It’s becoming an uncomfortably familiar question in newsrooms when someone with a Spanish surname is a crime suspect: Is he illegal?
Calling Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to check the immigration status of some Hispanic suspects is now routine. It wasn’t always this way — not even a few years ago, either here at the Houston Chronicle or at my former newspaper, The Dallas Morning News. And this is Texas — a border state with 1.6 million illegal immigrants [PDF], a state with countless citizens whose grandparents swam the Rio Grande to reach Texas soil.
But the winds have shifted. Illegal immigration has boiled in the last two years under the flames of mass protests, nativist rhetoric and failed reform efforts in Congress. Homeland Security has also issued one of the largest criminal be-on-the-lookout alerts in our history by significantly increasing enforcement along the border and the workplace to root out illegal immigrants.
This momentum has heightened sensitivities surrounding illegal immigration, making it a “cause célébre” for the likes of CNN anchor Lou Dobbs and FOX News’ Bill O’Reilly.
The climate is ripe for local stories about illegal immigrants charged with crimes to explode into the public’s consciousness. Like the story of Juan Leonardo Quintero, an undocumented worker accused of fatally shooting a Houston police officer in 2006.
The feverish reaction to this case is mirrored by similar stories in Phoenix, Los Angeles and South Florida.
So it was not surprising when an Arizona Republic editor recently contacted the Chronicle inquiring about our policy on identifying the immigration status of crime suspects. Like many newspapers, we don’t have one since it’s a recently emerging issue. It was also understandable when a Chronicle reporter asked me, the immigration editor, if the paper was on a witch hunt against Hispanics after our most recent story about a homicide involving an immigrant.
Mexico native Jose Jesus Vieyra was charged with criminally negligent homicide less than a day after Harris County sheriff’s deputy Craig W. Miller crashed his SUV into Vieyra’s truck in Houston Feb. 21. The collision killed Miller.
Sheriff’s officials initially said Vieyra caused the crash by veering in front of Miller. When we learned Vieyra was an illegal immigrant, we quickly reported it on Chron.com. Reader comments on the Web story were fast and furious: Deport all illegal immigrants. Enough is enough.
But a few hours later we changed the Web story after ICE officials said Vieyra came to the U.S. legally in 2006, but had overstayed his visitor visa.
The story changed more dramatically weeks later. The medical examiner reported that Miller was highly intoxicated when the crash happened. His blood-alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit in Texas.
Houston civil rights activists say anti-immigrant hysteria compelled Vieyra’s quick arrest. The League of United Latin American Citizens called for an independent investigation into how the sheriff and district attorney’s office handled the case.
Stories like this and others leave journalists navigating enormously complicated questions of fairness and ethics. These stories force us to confront criticisms that we could be propagating anti-immigrant fears and misperceptions. Recent studies, including one by the Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson, show that neighborhoods that undergo immigration actually experience comparatively lower levels of crime.
Immigration, in some respects, is like another thorny identifier in stories: race. We’ve been taught that you only identify one’s race if race is central to the story. Immigration status mandates a similar threshold. (Of course, identifying someone’s race will never get them deported.)
Officer Rodney Johnson’s killing, on first glance, is a story about a horrible crime. But if questions about the suspect’s legal residency emerge, then his immigration status becomes important because of this fundamental point: The crime might not have happened if the suspect wasn’t in the U.S. without authorization. It’s a concern family members of victims, prosecutors and others will raise.
For example, say an illegal immigrant faces intoxicated manslaughter charges for killing someone while driving drunk. Immigration status is relevant in this case because in states such as Texas, illegal immigrants are prohibited from getting a driver’s license.
The residency status of immigrants (legal and illegal) charged with a crime is also pertinent because that status determines if they face deportation. Even legal permanent residents can be deported if they’re convicted of aggravated felonies or minor theft crimes.
Listing punitive consequences a charged suspect faces is important in any story. It’s why we include how much prison time a criminal conviction carries.
That’s a case for including immigration status in some crime stories.
But in daily practice, journalists now face a minefield of questions. Should we call ICE to check the immigration status of ALL Hispanics charged with serious crimes? Should we only inquire about status if police are uncertain about the identification and residency of an immigrant suspected of a crime?
When considering these questions, it’s worth noting the obvious: All Hispanics aren’t immigrants. And all immigrants aren’t Hispanic. In fact, the fastest-growing group of illegal immigrants in the U.S. is from India. So should we report on immigration status of Indians charged with crimes?
And here’s where things get more complicated: Suppose that immigrant charged with a crime is found not guilty. But he’s still in the U.S. illegally, so he gets deported. Whether we report the immigration status or not, authorities will uncover the residency status. So though we didn’t aid in his deportation, we have published someone’s immigration status. Someone who has been found not guilty.
Someone potentially like Jose Jesus Vieyra. The homicide charges against Vieyra, who remains in jail, could be dropped since it appears the deputy was drunk. But if even Vieyra is released, he very likely will be deported.
[How does your newsroom handle the issue of identifying the immigration status of crime suspects?]