Brooks County may be 70 miles away from the Rio-Grande, but this rural section of Texas accounts for the majority of migrant deaths in the state. A U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in the county forces border crossers away from highways, and into the ranchlands where many do not make it out alive.
"If I could tell all of the stories it wouldn't be possible to finish,” Alba Caceres, a Guatemalan diplomat, said in a four part series from the Guardian entitled Beyond the Border. “I've seen fathers with their sons in their arms, dead because the coyotes [smugglers] abandoned them. I've seen women being rescued naked because people start to take their clothes off before they die.”
The voices of Caceras, a conservative ranch owner, the Brooks County Sherriff and the family of a woman who did not survive the treacherous journey become intertwined in the series to reveal the struggles of one community stuck in the middle of a border crisis.
Reporter for the Texas Observer Melissa del Bosque wrote the four compelling narratives that comprise “Beyond the Border.”
“It’s sort of like a play where characters collide,” del Bosque said. “I spent about a year going back and forth [from Brooks County] before I decided they would be the four voices.”
Del Bosque has covered immigration and the border since 2000 for various publications. She has wanted to report from Brooks County since about 2007, and was finally able to once she secured funding from the Lannan Foundation, an organization that provides grants to nonprofit media. The funding was a result of a fellowship through the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.
“Unfortunately, a lot of reporting on immigration seems to be just a body count, and there’s not a lot of context and analysis,” del Bosque said. “I waited until I would be able to spend the time and travel necessary to tell a deeper story.”
Del Bosque says she invested two years trying to connect with people in the Brooks County community. While many residents she met had no interest in being interviewed, she said the people who were willing to tell their stories were more than generous with their time. However, she warned that reporters often rely too heavily on a handful of sources when covering small towns.
“It is easy to end up talking to the same people over and over because they are the ones available to you,” del Bosque said. “This causes an inaccurate portrayal of the community. I try to get beyond that. The reason I picked the four voices [for the project] was because they were all so different.”
Along with the narratives, multimedia features were an integral part of "Beyond the Border." Del Bosque said it took months of brainstorming with the Guardian’s multimedia department to come up with the best ways to graphically show information that added greater context to the series.
An interactive cellphone allows readers to scroll through real text messages from smugglers found on a phone abandoned in the ranchlands. Identification cards rotate one after another representing the vast amount of migrants that die crossing through Brooks County, while also indicating the few belongings they carried with them. Videos, photos, and interactive charts also give readers an in-depth look into the border crisis and the many obstacles facing migrants: the border wall, checkpoints, cartels, violence and more.
Nonetheless, del Bosque still believes words on a page matter most. "Data and graphics definitely make a story richer, but data and graphics alone can't tell the complete story," she said.
Still, the cutting-edge multimedia features were just one incentive to conglomerating with a larger publication. Del Bosque said she also chose to work with The Guardian because of the greater audience the publication attracts. There are also benefits to the Guardian partnering with a publication like the Observer.
“A lot of national publications are partnering with smaller ones,” del Bosque said. “It helps them get that local perspective.”
Because immigration can be such a sensitive topic, del Bosque makes sure the people she is interviewing understand the potential consequences that come from her stories. While deportation is a common concern for her subjects, del Bosque said the organized crime that has become closely linked to immigration has given her another reason to worry.
“I feel a real responsibility to protect them from the backlash that might happen,” del Bosque said. “I work with a lot of people in my stories who are marginalized, who are not even citizens. I often spend a lot of time with them in advance just explaining about the impact of what could or could not happen.”
Through her reporting, del Bosque’s goal is always to humanize the subjects of her narratives. While it can be challenging to find publications that agree to allow journalists to spend long stretches of time on one subject, del Bosque believes long-form journalism gives readers the kind of information they need to see a character or subject in a new light.
“I always write for positive change,” del Bosque said. “At the very least I want people to see others as human beings and not just a statistic or invader from another country. If the reader can gain an understanding as a human that’s a triumph right there.”