Paco Alvarez: What initially inspired your investigation? And what were the first steps you took?
Bobbi-Jeanne Misick: Probably the year before I started this investigation, more than a year, there were some men from Cameroon that were in detention at Adams County Correctional, which is a detention center in Mississippi, who were a part of a complaint because they had claimed that they had been physically assaulted amd experienced use-of-force by ICE officers and staff of that facility to force them to sign their deportation notices. It’s just documents that you need to sign for the country that is accepting you. to be able to accept you. And you can either sign it or put your fingerprint on it. And so there was forced fingerprinting.
And so I was aware of the issue with Cameroonians then and even before, because I had been aware of hunger strikes that were happening in another facility in Louisiana. And then leading up to my applying for the project I had gotten alerts from people who were just regular residents of Louisiana that had reached out somehow to the African detainees in the region or from advocates.
So then I realized there’s a story here and my initial intention in pursuing this was because I saw that the New Orleans ICE Field Office, which manages these detentions, was not releasing people. And so that was kind of how I wanted to pursue the story. And then, you know, things changed as we kept going.
Alvarez: For your investigation, you analyzed habeas corpus petitions submitted by detained asylum seekers. How did you get your hands on the petitions and what were you looking for?
Misick: First I realized that I could do that because the Tulane University’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic did a study of habeas corpus petitions for ten years from 2010 to 2020, and it was able to show length of stay in detention. And other important information in terms of why people were not being released. There’s all these different types of additional documents that some people have in their habeas petitions. And luckily for them, there was a pandemic and so the courthouses were allowing them access online to do their study.
But by the time that I decided to do it, they were not doing that any longer. And so I had to drive to Lafayette, which is about 3 hours away from New Orleans, where I live, and just comb through hundreds of habeas corpus petitions. What I did was I collected all of the habeas corpus petitions from Cameroonians, and I actually collected all of the habeas corpus petitions that were filed between 2020 and 2021, and we organized it by country of origin. But for the Cameroonians, I would download and print out the entire petition, including extra documents that the petitioners had provided. And what I was looking for was their length of stay in detention. I also was looking for information about their asylum cases and how that played out. If there was information on why they were not being released, that was also important to me. And I also was just looking to find people. So part of searching through those records was source building. And I did find one source through that exercise.
Alvarez: You spoke to several detained Cameroonian asylum seekers. How did you originally get in contact with them? Did you face any difficulties when interviewing them?
Misick: So I spoke at length to two Cameroonian immigrants who were detained in Louisiana and Mississippi and a little bit others. How I found my main source – he was one of those men that were allegedly forced to sign their deportation notices in Mississippi. But once he got out of detention, I had a hard time finding him, but I found him through sort of just this network of advocates in the region and through his attorney who I’d already been in contact with. And then, like I said before, I found the other source through habeas petitions. There was information in his documents about his sponsors. And so I reached out to them and they reached out to me. And I did that with a few people with less success.
You were asking me if I had any difficulty while interviewing them. I think that I definitely struggled with understanding whether or not they were going to trust me after going through everything. And I also struggled with making sure that it was clear that what I can offer is just to share this story and not trying to offer more than I can. And in the end, both sources gave me just an incredible amount of time. You know, one of them I traveled to to see and to do the interviews and just am grateful that he allowed me into his home and also allowed me so many hours of just chatting just to see how he is.
And the other source, we spoke on Zoom. I’ve actually never met him in person, but he was just very candid with me about his views about what’s happening in Cameroon and what has happened and about it feels like to be seeking asylum in the United States. And I think that you know, as an immigrant myself, I feel sometimes I’m not aware of the risks for just being myself or, you know, just sharing a viewpoint or making a mistake. And obviously, his immigration status is more precarious than mine and so I’m really grateful that he was just willing to be so open.
Alvarez: So in addition to the written investigation, you also developed a series of audio pieces based on BJ’s experiences seeking asylum. Where did the idea come from? Was the reporting process for the audio different than the written portions?
Misick: So my idea for the audio stories I think just came from the job that I have now and so I just kind of knew that I wanted it have some sort of sound element because I work in radio. I don’t know if there was much more to that. And I think that, while the end product I’m proud of, I wish that it could have been even more sound rich.
Detention centers are these very opaque places so it’s really hard to get sound or any footage from those places that might sort of illuminate what’s going on or what’s going on in there. And my process for, with radio, you have to be very choosy about your details because you only have a certain amount of time and you know, people are not going to come along with the ride like a radio story. I mean, maybe a documentary piece or a podcast, you have a little bit more time. But these were shorter stories.
