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JOSE REPORTS: "View from Somewhere" -- A Real Conversation on Immigration

| Jose Antonio Vargas

REPORTING FROM NEW ORLEANS -- "A good newspaper," the playwright Arthur Miller once said, "is a nation talking to itself."

Newspapers, of course, don't have a monopoly in facilitating our national conversations, especially in an increasingly myopic, niche-driven, 24-hour news cycle. Still, one of the responsibilities of the news media -- from newspapers, talk radio to television news -- is to examine, fully and deeply, the most challenging and complicated issues we face. But too often we in the media rely on a narrow narrative to explain a multi-layered issue. Take illegal immigration, where the gap between what the public needs to know and what the public actually knows has only grown wider as undocumented immigrants become more integrated into the fabric of our society. If the prevailing narrative of this combustible issue is to be believed, undocumented immigrants are a drain on the struggling U.S. economy, taking away jobs from native workers and posing a threat to American culture and livelihood. It's a familiar storyline -- often unchallenged by many journalists -- that fits into a larger systematic construct that for years has generally defined undocumented immigrants as "the threat," "the foreigner," or "the other."

So imagine my surprise when I read Charles Kenny's column in Bloomberg Businessweek in early July, not long after I wrote about my life as an undocumented immigrant for the New York Times Magazine. "Be a Patriot: Hire an Illegal Immigrant," the headline read, and chief among Kenny's arguments was that undocumented immigrants are, in fact, "good for the U.S. economy." Kenny spoke with researchers, followed the money, and connected dots. He wrote: "What makes the political impasse over immigration particularly frustrating is that hiring an illegal alien is good for the illegal alien, good for the U.S. economy, and good for the country he or she comes from."

In a phone interview, Kenny, a contributor to Bloomberg Businessweek, said that writing about immigration can be "frustrating" and "annoying." When you say you want to write about the positive side of illegal immigration, one reaction is, even if it's true, even if there is a positive, it's politically dead in the water. The other reaction, he said, is that it's taken "as a given" that illegal immigration is bad for low-wage native workers, even though there is research out there that says otherwise. (Interestingly, he used "illegal aliens" and "undocumented immigrants" interchangeably in the article; speaking on the phone, however, he only used the term "undocumented immigrants.")

"Undocumented immigrants make the pie bigger," Kenny added. "In other words, they make our economy bigger. Sure, they are eating some of the pie, but the pie is bigger because of them. The reality is, it's not a zero-sum game."

In interviews with journalists, media observers, policy experts, and politicos from both sides of the aisle, an undeniable consensus emerged: the way the media largely frames the conversation around illegal immigration is incomplete and at times glaringly inaccurate, stuck in a simplistic, us-versus-them, black-or-white, conflict-driven narrative, often featuring the same voices making familiar arguments, almost always in the context of a campaign's (or a president's) political calculations.

Case in point: the conventional thinking that immigration is Gov. Rick Perry's Achilles heel. In the past month, most of the high-profile coverage on immigration has focused on Perry -- not exactly on what his support of in-state tuition for undocumented students means in the larger immigration debate, but on how his position on a single policy within this big issue impacts the Republican primary. Like with many hot-button issues, coverage of immigration is more problem-oriented and less solution-oriented. Extreme opinions take precedence over moderate ones, even on an issue that those who write about it frequently have trouble fully grasping. That's how complex it is. (Angela M. Kelley, of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, a trained lawyer and a veteran of the immigration reform community, told me that "the immigration code is more complex than the tax code." She's right.)

"Look, I've been writing about immigration for awhile, and any time I'm writing about immigration law, as well as I think I know it, I don't know it. I constantly need to remind myself of that," said Tina Griego, a columnist for The Denver Post who writes regularly about immigration. She doesn't write about immigration from the black-or-white perspective; she gravitates towards the gray area, like when she wrote about the case of Jose Raul Cardenas, an undocumented immigrant facing deportation proceedings who's married to an American citizen and is the father to three kids. Like many immigrant households, Cardenas belongs to a mixed-status family that can be divided and separated by a broken immigration system. In the 10 years she's been reporting on immigration, it was Griego's first time sitting inside an immigration court.

