Expert Commentary

How they did it: ProPublica investigates ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I haven't ever been part of a story that has had such powerful impact so swiftly,” Ginger Thompson, senior reporter at ProPublica, said.

Julio holds his son Brayan, 4, at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin. (Ilana Panich-Linsman for ProPublica)
Julio holds his son Brayan, 4, at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin. (Ilana Panich-Linsman for ProPublica)

Editor’s note: On March 12, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy will award the 2019 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting to a stellar investigative report that has had a direct impact on government, politics and policy at the national, state or local levels. Seven reporting teams have been chosen as finalists for the 2019 prize, which carries a $10,000 award for finalists and $25,000 for the winner. This year, for the first time, Journalist’s Resource is publishing a series of interviews with the finalists, in the interest of giving a behind-the-scenes explanation of the process, tools, and legwork it takes to create an important piece of investigative journalism. Journalist’s Resource is a project of the Shorenstein Center, but had no involvement with or influence on the judging process for the Goldsmith Prize finalists or winner.


You’ve probably heard the tape — the cries of children in an immigrant detention center, separated from their parents by United States immigration authorities.

ProPublica posted the audio recording to its website on June 18, 2018, just minutes before a press briefing at the White House on the administration’s family separation policy. A massive public and political outcry followed.

Less than two days after the tape was posted, President Donald Trump signed an executive order ending the policy. Family reunification efforts ensued.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I haven’t ever been part of a story that has had such powerful impact so swiftly,” Ginger Thompson, senior reporter at ProPublica, said.

ProPublica continued its investigation into the conditions at the detention centers, resulting in the ongoing story series “Zero Tolerance: Trump’s Immigration Policy at the Border.” The series examines reports of sexual assault against immigrant children in multiple shelters; the story of a 4-year-old boy who was separated from his father after the family separation policy ended; and an interactive map of 100 facilities holding immigrant children across the U.S.  This is the story of how the series was reported.


“I got a call on a Friday after work, I believe it was Friday, about a tape,” Thompson said. “I wasn’t really sure what the tape was going to sound like. I didn’t get it until the next day, Saturday, and I was driving back to New York from Maryland.”

Ginger Thompson (Claudio Papapietro)
Ginger Thompson (Claudio Papapietro)

Thompson said Jennifer Harbury, a lawyer and human rights activist, helped her get the tape.

“I put the tape on my car stereo and heard it for the first time and was shocked by it,” Thompson continued. “There were so many questions about the tape at the time. It sounded horrific, but I needed to then spend some time figuring out whether the tape really was what I was told that it was.”

Thompson spoke with her editors and began the process of authenticating and securing permission to share the tape with the public. It was a two-day effort.

“I’ve known Jennifer for a long time and I think she trusted that I would have as much concern about protecting the source of the tape as she did,” Thompson said. “So building on that trust that I think she had in me, I was able to talk her through why I needed the source of the tape. I needed to know who that was, I needed to speak to that source, and I needed the source to let me run the whole thing.”

“It was one gentle conversation forward after another,” Thompson said. After Harbury agreed to connect her with the person who recorded the audio, Thompson persuaded the source to let ProPublica put it online. “I think the source was finally convinced by the idea that this tape could potentially be a game changer,” Thompson said. “This person recorded this tape because they were worried about the impact that this policy was having on children. The person wanted some change to the policy. The person wanted the policy ended. And I was able to convince that person that unless we ran the tape in its entirety it wouldn’t have any impact at all. No one would believe it.”

To authenticate the tape, Thompson verified details of the source’s identity, and the specifics of when, where and how the audio was recorded. She also used the content of the audio itself to authenticate it.

“There’s a little girl on that tape who made it really easy at some point, because she asked authorities on the tape to let her make a phone call to her aunt, and then she rattled off the aunt’s phone number,” Thompson explained. “The tape was so hard to understand, I wasn’t sure until I listened to it about 15 times what the number was.” Thompson tried several combinations – including a wrong-number dial to a professor in Brooklyn, before reaching the right contact. “My significant other knows area codes really well, and he said, ‘It’s probably a six, because that’s a Houston area code and that’s a large Central American community. Try the six,’” Thompson recalled. “We called [with] the six and that’s when we got the aunt.”

The child’s aunt shared details about the 6-year-old Salvadoran girl’s separation from her mother, which ran along with the audio on ProPublica. “I know she’s not an American citizen,” she is quoted as saying in an interview with ProPublica. “But she’s a human being. She’s a child. How can they treat her this way?


After Thompson secured the tape, the newsroom held a meeting to determine next steps to take in their coverage of the “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

Michael Grabell, who covers immigration at ProPublica, explained that the outlet sees itself as reporting stories that traditional newsrooms aren’t doing or aren’t able to do. All the big national newsrooms were working on the same story, trying to learn about the conditions children experienced in these facilities. ProPublica wanted to look beyond federal government records, Grabell said.

