The coronavirus pandemic upended countless lives when it swept through the United States in March, infecting the uninsured, putting people out of work and tenants at risk of eviction. For the estimated 10.5 million undocumented immigrants in the country, these hardships were exponentially compounded.
In April, Emily Kassie, director of visual projects at The Marshall Project, and Ben C. Solomon, filmmaker-in-residence at PBS’ FRONTLINE, set out to document the uniquely difficult circumstances that undocumented immigrants are facing during the pandemic. The team followed Norma, who came to the U.S. after fleeing gang violence in Honduras, as she struggled to keep her five children housed and attempted to get Jesus, her husband and the only one authorized to work in the U.S., released from ICE detention. Countless hours of footage filmed over three months culminated in the Pulitzer Center-supported documentary “Undocumented in the Pandemic.”
“Ben and Emily's project exposes the many systemic crises underpinning the COVID-19 pandemic: housing, immigration and inequality,” Pulitzer Center Executive Editor Marina Walker Guevara said. “Their film is a wonderful example of the in-depth, illuminating and nuanced reporting that we seek to support at the Pulitzer Center.”
To learn more about the filmmaking process, editorial decisions, and ethical considerations, Pulitzer Center Intern Naomi Andu spoke with Kassie. The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.
Naomi Andu: With COVID-19, there are so many groups that are especially vulnerable—the elderly, the incarcerated, people experiencing unsheltered homelessness—what made you choose to tell the story of an undocumented family?
Emily Kassie: I have been covering, at The Marshall Project, criminal justice and immigration for the last few years. And I specifically, when the pandemic hit, was immediately concerned about folks in prisons and immigrant detention centers. That was my initial focus because these detention centers in particular, you have hundreds of people indoors where the beds are 2 feet apart, the sanitation is notoriously limited and often bad. And you have people who are stuck in there who are not being punished for a crime, they are being civilly housed. So that population is particularly vulnerable: They often don't speak the language, they don't have a right to a lawyer.
I was speaking to tons of immigrants who were either sick with the virus or scared inside, and I spoke to a number of their family members and their lawyers, and so my number was being passed around in those communities. That is how I first heard from Norma, who is the main character in our Undocumented in the Pandemic film. I actually received a text from Norma explaining her situation: that her mother-in-law, whose living room her and her five kids were sleeping in, had just contracted the virus. Her husband was stuck in a detention center in New Jersey, and she and her five kids had nowhere to go. As soon as I heard from Norma, I told her what we do as journalists and storytellers, and she agreed to let us come meet her and her kids and follow her on her journey to avoid getting sick, find shelter, and try to get her husband out of detention, where he also reported being sick with the virus.
This is a family, like many undocumented families, who are facing this virus on so many fronts. Just imagine having to deal with this: Your main provider, who was the one with working papers, being detained in immigrant detention. You’re not allowed to work. You’re undocumented. You have five children, you have to feed them, two of them are undocumented as well. And you have nowhere to go because the only safe haven you had, they are sick with the coronavirus. So it was this kind of cluster or cacophony of unfortunate circumstances that landed Norma and her children in this impossible position. We felt it was important to show the experience of this very brave and tenacious woman overcoming challenge after challenge thrown at her to survive, and to keep her children alive and afloat. That’s how the story started.
NA: Undocumented in the Pandemic was created by your publication, The Marshall Project, and Solomon’s, FRONTLINE. How did that partnership come about?
EK: Ben and I are longtime friends, and I have a great respect for Ben's work. He became the filmmaker in residence at FRONTLINE about a year ago, after he left the Times. We've intersected at different points, but we've never been able to work together. We have been looking for a story over the last year to work together on, and this one just ultimately made sense in terms of timing and expertise. Ben is prolific in his coverage of Ebola, particularly in the Congo, which he just won the Emmy for, and I have been covering immigrant detention pretty extensively over the last three or four years. So, coming from the two perspectives of someone who has expertise in pandemics and someone has expertise in immigration, the undocumented population and immigrant detention, it was a great partnership for us to combine those skill and knowledge sets. The Marshall Project does a ton of partnerships, and so does FRONTLINE, so it was a great opportunity to work together.
NA: Given that Norma, her husband, Jesus, and two of their five children are undocumented, how were you able to get Norma to trust you with her story?
