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Reporting on ICE? Use these tips to pry open records and tell real stories

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

Reporting on ICE? Use these tips to pry open records and tell real stories

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(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

A heart attack, a miscarriage and even a death have all happened on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement flights since 2012, according to complaints filed with the agency.

I found these accounts while sifting through thousands of pages of government records obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act. On their own, these complaints may have seemed like anomalies. But a broader pattern of medical negligence emerged when I paired the records with notes from internal ICE meetings and interviews with dozens of detainees, former agency employees, medical experts, lawyers and advocates.

My investigation — published by the Guardian, Capital & Main and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ palabra. — found that ICE has consistently failed to provide adequate medical care to detainees on its privately chartered jets, sometimes leading to dire health outcomes.

The story’s deep reporting was bolstered by the support of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism and the Fund for Investigative Journalism. But it wasn’t what I initially set out to do.

As a 2020 California Fellow, I planned to investigate ICE’s practices around sedating people in its custody. The agency has forcibly drugged detainees in the past, spurring lawsuits and policy changes. But the practice hadn’t been scrutinized since. I hoped to explore a few questions: When and why does the agency inject detainees with sedatives? What kind of medications are officials using? What are the short- and long-term health effects of being sedated without consent?

Yet my best-laid plans were derailed by the coronavirus pandemic and obfuscation by ICE and its private contractors. I was limited in many ways from reporting in the field and ran into roadblocks with closed offices and delayed response times. I forged ahead with a community call-out to people currently or formerly in ICE custody. I called, emailed and reached out to dozens of sources. I filed records requests. I even tracked down some solid leads. Overall though, responses were few and confusion abounded.

With my deadline approaching and serious reporting gaps remaining, I decided to shift gears and tell a different story by leaning on the lessons I’ve learned while reporting on ICE. Here are a few I hope will help you:

Tell human stories. The most important aspect of any issue you’re reporting on is how it affects the lives of real people. And there’s no better way to draw a reader into an article about a wonky or complex problem than through a personal experience they can relate to or be surprised by. I was able to illustrate many of the overarching issues with medical neglect on ICE flights through the story of Marta, a woman with lupus and asthma who caught the coronavirus while in custody. The agency never retested her before putting her on a chartered jet with dozens of other detainees. Marta’s story illustrated many of the common issues identified in the internal records I obtained, giving readers a way into the subject.

Be patient and persistent. I’ve largely come to expect that ICE and the private companies it contracts for services will stonewall my questions and public records requests. It often takes significant time and effort to get to the truth, so I buckle in for a long ride. But I don’t just sit idly by; I steer things my way by being relentless in my follow-ups. One of the clearest examples of this is in the FOIA process. I’ve filed dozens of requests for ICE records over the last two years. In most cases, I’m still waiting for a response or I’m working my way through appeals and litigation in an attempt to pry these records loose. Something I’ve learned: Always ask for an estimated date of completion. Then ask again. And again if you have to. Many times, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Pry out public records. Successfully obtaining records that reveal government actions previously unknown to the public mainly comes down to persistence, and knowledge of the laws and the. agency’s records systems. My not-so-secret weapons when writing requests and appeals are the National Security Archive’s FOIA guide and the FOIA wiki created by the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. The FOIA Project is also excellent for finding FOIA case law. In my experience, having won a few appeals, citing legal precedent helps signal that you’re not messing around and might sue for the records. The agency may prefer to search again or release more records now, rather than go through litigation later.

Another way to strengthen requests is knowing how the agency keeps the records you’re after. All federal agencies must publish their systems of records in the Federal Register. For example, you can see the Department of Homeland Security’s systems of records online here. When you are able to tell an agency exactly where to look and what to look for, it increases the likelihood that you’ll get the records you’re seeking as quickly as possible.

Cast a wide net. The opacity of ICE’s increasingly privatized systems of detention and deportation make it essential to reach out to a diverse array of sources across the spectrum of involvement and experience to get the full picture.

In stories about immigration enforcement, the voices of lawyers and advocates are common, and oftentimes powerful. But I’d encourage reporters to go further, speaking first and foremost to as many people currently or formerly detained by the agency as possible. While it can be difficult during the pandemic to safely report from courthouses or detention facilities where you might have met these sources in the past, there are alternative ways to get in touch. My main tactic is to distribute short call-outs via email listservs and social media, then reach out directly to suggested sources via secure messaging apps like WhatsApp, Signal or Telegram, which I’ve found many formerly detained people have access to, even if they’ve been deported abroad.

When I’m reporting, I also reach out to current and former employees of the government agency and its contractors. I use LinkedIn to send messages or track down social media accounts or email addresses. If you have access to Lexis or a similar search tool, I find it helpful to run a background search on all sources.

Think outside the box and also contact experts from various related industries and from a range of viewpoints. For example, for my investigation of medical negligence on ICE flights, I spoke to the owner of a flight nursing company and a doctor who has worked in prisons and detention facilities, as well as a public health researcher focused on immigrant communities and a doctor who oversees human rights conditions in detention. Not all of their quotes made it into the story, but they provided important context to help me frame the issues most accurately.


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The USC Center for Health Journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is seeking two Engagement Editors and a social media consultant to join its team. Learn more about the positions and apply.


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