Family Separation, Zero Tolerance, the Caravan: Standout coverage from the past year in immigration news.

Daniela Gerson
Feb 3 · 9 min read

This marks 100 issues of Migratory Notes. We launched the week after the first travel ban went into effect as a pop-up newsletter to keep up with the deluge of the news until it subsided. That was two years ago this week. If anything, the pace and intensity of immigration news has only increased.

In this special issue, we are highlighting stand out stories from 2018 that revealed how U.S. immigration policies are impacting communities via incisive, innovative and compelling reporting.

In the past year, zero tolerance at the southern border, and in particular family separation policies, captivated coverage. Then for weeks the caravan of a few thousand migrants took precedent, seemingly, over all immigration stories. As a result of the border focus, we also observed too little probing coverage on other important immigration issues this year, such as workplace enforcement policies, DACA in limbo, and the ongoing repercussions of the travel ban.

We’d love to hear from you: What are the big issues that you think are not being covered enough? And please keep sending us stories and opportunities that you think Migratory Notes should include moving forward.

Thank you for reading, and supporting our pop-up to reach 100 issues!

Daniela, Elizabeth, Yana and Anna-Cat


The Waiting Game: Do you have the endurance to make it through the labyrinth of asylum bureaucracy? Before former Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the asylum process even more challenging in 2018, ProPublica created an “interactive news game.” Sisi Wei and Nick Fortugno put readers to the test based on real stories and provide a detailed analysis of the asylum system as well as a radio piece on the challenges that often come after receiving asylum. (ProPublica and Playmatics, April 23, 2018)

A Mysterious Notebook is the Key to Seeking Asylum: An unofficial record with the names of nearly 2,000 keeps a tally of how many people are waiting for asylum in Tijuana. Cindy Carcamo honed in on this roughshod effort to make order from the chaos: “All conversations stopped when they saw the notebook. Men, women and children — asylum seekers from Central America, Mexico, Africa and beyond — parted to make way for its keeper.” (Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2018)


A Long Walk Under the Lights: The caravan of Central American asylum seekers quickly became the center of both a political game and a media storm. Adolfo Flores, who was embedded with the movement for more than a month and whose reporting brought it to the attention of the president, wrote a gripping inside story of the caravan: “It was a lesson in the consequences, in the age of Trump, of getting the attention you thought you wanted.” (Buzzfeed, June 3, 2018)


A Betrayal: Henry, a teenage MS-13 member, gave his Long Island high school teacher a detailed and startling confession about his involvement with brutal gang murders. Instead of the promised protection from local police, he found himself facing deportation and, likely, death in El Salvador. Hannah Dreier provided a chilling and nuanced inside look at Henry’s life, his final asylum hearing, and his efforts to seek asylum in Europe. (ProPublica and New York magazine, April 2, 2018)

In Pennsylvania, It’s Open Season on Undocumented Immigrants: When the Trump administration took the “shackles” off ICE, the Philadelphia office went on an arresting spree: it topped arrests nationally in 2017 for apprehending undocumented immigrants without criminal convictions. Deborah Sontag and Dale Russakoff investigated the actions of the Philadelphia office of ICE as part of a series on newly emboldened immigration enforcement. (ProPublica and Philadelphia Inquirer, April 12, 2018)

Family Separation

A Memorized Phone Number Proves a Lifeline: Ginger Thompson revealed a recording of children crying for their parents and a mocking border guard that echoed around the world. For one of them, a 6-year-old-girl separated from her mother after migrating from El Salvador, memorizing her aunt’s number was the difference between staying connected to her family and being adrift among the thousands of other migrant children waiting for their families to find them. The girl and her mother are now building a new life in Texas. (ProPublica, June 21, 2018)

Deported Parents May Lose Kids to Adoption: Holes in the court system allowed state court judges to give custody of migrant children to American families without notifying their parents. Garance Burke and Martha Mendoza investigated hundreds of court records and immigration interviews. (AP, October 9, 2018)

The Moral Dilemma of Juan Sanchez: The CEO of Southwest Key, an NGO that operates 26 shelters for migrant children, including for the kids separated from their parents at the border, considers himself an advocate for Latino families. Juan Sanchez served on the board of the National Council of La Raza (now known as UnidosUS) and has been the recipient of multiple awards for his work with migrant children. Antonia Cereijido and Maria Hinojosa broadcast a personal story of Sanchez’s moral dilemma. (Latino USA, August 17, 2018)

Migrant Children Sent to Shelters with Histories of Abuse Allegations: Youth in detention face drunk employees, sexual assault and the forced administration of heavy psychotropic drugs that leave children “hypnotized.” Aura Bogado, Patrick Michels, Vanessa Swales and Edgar Walters exposed the derelict conditions in private shelters that continue to receive government contracts despite repeated violations. (Reveal and The Texas Tribune, June 20, 2018)

For Central Americans, Children Open a Path to the U.S. — and Bring a Discount: Migrant families apprehended at the southern border may have a better chance of avoiding deportation, at least temporarily, if they are processed along with children. Joshua Partlow and Nick Miroff investigated the incentives that created a significant increase in family apprehensions at the border. The story triggered critical responses from some other journalists, who argued it reduced a complicated crisis and family bonds to economics. (The Washington Post, November 23, 2018)


Lost in Court: Trump’s directive to rush immigration judges to the border for a “surge” created a whirlwind of chaotic proceedings in improvised courtrooms deciding the fate of immigrants at risk of being lost in the system. Julia Preston witnessed the bedlam and provided expert analysis of how it built upon a larger pattern of neglect of the immigration court system. (This American Life and The Marshall Project, January, 19, 2018)

