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Martha Pskowski

To Tell the Story, These Journalists Became Part of the Story

Hiroshi Watanabe / Getty, Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Martha Pskowski | Longreads | October 2018 | 16 minutes (4,194 words)


The attention paid to the U.S.-Mexico border seems to ebb and flow like the tide. News coverage spikes and then recedes, giving the impression that migration itself must be doing the same, when in fact the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has been stable for the last 10 years. In summer 2014, it was the wave of unaccompanied minors arriving from Central America drew our scrutiny. The year 2018, as in so many arenas, brought new horrors, with young children forcibly separated from their parents and the ensuing debacle of reunification.

I spent the first few months of 2014 as a volunteer at a migrant shelter in Ixtepec, Oaxaca. On the side, I was dipping my toes into journalism, pitching to small non-profit websites. On a typically sticky afternoon in Ixtepec, I asked the priest who runs the shelter, Alejandro Solalinde, what changes he had seen so far that year. More children than ever, he said. And more of them coming alone. I wrote about the rising number of unaccompanied minors for the Americas Program that April.

Just a few months later, I watched with a mix of relief and bewilderment as international media flocked to the U.S.-Mexico border to cover the full-blown controversy. Few outlets had bothered to look at what had been apparent in refugee shelters in Southern Mexico for months: minors travelling solo. Only when these adolescents and children arrived on the doorstep of the United States did their situation become a “crisis” meriting media attention and presidential action. But then as now, Central American migrants were compartmentalized, and their stories simplified for easy consumption.

I stayed in touch with some of the young men and women I met in Ixtepec, meeting up in person when possible. In strip malls in Northern Virginia and Van Nuys, California, I have caught up over pupusas with young Salvadorans who made it across the border after passing through Ixtepec. Instead of writing about just a snapshot of individual border crossings, I wanted to fit together the disparate pieces of their shared stories into the bigger picture; leaving home, the dangerous journey through Mexico, and now, adjusting to the United States.

When I needed more substance, and a respite from flash-point news coverage of the border this summer, two books satisfied my desire for depth, context and nuanced empathetic storytelling: Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown by Lauren Hilgers and The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life by Lauren Markham. Both trace the stories of families migrating to the United States and explore the gap between the myths the immigrants had heard before arriving and the reality of the life they experienced in America. Hilgers and Markham unravel the complicated circumstances that led their subjects to come to the United States, and the unexpected barriers they faced once arriving in their respective destinations. Read more…