By Ariana Zoè Milian
The Southwest border is playing an important role in the run-up to the 2020 elections. The El Paso Walmart shooting, which took 23 lives, many of them Latinos; President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric; and efforts to build a border wall were shaking up the election politics in the region even before the Covid-19 outbreak.
More recently, the pandemic has impoverished wide swaths of the border region; upended schooling as instruction moved online in areas with sparse internet; and left many families with members living on both sides of the border adrift.
This political reporting class, Covering the Border during the 2020 Elections, was planned long before the pandemic and grew out of the Baruch College Journalism Department’s award-winning work during the 2018 midterms. We set out to explore a range of border issues from why Texas is the nation’s largest non-voting state to the challenges of getting out the youth and Latino vote to education challenges in rural areas of the borderlands, which encompass some of the country’s most impoverished zip codes. After two months of research, including briefings by political and demographic experts, we were getting ready to travel to Texas and New Mexico when the Covid-19 epidemic upended our plans. We were forced to cancel the trip. Fortunately, most of our sources agreed to speak to us via Zoom.
The pandemic hit just as we were completing locally reported stories on the 2020 census. Each student covered an event designed to get out the census count in New York City, including neighborhoods like Harlem, which has long suffered deep undercounts. We produced a rich array of articles on how the virus altered the census-count strategies in places like Crown Heights and among the city’s libraries—key institutions for educating residents about the importance of the decennial count.
Census Bureau databases proved important for our research on the border, too. It allowed us to see the stark demographic differences between, for example, affluent El Paso suburbs and immigrant neighborhoods in downtown El Paso and the colonias, unincorporated communities of mainly Latino immigrants who have lived without basic infrastructure, such as sewers and water systems, for decades.
Starting at the beginning of April, we conducted phone and Zoom interviews with over two dozen sources, including Texas state house representatives Mary González and Joe Moody, who also serves as Speaker Pro Tempore of the Texas House of Representatives; residents of the colonias; administrators from the Socorro Independent School District; community and religious leaders; and local immigration experts.
And we developed stories on how voter suppression and low Latino voter participation have helped turn Texas into the no-vote state; how Covid-19 has impacted education in rural areas around El Paso, including the colonias; the conflicted lives of border-patrol agents, many of them Latinos; how Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy and the border wall are influencing life and politics on the border; and the binational culture of El Paso and Juarez.
This was a group project in the true sense of the term. Before our interviews, we shared questions. And when the interviews were done, we posted our transcripts and notes on Blackboard, giving each of us the opportunity to gain a better understanding of each topic and to enrich each story.
With our semester over and the project finally coming together, many students felt that although the semester ended online, it was still very impactful. “I was disappointed by the fact we could not go on our reporting trip, but considering the circumstances, we were able to accomplish so much in a short time,” said Ayse Kelce, who reported on the colonias. Kelce explained that with the help of Zoom interviews, she was able to “paint a picture” of life in the colonias even while reporting from thousands of miles away.
Catherine Chojnowski agreed that she had the opportunity to learn “an immense amount of information about a place I’ve never set foot in.”
Chojnowski described an important aspect of journalism she learned during the class. “Journalism is a very hands-on and on-the-ground career,” she said. ”However this experience has shown me the ways in which journalists can adapt to situations, such as reporting while being in quarantine.”