"Families Divided"

The Texas Tribune

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Byron Xol. Grisber Calero. Heyli from Honduras.

Outside of their hometowns, no one knew their names before this summer, and in a normal year, they would have been part of the anonymous stream of humanity trying their luck at the U.S. border. At most, they’d be a digit in the Border Patrol’s apprehension tally or another unnoticed asylum-seeker at a border bridge.

But 2018 wasn’t a normal year. And because of the far-reaching, truly unprecedented reporting by a scrappy but devoted team of Texas Tribune journalists, their stories and the trauma they endured have come to light — revealing the profound human toll of a sudden policy shift from Washington that reverberated around the world.

We now know that Byron Xol spent three days in a wooden crate as he and his father were smuggled north from Guatemala, swallowing pills to keep them from defecating on the journey, and listening to people dying around them in a tractor trailer on a Mexican highway. When they survived long enough to cross the Rio Grande, the U.S. government took Byron away from his father.

We know that Grisber Calero, a Nicaraguan college student, took a bullet in the leg within shouting distance of the U.S. border and nearly died from the resulting infection; that he fled his home country with his father, an opposition politician who got on the wrong side of a dictator; and that Central Americans like them are victimized nearly every step of their journey north by everyone from smugglers and crooked cops to bus drivers and hotel owners.

And we know that 6-year-old Heyli bravely told her mother, “I’ll be back in two days” as she left with her father for America, and that the next time her mother spoke to her on the phone, Heyli was a thousand miles from her dad and wouldn’t stop crying.

Even as these children became the focus of America’s news media, they were too often reduced to statistics: 500 children separated from their parents. A thousand. 3,000. The Tribune’s focus during those chaotic early weeks — and for months after the national media had moved on to other crises — was to find these children and their parents, and to tell their stories to hold the federal government accountable. 

To do this, the Tribune — whose entire reporting staff numbers just 20 — sent waves of journalists to the border for months at a time to supplement coverage from our El Paso-based immigration reporter. Our reporters, who produced hundreds of stories in the process, were the first to learn that federal agents were coercing detained immigrants into signing their own deportation orders with promises of reunification with their kids. The Tribune was the only U.S. outlet that partnered with Central American journalists to tell the story from the immigrants’ hometowns. And we found stories that others didn’t: immigrants held in limbo without access to phones or other communication, held in cheap hotels when the government ran out of detention space and separated from their kids after requesting asylum at ports of entry — something the government insisted wasn’t happening.

We interviewed families with children sleeping on international bridges after U.S. agents shut down asylum claims. And we revealed government detention centers with shameful histories of beatings and sexual assaults. 

When the Tribune had spent its entire 2018 reporter travel budget on this crisis, we quickly launched a fundraising campaign, raising an additional $75,000 to open a second bureau on the Texas-Mexico border. 

Our journalists faced significant obstacles — and even government lies — while trying to obtain basic information from federal agencies that refused to respond to questions or release meaningful data about their actions. When reporters sought interviews at shelters and detention centers, agents at times seemed to invent obstacles on the spot: One reporter was required to show proof of insurance before visiting a detainee who had agreed to speak with him. And they had to overcome language and geography: Most of the immigrants we interviewed spoke only Spanish, and a few spoke only an indigenous language; telling their stories involved traveling across the nation and into Central America.
Tribune reporters gathered hours of audio and video — in some cases by shooting video of immigrants’ cellphone Facetime chats with families back in Central America — which let us tell their stories in their own words. For a story on federal agencies housing detainees in hotels, federal buildings and other unusual places, our reporter found some of her best leads through online reviews left by other hotel guests.

The collection of stories included here was widely re-published in newspapers and news sites in Texas and beyond, including Yahoo and TIME magazine’s websites, which have a combined audience of 7.4 million. On social media, the Tribune was one of the leading outlets helping guide people through the confusion — including a 10-day tweet storm at the height of the crisis that involved 78 separate tweets and featured photos, video and the first-ever images of the tent city the government erected in Tornillo, Texas to hold immigrant children.

The Tribune is very proud of our journalists’ work on what quickly became an international story in our backyard, and we devoted considerable resources to move quickly, dig deeply and find immigrants like Byron, Grisber and Heyli whose lives were forever impacted by decisions made thousands of miles away. In the end, we feel we did more than any publication, local or national, to illuminate this crisis — and the people who continue to endure it — with a consistent mix of storytelling and accountability.

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Submitted by Emily Ramshaw.