Migratory Notes 212

Harris’ silence on border; shadowy new wave of caravan organizers; opaque network of shelters

Daniela Gerson
Migratory Notes
Published in
15 min readMay 13, 2021


A former DIY music and art space in Chicago has become a sanctuary for LGBTQ aslyum-seekers released from immigration detention, reports City Bureau. Photo by Samantha Cabrera Friend.

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Since 2018, “shadowy figures who traffic in disinformation and exploit social media to take advantage of migrants” have organized more than a dozens caravans, advertising on WhatsApp and Facebook, reports Rest of World. Over six months, Jeff Ernst followed two migrant caravans. “No one ever asked the organizers to identify themselves,” Ernst writes. “Migrants, worried about kidnapping or extortion, advise their peers to avoid sharing personal information. This anonymity creates a climate of suspicion and lawlessness that is easily exploited. Xenophobes pop in and out of WhatsApp groups to insult and disparage Hondurans.” Both caravans failed within a few days — the organizers led migrants astray, TV crews followed them day and night, and ultimately Guatemalan security forces stopped them.

The 2020 Census results revealed the slowest U.S. population growth since the Great Depression, and some policy experts are advocating immigration reform to combat the long-term socioeconomic impacts of a slow growth rate, reports Roll Call. Without changes, the U.S. could face “devastating consequences,” including a depletion of Social Security funds, decreased tax revenue from working-age adults, and labor shortages. Immigration responses include increasing the number of H-1B visas available and creating geographically tied “heartland visas” to target rural areas.

Migrant Children Facilities
The Biden administration is housing about 21,000 children and teens in an “opaque network” of 200 facilities that spans two dozen states and includes five shelters with more than 1,000 children each, according to confidential documents, reports AP. Several practices at the facilities are similar to those that Biden criticized under the Trump administration, including insufficient vetting of caregivers and the use of facilities facing abuse lawsuits. At two California sites more than 60 migrant youth have tested positive for COVID, including 55 at the Long Beach Convention Center, reports ABC News.

Despite these problems, “the migrant children are far better cared for at the new facilities, operated by the Department of Health and Human Services, than they were at crammed jails run by the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection, according to administration officials,” reports The New York Times. Health and Human Services projections obtained by the Times predict the agency will need more than $8 billion for the 2021 fiscal year to house migrant youth. Meanwhile, it is taking about a month on average to move to transfer them from government facilities to family members or sponsors in the U.S.

Rapid Expulsions
Since Biden took office, Border Patrol agents have encountered more than 2,100 migrant children who were previously expelled from the United States with their families under Title 42, a public health policy that sends most migrants back to Mexico but currently exempts unaccompanied minors, reports CBS News. The children are believed to have voluntarily left their families to seek asylum by themselves.

Vice President Kamala Harris has remained silent on opening the border, despite before the election accusing Trump of violating federal law for citing the pandemic to effectively seal the border, reports Politico. Harris’s silence illuminates the bind that the Biden administration has faced upon taking office: Quickly reversing Trump’s policies “can create an abundance of political headaches and contribute to a host of other problems, including trying to process and house a record number of unaccompanied children crossing the southern border.”

Border Crossings
Migrants are taking more dangerous paths to get into the U.S., partially as a result of the border wall, stepped up enforcement and the U.S.’s policy of quickly expelling immigrants to Mexico, reports The Wall Street Journal. Mostly single adults are turning to remote desert and mountain crossings, or traveling on overcrowded boats or railcars. At least 16 migrants have been killed in accidents near the border since March, officials say. The number of single adults apprehended crossing the border soared to over 111,000 in April, the highest monthly total in over a decade, reports The Washington Post.

Biden Administration
Representative Henry Cuellar (D-TX) of Laredo, Texas, a border town, has become one of Biden’s harshest critics from within his party on his handling of the border, reports USA Today. “Listen to the people. Listen to the ranchers. Listen to the NGOs. It’s not only the immigration activist, but you got to listen to border communities,” says Cuellar.

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas faces the daunting task of “managing a broken immigration system through a mix of empathy and law enforcement,” and striking the right balance has proven challenging so far, reports TIME in a profile. His actions to date have mixed his background as a prosecutor with a “humanitarian streak.”

Immigration Reform
A recent poll showed that 70% of respondents think the U.S. immigration system is not working, providing some Democrats with the confidence to push forward with immigration reforms, reports The Hill. Yet much of the criticism for the current situation is being placed on the Biden administration. A Hill-HarrisX poll found that 51% of registered voters disapproved of Biden’s immigration strategy, including 83% of Republicans, 22% of Democrats and 50% of independent voters, reports The Hill. Meanwhile, thwarting bipartisan talks on immigration reform, Republican lawmakers are demanding first action at the border, reports Roll Call.

Support for refugees is increasing in largely rural, conservative states where Trump was popular, reports NPR. Before Trump drastically reduced the refugee cap at the beginning of his first term, Idaho, Nebraska and North Dakota often ranked at the top of the nation in per capita refugee resettlements and employers now say the cuts in refugee resettlement are contributing to a labor shortage.

