The False Debate Over ‘Broken Borders’

Since 2005, much of the mainstream media has been rife with coverage of what has been called “immigration reform”—a policy debate over what kind of immigration legislation would be passed among a narrow range of options. One pole of the legislative debate was the McCain-Kennedy proposal, which would have created a temporary or “guest” worker program, followed by conditional and heavily delayed legalization of workers. The other was the Sensenbrenner Bill, passed by the House in December 2005, which would, among other harsh provisions, turn undocumented immigrants into felons and massively increase detentions and deportations.

Either measure by itself would be the biggest change in U.S. immigration law since 1996, when Congress restricted economic and legal benefits for immigrants, and vastly expanded grounds for deportation and detention of immigrants. There has not been an amnesty or other large-scale legalization of the millions of undocumented people in the United States since 1986. The information that the American public is receiving is therefore of enormous and direct consequence to tens of millions of people and indirectly to billions.

As an example of how immigration policies affect people around the world, the World Bank’s 2003 Global Development Finance report noted:

Remittance flows [from immigrant workers] are the second-largest source, behind FDI [foreign direct investment], of external funding for developing countries. In 2001, workers’ remittance receipts of developing countries stood at $72.3 billion, much higher than total official flows and private non-FDI flows, and 42 percent of total FDI flows to developing countries.

Unfortunately, despite the global significance of immigration legislation and immeasurable effects on individual lives, there have been deep flaws in media coverage of the legislative debate. In particular, large segments of the media have biased their coverage towards a pro-business standpoint on the debate, which is misleadingly portrayed as a pro-immigrant position; the opposition to this view is a racialized, nativist perspective that is misrepresented as advocacy for U.S.-born workers. Actual pro-immigrant, pro-worker and international points of view have been almost entirely absent.

Constructing a false dichotomy between the harsh nativist measures being considered by the House of Representatives and the more business-friendly measures endorsed by the Senate, the media have also fostered an unjustified sense of urgency to promote sweeping legislation that is likely to end up harming immigrants and non-immigrant U.S. workers alike.

Mainstream media have helped to set the terms of the debate by endlessly repeating catchphrases and buzzwords like “porous borders” and “comprehensive immigration reform.” Consider the adjective “broken,” widely used to describe the current immigration system. The New York Times editorialized last year (9/26/05) on “American’s broken immigration policy,” calling the system “unsafe and unfair.” The Denver Post (3/9/06) and Miami Herald (3/6/06) editorialized against the “broken immigration system.” The Des Moines Register (8/28/05) declared, “The current immigration system is clearly broken, as evidenced by the estimated 11 million immigrants in the United States without documentation.”

Some outlets have chosen to describe the situation as a “crisis” instead. CNN’s Lou Dobbs (4/13/06), in a frequent refrain, said that the United States “is facing an unprecedented immigration and border security crisis.” The American Prospect’s November 2005 issue was likewise devoted to “Solving the Immigration Crisis” (subhead: “The Road to Comprehensive Reform”).

This alleged immigration “crisis” seems to have been going on for at least a decade. In a July 1996 letter to the New York Times (7/11/96), Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson referred to “the nation’s immigration crisis,” during a year in which Congress passed bills to extensively increase jailing and deportations and deny financial benefits to both documented and undocumented immigrants. But this history of crisis rhetoric—which recalls similar talk during the Social Security debate and the leadup to the Iraq War—did not spark questions about what exactly the current “crisis” consists of.

Once the media accepted that the system is “broken” or in “crisis,” they quickly moved to the conclusion that a solution is urgently needed and began to cheerlead. In describing the current effort to pass legislation related to immigration, much of the media coverage has adopted the word “reform”—and thereby promoted support for immediate legislative action. According to a Google News search of U.S. sources (3/18/06), in the 30 days prior, 2,540 media pieces used the phrase “immigration reform.” In comparison, only 1,210 used the more neutral phrase “immigration bill,” and only 687 used the phrase “immigration legislation.”

