Alumni Spotlight: Covering Immigration in the Trump Era | Columbia Journalism School
Photo: Godofredo A Vásquez, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer
Photo: Godofredo A Vásquez, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

Alumni Spotlight: Covering Immigration in the Trump Era

Two weeks ago President Trump tweeted, again, that ICE would conduct raids targeting undocumented immigrants over the weekend. Once again reporters fanned out and prepared to cover the far-reaching implications of such actions, but the raids did not materialize. Lomi Kriel, ’11 M.A., is the immigration reporter for the Houston Chronicle. She talks about what it’s like to be on the frontlines of one of the most demanding beats in journalism right now.

1. How challenging is it that President Trump changes his mind often on immigration policies or practices, such as whether there will be raids on a certain date or not?

It’s very challenging, but it’s what we have come to expect from this administration. The president simply does not seem to understand the realities of immigration policies or, at least, is ignoring them, and his administration often implements proposals that make little sense and without seemingly any planning. This chaos was encapsulated in his family separation policy, in which the administration had zero plans to reunite parents and children after separating them until a federal judge forced it to do so last summer. The White House is now ensconced in an expensive taxpayer-funded effort to reunite separated families, including hundreds of parents who were deported without their children, but it could have been avoided if the administration had a method in place at the beginning of its policy.

2. You were the first reporter to uncover the Trump Administration's separation of migrant families at the border in November 2017, six months before the policy was announced. Tell us how you came upon that story and how you reported it.

In April 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave what seemed to be an innocuous announcement that urged federal prosecutors to prioritize immigration crimes.

That summer, I began reporting on how much more the system could take. That’s when I started hearing disturbing accounts from public defenders who suddenly reported clients who could not find the children they came with after the adults had been charged with improper entry. This was unusual.

In the past, the government typically only prosecuted parents with serious criminal or immigration histories, not first-time entrants, precisely because charging adults for the misdemeanor meant their children were, at least temporarily, removed, while the parents went through the judicial process because minors cannot be held in federal detention. In the absence of government data, I had to rely on emails from a Border Patrol lawyer and collected enough accounts from attorneys showing such separations were hardly an aberration. What was even more concerning is that once families were separated, there seemed to be no systematic process in place to reunite them after parents had served their few days of prison. Often, parents were deported without their children.

It all played out in a black hole where few were aware this was even happening until my story came out in November 2017. 

Eventually, the head public defender in El Paso took on the cases of five separated mothers, fighting their charges, and most importantly, keeping them in the United States for a while and allowing me access to them in federal detention. This was key.

I profiled one separated mother with a really strong asylum case. She was later released after my story ran, even though all the other mothers in that case were deported without their children. In January 2018, the ACLU called me to walk them through the separation process and in February, it filed its pivotal Ms. L lawsuit that forced the reunification of separated parents and children in June 2018.

3. In South Texas, immigration from the South is very real and present. How do readers respond to your stories and do you find yourself as a reporter engaging in dialogues about Trump's policies with readers a lot?

One in four residents in Harris County is foreign-born. It is the most diverse metropolitan region in the country. And of course, Texas has had a long-standing relationship with Mexico since its inception. It is also Ground Zero when it comes to border crossings.

Many people don’t realize that all five of Texas’ biggest cities have long been Democrat and that Houston was the largest city in the country to elect a lesbian mayor in 2009. It is a very inclusive city. But there is a real divide between the urban cores and the suburban and rural areas. My interactions with readers reflect that dichotomy.

I usually get hate mail every time I write a story, but in my experience it is because most people who have something positive to say don’t write in. I have the opposite experience when I speak at local or statewide events. In those cases, most people are very progressive.

When I focus in-depth on the story of one immigrant or family, I often get many requests on how people can help. This has resulted in mass fundraisers to save people from deportation or help immigrants from losing their homes during Hurricane Harvey.

4. More than a year has passed since Trump signed an order to end his policy of separating families at the border, but is it still happening? Have you been inside some of the centers where they are keeping children separated from their parents, or parents from their children?

This continues to be a big source of confusion. Though the president signed an order last summer ostensibly ending family separations, he did not end the “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting illegal crossers. As I reported last month, the administration separated more than 700 children from their parents since the president signed an executive order ending the practice last June. Often, as my reporting showed, the justifications for the separations quickly disintegrated upon deeper investigation.

To the second part of your question, as I mentioned, there is extremely restricted access to Border Patrol processing facilities or ICE detention centers for parents, and even less so for Health and Human Services shelters that house unaccompanied migrant children. I have been in ICE detention centers to interview separated parents and have toured an HHS shelter,  but reporters were not able to speak to the children.

5. What prepared you for this beat?

The No. 1 thing that prepared me for this beat is that I am an immigrant. I moved here from South Africa when I was 17 after my parents won the green card lottery, which the Trump administration now wants to undo, claiming it brings in dangerous people. It has helped me understand how vulnerable people can feel as immigrants, even though of course I was extremely privileged, relative to many other experiences.

I also covered crime in south Texas for many years before quitting my job and moving to Central America to learn Spanish. I spent a lot of time freelancing in Guatemala and El Salvador, and worked for a while in Panama covering the region for Reuters.

It felt like a coming home of sorts when I was offered the job covering immigration for the Houston Chronicle in 2014 at the beginning of the Central American child migration crisis. I knew what areas people were coming from -- often, I had been there -- and that helped us develop trust.  It has been an honor to cover this issue at such a crucial time, both as an immigrant to Houston and as someone who knows Central America so well.