who is also seeking protection from dangers in their home country, but who hasn’t been officially recognized as a refugee and is awaiting a decision on their asylum claim. Asylum seekers must arrive at or cross a border at their country of destination in order to apply. 
  • Migrant: A general term for someone who has left their home country. In international law, there is no agreed-upon definition of “migrant.” 
  • Undocumented: Someone living in a country without proper authorization. Use “undocumented” to describe a person, not “illegal” or “alien.” As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas has said, people cannot be illegal; actions can be. 
  • Dreamer: People who were brought into the United States as children and have been granted a temporary right to remain under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).  

Remember, immigration laws are complicated. Do not describe people as violating them unless you include attribution. When covering someone’s immigration status, be specific: Did they cross the border or overstay a visa? What was their country of origin? And if their status isn’t relevant to the story, there’s no need to mention they’re undocumented at all.