Erin Siegal McIntyre is a photographer who also writes narrative nonfiction, produces for TV and web, and reports for radio. Her work has appeared in the various publications including New Yorker, the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and O Magazine. She’s a Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, and was a 2012-2013 Soros Media Justice Fellow. Her award-winning book Finding Fernanda was the basis for an hour-long CBS special investigation. She lives in Tijuana.
For more info, visit her website
Interview by Virginia Isaad
1. Having extensively covered the border, what has been one of the most difficult stories to cover and why?
Difficult can mean various things: a story can be hard technically, hard because of related security concerns, or simply because it’s not sexy enough to place with a media organization. But those kinds of obstacles are regular.
When I think about my three years on the border, covering the narcofosas related to El Pozolero was emotionally challenging. It was a combination of the graphic nature of the discoveries—seeing the actual pipes through which liquefied bodies were pumped, the makeshift holding tanks, the custom spigots, and the various site locations around eastern Tijuana: totally run-of-the-mill, dime-a-dozen poor neighborhoods— and then the immensity of strength and grace shown by the families in continual searches for kidnapped and disappeared loved ones. That awed me. I’ve been to a number of excavation sites, and came to understand the joy of finding a human bone fragment or tooth—a beacon of hope in the dark, a possible lead that could bring closure or answers.
I’m very protective over my own perception, and I intentionally avoid covering regular nota roja or crime in Mexico. I pay attention, but I don’t actively cover it. Quite simply, I want my instincts to remain as intact as possible; I don’t want to be one of those journalists who becomes deadened or desensitized. You can’t feel, perceive, write, and relay information strongly if you’re operating from a void of detachment.
There is something so intense and profound about the power of hope, civility, and basic human kindness in the face of such an unimaginable, ongoing hunt. I took this photograph of Fernando Ocegueda as he showed me around one excavation site before Mexican investigators arrived. He still hasn’t found his son, or his son’s body. It’s been six years.
2. A lot is being reported on immigrant children crossing the border. What do you have to say about this issue?
You can read my latest here.
I also wrote a quick piece this week for TakePart, about abuse allegations related to child detainees under Customs and Border Patrol custody.
I’ve been working in Miami for the last month, and have felt really far from my beats—the border, and child welfare. It’s been frustrating being so far from home!
3. For our Q & A with Todd Miller, he mentioned Border Patrol youth programs and you recently did a story on teenage drug mules. Would you say that as the drug war progresses, youths are more susceptible to the violence than before? Why or Why not?
I’ve done a few stories on teenage drug mules, most recently for NPR’s Latino USA and for Al Jazeera America. I’m not sure you could make the argument that teens are any more susceptible to bad decision-making than ever before. But you might actually be able to make the case that heightened border enforcement leads to a heightened apprehension rate for teens working as mules.
There’s also something to be said related to the normalization of drug use in American society. (Medicinal) marijuana is legal in California, so taping a few pounds of it to your belly and walking across the border in exchange for a hundred bucks or a new cell phone might not seem like such a big deal if you’re a teenager clueless about the criminal consequences.
My AJAM story about Cruz Marcelino Velázquez Acevedo touches on that ignorance; Velázquez was a teen who died in Border Patrol custody after drinking from a bottle of liquid meth while being questioned. He took a gulp to prove to the agents that it was apple juice. He probably didn’t think it would kill him, but it was a painful, agitated death by overdose. He was writhing and crying for his family.
4. During your fellowship with the Open Society you focused on U.S. deportation policy, what did you learn during your time on this project?
This project was an experiment of sorts; I was awarded a Media Justice fellowship to execute a group project along with two other teammates, both of whom had no previous journalism experience. One of my partners was a law professor specializing in juvenile incarceration and immigration detention, and my other partner was a former gang member and deportee who’d served 14 years in American prison, from age 16 to 28.
Our focus was on “bad” immigrants, criminal deportees, and the gray area between. We worked around issues related to people who were deported after serving time for aggravated felony convictions. The definition of “aggravated felony” includes some misdemeanors under current immigration law, so it’s pretty broad. There’s a lot to unpack, and we had a busy year reporting for different platforms, from comic book graphic journalism to traditional TV pieces.
We aimed to tell stories that humanized deportees, specifically those considered “bad” or undesirable, with criminal records. Many people don’t understand that there’s no double jeopardy for non-citizens, green card holders (legal residents) and undocumented immigrants alike. That means after they’ve served time, and if their offense is considered an aggravated felony under U.S immigration law, then they’re automatically deported. There’s no guarantee to counsel, or appeal. They can’t fight it. They’re deported, and there’s no recourse for ever returning- they’re banned for life. This happens to many people who grow up in the U.S, and consider themselves American.
5. The adoption of immigrant children has been the focus of your books. In one article, you cite that around 5,100 children of undocumented immigrants were in state care, and in many instances, had been cut off completely from communicating with their families. One-fifth of foster care children are subsequently adopted. What can you tell us about the current state of foster care for immigrant children?
Finding Fernanda and the related special “Perilous Journey” focused on unraveling one Guatemalan organized crime network that was working with American companies to facilitate the international adoptions of Guatemalan children to the United States. That’s completely different than the question you raise about undocumented immigrant children, though there is some overlap.
My friend and colleague, reporter Seth Freed Wessler, is the author of the authoritative report, “Shattered Families,” which digs into the complicated intersection of child welfare and current U.S. immigration policy. His findings and statistics are based on years of research, and today in 2014, they’re actually getting old.
No one has yet to update them; this kind of endeavor takes an investment of time and money. A lot of news outlets just can’t afford to do that kind of serious investigative work.
6. What is an aspect of the violence in Mexico that you feel isn’t covered enough?
I would argue that it’s not “violence in Mexico,” per se. The drug war isn’t a Mexican issue, it’s a shared responsibility. That’s nothing new.
I do think it’s always important to pay attention to discrepancies in crime reporting, especially contradictions between statistics from various government agencies and officials. There’s a lot of sugary spin (remember Mexico’s forecasted GDP growth last year?) and it’s easy for foreign reporters to devour it.
But in general, I don’t think the entire country of Mexico is covered enough! Then again, I adore mi hermosa patria adoptiva and I’m totally biased. So shoot, take my border reporting with a grain of salt, or ten. I love Mexico.
¡Y Tijuana rifa!