Watchdog Q&A

Published — May 1, 2020

Q&A: Laura Morel on covering COVID-19 at detention centers

Protesters hold placards as various groups take part in a car protest April 3 to call for the release of detained immigrants at the GEO Detention Center in Aurora, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Introduction

We’re continuing our series featuring journalists who have written powerful stories. This week, we’re featuring Laura C. Morel, an immigration reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting, who took a close look at what ICE detainees in the Pine Prairie processing center are experiencing amid the coronavirus. Among those detained was Pedro Iglesias Tamayo who told her, “There’s this global pandemic that’s taking people’s lives and they have us here trapped like animals.” Detainees weren’t given hand sanitizer and fashioned face masks out of socks. Then, someone in the facility tested positive for COVID-19. 

How did you find this story?

I’m part of Reveal’s immigration team. When we started learning about the extent of COVID-19, we immediately imagined that people in immigration detention centers would be at risk of the virus because it’s impossible to practice social distancing inside these facilities and detainees have limited access to medical care. One of my colleagues put me in touch with family members of asylum seekers in Louisiana, and that’s how the foundation of my reporting got started.

What were the challenges of reporting this story and how did you navigate them?

I spoke to asylum seekers held at the Pine Prairie ICE processing center through a video visitation app called GettingOut. Detainees at Pine Prairie and other ICE facilities have access to tablets inside their designated living quarters that allow them to video call loved ones for about 20 cents a minute. The app only allowed for 15-minute conversations at a time, and the calls were often cut short when the screen would freeze, forcing either me or my sources to hang up and call again. Despite these inconveniences, my sources patiently answered my questions during these short conversations. For them, it was incredibly important that the public learn about conditions inside Pine Prairie. Another challenge was the rapidly evolving nature of this story.

Every day, we’d learn new tips from sources or ICE would update the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among detainees. It was really important that I continued to stay up to date with the avalanche of immigration news so that I could write my story with the right context and nuance.

The takeaway: Adjusting quickly to evolving situations is just as important as reporting with care.

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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