Immigration and the Press: Four Stories from the First Week of January

By Jerry Kammer on January 13, 2014

As a former reporter, I'm interested in how immigration is covered in the press. As this blog has shown, I think much coverage is marred by political correctness, timidity, superficiality, and outright bias in the face of complex and emotional issues. Many reporters have such a strong desire to show sensitivity toward immigrants that they ignore and deprecate those who believe immigration should be regulated and limited.

Last week, this blog wrote about a Washington Post story on the employment of thousands of Mexican migrant workers by U.S. carnival operators who tap the H-2B visa program. We noted that, while the online version of the story included a hotlink to an investigative report that revealed widespread abuses in the program, the story itself skipped past the controversy on its way to a glowing assessment that could have been written by the carnival industry's lobbying arm.

So it is interesting to see that the comments section of the Post's website includes a harsh assessment by someone who claims to be affiliated with the organization that wrote the investigative report. The commenter claims direct knowledge of the carnival industry recruiter who is portrayed admiringly in the Post story. The commenter says the recruiter's operation in Mexico "is often nothing short of fraudulent" and that frequently "workers are recruited from Mexico with promises of the weekly pay the article cites, but find that their pay is actually closer to $2 an hour. They are made to work daily shifts that are sometimes 24 hours long, and to live in horrifying conditions."

The first week of the new year saw three other major immigration stories — by ABC's "Nightline", National Public Radio's "Morning Edition", and the Boston Globe — that are worth examining in the context of overall press coverage. All three of these stories were more accurate and substantive than the Post story. But all three illustrate framing tendencies that can undermine public understanding of these issues.

Below is a summary of each of the three stories, followed by a comment on the framing issue.

"Nightline", January 4: "The Human Cost of Crossing the U.S. Border".

Reporter Jim Avila leads with a somber view of "the cold hard end of the road, a metal slab in the county morgue in Tucson, Ariz., where hundreds of unnamed immigrants end their desperate quest for an American life." He speaks with anthropologist Robin Reineke, who has taken on the task of identifying many of the dead. "I think it's really important for us to think about the human cost of our border today," she says. Avila travels to the small Sonoran town of Altar, 60 miles south of the Arizona border and an infamous staging area for illegal immigration. There he asks Irena Diaz, who is preparing for the illegal border crossing, "How strong is your dream to be in the United States?" Avila says he is relieved to depart Altar, which he describes as "a cynical town preying on immigrants that delivers the vulnerable into our kitchens, our front yards, and, yes, sometimes to that morgue." He then drives to the border city of Nogales, Sonora, for a visit with a Jesuit priest whose organization nurtures the migrants with both food and "a heaping portion of dignity".

This is a powerful, important story. It is a story that needs to be understood, although Avila exaggerates when he says "few have ever gone there [to Altar] with cameras." Dozens, maybe hundreds, of reporters, have gone there with cameras over the two decades when Altar has lived off the migrant trade. Here is a link to one story from 2004.

To cover the human costs involved in immigration stories is an essential function of journalism. Good reporting puts a human face on complex issues. My problem with ABC is that the network's reporting shows little interest in the costs borne by those who are upset about large-scale immigration, especially illegal immigration. This is a widespread problem among the networks. It is particularly acute on ABC and particularly apparent in anything handled by anchor Diane Sawyer.

NPR's "Morning Edition", January 4: "Female Farm Workers Speak Up About Sexual Harassment".

This is one of several stories produced by a year-long investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley. Here is the intro of host Linda Wertheimer: "Agriculture is one of America's most hazardous industries, but there's another danger for female farm workers — rape and sexual assault. It's difficult for any victim of sexual assault to press charges, and female farm workers have to overcome additional hurdles. Yet some are starting to speak up about the hidden price they may have to pay to keep a job in the fields."

And here is how reporter Sasha Khoka introduced the specific case of alleged rape that is the story's focal point: "It started with a missing paycheck. In 2006, Guadalupe Chavez, a farm worker in California's Central Valley, was supposed to earn $245 for a week of picking pomegranates, money the widowed mother of two needed urgently to pay her bills. When she went to track down the check, a supervisor she never met before told her someone had it out in the fields. He said to follow him there in her car."

Like the ABC story, this is solid, important, admirable journalism. Like the ABC story, it is illustrative of the kind of story that reporters gravitate to. They are drawn to stories that show immigrants as innocent victims who need protection. My criticism is that little reporting shows an interest in telling the human stories and showing the human faces of those who are eager to speak up about the negative effects of mass immigration. Yes, some of those who complain are racist and nativist, deserving of the epithets heaped upon those who want to regulate immigration. But most are good people, three-dimensional human beings who are struggling with complex circumstance. Their stories also deserve to be told and understood.

Boston Globe, January 5: "Immigration Puts Small Town on Cultural Divide".

Here is the lede of Maria Sacchetti's story from the farming town of Mattawa, Wash.: "Eloy Cervantes, a cattle rancher and father of four, has staked his family's future on this remote farming city in America's apple country — a city riddled by troubles he wishes he could help fix. Teen pregnancy. Grating poverty. And violent gangs that shot bullet holes into his neighbors' trailers."

"If I could do something", Cervantes, 40, said of the troubles in town, "you can be sure that I would." But Cervantes is not a U.S. citizen, so he is powerless to change a thing. In fact, the majority of people in this American town hundreds of miles from the southern border are not American citizens. Mattawa's longtime mayor, a white woman in a town of 4,400 mostly Latino residents, won the last election with a grand total of 37 votes.

Sacchetti provides a concise explanation of the economic forces that drove the town's demographic shift:

[I]n the late 1990s, corporate farmers blanketed the brown hills with forests of apples, cherries, and grapes — with the government's help. They tapped water from a federal irrigation project and some leased land from the state. As soon as the crops ripened, farmers were desperate for workers. Few Americans applied for the low-paying jobs, but Mexican immigrants from poor towns in Mexico and other U.S. states poured into Mattawa. They camped along the river, rented crawl spaces under houses, and crammed into trailers until the septic tanks overflowed.

Sacchetti explains a complex status quo born of the clout of local growers: "Washington is the nation's leading apple producer and none of the farmers in the Mattawa area was, as of last year, registered with E-Verify," she writes. She lists some other problems from the rapid influx of poorly paid immigrant workers: "domestic violence, drive-by shootings, and gangs linked to the drug trade."

But instead of detailing these problems, Sacchetti gives voice to those who are seeking citizenship. She gives special attention to the Cervantes family, who clearly would make fine citizens. Yet she notes that about 11 million immigrants nationwide who are eligible for citizenship do not apply. Some, she writes, are deterred by the $680 application fee, while others don't speak English well enough to pass the test and still others aren't interested because they don't plan to stay.

Sacchetti is a fine writer and an honest reporter. In this story she engaged complex issues more fully than did any of the other stories examined here. Her reporting would have benefitted if she had examined the political and economic clout of the farmers responsible for the immigrant influx. In particular, her work would have been enriched by the book Importing Poverty?: Immigration and the Changing Face of Rural America, a 2009 book by Philip Martin, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Davis. "Mexican-born farmworkers in the United States are mostly from rural Mexico, where educational levels lag and poverty is widespread," Martin writes. As he notes, the book "outlines the risks posed by the transfer of Mexico's rural poor to rural America."