Covering Sensitive Populations: Working with Undocumented Immigrants

This story is part one of our Covering Sensitive Populations series, where we help dissect the intricacies of working with subjects that may be made vulnerable to media attention. If you have a suggestion for a population you’d like to see discussed in this series, comment or tweet at us.

There are approximately 11 million undocumented workers in the United States. Chances are that you will encounter stories that involve undocumented immigrants. CV has aggregated some tips to help you better cover these communities.

Understand the community’s challenges

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma published a report that discusses immigration policy and law.  They suggest journalists try to understand the obstacles for undocumented immigrants.

“Aside from the challenges immigrants face in trying to acclimate to a new environment—loss of extended family support, loss of familiar values and language, economic stressors—the vast majority of immigrants have left their native country under traumatic circumstances. The impact of this trauma is difficult to measure and may even be passed on to the next generation with significant consequences,” said Joanna Dreby, an assistant professor of sociology at SUNY Albany and the author of a book on the children of Mexican migrants.

She interviewed 110 children. 81 of them said they were proud of their Mexican heritage, but only 27 said they were proud of their immigrant heritage. The report points out that for some, the word “immigrant” is associated with shame.

Know the history

Before entering a community, do your research. It helps to understand what political, social, and economical forces are at play.  Listed below are a few resources that will point you in the right direction:

PewResearch Center: The Pew center has a list of research that will anchor your work into a larger context. For example, check out “Immigration: Key Data from Pew Research”

GatewayCalifornia: An California-based organization that hopes “bridge the cultural and digital divides between journalists and immigrant communities.”

Center for Immigration Studies: An independent, non-partisan, non-profit, research organization whose sole mission is to provide reliable information about the social, economic, environmental, security, and fiscal consequences of legal and illegal immigration into the United States.

Immigration Policy Center: A research and policy extension of the American Immigration Council aimed at fostering a discussion around immigration. A site that offers a list of nonprofits by topic and location. Nonprofits are gatekeepers into sensitive communities.


The Associated Press announced last year that it would no longer use the term “illegal immigrant.” The National Association of Hispanic Journalists also stated its concern with “the increasing use of pejorative terms to describe the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States.” Using words like “illegals” (shorthand for “illegal aliens”) as nouns, is not only grammatically incorrect, but it “crosses the line by criminalizing the person, not the action they are purported to have committed,” according to their press release.

The Los Angeles Times released a guide to covering immigration last year. Here are some of the their key points:

Avoid using “illegal immigrant” or “undocumented immigrant” to describe individuals except when necessary in direct quotations.

Do not specify a person’s immigration status unless it is relevant to the story. Immigration laws are complex. Do not state as a fact that someone has violated the law without sufficient attribution.

Be specific whenever possible in describing an individual’s status:

  • “Authorities said he crossed the border illegally.”
  • “She entered the country to attend college but overstayed her student visa.”
  • “He was brought here as a child by his parents, who entered the U.S. without a visa.”

Protecting your sources

When working with the undocumented immigrant community, the threat of placing your subject(s) at risk should be a high concern. As journalists, we have an obligation to warn of the consequences of media coverage, including unwanted attention from law enforcement.

“I think it’s important to let sources who are in the country illegally make the decision for themselves as to whether they want their name in print,” said Cindy Carcamo, national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, during an interview with the Dart Center.  “I make sure to let these sources know that the story will be available for everyone to see. If they are ok with this and want their name out there, then I abide by their wishes. If they fear their name will grab the attention of authorities and don’t want their name available to the public, I understand that, and make adjustments—I’ll often just use their first name, or leave their name out entirely.”

But, Carcamo added: “If a subject knows all of that and opts to go forward, I think we should respect and honor that choice.”

Some journalists have found ways to protect their sources without compromising the story.  In 2011, Catherine Orr, a documentary journalist and then graduate student, produced “Dreams Delayed,” a long-form, multimedia news fea­ture on college access for undocumented immigrants.

Orr stated in an interview that instead of blurring faces or casting her subjects in silhouetted shadow, she attempted other techniques like showing hands and feet in motion. In one scene, a character who wanted to remain anonymous is filmed doing push-ups and fluffing his pillow, tossing his backpack over his shoulder and walking out the door.

Find out the gen­eral policy of that publication or station — or whatever medium you’re working in — for using sources who want to remain anonymous or have their identity protected.

“If they don’t have [a policy], negotiate with that editor a way to do your story about people who don’t have papers. After that, consider carefully, being truthful and honest with the source about what might happen, what impact that story may have in the media and in the life of the source. … Decide for yourself how much anonym­ity you want to provide for your source, how you’re going to end up shooting the story or reporting the story,” said Cuadros, a freelancer who covers Latinos in the South for Time magazine, in an interview with Diverse,

Tackling the language barrier

Phong Ly, executive director of Institute for Justice & Journalism, wrote a list of great strategies on what to do if you don’t speak the same language as your subjects:

Seek out long-time residents and younger people as ‘cultural brokers.’ Use them to help you get an overview of the community, brainstorm story ideas and meet others.

Realize there may be more English speakers than you think.

Use your other senses. Reporting isn’t limited to interviewing. Look at what’s on their walls. Notice their gestures. What type of music is playing? What type of photos or written materials can they show you?

Develop a network of translators. Reporters I know have depended on friends, parents or colleagues at other newsrooms.



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