And so I think it just took a lot for me and my editors to figure out what were the best elements to put in the radio story that would attract people to that Web story. And the Web stories just included so much more detail about the data that I was seeking and the sort of pitfalls that each step of the asylum process when you’re detained in this region. I mean, and other regions, too. But, the sort of crux of the story was that these folks had pretty strong claims to asylum, and they’re being held to a higher standard initially and then sort of treated with a lot of disregard in the immigration courts and. And then were being detained for very long periods of time.
Alvarez: Did your understanding of the immigration system and the asylum process change as you reported?
Misick: Yes and no. I remember learning how precarious life in the United States can be for non-citizens as a student, as a graduate student. And back then I was reporting on people with legal permanent residency who had been convicted of crimes. And they could be you know, in this case, the people I talked to, had committed pretty low level drug offenses, but they were subject to a law from 1996 that made them immediately eligible for deportation, and many of them had not set foot in their countries of birth since they were very young. And so that just has been sort of like an alert for me.
And I think where things sort of changed or or where my understanding of how hard it can be for other people, people who are looking for asylum because they’ve experienced persecution in their own countries – I guess I didn’t realize how punitive that whole process can be. And once I started getting a grasp on that, it felt really important for me to share it. And I hope that I did in a way that allows people to just see it from that angle, to see that it doesn’t feel like justice if you can’t really feel like you’re being heard in any step of this process.
Alvarez: How was it communicating with government agencies? Did you face any pushback during the reporting process?
Misick: Yeah, it was extremely difficult to communicate with government agencies. So at the end of 2020, before I even applied for this fellowship, I submitted a FOIA for parole data to ICE to understand the situation in New Orleans. The ICE Field Office had been sued by the Louisiana ACLU and by the Southern Poverty Law Center, because they were not releasing people. And so I’ve never gotten that FOIA, I’ve never received it. I had a lot of e-mails saying that they were working on it. And then that even stopped.
And then I was trying to get data on credible fear interviews, which is the first step that you take when you get to the region where you’re going to be detained. You will have a phone interview with an asylum officer to assess whether they think your story is true and whether you fit the criteria to apply for asylum. And I had heard through the grapevine that the Houston Asylum Office, which at the time conducted almost all of the credible fear interviews for the New Orleans Ice Field Office, that there were a lot of people who were receiving negative credible determinations that really shouldn’t have been. And so I wanted to understand if the Houston Asylum Office provided more negative credible fear determinations than other other asylum offices.
But I actually don’t think I got a hold of USCIS’s FOIA officer at all, ever. I sort of got caught in a loop with the media department and never – time was of the essence and so I really wanted to get the criteria right and so never really got answers that I needed in terms of how that criteria is organized so I could have the most success with my FOIA. And so that’s something that I still intend to do because as far as I understand, we’re still having credible fear issues in the region. And I’ve heard of cases recently where people who have had the same exact experiences, meaning they were persecuted at the same time by the same people in the same area, have had very different outcomes in their credible fear interviews.
Alvarez: And my last question is, do you have any advice for reporters looking to investigate the immigration detention system and the experience of asylum seekers?
Misick: I have a couple pieces of advice. I would say it’s okay to rely heavily on the network of organizations that are seeking to assist immigrants in detention because it’s very hard to get data that you are entitled to from ICE and from other agencies, including the Office of the Inspector General and the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Office, which investigate complaints against these field offices and against detention centers. You would think that those parts of the agency would be more forthcoming. But in my experience, I have emails that have never been answered by both offices. So it’s okay to rely on those organizations as long as you have a plan to sort of pull away and still do your duty as a journalist.
And also in terms of immigration courts, there is a lot of information that you can have access to because the EOIR (Executive Office for Immigration Review) is required to do a huge data dump every month. And so if there’s something that you need to dig into that way, that’s a good way to start and for the most part, TRAC at Syracuse does a good job of filtering through some of that. It might not be, in my case it wasn’t exactly what I needed, but I was able to sort of have enough of a hunch to then go and dig deeper into that data.
So yeah, I think that’s my advice. And I think that you just can’t let these huge government agencies intimidate you into not doing this work because there’s such a huge lack of transparency that honestly, if you don’t do this work, no one will know about it. And I don’t know if they’re banking on that, but the systems seem to just move forward without anybody really knowing what’s going on behind the prison walls were they’re housing immigrants.