The disturbing stories of more than 2,000 kids caught up in the U.S. immigration system – including babies and toddlers forcibly separated from their parents – dominated headlines and led newscasts around the world.
AP reporters, working across the country, in Washington, D.C., Latin America and along the U.S.-Mexican border led the coverage of the impact of the zero tolerance immigration policy. Their work produced a series of scoops that set the agenda, alerting Capitol Hill leaders to a major White House order, leaving an MSNBC anchor in tears and generating action by politicians.
For their work, the Beat of the Week is shared by investigative reporters Garance Burke, Martha Mendoza, Michael Biesecker and Jake Pearson, and Washington reporters Jill Colvin and Colleen Long. The award also recognizes an outstanding company-wide effort that included reporting from numerous locations and across formats, putting the AP repeatedly in front of a major global story.
Burke and Mendoza tracked down where immigrant babies and toddlers were being held, introducing the nation to a phrase that Sen. Orrin Hatch called chilling: “tender age.” Meanwhile, Burke and Biesecker in Washington worked with New York's Pearson to report on an immigration jail in Virginia where teens had allegedly been abused for years, while Colvin and Long broke news on President Donald Trump’s executive order changing the administration’s policy and, later, on the number of children reunited with families.
For the story about infants and toddlers in shelter, Burke, who has long reported on migrant children, learned the government was setting up special shelters to hold babies and other tender age children. She and Mendoza brainstormed the type of workers who would encounter them – lawyers, law enforcement officials, care providers, advocates. They searched contracts and memos. After dozens of calls and emails, they confirmed there were, in fact, toddler detention centers already open.
Lawyers and doctors who had been inside described kids who were deeply upset, hysterical or withdrawn, crying and acting out. The story drew widespread attention. MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow broke down in tears trying to read it on air. She later tweeted the top, with an apology to viewers. By then, it had gone viral. Ellen DeGeneres retweeted it. Democratic U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York read it into the congressional record on the Senate floor. CNN, NBC, The New York Times and The Washington Post worked to match AP's report, which led CNN's “Reliable Sources” newsletter.
The story also was cited by New York Times columnist Charles Blow and his colleague Will Wilkinson, whose column asked, “How Did We Get to the Savagery of ‘Tender Age’ Shelters?” Burke and Mendoza spoke of their findings in interviews with PBS NewsHour, CBS, MSNBC and Maddow's show, among others.
... an outstanding company-wide effort that included reporting from numerous locations and across formats, putting the AP repeatedly in front of a major global story.
In Washington, the breaking news investigative team looked at federal contractors housing immigrant children, searching for any newsworthy federal, state or local legal claims already filed against them. Biesecker’s attention was drawn to a federal lawsuit, first identified by Global Investigative Editor Mike Hudson, alleging sensational abuse claims between 2015 and 2018 at an immigration jail in the mountains of Virginia, about two hours outside Washington. Children as young as 14 claimed guards there stripped them of their clothes and strapped them to chairs with bags placed over their heads.
As Biesecker read the legal docket and reached out to lawyers and government officials, Burke tracked down an adult who worked at the same facility and said she routinely saw kids there with serious injuries they blamed on guards. Biesecker also found congressional testimony from a senior official at the facility who disputed claims that many of the children belonged to violent gangs, saying that after clinical staff assessed them, they were identified as suffering from mental health issues resulting from trauma that happened in their home countries – problems the facility is ill-equipped to treat.
The story was AP’s top content of the day. Biesecker’s own tweet promoting the story generated 4.4 million impressions and was retweeted nearly 60,000 times. Within hours, Virginia’s Gov. Ralph Northam ordered state officials to investigate the abuse claims.
Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner asked to meet with federal officials and sent them questions about the operations at the facility; Biesecker appeared on PBS NewsHour and Scripps Howard’s video news service. Meanwhile, Pearson, working through sources, identified an obscure book of poetry published last year by the immigrant children at the same facility.
In another set of scoops, Colvin, a White House reporter who has worked extensively on homeland security matters, and Long, who just started covering the homeland security beat, broke the news that an executive order had been drafted that would end family separations – a rare capitulation to political pressure from the president.
On the morning of June 20th, Trump tweeted a vague message about immigration, though White House staff seemed to not know what he meant. Together, tapping their sources, Colvin and Long ultimately learned Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was heading to the White House to push for an end to family separations. Trump later revealed he intended to sign an executive order doing so.
Meanwhile, Long kept pushing a source for the number of children reunited with their families. On Thursday night, the source called her with the number – 500. She quickly prepared a newsalert. By the next morning, AP’s figure was widely cited on morning news shows, radio broadcasts and online news sites.
For aggressive reporting that put AP ahead on this intensively competitive story, Burke, Mendoza, Biesecker, Pearson, Colvin and Long share this week’s Beat of the Week award.