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The 2019 Pulitzer Prize awards were announced last week, and former Las Vegas reporter Hannah Dreier won for feature writing.
Dreier was an Associated Press reporter in Las Vegas before moving to Venezuela to cover its economic crisis for the AP.
Their lives – as the Pulitzer Foundation put it – were “shattered by a botched federal crackdown on the international criminal gang MS-13.”
Dreier told KNPR's State of Nevada that she never expected she would move from reporting on gambling in Nevada to reporting on violent gangs in Long Island, New York.
“I was thrilled when I was in Nevada because I was writing stories for a national audience for the first time and I really liked that feeling of trying to translate Las Vegas for people who had never been there or maybe had only been there once on vacation," she said.
Dreier said she used that skill set of being able to translate a place to a wider audience when she started reporting in Venezuela, and then again when reporting on immigration.
In her three-part series for which she won the award, Dreier talked with Henry, a young man who had helped police find gang members but was arrested himself by immigration agents.
Henry was to be deported back to El Salvador where he was certain he would be killed for talking to police.
Dreier said she was seriously concerned about sharing Henry's story with the world because it would put his life in danger.
“We had to balance the risk to this kid's life with the decision that Henry and his lawyer made, in the end, to go forward with the story,” she said.
Henry felt like telling his story was a last ditch effort to get some kind of help. In the end, he was deported, but because of the response to Dreier's story, he received enough money from supporters that he was able to buy a ticket to Europe, where he remains in hiding.
“He actually contacted me when the prize was announced to thank me and to thank ProPublica for helping him," she said.
Dreier said that is what she feels the best about. She was able to have that kind of an impact on someone's life.
Her reporting also led to policy changes. Federal agents no longer issue detention memos with information about why someone is being detained because the gang was using that information to target confidential informants.
In addition, Dreier said there are efforts being made in the Suffolk County law enforcement community to better respond to concerns of the immigration community.
She said they are making an effort to change a culture of brushing off immigrant complaints because of a language barrier or because of a feeling that the young men who were being killed "brought it on themselves."
Dreier also said the FBI is also now getting involved in investigations of the MS-13 gang and working on dismantling it like they would any other organized crime syndicate.
While she's pleased to see these changes, Dreier would like to see more empathy towards immigrants.
“What I would really like would be for people to be able to imagine more what it’s like to be an immigrant or an asylum seeker in a place with a lot of MS-13 gang activity right now,” she said.
When she talked to people living in that situation, she was struck by how resilient they are in the face of tough circumstances.
Hannah Dreier, reporter, ProPublica
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