IS THAT A FACT?
Are journalists getting the immigration story right?
Season 2 Episode 5
In this episode, we interview Dr. Reece Jones, chair of the Department of Geography and Environment at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and author of White Borders: The History of Race and Immigration in the United States from Chinese Exclusion to the Border Wall, for an overview of the most enduring false narratives that have shaped our public conversations about immigration.
We then speak to Roberto Suro, a professor of journalism and public policy and the associate director of the Price Center on Social Innovation at the University of Southern California. Suro helped us explore how the news media covers immigration and how that coverage helps shape people’s perception of the issue.
Bear with us during this episode. At times you maybe ask yourself, how does this relate to the news media. But remember this: to be a critical consumer of news and information about immigration, you need to have an understanding of the policies that have shaped immigrations in our country’s history.
On a previous episode, we explored the perception gap between Democrats and Republicans and of course the subject of immigration came up. It’s a subject we wanted to continue to look at because it’s a hot button issue that will only become more heated as climate change alters migration patterns around the world in the years to come. Immigration will shape the cultural makeup of the US, future voting patterns, and whether America, a country that many would say is made stronger by its immigrant population, can continue to gain strength through balanced immigration policies. But it’s also an issue rife with mis- and disinformation, false narratives, our theme for the season, some of which are even perpetuated in the news media and we wanted to dispel them by consulting experts armed with facts and lived experience.
Is that a fact? is brought to you by the nonpartisan, non-profit News Literacy Project. For more information, go to newslit.org.
- White Borders: The History of Race and Immigration in the United States from Chinese Exclusion to the Border Wall, Reece Jones, 2021
- “‘Illegal, ‘undocumented,’ ‘unauthorized’: News media shift language on immigration“, Pew Research Center, 2013
- “‘illegal immigrant’ no more,” Associated Press, April 2, 2013
- “California Dreaming: The New Dynamism in Immigration Federalism and Opportunities for Inclusion in a Variegated Landscape,” Roberto Suro, August 8, 2018
- “We see all immigrants as either legal or illegal. Big mistake.” Roberto Suro, July 13, 2012
Darragh Worland: Welcome back to Is That a Fact?, brought to you by the News Literacy Project. I’m your host Darragh Worland.
On a previous episode, we explored the perception gap between Democrats and Republicans. And, of course, the subject of immigration came up. It’s a topic we wanted to continue to look at because it’s a hot button issue that will only become more heated as climate change alters migration patterns around the world in the years to come. Immigration will shape the cultural makeup of the U.S.’ future voting patterns and whether America, a country that many would say is made stronger by its immigration population, can continue to gain strength through balanced immigration policies.
But it’s also an issue rife with mis- and disinformation, false narratives – our theme for the season. Some of which are even perpetuated in the news media, and we wanted to dispel them by consulting experts armed with facts and lived experience.
So, we turned to Dr. Reece Jones, chair of the Department of Geography and Environment at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and author of White Borders: The History of Race and Immigration in the United States from Chinese Exclusion to the Border Wall, for an overview of the most enduring false narratives that have shaped our public conversations about immigration.
We then spoke to Roberto Suro, a professor of journalism and public policy, and the associate director of the Price Center on Social Innovation at the University of Southern California. Suro helped us explore how the news media covers immigration and how that coverage helps shape people’s perception of the issue.
Bear with us during this episode. At times, you may ask yourself, “Well, how does this relate to the news media?” But remember this: To be a critical consumer of news and information about immigration, you really need to have an understanding of the policies that have shaped immigration throughout our country’s history, and our guests really help provide that context.
We start with Dr. Jones.
Thanks for joining us today, Professor Reece Jones.
Reece Jones: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Darragh Worland: I’d like to start by first establishing what kind of language shapes our understanding of immigrants today. So, can you share some of the terms often associated with immigrants, again, just sort of focusing on today?
Reece Jones: Yeah. In our political debates today, immigrants are often at the forefront of the issues that people are talking about. A lot of times though, it’s negative phrases around immigration that lead the news stories. Before we talk about those though, I do want to emphasize, the Pew Trusts, for example, has done a survey for 20 years about Americans’ perceptions of immigration.
And right now, Americans have the most positive perception of immigrants in any time during the period that they’ve been doing that study, but that often doesn’t come out in the news. The language we often hear today revolves around issues of immigrants taking American jobs, immigrants bringing diseases, immigrants bringing drugs across the border. More recently, we’ve even heard some racist language around immigrants replacing White Americans. And all of these things though are not true. They’re not accurate descriptions of the impacts that immigration has on a society.