“Immigration reform” generally consisted of some variation on the contents of the McCain-Kennedy proposal—legislation that would create a permanent class of second-class workers while establishing a heavily delayed and conditional legalization program, usually referred to as “earned legalization” or “a path to citizenship,” along with harsher enforcement measures at the border.

“A get-tough enforcement strategy should be coupled with move toward a guest-worker program,” editorialized the San Jose Mercury News (3/19/06). “Immigration reform legislation being debated in Congress must regulate the flow of migration and tie it to U.S. labor needs,” declared the Baltimore Sun (3/7/06).

60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley said in a CBS News “Reporter’s Notebook” (, 12/9/05) that the only way to “stem the tide of illegal immigration” would be to “go to where illegal migrants are working and kick them out” or “come up with some kind of effective guest-worker program.”

Nativist views like those of CNN’s Dobbs (see page 22) and the House of Representatives provided a useful foil to the preferred corporate media solution of “guestworkers.” The result was a narrow public discussion reflecting the terms set by policymakers and lobbyists for business interests, with sops to immigration restrictionists, including increased surveillance and force at the Mexican border, with no remedies for the criminalization and workplace exploitation of immigrants.

The New York Times (5/21/05) summed up this debate: “The arrival last week in the U.S. Congress of a sweeping, bipartisan immigration proposal brought forth the usual conflict between those who want a solution and those who just want an emotional issue to howl about.” The Times was distinguishing between those who accept the business-friendly “reform” proposal and the nativists who reject such a plan; those who see a two-tiered workforce divided by citizenship as not being in the interests of either immigrants or native-born workers are entirely out of the picture.

News columns as well as opinion commentary attempted to enforce this truncated debate. Consider “U.S. Bill to Broaden Immigration Law Gains in Senate” (3/28/06) by Rachel Swarns, the New York Times beat reporter on the subject. The article covered—and promoted—the late March compromise reached in the Senate Judiciary Committee that used portions of the McCain-Kennedy bill in combination with more restrictionist provisions.

Swarns emphasized that the bill would “legalize the United States’ 11 million illegal immigrants and ultimately . . . grant them citizenship” (if they meet certain conditions), and would “allow roughly 400,000 foreigners to come to the United States to work each year and would put them on a path to citizenship as well.” She reported that the plan “was quickly hailed by Democrats, a handful of Republicans and business leaders, as well as by the immigrant advocacy organizations and church groups that have sent tens of thousands of supporters of immigrant rights into the streets of a number of cities to push for such legislation in recent days.”

Swarns mentioned that the bill “includes provisions to strengthen border security,” and much farther down in the article pointed out that the legislation “would nearly double the number of Border Patrol agents over the next five years, criminalize the construction of tunnels into the United States from another country and speed the deportation of illegal immigrants from countries other than Mexico.”

But Swarns missed some other aspects of the Senate Judiciary bill that were later pointed out by the Immigrant Defense Project of the New York State Defenders Association (3/31/06): The bill would expand the types of criminal offenses that lead to mandatory jailing and deportation, allow lifetime detention of immigrants who cannot be deported, fund an additional 10,000 detention beds for immigrants and increase anti-immigrant cooperation between local and federal police.

Nancy Morawetz, a New York University law professor who is sympathetic to immigrants, says that this is a general trend in media coverage. In an email, she points to “lack of attention to unnecessary, inhumane and costly detention policies; restrictions on access to the courts; increase in mandatory grounds for removing noncitizens with status who have been residents most of their lives; [and] criminalization of the undocumented.”

Meanwhile, progressive pro-worker, pro-immigrant or international perspectives have been almost completely absent. For example, with all of the discussion of how the immigration system is “broken,” there has been scant coverage on the massive increase in jailing and deportations in the past 10 years, something that would likely have been brought up had progressive organizations like the Immigrant Defense Project been represented.

