Influenza and Immigration: Keeping the “Anti-Immigrant Flu” Out of Newsrooms

A pro-Sheriff Arpaio demonstrator in Phoenix on Saturday. (Photo: Nick Oza)
A pro-Sheriff Arpaio demonstrator in Phoenix on Saturday. (Photo: Nick Oza)

PHOENIX, Arizona — Conservative talk-radio commentators were faster than a virus in spreading the idea that undocumented immigrants are a hazard to public health by bringing a new flu virus across the country’s “porous border.”

But one national media organization is trying to keep the anti-immigrant fervor out of newsrooms.

On Wednesday, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) called for the mainstream media to “resist the baseless blame of immigrants” in connection with the spread of influenza A-H1N1.

“This virus should not be characterized as a Mexican disease,” said Iván Román, NAHJ’s executive director. “We should also resist covering it in a way that furthers anti-immigrant rhetoric.”

Román pointed out that while there may be a temptation to link Mexican immigrants to the spread of the disease in the United States, it is necessary to keep in mind that this community is no more responsible for it than American spring-breakers traveling to Mexico.

“There are more than 4,000 flights per week from the United States to Mexico,” said the NAHJ in a press release. “Mexicans are not the only people on those flights. About 80 per cent of visitors to Mexico in 2008 come from the United States.”

Roman acknowledged that the Mexican immigrant community is part of this story. But it should be covered just like any news, sticking to the facts, he said.

Yet, in border states like Arizona, where the immigration debate has been highly divisive, anti-immigrant rhetoric has permeated newscasts through the statements of elected officials.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio didn’t take long to create a connection between the disease and undocumented immigrants crossing the border, sharing equal spotlight on TV stations with stories about flu cases in schools.

On Tuesday, the sheriff, known for his love of media attention, announced he would be providing masks and special gear to his deputies coming in contact with undocumented immigrants. He also suggested that the U.S. should consider sealing its borders.

“No one has talked about the people who are coming into the United States illegally as being a potential source of the spread of swine flu,” said Arpaio in a press release (click for statement in pdf). His statement goes on: “If this health crisis doesn’t serve as a wake-up call to politicians who advocate open borders and who fight this illegal immigration issue at every turn, then our nation could find itself in serious trouble on a number of levels.”

While Arpaio might have gotten his five minutes on the spotlight, for the most part print media has kept the focus of the stories on health concerns.

Randi Weinstein, managing editor of the Phoenix Business Journal said they had conversations in the newsroom about how to refer to the virus. This happened after they posted a couple of online stories referring to it as “Mexican swine flu”, which stirred discontent among readers.

They finally settled on the term “swine flu” used by the World Health Organization. (The WHO later changed the disease’s name to influenza A-H1N1.)

“It’s just like the immigration issue, the terms you use to describe people or this flu might upset people on both sides of the issue,” said Michael Sunnucks, a journalist who has been extensively covering the disease for the Business Journal.

Sunnucks wasn’t surprised at the uproar the flu outbreak has caused among both anti-immigrant and pro-immigrant crowds through posts on the paper’s website. Here is one of the posts the paper received in connection to the influenza stories on April 24:

I am not surprised by the outbreak. It has long been known that the uncontrolled migration of illegal aliens from below the southern border will be the terrorist attack we have to face. What needs to happen? The borders need to be closed/sealed off (like an iron curtain) immediately.

Poli Corella, Metro editor of the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, said “we’re treating this just like any other health story.”

The paper, located three hours from the border with Sonora, Mexico, recently reported that there haven’t been any confirmed cases of the disease in that Mexican state.

Corella said they didn’t focus much on themes related to a possible border closure. Since the virus has been in Arizona for over a month it wouldn’t make any difference, he said.

The NAHJ statement came in the wake of conservative radio commentators like Michael Savage arguing the new flu strain could be part of a bio-terrorist attack in which undocumented immigrants are a “perfect mule”.

According to transcripts obtained by Media Matters, a watchdog group, on the April 24th edition of Savage’s radio syndicated show, he said: “Make no mistake about it: Illegal aliens are the carriers of the new strain of human-swine avian flu from Mexico.”

Román, of the NAHJ, said mainstream media has been mostly fair and balanced in its coverage of the issue. Yet, a cartoon published on April 28th by the Sacramento Bee disturbed him. The image shows a yellow traffic sign, like those typically used to identify the crossing of immigrants on desert roads, this time with the migrants being followed by a pig.

· Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist in Arizona.
AboutValeria Fernández
Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist from Uruguay with more than a 14 years experience as a bilingual documentary producer and reporter on Arizona’s immigrant community and the US-Mexico borderlands. She co-directed and produced "Two Americans,” a documentary that parallels the stories of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and a 9-year-old U.S. citizen whose parents were arrested by the sheriff’s deputies that aired in Al Jazeera America. Her work as reporter for the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting on the economic and social impacts of a mine spill in Northern Mexico broadcast in PBS, San Diego and won an Arizona Press Club recognition for environmental reporting in 2016. She freelances for a number of print, digital and broadcast media outlets, including Feet in 2 Worlds, CNN Español, Radio Bilingue, PRI's Global Nation, Al Jazeera, and Discovery Spanish.