“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.”
This fateful decision—to deny the existence of her three children in order to protect them—backfired on Vega Nava. She was arrested and deported, while women who admitted they had children were fitted with electronic ankle monitors instead of being sent away. After serving time and being sent back to Mexico, she was eventually allowed to return to her family in Postville under a work visa.
For Vega Nava and her family, and an estimated 11 million undocumented residents, the future remains uncertain. This week, with Grassley’s 77 amendments and others now tabled, the “Gang of Eight” reform bill looks set to pass the Senate and move to the House, where Steve King and a largely hostile Republican majority await.
As the battle in Congress goes on, and even after the bill passes or fails, immigration will continue to be one of the most complicated and consequential stories of our time. Journalists across the country could take a cue from reporters like Krogstad, Mehaffey, and others in Iowa, who are doing their part as storytellers to bring immigrant workers and families out of the shadows.