Border Patrol

Remapping Arizona’s immigration coverage

It has been nearly a month since Arizona governor Jan Brewer signed into law Senate Bill 1070, the strictest anti-illegal immigration legislation in U.S. history. The law caught fire with the press, instantly drawing national attention to an issue that had all but been snuffed out since healthcare reform passed earlier this year—and, as such, providing a rare opportunity to reframe a perennially charged issue in American politics. The passage of SB 1070 afforded the press a chance to parse the nuances of the immigration debate with an unusually captive audience.

The coverage of the law’s passage, however, rarely rose to the occasion. Instead, much of it remained weighed down by the heavy-handed tropes that are common presences in immigration stories: the immigrant as criminal. The immigrant as victim. The immigrant as assimilated. The immigrant as alien. These characterizations—though, like all such frames, they’re meant to clarify and familiarize complex stories—often have the opposite effect: They blunt the intricate socio-political factors that make immigration-related news stories compelling, and in turn reduce the immigrant narrative to a series of broad-brush (and, often, faulty) assumptions.

Take the Associated Press story published in multiple Arizona papers after the signing of SB 1070, with the succinct headline used by many of those papers: “Why Us?” The article takes the position of weary Arizonans tired of the millions of people who “sneak into” the state and commit violent crimes. The reporters go into great detail about the graphic nature of kidnappings (“Victims’ legs are burned with irons… fingers smashed with bricks”) that seem gratuitous and pointed at immigrants. But outside of a brief mention of increased arrests on the border (which is a separate issue from higher rates of immigrant violence), the article’s bias is largely unfounded. In fact, an April 29 article from CNN debunks their claim, stating that both the incidents of violent crime and the number of illegal border crosses in Arizona have actually diminished in recent years. Ultimately, the AP story reinforces stereotypes that prove to not only be harmful to further discourse, but also patently untrue.

On the other hand, the same case can be made for excessive earnestness in covering the immigration beat. Take, in this case, “When one family suffered, just so they can say ‘American,’” a May 2 article published in the New York Daily News. The piece “interviews” an undocumented immigrant family about their circuitous journey through Arizona. But instead of gesturing outward, towards the issues that influenced their migration, the piece populates itself with tired clichés about Americanism:

The mother saw that another youngster at the rally was challenging Luis to a duel with the American flags they both held.

“Luis, no!” the mother said.

The mother gave him a look like a child might get him in church. The boy understood she was telling him not to be disrespectful to the symbol of all his family’s hopes.

It’s a treatment that—while, yes, evocative—transforms the family’s lived experience into a two-dimensional tableau: a “story” only in the most sterile sense. It’s a treatment, therefore, that breeds apathy, not compassion.

That’s not to say that all stories on immigration are obligated to be penetrating, investigative pieces, narrated with nuance as much as empathy. It is to say, though, that there are certain characterizations that impede new and complex thinking when it comes to the thorny issue of defining borders. Other than pulling the heartstrings of the already converted, trope-drenched renderings of immigration’s heroes and villains do little to engage the issues underlying that definition. Though the broad story of immigration is ostensibly about the family, media treatments transform the undocumented immigrant from a political actor (with personal motivations, political interests, and background) into a narrative lynchpin—a technique that does little to challenge the broad cultural notion of immigrants as helpless victims.

One problem: In the transition from local story to national story—from a story that can delve into nuance to a story framed as a topic of national debate—important perspectives often get lost in translation. Reporting the immigration story well, with both evocative detail and a sense of scope, becomes even more difficult given that reporters telling that story must take into account the highly fraught immigration landscape: one in which the thorny issues of race and ethnicity bisect the political plane.

It is telling, then, that some of the most effective stories to come out of the SB 1070 signing have approached the issue from a very local level. Take another Associated Press article, this one from May 3: a report on the suddenly popular movement to boycott Arizona businesses to protest the law. While the knee-jerk reaction among some in the media has been to report on the boycotts as simply an act of political protest on the part of people empowered to engage in one, the AP story (reported from Nogales, Mexico, the border town that shares a boundary with the Arizona city of the same name) digs deeper. It reminds the reader that, at the micro level, these boycotts could actually harm migrant families, and in turn, block the legal nodes of Mexican/American small business. They could lead to migrant workers being laid off, thus cutting a vital source of income to their families back home. In other cases, the boycotts could sever an important tie that thousands of legal migrants rely on for discount shopping near the border. Because the story tackles the issue from an on-the-ground perspective, it actually says more about the national landscape than many other politically minded pieces.

Capturing the essence of a broad and significant topic like immigration is certainly no easy undertaking, especially when so much of the current coverage is written and edited hundreds of miles away from the contentious Arizona border. But the national immigration debate will likely ramp up in the coming months. And when it does, reporters should remember: In telling that story, it’s as important to keep one foot on the ground as it is to see the big picture.

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Stefanos Chen recently graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.