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How one reporter got immigrants facing deportation to open up

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

How one reporter got immigrants facing deportation to open up

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One of the residents of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, who was interviewed for the story.
"Carlos," one of the residents of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, who was interviewed for the story.
(Chris Walljasper/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting)

Covering immigration enforcement actions can be challenging in the best of circumstances. Going back nearly two years to examine the lasting impact of Immigration and Customs Enforcement worksite raids adds layers of complexity that I didn’t fully understand when I began investigating the topic.

The idea for my project came from research out of the University of Iowa on the impact of a workplace raid in Postville, Iowa, on birth weights of babies born in the 37 weeks that followed. The study concluded that the babies were negatively impacted by the stress and trauma experienced by their mothers, but it didn’t dig into the nature of stresses. That’s what we wanted to be the focus of this project.

Picking a location to use as an example was the first challenge. Normally, my organization reports on agricultural and rural topics. ICE raids frequently take place in agricultural operations such as meatpacking plants, but most were significantly farther away than I could feasibly visit for multiple reporting trips. The 2018 Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, raid was smaller than some, but its location made it easier for me to do in-depth reporting. It also was close to where I grew up. I had local connections in the community, which I leveraged to find sources, build trust and gain access.

My biggest challenge in Mt. Pleasant was gaining the trust of families affected by the raid. I had access to some at the First Presbyterian Church, where many families came each Monday to pick up groceries and financial assistance donated by the community. My first trip to the church highlighted how difficult it would be to get people to open up to me.

As I stood in the hallway outside the food pantry, waiting with my interpreter and my audio recorder, the wife of one of the detained workers agreed to speak to me. I asked questions about her experiences right after her husband was detained and in the year and a half that followed. The most evocative answer she gave was, “Me sentí muy triste,” or “I felt very sad.”

After half a dozen interviews, none lasting more than 10 minutes, I was exasperated. No one felt comfortable opening up to me, a tall white man holding a microphone in their face. And I don’t blame them. They didn’t know me or what sensitive information I might share with the public that could get them into even deeper trouble with ICE. If I were them, I wouldn’t talk to me either.

On a later trip, I hired an interpreter who also interpreted for court hearings in the area. He was not officially an advocate, but he was trusted in the community. As we stood in the church lobby, nearly everyone who walked through the door recognized him. The smiles and hugs they offered him translated to trust when he explained who I was and what I wanted to achieve in my storytelling.

Suddenly, people who had been through so much mental anguish and physical stress were more than willing to share their worries, trials and hopes with me. A rugged construction worker, hardened by years of work to provide for his family in Mexico, broke down and cried as he shared his fear for his son, who was being recruited for the same cartels he had fled more than a decade earlier. A mother of two looked at me with tired eyes as her rambunctious 5-year-old son bounced off me, hungry for male attention after his father, uncle and grandfather had been detained.

I realized I had overlooked the importance of finding a fixer. I naively thought that since I was in a community near where I grew up, I wouldn’t need that level of introduction. What I overlooked was the tight-knit nature of immigrant communities. Even when reporting close to home, finding someone who can open those doors is crucial. That interpreter introduced me to advocates in the community who drove me to the houses of detained workers and connected me with people who understood their plight. 

I faced two other big challenges on this project, and each taught me an important lesson:

1. Redefining health 

When speaking with the men who had been detained, as well as the mothers, children and community members impacted by this ICE raid, I had to rethink how I looked at and talked about health. Initially, when I asked one of the detained men if he had experienced any health issues as a result of the raid, he said no. But later he mentioned that a year after the raid he had a blood clot that hospitalized him for three days. He didn’t associate the emergency with the raid, but medical science shows that chronic stress and anxiety can exacerbate preexisting health conditions.

Through my training at the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, I was able to understand how social determinants, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and other societal factors impact health in general — and the well being of undocumented workers and their families following an immigration raid.

2. Dancing with ICE

Getting meaningful information from authorities can often be a challenge. I got so tired of hearing “no comment” from those in power in business, the city, and the federal government. 

After repeated attempts at contact with ICE and other federal agencies, I was able to connect with two representatives who were helpful. But then there was a delicate dance between getting information and revealing my sources, who were nervous about being named. 

I described the conditions some of my sources had shared – long detentions hours away from home, lack of communication with families, and lack of legal counsel. The ICE representatives told me they wouldn’t respond to generalized claims but would be more than willing to verify details if I gave them the sources’ names and information.

That was a non-starter. We had promised our sources who were involved in the raid or had ongoing immigration cases that we would keep them anonymous. While the allure of fact-checking was strong, I would never sell my sources out like that. So I countered with a list of all 32 men who were detained, asking for length and location of detention, the date bond was paid, and current status.

ICE representatives said they couldn’t release that much information because of privacy laws, but could release information on up to five individuals. Again, this was tempting, but even asking about the three whom I’d spoken with, plus two unrelated, would give the agency an opportunity to identify my sources and potentially retaliate against them. We declined the offer. 

But we still needed to fact-check the claims about the length of detention for these men. Luckily, the nonprofit that had paid their bonds was able to verify the claims, and we got the necessary information without compromising our sources.

Exhausting, sobering, gratifying

This story was one of the biggest challenges of my career. The logistics, the considerations for such vulnerable subjects, and the high stakes if I misspoke were daunting. But it was really meaningful to be able to shed light on a subject so many had forgotten. Hearing from my sources that they are using my story to solicit donations for the community makes me realize my journalism can make an impact.

Persistence made this story possible. Finding fixers who could connect me with hesitant sources was critical. Protecting my sources and innovating my fact-checking helped build trust with my contacts. These are the lessons I take with me as I continue to report on rural America.

Read Christopher Walljasper's fellowship story here.

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