Advice to Journalists: Keep the “immigration crisis” on the front burner

Remember back in January when Mitt Romney tried to use immigration as a “wedge” issue to derail John McCain’s campaign for the GOP presidential nomination? McCain was one of the authors of the comprehensive immigration reform bill that died in Congress last year. Romney attempted to rally conservative Republicans against McCain by repeatedly suggesting that McCain supported amnesty for millions of undocumented immigrants in the US.

Romney’s tactic failed. But his instinct may have been correct. Immigration reform is a topic that both McCain and Democrat Barack Obama have been largely avoiding, perhaps because they perceive that the disadvantages of talking about it outweigh the benefits. To find a discussion of immigration reform on McCain’s campaign Web site you need to click on a tab called “Border Security.” Obama’s Web site is more direct. His site uses the “I” word, but the first item in Obama’s “Plan for Immigration” is “Create Secure Borders.”

Meanwhile a new Gallup Poll shows that only 27 per cent of those surveyed say that “Illegal immigration” will be extremely important in influencing their vote for president. Issues including gas prices, the economy and the war in Iraq rank much higher.

In this context recent comments by New York Times National Immigration Correspondent Julia Preston take on added significance. Speaking to a group of ethnic media reporters in New York, Preston said, “our job as journalists is to continue to write about the immigration crisis so it will earn the place it should have among the priorities of the new president.” Preston proclaimed that the challenge journalists face is to, “understand and write about America’s immigration crisis as a systemic failure.”

If you want a clear analysis of why the US immigration system is in crisis I urge you to read Preston’s full remarks (see below). She also has some great story ideas for reporters who cover immigration.

She gave her talk on June 2 at the The Center on Media Crime and Justice at John Jay College in Manhattan. It was part of an all day conference on “Immigration, Justice and Crime” sponsored by The Open Society Institute, The New York Community Media Alliance and the USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism.


The notion that United States immigration is broken is not controversial. That our system has become dysfunctional and must be fixed is one of the few policy statements that has gained broad support in today’s polarized Congress. Senator Kennedy says it; so does Tom Tancredo, the conservative Republican congressman from Colorado who ran a short-lived, one-note presidential campaign based on his opposition to illegal immigrants.

Broken immigration is discussed mainly in the context of the debate over more than 11 million illegal immigrants believed to be living in the country. But our challenge as journalists is to understand and write about America’s immigration crisis as a systemic failure. We must of course write about illegal immigration and its impact on states and communities; but we must also report on the legal immigration system, and how critical dysfunction in that system is creating more illegal immigration; and we must write about the huge surge in immigration to this country since 1990 and the ways it is shaping American society, regardless of the legal status of the immigrants.

Let me give a thumbnail history of how I believe we got to this point. For the last 25 years or so we dealt with our immigration system with a neglect that has produced results that are not at all benign. And now, when the social costs of a policy of neglect are clear, we have not been able to take the offensive for change because the breakdown of the system has contributed to fraying our national consensus on how much immigration we want and on what we think it should do for the country.

Let’s break it down into periods: From the 1980’s until 1993, we as a nation acquiesced in the creation of a vast extra-legal system to import low-wage labor, mainly from Mexico and other countries in Central and South America, based on ad hoc wholesale non-observance of the immigration laws. The Border Patrol did not enforce the borders; the immigration service did not enforce work authorization requirements; employers did not observe worker identification rules; the Labor Department did not enforce farm and factory labor codes and standards; millions of immigrants did not acquire or maintain legal residency in the United States; and illegal immigrants, as well as many legal ones, worked away in wearying low-wage jobs without demanding their civil and labor rights. The extra-legal immigrant labor system was self-insulating. Because so few avenues to legal entry and employment-–and so many jobs–were available to low-wage immigrant workers, any attempt they might make to come forward to seek timely status through the legal system was a sure route to the opposite outcome: detention and deportation.

To recall the origins of the unauthorized low-wage immigration system, I’ll give you a snapshot from my journalism career. It’s 1980, and I am sitting in the Jeep of a Border Patrol agent at dusk on one side of the border barrier in San Diego, which then was a simple chain-link fence. The agent was a striking figure because he had a metal plate embedded in his forehead, the repair of a shrapnel injury from his service in Vietnam. In that period the Border Patrol was engaged in a running game of Red Rover with the Mexicans on the other side of the border.

