Investigating Immigration Issues as a Journalist and Immigrant
Our Q&A with Sinduja Rangarajan on reporting about a wall of bureaucracy that’s creating fear and uncertainty
We really appreciated the chance to speak with Sinduja Rangarajan about her recent investigation into denials of H–1B visas. The project was published as a collaboration between Mother Jones and Reveal on December 2, 2019.—Eds.
Q: Can you tell us where the inspiration for this piece came from and why you decided to begin working on it?
The reason I started looking into this was because I’d filed for a green card in 2018, and that got denied in 2019. One thing my attorneys told me was, I’ve seen a trend, people are suing the USCIS because there’s been a rise in denials, of people who would have been approved in the past.
I was disappointed about my personal outcome, but when I heard about the rising number of lawsuits against the USCIS, that piqued my interest as a reporter. A lot of my friends and family are on H–1B visas, and I also started to hear from them that, "Hey, this person tried to move from company X to company Y” (both large household names), and they got denied in the process. Or this one time when I went to a relative’s house for dinner and he mentioned his colleague who he’d known for 15 years, who’d worked at the same company and the same role, was denied and had to pack up leave in two weeks. He was stressed about how he’d move his kids to a new school in India at such short notice in the middle of a school year. It felt, at least in the community that I was in, that there was fear about changing jobs—there was talk about a crackdown or some impact of the policies that Trump has put forth, within the Indian community in the San Francisco Bay area. In my close circles.
These were stories I hadn’t been hearing before, hearing them organically from friends and family. That’s when I put on my reporter hat.
Q: I remember that you moved from working at Reveal to Mother Jones. This story was done as a partnership between both organizations. Can you tell us how that partnership between Reveal and Mother Jones came about?
[At Reveal] I was very invested in the story. I had already started tracking these lawsuits using many, many databases, so I was deep in. I wanted to take the opportunity to move to Mother Jones, so I talked to Reveal and I talked to Mother Jones—[immigration reporting] is something they’ve both taken very seriously, and they’re also both national organizations that do investigative reporting. They’ve reported on fraud with H–1Bs in the past. So I said there could be a potential for partnership…I don’t know if I would have done the same thing for other stories. Every reporter is invested in their stories, especially ones they’ve worked on for a long time—but this story is much closer to my heart than any other story I’ve worked on.
Q. Did your own personal experience of immigration impact the way that this story developed? What was unique about being part of that community and also being a reporter immersed in a relevant story?
I think in some ways it makes it harder because you are always on. The conversations you have with people you don’t know somehow inform how you live your life and how you see things as an immigrant in your personal life.
I was interviewing this guy who had been [in the U.S.] for a long time and who had had multiple H–1B approvals, and then one of them got denied. He had to pack up his bags in two weeks and go back to India. In terms of profile—my background, my husband’s background, where we were working —we were very different. But still, once I talked to him and experienced how he scrambled to pack his things up and go back to India in two weeks, I was imagining: if I had to do that, what would I be doing? I remember at that time I was listing everything on Facebook Marketplace—obsessively. Anything I didn’t need or anything my kid outgrew. I was living with this sense of, hey, this might happen to me. I don’t know if that was a rational fear or an irrational fear, because at some point my husband’s H–1B was renewed. But I was going through this phase where anything that I reported or the stories I heard would affect me personally with how I was living my life as an immigrant. The first character [featured in the story] talked about having 60 days to sell his dream house—I was directly able to relate to, oh my god how am I going to sell this house if I need to? There’s constant thinking about how their experiences can directly translate to your life or anything that can happen. There was just a depth of understanding.
…Reporting this story was also about my intersectional identity as a parent and an immigrant. At one point, I asked my source how he explained to his son about moving out of his dream house into an apartment—I was curious to know what he did as a parent so I could do the same. I am curious about how parents handle their kids’ knowledge of immigration issues and their impact.
Q. How did you navigate your relationship with those sources?
Sourcing for the story was really, really hard. It took me a long time. Any immigration reporter would say that’s hard. I think that it helped me that I was from this community. But it was hard even despite that. This is a community that’s kind of shy and comes from a country where people just don’t want to be associated with their names. More people were willing to come forward anonymously. Almost nobody was willing to come forward with their story without their names anonymous. They were sort of wondering what would happen to them under this administration. It’s also a community that is relatively well-off so it thinks it has a lot to lose. Riding the Trump wave may be easier than speaking up against it.