Michael Grabell (Claudio Papapietro)
Michael Grabell (Claudio Papapietro)

“I suggested, what about police reports?” Grabell said. “People kind of forget about police reports, how many details they give you, even more so than regulatory records,” Grabell said.

For example, ProPublica found that over five years, police responded to at least 125 calls reporting sex offenses that occurred at children’s shelters that mainly serve immigrants.

Securing police records can be a large undertaking because “it’s a hundred jurisdictions that might have records,” Grabell said. But they’re generally easier to come by since their release is governed by state or local public records regulations rather than the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

His advice to journalists: “Don’t forget what you learned when you were a cub reporter: police reports are incredible tools no matter what beat it is that you’re covering, and will often reveal things that you couldn’t get otherwise,” Grabell said.

And if any given jurisdiction refuses to release records? “Read the law yourself,” he said. In some instances, Grabell was able to find exemptions that allowed him access to records after his requests had been denied.

Grabell and fellow reporter Topher Sanders’ persistence yielded shocking stories.

In one case, the reporting team was following up on an inspection report’s brief mention of child molestation at a particular center in Arizona. “We had no police reports of this coming out of the area,” he said.

So Sanders spent all night searching the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system for a case that fit the specifics they were looking for. Sanders discovered that a worker at a shelter for immigrant children in Arizona had been accused of molesting eight teenage boys over nearly one year.

Subsequently the governor of Arizona ordered inspections of all the state’s shelters, during which it was discovered that employees at two centers had not completed background checks. Those shelters were shut down. Elsewhere, in Miami, a sexual assault case was reopened after ProPublica revealed lapses in how the investigation was handled.

As Grabell and his colleagues pieced together details about the location and management of these shelters across the country, staff on the research and news apps teams at ProPublica worked to make an interactive map of this information. No such map existed at the time. The team homed in on locations through federal government grant reports, state inspection records and business records in addition to police reports.

The map, which is publicly accessible online, features the location of 100 immigrant children’s shelters across the country. The map conveys specifics about the country’s far-reaching network of facilities and the organizations that run them. The reporting tool was made public with hopes that people with knowledge of the specific shelters in the system might come forward with additional information.


ProPublica’s broader investigation relied on collaboration with other newsrooms and with the public, both domestically and internationally.

Its media partners were: Animal Político (Mexico), BuzzFeed News, El Faro (El Salvador), Frontline, The Intercept, Plaza Pública (Guatemala), The Texas Tribune, Univision News, El Periódico (Guatemala), Prensa Libre (Guatemala).

“We were basically putting calls out to say do you have, or do you know, are you a relative of a separated child?” Thompson said. “When everyone started really focusing on the impact of this policy, one of the things that started becoming clear was that the government wasn’t keeping good track of the kids they were separating and who those kids belonged to. And so we thought it’d be a good public service to begin to try to identify relatives who were missing kids.”

Thompson called Univision their “leading partner” in the social engagement effort. Call-outs for information led to “at least three, and maybe four, families being reunified after reporting by Univision.”

In addition to collaboration with Spanish-language media outlets, ProPublica published its own stories for this investigation in both English and Spanish – in the interest of reaching the people most affected by these stories. “As a result of this series, we brought on sort of a formal team of translators who get most of the stories we write that have anything to do or have any connection or interest to the Latin American community, Spanish-speaking community, and now we translate just about everything, and we have now a Spanish-language page,” Thompson said.


“We wrote about this one girl at the beginning of this [reporting] program and after a few months a lot of readers kept writing me asking, what’s happening, what’s happening, what’s happening now?” Thompson said. “There was a lawsuit that had been filed by the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], and as a result of that lawsuit the government would occasionally have to go before the judge and give a number as to how many kids were left in government custody who were put there because of zero tolerance.”

“In one of the reports that maybe was late August or September, the government reported that they had one child under five left in their care,” Thompson continued. “I decided to go try to find that child, see if I could figure out who that child was, and why they were still in government custody.”

Thompson’s search led her to a father of a 5-year-old who had just turned 6 in custody. “He was very upset that after six months he and his child still hadn’t been reunited,” Thompson explained. “I said, ‘Well, you know you’re one of the last cases because they’re not doing this anymore,’ and he said to me — and he was in a detention facility — he said to me, ‘Nuh-uh, there was a guy who just arrived two days ago who was just separated from his kid last week.’”

Thompson convinced the man on the phone to get this other father to call her. “That’s when I found 4-year-old Brayan who had been separated from his father in August,” Thompson said. It was a big discovery – after reversing their policy, the government was still separating children from their parents at the border. “They said they were only separating people to protect the child from parents who are potentially dangerous to them, parents who had dangerous criminal records, and they had accused the father of being a gang member,” Thompson said. “But our reporting revealed that they didn’t have any evidence to support this allegation and that his father was separated for reasons we still don’t know, but don’t seem justified, because after we reported the story, the government quickly reversed course, released the father, and then reunited them.”


Want to read more? We’ve gathered research on the effects of family separation on children.

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