For example, economists have studied the impact of immigrants on the U.S. for decades. And the view of economists is uniform, that immigration benefits the United States. And if you start to think about it, it makes sense. Right? So one study found that for every immigrant that comes to the U.S., they create 1.2 additional jobs, in addition to the one that they’re doing. And the reason for that’s pretty clear, right? Because they rent an apartment, so they pay someone for that. They take the bus. They go to the grocery store. They go to a bar, they go to a restaurant. They buy things at the dollar store. Right? And all of that continues to contribute to the U.S. economy. So what I found in my research is that, although there are all these other explanations for the damage that immigrants supposedly bring to the U.S. economy, none of those are really based on any facts.
Darragh Worland: Has how we talk about immigrants and immigration changed? Has the language been consistent over time?
Reece Jones: That’s the reason I started to work on my book, White Borders. I was interested in the language about immigration, which really demonized immigrants, and talked about a border wall as the only solution to all these dangers that they bring into the country. And I was interested, is that unique? Is that something new? Or is that something that has been characterized in the history of the U.S.? And what I found is, unfortunately, that sort of language about immigrants is a throughline through the ways that Americans have talked about immigration for over a century.
In my book, I write a lot about the Chinese Exclusion Acts in the 1870s and 1880s. And if you were to read the debates in the Senate about those acts, you would hear all of those same arguments that we were just talking about, that today are often directed towards Mexican or Central American immigrants coming to the U.S. Then, the same things were used to describe the Chinese. The Chinese were described as an invasion force that was going to take over the West Coast of the United States, who brought opium with them and brought strange diseases that were affecting Americans, and that they were also out competing Americans for jobs and taking American jobs by their efforts in the workforce. So there really are striking parallels between the ways that an anti-immigrant politician would talk in the 1870s or 1880s and the way that they talk today.
Darragh Worland: So, a term you don’t hear as much today was this term “illegal alien,” right? Or this term “alien.” And when you use the word “invasion,” that’s another word that comes to mind. Where did that term come from? And what was that about?
Reece Jones: So, I don’t know the technical history of the use of that term, but in the early immigration laws, that was the phrase they used for someone who was from outside of the country. So, through the first immigration restrictions, through the last few years, “alien” was the term of art in an immigration law for someone who is not a citizen of the United States who’s come into the country. The Biden Administration, though, decided to retire that phrase and to replace it with other wording. So there is an effort now to try to use more value, neutral terms to describe immigration.
Darragh Worland: According to your research, obviously, the narrative about immigration in the U.S. is just full of contradictions. You’ve already covered some of those. But one of the really interesting falsehoods that you cover in an op-ed for CNN, it upends the familiar origin story of the Statue of Liberty, which is arguably one of the most important monuments in our country, and it challenges the notion that it was created to commemorate immigration. How can this be? And if it’s not to commemorate immigration, how did Lady Liberty become synonymous with immigration? Can you just tell the story for our listeners?
Reece Jones: The Statue of Liberty was originally imagined at the end of the Civil War and coming towards the U.S. Centennial in 1876 as a monument to symbolize the end of slavery in the idea of liberty in the United States. The title of the sculpture is Liberty Enlightening the World. And so, it was meant to be unveiled in 1876 at the Centennial, but it was slow in the process of making it so only the torch was ready at that moment. So, it was finally dedicated in 1886 and set up in the New York Harbor where it still stands today. It was dedicated by Grover Cleveland, the president at the time. And in his speech, he doesn’t mention immigration at all because that’s not the purpose of the statue. Instead, it was a symbol of freedom, and it was a symbol of the end of slavery. And it wasn’t something that it was about immigration.
The idea that the Statue of Liberty was a symbol of immigration comes later, and part of that has to do with its location. So, it was put on Bedloe’s Island. It’s been renamed Liberty Island today, but that’s right beside Ellis Island. So, the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886. In 1892, Ellis Island became the primary point of arrival for immigrants coming to the U.S. from Europe. And so, when they would arrive, the first thing they would see was the Statue of Liberty, and so the Statue of Liberty became this symbol for those immigrants of their arrival in America. Right? And so, it becomes tied to Ellis Island as this key point of arrival.
We often, today, associate the Statue of Liberty with Emma Lazarus’ poem The New Colossus, which probably the listeners can say the words themselves. Right? But “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / the wretched refuse of your teeming shore / I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” All of that sort of language, that wasn’t added to the Statue of Liberty until 1903. So the original purpose had nothing to do with immigration. And that poem was not on the statue until 1903. Even today, we kind of imagine as if it’s like these big lettering on the base of the Statue of Liberty. The reality is there’s a small, bronze plaque that has those words on it. But nevertheless, we’ve reimagined that statue as this symbol of liberty. And I think that’s tied to that story of Ellis Island and this rebranding of it that that poem adds to the statue.
