Immigration policy was on the national agenda in February as the political system responded to a reform plan released by a bipartisan group of eight senators, and President Barack Obama highlighted immigration in his February 12 State of the Union address. The month’s media coverage gives us a glimpse of what to expect from the public debate as the immigration issue takes center stage—and it’s far from reassuring.
Extra! analyzed immigration reform coverage in the Nexis news media database for all ABC, CBS and NBC news programs, as well as the PBS NewsHour, CNN’s Situation Room, Fox News’ Special Report and MSNBC’s Hardball for the full month. The study found 54 reports pertaining to immigration policy, featuring a total of 157 sources.
The majority of sources from all networks were white male politicians born in the United States without personal ties to immigration. The voices of immigrants or activists were mostly absent.
In recent years, more than 50 percent of all immigrants living in the U.S. were women, and in 2011, “55 percent of all people obtaining a green card were women” (Center for American Progress, 3/8/13). Women are also highly underrepresented among the high-tech workers Congress wants to make room for, and over-represented in informal sector jobs like domestic work, which could pose greater obstacles to obtaining the documentation necessary for the proposed path-way to citizenship (Huffington Post, 4/4/13).
Despite the evident impact immigration reform will have on women—in addition to the fact that they constitute roughly 50 percent of the population, immigrant or not—women’s voices were largely missing from the media debate. Out of 157 sources, just 19 were women (12 percent).
MSNBC’s Hardball managed to record the highest proportion of women (25 per-cent), though this only represented three female sources, due to Hardball’s more limited coverage. NBC had the highest number of female sources—six—but this still fell far short of its 31 male sources. Both Fox News’ Special Report and the PBS NewsHour had a single female source: U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.
Immigrants come from every part of the world. In 2011, 53 percent of U.S. immigrants were from Latin America, 29 percent were from Asia and the Middle East, 12 percent came from Europe and 4 percent were from Africa, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Despite the diverse backgrounds of immigrants, media sources for immigration policy discussions were much more homogenous, with 107 of them, or 68 percent, non-Latino whites.
Of 150 sources with identifiable ethnicity, 16 percent were Latinos and 11 percent were African-Americans. There were two South Asians (1 percent) and one Native American source (0.7 percent). No East Asian or Middle Eastern sources appeared.
But higher numbers for Latinos and African-Americans do not mean greater diversity of perspectives: Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida accounted for 14 of the 24 Latino appearances, while 12 of 16 African-American sources were President Obama. Without these two prominent politicians, the percentages for Latino and African-American sources would plummet to 7 percent and 3 percent, respectively.
At the intersection of gender and ethnicity, women of color were almost invisible in the discussion. Among 17 female sources whose ethnicity was identifiable, there was no one of Asian, Native American or Middle Eastern descent. Republican strategist Ana Navarro served as the only Latina voice, in three separate segments (CNN Situation Room, 2/18/13, 2/19/13; NBC Meet the Press, 2/3/13), and Joy-Ann Reid of the Grio made the only appearance by an African-American woman (MSNBC Hardball, 2/18/13).
Only three sources were identified as current or former undocumented immigrants. CNN (Situation Room, 2/2/13) featured a story of an undocumented immigrant who feels threatened as the mother of a U.S. citizen baby. Her brother, who recently received temporary legal status, said, “We are pretty much Americans, even though we are undocumented, [so we] call ourselves undocumented Americans.”
Another soundbite (PBS NewsHour, 2/13/13), from a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, showed Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer-winning journalist who openly disclosed his undocumented status and actively advocates for immigrants rights, telling senators: “Immigration is about our future. Immigration is about all of us.”
This media disregard for immigrant voices in immigration-related stories isn’t new; at the height of the media spotlight on Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s policies that racially profiled people with brown skin, Extra! (5/09) found that Arpaio himself was featured on cable television 21 times over 12 months on immigration-related issues, while those targeted by his policies were only included in the conversation twice.
With politicians (111) and journalists (33, not including the show hosts or correspondents) dominating the discussion, the immigration issue was mainly framed around the political process and the implications for politicians, rather than the implications for immigrants and society as a whole.
The most prominent focus of discussion was border security. An estimate of $90 billion has been spent on border security for the past decade (Homeland Security News Wire, 6/30/11), yet both Democrats and Republicans continue to emphasize further strengthening border security. Florida’s Rubio (Fox Special Report, 2/12/13) framed the issue in national security terms: “What keeps me up at night is a terrorist coming across the border.”
According to a 2010 report (Homeland Security Office of Immigration Statistics, 1/10), however, undocumented immigrants were approximately one-third of the foreign-born population in 2009. Another study (Pew Hispanic Center, 3/22/06) estimates that 40–50 percent of the unauthorized immigrant population “entered the country legally through ports of entry.” This suggests that roughly 20 percent or less of the entire immigrant population gained entry by crossing the border illegally.
