This article is co-authored by State Rep. John Lesch and State Representative Suzi Bassi, both of Minnesota. Representative Bassi’s profile can be found here.
Being a state legislator is hard but rewarding work. It’s about long car rides in the middle of night. It’s about meeting constituents every day – some who love you and some who, well, don’t agree with you at all. It’s about eating bad food every once in a while. It’s about working with a small but dedicated staff on a tiny budget. It’s about trying to be everything to everybody even when that seems impossible. Most importantly, it’s about performing public service to the best of our abilities.
In the past few months, as we have been out on the road, we have been struck by the real effects of the economic downturn on our constituents. Ordinary women and men are finding it tough to make ends meet. Many have lost their jobs, their houses and their dignity. Finding affordable ways to access sexual and reproductive healthcare services in the midst of this crisis has, for many, proven unfruitful and has fallen by the wayside.
However, for these men and women, we know that being able to access safe and affordable sexual and reproductive healthcare services may make all the difference in the world.
Like This Story?
Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.
Access to contraception and comprehensive sexuality education will help reduce unintended pregnancies and the need for abortion. Access to childcare and healthcare will support men and women who want to have children.
Unfortunately, politics being politics, we have been stuck in the weeds, focusing on what we cannot agree on instead of what we can do; obsessing over partisan divisions instead of common-sense solutions that would benefit those ordinary women and men we see on the road.
Fortunately, Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Tim Ryan (D-OH) forged an unlikely partnership. Both Catholic, he’s antiabortion, she’s prochoice, they worked together to overcome partisan politics in Washington, DC and create some common-sense solutions. Their bill, the Preventing Unintended Pregnancies, Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act, will help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and support women and men who want to have children.
This bill includes provisions on family planning and comprehensive sexuality education as well as childcare and healthcare. It will increase funding for the Title X program and restore family planning to mandatory status for Medicaid benchmark plans. It will fund comprehensive sexuality education programs that provide age-appropriate, evidenced-based information, including information on contraceptives and sexually transmitted infections. It will provide resources and programs for new parents, which will help them face the challenges of raising children.
Just as Representatives DeLauro and Ryan overcame political differences to develop the legislation, we—a Republican from Illinois and a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party from Minnesota—have come together to urge Congress to overcome partisan politics and support this crucial legislation. Together with Catholics for Choice and more than 50 of our fellow Catholic state legislators, we wrote to the US House of Representatives, urging members, regardless of their political affiliation, to get behind this bill.
From Maine to California, women and men are in need of sexual and reproductive healthcare services. We are doing all we can at the state and local level to ensure that our constituents can lead happy and healthy lives. And now, we need our fellow legislators at the federal level to hear what we are saying in the states. We need Congress to know the struggles of ordinary men and women in our districts and throughout the country. We need Congress to overcome division and support this bill. After all, this bill is not about what we cannot agree on; it’s about what we can do.
Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.
Immigration has been one of the country’s most contentious political topics and, not surprisingly, is now a primary focus of this election. But no matter how you feel about the subject, this is a nation of immigrants in search of “el sueño Americano,” as Karla Ortiz reminded us on the first night of the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Ortiz, the 11-year-old daughter of two undocumented parents, appeared in a Hillary Clinton campaign ad earlier this year expressing fear that her parents would be deported. Standing next to her mother on the DNC stage, the young girl told the crowd that she is an American who wants to become a lawyer to help families like hers.
It was a powerful way to kick-start the week, suggesting to viewers Democrats were taking a radically different approach to immigration than the Republican National Convention (RNC). While the RNC made undocumented immigrants the scapegoats for a variety of social ills, from U.S. unemployment to terrorism, the DNC chose to highlight the contributions of immigrants: the U.S. citizen daughter of undocumented parents, the undocumented college graduate, the children of immigrants who went into politics. Yet, even the stories shared at the DNC were too tidy and palatable, focusing on “acceptable” immigrant narratives. There were no mixed-status families discussing their deported parents, for example.
