How immigration reporting overlooks women

Photo via Chris Goldberg/Flickr.

AMRA SABIC-EL-RAYESS grew up in Bihac, Yugoslavia, just as nationalist movements across her region unleashed ethnic strife. For years, she suffered as a Muslim whose community was under attack by Serbian forces, all the while working with a local NGO to organize doctors so that children trapped in the siege could be immunized. She survived the conflict and eventually lucked into a place in a girls’ school outside Philadelphia. She landed a scholarship to Brown University and obtained her PhD from the Ivy League institution where she currently teaches. Today, Amra produces research on topics vital to US national security.

Stories like Amra’s are all around us, but they are scarcely found in media coverage of immigration. The Fuller Project for International Reporting, a nonprofit dedicated to giving voice to women in the news, examined media coverage of immigration over three randomly selected weeks in the first four months of 2018. (The coverage was aggregated by Migratory Notes, a popular weekly newsletter that rounds up media on immigration.)

The results? Articles on immigration focused almost exclusively on border security, conflict and crisis. The absence of women’s voices from such coverage is striking, especially since women and girls make up at least half of the immigrant population in the US.

ICYMI: Trump’s immigration policy takes center stage

In our sample, male government or law enforcement officials were three times as likely to be quoted as female officials. (The ranks of law enforcement are overwhelmingly male; men make up 95 percent of Customs and Border Patrol agents, for example). Expert sources included in the sample were nearly twice as likely to be men, and men were twice as likely to be featured in photos.

The problem is not only that women’s stories are missing from the dominant security-centered narrative. It’s that immigration is almost exclusively covered against the backdrop of national security.

That lack of women’s voices may help explain why stories that uniquely affect women get short shrift. The current volume of reporting on family separation at the US border arguably breaks this mold, but such a breadth of reporting is atypical. In our analysis, only two stories out of 100 covered a topic of particular relevance to women, such as reproductive health or domestic violence. How often do we hear about why Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador—the so-called “iron triangle,” from which a large proportion of migrants to the US originate—are among the most dangerous countries in the world for women? Or that, this year, ICE made it easier to detain pregnant women?

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The problem is not only that women’s stories are missing from the dominant security-centered narrative. It’s that immigration is almost exclusively covered against the backdrop of national security, despite its relevance in other policy domains. Fully 90 percent of caregivers or domestic workers in the United States are women, most of whom are foreign-born. In a society in which 60 percent of households don’t have a stay-at-home parent, that connection arguably warrants far more attention than it receives.  

Of the 100 immigration stories included in our analysis, only one highlighted the accomplishments of immigrant women entrepreneurs, even though immigrant women make up 13 percent of all female entrepreneurs. A paltry three stories conveyed an image of a successful female immigrant or undocumented woman, despite statistics showing that immigrant women excel in certain vitally important professions. They are more than twice as likely as native-born women to work as physicians or surgeons; more than 4 million foreign-born women work in highly skilled professions, primarily in science, technology, engineering, and math.  

The failure to tell a more representative range of stories about the immigrant experience helps push a largely derogatory and inaccurate narrative of immigrants. These narratives influence which policies are embraced by the public and endorsed by their representatives in government.

How might our debate on immigration be different if more stories showed immigrants building flourishing businesses, working in public service, and contributing in myriad ways to the betterment of their communities?

Media coverage arguably helps perpetuate what Karen Musalo, director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at UC Hastings, calls the narrative of the “heroic male dissident,” a Cold War-era portrayal of refugees that lionized young male dissidents for valiantly confronting their Communist governments. That narrative largely persists, though in 2014 US immigration courts began to recognize domestic violence—which overwhelmingly affects women—as a valid basis for asylum. (Such recognition expanded how the law defines who is worthy of protection in a way that recognized the unique ways that women are persecuted.) Last week, attorney general Jeff Sessions reversed course and announced that domestic or gang violence will generally not be considered legitimate grounds for asylum.

Media depictions of immigrants may also fuel the dehumanizing rhetoric that comes from some political leaders. In recent years, such rhetoric has implicated immigrant women in distinctly gendered ways. Dr. Joon K. Kim, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, points to the increasingly pejorative use of the term “anchor baby”—once a relatively benign descriptor—as one example of the growing vilification of immigrant women. In the journal Social Identities, Kim argued that current attacks on immigrant women are an attempt to cast them as “the bearers of alien, un-American practices and cultures.” Kim concludes, “Unlike immigrant men who are often portrayed as desperate sojourners in search of jobs in America, immigrant women are being accused of a graver, seditious act: the undermining of the United States.”

Consciously or not, when the media narrowly focuses its coverage on immigrants and immigrant women in the context of border security, it bolsters this perception. Journalism’s fundamentals—from newsgathering practices to traditional notions of newsworthiness—play a role in what stories are told and who tells them.

How might our debate on immigration be different if more stories showed immigrants building flourishing businesses, working in public service, and contributing in myriad ways to the betterment of their communities? Such stories are less sensational than immigrants’ often fraught paths to safety, but they represent a crucial gap in the narrative around immigration right now.

Obviously, journalists must continue to report on the ways in which immigration and national security intersect. But covering immigration fairly and accurately means making sure that women and the issues they care about are included in the conversation. It also means looking beyond the border to those stories that emerge long after the drama has subsided.

ICYMI: In Seattle, a sanctuary city, reporting on immigration means a trip to the suburbs

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Sarah O'Hagan and Rikha Sharma Rani co-authored this story. Sarah O'Hagan is a refugee and women’s rights advocate and Chair of the Fuller Project for International Reporting. Rikha Sharma Rani is a freelance journalist focused on immigration and criminal justice, and a contributing editor for the Fuller Project for International Reporting.