Hidden Horrors of “Zero Tolerance” — Mass Trials and Children Taken From Their Parents: On the frontline of new zero-tolerance policies, asylum seekers faced mass trials, criminal records and separation from their children. Debbie Nathan provided an early glimpse into how zero tolerance was playing out on the southern border, reporting on a Brownsville, Texas courtroom where court employees were shocked by mass sentencing. (The Intercept, May 29, 2018)

ICE is Ordering Immigrants to Appear in Court, but the Judges Aren’t Expecting Them: The Supreme Court mandated that ICE change its systems, but ICE apparently never coordinated or cleared the dates with the immigration courts. Instead, Dianne Solis reports, accounts of “fake dates” or “dummy dates” emerged around the country. (Dallas Morning News, September 16, 2019)

Is Denaturalization the Next Front in the Trump Administration’s War on Immigration?: Foreign-born US citizens are increasingly becoming targets of denaturalization efforts. Seth Freed Wessler reported on how attorneys and advocates fear it’s the first sign of a gathering storm. (The New York Times, December 19, 2018)

Mollie Tibbets

Trump Used Her Slain Daughter to Rail Against Illegal Immigration. She Chose a Different Path: Instead of lashing out against immigrants after her daughter was killed by an undocumented man, Mollie Tibbets’ mother, welcomed into her home a young immigrant displaced by the same murder. Terrence McCoy reported on an unexpected, but heartfelt, aftermath of tragedy. (The Washington Post, December 28, 2018)


Making President Trump’s Bed: A Housekeeper Without Papers: The woman who made Trump’s bed, cleaned his toilet and dusted his crystal golf trophies was an undocumented immigrant, one of many then employed on the president’s golf course. Miriam Jordan put a face to how Trump directly benefited from illegal immigration. “The economics of immigration must never be overlooked. It is, even in this era of family migrants, the biggest factor pushing people out — poverty — and pull factor — jobs in the US,” Jordan told Migratory Notes. The president’s golf club has since fired many of its undocumented workers. The housekeeper was invited to attend the State of the Union by a Democratic lawmaker. (The New York Times, December 6, 2018)


American Girl: When the TPS-holding parents of a 14-year-old girl decided she would stay in the U.S. if they needed to leave, the teen began learning how she might live her life alone in the country. Jennifer Miller reported the moving story of a young girl facing an uncertain future. (The Washington Post, October 2, 2018)

Thank you for reading Migratory Notes, and supporting us to reach 100!
Daniela and Elizabeth in LA, Yana in Chicago, and Anna-Cat in San Salvador.

We are grateful to Phuong Ly, Mirta Ojito, Fernanda Santos, and Roberto Suro for their insights, and to Angie Quintero for designing a special logo.

If there’s a story or immigration-related opportunity you think we should consider, please send us an email.

*Daniela Gerson is a co-founder and the editor of Migratory Notes. She is an assistant professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge and West Coast Director of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media (CCEM) at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at City University of New York (CUNY). Previously she was a community engagement editor at the LA Times; editor of a trilingual hyperlocal publication, Alhambra Source; staff immigration reporter for the New York Sun; and a contributor to outlets including WNYC: New York Public Radio, The World, Der Spiegel, Financial Times, CNN, and The New York Times. She recently wrote The Grand Refugee Hotel: The Sequel to My Grandfather’s Germany for Refugees Deeply. You can find her on Twitter @dhgerson

*Elizabeth Aguilera is a co-founder and the executive editor of Migratory Notes. She is a multimedia reporter for CALmatters covering health and social services, including immigration. Previously she reported on community health, for Southern California Public Radio. She’s also reported on immigration for the San Diego Union-Tribune, where she won a Best of the West award for her work on sex trafficking between the U.S. and Mexico; and before that she covered a variety of beats and issues for the Denver Post including urban affairs and immigration. Her latest story is What keeps families in one of the most polluted places in California? You can find her on Twitter @1eaguilera

*Yana Kunichoff is a special projects editor for Migratory Notes. She currently covers public education for Chalkbeat Chicago. She was project manager for Migrahack 2016 in Chicago. She has also produced feature-length documentaries and a pop-culture web series for Scrappers Film Group; worked as a fellow with City Bureau, where she won a March 2016 Sidney Hillman award for an investigation into fatal police shootings; and covered race and poverty issues for the Chicago Reporter. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, Pacific Standard and Chicago magazine among others. You can find her on Twitter @yanazure

*Anna-Cat Brigida is a staff writer for Migratory Notes. She is a freelance reporter covering immigration and human rights in Mexico and Central America. She began covering immigration as a journalism student at USC Annenberg and later moved to Central America to work as a reporter. She has covered the region since 2015 and has been based in El Salvador since January 2018. She has also worked as a Spanish-language writer for Fusion out of the Mexico City office. Her work has appeared in Washington Post, The Guardian, Univision, LA Times, and Al Jazeera, among others. You can find her on Twitter @AnnaCat_Brigida

*Migratory Notes Advisory Board:
Daniel Connolly, Maria Kari, Dan Kowalski, Phuong Ly, Paola Marizán, Mirta Ojito, Roberto Suro, Fernanda Santos

Migratory Notes

At a time of rapidly shifting policies, we publish a weekly concise and insightful guide to immigration news.

Daniela Gerson

Written by

Ass’t Prof @CSUNJournalism and Senior Fellow @CCEMNewmarkJ. Co-creator #MigratoryNotes. Subscribe for free: @dhgerson

Migratory Notes

At a time of rapidly shifting policies, we publish a weekly concise and insightful guide to immigration news.

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