PROVO, UT — Journalists in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah have raised vital policy, political, and accountability issues as US senators debate an 844-page immigration bill. Even so, journalists can do more to scope out special interest influence behind the proposal―drafted by the so-called Gang of Eight―as well as learn from great examples of watchdog reporting in the Four Corners region.

Accountability

In a deeply reported package of stories published in early April, Arizona Republic reporter Bob Ortega and photojournalist Nick Oza raise questions about the effectiveness of border improvements and take a close look at some of the consequences of the government’s $100-billion effort to secure the border. Ortega’s article draws some striking conclusions—including this one:

This picture suggests that the costs of securing the border already have been extraordinarily high, not just in dollars, but in lives. It suggests that all of this security has done little to stanch the flow of millions of pounds of drugs north—or of 250,000 guns a year and billions of dollars south. And it suggests, as those who have studied this issue closely maintain, that locking down the entire border would be prohibitively expensive and still fail to halt drug smuggling.

And this:

The most frequent victims of this change in routes have been the migrants themselves. Even as fewer people cross illegally, more of them are dying. Last fiscal year, Border Patrol agents rescued 1,333 migrants, according to CBP. But 477 migrants died trying to cross from Mexico. Compared with five years ago, 20 percent more died last year even as Border Patrol apprehensions fell by 58 percent.

Looked at as a ratio, a migrant was three times likelier to die crossing the border last year than in 2007.

The storytelling is impressive, and offers a steady supply of telling details—like Oza’s photo of the carpet overshoes worn by a smuggler to cover his tracks while crossing the border. The package also includes a photo slideshow and personal stories of immigrants, a video interview with a border rancher, and an interactive map.

The Republic’s reporting raises issues absent in most reporting about the immigration debate—how drugs and guns continue to move steadily across a porous border, and how security upgrades have pushed migrants to less populated areas in eastern Arizona, where drug cartels have an increasing presence in the border-crossing business. It’s long, but well worth a read.

Politics

Nothing in the last month of coverage of the policy debate in Washington offers the same level of ambition and enterprise as the Republic’s border reporting. But the Salt Lake Tribune, Denver Post, Arizona Republic, and Albuquerque Journal all do have a presence in DC. That has allowed the papers to track the role being played in the immigration debate by officials from the West, and provide coverage that other media outlets in the region have abdicated in favor of generic and less costly wire reports.

For example, as the national Republican party looks for a path forward on immigration reform in the wake of Mitt Romney’s poor showing among Hispanic voters, the 2010 Utah Compact—an unlikely product of a red state where business leaders, law enforcement officials, politicians, social welfare advocates, Catholics, and Mormons agree on principles for reform—has laid philosophical groundwork for the current debate. The Tribune has followed that story, as in a dispatch by Thomas Burr about former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

And the Tribune’s Matt Canham has tracked Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch’s behind-the-scenes role and shifting position on the immigration debate. An April 12 story outlined Hatch’s work to broker a deal on guest worker programs for farms and ranches; that followed a Hatch-led effort to expand visas for highly-skilled immigrants sought by the tech industry.

Even as he worked on those deals, Hatch refused to pledge support for the broader bill. But in a front-page story Sunday, Canham reports the GOP opinion leader may be having a change of heart:

Sen. Orrin Hatch says now is the time to reform the immigration system for the economy, for his Mormon faith and for the people here illegally. Utah’s senior GOP senator sees the bipartisan Senate proposal as a solid starting point, though he isn’t ready to endorse the deal just yet. He’s still reading its 844 pages and promises to suggest some tweaks.

But he appears willing to support what he couldn’t under President Ronald Reagan in 1986 or President George W. Bush in 2006 — a path to citizenship.

… Hatch said the proposal’s 13-year citizenship track satisfies his long-held demand that unauthorized immigrants should not get citizenship faster than those who went through legal channels.

Elsewhere in the region, the Albuquerque Journal’s Michael Coleman did a nice preview of the New Mexico delegation’s view on immigration before the Gang of Eight unveiled the current proposal along with a follow story outlining the five-member delegation’s responses. And in Colorado, Allison Sherry of The Denver Post noted the tepid reaction to the immigration proposal among Republican lawmakers.

This coverage is all welcome and worthwhile, though mostly reactive—reporters scribbling down what politicians are saying. In another Sunday front-pager, Dan Nowicki of The Arizona Republic probed a bit of political rhetoric—that unauthorized workers will have to pay “back taxes” before completing their path to citizenship, under the Gang of Eight proposal—and found it raises as many questions as it answers:

Because many undocumented immigrants already do pay their income taxes, by working on the books using fake Social Security numbers and then filing tax returns using government-issued taxpayer identification numbers, and many others earn too little to owe any income taxes, immigration experts speculate that there probably is not as much money waiting to be tapped as some might expect. Determining how much in back taxes is owed by the large share of immigrants who have worked for cash off the books also could prove difficult if not impossible.

And if lawmakers really try, they could end up putting the businesses that hired the workers on the spot, too, and they don’t seem inclined to do that. In fact, the bill includes language that says employers who know they have undocumented employees who are applying for a new provisional legal status would not be considered in violation of laws against knowingly hiring illegal workers.

More tips for journalists

As the debate continues to unfold, there will be more opportunities for reporters to do enterprising work from Washington. While Beltway correspondence tends to be driven by hearings and proposals, news organizations also ought to invest time to investigate the political forces, money, and other interests shaping the debate—to explore not just whether an immigration reform measure passes, but which interests, both large and small, elected officials choose to represent along the way.

For example, in February CJR’s Sasha Chavkin urged attention on private prison companies and the lawmakers they support. Another good place to start is by scouring the immigration bill for carve-outs and set-asides, as Sara Murray of The Wall Street Journal did in an April 21 piece:

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham wants more visas for the meat industry, a major employer in his state. Sen. Charles Schumer (D, NY) pushed for special treatment for Irish workers; his state is home to a large population with Irish ancestry.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio sought help for the cruise-ship industry, a big business in his home state of Florida. And Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado wove in a boost for ski areas.

Oh, and lastly, for Four Corners journalists who want to speculate about the political impact of today’s unauthorized immigrants becoming voters—take your cues from The New Republic’s Nate Cohn and Jordan Fabian of ABC News/Univision, not this overcaffeinated Politico story.

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Joel Campbell is CJR's correspondent for Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. An associate journalism professor at Brigham Young University, he is the past Freedom of Information chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists and was awarded the Honorary Publisher Award by the Utah Press Association for his advocacy work on behalf of journalists in the Utah Legislature. Follow him on Twitter @joelcampbell.