Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based freelancer for outlets including The Washington Post, The New York Times, TimeOut Chicago, OnEarth Magazine and People Magazine. Through 2009 she worked as a staff writer for The Washington Post out of the Midwest bureau, covering topics including Great Lakes issues, immigration, energy, environment and politics. Her 2005 book “Out of the Sea and Into the Fire: Latin American-U.S. Immigration in the Global Age” (Common Courage Press) tells the stories of Latin American immigrants in their home countries, crossing the border and in the U.S. Her 2008 book “Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun” (City Lights) is the story of an Iraqi refugee and artist. Her 2009 book “Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover and What it Says About the Economic Crisis” (Melville House) describes immigrant workers who became an international sensation by occupying a window factory. She teaches journalism at Columbia College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and leads mural tours in Pilsen, a largely immigrant neighborhood of Chicago. Her project was published by AlterNet on June 24, 2011.
State Launches Anti-Immigrant and Anti-Muslim Crusade
Oklahoma has relatively few immigrants – about 5 percent of the population – but it has long been in the vanguard of anti-immigrant and more recently anti-Muslim legislation of the type sweeping the nation. Civil rights advocates say Oklahoma is an example of the illogical and political nature of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim state laws, since the state as a whole and specifically the areas where constituents disproportionately supported the measures have small immigrant and Muslim populations. But advocates also say the ultimate failure of bills introduced in the Oklahoma Legislature this year shows that even in one of the nation’s reddest states, coalition-building and activism can defeat proposals based on hate and fear. Click here for full story.
Story behind the story
I’ve covered immigration for years in the Midwest, from my base in Chicago, but going into the IJJ fellowship last March, I knew very little about Oklahoma. Hence, learning more about Oklahoma’s history and cultural and political dynamics was a big motivation for my project, describing how Oklahoma has been on the forefront of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim legislation even though its populations of Muslims and immigrants are relatively small.
Before the fellowship began, program director Warren Vieth sent out some quotes from the “Grapes of Wrath.” It drove home how white Okies from the Dust Bowl era actually have much in common with Latino and other immigrants of today, people forced to leave their homes to try to eke out a living in tough economic times.
I was reminded of this parallel during the fellowship when we heard from state Sen. Ralph Shortey, who like some of the descendants of Dust Bowl Okies seemed intent on not acknowledging the parallels between the experiences of his own Native American forebears and the undocumented Latino immigrants he wants to chase out of Oklahoma. Given the experience of Native Americans in the U.S., I found it disturbing and sad that Shortey is pushing laws that demonize and attempt to remove people who have already been dislocated from their homelands.
But my reporting in the months after the fellowship trip helped me better understand Shortey in a larger political context, where powerful politicians and right-wing advocacy groups have used laws targeting immigrants, Muslims, gays and other minorities as a concerted strategy to spark and maintain support from people who might not otherwise vote or be politically active. This appears a classic “divide and conquer” political strategy, so it made a nice counterpoint to learn from our speakers during the fellowship and my follow-up reporting that groups that support civil rights, immigrants rights and religious freedom have banded together in Oklahoma despite their own cultural, racial and economic differences.
Coming from Chicago I am used to reporting on, working with and socializing with immigrants, including many undocumented immigrants on a daily basis. So perhaps the most eye-opening thing about the fellowship trip in Oklahoma was how many people in the state have little or no contact with undocumented immigrants, or keep their distance out of fear and discomfort when immigrants move into their neighborhood (i.e. Shortey’s constituents). This helped me better understand how political fear-mongering that isn’t based on demographic or other factual realities has in many cases been a successful strategy for anti-immigrant politicians. And it also made me feel that media coverage that helps put a face on immigrants and the immigration issue is an important part of the civic debate, maybe even more so in a place like Oklahoma than in a place like Chicago where more people do interact frequently with immigrants.
I think approaching my story on the politics of immigration in Oklahoma as a reporter with fairly deep background on immigration in general but very little knowledge of Oklahoma helped me do a story for a national audience (Alternet.org readers) that used the voices of Oklahoma political and cultural leaders to show how this nationally contentious issue has played out in a state that has unique cultural and demographic characteristics but is also symbolic of the American heartland as a whole. I was thrilled that the Oklahoma Observer also picked up my piece as a cover story, and I’d like to think that means the piece had some new insight to offer Oklahoma readers as well. I got positive feedback from several leaders of Oklahoma civil rights and immigrant rights groups, indicating I hopefully did portray their goals and challenges accurately.
This Oklahoma story (and the fellowship experience as a whole), including the fantastic conference sessions in Dallas) definitely helped deepen my understanding of political, cultural and legislative aspects of the immigration debate, in ways that will help my coverage of immigration and, more generally, civil rights in other locations and contexts.
As a side note, the fellowship and my Oklahoma reporting helped me cover a series of breaking stories regarding the controversial Secure Communities federal immigration program for The New York Times Chicago edition and the Chicago News Cooperative (www.chicagonewscoop.org). In the weeks after the fellowship trip, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights released internal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) documents showing how the federal agency strategized to implement Secure Communities in Chicago despite the opposition of local elected officials and city and county laws that would prohibit it. The program is meant to deport undocumented immigrants convicted of serious crimes, but in reality has snared mostly immigrants with minor or no criminal records. The background on immigration law and policy I received during the fellowship allowed me to hit the ground running on the Secure Communities story, which continues to unfold. It’s also prepared me to cover more breaking and in-depth immigration news in the future.