Boundless spoke with The Wall Street Journal’s Michelle Hackman about her experience covering U.S. immigration, her favorites stories, and what’s surprised her most.
What was the most surprising thing you learnt about immigration that you didn’t know before covering the space?
I think the thing that shocked me when I first started was how you can live in America without understanding our immigration system. You see immigrants everywhere, so you think, “Oh, it must be fairly easy.” But the people you’re seeing are a fraction of the people who actually want to come here. You’re just seeing the success stories and there are so many more people who are not success stories who are unable to get here, unable to get a visa, unable to apply for asylum, maybe rejected for any reason under the sun. I didn’t realize how many pitfalls there were in applying for any sort of immigration benefit. I just didn’t realize nearly how arbitrary it was. You could be from Canada and you could go to school at a top American university and you could have a job and you could just not get a visa because there aren’t enough visas, and then you have to leave.
How do you find your stories?
My favorite stories are ones where sources, often a lawyer, will call me up and say, “Hey, I’ve noticed this strange thing happening, and I don’t exactly know what’s going on, but it feels weird. Can you help me look into it?” Or “I have a client going through this thing and it’s kind of outrageous.” I try to talk to people as often as I can. The thing I really love about immigration is that when people hear the term, they sort of think of it as this siloed thing, that this is our immigration system and it’s really only relevant to people going through it. But working at The Wall Street Journal, almost every business area cares about immigration. So if there’s something going on with farms, I get to write about immigration, or the tech industry, I get to write about immigration. There’s a lot of interest in international students, in higher education. So I’m constantly thinking, “Oh, how does this sort of seemingly unrelated issue, how could that possibly intersect with my beat?”
Can you tell me about a favorite story that you wrote?
The Wall Street Journal writes about the issue of labor shortages constantly, and no one had written a story about how there were two or three million fewer bodies in the country than there would have been otherwise because of immigration. The thing that I really enjoyed about that story was describing not just the phenomenon, but the mechanism that a lot of employers are not necessarily savvy about. I spoke to a company that hires home health aides, and they said, “I hired this Nigerian woman, and I said, do you know anyone else? And she went to her church and brought me a few other people from the church who were willing to work for me.” And it’s these immigrant networks that already exist in America that often are how employers operate that have been totally disrupted by the pandemic.
What, in your opinion, is the single biggest issue facing immigrants today?
It’s a bit of a cliché to say but the immigration system is quite outdated and hasn’t been substantially updated in 30 years. There are all sorts of ways for that to manifest where the laws on the books just don’t make any sense and don’t meet the current realities of where we are today. We have this issue of massive labor shortages, and then we have mass numbers of people crossing the border illegally, many with the intent of taking those specific jobs that are open. You have this system where people are risking their lives, they’re paying smugglers, we’re essentially paying off drug cartels that are then pumping Fentanyl into our country, and then they’re going and working illegally at restaurants where they’re probably being underpaid. The restaurants are breaking the law. There are probably no worker protections for those people. The restaurants could get in trouble. No one would have cooked up this system. I don’t think that we talk nearly enough about drug cartels and how much they’re profiting. And I’m not trying to make the argument that people shouldn’t come because they’re enriching drug cartels. But it just seems ridiculous that we’ve built a system with these terrible incentives.
What is your overall impression of DHS? What would you say the agency’s strengths and weaknesses are?
I never covered the system in its previous iterations, so I couldn’t do a compare and contrast. Some immigrants definitely feel comforted by the fact that they can apply for a visa, even if they’re out of status, and that system is pretty disconnected from ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement), where they would feel a little bit more endangered. That being said, I think that the modern immigration system, the way it’s built, responsibilities scattered across at least four different agencies, possibly even more in a way that I think can be detrimental. One example that the government is attempting to fix is the Special Immigrant Visa, where you have two agencies that are separately needing to approve the same applicant, often asking for the same information, and it’s duplicative. You have to fill out a form and they’re asking you all this information about your personal history, and you say, “Wait, didn’t I just tell the State Department this?” I think that’s an example of where reforms to the immigration system would probably benefit from consolidating some of the work under one roof.
Reporting on immigration policy and politics is hard because there’s so much to relate in relatively short articles. What are your techniques for sharing context and giving people the background they need for why things are happening?
It’s a muscle that you sort of have to work on over time. I think as a policy reporter, one thing I’ve learned is that I am really allergic to jargon. I have to know all the jargon to be able to speak to people in the immigration world. But I’m never going to use it in an article. I’m never going to use the word “inadmissibility.” I actually get a lot of slack because I purposefully use words that are incorrect. I refer to non- immigrants as immigrants. And I get emails all the time from people who tell me I got it wrong. Okay, but I’m a newspaper reporter. I have to use colloquial language. I’m speaking to people who don’t understand immigration, who would hear the word non-immigrant and say,”That is some jargon I don’t understand but I know what an immigrant is.”
It’s attempting to figure out how to communicate. You’re an insider because you know what’s going on in the world, but you’re an outsider in the sense that you have to keep a foot in the regular world where most people don’t know what this is about. And I have to try to figure out how to write it in a way that would be accessible to them. Sometimes that requires picking up the phone and just explaining it to my friend who has no idea about immigration and is not particularly interested. So I have to say, “Here’s why you need to care.”
Are there any immigration topics that you feel aren’t being talked about enough?
I think people don’t write nearly enough about the legal immigration system. It’s my favorite part of the job because I think people, when they think of immigration, they think of the border and they think of ICE, they think of deportations. Those are big parts of the immigration system. They’re quite complex, they’re quite broken. But I think we’ve done readers a disservice because we have helped them build this association that immigrants and immigration are people coming illegally, people from Latin America, whereas that’s not really true. I think there’s a much broader diversity of people coming in all different ways for all different reasons, hitting all sorts of different issues. And so I think it’s good to remind readers of that, but also to remind them that the system, top to bottom, is not really functioning.