Darragh Worland: I think the word “rebranding” is really significant because, if I may, I think one of the things the U.S. is so good at, is advertising and marketing itself. And I just am curious what you think is lost. What do you think is lost? Or what happens in the process of this mythologizing? What is the effect or the consequence of this? Or is it just happened and there is real no consequence?
Reece Jones: I think there’s definitely consequences. I think the reimagining of the Statue of Liberty is tied to the reimagining of the United States as a nation of immigrants. That’s a phrase that we associate with the country. Joe Biden’s immigration plan was titled “Reinstating the Core Values of the United States as a Nation of Immigrants.” That’s also a very new phrase that doesn’t come around until 1958. It was the title of John F. Kennedy’s second book. And the purpose of that book was really to reimagine himself as an American because we tend to forget today, but in that period of time, there had never been a Catholic president, and Catholics were thought of as a little bit outside of the norm of America, as a protestant predominantly country. And so his book was setting up his presidential ambitions of reimagining himself into the story of America as a place that accepts this wide range of immigrants.
So that idea that the country is a nation of immigrants, is a production of the 1950s and 1960s, which is the same period that the idea of the Statue of Liberty is really firmed up as that symbol of immigration. In the 1960s, it’s made a monument and it’s joined with Ellis Island as a single place. And in 1965, when Lyndon Johnson signs a revision to the Immigration Act, he does it at the base of the Statue of Liberty. So by the late 60s, we’ve reimagined this history as a history of immigration to the country and the Statue of Liberty as the predominant symbol that the country is a nation of immigrants.
Darragh Worland: Okay, but how can we not be a nation of immigrants if the vast majority of U.S. are descendants of immigrants, if not, first generation immigrants ourselves? I grew up in Canada, but I am actually also 10th generation American. But my parents came from a combination of Ireland, Germany, Italy. Right? So all of U.S., how are we not immigrants in one way or another?
Reece Jones: I think there are two answers to that question. The first is that the idea that’s bound up in that. If we take Emma Lazarus’ poem, which talks about “accepting the wretched refuse of the teeming shore,” as if the U.S. would allow any immigrants to come. But, even when the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886, the U.S. had already started to put on restrictions on non-White immigration to the country. And this is really the focus of my book, White Borders, is to talk about the ways that immigration restrictions have been used to allow immigrants from Western Europe, from Northern Europe, from Canada, but to restrict immigration from most other parts of the world.
So in the era in 1903, when the poem was finally added to the Statue of Liberty, that’s also the period of time that the U.S. was considering very strict rules on who could enter the U.S. The president at that time was Teddy Roosevelt. And he came from this elite world in Boston, where ideas around eugenics and White supremacy were a dominant way of thinking about the relationship between different races at the time. So this racial pseudoscience was gaining currency and shaped the immigration laws that followed. In 1907, Teddy Roosevelt signed the gentleman’s agreement that prevented Japanese immigration to the U.S. In 1917, the U.S. passed an immigration act that banned all Asian immigration to the country. So definitely not an open golden door, but rather a very closed one. And that culminated in 1924 with the national origins quotas, which puts strict limits on immigration from almost everywhere in the world, except for Western Europe.
At the time, this was reported in the newspapers, not as some sort of shameful racist thing that had happened, but was celebrated. The Los Angeles Times‘ headline the day after it passed was “A Nordic Victory.” The New York Times‘ headlines said, “America of the Melting Pot Has Come to an End.” So it was celebrated as a effort to protect an idea of a White culture in the United States and to prevent non-White immigration into the country.
Darragh Worland: And those views were widely accepted to the point where putting that in a headline was considered completely acceptable.
Reece Jones: Absolutely. That’s one of the things that when I went back and did the work for this book, was surprised how open these White supremacists and racial views were. Certainly, in the debates in the 1870s and 1880s about Chinese exclusion, it’s very explicitly about protecting the White race from the dangers of people entering the country and replacing the White population. In the 1920s, it’s the same thing. The speeches on the floor of Congress are explicitly racial speeches that are talking about the threats to the White race that are presented by the arrival of non-White immigrants. Of course, that’s all based on pseudoscience. Right? This is not a scientific fact, it’s not based on any real information, but in that period, there were these books being published at elite institutions. MIT and Harvard are the center of the eugenics and the race science movement of that period.
Darragh Worland: In your book “White Borders,” you talk about this recurring fear in the U.S. of something called “The Great Replacement.” What is this? And why does this recur?
Reece Jones: So, “The Great Replacement” is the idea that immigrants are going to come to the United States and replace the White population of the country. It’s an idea that was articulated by White supremacists, and the phrase great replacements started to become the term to describe that in the past 20 years. And so it’s something that had circulated in the White nationalists, White supremacist groups. If you think back to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, what were those men carrying tiki torches yelling? They were yelling, “You will not replace U.S.” Right? That is the great replacement theory.
It’s striking though that it’s moved into mainstream political discourse in the last few weeks and months. So, Tucker Carlson, for example, talked about the extinction of White people in the United States as a threat that could be produced by immigration. So, it is definitely new that we see it re-emerging in this way in the public discourse. But what I suggest in my book is that we can really trace this same sort of idea back to a number of other historical notions.
When we look at the Chinese exclusion debates in the 1880s, the fear was that Chinese people were going to replace Americans and White Americans in the United States. Teddy Roosevelt talked about race suicide as the threat that White Americans faced because White Americans had lower birth rates at the time than immigrants did. And that eventually, if more immigration was allowed, it would be the suicide of the White race. There was a famous book in that period called The Passing of the Great Race that argued that immigration restrictions were like a protected area for endangered species and that the White race was an endangered species.
So, there’s a long history to this idea that immigration is a threat to the White race.
It’s fundamentally though a White supremacist idea. The notion that there is this superior White race, and that immigration is somehow a threat to that. For me, it’s something that needs to be contested and questioned. And it suggests to me that the coming years could see more violence associated with that. And the idea of violence isn’t hypothetical. A number of terrorist attacks that have happened over the last few years have been done explicitly on great replacement rhetoric. For example, there was the shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. The manifesto of that shooter, which killed 20 people was steeped in this idea of invasion and replacement. In New Zealand, there was a shooting at a mosque where over 50 people were killed. That shooter also left the manifesto, and the title of that manifesto was the great replacement.
Darragh Worland: When we’re talking about things like the great replacement and how that’s being messaged, beyond it being a White supremacist value, you’re also just sort of putting messages out there to people that are promoting fear and that are inciting to action. How much of this is a result of propaganda and misinformation?
Reece Jones: I think language is really powerful in shaping how we understand the issue of immigration and borders generally. And I’m often frustrated by the way that the media talks about many of these issues. For example, in the last year, there were a record number of apprehensions by the border patrol at the U.S.-Mexico border. And so the media often describes those, first, they use that category apprehensions and they talk about illegal immigrants, and they describe it as this kind of mass movement and arrival of people at the border. But I think what that overlooks is things like the fact that it is legal to ask for asylum at the border.
Darragh Worland: They’re using criminalizing language. Right?
Reece Jones: Absolutely. Right.
Darragh Worland: Well, where are they getting that language? Is that language coming from the government? Because the media isn’t inventing that language. I’m not saying it’s not their responsibility to question the language and to neutralize it because they shouldn’t just be taking it at face value. How good a job do you think the media does covering immigration?
Reece Jones: I don’t think the media does a very good job covering immigration because they have a tendency to tell most stories with two different sides to an argument. And so, in the book, I talk about these groups that are associated with this man, John Tanton, and they were established specifically to go into the media and to talk to politicians, to provide a extreme anti-immigrant view. And if you look at more mainstream groups, even historically mainstream Republican groups, they tended to be fairly positive on immigration because immigration has good economic benefits for the country. But the media has raised up these more extreme anti-immigrant voices and use them as kind of a both sides positioning on the issue of immigration and often tend to frame that anti-immigrant side as the kind of de facto view of the issue of immigration. And so, I think most scholars and academics who study immigration are consistently frustrated with the way that the media describes these issues and frames them using the language of these, I would say, extremist anti-immigrant groups.
Darragh Worland: Can you give U.S. examples of what some of that language is?
Reece Jones: Yeah. So, I mean just using a phrase like illegal immigration, because there are a lot of different types of immigration. And people who arrive at the border and apply for asylum, that is legal, that is legal under American law. And so, describing that as an illegal activity is just false. And so often, the media will describe anyone who the border patrol encounters at the border as an apprehension as if they’ve located someone breaking the law and then have captured them. Right? But the majority of people that the border patrol encounters today are families with young children who are applying for asylum, which they are legally entitled to do. But framing it in those terms of danger, of threat, of violence, of caravans, describing it as a criminal act, completely misunderstands what the legal right to asylum at the border.
Darragh Worland: Are there any other false narratives about immigration that kind of drive you nuts as someone who studied this subject?
