In the her new documentary “Lost in Detention,” Frontline correspondent Maria Hinojosa takes a penetrating look at the harsh world of immigration detention and the Obama administration’s enforcement policies. Mamiverse caught up with the always cool, calm, and on-the-move Maria to speak about her latest work, her new job as the first Latina correspondent for Frontline, and her greatest role of all: supermami.
Mamiverse: Immigration is such a hot button issue, is that why you and PBS felt it was important to devote a year of investigative reporting to it?
Hinojosa: This started because we had a paper trail and a strong investigative angle for this story in Willacy, a detention center in Texas. As we began our investigation for abuse in this one center, we realized the problem was much bigger than just the conditions in this one location. The problem was that there were over 250 detention centers across the country and nobody has been inside. Then, because the President inserted himself into the conversation, we made it deeper and looked at how the Obama administration is handling the immigration and detention issue. We started narrow, and it became much larger. Unless you are at a high level in the government, I don’t believe anyone else has witnessed the circle of immigration—the executing warrants, the detention, the deportation, and the impact on the community. I don’t think anyone has seen the cycle like we have.
Mamiverse: Do you consider Lost in Detention to be your best and/or most important work in your long and distinguished career? Why or why not?
Hinojosa:I do indeed consider this to be one of my most important works. It’s hard for me to say at this point because nobody has watched it yet. I am very blessed that I have done in depth stories on a variety of topics, including women presidents, child brides, and now two documentaries on immigration. This latest documentary, “Lost in Detention,” is such an important piece of work, and I know that have done my job as an American journalist, which is to shed light on something that nobody knows about or has seen. I feel that this is one of the most important projects of my career, but what happens when it hits the public is what matters to me. I can watch it and cry and be inspired or moved, but the real measure for me is how the public reacts to the piece.
Mamiverse: Briefly tell Mamiverse readers about (detainee and mother of five) Roxana Garcia. Do you think she will ever get to see her children again? Will they be forced to become Mexican citizens since their mother was deported?
Hinojosa:I have no idea what her future entails. Unless the U.S. gives her some sort of humanitarian visa, I’m not sure how she would back it back. This is really distressing to me. I have met her kids. The littlest one, Angel, is so filled with love and has no clue why this happened. All Roxana wants is to take care of her kids. She is a mom of five and she made every single meal for her family, drove them around to every soccer practice, school event, et cetera. And now the kids are left with a just a dad, who works as heavy truck mechanic. The children are depressed, devastated, shocked, and feel abandoned. The fact that this situation exists now, forced by government policy, it just astounds me. It is tormenting. But as I said, unless the U.S. government decides to give her some sort of Visa, or the Mexican government pushes her case as a human rights case, I just don’t see how she will make it back to her family. This is the whole issue, there is no legal way to get her back to the U.S. An immigration attorney from San Antonio once told me, “When laws are so bad, sometimes it forces people to break the law.”
Mamiverse: What surprised you the most while working on “Lost in Detention”? What will surprise viewers about it?
Maria:Every single thing I saw in shooting this was jaw dropping. I have been covering immigration for 25 years, and yet everything from this documentary shocked me. From the Willacy Detention Center housing thousands of people, to being with the souped up immigration agents while they were looking for so-called fugitives. From seeing Latinas and Latinos who were the ones who were detaining the immigrants, to seeing LGBT detainees in solitary confinement and one woman who talked about giving rats names. From the stories of sexual and physical abuse, to hearing that people were fed meals with maggots. Every single thing that I saw left me in a state of shock. And in fact, a lot of that isn’t even in the documentary because we were trying to tell an investigative and a political story. We have hours of tape. But to me, even telling this to you now is making me upset. The only things that have kept me from not getting completely depressed are exercise and my family—I try not to talk about this with them.
Mamiverse: What do you want viewers to walk away with?
Hinojosa:This issue is not only important to me because I am an immigrant, but because I am also a citizen. I became a citizen in the 80s. I believe very deeply in civic engagement, and I would hope that those who are citizens would get engaged. The goal as an investigative journalist is always to inspire people to get involved in our democracy. But I am not the one to say what that involvement should be. However, there is a part of what I uncovered that really concerns me: the violations of due process. This scares me, and it should scare us all—citizens or not. It should make us question why these people should have their due process denied and if it can be denied to them, who might be next?
