Courtesy of Cornell University

Immigration policy and reporting were discussed in a virtual round table.

May 9, 2021

Molly O’Toole ’09 Talks Immigration Policy, Reporting in Virtual Round Table

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As record numbers of people are displaced around the world, Cornell students, faculty and alumni are working to better understand migration.

As part of the Inaugural Undergraduate Migrations Symposium Beyond Borders on Friday, May 7, Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times journalist Molly O’Toole ’09 spoke in a virtual round table, moderated by Prof. Shannon Gleeson, labor relations, law and history. 

O’Toole is a Zubrow Distinguished Visiting Journalist Fellow in the College of Arts and Sciences who has covered national security, immigration and foreign policy throughout her career as a journalist.

According to O’Toole, more restrictive immigration policies in the United States and Europe have pushed immigrants to South and Central American — where countries have far looser immigration requirements.

“The idea is that the more difficult you make this journey, the more dangerous you make this journey, then people won’t take it, people won’t cross the border,” O’Toole said. “As we know, it hasn’t worked. That’s never stopped migrants from coming in many ways. It’s only killed more of them. Yet the strategy remains largely unchanged.”

According to O’Toole, as the number of legal avenues to seek refuge in the United States grow fewer, more people may attempt riskier routes onto American soil

“US policy in particular has helped give rise to a billion dollar black market of bringing the world’s refugees to the U.S.-Mexico border,” said O’Toole. “When you essentially close illegal pathways to the world’s wealthiest nation, which is still in many ways a beacon of hope and refuge for the world, you’re incentivizing folks, the smugglers and the smuggled, to take increasingly dangerous, irregular migration routes.”

One policy that has drastically increased risk has been the title 42 policy, which closed the border to refugees and asylum seekers because of public health concerns. Many migrants wait in refugee camps in northern Mexico, where they are at increased risk of kidnapping by organized crime groups.

Kidnapping incidents are likely underreported, according to O’Toole, because people may be concerned about their families being hurt by the kidnappers and potential repercussions from United States authorities if they are undocumented.

In order to minimize the risk of kidnapping or deportation, migrants are relying on crowd-sourced knowledge that they share with one another online, according to O’Toole.

“At an unprecedented moment of technological interconnectedness colliding with this nativist isolationism, many of the African and Asian refugees cross at least a dozen countries using a sort of modern day word of mouth on social media on Facebook on WhatsApp, as well as using these really stunningly sophisticated illicit smuggling networks,” said O’Toole.

O’Toole has heard a range of policy demands from abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement to providng a path to legal status for the millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States and those who have other forms of temporary legal status. 

The Biden administration’s immigration policies are similar to the Obama administration’s, O’Toole says, as it includes more legal status avenues for those already in the United States while trying to get Mexico and Central American Countries to stop migration to the United States. 

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, reporting internationally has been more challenging than usual, due to the risk of contracting or spreading the virus. To continue her work, O’Toole stays in touch with policymakers in addition to advocates, community organizations, shelter operators and others working directly with immigrants.

According to O’Toole, she tries to navigate the high stakes nature of immigration reporting by putting people at the center of the stories she tells, balancing protecting sources while maintaining high standards for the accuracy of the information she provides to the public.

“You’re meeting them or speaking to them at potentially the most vulnerable moment in their entire lives,” O’Toole said. “That’s an incredible responsibility that we don’t always get right.  The way that I’ve tried to manage that, as a journalist ––I think everyone has different responses to this ––is to try and keep human beings at the center of my stories.”

Eli Pallrand ’24 and John Yoon ’23 contributed reporting.