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A Tale of Two Garzas
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A Tale of Two Garzas

In the small and mid-sized communities of Rio Grande Valley of Texas, immigration policy is woven into the details of everyday life. In a two-part series for Latino USA, radio journalist Maria Martin showed how living on the border is complicated and produces mixed feelings about immigration policy.

In one town, meet two men named Garza – one is a law enforcement officer, the other is a local politician and community organizer. In the second story, two sisters from Minnesota who have migrated part-time to Texas as “snowbirds” say empathize with migrants from the south, but also feel the need for tough enforcement.

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Maria’s Story Behind the Story

The story I had proposed to produce was An Immigration Perspective from the Border: Working to Lessen the Impact of a Broken Immigration Policy in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

The thinking behind this proposal was that for communities on Texas’s border with Mexico, the nation’s immigration policy—or its lack of a clear and effective policy—has a stark impact on everyday life. Undocumented immigrants cross the Rio Grande to work in agriculture, landscaping, or schools or hospitals, and many settle in gritty, makeshift shantytowns known as colonias.

In recent years community groups working with colonia residents have felt compelled to combine their service work with increased activism to ameliorate the negative impact of a broken immigration policy. They have mobilized to keep more stringent anti-immigration laws from passing on a state level, and are working with local law enforcement to prevent the separation of families as a result of the Secure Communities Act.

In telling the story of immigration on a changing border, which in the decade since 9/11 has become Ground Zero for the fight against terrorism, the radio report I wanted to produce would air voices of all who play a role: immigrants, activists, business, law enforcement. It would look at the border where walls have spring up where once people crossed easily.

This project was to be produced as part of a series examining the workings of democracy on a grassroots level in a number of communities around the country. For my segment of the series, examining the issue of immigration, I was reporting from the Rio Grande Valley’s poorest counties — among the poorest in Texas and the country.

By banding together, non-profit organizations are working to engage colonia residents, including undocumented immigrants, in the civic process, and to remind elected officials they represent all the people, not just the interests of those who have money, or legal status. They are doing this at a time of heightened tensions around immigration in an area that traditionally accepted new immigrants— going back to a time when the “new immigrants” were Anglo settlers to what was Mexico. Here border culture is still in evolution— with one aspect of this change being recent attempts to engage coloniaresidents to participate in the civic process just as anti-immigrant sentiment is escalating.

My hope was to produce this story as a feature-length report for NPR, as a documentary for LATINO USA, and in Spanish for Radio Bilingue. It was also to be one segment in an hour-long documentary examining the workings of democracy on a grassroots level in a number of communities around the country, as a project of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in North Carolina. The separate pieces in the documentary (actually, shorter five minute versions) were pitched to NPR’s Weekend Edition. Only a few of the segments were accepted for air on NPR. However, a long list of stations, over one hundred, ran the one-hour special—it has had two airings—one over the 4th of July weekend and recently, many stations have picked it up for airing in these weeks before the election.

Since I applied for the fellowship, there is a new production team at NPR’s LATINO USA. Their policy is now to run shorter pieces, so the documentary idea has been changed and the show will now be running at least two, possibly three pieces. One looks at the dilemma faced by Mexican-American officials in enforcing immigration laws; a second is a human interest story from the perspective of Anglo retirees, “winter Texans” living in the Rio Grande Valley and their views on immigration.

This experience has been wonderful, though at times frustrating: as I had so much material, the process of cutting it down to pieces that were five minutes or so in length was excruciating. However, the reporting process, as well as this great IJJ Fellowship, permitted me to once again become immersed in a topic I had not had the opportunity to cover first hand from the U.S. perspective in some time.

Although I have covered Latino issues for many years, I have actually spent the better part of the last ten years away from the United States, based in Guatemala. I have therefore been somewhat away from the U.S. Latino beat I covered for many years. This project took me back into it, delving into the details of an immigration policy that has changed so much in the time I have been away.

In all honesty, I thoroughly enjoyed and learned so very much from the fellowship. It was definitely one of the most enriching experiences I’ve had in quite some time. The interaction with all of the fine reporters covering this beat, as well as with the great instructors and special guests has inspired me to do more immigration reporting in the future. I will certainly let others know about this magnificent opportunity I am grateful to have had.

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