Most asylum seekers cross the Rio Grande into South Texas on land controlled by federal agents. For decades, the U.S. government has let journalists accompany Border Patrol agents and other officials as they surveil the land. But since the change in administration, those agents have been physically blocking journalists from the riverbank. For example, after being turned down for official access on a trip in February, I followed a Border Patrol transport bus in my own vehicle to where agents were detaining migrants. They stopped me before I got close enough to take pictures. They called a supervisor, and ordered me to leave immediately.
We have gone from the Trump-era “zero tolerance” policy toward immigrants to a Biden-era “zero access” policy for journalists covering immigration. This development is unprecedented in modern history. (While the Trump administration reduced access somewhat when the pandemic began, for defensible reasons of safety, the Biden administration has gone much further and eliminated it altogether.)
This ban extends to the holding facilities on the border that temporarily house migrants — facilities that are the source of considerable controversy. These have grown so crowded that a court-appointed monitor last week called the situation “not sustainable.” The Department of Health and Human Services reported last Friday that there are 9,800 unaccompanied minors in shelters, with many more on the way.
The White House says the border situation is a not “a crisis”; the language they prefer is “a challenge.” I’d be happy to show that’s the case. I assume that so would my colleagues at other media organizations who, like me, have been turned away as we attempt to provide the public with a window onto the apprehension and detention of migrants.
The current administration took over with a pledge to make U.S. immigration policy more humane and transparent. But it is falling short on the latter goal, which makes it hard to judge how it is doing on the former: We journalists have no way of verifying how conditions have improved for migrants.
The official line is that it’s not safe to grant access to these areas during the pandemic. In the early days of covid-19, I understood why it might be unsafe to ride along with Border Patrol agents as they detained people; paring back such ventures seemed a reasonable precaution. But now, we have a better understanding of the ways in which the virus spreads: Wearing masks and keeping windows open in vehicles greatly alleviates the danger. And yet now access has been eliminated completely.
And the restrictions are not being applied uniformly. Delegations from Congress have been invited to tour federal facilities temporarily housing children and to evaluate operations while following coronavirus precautions, such as wearing masks and practicing social distancing. If such tours are possible for politicians, they also are for journalists.
I have had significant personal experience in how journalists’ access to these areas can shape perceptions of what is happening there. In summer 2018, while on an official ride-along, I took a picture of a young girl crying as her mother was searched by agents before being taken into custody. The photograph was seen by millions around the world; that girl became for a time the face of the zero-tolerance immigration policy. (That mother and daughter were not separated in detention but the psychological horror of that possibility resonated with many who saw it.) The image caused a public-relations crisis for the Trump administration, but still, officials did not deny me access during subsequent trips to the border.
Powerful photojournalism happens when photographers are in the middle of a tense situation, capturing human emotion and providing context. Showing the difficult and important work of Customs and Border Protection in the field while also photographing immigrants in a dignified way are not mutually exclusive endeavors. In fact, the projects complement each other. Today, enterprising journalists are still telling important stories without assistance from Border Patrol — but they must resort to waiting and watching on patches of publicly accessible riverfront or other areas that are often much less trafficked by migrants.
I know firsthand that many agents are eager for me and other photographers to document their work — just as migrants want to tell their stories. According to Border Patrol data, agents made more than 10,000 apprehensions in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley last week alone. Yet one of the busiest weeks they’ve experienced in recent years went unobserved by the public.
Whether you call the situation at the border a “crisis” or “challenge,” it is plainly one of the biggest news stories of the year — and the world deserves to see it. For that to happen, journalists need to access to Border Patrol operations. The Biden administration should end its unjustifiable policy of restricting us.