Tuesday, May 31, 2016
Immigrant advocates are used to fighting uphill battles, in courtrooms, in Congress and, yes, in the media. But many of us were horrified to hear lopsided, derogatory reporting on Central American asylum-seekers from NPR this morning, which has done so many more balanced stories in the past (including at least one by the same reporter). “Disappointing,” said one of our colleagues. “Appalling,” said another. A clinician confessed she “was yelling at my radio this morning.” I confess I was swearing at it, despite having a child in the back seat of the car.
Words matter. The word “amnesty” has become politically toxic since its more benign beginnings as a descriptor for the Reagan-era legalization program that was part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. Now, amnesty is used by anti-immigrant entities to decry every humble effort to restore a degree of sanity or humanity to our immigration laws, very much including prosecutorial discretion efforts.
So, hearing Central American refugees described as applying for amnesty rose above mere inaccuracy, and became part of the toxic rhetoric surrounding all immigration. As a letter quickly signed by dozens of law professors and lawyers responded,
Amnesty simply does not exist today, except as a derogatory term used mostly by immigration restrictionists…By contrast, asylum law permits those fleeing persecution to seek asylum at and inside our borders, and our international refugee convention obligations prohibit us from returning them to the country where they have a well-founded fear of persecution. The migrants described in this story who turned themselves in to immigration officials to seek asylum are obeying our laws, and characterization of them as lawbreakers—which is implied by the erroneous “amnesty” term, is absolutely wrong as a legal matter.
Rhetoric shapes policy, as my colleague Emily Torstveit Ngara has powerfully shown, and conflating our refugee convention obligations with the political third-rail of “amnesty” from a media source as reliable as NPR can do enormous damage. This is especially true where the Administration itself seems to back away from embracing refugee law, and position these refugees as people seeking a benefit they are not eligible for.
While the amnesty/asylum mistake may have just been a mistake, albeit a harmful one, almost as disturbing was the casual use of “catch and release” as though that phrase had legal meaning behind it. It does not. The government has no policy called “catch and release,” and the only entities I can find who use it are anti-immigrant entities like NumbersUSA and CIS (hyperlinks intentionally omitted). Even newspapers that use the term link back to those organizations, not to government policy. By adopting the casual jargon of Customs and Border Protection officials, the reporter dignified a phrase that reduces immigration to policy to sport—comparing refugees fleeing violence to fish and sport. For those of us who “catch” those lucky enough to be released from family detention, we know we are seeing traumatized, fearful people who are desperate for safety. This is not a sport for them, but a matter of life and death, and jaunty cool-kid phrasing like “catch and release” has no business being part of the discussion.
And beyond legal terminology and harmful rhetoric, the story depicted a world in which the wrongs of 2014 (hieleras, overcrowding, and “dirty bewildered young immigrants,” as the reporter described them) had been righted by the construction of new facilities. As lawsuits and reports keep showing, that is far from the moral and legal truth. Legally, there is no justification for locking up individual families as a general policy of deterrence against future would-be refugees. Morally, we should be appalled that our government houses these families in conditions where children cannot run and play like children, where medical care is inadequate, and where access to legal representation is sharply limited. Minimizing these ongoing harms with reference to “well-run church camps” (itself a correction from the on-air “cheery church camps”) is simply wrong, and in poor journalistic form to omit any mention of the other (strong and well-documented) side of the family detention issue.
Hopefully tomorrow morning, we can just focus fighting the frightening lawlessness of the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee. But in the meantime, let’s make sure the more balanced areas of the media play fair to an issue of the utmost importance to our commitment to the rule of law, to justice, to human rights, and to the well-earned dignity of the people seeking asylum in this country.