Reece Jones: You’ll often hear people say “they should just come the right way.” Right? “They should just get in line and come the legal way to the United States.” I think that that framing is something that consistently immigration lawyers and scholars find just outrageous because it implies that there really is some sort of line that people could get into where there’s not. There is not a simple legal mechanism to immigrate to the United States. Right? The majority of visas that the U.S. gives out today are for family reunifications. So you have to have a relative in the U.S., and then they bring you to the U.S. for a Green Card. Or you can come to work in the U.S. with a different mechanism visa.
But there’s not just a line you can get into and say, “You know what? I want to immigrate to the U.S.,” and fill out some forms and wait a couple of months or something, and then become a legal immigrant to the U.S. Such a system doesn’t exist. Right? And so in some ways that’s why our current laws have produced the issues that we see at the border because there isn’t a safe and orderly way for people to come to the U.S. or to apply for asylum, for example, where they’re actually living.
And often the only option is to cross the border without documents or to apply for asylum once they arrive in the U.S. So the problem isn’t the people trying to move from one place to another. Immigration is a natural human activity. Humans have moved across the surface of the Earth forever. The thing that is unnatural are these laws that we’ve put in place to restrict that. And so, yeah, the notion that there is some line that people could get into is certainly one of the false narratives around immigration.
Darragh Worland: Now that we have a grounding in some of the history of immigration in the country, we turn to Roberto Suro, professor of journalism and public policy at the University of Southern California. Suro helped us understand how the news media’s coverage of immigration has shaped our perception of the issue.
Thanks for joining us today, Roberto.
Roberto Suro: It’s great to be with you.
Darragh Worland: So, you’ve been writing about immigration policy since at least the 1990s.
Roberto Suro: 1970s.
Darragh Worland: Oh, since the 1970s? Wow. I only shortchanged you by about 20 years. How has policy changed since that time?
Roberto Suro: The big change, the fundamental change, the American immigration policy happened in 1965, very much in the milieu of the civil rights era, where the United States got rid of a system that deliberately barred migration from people who were not from Northwest Europe basically, a law adopted in 1924, very explicitly race conscious. It included broad bars on Asian migration, for example, as well as migration from Southern and Eastern Europe. It didn’t replace it with a system that was built to envision what the latter half of the 20th century would look like in terms of human movement. It really was meant to be a reform, a past racially motivated limits and removing those limits. What evolved over time was the great wave of migration that we’ve seen over the last 50 odd years, which has transformed this country from one that was overwhelmingly White to one in which, now when you look at the population under the age of 20, it’s not majority White.
No one voted for that. No one stood up and said, “Let’s take this country that has basically been 80 percent or so White with a Black minority and transform it into a complex, multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic democracy of the likes of which nobody has ever tried to invent before. So, there is no vote for this, a very fundamental change in the character of the American public.
It has not been a deliberate process of policy making designed to achieve specific goals. It’s been highly reactive, not terribly well thought out, not terribly successful. What it has produced is this extraordinary transformation in the American population and in its economy and its place in the world, the way it sees the world, the way it sees itself. All of U.S. fundamentally changed by the arrival of a population that has transformed the fabric of the country.
Darragh Worland: So, you’re talking about the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, and you’re saying this directly came out of the Civil Rights Movement?
Roberto Suro: Absolutely. John F. Kennedy had espoused it, particularly when he invented the notion of “a nation of immigrants,” which was part of his formulation. We had to embrace this history rather than reject it. So, the idea had been around, and it was in the context of decolonialization in the Cold War that a racial bar that basically prohibited anybody from Africa from migrating to the United States was a foreign policy liability. The Asian bars had become really problematic in terms of foreign policy. And it was problematic in terms of domestic policy. So, we ended one thing, but we didn’t create something new.
Darragh Worland: In what sense?
Roberto Suro: No one sat down and said, “Okay, so what should a new immigration system look like?” If you go back to the signing ceremony in a shadow of the Statue of Liberty, Lyndon Johnson said nothing we do here today will significantly change the U.S. population. This is not meant to be a dramatic act. It primarily relied on family reunification with the idea that immigration would replicate the population that was already here, which was overwhelmingly White and overwhelmingly European in terms of its foreign stock.
In Northern European, it would basically just replicate that. It would create new opportunities for the Europeans who have been excluded, Southern and Eastern Europeans, to reunite with their families. So there were no significant provisions for understanding how labor needs would be met, for example. Very deliberately did not address Mexican migration, which to that point had been primarily under the umbrella of a temporary work program first adopted in 1942. All of a sudden World War II emergency, the farm boys are going off to fight the Japanese and the German. Who are going to collect the crops? We have a temporary worker program for Mexicans. That program was still in place 20 years later because it’s extremely convenient for the agricultural interest.
