A story published by The New York Times that features a group of undocumented immigrants attending the University of California’s Merced campus has been caught in a swirl of controversy after the article included the dorm room numbers of five of the eight students profiled. Advocates for the students claim their safety has been threatened by the publication.
The article, “Creating a Safe Space for California Dreamers” by Times reporter Patricia Leigh Brown, was published in the paper’s Sunday edition and continues to appear, dorm numbers included, on the paper’s website, where it was posted Feb. 3.
The article centers on a program created by UC Merced that offers more focused support to first generation and low income college students, some of whom happen to be undocumented.
Brown describes the students as the ones “who grew up sleeping on living room floors so the bedrooms could be rented out, or who learned how to rub garlic on the bottoms of shoes to ward off snakes while crossing the desert.” (There are many such vivid anecdotes of the students’ lives before coming to the U.S. weaved throughout the piece.)
A UC Merced administrator told me the students agreed to be interviewed and photographed, and indeed told Brown where they live. But the students say they never agreed to their dorm addresses appearing in the Times, which appear casually among descriptions of the insides of their dorm rooms.
“Our students are disappointed that their personal information was published in the article, but they are resilient in the belief that some good will come from this,” said Alejandro S. Delgadillo, an associate director who works with the students at the Calvin E. Bright Success Center at UC Merced.
Multiple requests for comment from the students whose dorm numbers were published were either directed to a school administrator or not returned. The New York Times and Brown did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story.
The New York Times’ own style guide recommends not publishing a subject’s address : “In writing about a person whose family might face harassment or harm, consider a general neighborhood reference instead. If an exact address seems newsworthy because of a crime or other visible event, carefully consider the potential for harm before publishing it.”
That specific section of the paper’s internal guidebook for reporting procedures was cited by Times' public editor, Liz Spayd, in her own piece about the controversy surrounding Brown’s story.
“When reporters are writing about private individuals they don’t typically publish the person’s exact street address,” Spayd writes in her report. “First, it’s usually irrelevant to the article, and more crucially, announcing the home address of anyone can be dangerous.”
Brown told Spayd she regretted the decision to publish the students’ dorm room numbers: “In hindsight, understanding that the room numbers seem to have caused distress and concern, I, of course, would not have used them. I gave the students the option of not using their full names (none of them took it) and did ask for their room numbers, even double-checking them with some.”
But a Times’ education editor, Jane Karr, defended the decision, saying that publishing the information does not present a clear danger to the students. “Having a room number did not give you more access to the students,” she told Spayd. “It’s a secure building.”
To be fair, publishing anyone’s address in the nation’s second largest newspaper puts them at risk of being harassed.
But the room numbers’ publication comes at a time of heated debate surrounding undocumented immigrants living in the United States, with President Donald Trump following through on many of his campaign promises, including the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and sweeping executive orders affecting immigration.
“By sharing these students’ dorm, floor and room numbers, Ms. Brown has provided their exact locations and left them vulnerable to detainment by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement or violence by radical white nationalists set on ensuring the removal of all undocumented immigrants from the United States,” said a spokesperson for Define American, the media organization launched by Pulitzer-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas.
Since The DREAM Act was introduced into Congress in 2001, a growing group of young undocumented immigrants have publicly declared they are “undocumented and unafraid.” They have taken calculated risks sharing their stories with the hopes that elected officials and voters will consider what it’s like to grow up in a country where they don’t have the permanent authorization to live or work. They have shared these stories knowing there’s a community of activists behind them and that they can avoid scrutiny behind closed doors in the privacy of their homes.
“To share these students’ stories of struggle and sacrifice and—in the same breath—divulge the one piece of information that could nullify it all is completely obtuse and unacceptable,” the spokesperson for Define American told Fusion.
A widely distributed message on Facebook claimed some students featured in the article have had to move dorm rooms as a result of their room numbers being published. UC Merced would not confirm or deny some students have moved to new dorm rooms, citing safety concerns.
“I understand the need for a journalists to paint a descriptive story but to publish someone's dorm room address in the era of Trump is irresponsible,” said Julio Salgado, an artist who in 2010 co-created a media platform called DreamersAdrift that publishes videos, music, and other art created by young undocumented immigrants.
Salgado also posted the Facebook status update that called on his followers to email the Times reporter and ask her to remove the students' room numbers.
“It's a different era that we're in,” said Salgado. He continued: “When someone is sharing their personal narrative, journalists have to be thoughtful and careful with the story.”
Still, the UC Merced students have high hopes some good will come out of this.
Delgadillo, the student program director at UC Merced, said the students hope “that there will be young immigrants who read their stories and will find inspiration to pursue their own dreams.”