As immigrants march, controversy marches with them

Public Editor

Public Editor


Major newspapers have given prominent play to the recent demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of illegal Hispanic immigrants and their supporters protesting efforts to toughen the nation's immigration laws.

The proposed legislation would make being in the United States without authorization a felony, build a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexican border and bar illegal immigrants already here from gaining legal status. There are an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

The Sun's May 3 editions featured three photos and two articles about local and national demonstrations. Other newspapers, such as The Washington Post, The Washington Times and The New York Times, gave the story similar play.

Some Sun readers complained that the coverage was too prominent and too positive, but it is hard to deny that these events were major news. Still, the negative reaction to coverage of the demonstrations and of the immigration story in general should be taken seriously.

The key issue - illegal immigration - often has become obscured by sideshow debates about language usage (the Spanish version of "The Star-Spangled Banner") and the patriotism of legal immigrants.

"The media has not been very helpful over the last six months in defining the illegal immigrant and specifying the problems caused by this population," said reader Donald T. Hart. "In so many newspaper articles one finds the term immigrant loosely used, so that one does not know if the writer is fully aware of the subject matter."

Other readers complain that the media have failed to properly report on the effect of illegal immigration in the job market and the workplace, and on social services, health care and the public schools.

Reader Ron Wirsing believes the financial impact of 11 million illegal immigrants' potentially receiving amnesty and eventual U.S. citizenship has been mostly ignored.

"Since the entitlement programs - Social Security and Medicare - are approaching bankruptcy, I think this should be a big topic for discussion and reporting," Wirsing said. "I think too much of the coverage has been on the emotional side and not enough on the financial side."

Wirsing makes a good point. Reporting in The Sun and other newspapers has tended to focus more on the personal and on human-interest stories than on the more complex issues of how illegal immigration is affecting our society's fabric.

Given the intensity of the current dialogue, a historical perspective has value. Sun reporter Michael Hill's May 7 piece, "Immigration debate old as U.S.," was designed to give readers a broader understanding of American attitudes toward immigration.

The article's main point is that reaction to immigrants, who have been both welcomed and condemned through U.S. history, "illustrates a paradox at the heart of this national enterprise - at once America is a country of immigrants and a country threatened by immigrants."

Hill's reporting shows that although the present situation is dominated by relations with Mexico, with its large border and a high number of illegal immigrants arriving in the U.S. by land, many economic and social issues today are similar to those in the past.

A key difference, however, is that - as Hill wrote - this generation of immigrants have been outspoken in their own defense. This may be the most important aspect of the current situation.

The chairwoman of the history department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Kriste Lindenmeyer, said: "I want to compliment you on your immigration article. It is obvious that you did careful research connecting the past to current issues as well as finding the differences."

But reader Hart said: "Hill's article opens as if the current controversy dwells around the fact that the U.S. population does not want an influx of Hispanic immigrants. The controversy concerns the illegal immigrant."

Surveys and polls indicate that the question of legal versus illegal immigrants has become more important to Americans. Some believe that the stories of immigrants who follow proper channels to obtain citizenship are overshadowed by stories about illegal immigrants and the challenges they face.

Future reporting must examine these and other social and economic ramifications in greater depth.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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