NPR Series Reveals Immigration Divide along U.S.-Mexican Border
''On one side, hope, opportunity and the prospect of a better life flourish. On the other, death, drugs and broken dreams dot the landscape. This is life at the U.S.-Mexican border, which National Public Radio's Mexico City correspondent Jason Beaubien traveled along for about a month to tell the stories of people who live, work, and struggle to survive there.
Beaubien interviewed border patrol officers, local business owners and illegal immigrants who live on both sides of the border's edge. He witnessed a father and son who talked to each other through the 15-foot-high metal fence, and a couple who held hands through the fence's cracks in a heartfelt attempt to communicate. He tells these stories and more in his five-part series, which launched last week. In the series, Beaubien explores how the barrier of the border affects not just relationships between illegal immigrants and their families, but between the U.S. and Mexican governments. A multimedia piece accompanying his written and audio stories shows part of the course he took while reporting.
Tenore: How long did it take you to report this series?
Beaubien: I actually drove the border in two spurts. First I started in Tijuana and drove to Nogales, Ariz. This part took 12 days. Then I went home to Mexico City for a week and came back. The second part from Juarez to the Texas coast took another 10 days. Obviously I'd stop in some places for several days. Other places I might just stop for an hour or two.
How did you get the idea for it?
Beaubien: As the U.S. presidential election was dragging on, our foreign editor, Loren Jenkins, suggested that all of us on the foreign desk look for bigger stories that we might not normally have the time to do. I proposed a drive along the border. All the reporting occurred in October when I probably wasn't going to get much on-the-air out of Mexico anyway.
What surprised you during the reporting process?
Beaubien: I was surprised by how different it is on either side of the boundary, all along the border, U.S. and Mexican cities about each other... Huge quantities of people and goods flow between them every day. Just about everybody seems to speak Spanish. But the intense poverty and the violence is somehow contained on the Mexican side. McAllen, Texas, feels like it could be anywhere in America. I posted some photos of McAllen on my Facebook page and a friend in Los Angeles said it looks like San Bernardino, Calif. Just across the Rio Grande is Reynosa, which you wouldn't mistake for anything other than a tough, gritty Mexican border town. Further west along the border is El Paso, Texas, which sits opposite Juarez. In El Paso, people laugh in cafés and drink chai. Juarez is murder capital of Mexico. People there tell you how their city has become permeated with death and fear.
What challenges did you face as a reporter working in dangerous border cities where, as you describe, "bodies turn up in piles"?
Beaubien: It's tough to know who to trust. I interviewed a cop in Tijuana who a few weeks later got arrested by federal police in Mexico and was accused of being on the payroll of the drug cartels. In Juarez, the lead crime reporter at El Diario was gunned down last month. Other local reporters have been threatened by the cartels. I think organized crime is more concerned about the local press rather than us foreign reporters who pass through for just a few days. But I still am very cautious not to do anything foolish. When going to a crime scene or a shady neighborhood, I try not to go alone. That was a little tough at times because I did most of this trip by myself. I have a great producer in El Paso, and in Tijuana I spent a day with a local reporter to get a feel for the magnitude of the killings that are occurring just about every day.
Did you speak Spanish while on assignment, or did you have someone translate for you?
Beaubien: I don't speak Spanish well, but I do stumble along in Spanish for interviews. As I mentioned, I used a producer in Juarez and then went out for a day in Tijuana with a local reporter. They did some translating for me but for the most part I was on my own for this series.I'm struck by the language you use to describe the tension between each side of the border. At one point you write that the "richest nation in the world dances with its southern neighbor, flirts with her, courts her, lures her with promises of riches and a good life -- yet pushes her away with concertina wire, beckons factories to the fence but no farther, uses her to wash the dishes, make the beds, toil in the fields and tar the roofs, yet arrests and expels her if she happens to get caught."
Why did you decide to personify Mexico and the U.S.?
Beaubien: Because it's a relationship. Sometimes it's a business relationship. Sometimes it's a neighborly relationship. Sometimes it's an emotional relationship like lovers. And in none of these interactions is it a relationship among equals. The U.S. always has more power. This has led to a lot of resentment south of the border, resentment that often isn't recognized in the states.
How involved were you in the multimedia component of this story?
Beaubien: Meghan Sullivan and Andrew Prince of NPR Online did most of the work in terms of pulling the Web elements together. I took the pictures and helped proof the Web content, but they came up with the layout of how it should look.
Stories about immigration sometimes receive racially charged comments. What kind of feedback did you get from readers/listeners?
Beaubien: We got a lot of feedback on these stories. They prompted some heated debates on our discussion boards. But they were good debates for the most part. Some people felt I was too "pro-immigrant," but part of what this series was about was trying to look at some of these issues from a Mexican perspective, so that was probably inevitable.
Based on the work you did for this series, what advice do you have for journalists covering immigration and border cities?
Beaubien: Definitely be careful. There's a full-blown war raging up along the border right now. Many local reporters carry bulletproof vests in their cars just like you would in a military conflict. Some TV reporters no longer do stand-ups in front of crime scenes. Most of the media have stopped reporting the contents of the messages that killers often leave with the bodies or somewhere prominent in the city. If you're covering this stuff, you should at least be aware that this is how the local reporters approach this. There's a feeling particularly in Juarez and Tijuana that if you upset the wrong people, they won't hesitate to kill you. And I'm cognizant of that''.
Posted by Mallary Jean Tenore 2:55 PM , 10th December 2008
Tags: Race reporting, Immigration reporting