The sounds of undocumented New York

After five months of listening to undocumented immigrants in Jackson Heights, it’s time to get to work.

“Seven feelings per person” by Tom Giebel.

Let me state the obvious: I picked a crazy fucking time to be a journalist working with undocumented immigrants. I mean, if a presidential administration is going to foster distrust in the media and animus towards the foreign born, then why not confront both simultaneously, amirite?

It’s how social journalists roll. We rush in, kick off our shoes and chill where angels fear to tread.

And then we listen. Very closely. To every word, every whimper, every whisper within a community. To every deep breath, every thumping aorta. To the hum of every atom in the room, the shriek of every electron streaking past every proton and neutron.

Listening with humility on the subatomic level is an acquired skill that’s got its drawbacks and benefits. In my case, intense empathy aggravated my existing depression. But empathy also pays off as a deep understanding of what a community needs and how it might help itself.

I’ve spent the last five months listening to undocumented, mostly low-income New Yorkers — observing their community meetings, speaking with their advocates, chatting with them in person or through social media. I’ve learned that they need to know their rights (what few they have), and that they need access to basic services without fear of deportation (and they are afraid).

Courtesy of United We Dream.

Giving them the information they need is easy. Getting some of them to overcome their well-founded suspicions of authority is beyond my skill set. According to advocates, some undocumented immigrants have spent their entire lives in the shadows: first of the corrupt institutions that drove them from their native countries, then of the brokers and smugglers who got them into this one, and now of the hostile administration intent on kicking them out.

I can’t reach the most vulnerable individuals. I don’t speak their native languages, and the physical cues that helps me listen to them — eyes frozen wide, jaws squared and locked, chests heaving in hyperventilation — overwhelm my objectivity.

However, I can reach the advocacy groups that help them. In a project codenamed “Rosie,” I will apply crowdsourced journalism to help these organizations debunk (or confirm) the paralyzing rumors of immigration enforcement raids in northwestern Queens, New York. (Details of its development will be shared in future Medium posts.)

Admittedly, there’s still much listening to be done on that end. But that’s what I do. I listen.