With Empathy, Bearing Witness to One Family’s Plight

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For most of their monthslong trek from Colombia to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Venezuelan family of five had encountered numerous challenges, all exacerbated by a shortage of cash.

Still, they had avoided selling one of their last family heirlooms: a white gold ring. But on the eve of their border crossing late last year, they again ran out of money. And the children were hungry.

I watched quietly, notebook in hand, as the family — two parents, three children ages 6 to 11 and one dog, a Labrador mix — scoured the streets of Ciudad Juárez in Mexico searching for a pawnshop.

As the parents anguished over the decision to pawn the ring, a part of me wished to help. But as a reporter, all I could do was observe and take notes, letting the scene unfold as if I weren’t there. I knew that the poignant moment would be a salient element of the article I was working on for The New York Times.

It was the first of many moments during the nine months I spent following the Aguilar Ortega family’s journey to a new life in the United States where I had to confront the challenges of reporting on their ups and downs without influencing the outcome of their story.

The Aguilar Ortegas are the subjects of a 3,500-word article, published this week, that chronicles the dangers and unforeseen hurdles that many migrants face when crossing Central America in pursuit of stability in the United States.

It all began last November, just as I was settling into my new assignment as an immigration reporter after spending four years covering politics in New York. My editors approached me with a question: Did I want to fly to Mexico to profile a Venezuelan family that was about to cross the U.S. border, and document their journey to New York City?

My colleagues Andy Newman, a reporter on the Metro desk, and Juan Arredondo, an experienced photographer, had briefly met the Aguilar Ortega family by chance the previous month, during a reporting trip in Mexico City. By that point, the family had already traveled more than 3,000 miles, including a journey through the Darién Gap, the dangerous jungle that bridges South and Central America.

Juan had kept in touch with the family over WhatsApp, and they agreed to let us tag along on their journey. When we learned they had hitched a ride atop a freight train headed north to the border, we flew from New York to meet them in Ciudad Juárez.

Through the family’s story, we set out to understand the life-changing decisions millions of migrants must make every year in exchange for a shot at making it to — and in — the United States. We stitched together photos and videos the family took, offering raw glimpses of their resilience as they hiked the treacherous Darién Gap, and traveled through country after country on buses and on foot.

When I met them, the family was visibly exhausted after riding on cargo trains for two days. But they were somewhat at peace after finally reaching America’s doorstep.

For months, Juan and I spent long days and nights documenting their struggles, and brief moments of happiness, as they contended with the sober reality of the United States that stood in sharp contrast to their vision of the American dream.

Journalists are human, and covering vulnerable people in distress calls for empathy. But our job is to bear witness for readers without interfering in our sources’ lives. That means we must grapple with difficult moments as they unfold.

In El Paso, for example, the family patriarch, Henry Aguilar, had to sleep with his dog outside of a shelter one night while Juan and I slept in hotel rooms a few blocks away.

The evening the Aguilar Ortegas landed in New York City, they looked to us for directions as they rode the subway for the first time. We refrained from guiding them, intent on letting them figure it out, which was the best way to portray to readers even the smallest of hurdles migrants face in an unfamiliar city. (Our fly-on-the-wall approach allowed us to capture the generosity of a New Yorker who noticed their confusion, and pointed them in the right direction.)

There were some times, however, when we invited the family to meals and helped them with the language.

We followed the story as they traveled from Texas to New York to Connecticut, and back to Texas again, collecting details of their wins and setbacks along the way.

In March, while I was chatting with him on his couch in Connecticut, Mr. Aguilar discussed the two years he had served in prison in Venezuela; he had been accused of abusing his power as a police officer. He had previously told me stories about his time as a soldier and with the police, but this information came as a surprise.

While our purpose was to document his family’s journey, we also had a responsibility to our readers to explore what Mr. Aguilar’s past in Venezuela could mean for his family’s future in the United States. He will be obligated to disclose his history when he files for asylum soon, and a prison stint could jeopardize his chances.

Life can be messy, especially for those fleeing bad situations. Every person’s past is different, but every migrant who dreams of a future in the United States faces challenges. And reporting on those complicated realities will hopefully provide readers with a more complete, and unsanitized, understanding of the difficult path to a new life.

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