FAIRWAY, KS — On June 13, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) made headlines in his characteristic fashion—with an outraged, outrageous tweet. The congressman took to Twitter to sound the alarm that “20 brazen self professed illegal aliens have just invaded my DC office.”
For King, even though he was not in his office at the time, this was a moment of crisis. For enterprising reporters, however, it was an opportunity.
King’s near-daily provocations have become reliable fodder for The Huffington Post and other politically-charged national outlets. But in this case it was a DC reporter for a hometown paper—Joseph Morton, Washington correspondent for the Omaha World-Herald, whose coverage area includes King’s western Iowa district—who seized the moment and dug deeper into the issue at hand. Morton took the time to interview one of the “Dreamers” who had shown up in caps and gowns at King’s office to protest his legislation to block the president from deferring deportations of young people brought to the US illegally as children.
“We wanted to know, just ask him directly, why he wanted to deport us and why he didn’t want us in this country,” 22-year-old Maricela Aguilar told Morton.
Morton led off his story with a screen shot of King’s eye-catching tweet, but the meat of the piece came below: with Aguilar’s comments and details about her own life story, followed by an expanded, somewhat more thoughtful response from King, and then contextual grafs on the state of the immigration bill that was moving through the Senate—its prospects for passage, and how the Iowa and Nebraska congressional delegations viewed it.
Whatever one thinks of King, his outspoken role as the voice of the anti-immigrant Right in Washington has been a catalyst for some incisive journalism back home—not only from Morton but also from Bret Hayworth of the Sioux City Journal and John Deeth in The Des Moines Register.
And King isn’t the only member of the Hawkeye State delegation to influence this year’s immigration debate. Sen. Charles Grassley, another Iowa Republican, filed no fewer than 77 amendments to the pending Senate bill, and he has drawn criticism with some controversial comments of his own. As with King, Iowa reporters have kept local readers abreast of Grassley’s every move to influence—some would argue obstruct—reform. Among others, credit goes to the Register’s Jennifer Jacobs for an informative series of blog posts on Grassley’s immigration stance; Ed Tibbetts of the Quad-City Times for detailing Grassley’s amendment package; and, again, Morton of the World-Herald for revealing that those amendments were not entirely free of the kind of “nonessential” provisions that their author denounced in the underlying bill.
The best immigration stories, however, have examined the issue from the perspective of the immigrants themselves.
The inherent difficulty in reporting on unauthorized immigrants is that most don’t want to be seen. But when opportunities have arisen to talk to undocumented workers who are, as King would put it, “brazen” enough to open up to (or even seek out) the media, Iowa reporters have taken the initiative.
A few days after the protest at King’s office, for example, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of Des Moines in support of comprehensive reform. The Register’s William Petroski took the occasion to document the stories of some of the marchers, including a middle-aged laundry worker who has lived in the shadows in Des Moines for 22 years, and a young “Dreamer” who was brought to the US as a 3-year-old.
“Many of us came here when we were really young,” said 20-year-old Hector Salamanca, according to Petroski. “This is the only country we know.”
The most fertile ground, however, for Iowa reporters looking to put a human face on the reform debate has not been in Des Moines, but some three hours to the northeast—in the tiny town of Postville (pop. est. 2,200), which five years ago last month was the site of one of the largest immigration raids in US history.
On May 12, 2008, federal agents descended upon the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse in Postville, arresting nearly 400 workers. These immigrant laborers, it was later revealed, were the victims of deplorable working conditions. Once caught up in the justice system, many would be separated from their families, imprisoned, and deported. The town’s immigrant-heavy population, and its economy, was decimated.
The Postville raid offered an unprecedented view of the exploitation of workers and the shortcomings of the immigration system. It reinforced the case for immigration reform, according to Trish Mehaffey, who covered the fifth anniversary of the raid last month for the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
“I think the Postville raid brought to light the fact that there needed to be changes,” Mehaffey told me in an interview, “because it kind of ruined that town.