7 ways to inform news coverage of immigration at the southern U.S. border

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Reporters who cover immigration know it is a beat that intersects almost every other beat — economics, education, health, culture, national security and even sports.

The story of people moving across national borders has been told throughout human history. It bubbles up to the nation’s attention at certain moments, often when elected officials debate or disagree on immigration issues or policies, and it becomes a political story.

Recently, the national story of immigration at the southern U.S. border has focused on Title 42, which gives the U.S. Surgeon General the authority to prevent people from entering the U.S. for public health reasons, such as the presence of a communicable disease in another country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention invoked Title 42 in March 2020, shortly after COVID-19 reached the U.S. — the first time since the authority was made law during World War II that it had been extensively used.

U.S. authorities have since used Title 42 to expel nearly 2.5 million migrants at the southern border, compared with roughly 1,300 expulsions at the northern border. President Joe Biden’s administration has continued to use Title 42 for expulsions, while broadening pathways for migrants to legally stay in the U.S.

The current status of Title 42 is complicated. The Biden administration intended to rescind Title 42 in mid-2022, but in December the Supreme Court allowed those border restrictions to continue at the request of Republican attorneys general in 19 states. The back-and-forth over Title 42, across presidential administrations and through the courts, is indicative of the human, political and legal complexities related to movement across borders.

To help new and experienced journalists alike cover the breadth and depth of the story of immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, we reached out to five people who know a lot about how the system works. They have studied immigration as academics, served as legal counsel for migrants, or reported on immigration:

Here’s what they said.

1. Seek a firm foundation of knowledge on U.S. immigration.

Whether you are a journalist assigned an immigration story or a reporter dedicated to the immigration beat, “you’ve got to ground yourself in something before you can tell a story,” Dakin-Grimm says.

Appendix II of Dakin-Grimm’s 2020 book, “Dignity and Justice: Welcoming the Stranger at Our Border,” is a comprehensive overview of the U.S. immigration system. It explains the federal agencies involved, paths to citizenship and important definitions, such as the difference between an asylum seeker and refugee.

Realizing it can serve as a knowledge base for reporters new to immigration, or as a refresher for experienced reporters, Dakin-Grimm gave us permission to republish the appendix — read it here.

Other sources of information and experts include the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the Congressional Research Service, the Migration Policy Institute, the Center for Migration Studies, Undocumented Immigrants and Allies Knowledge Community, and Harvard Law School’s Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Clinic, among others.

Montoya-Galvez says going through non-profit groups that work directly with immigrants is a smart way to connect with people making the journey to and across the southern U.S. border.

2. Remember that immigrant and migrant journeys don’t begin at the border.

In English-language news about immigration topics, personal stories of migrants often begin at the southern U.S. border.

But the border is far from the start of the journey for migrants who often arrive after escaping violence or persecution in their home countries. Valentin-Llopis says this perspective is often lacking in news coverage.

“The crisis or conflict doesn’t start in Texas,” she says. “So, we’re missing that whole story, the back story of migrants. And we’re just picking that up from our U.S. border.”

Many news outlets will not be able or inclined to pay for reporters to spend weeks gathering stories that capture the entirety of migrant journeys. But there are already journalists doing excellent work in origin countries, Valentin-Llopis says. She suggests that if a news outlet can’t pay for one of its journalists to report from beyond the southern border, it could explore partnering with reporters and news outlets already doing that work in those countries. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is one organization that directs international journalism collaborations.

Stories about immigration are also often missing historical context. The broad story of migration is one of repetition: Many migrant groups coming to the U.S. have similar experiences to those that came in the decades and centuries prior.

3. Convey the lengthy and rich history of immigration to the U.S.

For most of the middle of the 20th century, the story of immigration into the U.S. was not a news story for most American media outlets. New York Times national editor Jia Lyn Yang recounts why in the prologue of her 2020 book, “One Mighty and Irresistible Tide”:

“The country did not regard immigration as worthy of discussion because, quite simply, there were not many immigrants. A 1924 law passed by Congress had instituted a system of ethnic quotas so stringent that large-scale immigration was choked off for decades. The quotas aimed to limit not only the volume of people entering the country but the type. In order to keep America white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, the laws sharply curtailed immigration from southern and eastern Europe and outright banned people from nearly all of Asia. More immigrants entered the country in the first decade of the twentieth century than between 1931 and 1971.”

The nation’s strict federal immigration quotas were eliminated in 1965 with the Immigration and Nationality Act, a sometimes-forgotten pillar of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society domestic legislative agenda, which included the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“Not everyone thinks about that as one of the important civil rights laws,” Tsai says. “But at the time [Johnson] certainly did. And the same civil rights coalition that helped push through the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act also looked at immigration as an inequality question.”

The history of immigration in the U.S. is long and winding — it is why there are so many books on the topic — and details or broad strokes of that history may not be conducive to the goals of a single news story. Yet, context is often critical, Tsai says. For example, if a politically powerful person expresses a policy affinity toward strict immigration quotas, it would be relevant to remind readers about quota laws from past eras and the political and social situations that led to them.

This example, from the third chapter of Boustan’s book, co-written with Stanford economist Ran Abramitzky, is why past is prologue — why it is important to remind audiences how the nation arrived at this moment in the immigration debate:

“Another unintended consequence of Johnson’s sweeping immigration reform was the new attention paid to the category of undocumented immigration. The 1965 bill imposed entry quotas on Mexican and Canadian immigrants for the first time, setting the stage for more than fifty years of policy focus on illegal border crossings, primarily at the southern border. In the same year, Congress phased out the Bracero guest worker program, imagining that eliminating guest workers would preserve agricultural jobs for US-born workers. Yet, with the program shuttered, many of the same Mexican immigrants who had arrived a few years before on Bracero contracts crossed the border, except they were now reclassified as ‘illegal’ immigrants and thus had reason to stay in the United States rather than hazard more border crossings.”

Context can also take the form of data. For example, when it comes to undocumented immigration, visa overstays regularly and widely outpace the number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the Center for Migration Studies.

In a comprehensive explainer on Title 42 published in January 2023, Montoya-Galvez includes data covering two decades showing a spike in migrant apprehensions at the southern U.S. border after Title 42 was invoked in 2020. It is a clear and effective way to provide long-view historical context, showing the role that COVID border restrictions have had in the highest apprehension levels since the early 2000s.

“I don’t think any editor for a major mainstream outlet is looking for an essay on the historical context behind every immigration policy rollout,” says Montoya-Galvez. “But I do think there are ways that we can include some historical context that is, from our perspective, key to discussing any part of the system. For example, when we talk about any type of congressional proposal on immigration, I think it would be a disservice to any audience to not highlight that Congress has not been able to reform the system in any significant way since the 1990s.”

TRAC, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, is a reliable source for immigration data, including Department of Homeland Security enforcement numbers and immigration court backlogs, wait times and other information that can inform public understanding of the legal side of the system.

The Immigration History Calendar is a crowdsourced repository of notable dates and events throughout U.S. immigration history that is worth bookmarking. Scroll to the bottom of this article for more recommended reading and resources.

4. Note and explain the difference between law and policy.

In the immigration system, laws are rules and policies are how elected executors — state governors or U.S. presidents, for example — implement those rules. Policies can change when administrations change.

“Every president has the ability to affect how [federal] law is implemented in certain ways,” Dakin-Grimm says.

Federal policies that do not follow the law, or that interested parties think do not follow the law, often end up in federal court.

Laws are passed by legislatures — the U.S. Congress, for example — and are usually slower to change or update than policies. The Immigration Act of 1990, which raised the yearly number immigrants allowed into the country and prioritized highly skilled and educated workers, was the last time federal legislators took substantive action on immigration.

Dakin-Grimm recommends journalists remind audiences that policies, even those at the federal level with far-reaching consequences, may be tenuous in the long-term.

A straightforward example happened in late 2020, when Trump capped the number of refugees the U.S. would accept at 15,000 — a historically low number. Biden reversed course after he became president, upping the cap to 125,000.

A more complex example is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, which became DHS policy in June 2012 under a directive from then-President Barack Obama.

DACA has allowed people whose parents brought them to the U.S. as children, without legal documents, to legally work, attend college and receive health insurance without fear of deportation. Obama’s successor, President Donald Trump, announced in September 2017 that his administration would phase out DACA.

Lawsuits followed, and DACA’s fate lay with federal judges.

The Supreme Court in June 2020 prevented the Trump administration from ending DACA, with Chief Justice John Roberts stressing the court’s ruling was not based on the merits of the policy but rather that the administration failed to provide a “reasoned explanation” for its termination.

By January 2021, President Joe Biden formally reinstated DACA through an executive order. In October 2022, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen reaffirmed a previous ruling that the current version of DACA is illegal, preventing new applications but allowing those already approved to continue to be in the program.

The DACA saga is a reminder that policies can change, or be put in peril, with a pen stroke from a judge or elected official.

5. Observe how news media that report in other languages cover immigration.

News outlets that report primarily in a language other than English can offer a different fundamental perspective for journalists who report in English, says Valentin-Llopis.

Recalling her experience analyzing coverage from newspapers El Universal and Reforma in Mexico, Valentin-Llopis learned that in Mexico there is a cultural norm that permits anyone to pass through their states without being detained.

“That changes a little bit the way they frame stories,” she says.

It is not a point of view many Americans hold — that people should be able to pass through U.S. territory if they are not legally allowed to be there. Valentin-Llopis suggests journalists who are American should be aware of their own cultural frameworks, how those frameworks inform and affect their reporting, and learn how journalists in other countries, such as Mexico and Central America, cover immigration topics.

Montoya-Galvez, who worked for the Spanish-language TV network Telemundo in New York, notes that Spanish-language media in the U.S. generally cover immigration topics more than English-language media. They often focus on the potential consequences that policy changes may have on immigrant communities.