Despite Swarns’ claim that the Senate Judiciary bill was “hailed by . . . immigrant advocacy organizations,” many local progressive organizations have publicly objected to various provisions or the entire legislative approach, though their complaints were practically uncited. These include the Break the Chains Coalition, Chinese Staff and Workers Association, Families For Freedom, Friends of Farmworkers and the Drum Major Institute, just to name a few who have presence in the northeastern United States. Though they objected from a variety of perspectives and offered a variety of proposals as fixes, these organizations received a total of four hits in a Google News search of U.S.-based sources for the 30 days prior to March 19, before the massive rally in Los Angeles began calling media attention to immigrant activism.

Instead of viewpoints from such critical groups, or pro-immigrant experts like Morawetz, those who have been selected by the media to represent the “pro-immigrant” side of this debate are generally people like Frank Sharry, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum.

The National Immigration Forum is a pro-immigration lobbying group based in Washington, D.C. It has played a lead role in bringing immigrant groups and unions to support the business-friendly McCain-Kennedy bill, even going so far as to say that it is too light on enforcement provisions (American Prospect, 11/05). A Google News search on March 19 shows that, in the prior 30 days, 98 pieces from U.S.-based sources contained the phrases “National Immigration Forum” and “immigration reform.” On the other hand, the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights—one of the few national pro-immigrant organizations that consistently refused to endorse any of the existing legislative options—received no hits for an analogous search.

Inclusion of a greater diversity of “pro-immigrant” sources might have shifted the focus from D.C. politics to a fuller description of the substance and potential impact of these proposals. The ethnic press has done a better job of this. Consider “McCain Against Amnesty,” a recent cover story in Caribbean Life (3/7/06). The article, covering a rally organized by immigrant lobbyists, states that McCain was “clearly out of touch with the true state of affairs” in New York, because he “spoke as though it’s very easy for immigrants to find affordable English language classes, legal representation, etc.” This level of detail on the real-world effects of the media’s preferred solution on immigrants is virtually absent in mainstream newspaper pages.

In general, the ethnic press has offered a level of detail on immigrant lives that the mainstream media has simply ignored. For example, the March 6 issue of El Diario/La Prensa reported that there has been a 78 percent rise in deportation orders over the past five years, including over 220,000 orders in 2005 alone.

From the replication of the terms of the debate from Washington to the creation of an artificial sense of urgency to pass a bill to the backing of business-friendly proposals that would assist immigrants insofar as they provide cheap labor, segments of the mainstream media did little to serve immigrants, native-born U.S. workers or people in the rest of the world. Only with the shock of the massive demonstration in Los Angeles and elsewhere have the mainstream media finally begun to notice immigrant perspectives that go significantly beyond asking for guestworker status.

Birth of a Factoid

Coverage of a recent study by Jeffrey Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center on undocumented immigrants in the United States (3/7/06) illustrates how facts are constructed in the immigration debate. The organization’s website states that the report provides “an estimate of 11.5 to 12 million [unauthorized migrants] as of March 2006,” based on a comparison of Census and Department of Homeland Security data combined with statistical projections.

The three-page executive summary of the report—available on the web—prominently states that “some migrants in this estimate have legal authorization to live and work in the United States on a temporary basis. . . . Together they may account for as much as 10 percent of the estimate.” In other words, his estimate of actual undocumented immigrants may be as low as 10.4 million people. Additionally, Passel also states that a large number of these individuals are people who have overstayed a visa—in and of itself, not currently a crime—making Passel’s uses the phrase “unauthorized migrants” more appropriate than “illegal immigrants.”

Nonetheless, a number of prominent outlets took this information and reported it as an estimate of 12 million “illegal immigrants.” The San Francisco Chronicle article on the report (3/7/06) was headlined “Estimate: Illegal Immigrant Population in Country Hits 12 Million.” A later article in the Chronicle (3/17/06) twice dropped the qualifications, referring to “the 12 million illegal immigrants” in the United States as not an estimate but a fact. Numerous other outlets used the 12 million figure, including AP (3/7/06), Reuters (Washington Post, 3/16/06), Los Angeles Times (3/9/06) and NPR’s All Things Considered (3/7/06).

Unfortunately, despite being a skewed presentation of Passel’s report—itself only an attempt to estimate a number extremely difficult, and perhaps impossible, to pin down— this new figure has been repeated enough times to have become a media fact.