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2019 The David Teeuwen Student Journalism Award, Small Newsroom finalist

Smoke and Mirrors

About the Project

This is a story about the California cannabis industry. It is also a story about immigration. For non-citizens working with cannabis can have severe immigration consequences.

Regardless of the state you are in, anyone who works with cannabis jeopardizes their ability to live in the United States – because it is federally illegal. It doesn’t matter if you have a green card or a work permit, working with cannabis can make someone ineligible for citizenship, permanent residency or even lead to deportation.

It is eighteen months since California legalized cannabis and we wanted to examine what life was like for workers in this industry.

The Salinas Valley on California’s Central Coast, a region with a large migrant workforce, and is a major cannabis producing hub. Over four months we made numerous trips to the Salinas Valley to report this story.

We found many people who had been tempted to move from traditional farm work to cannabis. We also found many people who had reversed this decision on the advice of immigration attorneys. We spoke with workers, business owners, trade unionists and lawyers trying to navigate a newly regulated market.

We produced a multimedia piece that examined the situation on a micro and macro level using text, looping video, photography, drone filming and animated maps. Our overriding goal with the visuals was to give a sense of place, to help people understand the landscape of the region.

We used a drone shot in our header to immediately root the audience. We overlaid this with minimal scrolling text to start the story with both subtlety and power. The words provided enough detail to outline the stakes but were also brief enough to create tension and ambiguity.

Many of our characters were unwilling to pose for portraits or appear on camera because of immigration concerns. We used looping video to provide a degree of anonymity and to detail the conditions people face working the fields.