Q&A: Gaby Del Valle on "objectivity" in immigration reporting

At its core, immigration reporting is just like any other type of reporting: it’s stories about people and the systems that shape their lives.

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Gaby Del Valle knows that. She’s been a reporter for The Outline, Vox’s The Goods, and most recently, an immigration reporter at Vice News. She’s also one half of the team behind BORDER/LINES, a weekly newsletter on immigration policy, with Felipe De La Hoz. 

Now, as a freelance reporter, Del Valle talked to The Objective about what it means to be an immigration reporter, the assumptions reporters make in reporting on immigration, and how “objectivity” has played into immigration reporting. 

This conversation is edited for length and clarity.

BORDER/LINES is close to publishing its 50th issue? Where did the newsletter come from? 

That’s the goal. We never expect anybody to read all 3000 words. I just think people probably skim it and come away with something and that’s more than enough. When Felipe and I first met up to talk about doing a newsletter, he tweeted something like, “Oh, should I do a newsletter? LOL.” 

And I texted him and I was like, “I’ve been thinking about doing a newsletter. Do you want to do one together?” 

We met in Washington Square Park and planned it on one of the chess tables. And we said “Who do we want to reach?” And it’s people who are interested in this, care about it, and aren’t following the news every day; and then also people who do this for a living. 

The question was: How do we write something that can cater to two very different types of people? I think people seem to like it. So I think it’s going well.

I think it’s hard to find a centralized place that’s specific and clearly wraps up new developments in immigration policy. Can you talk a bit about the format? 

That’s the other thing, too. I feel, as an immigration reporter, there’s so much immigration reporting constantly, and I think it’s a really competitive beat, but I think one of the things that ends up happening is that, for some reason, it doesn’t reach the mainstream in the way that a lot of other types of reporting do. So it’s often immigration reporters reporting for other immigration reporters and advocacy groups and lawyers, which is really important and really great. But it’s such an arcane set of laws and policies that it’s really hard to follow. I have trouble following it a lot of the time, honestly.

I wonder what you think about the way immigration reporting is done by general assignment reporters and when it lacks historical context about the history of migration in the United States? 

I think there’s been really good immigration reporting that nobody pays attention to. And that was especially the case under President Obama when literally nobody cared about immigration except for immigrants rights activists and anti-immigration groups. 

It wasn’t really on the radar, other than that. So what ended up happening was a lot of publications — and I don’t mean to malign local publications — but a lot of local news outlets would see an ICE press release say something like “28 criminal aliens arrested in Northern Virginia” and they would just rewrite it. There would be no reporting. It would literally be rewriting the press release. 

I wrote something for The Outline actually back in 2017 that looked at how people are just literally republishing ICE press releases, paraphrased ones, but not asking questions. There’ll be something like 28 people arrested and among them, the charges include “XXXX.” But they always pick the worst charges. They say, “We arrested a pedophile and a murderer and 30 other people.” One time, I asked the ICE field office, can you give me a list of offenses that these people were arrested for? If you look at that list and if you just look at the data in general, it’s traffic offenses. You can get arrested for things that you did a decade ago. 

There’s just so much context that is missing, because of the way that law enforcement is treated as an authority and not as an entity with its own interests and its own biases, which I think is part of this broader conversation we’re having too about how to report on police murders, for example. 

I wonder if you can talk a little bit more about that as it relates to Federal law enforcement agencies and sort of how journalists have used them as a source in the past?

I think one of the problems is that these agencies, in my opinion, view themselves as apolitical and just as enforcing the law as it is written. If you watch any Congressional hearing, what every official from ICE and CBP will tell you is, ‘Your problem here is with the law. You are Congress, you can change the laws.’ And technically all of this is enshrined in the law, but there has not been a single immigration bill passed in the Trump administration. Everything we’ve seen is a result of policy changes at the administrative level, at the administrative and executive level. It’s all executive orders and policy memoranda. 

There’s a presumption that the law enforcement agency has superior intelligence and superior data. And therefore they not only are given equal weight in the conversation or in the story, but often more. 

On the flip side of that, something I’ve seen under Trump is popular backlash to ICE and to DHS, which has led to this huge conflation of what is happening and who is doing it. 

Back in 2018, during family separation, I remember a lot of people were like, “See this is why we need to abolish ICE.” But that wasn’t ICE, that was Customs and Border Patrol — which, they’re also bad. They also do things that are not good. But they’re a part of this entire massive bureaucracy. It’s not just one agency within the bureaucracy. Even now, in 2020, people are still talking about kids in cages. And that’s not happening. That hasn’t fucking happened because the border is literally closed. If you are an asylum seeker and you present yourself at the border right now, there’s a 99.9999% chance they’re just going to send you back to Mexico, even if you’re not from Mexico. And if you’re a child and you’re alone, they’ll put you in a hotel in the U.S. and they’ll test you for COVID and then they’ll send you back to your country.

