Houston-based immigration reporter Nomaan Merchant uncovered a heartbreaking tale in his coverage of the lingering toll of President Donald Trump’s family separation policy: a 9-year-old boy, Byron Xol, who is still separated from his parents. The boy bounced around from one detention facility to another and eventually landed in the home of a Texas family who took custody of the child, while the boy’s parents were deported to Guatemala.
The story shows the value of journalists picking their moment. Nomaan had been looking for an opportunity to write a detailed narrative that would illustrate the stress that separations have on families. He had been speaking to the father of Byron and his lawyer since last summer, and when he learned of Byron’s upcoming birthday from the attorney, he decided it was the perfect time to tell the tale.
Nomaan and his editors agreed to send all-formats crews to his home in Texas and his family’s impoverished village in Guatemala on the same day. We would be in both places when the dad called the boy and marked the birthday to capture the emotion surrounding the day and the sharp contrast between the two worlds.
Merchant and his Houston colleagues – video journalist John Mone and photographer David Phillip – went to the boy’s current foster home outside Austin. Meanwhile, photographer Santiago Billy, reporter Sonny Figueroa and video stringer Sergio Alfaro went to the Guatemalan village. The Guatemalan home had no electricity and was dark, creating challenges for the Central American team to tell the story visually. And the birthday phone call between the father and child was in a Mayan dialect, forcing Merchant to seek out a translation service.
“We didn’t get approval from Byron’s father until Saturday, two days before Byron’s birthday, so we had to quickly mobilize on both sides to arrange the trip,” Nomaan recounted in an email. “I think it worked out well, especially on video, where you can see both father and son looking at each other from across the divide.”
The story was indeed gripping. The father described his pain over the separation and nostalgic remembrances from the boy’s earlier years, along with his own efforts to try to get back to the U.S. to be reunited. The visit with Byron and the foster parents provided rich details, such as how the boy has nightmares about monsters putting him in a cage. The story, which was used by more than 400 AP members in the U.S., was one of a series of strong pieces that have put names, faces and personal narratives to the immigration story, keeping AP’s coverage ahead. It finished with a kicker about how the boy’s father recently sent a recording of a song to his son with the lyrics: “Wherever you are, wherever you go, I ask you to please return to my side, our lost son, because only a miracle will bring you back to us.”
For recognizing the moment and mobilizing quickly across formats and borders, Alfaro, Billy, Figueroa, Merchant, Mone and Phillip share AP’s Best of the Week.