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April 17, 2021

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From the Newsroom: Pulitzer grant funds vital project

By , Columbian Editor
Published:

One of the few areas of journalism that has been expanding is grant funding. Traditionally, news in the United States has been produced by for-profit companies using revenue from advertising and circulation. As that has been reduced, more and more nonprofit groups have stepped in to help fund major reporting projects, even at these for-profit companies.

This fall, we obtained our first grant, from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and beginning on Sunday, you’ll see the three-part series we produced with the money.

The story concerns Ramon Flores, a former Hazel Dell resident and owner of a small grocery business, and his closely knit family.

Flores was on a business trip in February 2017, servicing his customers in Everett, when he stayed overnight at a Motel 6. Without his knowledge or permission, Motel 6 shared his name, along with the names of other Hispanic guests, to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

It set in line a long chain of events that is still playing out on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Assistant Metro Editor Jessica Prokop first wrote about the Floreses shortly after Ramon was detained almost three years ago now, and about the plight of his wife and their children, all of whom are U.S. citizens. In search of a better, safer life, Ramon had crossed the border illegally as a young man. He readily admits it was wrong for him to do so. But once here, there was no legal way for him to establish his residency. So he lived in plain sight for decades, marrying Enedis, having five children and working to support the family, until Motel 6 shared his name.

The Motel 6 practice became a national story. State Attorney General Bob Ferguson weighed in, filing a lawsuit. After his suit and a class-action suit were settled this summer, Prokop got back in touch with the Flores family. What had happened since Ramon was deported? Was the family still in Clark County? How was the family supporting itself?

She quickly found out that without Ramon, the family had experienced hardship and homelessness. They are living in San Diego County, Calif., in a suburb near the Mexico border. Ramon Flores is living and working in Tijuana. They were open to having us tell their story.

But sending a reporter and a photographer on a multiday trip to the border was beyond The Columbian’s means. So with the help of reporter Katie Gillespie, Prokop and Photo Editor Amanda Cowan contacted the Pulitzer Center and applied for a grant. The Pulitzer Center was enthusiastic.

The good news triggered a round of planning. Prokop and Cowan decided to travel over Thanksgiving, both because it would provide a frame for the story — how the family spent the most American holiday — and because it was a rare time that the Floreses would be together and available to be interviewed and photographed.

They spent a week with the Floreses on both sides of the border. Because Mexico is known to be a dangerous place for journalists, they enlisted the help of a freelance journalist and guide, who accompanied and drove them in Tijuana.

Nothing untoward happened, of course. The Floreses couldn’t have been more welcoming, and I think there were some hugs exchanged, and maybe even a tear or two, when the time came to part.

After Prokop and Cowan returned to the newsroom, they commenced what was easily more than 100 hours of work to produce the package, which includes three print stories, dozens of photos and a seven-minute video story. Other key people in the project included News Editor Merridee Hanson and Web Editor Amy Libby, who handled print and online design. Features Editor Erin Middlewood assisted with the story editing, and Assistant Metro Editor Will Campbell lent his video editing expertise.

I hope that our readers will appreciate this quality, in-depth journalism. Whatever you think about U.S. immigration policy, the Floreses have a compelling story, and we are proud to tell it.

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