Immigration touches all parts of American life, from food to travel to the economy. According to a 2015 U.S. census report, immigrants and second-generation Americans make up almost 24% of the U.S. population. So how can today’s media address immigration? And how do immigrant communities feel about the way they are covered?
These questions were addressed at a panel discussion hosted by WHYY and Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture on December 5th, 2017; a year that was folding to an end, yet had much to pass on to the New Year in regards to addressing immigration and countless other critical themes.
The panel was comprised of five journalists, and community members were seated at round tables. Discussion between journalists and the audience ranged from hopeful to critical. Panelists acknowledged the distrust between immigrant communities and journalists and announced what they are doing to address it. This made for thought-provoking conversation and opened up the conversation to perspectives often left out of the mainstream.
Fernando Chang-Muy, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and the panel’s moderator, challenged the very definition of being an immigrant.
“Some of us wanted to come here for better opportunities for our children or for ourselves. And some of us were forced to come here; in the case of Chinese to build railroads, in the case of West Africans to work the cotton mines… That distinction needs to be made.”
Emma Restropo, a freelance journalist who covered detention centers, said she visited every week because although the stories were the same, it was capturing representative voices that were important.
Perla Lara of Spanish language newspaper El Sol said that, as neighbors, we need to be more connected.
“Americans… are very insulated. [El Sol has] been here for 24 years in the city, and most of you don’t even know we exist. I think we need to talk more about our lives here.”
Jeff Gommage, from The Philadelphia Inquirer, said news organizations are failing undocumented communities, in part because it is so hard to find undocumented residents who are willing to come forward.
“Where I haven’t been able to crack this nut is getting to these people… who are living these lives.”
Laura Benshoff, who writes about immigration for WHYY, says a constant struggle is figuring out which views to prioritize, asking “Who speaks for a community?” This, combined with a lack of feedback from communities she’s covering, makes it hard to assess how well she is doing her job, never mind identify ways to improve.
Shauna Small, a Jamaican-American, said media representation of immigration is insulting and works against women.
“Mothers leave their children and come to foreign countries alone to work menial jobs because they want a better life. That is immigration. It is not an escaping of criminals, it is not rapists coming to a country to hide. It is seeking a better life in a world that works against women who are generally oppressed in most countries.”
Ramses Montes, an audience member, and college student criticized the media for treating immigration as a political issue and said stories about vulnerable communities should be more mainstream.
“It’s just a continuation of the exploitation of black and brown bodies, because immigration only comes up when you’re trying to get a vote, when you’re trying to get something out of people.”
Another audience member, Anna, pointed out the challenges faced assimilating to American culture, and how that impacts coverage of immigrant communities.
“Depending on who you talk and which point in time in their life, you will get a very different perspective from the same cultural group.”
Samuel, chapter leader at Rutgers University-Camden for Define American, talked about the way immigration is framed.
“Once you realize the ramifications of associating with legality and criminalizing migration, you see devastating impacts. You see that internationally, and you see that here.”
Rona Buchalter, Director of Refugee Programming and Planning at HIAS Pennsylvania, talked about the moral ambiguity she feels connecting her clients with journalists.
“It makes me uncomfortable to trot out the most heartwarming, sad case we can find or client that’s willing to talk to the journalist.” At the same time, she acknowledged it is important for the public to hear these stories.
Panels such as this one are vital to show that journalists and community members can begin a dialogue and build trust between the media and vulnerable communities. It is a step closer to giving media outlets more equal representation, and stories that resonate with diverse audiences.