November 13, 2019

Event Coverage Highlight

Journalists Share Stories About US-Bound Migrant Caravans

Left to right: Nina Berman, Carolyn Van Houten, and Jika González. Photo: Chad Bouchard

Scroll to the bottom or click here to see video clips from the program >>

by Chad Bouchard

In late 2018, a caravan of migrants embarked on a journey that would span more than 2,500 miles from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border. It was far from the first such caravan, but this one gathered particular attention as its progress straddled U.S. midterm elections. President Trump used it in campaign rallies to fan supporters’ worries about immigration, ordered troops deployed to the border, and claimed without evidence that MS-13 gang members and “unknown Middle Easterners” were travelling with the group.

In such a highly charged political environment, journalists covering the caravan faced extra challenges in putting the story in context, avoiding ethical pitfalls, and revealing the underlying humanity of those involved.

On Sept. 16, the OPC and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism co-sponsored a program with two journalists who were on the ground and followed the story closely.

Carolyn Van Houten, a staff photojournalist at The Washington Post, spent most of the last year covering issues surrounding immigration and asylum in Central America. She presented a slide show of photos from the caravan and captions based on her reporting. Her photographs documented moments of exhaustion, desperation, sickness, injury and crowding along rest stops, as well as a few moments of lightness when groups bathed in a river on a sunny day. She said one asylum seeker expressed doubt that the journey would be worthwhile, telling her “the truth is that I don’t know if [the U.S.] will help us.”

“Much of the national narrative around asylum in migrant caravans is muddled with the conversation about illegal immigration,” Van Houten said. She also presented photographs of squalid conditions at detention centers at the U.S. border.

Van Houten won the OPC’s Robert Capa Gold Medal Award in April for her photos of the caravan.

Jika González, a photo and video journalist from Mexico City based in New York, presented a few minutes of the film she co-produced for VICE News, “Walking to America,” which followed the same group of migrants last fall. She said since many other news outlets already covered the caravan as breaking news, her team wanted to find a more intimate and long-form angle. They chose a single adolescent, named Mario, to focus on during the journey.

“For me it was important to hear just one voice of one of these kids, and I think it shows a lot of process.”

González’s film won a Citation of Excellence from the OPC in April for The Robert Spiers Benjamin Award for best reporting in any medium on Latin America.

Much has changed over the last year since their reporting. The Supreme Court on Sept. 11 allowed the Trump administration to bar most Central American migrants from seeking asylum in the United States while a legal battle about a new rule is still underway. The rule bans asylum applications from migrants who traveled through another country on their way to the United States without first applying and being denied asylum in those countries. The American Civil Liberties Union has challenged the rule, and the case will likely find its way back to the Supreme Court in the coming months.

“Essentially Mexico is now acting as an extension of the U.S-Mexico border,” González said, adding that Mexico agreed to become a buffer border after caving to Trump’s threat of tariffs. She said she saw thousands of migrants and asylum seekers stuck in Guatemala a month ago from countries like Cameroon, Uganda, Central African Republic and Bangladesh, as well as Central America.

The moderator, Nina Berman, who is director of the photography program at Columbia, asked the panelists to talk about conditions that prompted migrants to leave their homes and join a caravan.

Van Houten had traveled in Central America with U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials as they sought an answer to that question. “And I think we came away from that with no good answers, to be honest,” she said. She heard reasons ranging from extortion, gang violence, and poverty to food insecurity and severe drought in rural areas of Guatemala.

Both journalists said that they struggled to find a balance in how much historical context to provide in their reporting without bogging the stories down. “If you get too into the weeds it’s easy to lose people,” Van Houten said. “Also, contextualizing in certain situations is seen as political,” such as the impact of climate change on the food system, she said.

González said she had talked to migrants who had previously grown coffee, but three years of drought had destroyed their livelihood and pushed them into extreme poverty. “I think it’s important to not just label someone as an economic migrant, because if you dig deeper, you’ll find there are so many reasons.”

Berman asked the panelists about logistical challenges on the road, such as transportation and housing. Both said that they avoided riding along with the caravan vehicles because it would mean displacing someone who needed the ride more than they did, and would risk inserting themselves too much into the story.

Along with the migrants they both faced sickness and exhaustion due to poor sanitation, relentless hours and unpredictable schedules. Despite those challenges, Gonzalez and Van Houten said that nothing they faced matched anything near the hardships the migrants faced. “I come from a place of privilege and comfort,” Van Houten said, adding that she feels a responsibility to use the privilege and resources and access to media to commit fully to the people she’s covering, “and nothing that we experience covering these stories will ever compare to what the people who we’re covering are going through, ever. It’s no comparison. Because we get to go home.”