Migratory Notes 177

Elizabeth Aguilera
Migratory Notes
Published in
14 min readAug 20, 2020


Tale of two Millers, detainee abuse, child migrant trauma

Guatemalan migrant Janio, 20, was deported in March with no way of knowing if he had COVID-19 and might spread it to his community, reports The Texas Observer in the second part of a Pulitzer Center-supported series. ICE has sent thousands of deportees to Latin America on more than 450 flights since February, and the consequences have been devastating for countries like Guatemala. Photo courtesy of Morena Pérez Joaquin.

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Two septuagenarians died of COVID-19 complications last week in ICE detention. One of them was Canadian immigrant and former Louisiana doctor James Hill, who was looking forward to a second chance at life after his 14 years in prison for healthcare fraud and distribution of controlled substances came to an end. “Just as Jim began to emotionally prepare for his release and return to Canada, the coronavirus began spreading across the globe,” writes Mica Rosenberg in a richly detailed profile for Reuters investigating the policies that cost Hill and other vulnerable immigrants their lives. In April, the 72-year-old was transferred to ICE custody, but it’s unclear if he was evaluated as part of a potentially high-risk group. Hill was not fighting to stay in the U.S. — in fact, he wanted to go home to his family — as many detainees are, but the delays in his deportation proved deadly. He was infected at Farmville Detention Center, where ICE transfers led to an outbreak. Hill died on August 5 after nearly four months in ICE custody and just weeks after he was supposed to be on a deportation flight home.

Stephen Miller — Trump adviser and architect of many of the administration’s most harmful immigration policies — often prided himself on devoting his life to his beliefs at the detriment to his personal life, reports Vanity Fair. Then he met Katie Waldman, who was also working her way up in Washington political circles. “Accounts from more recent colleagues add detail to the portrait — one not of a counterbalance to Miller, but rather of a powerful reinforcement,” writes Evgenia Peretz in an in-depth portrait of the love story of the president’s favorite power couple, and one of few Miller profiles to delve into his relationship with his new wife. The pair grew up on opposite coasts, but with similar upbringings exposed to liberal Jewish communities and influenced by the influx of Latin American migrants around them. Their rise to prominence in Washington has been swift, but they show no sign of fading away just as quickly. “Given the new couple’s knack for pulling the levers of power, and the Trump administration’s control over the judicial and legislative branches, they may be with us for a long time to come,” writes Peretz.

Trump Administration
Two top DHS officials currently serving in an acting capacity, Secretary Chad Wolf and Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli, are ineligible to hold their current positions under the Vacancy Reform Act, the Government Accountability Office said. Both ascended when Trump bypassed the Senate confirmation process to appoint them in the acting capacity, a common move during his presidency to stack agencies with loyalists. The report is not legally binding, but Democrats have called for the officials’ resignations. DHS rejected the report.

Former high-level DHS staff member Miles Taylor denounced Trump for damaging national security by governing “by whim, political calculation and self-interest,” in an Op-Ed for The Washington Post endorsing Joe Biden and calling on voters to make Trump a one-term president. Taylor, who worked at DHS from 2017 to 2019, said the president’s laser focus on the border prevented the agency from carrying out its main goal: protecting national security. He called Trump’s overwhelming gusto for family separations “one of the most disheartening and disgusting things I’ve ever experienced in public service.” But some advocates say he is equally to blame and is avoiding taking responsibility for his role in carrying out the policy.

At the Democratic National Convention, politicians and families torn apart by Trump’s immigration policy spoke out against these policies, reports the LA Times. “My dad thought you would protect military families. So he voted for you in 2016, Mr. President,” said 11-year-old Estela, whose mom was deported. “I work to help my community, but ever since Donald Trump was elected, all our fears have returned,” said 25-year-old DACA recipient Jessica. But immigration activists point out that mass deportations did not start with Trump, reports USAToday. They criticized a message by President Barack Obama praising the country’s immigrant roots that erased his tainted record of immigration policy.

Asylum & Remain in Mexico
The Trump administration drafted a rule to block migrants from seeking asylum when they enter the U.S. at a land border if they have been in Canada or Mexico in the previous 14 days on the grounds that the potential spread of COVID-19 poses a national security threat, reports BuzzFeed News. The rule would be another hurdle for migrants crossing the border, who are already subject to rapid expulsions under a pandemic-related order.