At nightfall, hundreds of Mexicans would line up, plainly visible, on their side. When darkness came they would scramble over. The agent and his Border Patrol colleagues nabbed a few, booked them, and then immediately put them back over the border, often the same night, confident that the deported Mexicans would make a new attempt to cross the border the next night, with high chances of success.

In the hush of the cabin of his Jeep, the agent confided to me that he was not sure what he was doing there. Especially after America’s defeat in Vietnam, he was smoldering with frustration at having another mission from the United States government without a clear strategy for him to carry it out effectively.

The generalized practice of non-enforcement for labor immigration continued, crucially, after 1986, when Senator Kennedy and others crafted a bill that gave amnesty to some 3 million illegal immigrants that was signed into law (lest we forget) by President Reagan. Because of continuing non-enforcement at the border and in the workplace, the 1986 amnesty, instead of ending illegal immigration as promised, encouraged a new surge of illegal workers.

The next date is 1993, when the Clinton administration began to selectively enforce the border, with bigger barriers and more aggressive patrolling. Interior enforcement that might have affected the extra-legal labor system, however, remained largely symbolic, and no substantial new avenues for legal labor immigration were opened. As a result, selective border enforcement produced a veritable cascade of unintended consequences. To quote Wayne Cornelius, a political scientist from the University of California at San Diego who has done field studies on Mexican immigration for decades: “Tightened border enforcement since 1993 has not stopped nor even discouraged unauthorized immigrants from entering the United States … U.S. border enforcement policy has unintentionally encouraged undocumented migrants to remain in the United States for longer periods and settle permanently in this country in much larger numbers.”

A reform in 1996 toughened the immigration laws in ways that made it even more difficult for immigrants to come legally and easier for legal immigrants to lose their status.

Thus the system functioned, until Sept. 11, 2001. Very abruptly our national immigration paradigm shifted. A system that had been focused on family reunification and provision of labor suddenly was returned to national security. Overnight, the priority for the system was no longer to let workers and loved ones in; it was to keep terrorists out.

Fast forward to June 2007, and the failure in Congress of what was called Comprehensive Immigration Reform, a bill that, among many other things, would have opened a path to legal status for illegal immigrants. Without engaging a debate about the merits of the particular points of that proposal, I would just make two practical observations.

First, the immigration reform proposal of 2007 was to the Republican party what the debacle of Hillary Clinton’s 1993 health care proposals was to the Democrats. It was a hugely ambitious, transformative proposal that was crafted by a small group of Bush administration officials and lawmakers behind closed doors in almost secretive meetings. The process was so rushed that hearings were never held. Partly as a result of those origins, the bill never garnered a dedicated constituency, while its opponents were intensely mobilized.

Also, many people at all levels of the system were quietly relieved when the bill failed. The bureaucracy is already staggering under its current burden; without major new resources and organizational and legal overhaul, it was simply not ready to handle the logistics of registering, vetting and processing millions of illegal immigrants.

For better or worse, the failure of that legislation left us where we are now, in a period of enforcement without reform. Such is the pressure in the immigration system and the society as a result of current policy, the volume and variety of immigration stories out there is truly dizzying. Let me point to just a few broad lines of reporting.

One stems from the fact that the failure of action by the federal government has produced unprecedented action by states and communities to fill the void. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 1100 immigration-related bills have been considered by legislatures in 44 states just in the first quarter of this year. This rush of state activity in an area that has been the traditional preserve of the federal government has generated a barrage of legal challenges that are important to follow. In addition, communities as diverse as Dallas, Texas, Marshalltown, Iowa and Hazleton, Pennsylvania are engaged in often acrimonious contention about illegal immigrants and their use of public services such as health care and education, debates which are sometimes based on actual facts–and sometimes not.

Another area of reporting has to do with the overburdening and underperformance of the legal immigration system. Of the many stories about this, none was so telling, in my view, as the saga that ensued after Citizenship and Immigration Services sharply raised its fees last July 30. USCIS pledged the fees would help reduce processing times. Officials there failed to predict that the huge fee increase, combined with the effects of a toxic immigration debate, would bring a huge surge in applications in the period just before the new fees took effect. In all, in the 2007 fiscal year an unprecedented 1.4 million legal immigrants applied to become United States citizens, most of them in June and July. Wait times ballooned, and now there has been a raft of litigation seeking to force the agency to naturalize all those eager new voters before the November elections.

