Vallery Brown’s Story Behind the Story

22 Jan

It’s the dirty secret no one wants to spread: We are making money off illegal immigrants.

Not just as workers in our economy but as people used by law enforcement officers to fill their jails via agreements with the federal government. The agreements are lucrative, particularly for county jails receiving low per diem rates from their county, nearby municipalities and the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

In some cases, these U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agreements to hold and transport suspected illegal immigrants finance entire jails, bring higher employment to communities and contribute to the economy in the area by bringing in more jobs and more workers.

It wasn’t difficult to figure out who in Oklahoma would benefit from detaining illegal immigrants. I just didn’t anticipate anyone telling me immigrant detention was “a good business model.”

There are currently two counties with detention and transport in Oklahoma. I also located one site that had an agreement with the federal agency but lost it in 2003. Learning how much damage losing that contract did to the town of Waurika in Jefferson County really spurred me forward with the story. The demise of the contract and jail still stings for local residents, and a jail once used to hold ICE detainees still sits empty, no longer the money-maker it was built to be.

Process

I searched on ICE’s FOIA area on its website for Memorandums of Agreement or Understanding with jurisdictions in Oklahoma. I was able to locate Garvin County as a temporary detention site and transport post for the agency.

Newspaper archives research led me to finding Jefferson County as a former site. I also knew of the 287(g) program in Tulsa County.

The process started out with making contact with these county sheriff’s departments. I was familiar with Tulsa’s program and had worked to gain the trust of the head of its program there. At first, he was loath to talk to me about the business side of detention, so I nurtured that relationship and he finally trusted me enough to put me in contact with the program’s accountant. It was the same in Garvin County. Even though Oklahoma is such an anti-immigrant state, these law enforcement agencies didn’t want to get into the nitty-gritty details about what they do. Whether that is from pressure from ICE or other factors, I’m not sure.

Obstacles

Other than what was mentioned above about developing relationships with the sources I needed for the story, I really struggled to find real people who weren’t officials to give a fresh perspective. I set out to interview several deputies who were recently hired back in Garvin County because the county reached an agreement with ICE to transport and hold detainees again. The deputies were laid off because the jail and transport contract was severed and a new agreement had stalled. I worked for weeks trying to talk to these deputies. I learned they had families and had waited patiently while unemployed in the city of Pauls Valley hoping the contract would return. I knew this would give the story a great human element, but these deputies wouldn’t talk to me. I worked for weeks assuring the sheriff, suggested less intimidating ways to meet and get these men to feel comfortable talking to me. All to no avail.

Also, Garvin County Sheriff Steve Brooks was busy campaigning for re-election and had little time to spend with me. I knew he’d be mincing his words because of this, so I really had to be patient and nurture that relationship as well so he’d talk numbers and figures with me.

Story Format

I chose to do a story broken up into smaller free-standing vignette-style pieces. Together, they make an interesting point about the business of detention in the state. The main bar of the story provided an overview of the subject and each vignette described the history and current status of three counties that have or once had agreements to house suspected illegal immigrants for ICE. I also chose to use a box to put right out front the difference in reimbursements these jails get from their counties and ICE.

Outcomes

Every news source in the state picked up the story, including The Associated Press, National Public Radio and television stations. I’m not sure what the end effect will be, but I really hope it makes people take a step back and evaluate the immigration debate in a more nuanced way. I think the question becomes for the ship-them-out-and send-them-back crowds, how do we extricate so many people from our country when we’ve ostensibly created businesses out of their detention and removal?

Fellowship Influence

Every immigration-related story I do now has trackbacks to the Immigration in the Heartland fellowship. From my former co-worker Ron Jackson, who worked tirelessly with me to form a cogent thesis, to Ginnie Graham in Tulsa, who helped arrange a tour of the Tulsa County jail. Through the fellowship I’ve met great sources and gained knowledge of the visa processes, detention, courts and deportation. I didn’t have a thorough enough understanding to tackle certain stories about immigration and, because of the fellowship, I now do. The result has been an entire page on the paper’s website dedicated to immigration coverage at www.newsok.com/immigration.

Comments

It seemed I generated a lot of cognitive dissonance with this story. People wanted to cheer the jailing of these immigrants, but also saw the inherent hypocrisy in the county’s financial reliance on their detention. Those who e-mailed and commented on the story wouldn’t acknowledge the points made and the questions raised about communities getting involved in the immigrant detention business. Those who commented predictably fell back on the arguments that illegal immigrants are costing us billions, increasing the crime rates and taking our jobs. This isn’t unusual in the political climate in Oklahoma. Many people here are staunchly anti-immigrant.

Some Comments:

○      Rebecca, Oklahoma City: “Sorry although I don’t agree 100% with this article. I do agree illegal immigrants cost our city millions of dollars. Yes, they do work many don’t want too, but it doesn’t outway the cost of welfare, food stamps, free school lunches, free medical care, free/low reduced housing, etc. They need to become legal and pay ALL taxes, and requirements as every other citizen. It comes a little too late in proving we won’t tolerate it anymore. This should have been done years ago along with drug testing anyone on free services like food stamps etc!”

○      Al Bundy: “It’s amazing to see all of the murders and drug deals are actually being done by white people, look at the news headlines for the past few weeks, This whole article was made to bring the criminal focus back to Latino people and crime, also to get uneducated people hyped up on immigration.”

○      Bill: “How in the world can these people sleep at night? This money that is being generated is coming from the pockets of taxpayers. Sure this means job security, but to boast of accrued money from soaking the taxpayers is wrong. Immigration enforcement may seem like a cash cow for those that are doing the work, but it is a yoke around every man woman and child in this nation. It is monies that could go to many other uses, but because of porous borders, has to go for enforcement. So congratulations to the departments that are getting this federal money, just try to remember who is paying for it.”

Read project story, which was published Aug. 29, 2010: http://www.newsok.com/detaining-immigrants-is-big-business-for-some-oklahoma-counties/article/3489808#ixzz12ejp9R34

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