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How I found stories of health care gone missing in the NYC’s undocumented Chinese community

Craft: Lessons From The Field

How I found stories of health care gone missing in the NYC’s undocumented Chinese community

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Photo by April Xu

They are a large group, but they are invisible to many of us. They live in the same cities we do, but when they look up, they see a different color sky. They come to America to pursue better lives, but sometimes it costs them their health, or even their lives. They are undocumented immigrants.

There are over 500,000 undocumented immigrants in New York City. A majority of them are uninsured. As a Chinese journalist who works for a Chinese-language newspaper in NYC, I have seen some undocumented Chinese die from severe illnesses over the past five years. Some of these deaths were preventable if these immigrants had known more about the health care services available, and if there were fewer barriers to receiving care. These issues do not only exist in Chinese community; they apply to the larger immigrant community as well.

But undocumented immigrantshealth issues are almost always ignored by the mainstream media. On one hand, undocumented immigrants struggle to get enough useful information about health care services through mainstream outlets. One the other hand, their lack of knowledge of the U.S. health system and fears created by our current political climate create barriers for undocumented immigrants to get essential health care. It becomes a vicious circle.

My 2018 National Fellowship reporting project comprised three stories: one feature story about a dying undocumented Chinese immigrant who was diagnosed with cancer; one story about the current barriers that undocumented immigrants facing in seeking health care services; and one story about possible solutions.

But interviewing members of an “invisible” group is not easy. First, it is hard to figure out who is an undocumented immigrant — there is no record that you can search or check, the undocumented don’t have a group or a defined community, and most don’t want to tell you their immigration status. They don’t want to be exposed. Second, health issues are usually a taboo topic in Asian culture. Many Asian people don’t like to talk about their health conditions, especially when they have serious diseases, let alone talk to a journalist about it.Third, some undocumented immigrants suffering from serious diseases already died before I started my project, and most of their families are in China. That made it hard to get their medical records or find their family members to interview.

Fortunately, after six months of researching, interviewing and reporting, my stories were published. During the process, I gained a lot of experience that could help other journalists who may want to cover similar territory in the future.

1) Dig deep into the community.

There is no undocumented Chinese immigrants organization or community. I tried different way to find the people and stories that I wanted. Usually, when undocumented Chinese immigrants encounter difficulties such as accidents, severe diseases or scams, they will turn to Chinese family associations or community organizations in Chinatown, because they usually can only speak Chinese and they trust these organizations. The Chinese family associations usually consist of people who have same family name or come from same city or town in China. I heard many stories about health issues among undocumented Chinese from Chinese family associations.

Asian American Community Empowerment (BRACE), a nonprofit community organization based in Brooklyn, is a particularly powerful Chinese community organization. It offers free legal services to immigrants and always fundraises money for immigrants who are experiencing difficulties. In the past three years, at least 10 undocumented immigrants asked BRACE for help because they were severely ill and could not afford treatments.

I contacted Shanzhuang Chen, the president of BRACE, to see if I could get connected with undocumented immigrants via the organization. BRACE always asks visitors to sign in and to write down their reason for visiting. From the visiting record, I found five undocumented immigrants who came to BRACE because of health issues. Two of them fit the profile for my stories.

2) Never give up.

Even though I found two cases through BRACE, they were not a perfect fit for my feature story.  One of the undocumented immigrants died before I started my project, so I could only find out some basic facts from his family. The other undocumented immigrant declined to comment on the barriers he has faced to get health access in a more detailed way.

So, I needed to look for other candidates for my stories. I met some undocumented immigrants through my job and some through community organizations, but few of them wanted to be exposed to media coverage. When I felt I could not find the perfect person and almost gave up, my editor encouraged me to think outside the box and consider other ways to reach undocumented immigrants in the city.

I then realized that many undocumented immigrants work in the delivery industry, and I happened to know a leader of a Chinese deliveryman association. When I explained my project to him, he helped me find the main character in my feature story.

3) Collect more materials than what you need.

My project ended up in running as three stories, over 6,000 words in total, and I used less than a third of the materials I collected for my project.

It is always necessary to collect more stories and do more reporting than you strictly need. You can then choose the best parts and organize them accordingly. In addition, make sure that you have enough backup materials if something in your stories needs to be deleted or edited. There is one organization that I interviewed who then called me to withdraw their quotes after the interview. I deleted them and it didn’t really affect my stories.

4) Protect your sources.

My project is about undocumented immigrants, so it was critical that I protected their information and addressed their concerns about being found by federal law enforcement when I wrote about them. To protect them, I deleted the street number of where they lived in my articles and took pictures of them from the side or from their back. You dont want to publish articles that cause harm to already vulnerable people.



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