How to Tell the Stories of Immigration

Journalism requires holding power to account—but also telling people about other people.

Masha Gessen speaks at the LGBT Pride March in Brighton Beach, New York, on May 20, 2017.
Masha Gessen speaks at the LGBT Pride March in Brighton Beach, New York, on May 20, 2017. (Misha Friedman / Getty)

On December 3, at a gathering in New York, the fourth annual Hitchens Prize was awarded to the journalist Masha Gessen, a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of many books, including The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia and The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. The prize was created by the Dennis and Victoria Ross Foundation, to honor the late Christopher Hitchens, and as of this year was awarded in collaboration with the editors of The Atlantic. Previous winners include the Washington Post editor Martin Baron, the filmmaker Alex Gibney, and the former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. Here is the text of Gessen’s remarks:

I am often asked what it’s like to work as a journalist in the United States after working as one in Moscow. I joke that it’s wonderful because I hardly get any death threats and I get to write for an extraordinary magazine, and I get read, and I get recognition. All of which is everything a journalist can dream of: readers, recognition, acceptance. This prize is a case in point—although it is, of course, singular. Being recognized for “commitment to free expression and to the pursuit of truth without regard to personal or professional consequence” is like coming home. For the purposes of this talk, I would like to define home as a place where one is secure and feels safe, a place where one feels both needed and appreciated, a place where one feels that one can contribute and it will matter but also fall down and be helped up.

So today I would like to talk about émigrés, immigrants, migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers—people who don’t have a home. I am speaking primarily as a journalist, though I am also an immigrant and even, technically, a refugee.

I had a very humane, what the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova would probably have called “vegetarian,” experience of migration. It involved planes and trains—the actual compartments of passenger trains—and not grueling walking and riding on the roofs of trains. It involved only a few days’ detention. It had a clearly charted legal path and a soft landing in a community of people who wanted to help my family and had the money to do so. I am describing my family’s immigration to the United States in 1981. It gave me barely a taste of complete voicelessness and total uncertainty, but it is a taste I will probably never forget. Nor will I forget the waiting, a defining condition of powerlessness in the modern world.

More than half a century ago, Hannah Arendt described the state of being a refugee, both as an experience and as a political predicament. In her essay “We Refugees” she wrote: “We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings.”

In The Origins of Totalitarianism she wrote:

Something much more fundamental than freedom and justice, which are rights of citizens, is at stake when belonging to the community into which one is born is no longer a matter of course and not belonging no longer a matter of choice, or when one is placed in a situation where, unless he commits a crime, his treatment by others does not depend on what he does or does not do. This extremity, and nothing else, is the situation of people deprived of human rights. They are deprived, not of the right to freedom, but of the right to action; not of the right to think whatever they please, but of the right to opinion. Privileges in some cases, injustices in most, blessings and doom are meted out to them according to accident and without any relation whatsoever to what they do, did, or may do.

This predicament, she wrote, makes us aware of the existence of “the right to have rights”—we may say that human rights belong to all of us because we are human, but in reality only those humans who are also citizens can claim their rights. If human rights are an attribute of being human, then we must consider the fact that tens of millions of displaced people around the world have been rendered less than human.

Why am I talking about this here and now? Sometimes I feel like I can’t talk about anything else. But also, because of this. In April 2016, The Boston Globe published a mock front page with the banner headline “Deportations to Begin.” This was an illustration to an editorial calling on the Republican Party to stop Donald Trump’s march to the nomination. Other items on this front page, which the editors called an exercise in taking Trump at his word, imagined a trade war and a war on the media, among other acts of aggression. The particulars may have been off, but the spirit of Trumpian politics was imagined well. But what strikes me about the page is what I can’t imagine now: I can’t imagine deportations, even a vast unprecedented deportation effort, warranting a banner headline across the entire front page of a daily newspaper—the news wouldn’t be striking enough for that.

On October 30, The New York Times placed its article on the plan to send 5,200 troops to the border on page A18. This was not a callous editorial decision: Three of the four above-the-fold headlines that day dealt with the aftermath of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, which had occurred three days earlier; one of these pieces linked the shooting to the hateful rhetoric surrounding the so-called migrant caravan. The troop-deployment story may have been seen as secondary to these bigger stories. And then there were other things happening in the world—a plane crash in Indonesia, an election in Brazil—and all the stories can’t be about immigration, can they? Serious question.

