How to Keep Ahead of the Immigration Story

By Sally Lehrman

Struggling to make sense of the developing patchwork of immigration law? Wondering how to do more than cover scattered enforcement actions and raids? Now is the time to dig more deeply into one of the most powerful stories in America, according to speakers at a day-long UNITY session on immigration last Wednesday. Apply context, the panelists urged, and move beyond stories of immigrant heroes and immigrant victims.

Several emerging trends remain generally unnoticed so far, the panelists said. Instead of assuming  that border crossers are mostly Mexican, think indigenous instead, recommends Patrisia Gonzales, assistant professor at the University of Arizona's Mexican American Studies and Research Center. A large portion of migrants come from indigenous communities, with the largest numbers contributed by Mixtec, Zapotec and Chinantec groups from Oaxaca heading north to other areas in Mexico and the United States. Their travels extend a long history of movement throughout the continent. "Most of their ancestors crossed back and forth for generations," Gonzales says.

If you are reporting at a community level, indigenous people add a thought-provoking twist to the usual immigration story. Gonzales cited one school district that had to find a Mixtec community outreach worker to address parents' needs. She also mentioned the new "La Hora Mixteca," a radio program that brings indigenous news and information to both sides of the border by satellite radio. On a larger scale, adding indigenous people to the immigration equation "changes how we frame immigration and opens new conversations," she said.

Dianne Solis, long-time immigration reporter for The Dallas Morning News, pointed out two themes that so far remain disconnected in coverage. First, she highlighted the growing use of criminal law, instead of civil or administrative law, in enforcement. In late 2006, prosecutors began pursuing false use of a social security card or aggravated identity theft charges as a criminal felony. One result? "The federal courts are getting jammed with immigration cases," Solis said. She noted a number of due process issues that further complicate matters: Many immigrants speak Spanish as a second language and don't have access to translators, American citizens have been detained in raids, and court hearings often take place by teleconference.

Overall, enforcement has moved from the federal to the state and local levels, making it more difficult to cover. Ethnic media around the country, however, have focused on communities where the impact of new laws is immediately felt.

Steven Holmes, deputy national editor at The Washington Post, said he wants reporters to fast-forward their thinking into a new era of economic hardship -- in the United States. Until recently, immigration growth has taken place when jobs were plentiful. Now, Holmes says, "You're not only going to have to tell immigrant stories, you'll have to tell economic stories." Metro reporters will need to learn local economics and develop relationships with banks, chambers of commerce and other sources in order to check out complaints that immigrants hurt job opportunities for others. "It's not just coverage of immigrants," Holmes says. "It's coverage of society."

To bump up your immigration coverage a notch, check out these resources:

The USC Annenberg's Institute for Justice and Journalism, which ran the immigration session, will post the panelists' full list of resources on its site in the coming weeks. (Disclosure: I'm a senior fellow in racial justice at the institute.) You can also visit the site for examples of stories produced during the institute's recent ethnic media fellowship on immigration reporting.
  • Sally Lehrman

    Magazine writer and radio content adviser on health and science issues for outlets including Scientific American, Health magazine,, and the DNA Files, which is distributed by NPR.


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