Ian Gordon

Immigration Journalism Fellow discusses reporting on unaccompanied immigrant minors, deportations, and migration in the media

July 7, 2014

Ian GordonIan Gordon, of Oakland, is the copy editor at Mother Jones and a reporter who covers immigration, sports, and Latin America. His reporting has taken him throughout the Caribbean and Central America, and his work has appeared in ESPN the Magazine, Wired, and Slate. In 2013, Gordon was selected as an Immigration Journalism Fellow of the French-American Foundation, which allowed him to spend a few months working on a story examining children crossing into the border of the United States. His story just appeared in Mother Jones and not a moment too soon: in June, President Obama called the new surge of child migrants an "urgent humanitarian situation" and asked for an additional $1.4 billion from Congress.The French-American Foundation caught up with Ian recently to discuss his reporting as part of the Immigration Journalism Fellowship program and his article, "70,000 Kids Will Show Up Alone at Our Border This Year. What Happens to Them?," published in the July/August issue of Mother Jones and the online feature, "What's Next for the Children We Deport?" published on motherjones.com on June 3, 2014.

Ian, we are delighted to have you among our Immigration Journalism Fellows and equally so to have you share your insights with our readers about your reporting on this pressing issue. As part of the Immigration Journalism Fellowship, you decided to write about immigrant children who cross into the border of the United States alone. Can you explain how you discovered this story and how you decided to write about it?
Ever since I lived and worked in the mountains of western Guatemala in 2006, I’ve been drawn to the stories of immigrants—not only why they leave their home communities, but also what happens to them when they arrive in the United States and/or when they ultimately return home. I first heard about this particular issue last year after talking with my wife and her colleagues at a high school in Oakland for immigrant teens. The surge had started the year before, and I could see a story that was both full of fascinating policy questions and had the potential to include powerful personal narratives. I was surprised to find out that very few people had written about it.

What would you say were the most memorable moments of your reporting?
There were two that really stick out for me. The first came when I met the person who became the main character in my magazine piece, a gay Guatemalan teen I call Adrián. Julie Kessler, the principal at San Francisco International High School, introduced us, and our first conversation was a blow-by-blow recollection of his journey north through Mexico—a story full of violence, fear, and perseverance. Adrián speaks in a quiet, rapid-fire patter, and I struggled to keep up taking notes as he told me everything that happened to him, from the gang run-in that sent him fleeing from Guatemala City to his encounter with drug traffickers near the US-Mexico border. (Thank God for audio recorders.)

The other moment came when I traveled back to the Guatemalan highlands to visit the family of another unaccompanied child migrant studying at SFIHS, a girl named Audelina Aguilar. She has 10 siblings—three in the United States and seven back in the community of La Cumbre—and it was an incredible experience to meet her family and see the two-story home they’d built with remittances just 10 feet behind their old crumbling one-room adobe house. I was struck, too, at how unsure Audelina’s father was at whether more of his kids would attempt the dangerous journey north by themselves: “Who knows?” he told me. “The decision is theirs. Maybe if they get some help from [San Francisco], because here money is scarce. There isn’t any.”

Are you going to continue working on this specific topic? What do you think are the facets of this story that need the most coverage? Why?
I’ve continued writing shorter stories and blog posts at our website, MotherJones.com, and I imagine I’ll keep doing so. This issue isn’t going away, particularly since recalcitrant House Republicans refuse to act on immigration reform. And while President Obama has promised to do what he can administratively to improve the system, he also has signaled that he will urge Congress to change a key law that allows unaccompanied child migrants from Central America to stay in the United States pending an immigration hearing. Should the government begin turning these kids back at the border—like it does with Mexican kids—I fear that the crisis will worsen, at least in the short term.

Do you think the story you wrote had impact on the media / audiences?
It has been fascinating to watch this issue turn into a national story in the past month or so. A friend of mine, Lauren Markham, wrote a wonderful long-form piece about unaccompanied kids last year for Virginia Quarterly Review, so I set out to try to both make my story different from hers and bring it up to date. As it turns out, my piece published just as the average American was starting to hear about the rapid increase in Central American child migrants, and I think it spread quickly on social media and beyond because people wanted to dig deeper than what they were seeing on TV. And when the New York Times editorial board cites your work, you know you’re reaching a broad, and influential, audience.

Can you explain what drew you to journalism as a profession?
I could be painfully shy as a kid, but I was curious about the world, loved writing, and really liked to ask questions. I broke into journalism as a sportswriter, and it was my love of sports that led me to the sort of narrative long-form nonfiction that has become so popular in recent years. More than anything, though, I love reporting—talking to people, hearing their stories, digging through documents, cutting through the noise—and the change that great reporting can effect.

What made you want to cover issues pertaining to immigration?
Living in Guatemala was certainly a turning point for me. Every day I encountered people whose lives were affected by the United States—people who had family here, or who had been here themselves, only to be deported or decide to head home of their own accord. When we returned to the United States, I eventually went to grad school to study immigration at a structural level, to learn to look at it like a social scientist would. I try to bring that background to my reporting and writing, though I try to leave the academic jargon and bureaucratese at home.

What impact did the Fellowship and the Foundation’s Immigration Journalism program have on your work? Do you think this type of journalism program is important?
I’m not sure this story would’ve happened without the support of the French-American Foundation, which paid for reporting trips to Guatemala and Mexico and South Texas and helped legitimize, in my mind, that this story was worth digging into over a long period of time. For so many reporters—like those of us who work in nonprofit journalism, or for freelancers who lack institutional support—programs like this one can be the difference between having a great idea and having a great article.