Why I'd Like to "Round Up" Members of the Media for a Good Talking to on Immigration Coverage & Terminology

By David Seminara on February 19, 2017

Am I the only one who is troubled by the fact that a huge percentage of our august press corps habitually uses the term "rounded up," rather than "arrested," "detained," or "apprehended" to describe enforcement actions against migrants suspected of being in the country illegally? For example, take a look at this tweet from the Associated Press on Friday:


As a journalist, I understand that there are occasions when you don't want to use the same term on multiple occasions in a piece for the sake of variety, but here you have the AP using it twice — in the header of the tweet and again in the headline of the graphic.

What's the problem with using the term "round up" or "rounded up?" The point is often to convey a sense that people are being arrested indiscriminately, perhaps on the basis of racial profiling, and that they have no due process rights, which is not accurate. The term evokes images of the classic line from "Casablanca", "round up the usual suspects", and it conjures images of Wild West, frontier justice or, even more darkly Jews being rounded up during the Holocaust. It also conveys the impression that a large group of migrants are being apprehended from one location, rather than what is more common — individuals being apprehended one or two at a time from different locations. Now, if ICE raids one factory and hauls off everyone there, you can make a case for the term "rounded up", but when they're arresting individuals in dozens of different locations, the term makes no sense.

Interestingly enough, it isn't just liberal news outlets using the term. You can find it on Breitbart, Fox News, The Daily Caller, and many others. So what's going on here? It could be that using the term "rounding up" sounds more dramatic, and thus more interesting and potentially more shareable on social media (clicks = $$$). In some cases, it might be that the reporter is sloppy or wants to use a variety of terms. But I think in many instances — particularly when the term is used by liberal news outlets — it is the desire to portray deportations as inherently unfair.

As a working journalist who is asked to write about many different topics — some that I know very little about — I'm sympathetic to journalists who are asked to cover immigration despite the fact that they know little or nothing about U.S. immigration laws. Social justice warrior types, who are in no short supply in the media these days, leap at the chance to cover immigration because to them understanding the law is a lot less important than expressing solidarity with an oppressed group (no wall! no Muslim ban! no deportations!).

Over the years, I have granted interviews to dozens of journalists who request interviews with me because I have experience with immigration and visa matters from my time in the U.S. Foreign Service. I try to be patient with them — just as patient as I want an expert source to be with me when I'm covering a topic I'm unfamiliar with — but I am consistently amazed by how poorly informed reporters who cover immigration are on this topic. Examples:

  1. I hereby propose a Cultural Revolution-style punishment for all reporters who use the euphemism “without papers” to describe a person’s illegal status in the U.S. They should be skinned alive and sent to re-education labor camps somewhere really cold where they are forced to watch Lou Dobbs and then articulate self criticism in small groups. Seriously though, using the term “without papers” trivializes American citizenship and leaves readers/listeners with the incorrect assumption that anyone is entitled to live in the U.S. and that residency here is simply a trifling matter of paperwork.
  2. Um no, the immigration attorney you cited as an immigration expert is not an unbiased source. People hire immigration attorneys to help them find ways to bend the laws so they can stay here. Hiring an immigration attorney who is quoted in the paper favoring a tough, enforcement-first approach would be like hiring a plumber who promises to leave your toilet clogged. Not gonna happen.
  3. Conflating the terms "refugee" and "asylum seeker" and not knowing the difference between the two.
  4. Using the term "legal immigrant" to describe someone who comes here on a non-immigrant visa—tourist, student, exchange visitor, seasonal worker etc.
  5. Using imprecise and biased terms like "rounding up" illegal immigrants, rather than more accurate terms like "arrested," "apprehended," "detained," or "deported."
  6. Although I dislike the term "undocumented immigrant" under any circumstances, it is particularly ludicrous to use it to describe millions of illegal immigrants who have already had extensive contact with U.S. immigration officials. How can you describe someone as "undocumented" who: a) filled out a lengthy visa application form providing the U.S. government with an address where they'd be staying in the United States; b) was interviewed and fingerprinted by a U.S. consular officer at an American embassy (my old job); and c) was again interviewed, fingerprinted, and photographed by a CBP officer at a U.S. port of entry? We have extensive documentation of who these people are; in some cases, they even go through the U.S. court system, if they claim asylum or are in deportation proceedings, so to call them "undocumented" simply because they overstayed their visas, is ludicrous.
  7. Stating that illegal immigrants "pay their taxes," as though this is a fact, applicable to all. Several points here: a) many are paid in cash or personal check and do not pay income taxes; b) filing a tax return and "paying taxes" aren't the same thing, many who have a low income and plenty of deductions end up paying no income tax at all; c) many come from countries where tax evasion is rampant and penalties for such are nonexistent or rare; and d) as Steven Camarota recently pointed out in his report on paying for Trump's wall, illegal immigrants tend to consume much more in government services than they pay in taxes.
  8. I don't mind the selective use of liberal studies to bolster a case in an op-ed piece, but reporters frequently cite liberal immigration studies in news reports as fact. For example, when writing about immigration and crime many, many news outlets will add a caveat like this: "studies have demonstrated that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes," as though these studies, often conducted by ivory tower liberals with agendas, are statements of uncontested fact. Ignoring the research that CIS and others have done on this issue simply because it doesn't fit a politically corrective narrative doesn't mean that there's a consensus.
  9. There are two sides to every story, so please don't tell us one side and pretend like you're giving the reader all the facts. In reporting the immigration problems of individual migrants, reporters face a structural problem: U.S. immigration authorities will not release information about specific cases, due to the Privacy Act. And so reporters rely on the migrant's tale. But this is a huge problem because immigrants (and everyone else for that matter) often lie and exaggerate. How do I know this? Experience. I've interviewed more than 10,000 visa applicants of every kind, and I can tell you that they often lie or exaggerate. Of course they do — think of how high the stakes are! They want to live in the United States and sometimes don't mind bending the truth to achieve the goal.
  10. Last, but certainly not least, please, please, please folks, can we stop referring to amnesty as bringing immigrants "out of the shadows?" Aside from the fact that this is probably the most hackneyed immigration saying imaginable, it also implies that migrants are shadowy sorts skulking around in alleyways and hiding behind bushes and such. The term is even more laughable when it's meant to cover anyone in the country illegally, even people like the activist journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who frequently appears on talk shows, attends rallies, and seeks publicity at every opportunity.

Rather than simply hector my fellow members of the media, I'm going to conclude this post with an offer, one I doubt few if any reporters or editors will take me up on. Journalists: If you're covering immigration but have doubts about the fairness or accuracy of any aspect of your reporting, contact me. I'm happy to provide you with a free, anonymous consultation. I will not name and shame you or pick on you in this blog or anywhere else. I don't have a toll free number, but go ahead and drop me a line at [email protected].

Note: This posting has been expanded since its original publication.