There are kids who are currently incarcerated, who arrived a long time ago, but the lack of specificity and the lack of attention to detail has become shorthand. Nobody besides a handful of very plugged in people knows what’s going on. And there’s also not a ton of desire to know what’s going on, which I think is what really bothers me. It’s almost more politically expedient to talk about something that’s not happening anymore for everyone involved, for the right and the left and for liberals. Everyone has just chosen a symbol and latched onto it.

Are these things that you think reporting could help mitigate in any way? Or do you think they’re out of the hands of reporters?

I think immigration reporters do an incredible job. I’m honestly in awe of every immigration beat reporter. They’re so smart. And I look up to them so much. And it’s like, no matter how meticulous their reporting is, there’s so much misinformation and vague information going around. I can’t even fault people for not understanding everything. Because it’s a very complicated bureaucracy. But I think the way that news functions generally means that you have to assume a level of knowledge from your audience that isn’t always there. I also just think that there’s so much fatigue. There’s a million things happening every day. A lot of it just doesn’t break through. It’ll break through immigration circle and it’ll be cited in a lawsuit. It will drive policy changes or attempts at policy changes. But I don’t know if it breaks through generally. 

So you remember the whole Wayfair conspiracy, right?

So it morphed into this thing where people were saying, “Wayfair is providing beds to ICE detention camps at the border.” And now there’s some using that to say they traffic children with ICE, which is wrong. Every single level of that was incorrect. The kids at the border were taken into Customs and Border Patrol, detention facilities, to be processed. And they were sent to shelters operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). And Wayfair had a contract with ORR to furnish those shelters. And those shelters are basically child prisons. They’re nicer and there’s a playroom. They’re not necessarily carceral, but they’re weird. They’re not like a place where kids should be. 

But I think there’s just so much information out there that, and I’m guilty of this too, everyone just remembers shorthand and really flashy things because there is, in the news media, a general desire for novelty and for (I don’t like the word) clickbait. But you have to get people to care. You have to outrage and shock them sometimes. And then when that ends up happening or what ends up happening is that people will misinterpret or misremember what’s going on. Like with the Wayfair theory, it just completely spiraled and merged with this QAnon thing. 

Do you think it’s the platforms themselves that are driving and expanding these narratives outside of the control of verified information sources? I understand that it’s problematic for journalists to gatekeep information, but I just wonder, do you think the platforms like Facebook and Twitter are helping propagate these conspiracies and misinformation? To the point where news itself that is verified just doesn’t break through?

Oh, totally. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok. I saw the Wayfair ICE thing on TikTok of all places. I think when you do a viral tweet and feel good. It’s the way that the platforms make your brain addicted to engagement, you know? It’s that the platforms don’t discourage bad tweets or posts.”

The Guardian does something that I really love, which is if you go to an old story, they have a banner at the very top that says ‘This story is six months old. This story is three years old’. I think that’s so smart, because people don’t always look at a date. Most people don’t look at a byline. Nobody I know who’s not a journalist or like a media person cares who wrote something, they’re just there for the information. They’re there for the most pertinent information. 

I think that makes sense. Changing pace a bit, I wonder what you think about objectivity as it relates to immigration reporting and sort of the ways in which white media spaces have been reflected in immigration reporting?

I think that there are a lot of grand assumptions made, not just by reporters, but by everybody involved: readers, and in some cases even advocacy groups, about immigration. Big narratives are often pushed out of a desire to do good. But I think the role of the journalist is to challenge those assumptions. So, for example, back when the Dream Act negotiations were going on and all of that failed, there was this narrative: It was in every story. It was in every fucking story. ‘The Dreamers came here through no fault of their own.’ So there’s an implicit assumption that their parents are criminals. And why would you punish a child because their parent committed a crime? 

My family immigrated to this country and they didn’t do so under duress. I know a lot of people do. My family personally did not. And that’s all just to say that a lot of people don’t dream of moving to the United States, you know?

There’s this another assumption that everybody wants to come here. Apparently, that’s why we have this immigration problem in the first place. ‘Because all the people who are so desperate to come here and they’ll break the law,’ but that’s really reductive. I just published a story with The Verge, which is about a lot of things, but it’s about video conferencing and immigration court. it focuses on one Cameroonian immigrant, who I give the name Samuel (it’s a pseudonym).

