There was no way to do this story and keep his client alive, the lawyer told Hannah Dreier in October 2017. The lawyer was representing a teen member of MS-13, who had helped the cops and the FBI arrest his fellow gang members, believing authorities would help him escape that life. Instead, they betrayed him, turning his file over to ICE. Now, the teenager was jailed alongside those he informed on, marked for deportation by the government and marked for death by the MS-13. There was no way the lawyer was letting Hannah talk to this client, he said, or even giving her the teen’s name.
For months, Hannah worked to earn the lawyer’s trust. Once he shared the name, ICE denied Hannah’s request to interview him in detention, and she spent another month pleading her case. Hannah finally interviewed Henry in jail in February. Little by little, she earned his trust. He let her copy his cell phone, and comb through years of text, Facebook and WhatsApp messages he had exchanged with the gang and his FBI handler. To further verify his story, Hannah tracked down reluctant key witnesses, including school officials, police and even the former girlfriend of his gang clique leader.
We shared the same concern as his lawyer: How do we tell a detailed, human story without putting Henry in even more danger? We’ve included a piece describing this deliberation in more detail. We settled on the idea that this story was Henry’s last hope, made sure he understood the implications, and let him decide. We didn’t publish his last name, or revealing photos, or details of where he might go if he was released from jail.
We wanted Henry’s risk to count, to truly make readers feel like they were walking in his shoes. So in addition to the 7,000-word narrative published with New York Magazine, we ran an 8-minute video by Nadia Sussman, in which the reader could hear him tell his own story, while watching it unfold in animation. We also published a new storyform for us — the “Twitter film” by Adriana Gallardo and Lucas Waldron — a Tweetstorm with animated slides that came alive with Henry’s text messages. Check out our interview with Poynter about it: https://www.poynter.org/news/devastating-story-hope-new-readers-why-propublica-did-2-versions-betrayal
The impact was extraordinary. Hundreds reached out, offering Henry jobs and a home, and donating to a GoFundMe page that exceeded its goal of raising $20,000 to help him find a safe place to live once he is released or deported. The Department of Homeland Security opened a civil rights investigation, and ICE said it would stop creating detailed gang memos, which jeopardize informants, and offered to move him into protective custody. Officials who had refused to testify on his behalf in immigration court suddenly were onboard. (A judge will rule in August.) Readers wrote in who said they normally do not have sympathy for people in ICE detention. One wrote, “For the first time, I feel compassion for an illegal alien.”