Standout Immigration Stories of 2019

Daniela Gerson
Migratory Notes
Published in
12 min readJan 27, 2020


Photos from, clockwise from top left, Todd Heisler for the The New York Times, Gregory Bull for the Associated Press, Gary Coronado for the Los Angeles Times, Luis M. Diaz and Koral Carballo for California Sunday Magazine, Todd Heisler for The New York Times and Alissa Zhu for Clarion Ledger.

We published the first Migratory Notes in the chaotic aftermath of the Trump administration’s first travel ban. We created it as a pop-up newsletter to make sense of rapidly shifting policies, assuming that the pace of immigration news would soon let up. We were wrong. That was three years ago this week.

With the help of accomplished journalists and immigration lawyers across the country, we compiled a list of standout immigration stories published during our third year. We’ve included quotes from our jurors about why these stories mattered. You will see we selected stories that reveal the impact of new policies, feature fantastic writing, and integrate graphics and images to illustrate immigration issues.

So many of you create the stories we share, are on the front lines of immigration policies and are heavily invested professionally or personally. We are thrilled to share that we have support to continue Migratory Notes through at least the 2020 Election. Thank you for joining us on this journey.

— Daniela, Elizabeth, Yana, and Anna-Cat

Child Separation

The Youngest Child Separated From His Family at the Border Was 4 Months Old
As stories about the trauma of family separation began to feel routine, Caitlin Dickerson “reignited furor” with a story that took readers on one family’s journey from Romania, where they faced persecution as part of the Roma minority, to separation at the U.S. border. There, 4-month-old Constantin was taken and his father eventually deported. After five months with a Michigan foster family, he was finally returned to his parents in Romania but not without emotional scars.
(The New York Times, June 16, 2019)

Trump Administration Still Separating Hundreds of Migrant Children at the Border Through Often Questionable Claims of Danger
In this “hard-hitting” story with “piles of evidence,” Lomi Kriel and Dug Begley investigated how the government took advantage of a legal loophole to separate parents from children. “This was a powerful reminder that even if the policy is officially over, the Trump administration is still separating families and has the same agenda it did in the summer of 2018.”
(The Houston Chronicle, June 22, 2019)


Solitary Voices: Thousands of Immigrants Suffer In US Solitary Confinement
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists worked across borders to “show a trend many know but have found difficult to prove:” ICE frequently puts migrants in solitary confinement, often for reasons unrelated to disciplinary problems, including mental illness. The finished project featured “great use of documents to paint a vivid and horrifying portrait of the government’s use of solitary confinement” and is “reporting that could — or should — lead to outrage and changes.” The five-month collaboration included Grupo SIN in the Dominican Republic, Plaza Pública in Guatemala; Mexicanos contra la Corrupción in Mexico; and NBC News, The Intercept and Univision in the U.S.
(International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, May 20, 2019)

In an absorbing multimedia video explainer, Emily Kassie drew “direct lines between the increase in incarceration and immigration detention” and “made a strong argument against the idea that immigration detention is anything but an extension of our prison system.” Today more than 50,000 immigrants are detained per day. The piece traces exponential growth of the multi-billion dollar immigration detention industry, the largest in the world, from its start under President Jimmy Carter.
(The Marshall Project and The Guardian, September 24, 2019)

Inside the Cell Where a Sick 16-Year-Old Boy Died in Border Patrol Care
The abysmal state of detention for minors, and the U.S.’ record number of kids in custody in 2019, was brought home by investigative reporting on the tragic deaths of children. By obtaining and then publishing the video of a sick 16-year-old migrant boy’s final hours, Robert Moore, Susan Schmidt and Maryam Jameel pushed the reporting the farthest. Their intimate reporting of Carlos Vasquez’s death caught on a surveillance camera ignited new furor. Some said they went too far. The young man’s family called the video traumatizing, and ProPublica admitted they should have shown the family the video before publishing.
(ProPublica, December 5, 2019)

Civil Liberties

Source: Leaked Documents Show the U.S. Government Tracking Journalists and Immigration Advocates Through a Secret Database
While previous reports had covered the existence of a government database tracking journalists and activists linked to the caravans, NBC 7 San Diego gained access to it. Tom Jones, Mari Payton and Bill Feather received leaked documents that detailed the extent of the surveillance, and highlight how political immigration has become. This “incredibly revealing story on the inner workings of CBP/HSI…provided documentation to a widespread fear and had considerable impact in informing the people who were on the list.”
(NBC 7, March 6, 2019)

