Usually the Washington Post, like much of the mainstream media, emphasizes the virtues, if not the heroism, of migrants, legal or illegal. If there are problems they are ignored or downplayed.
But last week the Post ran a comprehensive, fact-filled, two-page expose of how one immigrant family with a middle-class income managed to run up more than $1.3 million in various debts that they cannot possibly repay. The family, from Ghana, had secured visa lottery green cards back in 1997.
The migrants have managed to live for more than six years in a McMansion in the suburbs without making a single mortgage payment. It is a 3,292 square foot building, close to double the size of most suburban houses.
The Post coverage was refreshingly out of character — as if Jon Stewart and his minions were to create a skillful and effective half-hour show arguing the merits of Ted Cruz.
So why did the Post, of all publications, decide to spend this much journalistic energy on such a subject? My sense is that it was working on a completely different angle (sub-prime mortgages) and failed to see how badly its reporting reflected on this migrant family. For example, the front-page photo of the print edition shows a massive party — a memorial luncheon for a deceased parent — in a house for which no mortgage payments had been made, at the time of the event, for five and a half years.
The story was one of a series entitled "Dashed Dreams — the Plight of the Black Middle Class". It focused on the burst of the real estate bubble in recent years in what it calls "the richest neighborhood in the richest African American county in the United States", which is Prince George's County, adjacent to Washington, D.C. The general tone was that the families involved were victims.
The reporter, Kimbriell Kelly, seemed oblivious as to how badly the long series of transactions, all voluntary in this case, reflected on the financial management skills (or the lack thereof) of the migrants in question; she certainly showed no awareness of the on-going controversy about the visa lottery program.
Perhaps the writer's tin ear was a blessing, because the story carried this significant bit of reporting:
Fifty percent of the loans made there [in the posh Fairwood subdivision] in 2006 and 2007 went bad according to an analysis by the Washington Post. Nearly one-third of the foreclosures were among African immigrants such as the Boatengs, even though they made up only 5 percent of the county's black population.
The couple in question, Kofi and Comfort Boateng, were employed most of the time, he in the IT business, and she, less successfully, in a series of white collars jobs. The couple currently has a $100,000 a year income.
The Post offers an admirable, comprehensive, loan-by-loan, account of their finances (having secured the total cooperation of the couple). It starts with their purchasing a $2,000 used car with a $2,000 loan in 1999 — no down payment, apparently — and proceeds to list many other transactions as they borrowed to buy a three-bedroom townhouse in Germantown, Md., then went through various refinancings and student loans (for her) and then on to the decision to borrow still more to build the $600,000 house in Prince George's County.
Why have they been able to live rent-and-mortgage-payment-free in their McMansion for all these years? Evictions are expensive operations for the mortgage companies, particularly if they do not have an alternative buyer lined up. Further, these firms know that an empty house disintegrates more quickly than an occupied one.
Though I do not remember reading the word, one would imagine that the Boatengs are on the verge of bankruptcy.
Theirs is not the immigrant success story that one usually reads about in the papers.