Sarah Gustavus is a reporter and host at KUNM Public Radio, where she frequently covers state government, public health programs and immigration. She got her start in radio in Seattle with KUOW/KXOT and the Northwest News Network. Her work has aired nationally on programs like All Things Considered, Tell Me More, Weekend America and Making Contact. In 2009, she traveled to Germany with the Berlin Capital Program to participate in discussions about media and demographic changes in the United States and Europe. She is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin.
As our neighboring states of Arizona and Texas draw national attention over controversial policies to crack down on undocumented immigrants. New Mexico has remained relatively calm – even under the radar – in the national conversation.
More immigrants are being deported from the United States than ever before, and it’s not all happening at the border with Mexico. It’s from communities like Taos, Albuquerque and Farmington.
Story behind the story
New Mexico is a border state, but the debate over immigration is very different from neighboring Texas or Arizona. I grew up in Texas and was surprised when I moved to Albuquerque and heard older people calling themselves “Spanish” instead of “Hispanic” or “Mexican-American.” This project gave me a chance to ask questions that I’d always had about why people do that and how it shapes their perceptions of new immigrants.
I discovered through my reporting that New Mexico identities are deeply connected to the history of the state. Everything from colonization to the Great Depression. I thought the people who call themselves Spanish don’t want to be associated with Mexican immigrants. After doing interviews for this story, I started to see that it was more about protecting a distinct New Mexico identity that is threatened by outsiders who see all Latinos or Hispanics as the same.
I did two radio features for my Heartland project. The first was a look back at the immigration history of New Mexico. The second story was about the implementation of Secure Communities, a program that requires local law enforcement to share fingerprints with ICE. After both features aired, I hosted a live call-in program on collaboration between local law enforcement and ICE. I chose different guests for that program than the sources in my stories to expand the conversation
My greatest obstacle was communicating with ICE. I made multiple requests over several weeks to get someone to speak on the record. An ICE communication officer eventually sent me the same exact information that was available online with no other comment.
Also, it was important for me to have the voices of immigrants in my story. It was challenging to find a family that was willing to speak on the record and had a clear sense of how their loved one was identified by ICE. The fact that Secure Communities is being implemented along with the Criminal Alien Program (CAP) makes it much more difficult to track exactly how and when ICE took a person into custody. For me, that became part of the story and the reason why I focused on fear in immigrant communities in my second feature.
The calls we received during the live call-in program were overwhelmingly against collaboration between local law enforcement and ICE. This was not surprising. Although New Mexicans have a range of opinions about immigration issues, there are not coordinated anti-immigration groups in the state. Yet, a lot of our listeners asked for even more coverage of the intersection between state and federal laws:
Rafael from Albuquerque: “On the one hand you have xenophobes and racists, on the other you have bleeding heart, blind compassionate folks – both are misled – the bottom line is that for the good of all – especially for the good of those human beings we’re talking about here – this issue needs to be regulated and enforced – why not by local police? Is it not their function to enforce laws? If we don’t like our laws let’s change them but not fail to enforce them.”
My stories will be re-broadcast on KUNM’s Youth Radio program. Many of the young people who work with the program are immigrants or have family members who are immigrants. This topic holds great potential for future collaborations at KUNM and in other public radio stations.
The Immigration in the Heartland fellowship has given me an increased confidence that I can produce thoughtful, in-depth coverage of immigration issues. One major lesson I learned from this project was that it’s important to report on the broader history of immigration. It’s easy to assume that a local audience has an understanding of the history and culture of our state, but emails like this made me think about how important it is to put a current story in historical context:
Debbi Brody: “I was so impressed by your cogent, short, complete look at our state’s historically complex relationship with Mexico and Mexicans. Your facts were correct! They tied up past and present cultures and political and economic influences in a comprehensible and important story.”
New doors have been opened for reporters like me through the training and resources made available via this IJJ fellowship program. On fellowship story projects, my advice for Fellows is to start early on records requests and research. Also, seek out new sources that can provide unexpected insights. Don’t be afraid to take a big step back and guide your listeners, viewers or readers through a story they think they already know. The benefit is incredible for both the reporter and the audience.