Watchdog Q&A

Published — September 27, 2019

Q&A: Tanvi Misra on the largest detention center for solo immigrant children

Introduction

We’re continuing our series of Q&As with reporters who have uncovered powerful investigative stories. This week, we’re featuring Roll Call reporter Tanvi Misra, who wrote about her visit to Homestead, the largest detention center for unaccompanied immigrant children.

The details Misra gathered during her trip were chilling. Children aren’t allowed to touch anyone. To report sexual abuse or any kind of inappropriate touch, teens can use phones with direct lines to the Florida Department of Child and Family. But the agency doesn’t have any jurisdiction over the property because it’s on federal land. 

“I cannot give anyone a hug,” one young person told the attorneys. “I want to be comforted, but there’s no way for that to happen here.”

How did you get the story? What led you to pursue it?

I have been covering immigrant detention since 2014. In 2018, as we all know, that topic gained even more importance. Families were being separated. Unaccompanied and separated children were spending more and more time in government custody. Massive encampments were coming up to house them, and operating far from the public eye in a very opaque manner.

That year, I started looking into the “influx facility” in Tornillo, which in many ways, seemed to me a physical symbol for a broad swathe of immigration policies. When it shut down, a similarly massive facility in Homestead, Florida, assumed that role. It had been expanding — and started becoming a big flashpoint in budget negotiations in Congress. 

I had already done a lot of reporting when I reached out to the representatives of the for-profit company that operated the facility; I’d already spoken to inspectors, advocates, protesters, lawyers. But when they offered a tour, I knew it would be a chance to stand in for a reader who may not have access to the space, but may want to know what happens there with taxpayer money. So, of course, I said yes. 

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

I think the challenge in reporting on anything immigration-related at the moment is that there’s so much happening, that often reporters don’t have time to connect the dots and present the big picture. What I wanted to do with my stories about Tornillo and Homestead is to point out that the foundation on which the current immigration detention system stands has long existed — and, in fact, has been strengthened by past administrations. But simultaneously, I wanted to show that the current administration has taken it in an unprecedented direction. 

Takeaway: Sometimes, your experience is the best form of storytelling. 

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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Christopher Theodore
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Tanvi Misra, Thank you for doing this reporting and for standing in to bear witness for the public and to help create better understanding on this crisis.