As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other. By the end of two weeks, viewers may not have known whether to blame immigrants for taking their jobs or to befriend their hardworking immigrant neighbors. For the undocumented immigrants watching the conventions, the message, however, was clear: Both parties have a lot of work to do when it comes to humanizing their communities.
Like This Story?
Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.
So, it should come as no surprise that the first night of the RNC, which had the theme of “Make America Safe Again,” preyed on American fears of the “other.” In this case: undocumented immigrants who, as Julianne Hing wrote for the Nation, “aren’t just drug dealers and rapists anymore—now they’re murderers, too.”
Night one of the RNC featured not one but three speakers whose children were killed by undocumented immigrants. “They’re just three brave representatives of many thousands who have suffered so gravely,” Trump said at the convention. “Of all my travels in this country, nothing has affected me more, nothing even close I have to tell you, than the time I have spent with the mothers and fathers who have lost their children to violence spilling across our borders, which we can solve. We have to solve it.”
Billed as “immigration reform advocates,” grieving parents like Mary Ann Mendoza called her son’s killer, who had resided in the United States for 20 years before the drunk driving accident that ended her police officer son’s life, an “illegal immigrant” who “had no business being in this country.”
It seemed exploitative and felt all too common. Drunk driving deaths are tragically common and have nothing to do with immigration, but it is easier to demonize undocumented immigrants than it is to address the nation’s broken immigration system and the conditions that are separating people from their countries of origin—conditions to which the United States has contributed. Trump has spent months intentionally and disingenuously pushing narratives that undocumented immigrants are hurting and exploiting the United States, rather than attempting to get to the root of these issues. This was hammered home by Mendoza, who finished her speech saying that we have a system that cares more about “illegals” than Americans, and that a vote for Hillary “puts all of our children’s lives at risk.”
There was also Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a notorious racist whose department made a practice of racially profiling Latinos and was recently found to be in civil contempt of court for “repeatedly and knowingly” disobeying orders to cease policing tactics against Latinos, NPR reported.
Like Mendoza, Arpaio told the RNC crowd that the immigration system “puts the needs of other nations ahead of ours” and that “we are more concerned with the rights of ‘illegal aliens’ and criminals than we are with protecting our own country.” The sheriff asserted that he was at the RNC because he was distinctly qualified to discuss the “dangers of illegal immigration,” as someone who has lived on both sides of the border.
“We have terrorists coming in over our border, infiltrating our communities, and causing massive destruction and mayhem,” Arpaio said. “We have criminals penetrating our weak border security systems and committing serious crimes.”
When accepting the nomination, Trump highlighted the story of Sarah Root of Nebraska, a 21-year-old who was killed in a drunk-driving accident by a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant.
“To this administration, [the Root family’s] amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting,” Trump said. “One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders.”
It should be noted that the information related to immigration that Trump provided in his RNC speech, which included the assertion that the federal government enables crime by not deporting more undocumented immigrants (despite deporting more undocumented immigrants than ever before in recent years), came from groups founded by John Tanton, a well-known nativist whom the Southern Poverty Law center referred to as “the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.”
“The Border Crossed Us”
From the get-go, it seemed the DNC set out to counter the dangerous, anti-immigrant rhetoric pushed at the RNC. Over and over again, Democrats like Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA) hit back hard against Trump, citing him by name and quoting him directly.
“Donald Trump believes that Mexican immigrants are murderers and rapists. But what about my parents, Donald?” Sánchez asked the crowd, standing next to her sister, Rep. Loretta Sánchez (D-CA). “They are the only parents in our nation’s 265-year history to send not one but two daughters to the United States Congress!”
Each speech from a Latino touched on immigration, glossing over the fact that immigration is not just a Latino issue. While the sentiments were positive—illustrating a community that is thriving, and providing a much-needed break from the RNC’s anti-immigrant rhetoric—at the core of every speech were messages of assimilation and respectability politics.
Even in gutsier speeches from people like actress Eva Longoria, there was the need to assert that her family is American and that her father is a veteran. The actress said, “My family never crossed a border. The border crossed us.”
