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Q&A: The Missing Voices in the Immigration Debate

A boy’s face at a window
A young boy from Mexico looks out the window of an immigration detention center in Brownsville, Texas, on June 5, 2014. © Eduardo Perez/Newscom

Kristina Shull is a 2016 Soros Justice Fellow working to expose abuses in the immigration detention system, and lift up the voices of migrants. She is the author of a new report on media coverage of detention issues for a nonprofit organization called Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC). She spoke with Tom Watson, senior editorial advisor, about the report’s findings.

The headlines are full of stories about travel bans and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids. Yet we hear comparatively little about how all this tumult is affecting those currently held in immigration detention facilities. Why is that?

The detention system still remains a shadowy part of enforcement operations. Amidst the recent public outrage over President Trump’s travel ban, I noticed there was little attention to the fact that detention numbers were already at record-high numbers (approximately 42,000) even before Trump was elected. And how what is happening now connects to a long, dark history of detention practices in this country.

To address this disconnect, I have authored a report with CIVIC that assesses the visibility of immigration detention in the media over the past eight years. We found that coverage of these issues has actually increased in that time span; detention is three times more visible now (in terms of the frequency of coverage) than it was at the beginning of the Obama administration. And we found that coverage is largely critical of the detention system, often focusing on problems and abuses within it.

However, when we looked more closely, we found that the quality of coverage is still lacking: migrant voices are missing from the narrative, and coverage fails to convey the complexities of the detention system to the public. Even coverage that criticizes the detention system reinforces the false and dehumanizing binary that migrants in detention are either threats to the public or helpless victims. 

After surveying prominent immigration journalists, we conclude that it’s not for a lack of interest among reporters to cover the complexities of the detention system, but a lack of access. ICE routinely restricts reporters and visitors’ access to detention centers and actively censors communications beyond the walls.

In addition to this report, you’ve also launched a new online magazine aimed at highlighting firsthand stories of migrants’ experience with the detention system. How did it come about?

CIVIC’s publication, called IMM Print, is a remedy for the lack of migrant voices in the media. It features firsthand accounts, poetry, and art from those in detention, along with news and commentary from activists, scholars, and allies. It seeks to expose the detention system from all angles, but privileges the voices of those most hidden in media narratives.

IMM Print was conceived as a response to the growing need, expressed by people in detention, for their voices to be heard. Storytelling is, I believe, the Achilles heel of a system striving to remain secretive. CIVIC is the national detention visitation network, operating over 40 visitation programs in facilities across 19 states, and our network of 1,500 volunteers with their eyes and ears in the system is well positioned to help people share their stories with the wider world. 

How can media and nonprofits do a better job of illuminating the landscape on these issues?

We addressed that very question in the CIVIC report, and offered several suggestions. We recommend that media focus more on solutions-based stories—covering how actors respond to detention practices, not just systemic problems. We urge the press to give greater voice to migrants’ stories in their own voices. We call on the U.S. government to ease restrictions on reporter access to immigration detention facilities. And we would encourage nonprofit organizations serving immigrants to embrace storytelling as a vehicle for social change.  

This issue is more than just a policy matter to you; it’s personal. How have your life experiences spurred your interest in this work?

Ten years ago, I was a recent New York University graduate living and working in the city. I fell in love with and married a man who was undocumented; he had lost his case for political asylum and was facing deportation. When we tried to adjust his status, we were denied, and he was immediately detained in a for-profit immigration detention center in New Jersey and deported.

As I visited him every day for three months, my eyes were opened to the conditions in detention and the suffering inflicted upon thousands of families subjected to this arbitrary and vast, yet largely hidden, system. I came to believe that if everyone in our country could see what was happening, it would not be happening.

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