On Migrant Journeys With WhatsApp and Google Translate

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Miriam Jordan, a national immigration correspondent based in Los Angeles, discussed the tech she’s using.

What tech tools do you use most on the job?

My Lenovo laptop, printer and iPhone are the main tools of my trade. And I use the Voice Memos app exclusively to record news conferences.

But let me step back. While technology is great, there’s no substitute for building a rapport with someone, especially as an immigration reporter. I prefer face-to-face conversations, whenever possible.

Because I am frequently in the field talking to Spanish speakers in sometimes precarious situations, I find that just jotting down what people say in a notebook is more discreet than using the Notes app or recording a conversation. There is a formality inherent in recording that I feel inhibits folks from speaking freely, and many of the people I interview are undocumented. Keeping a record of what they tell me in a device makes them worry about being exposed to immigration authorities, especially in the current political climate.

You travel a lot for work then. What gadgets help with that?

I always carry an extra battery pack for my mobile phone. Especially if I am in a remote location, I want to know that I can reach the photographer with whom I am traveling (sometimes we end up separated), as well as my editor and family.

When I am driving just about anywhere that is new, I rely on the Waze app to guide me. I wonder how I would manage without it! If I am somewhere without a car, then a ride-sharing app like Uber or Lyft does the trick.

How about social media?

Twitter enables me to stay abreast of the conversation surrounding my immigration beat, as well as to be a part of it, if I desire. I have also been contacted by readers on Twitter with tips — or complaints. Twitter is also indispensable to promote my pieces and to amplify them, if I write threads that include aspects that didn’t make it into the story.

Facebook Groups can be treasure troves of information about what activists are doing, and they help me find ideas as well as sources for stories. For example, after a judge ordered the government last year to reunite families who had been separated at the border, volunteer groups helping parents and children converged on Facebook to discuss their observations.

I also often use WhatsApp to talk with sources on sensitive topics, because all communication is encrypted.

What technology do migrants use?

Like most families from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and Latin America, as well as other parts of the developing world, migrants crossing the border use WhatsApp to communicate with their loved ones back home and among their family in the United States.

WhatsApp can be used to transmit photos of police reports, birth certificates and other documents that migrants may need their relatives to send them after they have arrived in the United States to help build their asylum case. Once upon a time, people in far-flung areas would have to find an internet cafe to email material from their home country to the United States. WhatsApp is also invaluable because you can send voice memos to people who are illiterate.

Some migrants arrive at the border with smartphones, but not all of them. The greater the distance they have traveled, the more likely they are to carry one. Brazilians, Indians and Africans tend to have smartphones more than Central Americans do. Once they are settled and working in the United States, they often use their smartphones to send money to their family back home.

And migrant children are as addicted to video games and entertainment on cellphones as other kids.

How is technology used by Americans communicating with migrants?

I was recently at a respite center in Tucson, which on some nights sleeps more than 300 Central American migrants who have just been released by the Border Patrol. It is staffed by an army of well-intentioned volunteers, who provide food, clothing and medical care to the migrant families.

But often they don’t speak Spanish, and rely on Google Translate. The funny way that things get so literally translated often breaks the ice between migrants and their helpers as they erupt in laughter.

Outside of work, what tech do you love to use or to avoid?

I use my iPhone to listen to music when I run and when I walk the dog. I also use it to tune in to the Times podcast “The Daily” as well as other podcasts. I have an internet-connected exercise bike.

How do your kids help you with digital tools and the internet?

My 22-year-old twins, Maya and Danny, are definitely my tech-support team when they are around.

Danny helps me with basic functions on Microsoft Word, Outlook and Facebook. I have a knack for accidentally deleting sections or material in my files, which he helps me restore (Alt Z?). My computer also seems to freeze not infrequently, and he comes to the rescue.

Maya helps me buy music on iTunes and download music onto my phone. She helped me to discover new text actions, such as “laughing” or “loving.” She has helped me post certain things to Facebook and keep my profile picture more or less current.

Neither seems interested in pricey wearable tech, like smart watches. Thankfully!

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