When family separations began under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, widespread rumors circulated that some separated children could end up being adopted by families in the United States – without their deported parents even being notified. California-based investigative reporters Garance Burke, San Francisco, and Martha Mendoza, San Jose, set out to learn if this was true and eventually uncovered the case of 5-year-old Alexa Flores, exposing holes in the U.S. legal system that could allow deported mothers and fathers to lose their children.
By the time Alexa was reunited with her mother in El Salvador in February 2017, she had spent more than a third of her short life away from her family. She had forgotten her native Spanish, and closely bonded with her Michigan foster family. Fearing Alexa would be abused if returned to her mother, the foster family obtained temporary guardianship of the girl – something federal officials say is not supposed to happen.
Alexa’s story illustrates the fate that could await some of the hundreds of children who remain in federal custody after being separated from their parents at the border. Burke and Mendoza’s reporting – which included sifting through hundreds of court records and dozens of interviews with immigrants, attorneys, and advocates in the U.S. and Central America – revealed how migrant children can become cloaked in the maze of state and federal courts, which are rarely in contact with each other. Burke and Mendoza also were able to report that nine of the 500 migrant children assigned to a Michigan-based adoption and foster agency have been adopted by U.S. families since the 1980s.
Work on the story began in June when zero tolerance was still tearing apart families at the U.S.-Mexico border. For weeks, the pair chased tips. The breakthrough came in August, when Burke and Mendoza learned Alexa’s name. After calls to dozens of courthouses, they were able to review records revealing her foster parents’ initially successful attempt to win full custody of the girl.
After chasing tips for weeks, Burke and Mendoza learned Alexa’s name. They then called dozens of courthouses to find records of her foster parents’ initially successful attempt to win full custody of the girl.
The reporters then split up, with Burke heading to Michigan – working with Detroit-based videojournalist Mike Householder and photographer Paul Sancya – to interview the foster agency, meet with Alexa’s former foster parents and watch video footage from a brief, pivotal guardianship hearing that the AP negotiated to have released for public viewing. Mendoza worked with a multiformat team in San Miguel, El Salvador, to interview Alexa and her mother, Araceli Ramos Bonilla. Video and images shot by El Salvador videojournalist David Barraza and Mexico City-based photographer Rebecca Blackwell showed mother and daughter happily reunited.
It was the all-formats telling of the story of Alexa and her mother, Araceli Ramos Bonilla, that captivated readers and stoked their anger over the case, including MSNBC host Chris Hayes, celebrities J.K. Rowling and Alyssa Milano, and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, who tweeted it was “... every parent’s nightmare.” The story hovered near the top of the AP report in reader engagement for three days and prompted 100,000 interactions on Facebook and tens of thousands of tweets. A social promo video created by Mexico City digital producer Dario Lopez has been viewed 45,000 times.
The strong reporting and visuals impressed the judges, one of whom called it the “most personal view of the (separation) story that I've ever read.” Another noted that Alexa’s tale “moves the separation story forward when it was falling off the radar.” It is indeed back on the radar, with lawmakers now asking for more details and talking about instituting steps to prevent a repeat of Alexa’s case.
For producing a complex, powerful story that spanned two countries in heartbreakingly human terms, Burke, Mendoza, Lopez, Blackwell, Sancya, Householder and Barraza win this week’s Best of the Week.