Telling an immigrant’s story

Sunday, February 27, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:33 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dear Reader,

I first met Xu Liping and Yang Lei entirely by chance when a craving for some good Chinese food led me to their Columbia-area restaurant. When I ordered in Mandarin, rather than English, their faces brightened, and soon they were sharing with me their family’s story of illegal immigration to the United States, and the decade of hardship, separation and suffering that followed.

In the seven years I lived in China, I met many people like Xu and Yang, who were determined to make it to America at all costs, convinced that if they could only get here their life would be better and their problems would get solved.

From our vantage point in the United States, it’s becoming clearer that this doesn’t always happen. We’ve heard the stories of illegal immigrants working in sweatshop conditions and even dying in the back of overcrowded trucks before they make it to their destination. But those stories usually come to us from New York, Texas or California. Illegal immigration is an issue we rarely think of here in Boone County, Missouri.

After doing more investigation, we found that Xu and Yang’s story was not an unusual one. In the past 10 years Missouri’s estimated undocumented immigrant population has risen from approximately 8,000 to more than 22,000. Just this Tuesday an accident on I-70 not far from Columbia sent more than a dozen such immigrants to the hospital.

We thought this story was important to share with our readers. Yet sharing it presented us with a problem. We thought the risks to some of our sources were too high to publish their names, and yet the potential benefit to our readers was too great to walk away from the story. And so we decided to make an exception to the Missourian’s stringent policy prohibiting the use of anonymous sources: We changed the names of the two main subjects of this week’s cover story — we’re calling them Xu Liping and Yang Lei — and a secondary source we’ve called Lian Weihua.

We hope our readers share our view that it is an important enough story to merit such an unusual measure.

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