By Piper French
Tina Vasquez is a journalist based in North Carolina. Her work, which makes visible the complicated web of connections between race, gender, migration, food, and culture, is unambiguously on the side of the people she’s writing about: people fighting to live their lives free of injustice, discrimination, and systems of confinement and oppression.
Piper French: What initially drew you to reporting on immigration?
Tina Vasquez: My dad is a Mexican immigrant. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found out that he came to the U.S. without authorization and was undocumented for a while.
I remember him trying to learn English and me being a little kid working with him, explaining things, doing homework with him. I also remember having frank conversations with him about how limited he felt. My dad ended up becoming a naturalized citizen but still very much operated in fear, as if he were undocumented. He tells me all the time, “Hey, you should write a book about me, but wait until I’m dead, because what if they take my papers away?” So very early on, understanding that immigrants were treated differently and that there was real trauma around that.
PF: At Rewire, where you were a senior reporter for nearly four years, you wrote a lot about the intersection of immigration and reproductive justice. What did you learn about the way the U.S. immigration system regulates women’s bodies?
TV: The way that pregnant people are treated in the immigration system is completely modeled on the way that black women have been treated in the criminal justice system. I received an overwhelming response about the reporting that I did about how women who give birth in U.S. Marshals custody are separated from their newborns in the hospital. My model for that was the understanding that that happens primarily to black women who give birth in custody in the United States of America every day.
PF: What to you is the biggest trend or story in immigration right now that you think isn’t getting enough coverage?
TV: I’ve been really surprised that reproductive rights reporters don’t see immigration as an issue that’s part of their beat. The way that pregnant people are treated in the immigration system is completely modeled on the way that black women have been treated in the criminal justice system. The family separation policy, Scott Lloyd blocking teens in ORR custody from accessing abortion care even in instances of rape, the woman who gave birth to a stillborn (baby) while detained by ICE: all of these things are very gendered. A report that was released last week found that there’s been a 52 percent increase in the detention of vulnerable immigrants, including pregnant people. This is a reproductive rights nightmare.
PF: You’ve amplified the stories of black undocumented immigrants, a population that’s often overlooked by the media when reporting on immigration. Can you speak to some of the unique challenges that black immigrants face in the U.S. immigration system?
TV: When we pretend immigration is a Latinx issue and we funnel all of the resources in that particular direction, whether that means interpreters or legal help or whatever, that means that black immigrants are in detention without that help or those resources. Black LGBT folks in particular tend to have the strongest asylum cases, but it seems like they’re in detention the longest. There’s a woman I wrote about named Sza Sza who’s been incarcerated or detained for around ten years because of a marijuana charge. She’s an undocumented black immigrant from Jamaica. Not only is she navigating sexual violence in detention, and transphobia, and being detained alongside men – there’s also very real anti-black racism that she experiences.
Also, there are federal immigration officials who can speak Spanish to folks, but don’t know the languages of black immigrants, who interact with them differently or are racist against them. It can seem insurmountable when you add it to all the other things that black immigrants are navigating.
PF: You’ve written about how the language the media uses when talking about immigrants has such a deep impact on how we think about people and their stories. What’s one of your biggest frustrations with the way mainstream news reports on immigration?
TV: Because of who I am and where I come from, I have a deep understanding that immigrants are people. That seems like a really basic way to start, but I sometimes really worry that journalists don’t see immigrants as people! I worry about whether journalists are assessing harm and the risks people are taking in speaking to them.
You often see journalists almost using the language of right-wing movements: “They’re flooding to the border,” “they’re swarming to the border.” It sounds like a small thing, but it adds to certain people’s already racist perceptions of what is happening at the border.
PF: Your piece “The Image America Shouldn’t Need,” was a really powerful investigation into why Americans, white Americans especially, feel the need to publish and confront images of dead migrants. Do you feel like the visual culture around immigration reporting contributes to harmful stereotypes about immigrants?
TV: What I want to know is: at what point are we going to see that this doesn’t work? We had the family that drowned, and now we have this video of this young person dying, and these atrocities keep unfolding, and these in-custody deaths keep happening. The Trump administration keeps doing what it’s doing, and the immigration system keeps doing what it’s doing. At what point do we say, you know, maybe these images aren’t helping?
A woman reached out to me recently who did some research in Australia, where they’re detaining asylum seekers. Some of the research she found suggests that repeatedly seeing images of children in cages only verifies to (anti-immigrant movements) that immigrants are animals. We think we’re leading the American public to action, getting them to care. We don’t think about anti-immigrant racist movements that also see those photos—and how they use them.
PF: What’s a story that you’ve worked on that’s really stuck with you?
TV: I remember everybody that I interview. I did one story about a black family in sanctuary in Philadelphia, the Thompson family—they’re Jamaican asylum seekers who still have rent and bills to pay even though they had to enter the church (for protection). They do monthly dinners where they cook for like two days and then they open the doors to the community. That’s how they’re making a living now. They let me spend the entire day with them while they cooked. It was a really good reminder that you can get really bogged down in horrible shit in writing about immigration, and it becomes trauma, trauma, trauma—we never focus on resilience. Even though they’re struggling, it was a very needed reminder that this is their way of fighting back. This is their way of building community through food. This is the way that they find joy.
PF: You’re constantly interviewing people who are going through some of the worst moments of their lives. How do you cope with that?
TV: I actually stay in touch with people a lot, just to make sure they’re ok. Their story doesn’t end as soon as the piece is published. So that’s all really helpful.
I think a lot of journalists are really apprehensive to say, “This is such a hard job for me!” (laughs). Of course it isn’t as hard as being targeted for enforcement or having your family separated. But yeah, it is a hard job. I care about the people I write about very deeply. I get to know them or their children and their families, and they share very personal things with me. To know that at the end of the day there isn’t really much that I can do for them, they’re still stuck in detention—it just sucks.
PF: How do you feel that your identity as a Latina woman who’s the daughter of a formerly undocumented immigrant affects your work?
TV: Being who I am, there’s immediately a point of connection; I think people feel like they can trust me. But I remember when I got the Rewire job I was so excited, and somebody said to me, “Of course they hired you for immigration, what else would they hire you for?”
I would be happy to do immigration reporting for the rest of my life, but I can also see how there are probably editors or outlets who don’t see me as capable of doing any other kind of reporting. I was having a conversation last night with someone who said that the phrase ‘advocacy journalism’ gets weaponized against marginalized reporters who are a part of the community that they’re reporting on. It’s a demeaning thing. It’s intended to diminish the work that we do, like it’s not real.
It’s harmful, but at the end of the day, I don’t care. I love the work that I get to do, and I’m going to keep doing it.
Tina Vasquez is a journalist based in North Carolina whose work focuses on racial injustice, immigration, reproductive justice, food, and culture. Currently, she is an assistant research director at Political Research Associates, a social justice think tank that produces investigative research and analysis on Right Wing movements. Previously, she was a senior reporter covering immigration at Rewire.News, the leading online publication devoted to evidence-based reporting on reproductive and sexual health, rights, and justice. Her work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, NPR, The Nation, and a variety of other publications. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.
Piper French is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. She has worked with immigration justice movements in France, Greece, and New England.