Second Thoughts about a Letter to the Editor on Immigration Story

By Jerry Kammer on July 8, 2019

I’ve long been disappointed by the poor quality of the immigration reporting in my old hometown newspaper, the Baltimore Sun. Last week, the paper published another story that lacked objectivity and essential background information. It was an admiring, almost cheer-leading account of a protest against Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

And so, as an immigration researcher, a former reporter, and native of Baltimore, I wrote to the editor. My brief, two paragraph letter, published here, states: 

The headline of the article in the Baltimore Sun read, "ICE protest seeks to protect Baltimore's immigrant community" (June 27). It signaled the shallow, blatantly one-sided reporting of the story which made no attempt to explain that the proposed ICE operation was intended to arrest those who had an order of removal from an immigration judge at the end of a long asylum-petition review process that often lasts for years.

A more accurate headline would have read, "ICE protest seeks to protect unauthorized immigrants who have defied court orders." Immigration is not a human right. A just and credible immigration system that serves the national interest must set reasonable limits, provide due process and enforce the law. Competent reporting on an issue as emotional and complex as immigration requires a commitment to informing your readers, not touting the work of activists who defy the rule of law that is essential for a democratic society.

While the letter was accurate, I want to acknowledge that I chose the wrong target at the Sun. Instead of criticizing the work of the reporter, a talented student at Morgan State University with a bright future in journalism, I should have directed my fire at the editor who assigned such a young, inexperienced reporter to a story that demanded perspective, a familiarity with the complex issues at hand.

Immigration is a tremendously difficult story to cover. As Yale law professor and immigration scholar Peter Schuck has written, " arouses unusually intense passions: patriotism, security, control of borders, morality, ethno-racial identities, family nostalgia, partisanship, demographic destiny, economic futures, and other potent feelings."

Coverage of immigration used to be principally the responsibility of reporters on the labor beat. That made sense because immigration policy is, among other things, labor policy.  But in recent years, as newspaper revenues have been devastated by competition from online sources, editors have had to scramble and improvise. Some papers have folded immigration into the minority affairs or race-relations beats. Others have let it drift and dissipate. Few papers have been able to provide coverage that is deeply reported and nuanced.

As exemplified by the story that provoked my letter, the Baltimore Sun has not been able to provide such coverage. Long one of the best, most respected newspapers in a country where big-city dailies thrived as both a civic enterprise and a business venture, the Sun has suffered the newsroom depletion that has ravaged nearly all papers across the country that don't have New York or Washington or Wall Street in their name. Here's a link to a Washington Post story that accurately reflected the announced ICE initiative.

But the Baltimore Sun, despite drastic reductions in its reporting staff, has managed to do some excellent, even heroic, work in recent years. It remains the most important news organization in the state. As a native of the city and a former reporter who has been fascinated by immigration since I began reporting from Mexico for the Arizona Republic in 1986, I hope the Sun will find a way to provide solid, sustained coverage of immigration, one of the most important issues facing our country.