Criminalizing Compassion
The case against No More Deaths volunteer Scott Warren for leaving water for migrants in the desert opened questions about the Trump administration’s legal prosecution of activists, and the legal limits of compassion. But “despite being an important and powerful story, most national media organizations were slow to pick up on it. The Intercept and Ryan Devereaux were there from the beginning.” Warren was eventually found not guilty of felony misdemeanor charges.
(The Intercept, August 10, 2019)

Mexican Border

‘It’s Hell There’: This Is What It’s Like For Immigrants Being Held In A Pen Underneath An El Paso Bridge
They slept outside, in a holding pen under a bridge between the U.S. and Mexico, covered with nothing but mylar silver blankets. Adolfo Flores reported an evocative story through on-the-ground testimonials bringing to light brutal conditions. “The immigrants, held behind a chain-link fence topped with razor wire, said they’ve endured cold and windy nights sleeping on bare, rocky dirt underneath the Paso Del Norte International Bridge that links Ciudad Juarez and El Paso,” Flores wrote. “Above, roosting pigeons dropped feces on them.”
(BuzzFeed News, March 29, 2019)

‘Everybody Cries Here’: Hope and Despair in Mexican Shelter
By the end of 2019, more than 50,000 asylum seekers were sent to await their day in court in Mexico in the program known as Remain in Mexico. Among a flurry of stories depicting the numbing wait, the violence, and the growing pressure on border communities, Cedar Attanasio and Tim Sullivan painted a particularly “eloquent portrait of a shelter.” The photos are gripping, and show how people from more than 11 countries spend their stays stuck together by fate.
(Associated Press, September 18, 2019)

Migrant Children Trapped in Mexico are Leaving Their Families and Crossing the Border Alone
As the Migrant Protection Protocols left migrant families feeling increasingly desperate about their chances of reaching the U.S., some children decided to leave for the border alone. Debbie Nathan revealed the stories of young people, under the age of 18, separating themselves from their parents to avoid life in increasingly crowded and dangerous Matamoros.
(The Intercept, October 29, 2019)


At ‘Freedom House,’ a Pattern of Neglect: Immigrant Lawyer Peter Schey’s Problematic Record
Often, immigration narratives plot “good” immigrants and advocates against “bad” detention administrators and government enforcers. This story complicated that narrative. Peter Schey is known nationally as a crusader for immigrant kids and argued the Supreme Court case that created the Flores Agreement guidelines for detaining children. But through interviews and documents Cindy Carcamo and Paloma Esquivel revealed that at Schey’s shelter for unaccompanied minors in Los Angeles he mistreated many of the kids he has been hailed for protecting.
(Los Angeles Times, May 22, 2019)

The Case That Made an Ex-ICE Attorney Realize the Government Was Relying on False “Evidence” Against Migrants
Melissa del Bosque provided the rare glimpse into how enforcement policies have transformed under Trump. She profiled Laura Peña, who once worked as an attorney for ICE. But when Peña went to work on the other side of the courtroom aisle, defending immigrants facing deportation, she found what del Bosque describes as “a black box she no longer understood, with an ever-shifting array of rules and policies that granted untold discretion to the government.”
(ProPublica, August 13, 2019)

Migrant Journey Illustrated

Two projects stood out as master classes in taking a data story, honing in on the individual experience and illuminating with stunning video and photography. Both happened to be from The New York Times.

A Migrant Family Takes a Greyhound Across America
As Central American asylum seekers that passed the immigration gauntlet entered the U.S. at a rate of more than 5,000 a day, Miriam Jordan “was able to connect the experience of crossing the border and feeling lost and hopeless to an experience common to most Americans: riding a Greyhound.” Both relatable and stunningly photographed, the piece was also “a great interactive example of the auxiliary industries that profit from the migrant trail.”
(The New York Times, May 26, 2019)

Underground Lives: The Sunless World of Immigrants in Queens
A team of journalists took a creative and intimate look at the juxtapositions and deprivations of living as an immigrant in the U.S. One man lives his New York life underground, alone, and working in a dark kitchen. But when he returns to Mexico he is greeted around town as a man with property, luxuriates in a natural pool, and basks in the sun. The story utilized data of illegally converted structures, and “used photos and text expertly to tell a story that’s in front of so many people’s eyes, but very few can see.”
(The New York Times, October 23, 2019)


Chicken plants lured them. Feds jailed them. How Mississippi’s immigration crisis unfolded
After more than 600 poultry workers were arrested during an immigration raid in Mississippi, the largest single-site raid in a decade, journalists descended on the state to understand this mostly overlooked labor story. Standing out among the reports is this in-depth investigation from the local newspaper that traced the Latino poultry workers in Mississippi to recruitment known as “The Hispanic Project,” and to a tennis player from Chile.
(Clarion Ledger/USA Today, September 18, 2019)