Like most coverage, but perhaps more than most coverage, the writing about immigration has been suffering from what I think of as Trumpian drift. Journalists casually use terms like crossing the border illegally when referring to asylum seekers—when in fact there is no law that says they must use the ports of entry. Journalists increasingly buy into the framing of immigration policy as a strategy for preventing people from entering the United States. And then there is the conspicuous use of the words caravan and migrant to refer to people fleeing for safety.

This drift narrows the space of disagreement with policies of hatred and aggression. It also creates a hierarchy of stories, both for writers and for readers. The separation of children from their families is a story so wrenching that it leaves little room for more-ordinary stories of the war on immigrants. Take the story of a Mexican man who lived, worked, and paid taxes in San Diego for 12 years only to be deported. He tried to get back by climbing the wall in Tijuana, fell, and broke both ankles. I wrote about him last summer, and almost no one read the story. I understand why that is.

And then there are the stories I haven’t written. I haven’t written about the transgender woman from Chechnya who managed to smuggle herself in through Mexico only to land in detention in Chicago. Compared to what she has been through in the last few years, detention feels pretty good. There is the couple from Russia, two academics who were hounded out by the secret police, both because they are gay and because they study gender, and have landed in different countries—one of them in the equivalent of a detention center. There is the story of a hunger strike in a detention facility in Oregon that I’d been following but hadn’t written about when one of the hunger strikers died last week.

Two years ago, speaking here, Martin Baron, possibly the greatest newspaper editor of my generation, said that the solution in the Trump era was for journalists to “just do our job.” I think this is a great solution. I just wish I had a firmer grip on what our job is. Marty said that our job is to hold power to account. I think this is as good a definition of journalism as I have ever heard, and it does define the vector of our work. Here is the problem. Holding power to account both requires power and confers power. We journalists have to make daily, weekly, hourly decisions about how we wield that power. Neither our capacity nor that of our readers is limitless. So the power of holding power to account needs to be wielded in accordance with a hierarchy of priorities that extend beyond estimating the number of eyeballs an article may draw.

I have experienced power as a journalist. On three different occasions, when I wrote about individual immigrants or refugees, the article—or, in one case, my presence in the courtroom—appeared to positively change the outcome of their cases. A deportation was prevented; asylum was granted. These may have been lucky coincidences, but we know that bureaucracy is sensitive to power. The New Yorker has power. I have power because I write for The New Yorker.

This individual power terrifies me. If I have the power to change a person’s life—save a person’s life—by writing, then what about the stories I haven’t written? What about the ones I don’t even know about? How can I write about anything else? How can any of us?

Sometimes I wonder if we even have a right to write any other stories. What if we didn’t? What if we took a week—or maybe a day—to do nothing else? Only immigration stories. I suspect our readers would be overwhelmed. There is only so much human misery you can witness. There is only so much personal narrative you can absorb before it all runs together. Sure, it would convey a sense of scale, but the economy of journalism rarely sees scale in that way. We rarely think about conveying the entirety of something; we deal in representative stories. One exception I can think of is the Times’ publication of the life stories of all the casualties of 9/11. The story wasn’t the stories of all the people or even some composite of them, though surely one could have been created. The story was precisely the unimaginability of it: The story was indeed the scale.

It was unimaginable, but it wasn’t immeasurable. In fact, it had precise dimensions. The crisis of displaced people is much bigger—unimaginably bigger, but measurably so. There are many arguments I could make for writing these stories of displaced people. There is the argument that it can help in individual cases. There are the arguments about how the presence, in the world, of displaced people dehumanizes all of us, how it destabilizes the politics of nations and of the world, how it paves the way for demagogues. But I don’t want to use these arguments. I want to use the argument that it is the job of journalists to tell people about other people. (Also, to hold power to account.) Politics is a function of the understanding that those stories can create. Politics—the collective process of deciding how we inhabit the world—creates homes. Leaving anyone out of the politics is denying them a home. It is not only being stateless that denies people the right to have rights—it is being invisible, which, of course, is an aspect of lacking citizenship.

So I want to use the power I temporarily have by speaking to all of you today to suggest that we consider what it would be like to try to convey the scale of the problem of displaced people directly. I think it would involve writing about nothing but immigration. Let’s do that for a day. Then let’s do it again.