Border tales: Crossings are down, but deaths are up, say McIntyre/Wessler

Al Jazeera America talks with reporters Erin Siegal McIntyre and Seth Freed Wessler on the border beat

The story of Allan 'Tiger' Martinez illustrates the desperate and sometimes deadly journey faced by many deportees from the U.S., who repeatedly risk their safety to return to family here and escape often-bleak prospects back home. 

Often, the choice means braving gangs and smugglers and a freight train called the Beast, only to be funneled toward a swath of desert called the Corridor of Death. There, the chances of survival for these crossers appear to be getting worse. Journalists Erin Siegal McIntrye and Seth Freed Wessler tell these crossers' story.

You can read their article here.

Al Jazeera America: How did you come across the story of Tiger Martinez?

Seth Freed Wessler: We began searching the list of deaths produced by the Pima County medical examiner. We found Allan's Facebook page and he was compelling: young, energetic and clearly in love with his family. We wanted to know how this young man died. We began making calls and reached Hannah Hafter, a volunteer with the Tucson-based nonprofit No More Deaths, who recalled meeting Allan. She gave us the phone number for one of Allan's sisters. Two days later, we were sitting in Allan's mother's living room in the Bronx, looking at Allan's pictures on her wall.

Al Jazeera America: Facebook updates show most recent postings first. Allan’s last (public, so to speak) words end your piece, a love letter to his family.

Seth Freed Wessler: Allan's Facebook posts were among the first ways we learned about him. And the content of his posts were corroborated by his many friends, siblings and his mother: that his primary concern was his family.

Al Jazeera America: Both his energy and his hopelessness come through in the piece, and you say a few times that his story is, in some sense, not unique. How typical is Tiger statistically?

Erin Siegal McIntyre: Tiger's story isn't unique. Every year, thousands of young people like him head north. And Tiger is actually indicative of a newer trend involving an increase in Central American migration, as traditional migration from Mexico has slowed immensely. And among the dead, Tiger is also one of many. Today, though, it's not just young men and women who are trying to cross the border. It's older folks with children and grandchildren in the United States. Some are culturally American and don't have meaningful ties to their birth countries. Like Tiger, they'll do anything to return to their adopted home in the U.S.

Seth Freed Wessler: We know from federal data, too, that around 23 percent of deportees report having US citizen children and that others leave behind other family, community and robust lives. When we look at who gets removed, we're seeing people with deep ties here. The idea that immigrants are unattached intruders who can be sent back home without incident just does not align with reality.

Al Jazeera America: Tiger also seems an especially apt choice because, while he was preparing for his final fateful crossing, some of his family members were considering a return to Central America. Why?

Seth Freed Wessler: In recent years, immigrants to the United States have made the often-difficult decision to return to their birth countries. As the job market in the United States shrank in the aftermath of the financial collapse, many immigrants struggled to support their families. Allan's brother Ismael found himself at times without enough work and often wondered if he'd do better back in Honduras. But ultimately, Ismael and the rest of Allan's family are still here in New York. This is their home.

Al Jazeera America: Have you worked together (or with a co-reporter) before? How was that?

Erin Siegal McIntyre: It's always good to work with someone who complements you, and we both have deep involvement reporting on immigration and deportation.

Seth Freed Wessler: Erin and I work together really easily, and in this case, our geography made us a perfect team. Erin is on the border and I'm based in New York. While we've each reported from both of these regions, our immediate proximity to Allan's stomping grounds allowed for deep investigation into his life.

Al Jazeera America: Are there ways that the layperson might not think of that your other journalism beats -- whether adoption in Erin's case, or welfare in Seth’s -- overlap with this one, immigration?

Erin Siegal McIntyre: There are myriad ways in which a beat like adoption corruption and child trafficking coincide with immigration issues. There's organized crime for instance. As the Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez masterfully illustrated in his tremendous book "The Beast," migrants passing through Mexico on their way to the U.S. are typically forced to confront such networks. It might be a robbery, a rape, or, commonly, a kidnapping. The same holds true for the badly corrupt Latin American adoptions I've investigated: They are orchestrated by organized networks dedicated to finding and selling children.

Seth Freed Wessler: For the last several years, I've investigated the overlap of deportation and the US child welfare system. I revealed that there are thousands of children in foster care whose parents have been deported. Many of these children spend months or years in foster care. Some are adopted.

The overlap of deportation and foster care generates a strange clash of conflicting logics of protection. On the one hand, lawmakers say that deportation is necessary to protect the American public. On the other hand, child protective systems sometimes refuse to reunite kids with their deported parents, saying that US citizen kids will be safest in the US. One family, split in two by two systems never meant to work together. Indeed, child welfare workers often told me that they're not equipped to deal with transnational families. But deportations have left them no choice. Now some states and counties are creating policies to help reunite these families.

Read Seth and Erin's article here.

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