By Tim Gruver and Kelsey Hamlin
We hosted an immigration panel last week featuring professionals working to protect the rights of (un)documented immigrants. Together, we broke down what journalists can improve on when it comes to marginalized voices.
The speakers featured Wendi Lindquist, Development and Communications Officer for the Refugee Women’s Alliance; Joaquin Uy, Ethnic Media and Communications Specialist for the City of Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs; and Magdalena Fonseca, Associate Director of the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center and the UW’s Undocumented Student Specialist.
For Lindquist, groups like the Refugee Women’s Alliance have seen the refugee crisis accelerate to alarming levels following President Donald Trump’s executive orders, effectively banning immigration from six Muslim-majority nations in addition to banning Syrian refugees.
There’s now the widespread perception that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can grab anyone at any moment. Both Lindquist and Fonseca expressed being inundated with calls every day from people who are reporting that they’re seeing ICE do something but, more often than not, those fears are unfounded. Sometimes ICE is nabbing a prosecution ring, sometimes it’s just border patrol, sometimes it’s other things. While the fear is very valid, it can have quite a detrimental impact when gone ary.
Many refugee families, particularly mothers and their children, are now scared to even collect food with food stamps for fear of being questioned by authorities.
“This is not just something that is making one population of immigrants afraid,” Lindquist said. “We have people who are refugees with a very specific legal status. They would rather go hungry than go to the food banks.”
Journalists have a responsibility to expand their coverage beyond what mainstream news outlets are choosing to report on, Lindquist expressed.
While crises like the Syrian Civil War and its survivors are important to discuss, Lindquist encouraged journalists to direct their attention to the refugees who have been coming to America for the past half-century.
A single Syrian refugee, Lindquist noted, may be doing three interviews a day. Meanwhile, refugees from all around the world may never get a chance to tell their story. Moreover, it seems that immigrant and immigration coverage rides off social media fads. To prevent this, journalists need to build relationships and maintain them with communities over time.
Uy writes press releases and organizes Seattle City Hall roundtable discussions on behalf of immigration advocates. He urged journalists to be critical of what government agencies like ICE do, rather than what they say.
While ICE’s written deportation policies allow them to arrest individuals in their homes, workplaces, and en route to other locations. Current policy forbids raids in educational and religious institutions, hospitals, and sites offering childcare services. But despite these limitations, Uy noted that it’s more out of saving face for ICE as an entity than it is about rights and humanity.
He also said ICE’s raid tactics, past and present, rely on secrecy, and reporters are essential to ensuring that agencies like ICE continue to police themselves.
“Keep in mind whatever they do, whatever they perform, they don’t tell anyone,” Uy said. “They just do their thing, and we usually hear back from them the next day in some sort of press release.”
Fonseca added that reporters should always think of their stories’ impact on the people they feature. While things like anonymity are important, so is the language reporters use to depict immigrants.
Words like “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant” are not only inaccurate, they can be grossly offensive and prevent relationships from forming.
“Students are moving away from those terms and coming back to ‘undocumented,’” Fonseca said. “When you’re talking to someone, mirror the language that they’re using, even if it’s just a personal preference. It’s just about picking up on those nuances.”
Journalists should also approach their stories with more than a deadline in mind. There’s an unfortunate pattern, she said, of journalists asking to talk to someone that day or the next. If they would just plan ahead of time, give the organization a heads up, they won’t have an interview with someone who’s already been covered by every other local outlet.
“Prior to the election, there wasn’t a whole lot of interest,” Fonseca said. “Some would say it’s the ‘sexy’ thing to do now. You’re basically proving a point [with that tokenizing mindset]. What do you have to gain now versus prior to all this occurring?”
What will a news outlet gain compared to what it’s asking their source to risk?
Journalists should consider and keep in mind cultural differences as well, Fonseca said. Sometimes, with female immigrants, it’s not right to have a male reporter around or asking them questions. This can be avoided by calling ahead or talking to a case manager for recommendations about how to proceed during the interview, making sure cultural concerns are addressed before it’s too late.
Uy also asked journalists just read up on how the U.S. works, how broken the system is for immigrants in particular. Journalists should become familiar with the different types of visas and what they mean, with the tedious application process, and so forth.
Another recommendation was that journalists develop relationships outside the newsroom with the communities they cover. Journalists should also respect that every person is already entitled to legal rights, whether they’re documented or not.
“It’s not just a matter of political correctness, it’s a matter of being accurate and specific,” Uy said. “You want to get all the exact words rights. Saying someone is illegal is technically wrong, because as long as you are here in this country, you are protected by the Constitution. No one is illegal, because everyone has rights.”
[The Northwest Immigrants Rights Project has a hotline specifically for potential sightings of ICE. This group then sends people to check it out, and has a team dedicated to this task; relieving other organizations from the stress of doing more than they were intended to do. Call 844-RAID-REP if you think you’re seeing ICE do something.]