Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Immigration Status Identifiers in Crime News Stories


I previously blogged about a horrible incident earlier this month in Sacramento, which restrictionist advocates were seeking to exploit for political gain.  This post is a follow-up.

Immigration Status Identifiers in Crime News Stories

Terminology has proven to be tricky in public discussions of immigration.  Recognizing that the terms “alien” and “illegal alien” dehumanize human beings and rationalize their harsh treatment, news services now refer to undocumented immigrants.  For similar reasons, a proposed immigration reform bill would replace “alien” with “noncitizen” in the U.S. immigration laws. 

Reference to a suspected criminal’s undocumented status in a news story also may be problematic.  Consider this March 8, 2022 Fox News headline:  “Gunman who Killed Three Daughters in California Church was in US Illegally.” By tapping into popular stereotypes, such references inflame passions about—and in effect constitute subtle racial code for--Latina/o immigrants.  The salacious reference to a person’s immigration status results in the same kinds of damages as referring to an “African American” criminal defendant, which best journalistic practices generally prohibit.  Such references to immigrant status generally should be similarly avoided in crime news stories.

A Recent Example of News Exploitation of the Undocumented Immigrant

Last week, press outlets across the nation reported on a tragedy at a church in Sacramento, California.  On a supervised visit, a father, a Mexican citizen reportedly with mental health and drug problems, killed his three children and a chaperone before killing himself at a church.  Following an Associated Press (AP) report that the suspect had overstayed his visa and thus was not authorized to be in the United States, a local Sacramento news station reported that:  “David Mora Rojas . . . used a ‘ghost gun’ [a manufactured gun without registration] in the shooting.  Mora Rojas also overstayed his visa after entering California from his native Mexico” (emphasis added). 

AP originally speculated in its report “that a possible motive [for the killings] was fear of being separated from the children through deportation.”  In correcting the story, AP later admitted that “the AP did not have the reporting to substantiate that as a possible motivation.”

Oddly, rather than focus on mental health, drugs, or the proliferation of “ghost guns,” news agencies and politicians have seized on the news report about the father's immigration status and attempted to make a family tragedy into an immigration issue.  For example, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, currently running for Congress, declared in a Facebook post that blame for “this horrific tragedy” should be placed on “the deplorable state of our national immigration policies, and California’s Sanctuary State Laws.” 

Sensationalism in news stories unfortunately is nothing new.  It occurs regularly in reports about immigrants.  Although Fox News highlighted the undocumented status in the Sacramento case, such treatment is not confined to conservative news outlets, with

the mainstream AP gratuitously referring to the Sacramento suspect’s immigration status, ABC News reported that, an “undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was found guilty by jury of first degree murder [of Mollie] Tibbets . . . in . . . rural . . . Iowa, in July 2018.” 

But what did David Mora Rojas’ immigration status have to do with the killings in Sacramento?  Unlike mental health, drugs, and ghost guns, his immigrant status does not seem relevant to the tragedy.  Being undocumented is not necessarily a crime and is not necessarily newsworthy. The fact that he overstayed his visa and thus was technically undocumented does not relate to the crime of murder.  Injecting his undocumented status into a news story about the tragic killings serves no other function than to stir up fears of immigrants and crime.  Moreover, because the popular stereotype of the criminal immigrant in the United States is that he is Mexican, the reference to undocumented status signals to many the Mexican background of the criminal suspect.  In announcing his successful 2016 run for President, Donald Trump played into this stereotype by characterizing Mexican immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists.”

  Although some immigrants—from Mexico and elsewhere—do in fact commit crimes, studies consistently show that immigrants commit crimes at lesser rates than native born U.S. citizens.  Moreover, news stories that focus gratuitously on immigration status can result in the proliferation of hate crimes.  Recall that the shooter in the mass murder of Latina/os in El Paso in 2019 wrote a “manifesto” with the kinds of hatred directed at Mexican immigrants repeating many of the invectives that President Trump did in referring to people of Mexican ancestry.

There is another reason to avoid reference to immigration in crime news stories.  Undocumented status is not always easy to define.  A person seeking asylum for fear of gang violence in Honduras may not currently have authorization to be in this country but might be entitled to it.  A long-term resident without authorization also might be eligible for relief from removal under the immigration laws.  Being undocumented is not always as clear-cut as a simple reference to being undocumented might suggest. 

Extending the AP Stylebook on Racial Identification to Immigration Status

The AP Stylebook, a bible of sorts of best journalistic practices, cautions journalists on publishing information about a person’s race:  “Consider carefully when deciding whether to identify people by race.  Often, it is an unrelated fact and drawing increasing attention to someone’s race or ethnicity can be interpreted as bigotry.” (emphasis added).  The Stylebook explains its call for caution as follows:

[i]n cases where suspects or missing persons are being sought, and the descriptions provided are detailed and not solely racial. Any racial reference should be removed when the individual is apprehended or found . . . . In other situations when race is an issue, use news judgment. Include racial or ethnic

details only when they are clearly relevant and that relevance is explicit in the story.  (emphasis added)

Because there are many times when a source’s race is irrelevant to the news item, the AP Stylebook careful approach to racial identification thus makes sense.  A criminal suspect’s immigration status should not be included in a crime news story unless it has something to do with the alleged crime.  Otherwise, such a reference is not news but simply exacerbates anti-immigrant and racist passions.  The same basic rationale holds true for reference to immigration status.  To paraphrase the AP Stylebook, an entry about immigration status could read, “consider carefully when deciding whether to identify people by [immigration status.]” “Any [immigration status] reference should be removed when the individual is apprehended or found.”



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