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Inside the newsroom: We needed a ‘fixer’ to cover immigration at the border. Here’s how and why we did it

Deseret News reporter Erica Evans: “We stayed in the central part of the city right across from the bridge. We didn’t go farther out. In that area we are supposedly safe. But there are lookouts. The cartels have people on the street who just watch the activity.”

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FILE - Honduran migrants Cesar Sagastume, 30, (left) and his son Cesar Sagastume, 8, walk across International Bridge No. 2, from Laredo, Texas to Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico after being received by Mexican immigration officials from Border Patrol agents, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019. The migrants were sent back to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols.

Edward A. Ornelas, For the Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Pastor Aarón Méndez is missing. He’s been gone since Aug. 3 when he refused to hand over refugees to gunmen who came to the shelter in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, seeking Cuban migrants who were there for care and protection.

The shelter is only a few blocks from the bridge that separates Nuevo Laredo from Laredo — Mexico from Texas. And those coming and going are watched by people with ill intent. So before deciding to send Deseret News reporter Erica Evans to the border to report on the kidnapping and the state of immigration and refugee affairs there, we carefully pondered in the newsroom whether or not to cross into Mexico. How could we ensure her safety?

We could not. Not 100%. It would require the help of locals, a hired fixer, and the all best precautions and good judgment we had. The result was her story that appeared online Thursday and in the print edition today under the headline: “In Nuevo Laredo the border crisis is reaching a tipping point.” People of faith are trying to help. But now, in addition to the migrants, they are at great risk.

What does it say about U.S. immigration policies and the state of affairs in the countries south of our border that reporters need “fixers” to guide them safely to shelters? What does it say that humanitarian efforts by clergy are no protection from kidnappings?

It’s not the first time we’ve contracted with a fixer to keep our journalists safe. Last year we sent Gillian Friedman and photojournalist Laura Seitz to Guatemala to tell the story of Maria Sanchez, who was deported from Utah after 13 years along the Wasatch Front. She left with her U.S.-born children to begin life in Jerez. But it wasn’t good for the children, who had every right to be in America.

Gillian told the story of the children’s return to Utah, the goodwill of volunteers who made it possible, and the heartbreaking toll it took on the family. But for Gillian and Laura, the journey from Guatemala City to Jerez was dangerous.

As Gillian wrote:

“Our guide, a bookish lawyer raised in Britain but proudly Guatemalan, says the tanks are here on the orders of the president; a way to reassure the people the city is safe. He says this with a wry laugh, obvious to the irony. He is a man numb to the absurdities that come with living in a country ravaged by a decadelong drug war.

“His name is Pedro Solares, and we have hired him to take us to the countryside, to Jerez. He has warned us the voyage is dangerous. He tells Laura, the Deseret News photographer here with me on assignment, to hide her camera. He looks at my red hair and grins. ‘Maybe you should wear a hat.’”

The key for them, and for Erica in Mexico, was to stay on specific roads and take a direct path. No deviating from plan. Given the preparation and precautions, I gave the OK to proceed with the Mexico assignment. Here’s how Erica described the risks and journey into Nuevo Laredo.

“(Our fixer) was a great source. He was there on the ground and knew what had been going on the past month. We knew there were places that are safe and places that are not safe. We stayed in the central part of the city right across from the bridge. We didn’t go farther out. In that area we are supposedly safe. But there are lookouts. The cartels have people on the street who just watch the activity,” she said.

“We were in a car, not walking around, which made us safer. (Presumably) the cartels do not want to kidnap an American journalist because of the attention it would draw. But the migrants don’t have a voice. So if they mess with the migrants, they think, who cares? They are easy to take advantage of,” she said.

At the bridge between the countries migrants are led back into Mexico after getting a plastic bag of information from the immigration office. But they’re not sure where to go, Erica said.

“The migrants were turning to our fixer for advice. He explained how to get to the shelter. How to avoid stopping and talking to people. And to walk and look confident. The plastic bags stand out and can make them targets, so many leave the bags behind. One guy stuffed it down the front of his pants,” she said.

Erica said she was not scared but described it as constantly being “on edge.” Our goal in telling these stories is to get beyond politics. Immigration is about people both here in America and in all the countries of the world.

We also caught up with Sen. Mike Lee last week while he was in Guatemala speaking at a national prayer event and meeting with the president of the country to discuss an agreement between Guatemala and the U.S. to ease immigration pressure. He was promoting a Trump administration plan to create a “safe third country agreement” between the two countries. The U.S. has a similar pact with Canada and Mexico. Can that succeed in a country people are leaving out of fear for their safety and lack of economic opportunity? We will continue to report on it.

Our Deseret News opinion team has supported the five principles of the Utah Compact to guide immigration policy: Seek federal solutions; focus law enforcement on criminal activity rather than civil code violations; keep families together; recognize the economic role immigrants play in our country; recognize that immigrants are part of a free society, and maintain humanity in any approach considered.

Utah crafted that plan in 2010. The nation is still working on its plan. And Pastor Aarón Méndez is still missing.