And at one point he said, ‘I love my country. I didn’t want to leave my country. I didn’t want to come here. There was a civil war and I had to leave.’ And he didn’t even try to come here at first. He tried to go to Ghana, which makes sense, because it’s closer to his family. It was more financially viable for him. He could maybe go back to his country once the war ends. And he only came to the United States because he was completely incapable of getting legal status in Ghana. I think it’s really important to, even if it’s just a sentence, acknowledge that it’s not as if everyone just sees America and says, ‘Yes, this is the beautiful place where I want to go.’

There also are a lot of people who do feel that way. But it’s about acknowledging the complexities and differences and the richness of these experiences and to not make people seem like a monolith. Which, tangentially is the same issue I have with the framing of the ‘Latino vote.’ I don’t think that that is real. I don’t think it exists. It’s just this attempt to create a narrative as opposed to actually figure out what’s happening and actually use one specific experience to convey a broader issue. 

Treating any group as a monolith is definitely ridiculous and reductive. I wonder why you think reporters make so many assumptions or where you think these assumptions come from?

I think they come from all kinds of places. I think a lot of it is a lack of diversity in the media. It’s very it’s very white. It’s very East Coast-y, at least here in New York. Very, very elite. And I think that’s part of it. 

I think another part of it is a lack of exposure to communities, which I think ties into the whiteness part. You know. I just reported a story on Louisiana and I did not go to Louisiana for the story. I was not there. I tried really, really, really, really, really hard to not let my preconceived notions about the place I was reporting on color my reporting. I had eight friends read my draft and ask them if it made me seem the New York Times dropping in to a diner and saying, ‘These country bumpkins hate immigrants.’ And it’s also deadlines: We get so much less time to do things than people did even a few years ago because of the constant churn of the internet and this extremely broken model where you have to constantly be coming up with material so that people can read it.

All of this stuff takes time. You know, it takes time and effort and real desire. It just takes a lot of work. And I think there’s a lot of pressure to perform quickly. Scoop culture, I think is another part of it. I fucking hate scoop culture. I understand the need to get something first. I get that. I get the rush. But if you value speed above all else, there’s a lot that you can miss. I’m trying to basically only do features now, which, ha ha, let’s see how that goes. 

I just think there’s all of these pressures and journalists are workers. It’s an elite ivory tower type of industry, but it’s also workers with real constraints. And every day there’s more and more and more required of you for.

I remember one time I did this story on a migrant shelter in San Antonio. And the condition of the city letting me toward the shelter were no pictures inside. You can take pictures of people outside if they agree to be photographed. Right? 

And I followed the rules. There was literally a sign on the door to the shelter that said no pictures. It was also people in really vulnerable positions, you know? So I wasn’t going to lie sneak a picture. Every single person I asked, at least 15, nobody wanted to be photographed. Not one single person wanted to be photographed. So I told my editors this and they were like, okay, cool. That’s great. 

And then I get back to New York and they said, ‘Why didn’t you get a picture?’ And I said, ‘Well, they told me I couldn’t take pictures inside.’ 

And I remember they said, ‘Well, you should press harder. They said a real journalist should press harder.’

And it’s like, a real journalist also respects their sources and understands that people are in vulnerable positions or that people are giving you something by talking to you. I feel as if there’s this idea that we are benevolent in sharing stories, but people are also giving those to us. And they’re trusting us with that. If you can have a fucking roster of anonymous White House sources, why do I have to photograph a vulnerable person whose face will then be all over the internet?

Exactly. It’s, it’s amazing how little thought some journalists put into what they’re saying? Similar to the question of ‘Should we photograph activists during protests?’ It’s amazing how little thought journalists put into it and then how willing they are to have like a very strong opinion that they are immovable from?

Totally. What really pisses me off is that I think that a lot of journalists respond to criticism by being super, super, super reactive and saying, ‘This is the most important profession.’ Saying stuff like, ‘We have a right to like do all of this.’ We do have a right, but you also have to understand that people might not want you in their space. And you might not agree with them, but you should at least ask yourself why. 

I was in Mississippi after the ICE raids and I spent a week or around five days in this community that had just been absolutely fucking devastated. The hub of all of this was this church that was handling donations for all the families. And on the first day I was there, everyone was super apprehensive to talk to me. I just kind of quietly introduced myself as a reporter. But the second day people warmed up to me. And by the third day, everybody was chill. I was going on Walmart runs with people. My very last day I went to a child’s birthday party. They fed me ice cream cake.

I remember one of the days that I was there, a woman did a television interview about what happened. And after the reporter left, she was just so traumatized, fucking sobbing. And three people there had to comfort her. And the next day there was a sign on the door that said, “No Press.”

But they let me keep going. Because I had tried to understand why they wouldn’t want me there, you know?

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