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ProPublica’s “Zero Tolerance” Series Wins Paul Tobenkin Award

ProPublica reporters Ginger Thompson, Michael Grabell and Topher Sanders are the recipients of this year’s Paul Tobenkin Memorial Award for their stories in the “Zero Tolerance” series examining the Trump administration’s immigration policy at the border. Administered by Columbia Journalism School, the Tobenkin Award recognizes outstanding achievements in reporting on racial or religious hatred, intolerance or discrimination in the United States. ProPublica also won last year’s Tobenkin Award.

“Their reporting demonstrated just how vulnerable arriving asylum seekers and migrants are, and how children in particular face the gravest dangers, whether it be physical, sexual or simply emotional violence,” contest jurors said. “ProPublica’s brave and dogged reporting on this issue sparked moral outrage and a much-needed national conversation about migration and family separations. It’s precisely this kind of urgent, rigorous journalism that represents the best of our profession.”

The investigation began in June 2018, when ProPublica published a story by Thompson featuring a secret audio recording that captured the unmistakable sounds of children, recently separated from their families at the Mexican border, sobbing and begging for their parents. Within 48 hours of ProPublica’s publication, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to end the policy and keep immigrant families together. A federal judge in California ordered that parents and children be reunited within 30 days. By July, the child in the recording, a 6-year-old girl from El Salvador named Jimena, heard pleading to call her aunt was reunited with her mother.

ProPublica pressed on with a newsroom-wide investigation into detention facilities for immigrant children. Reporters on many beats pitched in and filed public records requests for police reports and call logs concerning more than 100 shelters for immigrant children nationwide. Based on this data, Grabell and Sanders published stories that brought to light for the first time hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse, fights, missing children and a lack of oversight, a situation one child psychiatrist called a “gold mine” for predators. The stories upended the Trump administration’s assertions that the shelters were havens. Arizona’s governor ordered a statewide inspection, leading to the shutdown of two centers run by Southwest Key after the nonprofit failed to provide proof that its employees had completed background checks. The U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s inspector general is now investigating employee background checks and the treatment of children in the nation’s shelter system.

In December, months after “zero tolerance” was reversed, Thompson reported that border agents had resumed the removal of some children from their parents by claiming that the parents were criminals and thus a danger to their children. Her story focused on a case in which the Department of Homeland Security claimed, without evidence, that a Salvadoran man was a gang member and separated him from his 4-year-old son. Two weeks after the investigation published, and 11 weeks after they had been separated, the child was returned to his father.

Learn more about Tobenkin Award here.

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