The trauma of worksite raids like the ones conducted by ICE last week in Mississippi would have ended decades ago if the federal government — the Congress and the successive presidential administrations — had carried out the reforms Congress enacted 33 years ago. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 combined amnesty for 2.7 million unauthorized immigrants with the mandate that employers verify that their new hires were eligible to work in the United States.
But the good intentions of the bill's sponsors were overwhelmed by the strange-bedfellows coalition of ethnic groups looking for empowerment, employers looking for cheap labor, and libertarians of the left and right who oppose government regulation. So instead of demonstrating that our government was serious about stopping illegal immigration, the law produced a protracted exercise of illegal immigrants pretending to be legal and employers pretending to believe them.
Compounding the problem of feckless government is the inability of many journalists to understand the story and explain its effects on labor markets and working conditions. Their tendency is to reduce it to human interest stories about the pathos of those caught up in the raids, especially the children who are bewildered and terrified and sometimes left alone by the arrest of their parents. That deficiency is most apparent in television news, which is where most Americans get their news. TV, with precious few exceptions, goes long on pictorial images and short on factual reporting.
And so last week the dominant image from Mississippi was that of Magdalena Gomez Gregorio, an 11-year-old child who was weeping and pleading for her father. "I need my dad," she said. "My dad didn't do nothing. He's not a criminal."
Among the half-dozen TV reports I saw, CNN was the worst at squeezing the story for every ounce of pathos and suggesting that outrage was the only appropriate response. The CNN account's tone and content were condensed in the text at the bottom of the screen filled with traumatized children. "Torn apart," it read. "Crying children left without parents after immigration raids."
ABC pounded the drum of the human drama with anchorman Tom Llamas's taut lead: "Tonight, what the head of Homeland Security said when our reporter showed him those faces." Reporter Will Carr, referring to Magdalena, asked acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan, "What would you say to that little girl?" It was a prime example of virtuous posturing in vacuous stories reported by networks who waste millions on glamorous anchors while starving their budgets for actual reporting.
Don't get me wrong. Traumatized children are an important part of the story. They deserve our attention and our concern. But covering that part of the story requires little more than the ability to point a camera. It is news that reports itself. What is so badly needed and consistently absent from stories on TV — and often in print — is context. We need to understand the background of immigration policies that seem so cruel, in large part, because they have been made so inconsistent and incoherent by the government's massive failure to implement a credible worker verification process.
Reporters should talk with economists like Jared Bernstein, a former economic adviser to Joe Biden. In his book Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed, Bernstein wrote powerfully of the failure of the 1986 immigration reform: "I hate to go to the Big Brother place. But we need to get between employers addicted to an endless flow of cheap labor and unauthorized immigrants for whom a substandard job here is a step up. We have the technology to implement a reliable system that tells employers whether they're hiring an illegal worker. What we have lacked thus far is the political guts to mete out serious punishment to those employers who ignore the law. Without that true immigration reform will never occur."
TV journalists should aim their cameras at experts like David Martin, an immigration scholar who served as general counsel for the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Martin has often pointed to the hypocrisy of Congress as it heaps money on the Border Patrol while failing to fix IRCA's vulnerability to the document fraud that allows people like Magdalena's father to get a job in a poultry plant. Martin has written that "border enforcement without comparable seriousness in the interior is hollow and ineffective." He has noted that despite the "spending of taxpayer billions to hire new border agents, build border fences and walls, and deploy hi tech gizmos," the illegal influx continues "primarily because migrants know that eventual success in getting past the border opens wide opportunities in the U.S. job market, owing to the near absence of enforcement there."
Journalism that is worthy of the name needs to look beyond those dramatic images to the story of the powerful interests that have broken the system of control and reform that Congress only pretended to provide in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.