"We in the media have failed in providing the basic information about the ins and outs of immigration and immigration law," Griego told me. "But it can still be done."

To be fair, there is insightful and fair reporting being done by some journalists. But fact-based, on-the-ground, nuanced, and layered reporting -- like the front-page stories by Richard Marosi in the Los Angeles Times and Damien Cave in the New York Times, respectively, outlining the dramatic drop in Mexicans crossing the U.S. border; like the enterprise reporting by Chris Kirkham in The Huffington Post, which splashed a story on the lucrative business of private detention centers -- takes a back seat to angry declarations by talking heads on television, particularly on cable news. Whenever a TV show runs a story on immigration, particularly on Fox News, the B roll that's regularly shown to viewers is one of Latinos jumping the fence -- never mind that border security has been ramped up over the past decade and the number of border patrol agents has doubled, and never mind that those who do cross the border most likely face a 3-day trek through a desert after jumping a fence.

"Television has a huge influence on what people think about immigration. They rely on talking heads, and they like people shouting at each other, so the coverage is very shallow," Carlos Lozano, a veteran editor at the Los Angeles Times, told me. A self-described "point man" in immigration-related stories, he edited Marosi's page one story.

"What's really frustrating is, despite all the reporting out there, there's still this big misperception that illegal immigration is out of control. This is what you hear from officials in Washington, especially Republican congressional people," Lozano said. "But as any journalist worth his salt knows, apprehensions [along the border] are way down. I believe that we've secured the border -- the reporting, and not just our reporting, backs it up. Illegal immigration, by all numbers, is under control. But you'd think it's an emergency if you watch certain news shows and listen to some talking heads."

And some of those talking heads, interviewed by various news organizations like NPR, PBS, and CBS News, include leaders of the anti-immigration reform community made up of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), and Numbers USA. In recent years, it's difficult to overstate the influence of these three groups, which have collectively become the de facto conservative counterpoint to any policy and political discussion on immigration reform. All three organizations, as detailed by Jason DeParle in the New York Times earlier this year, were started with the help of a little-known doctor named John Tanton, whose personal crusade against growing immigration rates has greatly aided in setting the anti-immigration reform agenda of the past decade. FAIR helped draft Arizona's controversial immigration bill, DeParle reported.

FAIR, CIS, and Numbers USA have "played an outsized role in speaking for conservatives. They've had an outsized role in this debate. They've framed the debate in their terms and that's been really unfortunate," Robert Gittelson, a Republican businessman, told me. Frustrated by government inaction on immigration reform, Gittelson teamed up with other business leaders and the who's-who of the Christian Evangelical movement to start Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform 18 months ago. "I am convinced -- and most people are convinced -- that they [FAIR, CIS and Numbers USA] speak for a minority of people in this country. It's very vocal but very organized minority. They've been at this for a long time. They're very entrenched with a lot of heavy-hitters on the Hill."

Gittelson continued: "The conservatives have not been heard from in a positive way in this debate. There are a lot conservatives -- conservatives like George W. Bush, conservatives like Ronald Reagan -- who believe in comprehensive immigration reform." That's partly because, as Gittelson explained, conservatives themselves were slow to realize their stake in reforming the country's immigration laws. But another reason, he said, is that the media, in its desire to present two sides of the immigration reform story, often want to hear from conservatives who are against immigration reform. "It makes for better TV," Gittelson said. "Not every story has two equal sides, and the anti-immigration side has been given a disproportionate influence by the media. Conservatives, believe it or not, want a sensible solution to our immigration problem. Immigration reform is not just a political issue. It's a business issue. It's a religious issue."

