We reporters are used to being stood up.
Our sources often get cold feet. And for good reason: Many have a lot to lose by sharing their stories.
Perhaps nobody is more at risk than immigrants tied up with ICE who fear that agents might retaliate against them for speaking critically of the agency.
That’s why so many stood me up this summer while I was reporting on ICE’s practice of holding immigrants in solitary confinement, 23 hours a day, in its GEO Group-run detention center in Aurora, sometimes for months at a time.
Since May, I arranged meetings with about two dozen former detainees in lawyers’ offices, coffee shops, parks, relatives’ homes, and even the parking lot of the Western Stock Show complex. Several called or texted before our interviews to say they wanted to discuss their experiences in solitary confinement, but feared ICE might mess with their immigration status if they did. A few didn’t call or text, leaving me waiting around wondering. One man from Guatemala sent his niece to meet me at a bakery to say his first grandchild was on the way and had too much to lose by talking. Another from Mexico sent his son to a Subway shop to tell me that in the two days since his father arranged to meet me there, his immigrantion case had changed course, prompting his lawyer to advise against it.
I was struck by how apologetic they were about cancelling interviews.
I was also struck by how many showed up, despite the risks.
“Please, ma’am, protect me,” said one former detainee from Mexico who agreed to tell his story under the condition that I not publish his name, age or other information that could identify him to ICE.
“Make her promise,” I could hear his anxious wife telling him. “But how do we know she will keep it?”
I promised him and nine other men that I would shield their identities because their story was too important not to tell if I wouldn’t. I had no way to assure that particular man’s wife that I would keep my promise other than looking at her and saying, “You have my word.”
That word unlocked their accounts of being isolated in cells half the size of a standard parking spot for all but an hour allotted each day for a shower and exercise. It unlocked stories about walking in circles in their windowless cells, then walking in circles in the other direction. One man from Mexico told me he counted the number of bites it took him to swallow each meal. Another, from El Salvador, said he would pinch and scratch himself each day to keep the monotony of isolation from numbing him.
It was an act of bravery to for them to speak about the trauma of solitary confinement and, in the current immigrant environment, an act of faith to speak out at all.
It was also, I acknowledge, a tight spot for ICE, which could not respond about the former detainees’ specific cases because their identities were shielded. John Fabbricatore, acting field office director for ICE’s enforcement and removal operations in Denver, chastised the news media — The Independent, in this case — for publishing “unsubstantiated allegations” he said diminish “the exceptional work the men and women of ICE do every day to keep our communities safe from criminal aliens.”
Such is the catch 22 of covering ICE, and the extent of distrust between undocumented immigrants and the agency tasked with disappearing them. What struck me most in reporting the story was ICE’s apparent refusal to acknowledge that lack of trust.
“For the people you interviewed,” ICE’s Colorado spokesman Alethea Smock told me, “if they’re not being detained, we’re not sure what they would be fearful of.”