Darragh Worland: Kind of like a migrant worker program.
Roberto Suro: Right. And so basically what happened there was, the temporary over program was seen as exploited it and it was ended. Nothing replaced it. More than three million Mexicans that had the experience of doing temporary work in the United States, there was a substantial cross-border flow, it simply continued. There were no enforcement efforts put in place to try and bar this. In fact, the law very deliberately said that employers could not be held to account if they hired unauthorized farm workers, something called the Texas Proviso, insisted on by Texas growers, that we basically can legally hire people who are not authorized to be here. That was the law of the land, that an employer could legally hire somebody who was not authorized to be present in the United States, who was not authorized to work and have no liability until 1986.
Darragh Worland: So that’s one of the reasons why there’s so many people living in the country and working in the country in this gray area.
Roberto Suro: What we call the unauthorized, the illegal, the undocumented population, didn’t start out being either illegal, undocumented, or authorized really until 1986. The law said, “You’re not supposed to be here. You’re not allowed to work, but if you work, worst thing that’s going to happen is, we’ll send you back. Your employer can just turn around and hire your brother, your cousin, your neighbor the next day, same day.” And that was what happened. That was the practice that developed in a number of labor-intensive industries, particularly agriculture. You had large communities of people who were unauthorized to work working in factories, working in service industries. Communities had started to develop in all of the major industrial cities. And the law specifically held their employers blameless.
So, the law created a structure in which the employee, the migrant, was considered out of status – not their employment, not the person who rented them a home for profit, not the grosser who made profit off of selling them consumables. And so for the convenience of our economy, we created a structure that stigmatized the work, but not the employment.
Darragh Worland: So, what you’re saying is, the country, public policy wanted to reap the financial benefit. And is that still possible today?
Roberto Suro: Yes, of course. So, this was a deliberate act, a very specific act of public policy. So, starting in the 1970s, you had a number of efforts in Congress and some agitation in the states by people saying that this is wrong or that they didn’t simply like the presence of these people around for a variety of reasons. Some of them cultural, some of them moral, some of them economic, pressing to remove what was then called the labor magnet, the idea that work drew these people here. You had bills fully debated in both houses of Congress three times, three full congressional debates prior to the adoption of the law in 1986, that for the first time created sanctions for employment.
However, the mechanism for enforcing that sanction was deliberately, explicitly… This (has) been documented. People said it openly at the time. This is not me arguing it. This is blackletter history. It was rendered unenforceable. And it has never been effectively unenforced because employers got what is called an affirmative defense, which is basically… “I thought it was okay.” What the law required was, the employee has to show a document and fill out a form, a W-9. Anybody who has gotten wage labor in the United States has done it. You got to show a passport, a birth certificate, a driver’s license, some combination of documents that punitively establish that you are-
Darragh Worland: Eligible to work, right? Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Roberto Suro: The employer simply has to say, “I looked at them. They looked good to me.” Minimal record keeping, no requirement of verification.
Darragh Worland: Why would you criminalize unauthorized migration if it has been working financially for employers and ultimately the country for so long,
Roberto Suro: First of all, criminalization did not affect employers. They were not criminalized. Only the workers were criminalized. The immigration behavior is criminalized. The reason for doing this is, this was a period of time in which we looked to the criminal justice system as a way of remedying a series of ills, as I said, and because politically, we were seeing a backlash. The population of unauthorized migrants had grown very quickly in the late 1980s and then during the Clinton boom years, where we had really significant growth in our economy, very low unemployment, the numbers grew very quickly.
Darragh Worland: Were the social ills that you mentioned, and that I guess people were pushing back against, were they properly ascribed?
Roberto Suro: Something to keep in mind is, I think it’s true to say that in every instance, in every place, in every time that we have seen significant migration in the United States and in many other countries, it has almost always produced a counter-reaction in at least part of the public that sees it as a threat. Now, that effect can be economic, it can be political, it can be cultural. It can come in many different forms, it often does. One of the characteristics of nativism, which is the perception of a danger to national identity, cohesion, prosperity that emanates from abroad, but is working within the country. It’s the enemy within the gates. It’s a very profound narrative. In any kind of tribal society, all human societies are tribal.
Darragh Worland: Can you talk a little bit more about what you mean by tribal?
