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Commentary Media

We Need to Talk About the Media’s Complicity in Violence Against Immigrants

Tina Vasquez

At what point are journalists doing Trump’s dirty work, aiding in the normalization of violence against immigrants and stripping them of their humanity?

In the days since a white supremacist carried out an act of domestic terrorism at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 mostly Latinx people and wounding 24 others, there has been a lot of public discourse about President Donald Trump’s culpability. This year alone, Trump has described an “invasion,” the term invoked by the El Paso shooting suspect, at the border two dozen times and run over 2,000 Facebook ads using the term.

While some may just be coming around to seeing the violence against immigrants that the president’s rhetoric seems to incite, people of color and social justice advocates have long warned that Trump’s use of anti-immigrant rhetoric was intentionally dehumanizing.

Historically, targeting specific populations by saying they come from “filth,” referring to them as an “infestation,” or criminalizing their existence because of a belief that they are inherently violent or inferior has set the stage for enslavement, genocide, and ethnic cleansing. Trump has engaged in near-constant racism, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant rhetoric, signaling to his white supremacist voter base that it’s open season on Latinx communities. As Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has tracked the rise of hate-based violence since Trump launched his campaign, said in a statement following the shooting: “Trump is emboldening ideologies that turn into real life violence, making America a more dangerous place for all of us and particularly the communities Trump targets.”

I anticipated this as a Mexican American journalist and the daughter of a formerly undocumented immigrant. What I did not fully anticipate were the ways journalists would aid Trump in this dehumanization campaign.

I should have known better. Journalism has a long history of denigrating people of color to justify the violence they are subjected to.

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I’ve written publicly about what I perceive to be journalism’s failings—about its white gaze, and editors’ incessant arguments that white people in the country need to see graphic displays of Black and brown people’s trauma in order to be moved by it. I was reminded of this argument again Wednesday after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) carried out the largest single-state workplace raid in U.S. history. The federal immigration agency targeted 680 undocumented workers across seven food processing plants in six Mississippi cities. The raid included workers at Koch Foods, a poultry supplier that last year settled two discrimination lawsuits filed on behalf of its Latino workers.

Immediately after the raid, as panicked and grief-stricken families tried to figure out what happened to their loved ones, journalists were on the scene shoving cameras into the faces of crying, traumatized children. These images quickly spread on social media with calls to “make it go viral,” and the videos and photos were callously shared thousands of times.

Sharing these images is dangerous, for a few reasons. The videos spreading on social media appear to have been taken without parents’ consent, and no efforts appear to have been made to protect the identity of the children. If the children shown in the videos are asylum seekers, local news media has effectively advertised to the world where they live and where their parents worked, which can put targets on their backs.

ICE has since released 300 of the workers, all of them parents who had minor children at home.

Certainly people will argue that it’s because of the media attention on the children that their immigrant parents were released from custody. I don’t buy it, considering the federal immigration agency is instructed to identify whether immigrants detained as part of raids are pregnant women, nursing mothers, or parents who are the sole caretakers of minor children.

There is another issue at play here, and it’s one that journalists need to begin interrogating and engaging with as attacks on immigrant communities continue. I want white journalists in particular to ask themselves before publishing or sharing this type of content: Am I aiding in dehumanization? Am I aiding in normalizing the brutalization of immigrant communities?

This came up when the image of 25-year-old Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, went viral. The asylum seekers were subjected to Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, so they tried to cross the Rio Grande, where they drowned. The photo of their bodies made its way around the world, including to the cover of the New York Times. This also came up with the ProPublica audio of children who’d been separated from their parents sobbing for their mothers, and with the Time magazine cover featuring a sobbing child whose mother was being questioned by Border Patrol. This keeps coming up, and each time journalists justify their position by saying: “U.S. citizens needs to see. They need to look. Don’t turn away.” But U.S. citizens have become desensitized to these images, if they ever gave a damn in the first place.

Trump’s attacks on immigrant communities will continue and will only inspire more white supremacist terrorism. As this cycle plays out in our daily news feeds, accompanied by media that peddles in tragedy, enthusiastically publishing photos of dead brown and Black bodies and distressed children, we need to ask: At what point are we complicit? At what point are journalists doing Trump’s dirty work, aiding in the normalization of violence against immigrants and stripping them of their humanity? This media is not “inspiring change”; this media merely inspires page clicks and potentially more violence.

Journalism needs a reckoning. Under the Trump administration in particular, we need to wrestle with hard questions about our intentions, goals, and the harm of our work. This is not an easy process, or a fast one. But here’s a good first step: Keep your fucking cameras out of the faces of traumatized children.

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