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Neither Here Nor There: A Conversation with Caitlin Dickerson

Image via The New York Times

Caitlin Dickerson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and feature writer for The Atlantic magazine. Dickerson has covered immigration from three continents and dozens of American cities. Previously, she spent nearly five years as a reporter at The New York Times, writing front-page stories about the Trump administration’s immigration policies. Dickerson’s feature stories for the newspaper and The New York Times Magazine detailed the backstories behind those policies and brought to life their human impact.

Prior to The Times, Dickerson spent five years as a producer and investigative reporter for NPR. She is a Peabody and Edward R. Murrow Award recipient and a four-time finalist for the Livingston Award. In response to her investigation into the US government’s treatment of World War II veterans used in secret chemical weapons experiments, military officials acknowledged for the first time that some of those experiments had been conducted based on eugenics science and Congress passed a law making it easier for test subjects to access disability benefits. Dickerson is currently writing a book for Random House about the systemic impact of deportation on American society.

Matteo Papadopoulos: You recently gave a talk at Brown about the differences in treatment of refugees you noticed between traveling to the US­-Mexico border and the Poland­-Ukraine border. Could you expand on that talk and discuss your overarching observations in those two places?

Caitlin Dickerson: I’ve been covering migration and forced displacement for several years now, and I’ve had the opportunity to see what that looks like in different parts of the world—in doing so, I’ve noticed dramatic differences that can impact the entire trajectory of a person’s life once they’re displaced. There’s no question that forced displacement is traumatizing and disturbing, and these differences in treatment are no less harrowing. I’ve witnessed differences in whether people are given access to housing or whether they’re allowed to become documented immigrants, which gives them access to employment and healthcare and education; I’ve even seen differences in the language used to describe these people.

In Mexico, I saw up to thousands of people at a time living outside, exposed to the elements without any consistent resources to have their basic hygiene needs met; to allow children to go to school and parents to go to work; and even for basic safety. Most of the time I spent in Mexico was in the border city of Matamoros, which has been effectively controlled by cartels for many years; as a result, there were hundreds—if not thousands—of documented incidents of kidnappings, assaults, and extortions of those migrants because they lived outdoors with no security of shelter.

I saw the opposite in Poland: Hundreds of thousands of Poles took Ukrainians who had crossed the border into their homes without question. That generosity extended to the Polish government as well; emergency legislation was passed to give Ukrainians legal status for 18 months in Poland, giving them access to the formal supports that exist in Polish society as part of the European Union. In essence, we’re talking about two different populations that have been forcibly displaced and have very different outlooks for the future based on the resources that are made available to them and whether or not the host country where they’re living is accepting of them.

MP: Do you think that the terms that are used to refer to these migrants can affect the way that they’re treated at borders?

CD: I do, and that’s not just my opinion. These differences can have generational consequences. There’s research indicating that the language that’s used by elected officials and the media to describe displaced people or people who are migrating has a substantial impact on public opinion. In Poland, for example, I heard the word “refugee” everywhere I went. It was used almost interchangeably with “Ukrainian” to describe anybody who was Ukrainian. And at the time, experts in international law pointed out that actually the term “refugee” is very legally specific and didn’t necessarily apply to people who were fleeing the war in Ukraine—which is not to suggest that they weren’t deserving of being embraced by Poland. But the term “refugee” is both a legal one and an emotional one that can connote sympathy and can label a population as deserving of help.

On the other hand, of course, during the Trump administration, the population that was marooned in Mexico trying to get access to the United States was described by the highest-ranking elected officials in the nation at the time—including our president—as murderers, rapists, and people trying to either take advantage of the system or exploit Americans. That has a huge impact on the way migrants are treated because the average American who skims the news and listens to what their elected officials are saying may not have time to dig into the details of international conflict and fully grasp the circumstances that displaced people are fleeing. This understanding really is necessary for Americans to make a determination for themselves about how they feel about that conflict. What the average American can do, however, is consider and react to the words that they hear used to describe those people. Are they described as refugees, or are they described as migrants who are trying to exploit the system or take advantage?

MP: Completely. I’m glad we’re on this subject because the Biden administration has been troubling me recently. They’ve promised to take a more humane approach to immigration but have instead faced criticism from both the left and the right on their handling of border issues. How do you think it has differed from Trump’s administration, and how would you assess the administration’s approach to date?