Roberto Suro: The way we create society is that there’s the “us” and there’s the “them.” Migrants are the most dramatic human phase of that phenomenon. They are literally, by definition, the people who come from outside. And when people come from the outside in human history, whether we’re talking about the United States in the 21st century, or the United States in the 18th century or Europe today or South Africa today, creates a counter-reaction. There are people who are uncomfortable, unhappy. There are people who exploit it, people who use it deliberately to create anxiety and anger. So, you have a situation where the negative portrayal of the foreigner is absolutely predictable, and it can be taken to a variety of extremes. So, for example, one of the commonest, oldest narratives about the other is that the other brings disease. This is ancient. We see it today. We see it this morning, and we see it now everywhere.
Darragh Worland: What’s ironic though is that the settlers did bring disease.
Roberto Suro: Of course.
Darragh Worland: That’s a narrative that’s been twisted, but-
Roberto Suro: Important to remember is, this is common, it’s bedrock. It’s not a function of specifics of time and place. So, a reaction against the arrival of migrants, immigrants, foreigners, the other, whatever you want to call them, we see it when they’re citizen. I mean, we see it in the racial history of the United States and the nature of housing. When people mix, you get friction often in the past.
Darragh Worland: What I want to ask you is, how well you think the coverage has been of immigration and immigrants over this time period? Has this nuance been conveyed?
Roberto Suro: I mean, let me start by saying, this is the confession of a reformed perpetrator. I wrote about immigration off and on a good bit for about 30 years as a professional journalist in the United States. And I committed all of the sins, which I will now enumerate. The way I see it is that the nature of what we define as news, the mental frameworks that we apply to the decision as to whether something is newsworthy. Migration is one of those stories that is misrepresented by virtue of structural factors, rather than the individual decisions of journalists, I believe. What are those structural factors? One, journalism judges newsworthiness on dysfunction. Man bites dog is news. Dog bites man is not. Immediacy, it happened right now. It happened yesterday. It’s happening as we speak. There’s urgency to it. The fact that it then perceived as crisis derives from that.
And the third really fundamental characteristic is protagonism. We tell stories. Stories are about a person, a people. There has to be a protagonist, a hero. Somebody who drives the narrative. It could be a bad guy. It could be a good guy, bad woman, good woman, not gender specific, but there is a person or a persons who drive narratives because we tell narratives about people. You take these three things, dysfunction, immediacy, and protagonism, there’s certain kinds of stories that aren’t going to be told well. Look at climate. I mean, climate is not clearly dysfunctional. It’s certainly not immediate. It happens over a long period of time. It’s a low story, not a fast story until very recently. And finding the protagonist is very hard to say that person is the one who’s doing it.
You can apply this however to migration. You focus on the dysfunction. You don’t focus on people who are law abiding. So the United States today, maybe less than a fifth of the foreign-born population is out of status in some way. They draw the absolute lion share of coverage. The fact that over the course of the last 50, 60 years, millions of people followed the rules, came here, contributed to the country, became citizens, went on about their business is not a story. It’s not news. That was the defining phenomenon of migration. The ordinary, everyday law abiding, processed, miraculously extraordinary when you think about, people who had been excluded, demonized, Asians, Indians who were considered poor and backwards are now our doctors and engineers, in the most respected professions. We have transformed our country through a legal, quiet, ordinary process that drew very little attention from journalists because journalists have a very hard time writing about stuff that’s not dysfunctional, and it’s not immediate. Immigration, to understand its impact on the country, is a two-generational process.
Darragh Worland: Surely there is some coverage that does get at some of this nuance and that does cover migration and immigration positively because the most recent Pew Study, certainly, has indicated that Americans have the most positive view of immigrants now than they have historically. So where is that impression coming from, if not from media coverage?
Roberto Suro: Well, I don’t need to tell you that drawing connections between media coverage and public opinion is a tight business.
Darragh Worland: You’re right. I am making a huge leap there.
Roberto Suro: You can’t make that. Well, it’s not at all automatic connection by any means. Yes, there’s positive coverage. There are overwhelmingly positive experiences by individuals in everyday life that I would say are much more responsible. The fact of the matter, it is a fact verified by content analysis, that the coverage of immigration consistently, going back decades, has over emphasized dysfunction, and has focused relentlessly on the unauthorized irregular part of migration, the policies that are designed to manage it, the politics that has surrounded it and the phenomena itself. So, you get a lot more coverage, excellent accountability coverage, probably better accountability coverage of migration than there has been at any time in modern times. Lots of reporters doing lots of important stories, but they were all focused on the dysfunction and the immediate and on illegality.
Darragh Worland: Crisis, again, which I know has been another critique that has been made of news media coverage.
