Op-ed: Trump is gone. Deep immigration coverage must continue.

While news outlets turned out in droves for Vice President Kamala Harris’s first visit to the US-Mexico border Friday, don’t be fooled: immigration news no longer captures the news cycle the way it did under former President Trump. Following the inauguration of Joe Biden, stories on his administration focusing on immigration accounted for a lower proportion of coverage than during the presidency of his predecessor, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. In particular, for outlets with “left-leaning” and “mixed” audiences, immigration coverage has taken up significantly less space.

Trump’s draconian crackdown on immigration, which began with an executive order halting refugee admissions and barring travelers from Muslim-majority countries, provided an early, urgent focus for coverage. So far, the Biden administration has seen record numbers of asylum seekers at the border, kept out due to a patchwork expulsion policy; immigration-reform bills moving slowly in Congress; and Harris making an effort to address the “root causes” of migration. Such complex challenges are harder to translate into compelling copy than the fire-alarm attack on immigration under Trump. Still, probing reporting is just as important. 

We launched our newsletter, Migratory Notes, on the week of Trump’s inauguration to track immigration news published by outlets throughout the US. Our goal was to help us—and other journalists—better understand the rapid-fire policy changes set in motion. We quickly found an audience that went beyond reporters, as thousands of readers signed up in almost every state and in countries around the world. Though originally conceived as a pop-up newsletter, Migratory Notes found funders, and we published 218 editions.

We had hoped the recent change of administrations would provide journalism with an inflection point—an opportunity for newsrooms, including ours, to apply lessons from the past four years and support more collaborative, effective immigration coverage at a moment when it might be able to impact policy changes. Instead, we found the philanthropic support which had propelled and sustained us under Trump was no longer available to us. Yesterday marked our last day of publishing.

 

At its best, Migratory Notes was a collaborative effort to document changes in immigration trends and policies, as well as their human repercussions. Journalists throughout the country informed us of their work, which we added to our record, creating a more comprehensive collection of immigration reporting than any one news organization could do alone. A recent note—from a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter, alerting us to a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at a green bean-processing plant and migrant camp—was typical of tips we received weekly. We regularly heard from federal and local government workers, clergy, lawyers, academics, and activists, who told us that the hours we put into synthesizing immigration stories enabled them to do their jobs better. 

It also allowed us to identify opportunities to strengthen coverage: the reporting during the Trump administration overwhelmingly focused on detention, enforcement, the US-Mexico border, and the plight of asylum seekers. Even though this included extraordinary and necessary watchdog coverage, it too frequently offered narratives of immigrants as either lacking agency or as law breakers. 

In 2008, Roberto Suro—a journalism professor at the University of Southern California and a board member of Migratory Notes—wrote in a Brookings Institute report, “Deeply ingrained practices in American journalism have produced a narrative that conditions the public to associate immigration with illegality, crisis, controversy and government failure.” If the pattern did not change, Suro predicted, immigration reform would not move forward. And it has not. 

There are opportunities for more coverage of immigrant labor contributions, demographic shifts, and policies that facilitate effective integration. “For all of the talk about deportations, there are more people who get citizenship each year,” Dianne Solis, a veteran Dallas Morning News immigration reporter, said at the recent Latino Media Summit. “I think it’s important to have that context and put a face on it.” 

In the four years since we launched, a smattering of innovative nonprofit news outlets dedicated to immigration coverage, such as Borderless, Documented, and Sahan Journal, emerged in big cities. But, as our experience has shown, the livelihood of such outlets can quickly run out. As it is, local news outlets across the country are floundering, with more than seventy outlets closing since the pandemic. Immigration is rarely a dedicated beat. While Migratory Notes may have stopped, the need to support deep journalism covering this country’s immigration story is ongoing.

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Daniela Gerson and Elizabeth Aguilera are the cofounders of Migratory Notes. Gerson is an assistant professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge. Aguilera is a multimedia reporter for CalMatters. She co-hosts the California State of Mind podcast and covers the health and welfare of California's children.

TOP IMAGE: Vice President Kamala Harris tours the US Customs and Border Protection Central Processing Center on Friday, June 25, 2021. AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin