This is a year of anniversaries. In a newsroom, they are hard to forget, as they are often a time for reporters to retell stories, examine their consequences and ask what the future holds.
I’ve worked on two anniversary stories this year, both marking a decade since calamities in 2008. Currently, reporters and photojournalists at The Gazette are working on stories about the floods of 2008 and their ripples over the intervening years; we will publish a special section on the June 10 anniversary.
Earlier this month, I covered a remembrance service at St. Bridget Catholic Church in Postville, as community members there marked 10 years since a very different crisis, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities arrested 389 members of that tiny Northeast Iowa community, tearing into the town’s social and economic fabric.
In many ways, these two events are not really comparable; in other ways, the similarities are striking.
One was a natural disaster, one human-made. One swamped a city, washed away homes, destroyed businesses, inundated public and civic institutions. The other left the buildings intact but swept the people up, leaving secondary disasters in its wake — families torn apart, shuttered businesses, vacant homes, children afraid to go to school.
The scope of the Cedar Rapids floods was so massive it is hard to fathom. I was in Iowa City at the time, but my co-workers who were here in 2008 describe it like they were covering a war zone, complete with hospital evacuations and National Guard checkpoints.
Postville was much smaller, but the per capita impact on the town was severe, as not just the arrested but their families and neighbors left the town.
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In the last 10 years, officials and residents in Cedar Rapids have worked to rebuild and to prevent future flood calamities, sometimes to dramatic effect. Levees rose, whole neighborhoods became green spaces and officials crafted disaster readiness plans, whose effectiveness was shown in late September 2016 when the Cedar River again threatened our town’s core neighborhoods. We can’t prevent the water from rising again, but we can act to make our community ready in case it does.
But how can you respond in similar ways to something like an ICE raid, a legal enforcement action, undertaken by our own government to enforce the laws. Yet, sitting in that Postville sanctuary May 11 as commemorative bells tolled and community members sang hymns and solemnly recounted their experiences, it felt like I was at a memorial for a major natural disaster. The gathered religious leaders — Christian, Jewish and Muslim — called on those listening to take action to push for “just, humane, and comprehensive immigration reform.”
What that means, exactly, I can’t say. I’m a journalist. I don’t know the best ways to reform our complex immigration laws or how to solve the deeply entrenched problems that surround them, nor is it my job to prescribe solutions. It is my job, however, to tell stories, to help illuminate the lives of our neighbors and communities, to put faces and names and narratives to policies and statistics.
When we write laws and set those policies, we should understand the stories that ripple out from them. We should look the people we are impacting in the eyes and listen as they tell us their stories.
In Postville, as in Cedar Rapids, the stories people tell of 2008 are stories of how they lived through a disaster.
As we look to the future and address immigration reform, that’s something we shouldn’t forget.
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