Despite slight advancements in Congress’s immigration legislation, 2 million people have been deported from the United States over the past five years. Between July 2010 and September 2012, around 205,000 of those people are parents who have been separated from their children, according to federal data obtained by Colorlines.com, a daily news site focused on race. Many of these children, who are U.S. citizens, are placed in the child welfare system and separated from their parents for years--some even permanently.
Seth Freed Wessler is a Brooklyn-based writer who covers immigration. In Wessler’s August 2013 feature for ELLE magazine, “‘I’m Here, My Children Are Over There’: Immigration and its impact on families,” he examines the impact of deportations on family and social life through the perspective of a mother, Karla, and her two children, Cruz, 14, and Merlly, 2, as they battle with the justice and child welfare systems.
“It's important to report beyond the issue of deportation itself and start looking at the ways that deportation can corrode other important institutions and parts of family life,” said Wessler.
Wessler, who has covered similar stories and done notable research on the family separation issue for Colorlines.com and Race Forward (formerly Applied Research Center) said he was recently motivated to look into Karla’s story to see if there had been any improvement with the way child welfare systems were handling these separations since he began reporting on the issue. He had personally met Karla and knew about her story for quite some time, but was waiting for the right time to tell it.
“What I found is that family reunification is often very difficult when child welfare systems get involved in the lives of families with deported parents,” he said. “That is in part because many child welfare systems still lack clear policies for addressing the needs of families separated by detention and deportation.”
Karla’s story is compelling. Deported from Arizona and separated from her children, Karla does everything she can to reunite with her children.
Wessler had met Karla soon after her deportation and maintained contact with her because of the familiarity he had with her personal story.
"The reporting with [Karla] began long before I knew I would be reporting the story with ELLE,” he said.
One he pitched the story for ELLE, Wessler spent about a week in Arizona and Mexico. The long period of times spent with Karla prior to when he pitched the story and the access to documents on the case helped him piece together an intimate narrative on Karla’s story and her reunification with her daughter.
“Karla wanted her story to be told and she said—as many subjects of my stories have said—she hopes that by telling her story it might change what happens to other people facing similar situations in the future,” said Wessler.
And Wessler’s focus on Karla’s raw scenario helped extend his story past the generic deportation one, which gained more attention from readers.
“One of the ways immigration reporting can have greater resonance is for journalists to write about ways immigration and deportation impact other issues and sectors that we don't think about as immigration issues per se. That's what I've tried to do in the context of child welfare,” he said.
However, such focused reporting comes with a set of challenges, Wessler said, especially when reporting about the child welfare system.
“When reporting child welfare system stories, it's a challenge that child welfare departments can't talk about specific cases,” he said. “Without access to information from authorities, the story required a lot of digging, reliance on case documents and interviews with everyone who had a role in the case other than child welfare officials to piece together the chain of events and decisions that led to the long term separation of Karla’s family.
But despite the challenges, Wessler’s stories have had a significant impact. His first published story on the issue, “Shattered Families,” on Colorlines.com, received an honorable mention in the 2012 Casey Medals. The initial report and subsequent stories also led to the passage of a 2012 legislation in California aiming to keep immigrant families together even when parents are deported.
“We did not know the scale of family separation as a result of deportation,” he said. My reporting provided some depth to our understanding of how many families are being separated as a result of immigration enforcement and what happens to these families after the fact,” he said.
When asked for any advice he had for professionals covering the issue of immigration, Wessler urged fellow journalists to look past the high number of deportations and its secondary and collateral impacts on families and communities.
“Millions of people have been deported in the last decade,” he said. “Removing that many people from the country impacts whole communities and has rippling collateral effects. Our coverage needs to dig into the fallout of deportation.”