Mamiverse: Will immigration be the issue that wins or loses President Obama’s re-election campaign?
Hinojosa:If immigration becomes the issue that determines this election, the only thing I can say is that for 30 years this issue has been in our country and every single politician has failed to be a leader on it. And that makes me sad.
Mamiverse: How do you feel about being the first Latina/o to anchor Frontline?
Hinojosa:I am HAPPY. People actually told me it would never happen. I just want to say kudos to the entire Frontline team that brought me in. Right now, I am in the thick of it, so it doesn’t feel celebratory; it feels like work. And I continue to do what I do because of the sense of fulfillment I feel when I meet young journalists (Latinas, Latinos, and young women in general) who say thank you for telling these stories. Hopefully, this will open the door for others. There is certainly an audience that needs and wants to hear these stories.
Mamiverse: Your job(s) requires that you travel a lot, how do you balance your work and travel schedule with being a mom?
Hinojosa:This morning I forced myself to take a walk around the ocean (right now I am in a beautiful part of Santa Barbara for a conference). As I was walking along the beach, I thought to myself, I’ve got the coolest husband in the world and the coolest kids, they are so understanding. Any other family would have walked away. I am away a lot, I am always working, but they know that when I am around, we are just hanging out. I don’t have a social life. That went out the window. I have a very small group of girlfriends, sisters, and family. I am very blessed that they all put up with my schedule. And you know, when I get stopped at the grocery store by strangers, they don’t say “Oh how cool, you are on TV.” Instead they say, “Thank you for doing what you do.” And they say to my kids, “Thank you for allowing your Mommy to do such important work.” That makes it worth all of the sacrifice.
Mamiverse: How do you instill cultural pride in your children? And what advice do you have for moms who want to instill Latino pride in their child(ren)?
Hinojosa:We talk about it every day. I try not to beat them over their heads with it, but I do try to tell them they have a historical responsibility. I take them with me everywhere I can. And it’s all around us wherever we go—in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Harlem. I believe that my kids have the capacity to see themselves in those who are the least like them and for me, that means I am doing my job as a mother.
Mamiverse: What was the best advice anyone has ever given you?
Hinojosa:From my dad, a Mexican immigrant: “Don’t ever mess with IRS and don’t burn any bridges.”
From Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, while speaking to a group of Latinas: “You cannot let fear stop you, you have go towards the thing that scares you the most.”
From my husband: “You have to learn how to eat your fear.”
Mamiverse: Please share one of your favorite mami moments…either with your mother or with your children or both.
Hinojosa:With my children, the thing I love most is hugging them and kissing them. Just being with them as we are walking in our neighborhood to get a bagel or watching a movie and popcorn (homemade, non of that microwave stuff), dark chocolate and ice cream. Those moments are so simple and so precious.
With my mom? She is 75 and just shared a new piece of her story with me two days ago, something she never told me before. This is the beauty of a mother/daughter relationship—that you will always create time and space to talk to each other, to continue to learn about each other, and to let your relationship grow. And the hugs, of course.
Mamiverse: Is there anything in your career that you still want to accomplish? What?
Hinojosa:Yeah, I have a list, but right now with my position as Frontline Correspondent, I have achieved what was at the top of the list. But I would love to be the first Latina correspondent at 60 Minutes. I would like my own TV show, which I am working on now as I am developing a pilot for PBS. I would like to do a few more presidential interviews. I would love to get a Peabody because that symbolizes that you have had an impact on American culture. But I don’t spend my time thinking about all of this. I try to focus one day at a time. This year for example, has been one of great accomplishments. I am happy where things are now without always wanting more.
“Lost in Detention” will air Tuesday, October 18 at 9pm ET on PBS. Learn more from Maria on “Lost in Detention” at Presente.org. This month, you can also catch Maria in the groundbreaking HBO documentary, The Latino List, in which she interviews many notable American Latinos, exploring the beauty and diversity of the Latino experience.
Maria is Managing Editor and host of the radio program, Latino USA, and President of The Futuro Media Group, which she launched last year with the mission of producing multi-platform, community-based journalism that respects and celebrates the cultural richness of the American Experience.