Public needs to know fact from fiction about undocumented migrants

2010-06-03T00:00:00Z Public needs to know fact from fiction about undocumented migrantsCeleste González de Bustamante Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The Grand Canyon State is now the "Show Me Your Papers State." For the majority of Arizonans and Americans that's just fine.

Polls reveal widespread support among the general public for the state's controversial immigration law, SB 1070. The law requires that police determine an individual's immigration status during a lawful stop, detention, or arrest. Yet to many citizens (the author included), the law runs contrary to our nation's democratic principles. So why is there so much support for this type of legislation? History and the media provide some clues.

My research on local news coverage of undocumented migration in the 1970s and 1980s shows that television and newspapers fomented negative stereotypes regarding Mexican undocumented migrants. TV reporters portrayed undocumented people in two ways: as criminals, and as threats to the economy and nation.

In visual terms, TV news reporters consistently painted so-called "job stealers" and "criminals" as a destitute anonymous mass. File footage of unnamed men being rounded up and loaded into Border Patrol vans often included the only images of Latinos that viewers saw in an entire newscast. For the most part, the individual stories of undocumented men and women were not aired.

TV journalists reported that Mexican workers were "coming in droves," and uncritically allowed the Tucson Sector chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, Herb Walsh, to claim it was a "silent invasion."

Journalists gave voice to people like David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who set up camp in Douglas in 1977 along with fellow Klansmen who "intend to detain the illegal aliens until authorities can be notified to their whereabouts."

In contrast, Latinos who were in the country legally and contributing positively to society remained off the small and big screens. Hollywood and network television have a long history of writing ethnic minorities out of screenplays - especially Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

The historic and repeated silencing of some voices, and emphasizing of others had two damaging effects: Viewers and readers received a skewed version of reality; news consumers accepted that version of reality as fact, which inevitably helped shape their opinions about immigrants and immigration.

Some of those viewers and readers included the politicians who penned and signed SB 1070 into law, as well as dozens of other anti-immigrant measures.

Unlike those in the late 20th century, today's reporters are not so blatantly biased. But they still have shortcomings. Journalists covering immigration rely too heavily on government sources to tell their stories, thereby omitting those directly affected by the issue. Too often journalists conflate the issues of undocumented migration and drug smuggling. They are two distinct phenomena.

When a Pinal County sheriff's deputy was shot on April 30, reporters announced that the individual responsible was an "illegal immigrant" instead of a suspected drug smuggler. The result? The public saw the following equation: undocumented = criminal = drug smuggler.

Finally, today's news media often posit problems such as immigration in a bipolar way, ignoring the complexity of the issue, as well as the majority of perspectives that fall between two extremes. Presenting immigration as a simple two-sided issue fuels divisiveness, contributes to hatemongering and hinders possibilities for reform.

At a time when the vast majority of people rely on television and mass communications for information, members of the media should recognize the connections between the media and public opinion, and remember that the failures of journalists and entertainment producers have real consequences.

E-mail Celeste González de Bustamante at celesteg@email.arizona.edu

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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