RON JACKSON is an author and award-winning journalist with 25 years of writing experience. He is presently a staff writer with The Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, where he covers a wide range of stories, including topics dealing with illegal immigration. He recently received a first-place award for his investigative coverage of the Mexican drug cartels in Oklahoma from the Society of Professional Journalists. Jackson is also the author of Alamo Survivors (Waco: Sunbelt Media, Inc., 2010), Blood Prairie: Perilous Adventures on the Oklahoma Frontier (Waco: Eakin Press, 2007) and Alamo Legacy: Alamo Descendants Remember The Alamo. He lives on Oklahoma’s western prairie with his wife, Jeannia, and their four children. E-mail 1: firstname.lastname@example.org. E-mail 2: email@example.com. Cell: 580-458-0711. Work: 580-666-2340. Home: 580-458-0711.
“How HB 1804 came to pass in Oklahoma” May 30, 2010
“Fear Drives Many Illegal Immigrants From Mexico To Oklahoma,” July 18, 2010
Mexican nationals appear to be entering Oklahoma illegally as steadily as ever for work, family and sanctuary from a violent homeland. They come despite a sagging economy and anti-immigration sentiments.
House Bill 1804 was meant to send illegal immigrants packing, but court appeals have left it in limbo. And more Hispanic students than ever are enrolled in Oklahoma schools.
“Illegal Immigrants: Why Aren’t They Coming Here Legally?” July 18, 2010
Story Behind the Story
OKLAHOMA CITY – Anger, partisan-politics and misinformation will always distort reality.
By the time I entered the IJJ’s 2010 Immigration in the Heartland fellowship, my adopted state of Oklahoma was at the epicenter of such visceral waters regarding the immigration issue. House Bill 1804 – then the most stringent anti-immigration legislation in the United States – had already been on the books for two and half years, although court appeals and the inability to enforce the law had left much in limbo.
Still, Oklahoma had clearly established itself as a hostile land for illegal immigrants.
Despite my passionate reporting on the human drama that is immigration, I questioned whether my work as a whole – or that of fellow Oklahoma journalists – had risen above the hyperbole swirling in our state with facts and information that elevated the conversation of these complex issues to a higher level. Painfully, the answer seemed obvious: No.
I quickly learned other IJJ Fellows had encountered the same frustration in their respective states. Rhetoric seemed to be steering the runaway train that was the great immigration debate, and there was much work to be done to set the record straight. My journalistic aim was thus not to steer the debate in one direction or the other, but to provide a factual foundation from which an intellectually honest debate could be waged.
The IJJ fellowship gave me all the tools and resources to carry out my mission. Websites, phone numbers and prospective national and regional sources came at me fast and furious, and in each case, reinforced the need for a factual foundation. The IJJ Fellows – a band of dedicated and experienced journalists – also proved to be invaluable resources.
Since I hailed from Oklahoma, my project was entitled House Bill 1804: The Aftermath, The Impact of Oklahoma’s 2007 Immigration Law. I teamed with my Oklahoman colleague and fellow IJJ Fellow, Vallery Brown, to brainstorm a package. We maneuvered thoughtfully through a highly politicized landscape to find voices of reason and raw data that would help inform our readership.
The storyteller in me then embarked on a quest to find the best sources, for at the end of the day, everything we do ultimately comes back to people. These folks would collectively paint a portrait of Oklahoma’s post-House Bill 1804 world – one still filled with heart-wrenching stories of deportation, as well as a wave of new arrivals. Ironically, anecdotal evidence and statewide statistics such as student enrollment numbers and business records on Oklahoma City’s predominantly Hispanic south side supported an increase in immigration. The Rev. Michael Chapman, pastor of Oklahoma City’s Holy Angels Catholic Church, liken the latest migration trend to “a flowing river.”
My package even attempted to answer the very fundamental question: Why aren’t illegal immigrants coming here legally? It’s a simple enough question, although one that is often under-reported or ignored. Amazingly, something as simple as the U.S. State Department website offered clarity. The website indicated that U.S. officials were at the time reviewing Mexico’s family-sponsored applications for citizenship filed in October of 1992. That fact alone could open serious discussion for national immigration reform.
My main piece centered on the family of Gabriel, an illegal immigrant who was living the American Dream until his then-18-year-old son, Gabriel, Jr., and wife, Maria, were deported to Mexico within a span of 20 months. I first met Gabriel at an IJJ fellowship dinner, and soon began visiting with him on a regular basis to document his journey. I then interviewed his son and wife from the deadly city of Juarez by telephone when my request for a personal trip was denied by protective editors. I was spellbound by the drama.
The importance of Gabriel’s story appeared evident to me. As I wrote, “Gabriel’s story speaks to people on all sides of the immigration debate. People who advocate the immediate deportation of all illegal immigrants – and who helped pass House Bill 1804 in 2007 – will likely view his story victoriously. Others will question its humanity in a society that has often turned a blind eye to a population here illegally serving as farmhands, servants, cooks, roofers, hotel maids and factory workers.”
A flood of readership response told a different story. Most of the readers who commented were unsympathetic to Gabriel’s circumstances, and likened him to a felon who was merely getting what he deserved. One reader even called me “UnAmerican” for even reporting the story. (Coincidentally, I was called an “American patriot” by another reader a week later after publishing a story about a World War II veteran. So now I’m happily confused.)
In the end, I question whether fair, unbiased reporting will ever bring reason to one of the most important and hotly debated issues of our time. But without it, what do we have left? The IJJ fellowship reinforced the importance of my role as a journalist, and it’s a responsibility that should never be taken lightly. We must continue to report the facts and tell the stories when no one else is willing.
To future IJJ Fellows, I offer these humble words of advice:
- First and foremost honestly check your personal feelings at the door. This debate grabs us all, but our journalistic work is too important to have it tainted by any whisper of bias.
- From a man who loves to talk, listen. Listen to the IJJ administrators, Senior Fellows and fellow Fellows. Despite my 25 years of experience as a journalist, I learned something from each and every one of them during my fellowship. A number of them have been in the trenches of this issue long before it reached a fever pitch. Their guidance will serve you well.
- Work extra hard to find voices of reason. Any journalist can find the radical on either side of a debate. I’m not saying ignore those people, but work hard to find folks at all points of the spectrum. I believe our country is lacking reasonable discussion on this debate, and lazy journalism is part of the problem.
- Remember, data is essential to the framework of any immigration package. The IJJ fellowship will thankfully fill your bag full of resources. But never forget the humanity. Ultimately, we report on people – public defenders, politicians, business owners, and the immigrants themselves. Numbers and laws, while crucial, will only tell a portion of the story. Balance. Balance. Balance.
- Brace yourself for one of the most fulfilling experiences of your journalism career. Soak it in, enjoy the moment, seize the opportunity and open your mind to learning.