CD: What we’ve seen go away completely during the Biden administration is the use of this dehumanizing language that has an impact on public opinion. What we haven’t seen change as much, though, is policy. There was considerable decrying from the left of the Trump administration’s harshest restrictions on asylum as well as its attempts to crack down on people living in the United States without legal status—including those who’ve been here for decades without any criminal record. Some of those things have changed, but many of them have not, particularly with regard to asylum. On a day-­to-day basis, immigration enforcement within the interior of the country has been scaled back and become more targeted like it was toward the end of the Obama administration, when arrests became more targeted so that every single undocumented person did not need to live in fear of arrest as they did under Trump. But, in large part, those asylum restrictions remain in place; it really goes to show that language and rhetoric, while very significant, aren’t everything. Harmful language and rhetoric can influence policy, and influence can flow in the opposite direction, but even when that language goes away, policies can remain that prevent people from getting access to a legal and formal kind of acceptance into society and support. That’s what we’re seeing now.

MP: With this recent surge in migration and all of this increased attention on border issues and the media and public discourse, what role do you see journalists playing in shaping the conversation? What role can journalists play in the evolution of these issues?

CD: The role of the media is of paramount importance when it comes to immigration, simply because it is such an emotional issue. It’s one on which a lot of people develop a position based on gut as opposed to economic or social considerations. I’ve had the opportunity to go back and study media coverage of migration over time in this country and see that the media has done a lot of damage by perpetuating long-standing stereotypes, like the idea that immigrants are somehow predisposed toward criminality, poverty, or disease. Factually, these stereotypes have never been true, but they became baked into our laws and our culture, and they’re very often perpetuated in media coverage—that was true 50 years ago, and it’s also often true now. So, the thing I encourage most when it comes to media coverage of immigration is to include as much context and history as possible and necessary. For example, the number of people who cross the border in any given year can sound very intimidating when presented in a vacuum; however, when it’s presented in the context of the number of vacant jobs that exist in the United States or the number of immigrants the United States needs for its economy to thrive, it no longer looks as large.

Also, when holding an administration accountable, it is tremendously important to include data from prior administrations in the picture. There has been so much focus on the Biden administration’s record-breaking number of border crossings, but very infrequently do those stories mention that before the Biden administration, the administration to break the record number of border crossings in a given year was the Trump administration. The figure has been increasing gradually over decades—it’s not like this upward trend that we’ve witnessed in the last three years came out of nowhere. The continual increase also does not suggest that Biden’s border policies have somehow increased migration in a way that we never would have otherwise seen. This is especially true when you compare them to the vastly different—and considerably more harsh—approach that the Trump administration took to immigration, which still saw record-breaking numbers of border crossings. 

All that is to say that, as journalists, our job is to help the public make informed decisions based on facts, and immigration is not quickly or easily understood. We really have to take the time to get the story right.

MP: Something else you do very well is highlight the human stories behind the policies and statistics. What draws you to these individual stories? Why is it so important to bring them directly to print?

CD: Numbers on their own, no matter how dramatic a story they tell, are only going to appeal to a finite number of readers. Readers need something to connect to, not just data or quotes from politicians but real human beings. My approach to writing about people who are migrating is the same as any other story, which is that I strongly believe in getting to know people. After all, nobody can be reduced to the stereotypical categories that they’re often labeled with just as a shorthand. With immigration, those categories tend to be “good” or “bad” immigrants—people who are deserving of sympathy or not. As a result, I try to treat everybody who I interview, whether it’s somebody working in the Trump administration or somebody crossing the US-­Mexico border, as a very complicated person full of nuance, just like you and me, and try to paint a picture of them that feels real and relatable.

MP: What do you see as the biggest misconceptions or misunderstandings that people have about immigration and border policy? How can we, not just as journalists, but as college students and political denizens of the world, go about addressing these gaps in understanding?

CD: First of all, there are plenty of gaps, but the one that I’ll mention is this: A lot of people are unaware of the president’s role in immigration. The extremely politicized nature of the general immigration debate often leads people to believe that what the president thinks or does about immigration on any given day is the primary driver of the number of people crossing the border; that is simply not true. There are critical factors worth understanding: economic factors, safety factors, and climate change factors, all of which combined are far and away the biggest drivers of border crossings in any given year, despite the feverish blame of whoever is in the White House that has become a fixture of American politics. This has been true both during the Trump administration and during the Biden administration, and it distracts from the fact that there are forces much greater than our own White House that influence the trends that we see—without coming to terms with them, the public will continue to see president after president, Democrat or Republican, seem powerless in the face of them. The other thing that they distract from is Congress, which has not meaningfully updated our immigration laws in decades; what’s more, members of Congress have continued to score political points by criticizing the White House in this very way. Yet, they are in control of our country’s immigration policies, which as it stands have almost nothing to do with the current geopolitical reality of immigration. 

Congress has really been let off the hook for far too long.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity