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Covering the Undocumented

From the outset of filming her report on college students who were not U.S. citizens, documentary journalist and then graduate student Catherine Orr steered clear of come common tools for crafting news stories about non-residents wanting to conceal their identity.

However, in light of several highly public situations, “What I didn’t want to do,” said Orr, 29, producer of “Dreams Delayed,” a 2011 long-form, multimedia news fea­ture on college access for undocumented immigrants, “is put up a barrier between the viewer and the [interviewed] by blurring their faces. The blur almost au­tomatically makes them seem criminal­ized.”

She aimed, instead, to explore the nu­anced, everyday lives of her documentary subjects, the human beings forming the backdrop to the hot-button immigra­tion debate. She was reaching for an ex­panded story that relied neither on pithy, if shrieking, sound bytes nor easy clichés, said Orr and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professors who oversaw her project and are among those trying to refine the standards for cover­ing immigration issues, the simple and the complex.

For starters, Paul Cuadros, one of Orr’s UNC professors, provided advice derived partly from his prior experience as an award-winning investigative reporter on subjects including race, poverty and immigration. “Find out what is the gen­eral policy of that publication or station — or whatever medium you’re working in — about using sources who want to remain anonymous or have their identity protected,” said Cuadros, a former staffer at the Chicago Reporter and former re­searcher and writer for the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. Now a freelancer, he covers Latinos in the South for Time magazine.

Cuadros continued, “If they don’t have [a policy], negotiate with that editor a way to do your story about people who don’t have papers. After that, consider carefully, being truthful and honest with the source about what might happen, what impact that story may have in the media and in the life of the source. … Decide for yourself how much anonym­ity you want to provide for your source, how you’re going to end up shooting the story or reporting the story.”

The deportation dilemma


The potential pitfalls are real.

“Deportation,” said former newsroom staffer Elaine Rivera, a journalism pro­fessor at the City University of New York’s Lehman College whose students include the undocumented, “is the big­gest and most obvious risk.”

That’s what happened, notably, to a woman quoted in a Tulsa World article on a program aiding immigrants residing illegally in Oklahoma. “She was arrested and deported by ICE [Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency]. That was shocking,” said Phuong Ly, a fellow with the Oakland, Calif.-based Institute for Journalism and Justice. ICE is best known for policing, as examples, immi­grants alleged to be child sex traffickers or perpetrators of Serbian genocide, not those such as the immigrant woman in question.

Allowed re-entry into the United States since her deportation, she was in the pro­cess of having her request for U.S. resi­dency adjudicated, Ly said. That fact, and the reality that individual members of whole families can be at different points along a trajectory toward winning legal residency, are among the fine-points sometimes missing from current cover­age of immigrant communities — which also happen not only to be Latino, Ly said.

Those fine-points were parsed at a re­cent conference on covering immigration during the 2012 elections. Situated at the University of Oklahoma, the training was provided by the Institute and orga­nized by Ly, a former Washington Post reporter.

“Several of the reporters present said that [the deportation of the woman re­siding in Oklahoma] would never have happened in their cities. … It was an interesting perspective,” said Ly, also founder and executive director of Gate­way California, a consultancy on cover­ing immigration, spawned by her 2011 Stanford University Knight Fellowship.

Indeed, large municipalities and smaller ones can and do differ in their ap­proach to and policing of undocumented immigrants, Ly added. Even so, it’s best that reporters avoid presumptions about the undocumented and the players and ac­tivities swirling around them, she said. The big-city journalists among 14 attendees at that Oklahoma conference — just one of those journalists hailed from the state — expressed surprise that an Oklahoma school district operated a public charter school disproportionately populated by U.S.-born children of undocumented im­migrants and undocumented students alike.

Likewise, Ly said she was forced to cor­rect a colleague who questioned why for­mer journalist Jerry Kammer, a Pulitzer Prize winner whose coverage has included that of undocumented factory workers in Arizona, was tapped to address the Okla­homa gathering. A senior research fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., some have branded Kammer as anti-immigration. Actually, he has argued both for stanching the flood of illegal immigrants — saying the nation cannot afford for it to continue — and easing the path to citizenship for, among others, students targeted by the proposed DREAM Act.

The DREAM Act, introduced in 2001, out­lines a timeframe and path to permanent U.S. residency for undocumented immi­grants who enroll in college or the military as long as they came to this country as minors; graduated from a U.S. high school; and are of “good moral character.”

As essential as such a proposal may be to the futures of undocumented youth, Ly said, it’s the kind of legislation about which many kids in that Oklahoma school likely are barely aware. “These kids are so con­cerned about the practicalities of everyday living, whether they’ll come home and one of their parents has been deported or how to get documents to get jobs so they can support their families, … whether they live in a place where there’s public transporta­tion to get to a job,” said Ly, whose family was transplanted to North Carolina in 1979, part of a wave of Vietnamese refu­gees welcomed by the U.S. government.

Those children’s experiences merit more news coverage. So does, say, contrasting the experiences of immigrants in rural America and those in urban America; im­migrants in well-paying jobs and those who increasingly are in fields and factories and, more broadly, the nation’s labor force, she and others said. They also are the very stories often not being executed, especially as newsroom staffs and resources diminish, journalists and journalism educators said.

“Newsrooms tend to cover what’s hot now, but not communities as they’re growing and changing. The 2006 marches [against stricter immigration laws] were hot. After the marches were over, [im­migration] stopped being a hot issue for a while. But immigration is constantly a story,” Ly said.

Her columns for the Poynter Institute, a training center for journalists in St. Peters­burg, Fla., have included tips on covering immigrants, documented and not, those newly arrived and those who’ve been here for generations; how to build relationship with community organizations working with the undocumented and willing to help a reporter get the story; what to do when one doesn’t speak the immigrant’s language.

Even among immigrants, Ly cautioned, personal stories and opinions on the topic vary widely. It’s essential that reporters are mindful of that, too.

Another vantage point

For her part, multimedia journalist Orr said she sought in “Dreams Delayed: Ac­cess to Higher Education for Undocu­mented Students” to add to the body of news stories that encourages a reasoned, civil discussion on the issue, without being obscured by politics.

Orr relies on her subjects’ recorded voices, chronicling their personal tri­umphs, travails and hopes. And instead of blurring faces or casting her subjects in silhouetted shadow, she filmed, as an ex­ample, hands and feet in motion. There’s the anonymous former college student whose forearms are doing push-ups, fluff­ing a pillow as he makes his bed, tossing a backpack over his shoulder and heading out the door as the camera trails him. He spent one semester at North Carolina State University, paying for it with $7,000 of his father’s savings and a $7,000 loan for which his father signed, before it became clear that he couldn’t afford to return, he tells Orr. His American-born younger sister would pay half that in tuition, and be eli­gible for taxpayer-financed aid.

Also, Orr presents the face and voice of a student who has quite publicly declared that he is not a legal resident. “When you’re seeing their face or telling their name, if someone felt that they wanted to cause harm, or whatever would be the motivation for alerting the authorities to their pres­ence, that can be a danger for your source.”

Added Cuadros, also author of “A Home On the Field,” chronicling the fight for community acceptance by Latino high school soccer players in Siler City, N.C.: “The Dreamers, when you talk to them, will say they can’t live in the shadows anymore. For them, going public is a ca­thartic. … The question is this: The [leg­islation] has been delayed year after year, and there’s no resolution. … If these stu­dents who are public about being undocu­mented age into their late 20s and early 30s, what happens to them then?”

That uncertain future merits news sto­ries, despite the present shortfalls in news­room staffs, Lehman College’s Rivera said. And despite the current surge in deporta­tions and a decline in illegal immigration driven partly by global recession, undoc­umented immigrants remain a sizable presence. Not adequately covering those communities signals “a colossal failure of American media,” she said.

“For the reporter, these days, covering such a complex topic as immigration is just hard, hard work,” Rivera said. “When I was at Newsday I could stand in front of some immigrant’s door for six hours, waiting for that person and get paid for that. [Most newsrooms] don’t do that anymore. More and more, this kind of work has to be a mission.”

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