Roberto Suro: Well, the coverage is episodic, and we know that when coverage of any subject is episodic, where it goes away for a while then it comes back, creates the impression of crisis. And in this case, the dynamics of migration to the United States have changed very dramatically in the last 15 years. We see surges over and over again. Those things fit right into the journalistic narrative of immediacy of crisis, of silence. Oh, my gosh, helicopter shots. I mean, in the larger scheme of things, 10 to 15,000 people is not a lot. It would not fill an NBA stadium, arena on a Wednesday night.
Darragh Worland: Wouldn’t you say though that your critique about how journalists and journalism define newsworthiness would apply to all news coverage?
Roberto Suro: Yeah, of course. Yeah, it does apply to all news coverage, but there’s certain kinds of stories that the distortion is greater when you apply those formulas.
Darragh Worland: And would you say that’s true of immigration? Yeah.
Roberto Suro: Oh, absolutely. Immigration is one of those kinds of stories that gets very distorted when you see it through the lens of dysfunction, immediacy, and protagonism. And there are others. As I said, climate. I mean, we are in a very difficult position as a species because for about 20 years, we sat around and we didn’t do much. And one of the reasons we sat around and didn’t do much was the way this information was portrayed and related to the public very ineffectively.
If you frame immigration as a matter of crisis and illegality and dysfunction and government failure, then an individual story doesn’t need to go into that in great detail. You just saw a helicopter shot of patients in Del Rio, and it sets off these associations. You don’t need to see the border patrol man on the horse, but once you see that border patrol man on the horse, you have dug that framing effect in deeper. So the repetition over decades of a story of dysfunction, of crisis and false protagonism has created framing effects, which then messengers can exploit.
Darragh Worland: Rather than sort of focusing on the deficiencies of news media coverage, which we’ve covered for sure, what are some ideas you have about how news media coverage could be better done to make some of these nuances and complexities of immigration come to light?
Roberto Suro: Especially now, in sort of the ongoing COVID era, there are great stories of resiliency and adaptation all over our society, not exclusive to migrants, but certainly including them, that are very important, that need to be told. There was a moment in 2020 where a journalistic narrative developed around essential workers, the idea that there was a category of people who, when everybody else could lock down in order to protect themselves and protect each other from the spread of the virus, had to go to work because they had to produce food among other things. Very clear, in the chain from slaughtering animals and harvesting crops to the delivery to our doorsteps, that low wage immigrants kept working, had to keep working, and suffered extraordinarily high rates of infection as a result. I mean, that was a narrative that told a different aspect of it. Lasted for a while, had some positive effects.
We saw some real results in public policy where at the federal and state level, there were efforts, I mean, significant efforts to include those people in some of the stimulus payments and in other benefits met to sort of buoy the economy. I’ll give you very briefly an example. So, Loudoun County, Virginia, suburb of Washington, swing county politically, quite volatile, as in many places around the country, conflict over day laborers, primarily unauthorized migrants sitting around outside of Home Depots and 7-Elevens and such, waiting to be picked up for work. And the idea of creating a local ordinance which would forbid this, which would criminalize that behavior, and allow the police to go and round them up and take them away for loitering and make … eliminate day laborers. Very extensive coverage for The Washington Post over the course of months.
The overwhelming figures in that coverage were migrants and public policy makers. There were precious few, a handful of quotations of the employers. Why were those people there? They were there because they were getting work because contractors were coming every day and saying, “I need four of you. Get in the back of the pickup truck. I’ll pay you cash, 10 bucks an hour, five bucks an hour,” whatever the going rate was. It found them convenient and profitable. The coverage never talked about the economy that created day laborers. It never talked about … There were no quotes from homemakers who were putting a deck on the back of their house, who were getting their roof fixed, who were getting their trees trimmed, and were paying less than they would otherwise because of this economy. The narrative was all about the migrants and the policy makers and the politics. It creates a false impression of the dynamic. It leaves U.S. as consumers out of the picture entirely. That narrative needs to be fixed.
Darragh Worland: Thanks for listening. We hope this episode has helped you understand some of the context behind this incredibly complex and increasingly important story shaping our nation.
In our next episode, we’ll continue our exploration of the false narratives surrounding immigration and the consequences of them, both on the country as a whole and on individual communities.
Is That A Fact? is a production of the News Literacy Project, a non-partisan education nonprofit, helping educators, students and the general public become news literate so they can be active consumers of news and information, and equal and engaged participants in a democracy.
I’m your host Darragh Worland. Our producer is Mike Webb. Our editor is Timothy Kramer and our theme music is by Eryn Busch. To learn more about the News Literacy Project, go to newslit.org.