Published — December 24, 2018

The Center for Public Integrity’s top immigration stories this year


Investigative journalism doesn’t always abide by the news cycle. But when it comes to immigration, we found it important to weigh in with facts where charged statements and tensions ran high.

In addition to our major investigations, we started up a blog to fact-check and provide background on the many changes we saw to immigration policy this year, from Temporary Protected Status to border arrest numbers. 

Our blog, Immigration Decoded, also answered questions from you, our readers. 

Delve into our top stories for this year: 

‘Shocked and Humiliated’: Lawsuits accuse customs, border officers of invasive searches of minors, women

The Center for Public Integrity reviewed 11 lawsuits filed since 2011 that raise timely and unsettling questions about how far border and other immigration officers can go with their considerable power to detain people at the nation’s 328 ports of entry.

The existing rules can be shocking for travelers. Legal precedents grant federal officers at ports of entry the power, without warrants, to require people to strip for a “visual inspection” of genitals and rectums, and to submit to a “monitored bowel movement” to check for secreted drugs. At the same time, a CBP detention-and-search handbook instructs officers to record a solid justification for every single step beyond a frisk, and to respect detainees’ dignity and “freedom from unreasonable searches” and to “consider the totality of the circumstances … when making a decision to search.”

The handbook also warns officers against engaging in what could be considered either a “visual or physical intrusion” into vaginal or anal cavities.

Yet in these suits, innocent women — including minor girls — who were not found with any contraband say CBP officers subjected them to harsh interrogation that led to indignities that included unreasonable strip searches while menstruating to prohibited genital probing. Some women were also handcuffed and transported to hospitals where, against their will, they underwent pelvic exams, X-rays and in one case, drugging via IV, according to suits. Invasive medical procedures require a detainee’s consent or a warrant. In two cases, women were billed for procedures.

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Tragic immigration deaths fuel drive to ‘flip’ California GOP Congressional district

Attempting to evade agents, an undocumented couple sped down a country road. The vehicle went out of control and crashed into a pole and rolled over, killing the Garcias, who never knew that ICE was looking for Santos’ brother, not for them.

The Garcias’ deaths left their six children, who are not all U.S. citizens, orphaned. And in Delano, California — where in 1965 the United Farm Workers first carved their place in history — anger and fear about what happened added urgency and upped the stakes for the midterm election in November — a race that turned out to be one of the most contested in the U.S.

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Images of migrant throngs are real, but so are individual life-or-death stories

A special firsthand account from immigration project manager Susan Ferriss on covering the violence in Central America, and its part in today’s immigration debate: 

“People read what they feel into images of the Central American caravan crowded up against gateways into the United States. The president of the United States has reacted by calling migrants “invaders” and deploying the military, part and parcel of a bruising anti-immigrant agenda he’s pursued since kicking off his campaign in 2016.   

But just three years ago, in May 2015, it was none other than Gen. John Kelly—President Trump’s chief of staff—who acknowledged that Central America was suffering through a crisis of violence that sparked much of the exodus.”

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How Trump and Sessions cherry-picked data to blame immigrants for lower wages

In this Feb. 28, 2016, file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, right, stands next to Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., as Sessions speaks during a rally in Madison, Ala. John Bazemore

In April of 2015, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service responded to a confidential request from the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. The memo was short, but it ignited a fiery outcry about the perceived threat of immigration from Jeff Sessions, then a Republican senator from Alabama.

Sessions seized on charts in the CRS memo featuring a six-decade timeline estimating average incomes — mostly flat after 1970 — and another showing a rise in the foreign-born population. Exhorting GOP presidential candidates to take these “forbidden facts” seriously, Sessions called on Republicans to fight to slash immigration — legal or illegal. “It is not caring, but callous, to bring in so many workers that there are not enough jobs for them or those already living here,” Sessions, a Judiciary Committee member, co-wrote in a column published by Roll Call, a congressionally focused news outlet.

Far-right media also sprang into action. The Breitbart website, led by future Trump aide Stephen K. Bannon, blasted out posts about the memo, along with TheBlaze and the Washington Examiner. Mark Levin, who hosts the nation’s fourth-most-consumed talk-radio show, read from a Daily Caller story.

“Wages and share of income for the bottom 90 percent of American wage earners declined over the last 40 years, as the foreign-born population increased dramatically,” Levin read with disgust. “Ask the phony economists who play around with the numbers, who try to persuade you that this is a good thing for the economy. These are facts. These are statistics.”

Only they weren’t facts. They were estimates. And they didn’t add up to Levin’s or others’ hyperbolic assumptions.

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Despite outrage over immigrant detention, private prisons’ bottom line is still strong

In the wake of increased immigrant detention, two of the nation’s largest private prison companies hoped to cash in with additional federal contracts to hold detainees fighting potential deportation, according to representatives addressing shareholders during second quarter earnings calls in early August.

The two firms, Boca Raton-based GEO Group, Inc., and Nashville-based CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Florida Corporation of America, hold inmates under contract for states lacking detention space. But both companies also hold immigrant detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Both firms’ history of holding immigrants stretches back 30 years and has lasted through both under Democratic and Republican administrations.

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Dreamers from Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s district call on the GOP to step up

California State University, Fresno, student Rosa Salmeron rallies Dreamers and supporters outside the office of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, Calif., House of Representative majority leader. Susan Ferriss/Center for Public Integrity

Surrounded by a sea of orchards—including oranges now flooding U.S. markets—Porterville sits in California’s vast Central Valley. Considered one of the world’s most productive agribusiness regions, the valley depends on immigrant labor. And among those who represent the region in Congress are multiple Republican lawmakers, not least of them Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the powerful GOP majority leader whose district includes Porterville.

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How Trump’s language led to a temporary halt to ending TPS

President Donald J. Trump’s own racially charged words — such as labeling Mexican immigrants “rapists”— returned to haunt him when a federal judge temporarily blocked the administration from stripping hundreds of thousands of immigrants from “temporary protected status,” or TPS.

U.S. District Court Judge Edward M. Chen of the Northern District of California issued a preliminary injunction blocking a fast-approaching end to TPS that immigrant plaintiffs in a lawsuit were facing. The plaintiffs are challenging Trump’s termination of TPS, which has allowed some of them to live lawfully in the U.S. for as long as 20 years.

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You asked. We answered 

Our reader-driven questions, answered on Immigration Decoded:

ICE Data: Tens of thousands of deported parents have U.S. citizen kids

What’s behind the policy separating kids from their parents at the border?

Family separations: What happened to the nursing baby?

Family separation, U.S. treaties and asylum obligations: What’s legal?

Read more in Inequality, Opportunity and Poverty

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