Whether intentional or not, the DNC divided immigrants into those who are acceptable, respectable, and worthy of citizenship, and those—invisible at the convention—who are not. “Border crossers” who do not identify as American, who do not learn English, who do not aspire to go to college or become an entrepreneur because basic survival is overwhelming enough, what about them? Do they deserve to be in detention? Do their families deserve to be ripped apart by deportation?
At the convention, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), a champion of immigration reform, said something seemingly innocuous that snapped into focus the problem with the Democrats’ immigration narrative.
“In her heart, Hillary Clinton’s dream for America is one where immigrants are allowed to come out of the shadows, get right with the law, pay their taxes, and not feel fear that their families are going to be ripped apart,” Gutiérrez said.
The Democratic Party is participating in an all-too-convenient erasure of the progress undocumented people have made through sheer force of will. Immigration has become a leading topic not because there are more people crossing the border (there aren’t) or because nativistDonald Trump decided to run for president, but because a segment of the population has been denied basic rights and has been fighting tooth and nail to save themselves, their families, and their communities.
Immigrants have been coming out of the shadows and as a result, are largely responsible for the few forms of relief undocumented communities now have, like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows certain undocumented immigrants who meet specific qualifications to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation. And “getting right with the law” is a joke at this point. The problem isn’t that immigrants are failing to adhere to immigration laws; the problem is immigration laws that are notoriously complicated and convoluted, and the system, which is so backlogged with cases that a judge sometimes has just seven minutes to determine an immigrant’s fate.
Becoming a U.S. citizen is also really expensive. There is a cap on how many people can immigrate from any given country in a year, and as Janell Ross explained at the Washington Post:
There are some countries, including Mexico, from where a worker with no special skills or a relative in the United States can apply and wait 23 years, according to the U.S. government’s own data. That’s right: There are people receiving visas right now in Mexico to immigrate to the United States who applied in 1993.
But getting back to Gutierrez’s quote: Undocumented immigrants do pay taxes, though their ability to contribute to our economy should not be the one point on which Democrats hang their hats in order to attract voters. And actually, undocumented people pay a lot of taxes—some $11.6 billion in state and local taxes last year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy—while rarely benefiting from a majority of federal assistance programs since the administration of President Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” in 1996.
The 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, enacted under former President Clinton, have had the combined effect of dramatically increasing the number of immigrants in detention and expandingmandatory or indefinite detention of noncitizens ordered to be removed to countries that will not accept them, as the American Civil Liberties Union notes on its site. Clinton also passed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which economically devastated Mexican farmers, leading to their mass migration to the United States in search of work.
In 1990, then-Sen. Joe Biden introduced the Violence Against Women Act, which passed in 1994 and specifically excluded undocumented women for the first 19 of the law’s 22 years, and even now is only helpful if the victim of intimate partner abuse is a child, parent, or current/former spouse of a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident.
When writing about the Democratic Party, community organizer Rosa Clemente, the 2008 Green Party vice president candidate, said that she is afraid of Trump, “but not enough to be distracted from what we must do, which is to break the two-party system for good.”
This is an election like we’ve never seen before, and it would be disingenuous to imply that the party advocating for the demise of the undocumented population is on equal footing with the party advocating for the rights of certain immigrants whose narratives it finds acceptable. But this is a country where Republicans loudly—and with no consequence—espouse racist, xenophobic, and nativist beliefs while Democrats publicly voice support of migrants while quietly standing by policies that criminalize undocumented communities and lead to record numbers of deportations.
During two weeks of conventions, both sides declared theirs was the party that encapsulated what America was supposed to be, adhering to morals and values handed down from our forefathers. But ours is a country comprised of stolen land and built by slave labor where today, undocumented immigrants, the population most affected by unjust immigration laws and violent anti-immigrant rhetoric, don’t have the right to vote. It is becoming increasingly hard to tell if that is indeed “un-American” or deeply American.
Last year, a former communications staffer for Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon found the details of her rape case made public in a piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The piece, written by then-staffer Virginia Young, used the woman’s police report, filed after her assault and filled with errors and inconsistencies, in an attempt to smear a former politician.