Unseen: Climate change and immigrant farmworkers in Appalachia
As extreme weather hurts agriculture and leaves billions of dollars in damages, immigrant farmworkers are uniquely vulnerable and too often left behind. In a new angle on climate change consequences, Timothy Pratt reported a series about displaced immigrant farmworkers from a region where immigrant voices are rarely heard.
(100 Days in Appalachia, June 26, 2019)

Harvest of pain: A pistol-packing contractor lured workers from Mexico to labor in farms across the U.S.
The Labor Department has opened more than 18,000 investigations into the farm work industry in the past decade but those are not helping workers in Texas, who rarely get the wages they are due. In a hard-hitting investigation, Luke Whyte “really gets at the heart of why many immigrants end up the US and how they’re mistreated once they arrive.” He looks at the broad data, but also drives the narrative with one man who did fight back.
(San Antonio Express-News, May 12, 2019)

Migrant Profiles

Who Killed Claudia Gomez?
She was a 20-year-old Mayan migrant from a village near Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Claudia Gomez’s death by a Border Patrol agent may have flown under the radar if a nearby neighbor had not taken a video that went viral. Lauren Bohn “expertly weaves in the harm that present and past policies in the U.S. and Guatemala have inflicted on Guatemalans, specifically those with indigenous roots like Claudia.” The story was the first in a three-part series about women and migration.
(Marie Claire, May 1, 2019)

The Death and Life of Frankie Madrid
Frankie Madrid was carried to the U.S. when he was 6-months-old, and was deported at 26 to Mexico, a country he had never known. While he could not return to the U.S. alive, in death his body eventually did. Valeria Fernández beautifully reported a portrait of the costs of deportation for one man.
(California Sunday Magazine, August 1, 2019)

The Lucky Ones: Nearly 30 years after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border as an undocumented child, a reporting trip brought me back to that very stretch
Personal migrant stories are too often “cliche.” Journalist Adriana Gallardo’s lyrical testament avoids those tropes, exploring her lingering personal memories of migration as one part in a series of writers on origin myths of the western United States. The story “relays the complications of every migrant story in the most human way imaginable.”
(ProPublica and Guernica, February 19, 2019)


How ICE Picks Its Targets in the Surveillance Age
As local activists in Washington State counted more than 100 missing neighbors, ICE agents were taking data compiled from social media, private data companies, and federal and state agencies to target immigration enforcement operations. McKenzie Funk gave a behind-the-scenes look into the loosely regulated practice of data sales, even in cities that consider themselves sanctuaries and the human consequences among those being digitally and then literally hunted.
(The New York Times, October 2, 2019)

Several other big picture stories from The New York Times explained how immigration enforcement plays out and the forces behind it: How an environmentally-minded socialite helps shape Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda 14 years after her death, the role of consultants at McKinsey and private money in carrying out immigration policy, and a revealing look at the policy battles inside the White House.


The Migrant Debt Cycle
In a study of unintended consequences, Kevin Sieff investigated how the U.S. microfinancing efforts in Guatemala have also been used by migrants as small loans to pay for the journey north. While the devastating consequences of migration debt thread through the news cycle, Sieff’s story offers a “fresh perspective.” The New York Times also reported on this issue.
(The Washington Post, November 4, 2019)

Using Children as Passports
After the surge at the border in 2018 and the family separation policy went into effect, various outlets began to highlight one reason why kids were being taken on the treacherous journey. They were viewed as a sure ticket into the U.S. Univision host Jorge Ramos was not the fist to explore this angle, but his story, targeting both a Spanish and English speaking audience on Facebook Watch, and highlighting the complexities of this journey on immigrants and those trying to enforce laws, distinguishes itself from previous reporting. He spoke to Latino Border Patrol officers about the unprecedented challenges of detaining kids, as well as immigrant families. “As much as we criticize the framing of migrants’ stories as exploitative, Jorge Ramos showed us that the use of children makes it easier to cross into the U.S.,” wrote one of our judges. “He did so by using not just the government’s words, but those of parents and lawyers.”
(Real America with Jorge Ramos, May 30, 2019)

A special thank you to our judges: Dan Kowalski, immigration attorney and editor-in-chief of Bender’s Immigration Bulletin; Nissa Rhee, executive director of Borderless Magazine; journalist and Arizona State University professor Fernanda Santos; co-founding editors of DocumentedNY; Mazin Sidahmed and Max Siegelbaum; and USC Annenberg journalism professor Roberto Suro

*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 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 reported A Japanese American newspaper chronicles the ‘searing’ history of immigrant incarceration for PRI’s The World. 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 covering health care policy 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 worked for the Denver Post covering urban affairs and immigration. Her most recent story was Troubling audit reveals state failure to test millions of babies for toxic lead. 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 the 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, 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: @dhgerson