Covering immigration can be tough, but there are strong stories out there

Norberto Santana Jr. thinks of his reporters as mechanics. They check what’s up, make sense of it, describe the situation to the customers.

That model has been tested over the past year with the uncertainty surrounding the immigration policies of the Trump administration.

His readers, at the Voice of Orange County, are in an area roiled by the “irrationality” of America’s immigration crisis. He gets panicked phone calls, and sees a heightened fear toward police, hospital workers and court officials.

“The biggest thing that affects us is the raids,” the Voice of OC founder told a group of publishers at a conference in Chicago late last month. “There’s kind of an irrationality in the city. Where are they raided? Why? Kids who are left at schools, waiting for parents who got picked up … There’s a brutality to the system, a randomness to it, that is extremely affecting to people on the ground.”

How do newsrooms cover an emotional story where statistics are often scarce? How do they reach audiences who have differing opinions on immigration, or have “fatigue” from stories that cross into sports, education, enforcement, business and government funding?

“Immigration affects every beat you find in the newsroom,” Manny Gonzales, of the Chicago-based Latino Policy Forum, told the Local Independent Online News Publishers.

The first thing reporters should recognize covering immigration, Santana and Gonzales noted, is that aspects of this situation are not new. Immigration advocates had derided former President Barack Obama as America’s “deporter in chief” for sending back hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Many questionable enforcement actions occurred under his administration, although the stated focus of deportations was on violent criminal offenders.

While the numbers of deportees may not have grown since Jan. 20, the climate and uncertainty among communities increased, at least initially, given the rhetoric of the Trump administration, Gonzales said.

Initial indications show twice as many non-criminal immigrants have been detained nationwide. ICE agents, with broad discretion, have been more resistant to public opinion, says Paul Ingram, of tusconsentinel.com.

“If the ICE officer hasn’t eaten that day, he might decide someone isn’t going to get a stay that day,” Ingram says. “ICE feels like they have the support of the president.”

The distrust from the immigrant community has grown with the Trump administration’s back-and-forth on Dreamers — kids, some now young adults, who had immigrated with their parents often years and decades ago.

What can a newsroom do? Search out new stories, the panelists said. Such as:

— Find victims of domestic abuse who are afraid to take their assailants to court because of possible deportation.
— What companies in your community are profiting from the detentions of immigrants? Or the proliferation of $420-a-week ankle bracelets for those picked up in roundups?
— Are there more children of foreign-born parents staying home from school? Are the ill or the elderly skipping needed health treatment?
— Is there a rise in scams directed at immigrants, such as promised legal help by an unqualified “notario” (akin to a notary public back in Mexico)?
— Are ICE agents targeting transgender immigrants?
— Do detained immigrants in your community have access to legal representation? A 2016 study showed only 2 percent of detainees without representation were able to avoid deportation.
— Where do local authorities cooperate with ICE and Border Patrol, and where do they not? Near Tucson, Ingram says, immigrants picked up by police in a traffic stop can be “traded” to the Border Patrol and sent back across the US-Mexico border within 24 hours.

For Santana, whose parents fled Communist Cuba in the early 1960s, it is incumbent to present a “just the facts” approach to immigration. His nonprofit news site in Southern California serves a particularly divided audience. In the self-proclaimed sanctuary city of Santa Ana, where Voice of Orange County is based, the population is 78 percent Latino, many of those people from the Mexican state of Michoacán. In the “welcoming city” of Anaheim, it is 54 percent Latino. Other swaths of Orange County remain very conservative politically, and all residents feel the strains of increased development and population growth.

Complicating Santana’s efforts at balance: A lack of facts at a level that local news sites can use. While giving nationwide data, the US government has not released local or county-by-county breakdowns over the years on issues such as deportations.

One questioner asked Santana and the panel if readers would suffer from “fatigue” over these stories, as some outlets have faced on the opioid crisis. “Make it unique,” Santana answered, imploring reporters to work harder to find the new wrinkle in these stories.

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