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What happened to last year’s flood of Central American minors?

In-depth series by USC Annenberg student journalists, GlobalPost and Fusion tells the stories of young migrants

Marvin Velasco
Marvin Velasco, 14, sings and plays the keyboard at San Juan 3:16 Church in Los Angeles. (Photo/Charlie Magovern)

One year after a record-setting wave of unaccompanied youngsters surged into the United States from Central America, a new multimedia project by USC student reporters reveals the economic, political and social ramifications of the influx.

“Far From Home” is a deep-dive series of stories told in text, video, audio, photos and infographics and has been published on news sites GlobalPost and Fusion.

“We are tremendously proud of the in-depth work our students did, delving into the stories of these children and young teens,” said Willow Bay, director of the School of Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “This series exemplifies the real-world, multi-platform journalism USC Annenberg is proud to produce, under the leadership of our expert faculty and in collaboration with our professional partners.”

“This excellent team of Annenberg reporters uncovered the stories of fascinating people caught up in a crisis,” said Kevin Douglas Grant MA ’11, a GlobalPost contributing editor and managing editor of GlobalPost’s GroundTruth Project.

In the summer of 2014, tens of thousands of minors were detained — some to be deported and others to be placed with family members or guardians. Telling the stories of these young migrants, the series explores their prospects for staying and integrating into American society.

Not well understood

“Last year’s surge of Central American immigrants was not well understood,” Grant said, “and this series offers a chance to revisit it, exploring the flaws and complexities of the American immigration system through these rich multimedia narratives.”

The 14 undergraduate and graduate students began working in January to track down these children and young teens — and their parents, caregivers and advocates — to throw a spotlight on their untold stories.

Our series is an attempt to put a human face on what has become a very politicized issue.

Sandy Tolan

“Our series is an attempt to put a human face on what has become a very politicized issue,” USC journalism Professor Sandy Tolan said. “We wanted to tell the stories of these children and young adults who have faced tremendous trauma and other challenges in making the decision to come north and submit themselves to arrest and processing by immigration authorities.”

The series covers everything from the legal issues raised when children are detained (some, labeled as national security threats, were deported on a fast track) to exploring how they cope with the trauma they faced at home and during their journey north. At the same time, the challenges faced by sponsors — families, schools and other local agencies — are mounting.

Larger context

And the stories are told in the larger context of the debate over immigration in 2015, Tolan said.

”We hope these pieces will help people who are not familiar with the issue understand in human terms what it’s like to feel compelled to leave your home and move thousands of miles — not just for work but also because of the increased violence happening all around them in the Golden Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala,” Tolan said.

“What is it like to experience that cycle of civil wars, gang violence on a human level? We wanted to get to know some of these people who are in our midst, here in America,” he said.

Student reporters ChrisAnna Mink and Vanessa Wilson reported the first installment of the “Far From Home” series, a profile of 14-year-old Marvin Velasco, who left Guatemala with dreams of studying music. He has been taken in by a parishioner at a storefront church in Mid-City Los Angeles.

Mink has been a pediatrician for 30 years but took a year off from her job at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center to earn a master’s degree in specialized journalism from USC Annenberg. She wanted to use her voice, as a medical professional, to tell the stories of those who are most vulnerable. Those like her patients — and like Marvin.

No one was ever going to know about Marvin and kids like him unless someone tells their story.

ChrisAnna Mink

“No one was ever going to know about Marvin and kids like him unless someone tells their story,” she said. “He agreed to talk to us because wanted to help other kids. It shows how brave people are to tell their stories, and how important it is for journalists to give them a voice.”

Other USC Annenberg student reporters were: Anna-Catherine Brigida, Rebecca Gibian, Ana Luisa González, Jessica Moulite, Michele Tannen, Michelle Toh, Phoenix Tso and Alex Wowra, with contributions from Scarlett Chen and Haiphong Hua.

Also participating were Rebecca Gibian as associate editor, Charlie Magovern as photographer and videographer, and Jessica Oliveira handling graphics.

The work was led by Tolan and USC journalism Professor Marc Cooper, with help from GlobalPost’s Grant and Fusion Executive Editor Hillary Frey.

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