‘Immigration is vital content’ for local Spanish-language papers

The US/Mexico border near Jacumba, California, circa January 2017. Anthony Albright, via Flickr

BEFORE DONALD TRUMP was elected, Mario Guevara—an immigration reporter at El Mundo Hispanico, the Atlanta area’s oldest Spanish-language print outlet—received a handful of calls each day from people dealing with immigration issues. Georgia is home to the country’s seventh largest undocumented immigrant population, estimated at 375,000.

But the weight of the beat is much heavier since Trump became president. Guevara says he currently receives up to 40 calls or messages a day, via text or Facebook, from people whose lives are shaped by immigration policy and enforcement, in one way or another.

During a recent interview with CJR, Guevara placed his cellphone on a table in the conference room off of his newsroom. El Mundo Hispanico shares the newsroom with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which acquired the Spanish-language paper in 2004. As if to make the point, his phone rings. It’s the Honduran consul. She wants to let Guevara know that they can help the next time a Honduran national dies and family members can’t afford a funeral. Guevara wrote about such a case the day before, and his story helped raise $6,000 for the family of the deceased.

“In a way, we’re advocates for the community,” says Guevara after the consul hangs up.

Within minutes, another text arrives: “ICE came and took my brother and sister and I don’t know where they are. What should I do?”

 

People will call me before they even call the police.

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IN 2007, OPPORTUNITY AGENDA—a New York-based “social justice communication lab”—published an analysis by New America Media’s Elena Shore of Spanish-language coverage of immigration .

“In the last year, the Spanish-language press was at the forefront of the immigration reform and immigrant rights movement,” wrote Shore, who reviewed 175 stories from 30 print publications, nearly all of them Spanish-language or bilingual, published during the federal immigration reform efforts of George W. Bush’s presidency. Spanish-language newspapers “mobiliz[ed] millions of people in the immigration marches…around the country” and “helped their communities navigate an increasingly anti-immigrant climate.”

For many, that climate has grown more difficult in recent months. Federal immigration arrests in Georgia increased by 75 percent during Trump’s first three months in office, compared to the same period one year earlier, according to the AJC. Nationwide, that figure is at 40 percent. Not only that, federal authorities are arresting higher numbers of people with no history of violent or drug-related crimes than during the Obama administration.

Those numbers have made for long days for immigration reporters like Guevara. But if Shore’s study is any indication, then Spanish-language news outlets can be a lifesaver for the communities they cover.

“People will call me before they even call the police,” Guevara says. He recalls a case in which a babysitter contacted him and said, “I can’t call the police, because I don’t have papers, but the boy I’m taking care of is being beaten at home.” She sent him a video showing the child’s bruises. Guevara called the police. “They promised not to pick her up, and came to get the kid,” he says. Police are now searching for the parents, and the child is with social services. Guevara has held off on writing about the case until police are successful in their search, he says.

“I felt satisfied that I had done a good deed,” Guevara says. “I did the right thing for a child in my community.”

Recent issues of El Mundo Hispanico. Photo by Tim Pratt.

Guevara recently returned from a trip to Nogales and Ajo, Arizona. It was his tenth trip to the southwest border in nine years at El Mundo Hispanico. He spent a week with a group that tries to help immigrants navigate challenges and dangers like dehydration while crossing the US  border. His reporting included finding the remains of someone who didn’t survive the trip. His stories from the border visit, which include video, will “try to educate the community here, and show the reality of things are they are—it’s very dangerous [to cross the border], not like it was 20 years ago.”

Other recent stories by Guevara include news of a Hispanic man accused of armed robbery who had been caught by police and also had unresolved issues with immigration authorities; how to avoid being ripped off by notaries passing themselves off as immigration attorneys; and video of a pre-dawn detention by ICE of an SUV full of men on their way to work. The latter report notified viewers that federal authorities were using unmarked cars and dressed in uniforms bearing the word, “Police,” and were stopping anyone, at any time. “Everything has changed with the Trump administration,” Guevara says. “The community lives in fear. They don’t go to church, avoid schools…don’t drive as much.”

 

Every newspaper advocates for a community.

