Stephanie Czekalinski

STEPHANIE CZEKALINSKI is a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch and the Dispatch’s Spanish-language weekly, Fronteras. At the Dispatch and Fronteras, she has written on topics that affect Latinos living in central Ohio, including immigration, crime, education and politics. In 2008, Czekalinski partnered with the Dispatch’s investigative projects team to explore the impact of illegal immigration on the lives of central Ohioans. The resulting series, American Divide: The Immigration Crackdown, was a 2008 finalist for the Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Newspapers administered by the Neiman Foundation for Journalism. Czekalinski holds a master’s degree in English literature from The Citadel. E-mail: Cell: 614-460-0961. Work: 614-461-5227.



Story Behind The Story

ICE isn’t keen about discussing the fact that a lack of communication between agents and local prosecutors sometimes sends immigrants accused of serious crimes — from molesting children to dealing heroin — to their homelands before they can be indicted here, which denies justice for victims and their families.

Immigration-rights advocates don’t want to talk about illegal immigrants who commit horrible crimes in the United States. It hurts chances for reform, they say. An activist “cautioned” me about the risks of writing the story. No one in the Latino community would ever talk to me again, he said.

But members of the Latino community are willing to talk. Just as in any community, public safety is important to immigrants – regardless of their immigration status. Many believe in the American justice system. Sometimes it’s one of the reasons they came to the United States.

In some cases, the victims of the crimes that the advocates don’t want to talk about are the people they are supposed to be advocating on behalf of.

I had more success getting advocates to talk on this topic when I pointed out that many of the victims in the story were Latino and in many cases immigrants themselves.

The fellowship encouraged me to look at the impact of increased numbers of deportations on the criminal justice system. When I came to the fellowship, I was interested in looking at how criminals who are living in the community fall through the cracks, but I never imagined that in ICE’s rush to remove immigrants, they would deport witnesses to serious crimes like murder or the defendants themselves.

Half way through the reporting process, it became clear that I needed to start over, and look at the topic from fresh eyes.

Yes, there were cracks in the system. But what was most important was the impact on the general population and immigrant communities themselves. What was happening to people when immigrants accused of horrible crimes posted bond and signed voluntary removal papers in the hopes of getting deported before they were indicted for molesting a child or selling heroin?

In many of the cases I looked at, the victims were members of the immigrant community themselves. And they were very aware that these deportations didn’t serve justice and didn’t protect them or anyone else from their attacker. It was not long, they said, before the perpetrator was back.

Armed with that information and solid examples from the county jail, I approached ICE.

They are reticent to release information especially if they believe that the article you’re working on will be critical of their policies or the actions of their agents.

Find out who their local partners are and use state public records law to request data, mug shots, and memorandum of agreement between the locals and ICE.

Spanish-speaking attorneys frequently know which cases in what courts have been affected by ICE actions and court interpreters can keep an eye out for examples of cases that you’re interested in on a daily basis.

Although you go around the feds, don’t hesitate to file FOIAs for the information you want – and to file an appeal should it be denied.

The series got a passionate reaction. In most cases, the criticism came from individuals who had an axe to grind or who try to influence media coverage to reflect their point of view.

Within the local Latino community, the series touched off debate about whether advocates and community members and leaders should acknowledge those illegal immigrants who commit crimes while here and, if so, how they should be treated.

“You brought out a lot of good issues….and our community needs to be more aware that this goes on and the impact it has on the overall community,” wrote one reader. “I said at the community meeting recently that our community needs to condemn these folks that do all these things. They have no shame.”

Readers from across the country, local members of the Latino community, experts, observers, advocates and politicians weighed in.

“There appears to be a fundamental disconnect between the judicial system and federal agencies like Immigrations and Customs Enforcement,” wrote U.S. Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Township. “I plan to work with the incoming chair of the Immigration Subcommittee to close this loophole and strengthen our borders.”

The gridlock leaves frustrated and overwhelmed states and local municipalities to go it alone.

Rep. Courtney Eric Combs, a Republican from Hamilton, said he plans to approach other members of the legislature about passing a law that would incorporate the elements of Arizona’s law that were deemed constitutional.

If the Ohio legislature won’t act, he said, there are plans to put the issue on the statewide ballot.

Without IJJ, this series would have been impossible. It helped me develop relationships with ICE PIOs that were very helpful. And the presentations by ICE, gave me insight into what sort of information they kept and how to ask for it.

Diana Solis’ training on TRAC was essential to my series. I relied heavily on that data to establish the impact the increased number of federal criminal prosecutions related to immigration were having on the courts. What I found was that more immigration-related cases were being prosecuted than any other federal crime in the nation.

The series was presented in the traditional print format. The story was posted on the Dispatch Web site and also ran in the Dispatch’s sister publication Fronteras de la Noticia in Spanish.


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