That focus is a natural byproduct of the audiences that Spanish-language news media serve, but it is nonetheless food for thought for English-language outlets covering immigration in areas that also have large immigrant populations.

6. Think of immigration as an issue whose consequences reverberate across generations — like climate change.

Boustan and Abramitzky in their 2022 book write that “we need to design our immigration policy at the level of generations; the immigrants of today are the Americans of tomorrow.”

The scope of generations can be difficult to achieve in news coverage of a specific movement of people to and across borders, such as groups of Hondurans who moved northward toward the U.S. border in the late 2010s, in part because they were unable to survive on farmland made arid from climate change.

Boustan suggests that, in recent years, coverage of climate change itself has taken a grander view, widening the scope to consider the human and economic toll of a warming planet in the decades ahead. This expansive type of news coverage can be instructive in covering immigration as a generational issue. There is a big story, an “incredibly important existential story,” she says, beyond any particular movement of people.

For example, there are long-term demographic and labor issues at play, Boustan says. Which global economic powerhouse will have the people needed to do the work to keep its economy churning in the future? The population of China, for example, recently shrunk for the first time in over half a century. With people in advanced economies living longer than ever, which countries will have the labor force to provide the services and care that older populations need?

The framing of a story or series on the interplay between demographics and labor doesn’t necessarily have to revolve around a world-power-versus-world-power narrative, Boustan says. The core question is: Will there be enough workers to do the jobs that cannot be replaced by technology — care for older people, child care, and so on? With new arrivals to the U.S. a potential source to fill some of that labor demand, this is a question waiting for more journalistic insights.

7. Avoid horse race reporting about immigration.

Boustan and Abramitzky analyzed political speeches about immigration in the Congressional Record and find that prior to World War II, “Republican and Democratic representatives … were equally likely to give anti-immigration speeches.” Since then, they find that congressional speeches about immigration have become more pro-immigration on the whole, but also more polarized. They write in their book:

“From the types of words that representatives use in their speeches, it is clear that Republicans and Democrats view immigrants through different lenses. Republicans are increasingly likely to use words related to crime, illegality, and violence in their speeches about immigration, whereas Democrats use terms related to family and community.”

Valentin-Llopis suggests reporting that resembles horse race journalism — for example, focusing on the rhetorical back-and-forth among politicians — is overdone and ultimately not illuminating for audiences who want to understand the full scope of immigration issues. She further suggests there is a lack of coverage, and holding to account of, political leaders in countries in Central America and other regions where many immigrants to the U.S. have recently come from.

Holding politicians accountable includes noting their use of politicized terminology. Montoya-Galvez, in addition to reporting on the stories of immigrants, is also tasked with covering U.S. policy and politics around immigration. He advises taking care with the language that elected officials sometimes use: An “invasion” of migrants, for example. “Invasion,” he notes, has a precise definition unrelated to anything happening with migrants at the southern border.

Journalists should not ignore such language, since elected officials are “in positions of power,” Montoya-Galvez says. “But I do think there are ways that we can characterize their criticism, which is mainly that they believe the [presidential] administration has been too lenient on this issue. We can describe these policy disagreements without having to rely on these, in some ways, dehumanizing and not accurate criticisms of what’s happening.”

Recommended reading

Research

“Computational Analysis of 140 years of US Political Speeches reveals more positive but increasingly polarized Framing of Immigration.” Dallas Card, et. al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 2022.

“COVID-Related Restrictions on Entry into the United States under Title 42: Litigation and Legal Considerations.” Congressional Research Service, December 2020.

“Do Human Capital Decisions Respond to the Returns to Education? Evidence from DACA,” Elira Kuka, Na’ama Shenhav and Kevin Shih. American Economic Journal, February 2020.

“An Investigation of the Conceptualization of Peace and War in Peace Journalism Studies of Media Coverage of National and International Conflicts,” Valerie Gouse, Mariely Valentin-Llopis and Beryl Nyamwange. Media, War & Conflict, November 2018.

“Media Production in a Transnational Setting: Three Models of Immigrant Journalism,” Moses Shumow. Journalism, February 2014.

“Unintended Consequences of US Immigration Policy: Explaining the Post-1965 Surge from Latin America,” Douglas Massey and Karen Pren. Population Development Review, July 2012.

From The Journalist’s Resource

How the news media portray Latinos in stories and images: 5 studies to know. Aug. 8, 2020.

Mental health issues among immigrants: New research. Nov. 16, 2018.

Covering immigration: What reporters get wrong and how to get it right. July 24, 2018.

Books

Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success. Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan, 2022.

Reporting Immigration Conflict: Opportunities for Peace Journalism. Mariely Valentin-Llopis, 2021.

Dignity and Justice: Welcoming the Stranger at Our Border. Linda Dakin-Grimm, 2020.

The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. Greg Grandin, 2020.

One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle over American Immigration, 1924-1965. Jia Lynn Yang, 2020.

Conflicted: Voices of Central American Migrants. Catalina Rodríguez Tapia, 2020.

Practical Equality: Forging Justice in a Divided Nation. Robert Tsai, 2019.


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