BuzzFeed News reporter Talal Ansari was interested in lists—not listicles.
We see them all the time now when it comes to immigration policy. In January, President Trump listed seven Muslim-majority countries whose citizens were barred from entering the United States. Later, in the face of massive protests, he revised his list to six.
For Ansari — and for immigrants — this is nothing new.
“I know lists are kind of a big thing now, but it’s always been a big thing,” Ansari told me. It’s what led him to his investigation into the practice of FBI agents pressuring Muslim immigrants who are applying for citizenship, green cards, visas or asylum into becoming informants.
In their investigation “Welcome to America—Now Spy on Your Friends,” Ansari and colleague Siraj Datoo unveil what happens to many immigrants whose countries of origin are identified under the federal program to spot security risks, Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program (CARRP).
Ansari and Datoo detail how coming from CARRP’s “areas of known terrorist activity” is grounds for the government to delay an application without any explanation, oftentimes for years.
“Welcome to America—Now Spy on Your Friends” exposes how FBI agents have approached some of these applicants and asked them to become informants within their communities, even though this violates guidelines issued by the Attorney-General.
After the ACLU in Southern California reported that the majority of people whose applications were being delayed come from 21 Muslim-majority countries or regions, Ansari knew there was a bigger story. I asked Ansari, who is based in New York and now covers issues facing Muslim Americans, about finding those affected by this practice and his reporting process.
The answers have been slightly edited for length and flow.
I know that you promised anonymity to most of your sources in this piece. But generally speaking, how were you able to find citizenship/green card applicants who were pressured by FBI agents into becoming informants?
“Ultimately, all you have to do is understand that this is not a game. It’s real life and you’re writing about real people, and what you write about people, there will be real consequences.”
It’s just brute force, really. I like to say that journalists’ best friends are lawyers. I don’t think they would think the reverse. They are really a great source of stories, of sources, of knowledge. They get to hear things in rooms that a lot of people just don’t come across. They get clients walking in their doors in ways we could never have. Even though people do reach out to journalists with stories, when someone is truly in need of help, they go to a lawyer. We just started talking to immigration lawyers. We put our name out there. We said what we were looking for. We described to everyone we talked to, “Do you have a client that applied for a green card and, lo and behold, they haven’t heard anything? And, were those clients Muslim?” Sometimes we came as a surprise to them, which was interesting. Occasionally, we would talk to some immigration lawyers and tell them what we were writing about and they would say: “No, I had no idea that this program existed. I think I might have a client or two that might be on this list.”
At one point, I think we had been in discussion with 8-10 individuals that have been possibly affected by this program. Each and every one did not want to go officially on the record because, generally speaking, they’re scared. They are confused. They think that speaking out about their problem will just end up in more problems for their immigration issues. And, some of these people are here on a visa that might have an expiration date. So, they have very little incentive to talk other than to spread the word out of the goodness of their heart and tell their story, in hopes that someone else who is going through the same problem knows that other people are out there. Out of 8-10 people who told us their story off the record, that dwindled down to three who were willing to have their story written about. All three didn’t want to be named.
It seems that most of those you spoke with about their experiences being pressured to cooperate as informants weren’t too concerned about punishment from law enforcement but more fearful of the backlash from their communities. Did this surprise you?
When I first heard that reasoning, I thought that might be a concern but it’s not something that would stop you from wanting your name out there. I don’t remember which one of my subjects explained this to me, but being Muslim in America, you’re part of a mosque. I think one thing the general American Christian public doesn’t get is that mosques aren’t 100% like churches in the sense that there are exactly the same families in the pews every day. No, a taxi driver could come for Friday prayers and so could a family that comes every Friday. It’s a loose-knit community, and it could be a tight-knit community. Once someone hears that you are being denied a green card because the government thinks that you might have some ties or your name put up a red flag for whatever reason — the country you come from, or whoever you put down as your petitioner, or someone you know, a mistake, etc. — it doesn’t really matter. At that point, that person will probably disassociate with you.
People are afraid of being ostracized and being almost double victimized by having this sort of label put on them. I mean, for that reason, they did not want their own American Muslim counterparts to know what kind of problems they were going through. It’s somewhat embarrassing, and also they don’t want to be looked at suspiciously. They’re already being looked at suspiciously by their own government. The last thing that they would want or need is that same sort of atmosphere amongst the people that they probably found a lot of shelter and strength from.
What was the ethical decision-making process like with your editor for this story? Specifically when weighing whether or not to include information that might make your sources identifiable to law enforcement.
I think there’s always tension between a reporter’s desire to tell a good story and an editor’s desire to get the best story possible regardless of, you know, what minutiae there is and problems that the reporter might come across in the subject’s desire to remain anonymous. As the reporter, you have to balance both sides. But then. So once you understand that, you know that you have to err on the side of caution.