Regardless, the major discussion regarding border security was whether it should precede other actions (mainly a pathway to citizenship) or whether all steps should be tackled comprehensively.
This seemed to be split along politicians’ party affiliations, with Democrats support-ing the latter option and Republicans stressing border security above all. For example, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano (PBS NewsHour, 2/13/13) argued: “When you think about immigration reform...all these things go together. It is a system,” although she assured “the entire Southwest border [will remain] secure” (NBC Today Show, 2/5/13). Republican officials argued that securing the borders should come first, with Republican Rep. Lou Barletta (ABC This Week, 2/3/13) complaining, “We’re offering a pathway to citizenship without knowing that we could secure our borders.”
In addition to border security, some other topics were occasionally touched on, such as corporations’ thoughts on an E-verify system, the policy’s applicability to same-sex couples and amnesty for immigrants currently residing in the U.S. But with coverage focused on political debates and analysis of the reform package’s progress, media neglected to speak to the people most often spoken about in the controversy: immigrants themselves.
Across all seven networks, immigrant-centered opinions were noticeably missing. When mentioned, immigrants were mostly objectified as tools or obstacles for the U.S. economy or politics. Republican strategist Alex Castellanos (NBC Meet the Press, 2/17/13)—himself a naturalized American—said: “Right now, immigrants have no economic value in the American system. They have political value to Democrats.”
Alabama’s Rep. Spencer Bachus (Fox Special Report, 2/5/13) promoted the bill as addressing a “horrible situation”—but identified that situation as the U.S. “training people to go back to their countries and compete against us.” CNN senior political analyst Gloria Borger was one of many who saw immigration reform simply as a political issue, “given the fact that Republicans lost so badly with Hispanic voters in the last election” (Situation Room, 2/4/13).
Aside from the three current or former undocumented immigrant sources, the source who came closest to focusing on immigrants’ needs was Caesars Entertainment CEO Gary Loveman, who said: “I don’t need to suggest any solution. I think we need to resolve the circumstances favorably of the 11 million or so people who are in that situation” (CBS This Morning, 2/7/13). The only other immigrant-centered comment was from NBC’s host Chris Matthews (Meet the Press, 2/17/13), who stated, “We know we’ve had 11 million people come in the country illegally, we know we’d like something to be done compassionately toward them.”
But what few mentions—positive or negative—immigrants received disappeared as a whole when USA Today broke the story of the White House draft immigration bill (2/17/13), at which point the reports were dominated by responses from Republican politicians, and speculation about how this “leak” would affect the process. Outraged Republican politicians declared that “leaks don’t happen in Washington by accident” (NBC Meet the Press, 2/17/13) and the bill would be “dead on arrival.”
With the April 18 announcement of a new bill proposed by the bipartisan “group of eight” senators, even more heated public debates over immigration reform are sure to come. But if February’s coverage is any indication, those with the most at stake in those debates will be almost entirely ignored.
Dropping the I-Word
The use of derogatory labels for undocumented immigrants is still prevalent in media coverage, despite activists’ continuous campaign against them (Extra!, 3/11; ColorLines, “Drop the I-Word”). In February’s immigration policy coverage in the seven coded networks and shows, there were 39 mentions of the “i-word.”
Thirty-two uses of the word “illegal” were by show hosts and network correspondents, occurring on all seven networks; the other seven counts came from guests. NBC and ABC were reported to have “dropped the term” in 2012 (ABC News, 10/3/12), although they were the two networks whose hosts and correspondents used “illegal” most frequently in immigration policy stories—10 and six times, respectively. CNN (4/4/13) prefers to use “‘undocumented immigrant’ when referring to an individual,” although two correspondents and the host, Wolf Blitzer, let it slip once each (Situation Room, 2/2/13, 2/13/13, 2/18/13).
These numbers do not include all mentions in February, as stories not specifically about immigration policy used the word “illegal” to describe immigrants far more often. For example, ABC’s Good Morning America (2/27/13) flashed the graphic “Will illegal immigrants be released from jail?” when reporting the sequester’s effect on detained immigrants.
While television stations lack regulations or struggle to keep up with them, print media are stepping up for change. In 2011, the Society of Professional Journalists (9/28/11) passed a resolution to “stop the use of ‘illegal alien’” and re-evaluate “illegal immigrants.” The resolution described “illegal immigrant” as being politically charged, and “illegal alien” to be “more offensive and bureaucratic.” It also noted that “only the court system, not reporters and editors, can decide when a person has committed an illegal act.”
Since then, the Associated Press announced changes in its stylebook to drop “illegal” (FAIR Blog, 4/4/13; Poynter, 11/7/11). The New York Times (4/23/13) made policy updates to encourage “reporters and editors to ‘consider alternatives...to explain the specific circumstances of the person,’” although it did not change the policy entirely.