 

THE SORTS OF STORIES Guevara and other Spanish-language reporters write at local outlets nationwide have led many to observe that Hispanic media differ greatly in their approach to immigration coverage from their English-language peers—often in disparaging terms. This may be especially acute during presidential elections, when GOP candidates accuse Hispanic media of favoring Democrats, especially on immigration policy. “The coverage is biased in defense of Hispanic immigrants [and] … is advocate journalism,” says Alejandro Alvarado, director of the master’s program in Spanish-Language Journalism at Florida International University.

But the so-called ethnic press has always been aimed at “immigrant groups and minorities who are feeling political and financial pressure, or not feeling welcome,” says Kent Wilkinson, director of the Harris Institute for Hispanic and International Communication at Texas Tech University. Current “heightened concerns in the community” have led Spanish-language news outlets to cover immigration even more closely, Wilkinson says.

And a closer look at English-language news can lead to a different interpretation of what constitutes advocacy.

“Every newspaper advocates for a community, as does TV news,” says Jose Luis Benavides, a journalism professor at California State University, Northridge, where he created a minor program in Spanish-language journalism.

Benavides brings up traffic coverage on TV news, which usually excludes buses and trains. “You’re leaving out minorities that use public transportation, and focusing on the middle class and above.”

Guevara is aware of this ongoing discussion. He notes his newspaper’s slogan: “El vocero de la comunidad hispana,” or “The Spokesperson of the Hispanic Community.”

“I’m convinced of my work,” he says. “I’m giving a voice to those who don’t have one. And the newspaper backs me up.”

 

It’s the future—and non-Hispanic people need to know about Hispanic people.

 

EL MUNDO HISPANICO has changed in recent years, notes editor Maria Bastidas. The print edition has been reduced from 80,000 free copies to 61,000, distributed to the Atlanta metropolitan area each week. However, Cox Communications—owner of both El Mundo Hispanico and the AJC—has taken the Spanish-language brand national, with digital and print editions in 11 other cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Charlotte, NC.Four national editors work from the Atlanta newsroom, and the digital staff is now larger than the print staff, she says.

But one thing hasn’t changed. “Immigration is vital content for our audience,” says Bastidas. As for how immigration is covered in Spanish-language outlets like hers, compared to English-language outlets like the AJC: “For them, the political aspect might be more important,” Bastidas says. “For us, it’s the human aspect—something they don’t get into as much.”

Shore’s 2007 analysis reached similar conclusions. “The vast majority of articles from the Spanish-language press portrayed the human side of immigration,” wrote Shore, “including interviews with people whose lives have been affected by immigration policy and anti-immigrant sentiments.”

Bastidas notes that El Mundo Hispanico and the AJC have collaborated more in recent years, especially when it comes to stories where Hispanics are involved, and where language skills and community relations can make for better reporting. Those stories include parts of a series on doctors who abuse their patients. “The women…were Spanish-speakers, mostly undocumented immigrants who feared deportation,” wrote Guevara for one story in the series.

“We’ve begun to have a seat at the table,” says Bastidas. “These are steps toward continued collaboration.”

Melita Garza, journalism professor at Texas Christian University, says she has recently seen more efforts in larger English-language outlets—from The New York Times to the Los Angeles Times to the Dallas Morning News—to “humanize” immigration reporting. “There’s a greater effort to be more comprehensive, and … to talk to people who are affected by the issue,” she says.

Differing approaches to the issue are not new, Garza adds. This year, Garza published research that compares Great Depression-era coverage of immigration and immigrants in three San Antonio, Texas-based news outlets: San Antonio Express, San Antonio Light, and La Prensa, a Spanish-language paper.

In La Prensa, “there tended to be more stories that put a face to the problem,” says Garza. “The English-language outlets tended to focus on how immigration legislation in Washington was going to affect the local and state economy.”

Now, Garza notes, the nation’s demographics have changed. “It’s the future—and non-Hispanic people need to know about Hispanic people. If [English-language] newspapers think the community isn’t interested in this, they need to find a way to make it interesting.”

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Timothy Pratt is a journalist based in the Atlanta area. He has written for The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, and many other publications. He also lived in Las Vegas and worked for the Las Vegas Sun from 2001-2009.