Commentary Media

Three Narratives to Nix From Your Immigration Reporting in 2019

Tina Vasquez

Overly simplistic storytelling and the good/bad immigrant binary are among some of the narratives reporters need to spike in 2019.

Immigration has been a primary focus of the Trump administration. Consequently, many journalists who have never covered the issue are now on the beat.

What could go wrong? A lot, as we’ve seen over the past year.

In the names of balance and objectivity, journalists historically have done vulnerable communities a great deal of harm, treating people as one-dimensional characters, pushing problematic narratives, and positioning usually white academics and researchers as experts on the lives of people of color, rather than, you know, talking to people color. Immigration reporting is no different. Although a number of journalists have stepped up and produced some powerful, moving work over the past twelve months, daily coverage leaves much to be desired.

One of the most disappointing aspects of so much immigration reporting is the way reporters frame immigration as a “Latino” issue. Not only is this factually incorrect, it erases the realities of non-Latino immigrants, particularly Black immigrants. Black people are arrested, convicted, and imprisoned in the U.S. criminal enforcement system more than any other group of people, and this system works with federal immigration agencies to disproportionately detain Black immigrants.

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Overly simplistic storytelling and the good/bad immigrant binary are also among some of the worst narratives reporters need to spike in 2019. Below we explain a few of these storylines and why they absolutely have to go.

Yes, Immigrants “Get the Job Done”

It’s true there are many economic reasons for not expelling 11 million people from the United States. Undocumented immigrants are taxpayers, after all, and contribute some $11.74 billion annually to state and local coffers through a combination of sales, personal income, and property taxes, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Undocumented workers also keep Social Security afloat for citizens, allowing them to access benefits to which undocumented immigrants are not entitled. And there is a wealth of information about the positive educational and economic outcomes of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients.

Immigrant communities often emphasize their economic contributions to reporters, as a way of illustrating the value they bring to the country. Organizations have mounted entire campaigns to highlight the contributions that immigrant populations make to individual states. As the Trump administration continues to terminate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designations, unionized workers with TPS are also asking serious questions about what they are entitled to after spending decades paying into benefits they may be forced to leave behind. All of this is valid, of course. But so much of the reporting this year that emerged in response to Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric highlighted the economic contributions of immigrants as if their humanity wasn’t enough. Though well-intentioned, relying on economics alone is dehumanizing.

Here’s the problem: Like all other beats, immigration reporting should document the experiences of people in humane, nuanced ways, meaning talking about immigrants as more than their employment status and their ability to work. People are more than their tax contributions, productivity, and output. Narratives that tie an immigrant’s worth to their ability to thanklessly contribute to the United States or do the jobs “Americans don’t want to do” positions immigrants as solely being of service to Americans. So, reporting that could be about, say, how undocumented immigrants are forced into underground economies because they cannot legally work in the United States, or about how undocumented workers are exploited, subjected to unsafe working conditions, and have no workplace protections, turns into reporting about the plight of American employers and the economy in relation to undocumented workers (even though Immigration and Customs Enforcement has disproportionately targeted workers and not employers).

The primary concerns of immigrant workers often get sidelined in coverage because of a publication’s larger priorities. A perfect example of this is the recent New York Times piece about Victorina Morales, an undocumented housekeeper at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Morales risked deportation to speak to the news outlet. Meanwhile, her allegations of workplace abuse and discrimination got one mention in the main feature, though the publication and other outlets touched on the issue in more detail in follow-up stories

Tying whether or not an immigrant deserves to remain in the United States based on their ability to maintain employment or uplift the American economy is also deeply ableist, especially in the context of what is known as the “public charge” rule. The Trump administration is currently seeking changes to the rule, an already troubling and deeply racist portion of U.S. immigration law dating back to 1882 that enables the country to deny immigrants admission based on certain criteria, primarily their likelihood of becoming a “public charge,” defined as “a person who receives certain public benefits above certain defined threshold amounts or for longer than certain periods of time.” The proposed rule change would, in part, deny lawful permanent residents the ability to further adjust their status and naturalize, simply for accessing services to which they are legally entitled.

Purely economic arguments for immigration leave disabled immigrants behind, framing them as unworthy of remaining in the United States and unable to adjust their status because of their potential of being a “public charge.”

At the end of the day, so much of the immigration reporting about the economic contributions of migrants is more about making undocumented immigrants palatable to an uncaring American public than it is about the resilience of immigrant communities and their varied and countless contributions to the United States. In 2019, reporters should stop pretending that appealing to racists is a valid journalistic approach.

The Thing About “Criminals”

President Trump and his henchmen have gone out of their way to paint undocumented immigrants as criminals who commit more crimes and are more violent than citizens. In this political environment, journalists must take great caution when talking about criminality in the context of immigration to avoid reinforcing Trump’s fear-mongering.

One thing I’ve noticed is journalists using charts and graphs to “demolish the notion that immigrants here illegally commit more crime” or giving weight to Trump’s assertions with headlines like, “Are All Undocumented Immigrants Criminals?

