COVID-19 has changed how we report stories on the border

Year of Fear

'Year of Fear': Chapter 12

A migrant family prepares a hot meal at a makeshift migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald via AP)

Editor’s note: This piece was written in partnership with the Columbia Journalism Review and the Delacorte Review, the literary nonfiction journal of the Columbia Journalism School. The project focuses on the stories and conversations going on in communities leading up to the November election.

Before the Southwest border was shut down to all unnecessary travel on March 20th due to the coronavirus, I journeyed regularly to Matamoros, Mexico, to report on a tent encampment of 3,000 migrants who—under the Trump Administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program—must remain in Mexico as they await their U.S. immigration proceedings. 

I remember the migrants’ giggles as Dr. Jill Biden, the wife of the former vice president, visited their camp last December, passing out tamales while trying to speak Spanish. They did not laugh at her attempts and gratefully accepted the plates, many of which fell into the puddles of muddy rainwater that had deluged the city just hours prior to her visit. At the time, Joe Biden was low in the polls. Now Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee after Senator Bernie Sanders dropped out of the race and, on April 13, heartily endorsed him.

Jill Biden, wife of former vice president Joe Biden, served tamales and passed Christmas gifts to children who are living at a migrant refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico, across from Brownsville, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

I have not been able to cross the border since its closure, and I now rely on phone calls and social media updates on the asylum-seeking migrants whom I used to visit regularly. They rely on donations and volunteers coming in from Brownsville, Texas to keep them alive while they wait for their immigration hearings, which have all been postponed.

I’ve been told that buses are being sent to the camp daily to transport migrants to the southern Mexican border town of Tapachula, near Guatemala. Families living in Matamoros have long told me stories about the mistreatment and conditions in Tapachula. Now, with the Executive Office of Immigration Review postponing hearings, the earliest reset for mid-May, I wonder how many of the families I have built a rapport with will remain there in limbo.

Seeing the abject poverty they live in always shocked me, and yet they always appeared approachable, optimistic and friendly. I would often return to my cozy home after visiting, feeling guilty knowing that they were sleeping on the dirt ground in 40-degree weather or enduring 100-degree-plus days with just one bottle of water each, if that. There is one image of three little boys clad only in underwear diving from a rock in the Rio Grande—laughing and playing as the carcass of a cow floated past them—that will never leave me.

I wonder if the garden plot at the tent encampment, set off by a rope made from clothing scraps, has borne any vegetables. I wonder if the ovens that the many industrious families carved from the mud on the banks of the Rio Grande are still being used to boil chicken and rice soup. Mostly, I wonder every day how many of these families living in such unhygienic conditions are sick with covid-19.

The changes happened so quickly.

One month ago, I traveled to San Antonio, the outskirts of Houston and rural Starr County in the span of a week to work on stories. I was at the Alamo, where protesters were picketing a Border Security Expo conference VIP dinner they felt should not be held on such sacred grounds. I interviewed a released migrant, and I went to the little colonia of La Rosita to meet Nayda Alvarez for Chapter 8 of this very series, the bold woman who painted “NO BORDER WALL” on her roof in the hopes that U.S. Customs and Border Protection will stop trying to access her land to put up part of the border wall there.

Despite cultural norms in South Texas, I stopped cheek-kissing in early March. The last hand I shook was at the Border Expo in San Antonio on March 11, the day the World Health Organization declared covid-19 a pandemic. However, press conferences were still being held at the time, and I found myself standing uncomfortably with my tripod, hip-to-hip beside other reporters, trying to hold my breath.

When President Trump shut down the Southwest and Canadian borders to unnecessary travel, I applied lipstick with my fingers while waiting for a liveshot with a San Francisco station. Instantly I worried that I had just infected myself as I crouched on a sidewalk outside the McAllen City Hall. When I filmed inside a Wal-Mart, looking for families shopping together en masse without protective facial coverings or gloves, I nearly dropped my camera as I neared a group that included children and a grandma. 

After nearly thirty years in newspapering, during which I worked as a reporter for USA TODAY and the Fort Myers News-Press, and as an editor at the Waco Tribune-Herald, the Austin American-Statesman and The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, I am finding multimedia reporting to be a challenging, exhausting, and exhilarating new experience. I am currently a multimedia journalist at BorderReport.com, an online publication from Nexstar Media Group, America’s largest local television and media company with 196 TV stations nationwide. Every story I produce is expected to have a video component to be shared with their TV stations, but with today’s coronavirus pandemic, that is becoming harder and harder to do. And every story potentially puts me at risk of exposure. 