EK: I think a lot of building trust with folks who are in vulnerable positions is being very forthcoming about what you’re trying to do and why, why you think their story is important, and spending time with them. I spent countless hours with them at the motel that they were put up in, at a friend’s that they stayed at, over the period of three months. So they really knew me, Ben, Will [Miller, who helped with production and cinematography on the documentary], and what we were doing over that period of time. We weren’t just in and out; we were there every step of the way and able to listen and be an ear for what she was going through and empathize with her. She had all these immigration documents as well as housing documents and social assistance documents. Sometimes she would need small things, like just help understanding what they said, so we could do that for her. Or she was trying to get in touch with a specific lawyer but wasn’t sure how to look up their contact info. So there are small things that you can do as a filmmaker and as a human to show empathy and compassion without crossing that journalistic line. Being present and being empathetic to her situation with her children is, over time, how you build trust.
I think honestly, at the point that she was, she was so desperate for any sort of help, for someone to hear her story and what she was going through, that she wasn’t concerned. I mean, we were concerned, so we took the precautions needed to make sure that any revealing information was blurred out—like a license plate, we never used her last name, or gave her exact location, or anything like that. We were very careful about that. But I think when you’re in a position where your biggest concern is keeping your children alive, at that point it became more important for her and her survival to get some help and attention for what was happening than the fear of being found to be undocumented.
NA: In the documentary, we don’t hear directly from Jesus or the three youngest children, and we don’t see Andrea, the oldest child, during her 10-day stay at the hospital after she self-harms. What were some considerations when deciding whether to leave certain perspectives or visuals out of the final cut?
EK: There were a number of considerations that went into those choices. We really felt that by the end of it, and with the time we had in the broadcast, that this was really Norma's story. We wanted to keep it in the present, in the moment that she was in. What we really wanted to focus on was the experience of this mother and what she was going through to survive and the circumstances around her. Her husband and her kids played more of a secondary role in the film so that we could really see the world from Norma's perspective. That was kind of the decision-making on Jesus because, visually, you're not really seeing his experience, you're seeing hers, and the impacts of him being in immigrant detention, and how that changes things for her and put extra pressure on her and the kids.
The youngest kids, when you're working with kids that young, you just want to be careful about the kinds of interviewing questions you do with them. When you're that young—the twins, the little boys were 7, and the little girl was 10—they don't have as clear of an understanding of what's happening. We didn't want to put them under more stress than they were already going through. If you're 7 years old, I think it would be more pressure and potentially trauma to be sat down and asked some really hard questions about, you know, your father being in a detention center. So we asked them about school, we asked them about being at various homes, moving around, things like that. You don't want to push on folks to go beyond what they're comfortable doing. So that was a big calculation.
In terms of Andrea being in the hospital, that was a really, really difficult moment for her. First of all, most of these facilities were not allowing visitors. So that was one part of the calculation. And the other was that Andrea was going through an unbelievably sensitive and difficult thing as a teenager and wasn't comfortable having us there, which is totally understandable. We weren't going to push on something that a young woman was uncomfortable having in her most vulnerable moment.
It's about understanding boundaries and being thoughtful and careful about how you expose people, and showing vulnerabilities without causing people more pain or trauma in such a public way. So, we have to find a balance and be moral and thoughtful about all of these choices.
NA: What was the most difficult part of reporting this story, whether because of the pandemic or in general?
EK: Reporting on the pandemic and filming during the pandemic definitely has obstacles and limitations, just in terms of safety, making sure we were properly masked and distanced and sanitized, and not doing further harm. We were fortunate that none of the characters in the film like Norma and her family became sick while we were with them at any point. That has to come first because they're already dealing with so much. The idea of exposing them … And she's the only caretaker for her children at this point, so if she were to fall ill, what would happen to those kids? That was one of her biggest fears. That was the priority and a challenge, just being really thoughtful about how we did that.
Another challenge to making this film was deciding what to focus on. There were so many elements of Norma's story that were important and powerful. We could have made a film that focused on the kids, and the struggle to do homeschooling when you're homeless and undocumented. We could have made a film that focused on the detention center—which I have done separate reporting on—and focus on ICE and that dynamic. We could have focused on just the homelessness component, or just the undocumented part of it. What we ended up doing was focusing on the story of a mother dealing with all of those things and her journey. I think there were a lot of different ways we could have made the film, and we did cut it in a bunch of different ways to see where we should really focus our energy. We actually were making a kind of multi-character film and then decided to break out Norma and her family into its own project because it just had so many twists and turns of its own that it felt really standalone. So figuring out what story to tell out of all of the stories and narratives happening in this contentious time for these families was a major challenge for us.