I think it probably helped that I could speak their languages. …Many come from places in South India that I’ve either been to or where they spoke a language that I knew. They were also proficient in English, so there was never a reason for me to slip into their language, but I think the comfort probably helped. But I think I was able to understand their pain because I was able to relate to it directly with what could happen to me. And sharing that I was going to be part of the radio story also helped, because then they felt like they weren’t going to be alone.
Q. Someone might argue that you weren’t able to be as “objective” writing about a community that you were part of. How did you think through that?
I thought about it a lot. I started my career with investigative journalism, around journalists who are very, very reputed and solid investigative journalists. I worked with editors like that at both [Reveal and Mother Jones]. So the most important thing for me was to be fair in my reporting, to acknowledge that this [H–1B visa program] is problematic and has had issues, and luckily both Mother Jones and Reveal have reported extensively about the abuses of the program. I think the data also helps. I had this methodology that I worked with academics on how to track those lawsuits, how to look at the numbers behind those lawsuits, and look at the profiles of people who were denied.
As a reporter, on any story, I play devil’s advocate quite a lot with myself. I was doing that extra hard on this story because I didn’t want to come across as biased. I mean, I knew the position I was taking with this story, and I feel like every part of it is backed by data or documents or sources. And I’ve been transparent with the [reporting and data] decisions I’ve made.
The other thing I wanted to add is that when people write investigative stories for places like Reveal or Mother Jones, the byline just reflects one or two names but there are so many people involved in the process. At every step, there are editors, there are producers, there are listening sessions—there are so many processes that you can’t just B.S. your way through. There are lots of people to hold you accountable, and lots of internal processes to check on your own biases.
I remember talking to Bruce Shapiro about this project and he told me that I should get a reporting partner, so it was me and Teresa Cotsirilos, who worked as a producer. We did the Reveal story together pretty much. Then there were editors that were involved with every part of the process. There was a listening session at Reveal, where the whole newsroom’s involved and provided feedback. Same thing at Mother Jones. My editor was heavily involved in this. There was independent fact-checking for the text piece.
Q. Can you tell us about the responses to the story, after it came out?
There’s been a lot of positive responses about those people thinking the story makes them feel seen and visible. Right off the bat I got a lot of emails, Twitter messages and DMs thanking me for covering this.
I also got a lot of other types of responses, which were like, you should’ve talked more about the abuse that’s part of H–1B. So I had polarizing responses. But there was definitely part of the community who I hadn’t connected with before—a lot of immigrants who shared their stories or students who were in American colleges who were like “I’m so stressed about this process because I don’t know if I’m going to make it in this country or not, I don’t know if I’m going to get an H–1B or not.”
It’s a topic that’s complicated to report on because there’s a history of abuse of the H–1B program, there’s a history of American jobs being lost, but this story is focusing on the plight of these workers on this visa under this administration. That story has been missing, so all of the people who have been suffering because of those policies have largely been invisible and are quietly packing up their bags and going back.
There’s definitely been two sides to the argument. …I’m very much aware of that, and I try to address that in my story. But the reality of this story or the focus of this story is holding Trump accountable for just writing memos and then changing the lives of people in such a drastic way. And in many cases, turning away talented folks who merit the visa.
Q. Can you talk a little about the field of journalism, as it relates to immigration and hiring? What are news organizations missing when they don’t hire immigrants for their newsrooms?
Particularly with journalism, it has always been hard to hire immigrants, and it’s a relatively new phenomenon. It’s also a relatively rare phenomenon. …Bringing a diverse perspective to newsrooms is very much needed. Our newsrooms should reflect the communities they are covering. I think there should be a conversation about this. I mean, how many stories of undocumented immigrants do we hear in the news, yet how many reporters know what being undocumented feels like?
I know of a handful of reporters covering immigration who intimately understand the experience. I’m not saying that they should hire immigrants or they shouldn’t hire immigrants, I’m saying they should talk about what the role of an immigrant can be in a newsroom because I feel like there’s no conversation about that in our industry. I am grateful for being part of newsrooms that have seen my value, and some newsrooms are better than others, but a lot of newsrooms just make ad hoc decisions or case-by-case decisions. Many newsrooms don’t want to even talk about it. Just knowing what newsrooms think about [hiring immigrants] and having an open and honest conversation about it can be a good place to start.
Editor of Source from 2015-2020
Sinduja Rangarajan is the senior data journalist at Mother Jones. She previously worked at Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting, where her series on the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley led to many tech giants publicly releasing their data. Her work has won several awards, including the National Edward Murrow Award in 2019. She wrangles and analyzes datasets to tell stories and finds innovative ways to report on issues by collaborating with academics. She started her journalism career as a Google News Lab Fellow in 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Mumbai and a master’s from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Email her tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.