Dianne Solis on Border Crisis, Migrant Children

Dianne Solis, senior writer for the Dallas Morning News, has been covering immigration for the past 25 years. As the humanitarian crisis on the southern border continues, we spoke with Solis about her experiences on the beat, and the challenges of working with children, establishing trust over short periods of time, and providing context for the average reader back home.

Upwards of 57,000 unaccompanied Central American teens and children have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border since October, a number that could swell to 90,000 before the end of the year. As Congress began a five-week recess on Friday night, emergency legislation has yet to be passed and the humanitarian crisis on the southern border continues.

Dallas Morning News senior writer Dianne Solis is covering the story, and has been committed to the immigration beat for the past 25 years. The Dart Center’s Ariel Ritchin spoke with Solis about her experiences on the beat and the challenges in reporting this story, including working with children, establishing trust over short periods of time, and providing context for the average reader back home.

The Dart Center has a host of resources for those covering the U.S. border crisis.

Ariel Ritchin: You started covering this story when teenagers were fleeing the wars in Central America back in 1989. What has been the driving force behind your commitment to cover this issue, on both sides of the border? How has immigration coverage changed since you've been on the beat?

Dianne Solis: The vulnerability of teenagers and their will to survive drove me to the story in 1989. That’s when I met Orlando, Reynaldo, Javier and Walter, all part of the stream of migrants pouring through Brownsville and the Rio Grande Valley. I was a young Texas-based reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Their narratives were astounding as was the whole stream of teens coming without parents and fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. In many cases, they simply didn't want to fight and kill people. Some had already been teenage soldiers, recruited by the government or by guerrillas at the obscene age of 14 or even 12. 

The theme of decomposing childhoods resonates again in the stories we collect from a fresh generation from Central America. Resurrection is a powerful universal in many immigration tales and in this one.

One of the more striking changes now is the stronger journalism in the U.S. and Latin America. Powerful prose now pours out of El Salvador with Elfaro.net and out of Mexico. On the airwaves, Fusion and Radio Ambulante are both seeped in this idea of bilingual reporting from both sides of the river, or rivers. This wasn't true 25 years ago. It was as though immigration embarrassed those in Mexico — not just government officials but journalists, too.

AR: What does it feel like to have this story front and center in the news flow? 

DS: It feels like some see the children as fully human, and some don't. Beyond that shouting match, there’s now a deep conversation over what is an immigrant and what is a refugee. The examination of our U.S. justice and immigration system speaks powerfully to how some want us to better distill out who can stay and who cannot. 

AR: You have taught several seminars on research and database mining. How is this particularly useful in immigration reporting?

DS: Data-mining is essential to reporting. So many complain about the lack of transparency in U.S. federal agencies. Why can't they get current stats from the Department of Homeland Security? Is the Justice Department fighting with DHS? The use of the Privacy Act in immigration proceedings to "protect the immigrant" has been the source of much sarcastic commentary. 

Into all that comes Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), an independent and massive Freedom of Information Act project that systemically gathers data on judicial processes and outcomes and analyzes it. Because of TRAC, we can report more fully on such issues as the higher deportation rates in Texas, versus California, and the likelihood that a juvenile immigrant will be ordered deported without an attorney.  One can also find out information ranging from the asylum denial rates of individual judges, to the likelihood of getting deported from a certain detention center.

AR: What are some specific challenges you have faced in your reporting? What is different today than in the past?

DS: Stories now are more complex because immigration law is more complex and transnational criminal cartels have gotten into the business. We have the rise of large transnational populations in cities like Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and so forth. Violence in certain part of Honduras and El Salvador is like the violence in war zones, we’re told, and the same can be said for the rape of women and girls. Wading into that takes careful planning.

One challenge is deepening context. Explore the disparate treatment of a Vietnamese child fleeing Saigon in 1975, a Cuban child fleeing Havana after Fidel's rise in 1962, and a Honduran child fleeing the Maras gang today. 

AR: Was there a time when a kid really opened up to you, or completely shut down? How did you respond?

DS: In 1989, kids opened up to me from a shelter in South Texas. I had good access and time. I’ll never forget Orlando and the trio of boys who watched over him. Orlando, a 14-year-old Guatemalan, asked that I adopt him. I had to tell him no. Everybody loved Orlando, who had tuba of a voice and liked to sing songs about drug dealers and then crack up laughing. But he was troubled. I'd like to find Orlando now, all four of them.

Today, a boy like Orlando might qualify for something known as Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. It didn't exist then. Orlando faced the judge alone to ask for asylum. He failed. Like so many today. 

This year, reporting in Mexico near the train tracks was difficult. Time was limited to just that one day because the Hondurans were continuing on the journey. To get teens to open up took careful questioning. Two approaches that worked well: “What would you like the people in the U.S. to know about why you make this dangerous journey?” and  “Tell me why you couldn’t live at home.”

AR: Was there ever a time when you worried about crossing the line between journalist and activist?

DS: I'm a journalist, period. I try to change the camera angle as I report. That means talking to U.S. citizens, as well, about immigration's impact. That means talking to prosecutors, judges, teachers, cops, as well as the latest arrivals. It means reporting in a deeper way about the dissension within the ranks of “advocates” and taking the criticism afterwards. 

AR: What are some of the things reporters are missing today? What tips and advice would you share for covering immigrant children and teens?

DS: Journalists need to go to federal immigration courts. That’s where the juveniles face their last test. It's an emotionally rough place for many immigrants and their families--and for judges, prosecutors and the lawyers who defend these juveniles. We should change the angle more onto the U.S. citizens who tackle this issue. 

These days, in Dallas, it feels like 90 percent of the unaccompanied minors have no attorney.

Another challenge is to give context to the violence and to the poverty. Some are now examining U.S. foreign aid to the region, our communal illicit economies and whether laws need to be changed in less or more restrictive ways. 

Children are children. You treat them gently as you interview. These child witnesses to violence are suffering. Dart’s prepared great tips for interviewing children who’ve experienced trauma, in English and in Spanish. 

AR: Are there any particular pieces you'd hold up as models of ethical, effective coverage? Any must-reads? 

DS: There are many good stories filled with humanity lately. I particularly admire work by Susan Carroll of The Houston Chronicle, Melissa del Bosque of The Texas Observer and William Finnegan of The New Yorker. Their work stands out for the deep, detailed journey into the tangled immigration process and for strong character selection. They never forget that at the core of the story is a human being, often a very vulnerable one.  

All of this is post-Enrique. That's Enrique, the Honduran who went on an odyssey in search of his mother more than a decade ago and whose life was chronicled by Sonia Nazario. She won a Pulitzer for her work, retracing the peril-filled trip he took atop the train known as The Beast. Her grit inspires. Her book, Enrique’s Journey, is a must-read.