Young asylum seekers’ journeys to the U.S. and their prolonged stays at the U.S.-Mexico border can have detrimental impacts on childhood development, reports The New York Times. Some programs, such as The Nest and Yes We Can, offer a steady education to provide some stability to alleviate stress, but many projects had to close down when the pandemic started.

Border Wall
Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon was charged with fraud in a New York court Thursday for his involvement in an online fundraising scheme that raised $25 million to privately build a border wall. With three other men, Bannon allegedly used the “We Build the Wall” campaign to enrich themselves instead of carrying out the promise funds would go directly to border wall construction.

From May to July, single adults made up 90% of border crossers compared to just 30% in the same period the year before, reports The Wall Street Journal.

A 20-year-old Guatemalan migrant living at the Matamoros tent camp drowned while crossing the Rio Grande near Brownsville Tuesday, reports AP. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s latest plan is to build a system of floating barriers along the border to prevent migrants from swimming across the Rio Grande, reports The Washington Post.

Migrant Deaths
Since 1998, an average of one migrant per day has died while trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, and most are in the Sonoran desert in southern Arizona, reports the New York Times Magazine. The story traces the case of Roberto Primero Luis from his native Guatemala to his death in Arizona.

A 67-year-old Cuban man died in May at North Lake Correctional Institution in Michigan, in a prison overseen by the Bureau of Prisons where only non-citizens are held but which are often exempt from the oversight of immigration detention, reports The Intercept. The number of immigrant deaths in these prisons is unknown because they don’t show up in official ICE statistics.

A Texas advocacy group filed a complaint with the DHS Office of Inspector General detailing a pattern of sexual abuse at an El Paso detention center in which at least three women were forcibly kissed or touched by officers who took advantage of security camera blind spots, reports The Texas Tribune and ProPublica. The group called for a criminal investigation. ICE said the accusations would be investigated.

At least 860 migrants have been detained at major hotel chains, including Hampton Inn, Quality Suites, and Best Western, along the northern and southern border in fiscal year 2020, a practice that lacks the safeguards of other forms of immigrant detention, reports The New York Times. AP first reported the use of hotels to detain children before they were expelled in July.

Election 2020
Biden has taken an important immigration stand with his vice presidential pick of Kamala Harris, the daughter of immigrants and a symbol of the country’s shifting demographics, reports The New York Times. “When Kamala Harris’s mother left India for California in 1958, the percentage of Americans who were immigrants was at its lowest point in over a century,” writes Sabrina Tavernise in a profile that puts Harris into the context of a radical national transformation. “That was about to change.”

Trump attacked Biden’s immigration agenda in a speech on the campaign trail in Arizona this week, a key battleground state, reports The Hill. But many of his claims were false or exaggerated, including a statement that Biden would tear down the border wall. Biden has campaigned on a platform to reverse many Trump administration restrictive immigration policies, but has struggled to convince some Latino voters that he would not enact harmful policies of the Obama administration. And although he promised a moratorium on deportations during his first 100 days as president, the promise does not appear on his recently published campaign platform, reports The Intercept.

Most immigrant workers at Rose’s Berry Farm in Connecticut hail from Guanajuato in central Mexico, and their hearts are torn between the two places they call home as they carry out essential work that puts food on American tables, reports The New Yorker. Worker Winny Contreras was able to legalize his status under the Reagan amnesty of 1986, but the American dream has been a constant battle over decades of working far from his family.

For high school student Reyes and another 300,000 students who work in agriculture, graduating was already an uphill battle. Then, the pandemic added another layer of difficulty, reports LatinoUSA in a podcast tracing the teenager’s journey.

Immigrant Communities & COVID-19
As the coronavirus has devastated immigrant communities in New York, a Brooklyn “renegade pastor” has helped them navigate everything from funeral arrangements to food donations. Juan Carlos Ruiz, a 50-year-old Mexican immigrant has been helping the city’s most vulnerable since he migrated in the 1980s, reports The New Yorker.