The paper named the subject, Brittany Burke, without her consent. It gave her no chance to talk off the record and ran her photo side-by-side with that of the politician in question. That was almost a year ago. And yet in March, the Post-Dispatch ran an editorial that doubled down on its actions. The paper’s editorial board renamed Burke, denying the Post-Dispatch‘s piece was an assault story but rather one about the “party atmosphere” in the state capitol. The editors have claimed naming Burke in the first place was vital to the public interest. It wasn’t.
I use Burke’s name because she gave me consent to use her name and to tell her side of this story—something the Post-Dispatch didn’t do.
Burke’s outing inspired a wave of backlash and critique. Using her name and her assault report wasn’t just yellow journalism; it appeared to be a calculated and craven act to sell papers and drive clicks. Last month, partially inspired by Burke’s situation, the Missouri house held hearings on a bill that would require documents like police reports to redact the personal information of trauma victims prior to the document being released to the public. Missouri law currently restricts release of records if there is a danger posed to the subject by doing so. While concerns over restricting access to public records is valid—transparency in the world of journalism is paramount—it is clear that in certain cases, like those of rape and other traumas, further rules need to be established.
The Post-Dispatch’s editorial was in response to this bill, which passed out of committee and is currently awaiting full floor debate; Burke testified in its favor.
But Burke’s story stretches beyond Missouri—it can act as a lesson for reporters and members of the media in how to approach stories about victims of trauma.
Like This Story?
Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.
With that in mind, I stepped out of my reporter role briefly last year and launched an online petition demanding the Post-Dispatch issue an apology to Burke. Beyond the apology, the petition called on the paper to immediately implement transparent standards of dealing with potential victims of sexual assault and to adopt simple training that would create a trauma-informed newsroom. The petition was launched with the support of Women, Action, and the Media! (WAM!) under the hashtag #CoverWithConsent,referencing the broader need for reporters to obtain consent from possible victims before naming them, and to, whenever feasible and appropriate, contact them to get their sides of the story.
Newspapers aren’t legally bound to withhold the name of a possible rape victim, though it is common practice to do so. But it wasn’t just Burke’s name that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch printed. The story included details that suggested Burke was an unreliable witness to her own assault and that effectively put Burke’s personal and professional life in danger.
At the time of Burke’s assault, she had started her own public relations and communications company and many of her clients were in government-adjacent support fields, so she spent a lot of time in Jefferson City, Missouri’s capital. The night of the incident, Burke went out for dinner and drinks with some friends. She ended up at a bar frequented by government officials, politicians, and lobbyists. She bought rounds of drinks. The next thing she remembers is showing up at a former fling’s apartment matted with blood and confused. Not able to recall what happened, she decided she needed to go to the hospital. “I feel like I had sex,” she says she told the nurse, along with the fact that she was a woman in politics and required discretion in the case.
She filed a police report. “I don’t know if I was raped,” she told the officer, meaning that she truly did not remember what happened to her that night. According to the report, the officer asked Burke, who was crying, that if the lab test from the hospital came back with a lead, what she would like to have happen to someone who assaulted her. Burke replied, the report said, “I want him to burn in hell.”
Young, now retired from the Post-Dispatch, based much of her story on the police report without giving Burke the opportunity to talk off the record about them or correct anything about the details. For example, police initially investigated Burke’s complaint under the outdated statute of “forcible rape.” Under current law, however, if a person is unable to consent to sex for any reason, that is rape in Missouri. Young did not note this inconsistency, simply writing that the case had been dropped.
Young also detailed Burke’s bar tab, careful to catalog what Burke drank and bought right down to the last “Jagerbomb.” But the real push of the story was that Burke had had an affair with a married, former speaker of the Missouri house. That was revealed in the police report: His apartment is where she ended up the morning after the assault. He was otherwise not connected with the incident.
As reporters, it is our job to relay facts of a story that arm readers with information to come to their own conclusions. Compassion is not something typically associated with reporters, and in most cases we must be dispassionate to remain as unbiased as possible. But as a reporter who works with victims of trauma, the way I relay a person’s story is just as critical as making sure the facts are correct. In fact, the first often leads to the second.
