CQS 25th Anniversary Tribute: James Barragán

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James Barragán (Summer 2013)
Community Affairs Reporter/Columnist
Austin (Texas) American-Statesman

We had a big story on our hands.

My reporting partner Jazmine Ulloa and I knew that undocumented immigrant parents in Texas were being denied birth certificates for their U.S.-born children, effectively stripping away any proof of identity. We learned this in May 2015, when immigration advocates filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Texas health department.

The major newspapers in Texas had published minor pieces about the issue – reports that the lawsuit had been filed and a couple of updates – but no one had run anything like the enterprise piece Jazmine and I were working on for the Austin American-Statesman.

For weeks, we dove deep into the question of why the state was denying birth certificates for these children. We had to convince a reluctant lawyer of the good the story would do for his clients and agree to not show the face or use the surname of a mother who was a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Jazmine made a two-day trip to the Rio Grande Valley for that interview.

We tracked down legal experts, spoke to Mexican officials involved in the case and contacted the Texas Department of State Health Services, which was implementing the policy.

After state health officials finally approved our records request, I had to wade through boxes of paper documents in an empty room at the health department. An employee watched my every move for more than three hours as I examined the records.

Our work paid off: We had the first deep look into how Texas was using what immigration advocates called a discriminatory policy.

And we were almost ready to go.

Then, two days before the story was to be published, in came The New York Times and its story on the issue. The paper’s Texas correspondent had spoken to the same sources we had and even got essentially the same quotes from some of the state officials we had interviewed. We were scooped.

My competitive spirit kicked in. Our story was more in-depth, and we needed to get it on our website and to our readers as soon as possible.

Our editors thought differently. To them, there were more pressing stories that weekend, and our story needed more polishing before it could lead the Sunday paper.

Jazmine and I disagreed. We had worked so hard on a story that few news outlets had looked at, and we hated being scooped. We believed in the story. What could be more pressing than American-born children being denied proof of their citizenship just because their parents were personae non grata in Texas?

We reluctantly let our editors pass over the story and we headed home for the weekend. The more I thought about the decision, the more I disagreed with it. I became angry.

The Austin American-Statesman, like most newspapers, continues to suffer from downsizing, which leaves those of us still here doing a lot more for a lot less. In that shuffle, many immigration stories fell through the cracks.

But our story was about more than immigration. It was about U.S. born-children being denied proof of their citizenship because of a state policy. I had told the state editor about the story several months earlier. No one was assigned to it. And now that Jazmine and I had invested so much in it, we were essentially allowing another outlet to scoop us because we didn’t want to move too fast on the story? It didn’t make sense.

I popped off an email to Jazmine that night, telling her how upset I was. She replied the next morning, saying she felt the same way and was glad we were on the same page.

We met with our editors the following Monday. We explained why the story mattered and why we felt it had been overlooked and underplayed.

Our editors agreed with our points and assured us they had not overlooked the importance of the story. What’s more, they assured us that a commitment to reporting on a diversity of issues was paramount to the paper and that they would keep a closer eye on immigration matters.

By Thursday of that week, the story was published online, with a special presentation. On Sunday, it led the paper.

This moment in my career opened my eyes to the importance of having diverse people in the newsroom. I had suggested that story for months, yet no one had taken it up. Why had it taken so long for it to be written? And then by one of the youngest metro reporters on staff?

The answer: I persisted in getting the story because the policy affected my life. I knew people who, if they lived in Texas, would be impacted by the ruling. And I knew people in our newsroom who could be affected by the policy.

But not everyone comes from where I come from. In a newsroom where many of the decision-makers are white and don’t have to worry about matters of citizenship, it was up to those of us who did know the struggles of people who are undocumented to stand up for their stories and give them a voice.

Our story, “Are Texas-born Children Being Denied U.S. Citizenship?”, garnered a lot of well-deserved attention. I’m glad it did. And it taught me why it is so important that I’m in this newsroom.

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