How Postville changed Iowa’s reporters

As reform debate unfolds, Hawkeye State journalists have taken the initiative--and kept immigrants' stories front and center

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.

“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.

The raid and its aftermath inspired a host of excellent pieces from national outlets, but some of the most poignant coverage has come from Iowa reporters themselves.

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.

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Deron Lee is CJR's correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee. Tags: , , , , ,