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.
“It really opens your eyes to see how something like that can affect a whole community,” she said. “It’s tearing apart infrastructure. Kids’ parents left them—they were arrested or deported.”
Postville has influenced national immigration policy; such large-scale raids have since been discontinued. It seems to have influenced Iowa journalists as well. In a state with a small (though exponentially growing) immigrant population, reporters may not have felt the need to engage with immigration on a local level had Postville not lifted the veil on the shadow world of migrant laborers in the heartland.
“I think that was a springboard to a lot of immigration coverage,” Jens Manuel Krogstad, who reported on the raid for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, told me.
Krogstad, who was on the scene in Postville in 2008 as a reporter for the Courier, has since moved on to The Des Moines Register. But he has not moved on from Postville.
“I just kept covering it once I came over to the Register,” he said. Krogstad, who says he has now visited the town around a dozen times, has written follow-up pieces on Postville for the Register and, in May, for USA Today, which partners with the Register under the Gannett umbrella.
Meanwhile, Mehaffey of The Gazette, who is a crime and courts reporter, has also done standout work on Postville. In a series last month on the anniversary of the raid, she examined the town’s slow but steady recovery, the experiences of women whose lives were changed in the raid, and residents’ thoughts on the possibility of reform legislation.
It’s no mystery what sets these stories and other strong immigration pieces apart from the crowd. Krogstad offers this simple advice to journalists: “Make sure you’re thorough in your reporting, and that means talking to the immigrants themselves.”
This is easier said than done, of course—easier for Krogstad than others because he speaks Spanish, the first language of most immigrants in Iowa.
“I find it really helps if you speak the language,” he said. “That really gave me a leg up over other reporters.”
Mehaffey, for her part, does not speak Spanish, but on her visit to Postville she enlisted the aide of a Gazette colleague who does: online business editor Denisse Rauda.
As they sought out interviews with immigrants who had been caught up in the raid, both Krogstad and Mehaffey approached religious leaders in town—Catholic Church officials and a local college chaplain, respectively. This helped ease suspicions and anxieties among potential interviewees, who trusted the church more than any other institution.
Still, with the trauma of the raid still fresh even five years later, “There were several that didn’t want to talk,” Mehaffey told me. “They just wanted to put it behind them and move on.”
Those who did talk had wrenching stories to tell.
Mehaffey’s piece on women affected by the raid begins this way: “Consuelo Vega Nava looks down at her shifting feet, saying it was difficult to go back to that time in 2008 when she made the decision to tell immigration authorities that she didn’t have any children.”