The award comes with an unrestricted cash prize of $100,000 "for excellence in long-form, narrative, or deep reporting on stories about underrepresented and/or misrepresented groups in the present American landscape."
Fernández has been covering Arizona's immigrant community for more than 15 years. Her most recent story for New Times highlighted the struggles that unaccompanied minors from Central America face when trying to access mental health treatment in the United States after experiencing unspeakable trauma in their homelands.
She has also written extensively about the racial profiling that took place at the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office under Joe Arpaio, highlighting the stories of a Latino woman who was forced to give birth in shackles, a legal resident of the United States who presented valid documentation but was jailed for 12 days anyway, and a U.S. citizen who hit the pavement face first after a deputy jerked him out of his truck.
In 2012, Fernández co-produced the documentary Two Americans, a film that parallels Arpaio's story with that of a 9-year-old U.S. citizen whose parents were arrested by MCSO deputies during a workplace raid. Her work has also been featured in PRI’s Global Nation and The World, CNN Español, Radio Bilingüe, and Al Jazeera English.
The Heising-Simons Foundation was founded in California in 2007 by Liz Simons and Mark Heising and aims to “advance sustainable solutions in climate and clean energy, enable groundbreaking research in science, enhance the education of our youngest learners, and support human rights for all people,” according to the foundation's website.
“Bearing witness to lives that are often absent from public view, Valeria Fernández’s work stands as testament to the trust people have in her to tell their stories with accuracy and compassion," the judges wrote. "Her journalism benefits from the kind of access that comes from years of relentless beat reporting. She brings great depth to stories of people who are often the most difficult for journalists to access, including families broken apart by the immigration system, and a new immigrant’s struggles with mental health.”
Fernández, a Uruguay native who started her career at La Voz, said that she's humbled by the award.
"It just gives me ammunition to keep going and keep doing the work that I’ve been doing as a freelancer," she said, adding that the rest of the country has a lot to learn from Arizona when it comes to the impact that immigration policies can have on children and on mental health.
"Having worked in Arizona for 15 years, this is my community, and I feel that there are so may voices that need to be heard. And that’s what this award will do — it will amplify those voices."
Currently, Fernández is focused on covering stories at the intersection of mental health, deportation, and migration.
"I’ve been telling so many stories about what doesn’t work, and I really want to make it a priority to start telling stories about what does work," she said. "I think we’re all really exhausted from reading so much about what’s wrong, and what doesn’t work in the world."
As for what she's planning on doing with the $100,000 prize? "For starters, I got health insurance. And I'm trying to figure out where I'm going to take it from here."
"I feel like I was told that it’s okay to trust my instinct to continue to go for these stories."