The South Texas region that I cover is massive. I report on an area that is five hours by car from east to west and four hours north to south, from the southwestern town of Laredo—across the Rio Grande from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico—to the Gulf Coast city of Brownsville and north to San Antonio. All of my stories are original content and 99% are ideas that I pitch to my producers. I’m grateful to be fed story ideas through an elaborate web of sources from many different states. I’m able to set my own schedule, work weekends as needed, and rely on my producers to help me with the technical and visual aspects of multimedia reporting that do not come naturally to me.

I absolutely love what I do. I believe my role fills a void, one which is made evident by the shrinking number of journalists at press conferences, even when national figures like the head of the Department of Homeland Security come to town to view the progress on the border wall. I feel blessed to be able to give a voice to this border region, which is mostly Hispanic, low-income and so often overlooked by the national media.

But, like many journalists today, the covid-19 pandemic has changed the way in which I report my stories. As I prepare to go out on assignments by stuffing disposable vinyl gloves into my fanny pack, putting on a face mask and grabbing a 15-foot coil of cable so that I can use my 7-foot-long boom microphone in order to maintain proper social distancing from my subjects, there is a real fear in my gut. I believe that my stories are important and necessary. I’m choosing to do them of my own volition, but I’m also aware that by doing so, I could get covid-19. Or worse: I could bring the virus back to my 85-year-old father who lives with me, or my adult children or husband. 

In order to minimize my exposure to the novel coronavirus, I have, like millions of Americans, learned to embrace Zoom conference calls and Webex meetings. But they’re not the same as attending live press conferences, and typing questions off to the side in a group chat does not ensure that they are answered. Public relations directors can now pick and choose with impunity the questions they answer or even acknowledge. I’ve also learned that sometimes when I press officials for comment, some of the slicker ones have learned to answer in Spanish, making my job all the more difficult.

When I do go outside, it’s as briefly as possible. And honestly, I find that I’m so preoccupied with worry over the “invisible enemy,” as President Trump refers to the virus, that sometimes I don’t always ask the questions I had intended to or film in the way I wanted to. Usually, I end up doing one take and one quick interview. Then I throw out the gloves, lather hand sanitizer on my exposed skin and steering wheel, and try not to touch anything else until I return to my home office, where I promptly shower down and change before writing my piece. I shouldn’t complain. Physicians are the real front-line heroes in this pandemic. Some are living in backyard tents in order to minimize exposure to their families. Others have caught the virus and some have even died. 

Maybe it’s my age. I’m in my fifties now and not the care-free journalist I once was. In 1992, I covered the Los Angeles riots for USA TODAY. On the second night of chaos, I was with my husband, then a reporter for the Washington Post, when a police officer yelled at us both. We had come upon an area where the officer said bullets had just rained through. He pointed at bricks on a building pock-marked from shell shocks. He told us which way to drive and not to stop for anything—anyone or any lights. He then radioed his colleagues to tell them a couple of bone-headed journalists were coming that way and to let us pass. In 1989, I covered the decimated island of Puerto Rico following Hurricane Hugo, with a backpack, a single bottle of water and a couple cans of tuna. And twenty-five years ago this month, I flew to chilly Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995—the day the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed, killing 168 people—without a coat.

But now I appear prepared for a nuclear winter everytime I step outside my home. And when I return, everything gets Cloroxed and disinfected to the point that I think I’m losing my fingerprints. After every assignment, I mentally reset my 14-day quarantine clock in my head to track any symptoms. 

In my little corner of the world, it has truly become a year of fear unlike anything I have ever experienced while covering stories. I keep thinking about the migrants I write about who I’m no longer able to see. The camp in Matamoros recently identified 17 cases of clinically-suspicious covid-19. Some have recovered. But the camp holds 3000 migrants. Are they as afraid of this virus as the rest of us? Or have they already suffered enough to get this far north that they live more in fear of the lawmakers in Washington, DC, who malign them and ensure they stay south of the Rio Grande, a stone’s throw from their destination?

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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The mission of BorderReport.com is to provide real-time delivery of the untold local stories about people living, working and migrating along the U.S. border with Mexico. The information is gathered by experienced and trusted Nexstar Media Group journalists hired specifically to cover the border.