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Immigration Journalist Q&A: Suzanne Monyak, Roll Call

Boundless spoke with Suzanne about what it’s like covering immigration in Congress

Sep 15, 2022

Can you tell me about a story you wrote recently that you found especially interesting or important?
I recently wrote about how processing delays at USCIS are affecting congressional offices and I thought that was a fun one because I haven’t seen it done before. And as a Roll Call immigration reporter I thought that was a really nice melding of what I’m covering where I’m covering some Capitol Hill news and issues important to people who work on the hill, but I’m also covering immigration policy for people in that space more generally, and just anyone interested. And so I think that was kind of a cool way to look at how those two areas interplay.

Some lawmakers were complaining about this at a hearing where Ur Jaddou [the USCIS Director] was testifying and I thought, Oh, that’s interesting. That would make sense: when people are having problems, they call their representative. Let me call around and see if this is a widespread issue. And everybody I talked to said, Yes, we are getting so many of these requests. I was able to get about a dozen people to talk to me and give me some data from their offices, which was really great for that to be able to come together.

How do you find your stories?
I focus on Congress and policy; being D.C.-based, I think that’s where I can be most effective. In terms of finding stories, it just sort of depends; sometimes immigration can be such a firehose that you’re never having to sit down and think about what story to write. You’re just getting hit with stuff all the time: there’ll be big policies announced or bills coming to the floor, so as a Roll Call reporter, every time an immigration bill is getting marked up we’re covering that hearing, every time there’s an immigration hearing. We’re listening in every time Congress tries to pass an immigration bill, and cover that effort. So sometimes the stories are just, What’s happening in Congress? Then it’s a matter of tracking professional calendars, asking around, showing up to the Hill asking, Hey, what’s going on, what are you working on?, to get a sense of what the immigration news of the day or the week is.

Sometimes, though, when Congress is less focused on immigration it’s more a matter of thinking about what areas haven’t had a close enough look. With policy stories I try to show a real world application. I think sometimes, as we’ve talked about, immigration is so technical that a story about processing delays, for example, sounds really boring. But writing a story about an ICU nurse who’s now out of work and had her driver’s license taken away because USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) has taken eight months to renew a work permit? That feels like more of a story.

So I think it’s trying to take some of the more technical aspects of the immigration system and put it in terms that people can really understand, even if they’re a U.S. citizen who’s never really had to think about these things. They can read that story and be like, Oh, wow, I didn’t realize that it was like this for people. It gives the subject [of immigration] a little bit of humanity.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about immigration that you didn’t know before you started covering the space?
I definitely didn’t know about green card caps going into immigration reporting. I had a lot more familiarity with some student visa issues and some of the work visas, but wasn’t as familiar with the per-country cap problem and how that’s affected primarily the Indian community here in the United States.

At this point, or course, it no longer surprises me since I’ve been covering it for years. It doesn’t surprise me that it’s still an issue, either, because it requires Congress to act, and I’m no longer surprised by congressional inaction.

But that was something that I wasn’t aware of when I first started covering immigration, and I would imagine that a lot of people, even those who do read the news regularly, are not aware of it either.

Is there a story you feel hasn’t broken through to the mainstream that should?
I think the big story on immigration that could get more national attention is the focus on how it relates to global competitiveness and national security. We just saw some pretty niche provisions about exempting people with STEM PhDs from annual green card caps be cut from our global competition bill, now the CHIPS and Science bill. If I were to stop someone on the street and ask, what’s the per country cap for employment based green cards, they would say, What are you talking about? So it’s not an outrage-type of immigration topic, but it still got cut.

So Congress just passed a bill aiming to fund a lot of scientific research and technology development. Well, who’s going to do it? Who’s going to do the research? You need people to do that. And so I think that’s going to be a topic to watch in the coming months: are we going to see more efforts to pass more targeted immigration revisions that focus on people coming with — and I never like to use the phrase high-skilled because I feel like people in a lot of industries have skills — but people coming in with professional degrees in STEM topics certainly do, who might be able to really contribute to our economy and make us globally competitive.

Reporting on immigration policy and politics is hard because there is so much complexity 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?
I think one of the biggest challenges of immigration reporting is condensing very complicated procedures without losing accuracy, while having it still makes sense and give the bare minimum amount of information needed for someone to follow the story without being misled. For example, you would never want to imply that some kind of relief was available to an immigrant that isn’t, so I think that’s something to be careful to navigate.

It helps to know a lot more about the topic than you need. If you’re trying to paraphrase something and you don’t really understand it yourself, that’s where you really open yourself up to potential error.

You’re always having that back and forth with your editors about how to make sure it reads well and is still well written and compelling, but you’re not getting too bogged down. Immigration lawyers read stories and I know lawyers who will read stories and be like this person who wrote this is not a lawyer. I never want someone to read one of my stories and just know I’m not a lawyer.

For more, you can follow Suzanne on Twitter and read her work on Roll Call.

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