I know that there is a longstanding tradition in journalism that no one reads what they wrote back to the person. That’s just not what we do. Otherwise, half of the stories in the world wouldn’t get published because oftentimes what someone says, when it’s read back to them, they don’t like how it sounds. But what you can do is just like, “Hey, so I touched on the fact that you worked with computers. I was wondering if that’s OK.” Or, “Is it all right if we use your initials instead because there are hundreds of millions of people that share that combination of letters?” So, of the three people we profiled, some were a little less cautious. They just did not want their names there. It wasn’t even for purposes of immigration authorities or law enforcement. It was just because they didn’t want their neighbor or their family friend or their cousin reading about it, you know? It was kind of almost shameful and strange. So, I tried to just remain cautious about what they were comfortable with.
Do you wish you had done anything differently in this story?
I guess small things that you just learn over time. Like, I wish the first time I talked to X person, I had been more slow with my introduction, in my getting to know them, instead of being so quick or coming off as like needing them for a story or something like that. Sometimes, by the time you find someone and actually get them on the phone, that could require an insane amount of work. It could be like five people removed to how you got there.
The other thing that people don’t realize is like, I’m not just taking people at their word. As you notice in the story, there’s a lot of hyperlinks to a document cloud. If someone says, “I went to a visa interview on January 5th, 2013,” then I’ll be like, “Oh, OK, do you have an e-mail? Do you have a [document] that will prove to me that you did that?” What I’m getting at is that, as a journalist, you have to make sure everything you’re writing is true. If your piece is going to get fact-checked, then you also want to have everything ready. So, I think sometimes you might come off as really off-putting to the subject that you’re writing about. So, it’s not a singular thing I could tell you. But it’s just a thing you have to learn about: how to be more affable and make them truly understand why you are asking all of these questions.
At the end of the day, you’re not even asking just for a story. I’m asking him to give me his visa card, his applications, to give me e-mails, to give me all that pries into his life so deeply. “Prove to me that you live in X town.” Over time, this can get very stressful for the subject. So in the future, I think there’s ways to go about it that is not overwhelming. I’m not saying I did anything wrong or overwhelmed someone to the point that they were upset. But you can always improve on how you gather all of your information.
What type of response from your readership did you receive on this story?
I think what it really did that I’m happy about was open the eyes of people who are not immigrants themselves or people who are maybe second-/third-/fourth-generation Americans that are so far removed from the immigrant experience of their fathers or grandfathers. It gave them the idea to maybe somewhat know what it must be like to be a foreigner in a land and then a suspected foreigner in a land. How odd it must feel. One of the people I write about, he has been here for 20 years before this all happened. He just never decided to go for the green card. And when [he] did, everything was ruined for them. So, I think it’s opened people’s eyes to a little bit of the Muslim American experience, which was, I think, good, based on what I’ve heard from Muslim Americans. It validated some of their concerns.
“Yeah, we’re quite serious in the newsroom. But we’re still not so serious that we think our words are so heavy that they’re going to fall out of our mouths and hit the center of the Earth.”
I think for a small percentage of the population, some people found out that they themselves might be on this, and that’s why they haven’t gotten a response in years. I did get some e-mails from people just thanking me or saying, “I think I might be on this,” or seeking advice. Obviously, I’m not in a position to give it. Just logically or ethically, I can’t do that.
I don’t know if numbers matter, but it did well in terms of how many views it got. There [are] always the people who after probably not even reading it will just say, “Of course the FBI should be involved in this.” Or, “Of course this should exist.” Literally, that’s it. They’ve made their decision on it. And that’s fine. I mean, people are people. People can have their views. I’m not an advocate for [the subjects of the story]. I just heard a story and I validated it as best as I could and I put it out there for the world to read. So, yeah, it seemed to do fine and obviously did well in the Muslim American and/or immigrant community. But like I said, I think it opened the eyes of people who are so far removed from this kind of world.
Do you find BuzzFeed’s approach to investigative reporting different compared to other news organizations considering your readership?
I would say we are 90% classic legacy journalism. I mean that figuratively and I mean that in a literal way, because a lot of the people we employ come from legacy institutions, like The Times and other places. So we go about it in a certain way, but it’s not that different.
I think sometimes it gives us the leeway to do something more adventurous or more data-driven. I know the investigations team has a really great data investigation section of it. For example, I don’t know if you heard about how we broke the story about match-fixing in tennis. How they use computer algorithms to determine that this many matches and these many players likely are involved in match-fixing. It shook up the tennis world.
I’ve done some fun stuff I thought I’d never do if I worked for some legacy newspaper. I think a lot of journalists have huge egos, and this is across the board — I’m talking about online places, I’m talking about legacy places that are online. But I think there’s like a slight ego at BuzzFeed where you don’t take yourself that seriously. Yeah, we’re quite serious in the newsroom. But we’re still not so serious that we think our words are so heavy that they’re going to fall out of our mouths and hit the center of the Earth. I really think that’s because of the sort of environment that the company as a whole has. I’m assigned sometimes to do some story that five years ago I thought I would never do or that is, quote unquote, beneath me, or an insult to the serious reportage I do. It kind of level-heads you a little bit and you’re willing to think more out of the box and probably see story angles where you previously wouldn’t.
Alexa Mencia is a Chicago-based journalist pursuing a master’s degree at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.