After the story broke in the Post-Dispatch, I dug further into the story and filed my own account of what happened to Burke with the Riverfront Times, a regional independent weekly based in St. Louis. I did this in collaboration with Burke, meaning: I talked with her. I listened. She shared information with me on background that led me to seek further sources and lines of inquiry. Talking with Burke off the record led to a robust accounting of what happened to her that night. Listening to her and acknowledging trauma built trust. And trust led to Burke sharing the jarring findings from medical records that included a sexual assault nurse examiner finding suspected semen and vaginal abrasions “consistent with assault.”
The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) also took issue with the Post-Dispatch’s handling of the story. In an article that was published after the Riverfront Times piece, Deron Lee argued that if the Post-Dispatch had allowed Burke to speak off the record instead of asking for an on-the-record comment, it may have convinced the paper to not run the article as it was published. “Insisting that sources and subjects be on the record is a way to hold accountable people who wield power. Talking to someone who is a possible sexual-assault victim presents a different set of considerations,” Lee wrote.
Reaching out to Burke—or any possible victim of rape—for consent to cover their story leads to better, more accurate storytelling. Moreover, getting consent prior to telling an apparent victim’s story could go a long way in punching back at the pervasive rape culture perpetuated all too often by the media. For example, in response to backlash to the story, Christopher Ave, Young’s editor on the piece, erroneously said in an interview, “Not only was there no evidence of a sexual assault, no one was alleging a sexual [assault], the woman was not alleging a sexual assault.”
Rather than allowing Burke to tell her own story, Ave, Young, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Board were her judge and jury—deciding she had not been assaulted based on an incomplete police report, no background from the victim, and no mention of physical evidence.
This, said Soraya Chemaly, feminist media critic, author, and director of the Women’s Media Center’s Speech Project, who coined the #CoverWithConsent hashtag, is an example of how the media puts rape victims on trial—something we seldom do with any other crime.
“Consent is such a vital issue,” said Chemaly in a phone interview. She pointed me to a recent study, released in December 2015 by the Women’s Media Center, which examined coverage of campus rape and sexualized violence at 12 major print outlets. Over the course of a year, it revealed that 55 percent of stories about sexual assault were covered by men and only 31 percent were covered by women. The gender divide goes deeper: Within those stories, 48 percent contained quotes from men while women made only 32 percent of quotes used.
#CoverWithConsent is an effort to hold the establishment we are a part of accountable. The petition itself is less about getting an apology for Burke—she knows that will likely never happen. Rather, it is about how newsrooms should have reporters who are trained in dealing with possible victims of trauma, including sexual assault. Editorial standards should take victims’ needs into consideration, such as the option to speak on background. According to the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University, for a reporter working with a survivor of sexual assault, it is essential to treat their experience with compassion and sensitivity, to tell a subject’s whole story, and “to take special care, if they are to avoid compounding their interviewees’ distress.”
“The #CoverWithConsent campaign holds media accountable for victim-blaming, shaming, and outing sexual assault survivors. The campaign condemns acts of insensitive and irresponsible journalism that results in shaming crime victims. It also illuminates the reality that this kind of unethical reporting perpetuates rape culture by re-victimizing survivors in the court of public opinion,” said Jamia Wilson, executive director of WAM!, in an interview.
The original story nearly destroyed Burke. Her livelihood as a consultant was over—some clients terminated contracts or didn’t renew contracts, she said, specifically because of the Post-Dispatch story. Her personal information and address was posted online, and she faced an onslaught of harassing tweets and Facebook messages. When I approached Burke about signing onto the petition officially, she said yes. Looking back, she told me, she had nothing left to lose.
With her anonymity gone, Burke was thrust into a role she never would have imagined: that of a women’s and victim’s right advocate. The last year has been incredibly difficult for her and she still struggles. She has been asked to speak at a local university about her experience as a woman in public relations and politics and about the St. Louis Post-Dispatch story and its aftermath. She told me she never thought she would be speaking to college classes about the shaming of a rape victim, let alone that the victim would be her.
But, she said, she doesn’t have a choice. “I have to make sure I do whatever I can to make sure this never happens to any woman again.”