Winter 2002

Introduction

By Melissa Ludtke, Editor
Journalists who devote considerable time to coverage of immigration and investigation of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) write about why they report on a topic that rarely makes Page One. They also share experiences in how they’ve reported these stories, especially in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Arguably, this is one of the more difficult beats given the secrecy with which the INS guards much of what it does—a secrecy that some news organizations are now challenging on constitutional grounds.

Rick Tulsky, a projects reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, documented systemic failings in the INS in his award-winning investigative series on the treatment of asylum seekers. He explains how newsroom perceptions and circumstances make such stories a tough sell to editors. Herschel P. Fink, a former journalist who is now a news media lawyer, writes about the First Amendment case he recently argued in which the Detroit Free Press, three other Michigan newspapers and Rep. John Conyers challenged the government’s policy of secret deportation trials of aliens. (The Sixth Circuit ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, while in a similar press case, the Third Circuit ruled in favor of the government. This means it is likely the U.S. Supreme Court will decide on this issue.) Hilary Burke, who covered immigration for the Herald News in West Paterson, New Jersey and is a plaintiff in the Third Circuit case, tells about the difficulties of trying to report on “special interest” detainees held at the nearby Passaic County Jail. And freelance author Mark Dow describes the reporting restrictions an INS official put into place when they said a question he asked was “inappropriate.”

Los Angeles Times writer Patrick J. McDonnell has reported on immigration during much of the past two decades. In making the case for why reporters should want to do this beat, McDonnell argues that “the immigration beat more than makes up in substance what it lacks in newsroom cachet.” Miami Herald editorial writer Susana Barciela offers many reasons why press coverage of the INS is essential. Among them: “Power without public scrutiny has … bred lack of accountability, incompetence and abuse.”

Freelance photographer Steven Rubin used a Media Fellowship from the Open Society Institute to photograph INS detainees. Images from his documentary project appear, along with stories and insights collected along the way. “What these images do,” Rubin observes, “is begin to put a face on the staggeringly large numbers [of detainees] and help make their situations less deniable, more real.”

Chris L. Jenkins, a metro staff writer for The Washington Post, tracked what happens to unaccompanied minors who seek asylum in the United States: “In trying to learn about their lives and tell their stories,” Jenkins writes, “we were confronted by hurdle after hurdle, and this prompted us to push harder to keep government accountable.” Former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis describes the use of personal storytelling as a strategy to focus attention on policies that the press neither covered well nor explained when they became law. And Richard Read, The Oregonian’s senior writer for international affairs, takes us on the journey of that paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning watchdog reporting of the INS. He begins in its earliest stages as reporters track local INS incidents, then moves us through stages of extensive investigative reporting and tough-minded editing.

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