Here’s the problem: While it can be useful for the U.S. public to read research and studies that make it clear there is no direct link between migration and crime, during a political moment when the Trump administration has taken unprecedented steps to criminalize and deport every person in the United States without authorization, public education is needed around the complex nature of the country’s entire immigration system. In other words, charts and graphs highlighting how undocumented communities aren’t “violent criminals” may not be as effective as reporting on the unjust and racist laws that lead undocumented immigrants to being criminalized in the first place.

For example, a person can reside in the United States without authorization, it’s just illegal for them to work. For a person like Ingrid Encalada Latorre, who used fake documents to work in the United States, immigration officials still targeted her for deportation after she spent seven years making amends for her crime. This included spending two-and-a-half-months in jail, four-and-a-half-years on probation, six months in sanctuary, and paying back taxes totaling $11,500. She has since been forced to take sanctuary a second time.

But also, journalists should not use a clean record as the measuring stick for humane coverage, as this is deeply embedded in respectability politics and does real harm to undocumented immigrants who have been in contact with the criminal justice system. When immigration reporting around criminality relies on tidy narratives, there is no room for people to tell their full experiences as the flawed humans we all are. Much like white U.S. citizens, who are often heroized for “overcoming obstacles,” undocumented immigrants should have the chance to learn from their mistakes and not have their futures dictated by their pasts.

There needs to be more room at publications to tell stories of people like Jean Montrevil, who received his first deportation order in 1994. At the time he was serving an 11-year prison sentence after being convicted of possession of cocaine during the height of the crack epidemic. Montrevil went on to run a business, be a devoted father, and become an immigrant rights leader as as founding member of the New Sanctuary Coalition, before he was deported under the Trump administration.

Currently, there is also little room for the complexities of a person like Alejandra Pablos, who after being detained five years ago as a result of a drug-related arrest and DUI charge has devoted her life to advocating for immigrant rights and reproductive justice, becoming an abortion storyteller and an organizer. Recently ordered deported, Pablos had used her time in detention to inform other undocumented immigrants about what it means when they say, “They’re treating us like criminals.”

“I always have a difficult time with that framing. I’m what they call a criminal. I have a criminal record, and I know that I don’t deserve to be detained,” Pablos told Rewire.News in May.

DACA Recipients Came Here “Through No Fault of Their Own”

Ever since President Obama announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012, many media outlets, lawmakers, and other supporters of “Dreamers,” as they are called, have pushed this well-intentioned narrative: “They came here through no fault of their own.” Its intentions are clear—to garner empathy for young people who migrated to the United States with their parents. These young people should not have to face the same immigration enforcement as their parents because Dreamers did not make the choice to come here.

After multiple attacks on DACA by the Trump administration, journalists at outlets like the Washington Post and NPR, advocacy organizations, religious organizations, and supportive Republican lawmakers doubled down on the narrative. After President Donald Trump announced he would rescind DACA (a decision swiftly challenged in court), former President Barack Obama released a statement: “Whatever concerns or complaints Americans may have about immigration in general, we shouldn’t threaten the future of this group of young people who are here through no fault of their own, who pose no threat, who are not taking away anything from the rest of us.”

Here’s the problem: When journalists characterize DACA recipients as coming to the United States “through no fault of their own,” it props up harmful binaries: deserving immigrants vs. undeserving immigrants, good immigrants vs. bad immigrants. DACA recipients are the good immigrants, those who deserve the ability to legally work, legally drive, attend college, and not be subject to the violent detention and deportation system. And if DACA recipients came here through no fault of their own, the fault must rest squarely on the shoulders of their parents, according to the narrative. It implies undocumented immigrant parents are the bad immigrants who chose to overstay their visas, for example, or cross the border without authorization.

The narrative also rationalizes the immigration system targeting parents who have been in the United States for years and in some cases decades, people who have no recourse against deportation and no pathway to adjust their status. The U.S. immigration system has forced these parents into sanctuary, separated them from their families, and subjected them to abuse in the detention system, traumatic deportations, and sometimes death.

If their children were brought to the United States through no fault of their own, journalists, lawmakers, and advocates need to begin interrogating whether they are implying immigrant parents deserve the kind of enforcement those folks otherwise discuss empathetically. And let’s not forget that before the Obama administration announced DACA, lawmakers subjected young undocumented immigrants in the United States to the same anti-immigrant system that their parents continue to be subjected to. Should the Trump administration successfully rescind the program, DACA recipients would face the same system as well.

These immigration benefits and statuses are often fluid and the humanity we allow immigrants in reporting shouldn’t be contingent upon them.

Wait, Wait—Here Are More Things We Can Work On!

  • Mainstream media really, really needs to “drop the i-word.” There can be illegal acts, but human beings are not “illegal.”
  • Deportation is not the end of a person’s story. Immigrant lives do not necessarily end outside of the confines of the United States. Who knows better about the United States’ immigration system than the people it has deported? Deportees have unique and powerful insights to share, but are rarely featured in immigration reporting.
  • While it’s true that under the Trump administration, there are near-daily attacks on immigrants, there is more to these communities than their trauma and the immigration enforcement they experience. How can media highlight their joy, resilience, and their power?

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