Because San Diego correspondent Elliot Spagat received a tip that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were planning massive raids on food processing plants, AP was uniquely positioned – literally – when ICE stormed seven Mississippi chicken processing plants and arrested 680 people, the largest workplace raid in a decade.
ICE acting Director Matthew Albence said the next day that the investigation was so secret that even the White House didn’t know.
In following up on the tip, Spagat, leader of the U.S. immigration beat team, had discussed a coverage plan with editors in the South region. He was initially told the raids were going to be in New Orleans but subsequent reporting quickly clarified they would be in Jackson, Mississippi, causing everyone to shift gears. Timing of the early-morning raids was challenging with Mississippi’s primary elections falling the night before. The AP worked on getting unfettered access in the weeks leading up to the raid but encountered pushback from some nervous officials as we discreetly tried to learn as much as we could about the yearlong investigation. South editors, working with Spagat, put final touches on the coverage plan as Mississippi voters were casting ballots.
The careful sleuthing and planning put AP way ahead of all local and national media outlets in the speed and depth of the report. Jackson photographer Rogelio V. Solis, working on only a few hours rest, was the only journalist on scene when about 600 agents simultaneously hit the plants, positioning himself at a facility in Morton, Mississippi. Solis documented the confusion and panic, while Jackson reporter Jeff Amy, also working on little rest, got an exclusive tour of the military hangar that became a processing center, as well as an exclusive interview with Albence in which he disclosed the arrest count before his news conference. The APNewsAlert announcing the count was minutes ahead of everyone else.
Amy and Solis followed up in subsequent days with stories about terrified residents unwilling to leave their houses for fear of arrest, how nearly half those arrested had been released and how churches were stepping in to help families of those affected. Text and photos worked closely on the coverage. Solis used his Spanish language skills to interview immigrants who didn’t speak English, and his contributions were integral to the text report. It was also a good example of a national beat team working with staff on the ground in a state.
Solis was the only journalist on scene the day of the raids. Weeks of sleuthing and planning put AP way ahead of all local and national media outlets in the speed and depth of coverage.
The stories received monster play. For example: The first-day story had 3 million social interactions by the next morning. Photos were used by many major customers, including The New York Times and USA Today. The stories were mentioned on the widely read Axios AM and Amy was interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition.
For scoring scoops on a major ICE operation, Spagat, Amy and Solis are the winners of this week’s Best of the States honors.