The Biden administration hired a slate of immigration judges originally chosen by the Trump team, several of whom were former prosecutors and counselors for ICE, reports The Hill. The Justice Department issued a statement saying the 17 hired judges all received conditional offers under the previous administration, though critics are saying the Biden administration has an obligation to fully vet the judges they hire and rebalance the court system that’s been shaped by Trump.

Indigenous immigrants who speak neither English nor Spanish often find themselves invisible if they make it into immigration courts, reports El Paso Times. Despite a Clinton-era executive order obligating federal agencies to have a system in place to offer meaningful language access to asylum seekers, inter-agency discrepancies in tracking language populations means courts are sometimes unable to provide language accommodation for people who only speak Indigenous languages.

Anti-Asian Racism
Prosecutors in Georgia are seeking the death penalty and hate-crime charges against Robert Aaron Long, who killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women, reports The Washington Post. On Tuesday, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis said she thinks her office will be the first to use Georgia’s new hate-crime law, passed last year in the wake of the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery.

More than 6,600 hate incidents have targeted Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders since the pandemic began in the United States, with nearly a third reported in March 2021, according to Stop AAPI Hate, reports USA Today. A separate report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, found a more than 164% increase in anti-Asian hate crime reports to police in 16 major cities and jurisdictions in the first quarter of 2021 compared with last year.

DACA & Undocumented Students
A group of more than 80 DACA recipients is suing the Biden administration to respond to their applications requesting permission to leave the country to study abroad under a special provision, reports the LA Times. The case could pave the way to citizenship for DACA recipients.

On Tuesday, the Biden administration reversed a Trump-era guidance that declined federal pandemic assistance to undocumented college students, reports CBS News. Undocumented students, including those with and without DACA, refugees, international students and asylum-seekers will now be eligible to receive federal aid allocated by Congress to Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund — approximately $74.8 billion has been allocated since March 2020.

The Biden administration is restarting an Obama-era program that allows foreign entrepreneurs to work for five years in the United States without a visa, so long as their startups attract $250,000 in U.S. venture capital, hire 10 employees, or reach other benchmarks, reports The Wall Street Journal. Obama proposed the International Entrepreneur rule three days before he left office. The Trump administration released a notice opposing the program, but never officially terminated it.

On Saturday, the State Department announced the winners of the 2022 Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which benefits up to 55,000 people per year and allows immigrants from countries with lower levels of immigration to the U.S. to apply for visas, reports CNN. Also known as the “Green Card Lottery,” this year, the program removed Trump-era restrictions on immigration from eight countries, including Iran, North Korea, and Syria.

Roma, Texas, a community of 11,000 people, has become known as an “epicenter” of migrant crossings in recent years, reports the New Yorker. Stephania Taladrid visited the town to follow the journey of some recently migrated Central Americans, and spoke to town residents about their relationship to border crossers. While some, like Sister Norma Pimentel, attempt to help newly arrived migrants and find hope in Biden’s vision of a safe and prosperous Central America, others, like constable Jayson Rivera, feel that Trump did a better job handling the border. In 2018, Molly Hennessy-Fiske of the Los Angeles Times produced a series on Roma.

Immigration Journalism
Immigration was one of the top five issues that received the most media coverage in the first 100 days of the Biden administration, particularly in outlets that skew conservative, according to a Pew Research Center study. About 20% of stories for right-leaning audience focused on immigration or the border, compared to 8% for left-leaning audiences.


Immigration Resources & Opportunities

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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

  • Port of Entry is a podcast about cross-border stories that connect us. Border people often inhabit this in-between place. From KPBS and PRX, “Port of Entry” tells personal stories from this place.
  • Routed Magazine curates a bi-monthly newsletter on news in migration and mobility.
  • Immigrant & Democracy from Harvard University’s immigration initiative.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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*Daniela Gerson is a co-founder and the editor of Migratory Notes. She is an assistant professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge, Previously she was a senior fellow at the Center for Community Media (CCM); community engagement editor at the LA Times; editor of the trilingual Alhambra Source; and immigration reporter for the New York Sun. She has reported for WNYC: New York Public Radio, The World, Der Spiegel, Financial Times, CNN, The New York Times, among other outlets. 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 co-hosts the new political podcast California State of Mind and covers the health and welfare of California’s next generation. Previously she covered health care and social services, including immigration for the digital outlet. Before joining CalMatters Aguilera 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. 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

*Paco Alvarez is a staff writer for Migratory Notes. He is a writer based in Chicago. Previously, he was a Fall 2020 Civic Reporting Fellow for City Bureau where he covered the 2020 elections and political participation in immigrant communities. His work has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Block Club Chicago and South Side Weekly. You can find him on Twitter @pacvarez

*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



Daniela Gerson
Migratory Notes

Ass’t Prof @CSUNJournalism and Co-creator #MigratoryNotes. Subscribe for free: https://bit.ly/2tkethJ @dhgerson