Immigration is an International Issue
The non-citizen population in the U.S. decreased to reach the lowest in decades in July, a global trend seen in Japan, China, and Germany as foreign workers have left or been shut out by the pandemic, reports Quartz.

ICE has since rescinded a July directive banning foreign students from staying in the U.S. if university classes were online-only, but the fear instilled by the decision remains — and could impact future enrollment of foreign students who feel increasingly unwelcome, reports The Verge.


Immigration Resources & Opportunities

Coronavirus Resources

Recently released immigration books and films(got one, send it over)

Reporting Initiatives about Immigrant Communities

  • Borderless: a non-profit online magazine reimagining coverage of the immigration system.
  • Documented: a non-profit news site covering immigrants in New York.
  • Ethnic Media Services: organization that works with ethnic media organizations to improve coverage and reach.
  • Feet In Two Worlds: project that tells immigrant stories and provides fellowships for immigrant journalists.
  • Finding American: a collaboration between documentary photographer Colin Boyd Shafer and immigrants to feature their stories.
  • The Immigrant Story: a project between journalists, photographers, graphic designers and developers to document and archive immigrants’ stories.
  • ImmPrint: an online publication by and for people affected by immigrant detention.
  • New Michigan Media: a network of ethnic and minority media across the state of Michigan.
  • Newest Americans: a multimedia collaboration between journalists, media-makers, artists, faculty and students telling the stories of the immigrant and immigrant communities in Newark, NJ.
  • Refugees (Santa Fe Dreamers Project): a collection of testimonies from asylum seekers in partnership with the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center.

Newsletters, Podcasts, & Facebook Groups

  • Detention Dispatches by Capital & Main follows the conditions in ICE detention centers during the pandemic.
  • In The Thick podcast covers the coronavirus impact on immigrant communities from Chelsea, MA to the Bronx, New York.
  • Only Here is a podcast about the “subcultures, creativity and struggles” at the US-Mexico border from KPBS
  • Nuestro South is a podcast exploring the experiences of Latinx people in the U.S. south.
  • Salvadoran investigative media outlet El Faro has launched an English-language newsletter with reporting from Central America.
  • ¿Qué Pasa, Midwest? Podcast tells stories of Latino life “from the homeland to the heartland.”
  • Frontera Dispatch is a weekly newsletter by the Hope Border Institute on news and analysis from the border.
  • BIB Daily Edition is a free aggregation of “inside immigration news” (court cases, new regulations and the like) and “outside news” (culled from the mainstream and not-so-mainstream media).
  • Center for Migration Studies Migration Update is a weekly digest of news, faith reflections, and analysis of international migration and refugee protection.
  • Migration Information Source from the Migration Policy Institute offers a series of newsletters.
  • Documented NY’s Early Arrival newsletter aggregates information on immigration in New York and nationally.
  • Politico’s Morning Shift newsletter: a daily read on employment and immigration.
  • Tempest Tossed, a podcast with “conversations on immigration and refugees that go beyond the predictable soundbites.”
  • Displaced, a podcast from the International Rescue Committee.
  • A is for America America’s Voice discusses immigrant politics and organizing.
  • Only in America National Immigration Forum’s podcast about the people behind immigration issues.

Curriculum & Campaigns

Reporting resources, tools and tips

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 senior fellow at the Center for Community Media (CCM) 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 published Digital First Responders: How innovative news outlets are meeting the needs of immigrant communities, a report for the Center for Community Media. You can find her on Twitter @dhgerson

*Elizabeth Aguilera is co-founder and executive editor of Migratory Notes. She is a multimedia reporter for CalMatters where she covers the health and welfare of California’s next generation after covering health care and social services, including immigration, for several years for the digital outlet. 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 worked for the Denver Post covering urban affairs and immigration. Her most recent story was
For some California teens, school closures led to work in the fields. You can find her on Twitter @1eaguilera

*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 the Washington Post, The Guardian, Univision, LA Times, and Al Jazeera, among others. You can find her on Twitter @AnnaCat_Brigida

*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

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



Elizabeth Aguilera
Migratory Notes

Health/Social Services reporter @CALmatters, co-founder of #MigratoryNotes. I carry a mic & a pen. Prev: @KPCC @SDUT, @DenverPost. elizabeth@calmatters.org