A third line of reporting has to do with the Bush administration’s enforcement efforts. Administration officials have said they will spend $12 billion between this year and next on border security and interior immigration enforcement, a 150 percent increase since President Bush took office. Some $3 billion has been spent on building border fences, an approach that merits close scrutiny as to its effectiveness.

In order to convince skeptical Americans that the administration is finally serious about enforcing the immigration laws, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have been rounding up illegal immigrants in homes and on street corners at a pace not seen in decades, and raiding workplaces across the country where unauthorized workers are employed. Make no mistake: these raids have sent a profound chill through businesses nationwide. I now encounter undocumented employers, those people who have skilled and loyal, but unauthorized, immigrants in their workforce. They live in the same fear as their employees that ICE will one day arrive at the door.

To give you some sense of my recent work, I’ll recount the story I wrote most recently, about the aftermath of an immigration raid at a kosher meatpacking plant, Agriprocessors, with 800 workers in Postville, Iowa. It exemplified an important trend, the criminalization of unauthorized workers and their work.

In the raid, about 390 workers were arrested, most of them from Guatemala and many of them Indians who barely speak Spanish, let alone English. Federal criminal charges, mainly of document fraud, were brought against 306 of them, a much higher number and percentage than in past raids.

To handle this vast and sudden caseload, Iowa authorities set up special federal courts in trailers and a dance hall, the Electric Park Ballroom, on the fairgrounds of the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo, Iowa. Court-appointed defense attorneys, summoned with little notice to the emergency courts, were assigned to represent as many as two dozen immigrants.

On May 12, the day of the round-up at the Postville plant, the defense lawyers were presented by the United States Attorney with plea agreements: the immigrants could either accept a criminal charge that would entail five months in federal prison, or go to trial on a more severe felony charge that involved a two-year mandatory minimum. Most of the offenses revolved around the immigrants’ use of fraudulent social security cards or immigration visas, known as green cards, to obtain work. Only a handful of the immigrants had any prior criminal record. They were being treated as criminals for working.

The immigrants, in jail jumpsuits and chained at the wrists and ankles, were led into magistrate court in groups of ten to enter pleas of guilty. The break between pleas and sentencing, an interval which often lasts many months in federal court, was five minutes. Immigrants were sentenced in groups of five. Most agreed to orders of summary deportation after they finished serving their prison sentences, without ever having a chance to confer with immigration counsel. Matt Dummermuth, the US Attorney (for the Northern District of Iowa), said he regarded the expedited proceedings as, “an astonishing success.” Certainly they sent a strong message in Iowa of zero tolerance for unauthorized workers.

But the effect on the Postville community was devastating, with families divided and forced into hiding. So far no charges have been brought against Agriprocessors management, although many of the workers described rampant labor code violations, including employment of minors; forced unpaid overtime; and numerous safety hazards and accidents.

We now have three presidential candidates–Clinton, Obama and McCain–who have, in the past, articulated quite similar positions in favor of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform legislation.[Editor’s note: Preston gave her talk on June 2, 2008, five days before Sen. Clinton pulled out of the presidential race.] Nevertheless, restoring the balance between reform and enforcement, between encouraging legal immigration and cracking down on illegal immigration, is likely to be a very difficult proposition politically.

In my reporting, I encounter many reasonable Americans who are concerned about the erosion of law by illegal immigration. But I have no doubt that the forces opposed to the comprehensive bill also include voices filled with the hateful xenophobia that has long lurked in America’s immigration discussion. New York Times readers have strong opinions about immigration and they e-mail me in large numbers to share them; more than a few express intolerant, if not plainly racist views. Within the debate in Washington, the power of mobilization remains on the side of those who have channeled a wide array of fears and resentments into opposition to any effort to significantly expand legal immigration.

Meanwhile, the new administration will face a daunting agenda, including restoring the economy, grappling with the war in Iraq, and confronting the health care crisis. As I see it, our job as journalists is to continue to write about the immigration crisis so it will earn the place it should have among the priorities of the new president. Amid the acrimony, we have a greater task to cover the enforcement campaign and bring forward the facts about immigrants’ lives in a passionately observed yet politically dispassionate way, to help the country return to the civil, thoughtful discourse we need to find solutions to immigration’s systemic breakdown.

AboutJohn Rudolph
John Rudolph, Executive Producer, is a journalist with more than 40 years experience as a public radio program host and producer of documentaries, podcasts and news reports. John produced the award-winning documentary Feet in Two Worlds: Immigrants in a Global City, which was the debut for the Feet in 2 Worlds project.