‘Just start poking around’: Where to look to find more information on immigration

By Dyana Daniels

Journalists covering immigration hope the Biden administration will be more responsive to Freedom of Information Act requests regarding immigration than the Trump administration was.

“I was really frustrated at multiple points in time, especially during the last administration, and we’ll see how things go this administration with the unresponsiveness and the delays from multiple [Department of Homeland Security] agencies,” said Andrew Calderon, a data reporter with the Marshall Project.

Calderon and other reporters discussed Sunday how to use FOIA to report on immigration during the Chicago Headline Club’s FOIAFest 2021 and the need to find additional ways to get information when government agencies bulk at following FOIA laws.

“I started to ask myself, ‘Are there other agencies that I can look to that perhaps are not under as intense scrutiny that might be more amenable to responding to my FOIA requests?’’ Calderon said.

He turned to the U.S. Department of Labor and found success by looking for statistics that intersected with other departments. The U.S. Department of Transportation was also helpful, as it had data on people crossing borders from as early as the 1960s.

More localized data is kept by the U.S. Department of State, city governments and sheriff’s offices because these agencies have enforcement and detention contracts, said Tanvi Mirsa, an independent journalist.

“If you’re a local reporter, you could … look at your local government and see what contracts they have and how much they get paid for detention and if they renew the contract without making that public,” Mirsa said.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement updates a monthly spreadsheet that lists all detainee deaths. Websites such as Boundless and Black Alliance of Just Immigration can also be good sources of information, especially when it comes to reporting on racial disparities. 

Calderon said he does advanced searches in Google and includes terms like “statistics” and “data reports.”

“Just start poking around,” Calderon said. “And that’s actually how I came across the migrant camps. There’s a bit of energy that needs to be put into poking in the dark. But I think it can be worth it if you don’t even know where to start.”