Immigration is, at bottom, a human story, an issue that is legally, economically, and racially charged. It's a story that's broader than the DREAM Act (once a bipartisan bill that's been stalled in Congress for a decade, leaving a generation of kids who grew up in America in limbo), and an issue that concerns all ethnic groups, not just Mexicans (undocumented people come from all over the world, including Europe). Indeed, the immigration issue is a story about a demographically changing America, where the fastest growing racial groups are Latinos and Asians -- most of them born in the country and here legally, but many of them undocumented, all part of the fourth wave of immigration that began in 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act, strongly supported by Sen. Ted Kennedy, forever changed the ethnic make-up of our country. It's worth noting that the bill passed a year after the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Immigration is an issue I stayed away from ever since I was 16 years old, when I found out that I was brought to this country without proper papers. It's an issue that I tried to avoid writing about since I was 17, when my reporting career began at the Mountain View Voice, the local weekly paper I first wrote for. I've written more than 600 new stories since then -- and less than 10 of them were directly about or concerning immigration. Immigration is an issue I have never squarely faced; it's an issue I have never fully and deeply reported on. That changes now.

As I announced early Tuesday afternoon to a roomful of journalists (and student journalists) in a panel at the Excellence in Journalism conference here in New Orleans, I will start reporting on this very personal issue for Define American, a campaign that seeks to elevate how we talk about immigration. Some have argued that, since I'm advocating for immigration reform, I'm no longer a journalist in the traditional sense. In a nod to Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University who has consistently criticized journalists for "View from Nowhere" style of reportage, mine will certainly be a "View from Somewhere." At the end of the day, I am what I've always been: a storyteller. The work, as always, will speak for itself. I'm not just interested in stories that reflect positively on undocumented immigrants like me and those who support us; leaving aside the labels of "positive" or "negative," I'm most interested in telling untold, surprising, perhaps even uncomfortable stories. Three years ago, I was on the campaign trail reporting for The Washington Post. Later this fall, I will be back on the trail, reporting on immigration from the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. I am challenging myself to serve the issue well, I told the group, and also challenging my fellow journalists to rethink and reframe how they cover immigration.

And from where I stand, elevating our country's conversation on immigration means focusing less on the often angry, overheated rhetoric coming from groups such as the Minuteman Project, which calls itself "a multi-ethnic immigration law enforcement advocacy group," and telling more stories of everyday Good Samaritans -- members of what I've been referring to as the 21st century Underground Railroad -- who are aiding undocumented immigrants, be it a group of faith leaders in Alabama, a Republican mayor of a small town in Georgia, or educators who are forced, on a daily basis, to address an issue that the federal government has not.  The intersecting lives of undocumented and documented Americans have gone largely unexplored. Elevating the conversation means putting numbers in better context. When the Washington Post reported that undocumented immigrants collected $4.2 billion in refundable tax credits last year, they should have pointed out that, according to the non-partisan and non-profit Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy, unauthorized workers also paid $11.2 billion in local and state taxes last year, and that included $1.2 billion in personal income taxes, $1.6 billion in property taxes, and $8.4 billion in sales tax. Elevating the conversation means telling the immigration story not just through abstract policy points, but also through tangible human stories. The "me" in "media" is flexing its muscle in an unprecedented way. Using YouTube, Twitter and especially Facebook, undocumented immigrants, especially the younger ones, are publicly telling their stories. They're sharing their stories online and offline.

Near the end of the journalism panel, a young man raised his hand to ask a question. He was jittery and seemed nervous. "I'm actually in the same shoes as you are," the student journalist told me in front of the whole room. The room turned quiet. Eyes locked on him.

Later, when the room emptied out, he told me that it was the first time he had "come out" to a roomful of strangers. He was 20 years old and came to the U.S. when he was 9. He's a third year journalism student and, like all undocumented students, he's unsure-and fearful for his future. Another dream deferred. Another life in limbo.

Another reminder that if a good newspaper -- a good, responsible news industry -- is indeed a nation talking to itself, then we've got a lot of talking to do.

We're just getting started.

NOTE FROM DEFINE AMERICAN:  Are you an avid media consumer who wants to be a part of a crowd-sourcing project that monitors how the media -- from all platforms, national and local -- is reporting on immigration? Are you a journalist seeking new ways to report on this issue? Email us at media@defineamerican.com.

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