Chris’ Story Behind the Story

17 Aug

By Chris Casey

I decided to write my project story about U visas, the so-called “crime victim visa,” after I learned from a couple immigration attorneys that the Weld County District Attorney had repeatedly denied applications for the visas. The visas allow persons, no matter their immigration status, to provide information that could help authorities in their investigation or prosecution of a crime. As a reward for their help, the victims, as long as conditions in a U Visa application are satisfied, receive temporary legal status and a path to a green card.The Weld DA had received multiple U visa applications in recent years, but had taken the stance that he would not certify the applications when the case was no longer open. This approach appeared to be contrary to the language of the federal statute.

Two main challenges confronted me. First, I needed to consult a wide range of similar jurisdictions — Colorado district attorneys offices — to see how they handled U visa applications. Second, I needed to talk to crime victims who were trying to secure U visas. I needed their stories in order to bring a human dimension to a topic that would otherwise be swamped in dry legalese and policy-wonk information.

For the latter, the Immigration in the Heartland fellowship played a key role. While we were sitting in on immigration court hearings in Dallas in mid-April, I listened to a U Visa case involving a Texas woman. I interviewed her as she left the courtroom and learned that she’d been assaulted by an ex-boyfriend while living in Colorado. I then interviewed her attorney, who was back in Denver, and the attorney told me about another U visa client she was representing who was a native Guatemalan with Greeley ties. The stories of the Texas woman, Yesenia Matta, and the Guatemalan woman, Maria Gaspar, who had been assaulted while living in Greeley in 2002-2003, became the central narratives of my project.

Gaspar’s case was especially compelling. Her initial application for a U visa was rejected by the Weld DA’s office, leading to her deportation back to Guatemala. As it turned out, her abusive boyfriend had also been deported to Guatemala and has since assaulted her in that country. Her attorney told me: “She’s not safe in Guatemala. We really need to help her. Her life’s in danger.”

I wanted an interview with Gaspar, but I don’t speak Spanish and my editor wasn’t willing to fly me to Guatemala (imagine that!). I had been collaborating on the project with the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network. Laura Frank, I-News director, told me one day that she had a photojournalist contact in Guatemala who might be able to find Gaspar, get photos and an interview. After much back-and-forth — me rounding up Gaspar’s whereabouts and phone number and Frank talking with her contact — a meeting between the photographer and Gaspar, living outside San Miguel, was set up. I relayed a list of questions through Frank to the photojournalist. He drove hundreds of miles to meet her, finding her with her grandparents in a mountainous village. That interview provided the details I needed to strengthen my narrative, as well as top-notch photos.

Meanwhile, I made calls to all 22 Colorado judicial districts for U Visa data. A few jurisdictions about the size of Weld County had certified considerably more visa requests than Weld in the same time frame, giving me comparative information. I set up an interview with the Weld DA Ken Buck. I told him I wanted to record and videotape the interview — I was working on a multimedia component with I-News — but he declined to be videotaped. I suspect his high-profile campaign for the Republican nomination as U.S. Senate candidate at the time had something to do with his reluctance. I used a brand-new recorder provided by I-News for the interview, providing high-quality audio for the multimedia report. Meanwhile, the I-News multimedia editor, Laressa Batchelor, translated the recorded interview of Gaspar, giving me much-needed notes for my main-bar report.

Upon my return from the IJJ fellowship, I submitted a FOIA request to USCIS for a national breakdown of how judicial districts handle U Visa requests. A few weeks later, I received a letter from USCIS saying my request fell into the “complex track” and would require extensive time to process.

Shortly before I began writing, I received information from USCIS that listed numbers of U Visas applied for, approved and denied for fiscal years 2009 and 2010. Those were the most recent national data available as U Visas weren’t even tracked until the last couple years after the government clarified the program’s rules in 2007. My stories had been fully edited and were being prepped for layout when I got a press release from USCIS stating that, for the first time, the maximum number of U Visas allowed annually by Congress, 10,000, had been approved. I inserted that information into my stories, bolstering the package’s timeliness.

We broke the report into two parts. The Sunday package detailed Gaspar’s case and some nuts and bolts about U Visas, including a breakout on websites where readers could learn more about the program. The Monday package covered Matta’s case, examined how immigration cases of this nature are handled in immigration courts, and explained how U Visa applications were on the rise nationally and how the program had just hit the milestone 10,000 cap.

The IJJ fellowship played a key role on the Matta story. Besides putting me in contact with her directly in Dallas, I contacted Immigration in the Heartland fellow Dianne Solis when it came time to get art of Matta in her home of Odessa, Texas. Solis, a reporter at the Dallas Morning News, checked with the News’ photo staff, who recommended a photojournalist at the Odessa American newspaper. After struggling to reach Matta by phone, photographer Joshua Scheide went to her house one evening and found her at home with her children. He took excellent photos and sent them to the Tribune.

So, another key photo shoot in a far-off locale came through. It was yet another example of some of the breaks I caught — starting with the chance discovery of Matta in Dallas court that day in April — in reporting this story.

The two-part package was well-read in the Tribune, as are all immigration-related stories. The main-bar report received 2,564 unique pageviews online, the story about Matta’s case received 900 unique views, and the “U Visa applications on the rise” story drew about 500 unique views. The multimedia report was put on the ‘ncoloradonews’ YouTube account and received 195 views.

The multimedia report was distributed by I-News to Rocky Mountain PBS, which prominently ran my UVisa report as well as the multimedia package on their home-page online. My U Visa story also ran in Viva Colorado, a Spanish-language weekly newspaper produced by The Denver Post. I-News is working to get the story published in other newspapers statewide. Its relevance is heightened by the fact that Buck just won the Republican primary in Colorado and will face Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet for the critical U.S. Senate seat this November. Buck is well-know for his hard-line stance on immigration issues.

Overall, this project at my small daily newspaper in northern Colorado wouldn’t have been possible without the connections made from my IJJ and the Immigration in the Heartland fellowship. I believe this project serves as a prime example that — although newsrooms, especially small ones, are leaner than ever — quality journalism can be accomplished, through collaboration and innovation, in the digital era.

I plan to continue to follow the U Visa program as well as the cases of Gaspar and Matta. They put human faces on a report about a relatively obscure government program. With the recent controversy surrounding Arizona’s 1070 law and the fall elections just around the corner, the significance of immigration issues is again at the forefront of the national debate. I look forward to continued reporting on this controversial topic at this time in history.

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One Response to “Chris’ Story Behind the Story”

  1. Leanne May 21, 2012 at 9:48 am #

    Thank you for being there to help this woman and bring awareness. I have been helping a woman here in Washington state also from Guate. She has approved Uvisa. We are now trying to get her U3 children here- embassy appt Thursday in Guate. Her husband who is not the perpertraitor, U2 is awaiting approval as well (they married during application filed and before approval). The process has been very difficult and absolutely no way could they get through it w/o assistance. It has been difficult to understand and process (even though strong case and used attorney). We refuse to give up and will see this to the end.

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