Politicians, media need to reassess the way they depict immigrant communities

With another electoral season upon us, what I most dread is the inevitable scapegoating and name-calling.

Who will be this season’s electoral whipping boy for politicians eager to garner votes? History tells us that it’s likely to be people of color, members of the GLBT community and, of course, immigrants.

This week in Minnesota, we saw the first evidence of this with Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s “new” immigration plan. The governor dusted off some of his favorite anti-immigrant one-liners and resurrected his 2-year-old “study” that attempts to legitimize his immigrant attacks.

As an immigrant myself, I find these attacks utterly disturbing because recent immigrants are less likely than the other groups to be able to vote against those who use and conveniently abuse us.

Labeling makes recent immigrants more vulnerable
Although there is much to say about the issue of American immigration, I’ll limit myself to the issue of labeling and the way that many politicians (and, often, the media who cover them) so conveniently use and attack these vulnerable populations.

Last month, the Minnesota Media Empowerment Project released a report that analyzed Minnesota newspapers’ portrayal of Latinos in 2006. (Full disclosure: I used to coordinate this project and helped get the study off the ground. But I wasn’t involved with the analysis of the data.)

The report found that among articles gathered from 21 newspapers, about 43% of them focused on either immigration or criminal activity. A very limited, skewed portrayal indeed.

As Dr. Dina Gavrilos of the University of St. Thomas, who analyzed the findings, says, “Stories about immigration (and) crime … are important, but we have to ask ourselves: How are they framed? Why are they associated with particular groups? How are they told? Why are they told in a particular way?

“These things influence each other. If Latinos are portrayed in a very narrow way; it influences individuals, education, work and politics. How we think about others can’t help but influence how people are treated by different institutions and reinforce existing power structures in our society.”

Gavrilos argues, for example, that when immigration is talked about, the larger political, economic, and social analysis often is not given. “The number of undocumented people coming from Mexico correlates to the number of people who’ve lost jobs due to NAFTA, she says. “Why don’t we talk about that?”

Terminology often derogatory
Terminology also is dealt with in the study, as is the use of terms that many of us consider derogatory, such as “illegal immigrant,” “illegals,” and “aliens.” (Barb Kucera explained many of our concerns about those terms very well earlier this week in a “Community Voices” commentary.)

For Steven Renderos, the project coordinator who worked with Gavrilos on the analysis, the results were somewhat surprising.

“In a state that’s proud of its progressive values, it was disappointing to find that the results were consistent with similar studies conducted nationwide in which the coverage focused heavily on crime and immigration,” he says. “Certainly having criminals as the top Latino source cited in the stories we tracked is cause for alarm and an opportunity to question how stories are being generated and its overall impact on the public perception of Latinos in Minnesota.”

Of course not all immigrants are Latinos, but when politicians roll out the issue of “illegal immigration” to scare the public into voting for national security, there is a presupposition that they are — mostly — speaking about the Latino community (contrast security concerns on our Canadian border as evidence).

What the report shows is just one example of how immigrant communities often are inaccurately and unfairly portrayed in the media. That unflattering portrait makes it easier for them to become fodder for vitriolic political campaign slogans.

Wouldn’t it be nice if politicians this year said, “We won’t resort to name-calling, to stereotypical representations, or to the easy scare tactics”? Wouldn’t it be nice if Minnesota’s media outlets reassessed their use of language and their portrayal of Latino and other immigrant populations?

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Tom Poe on 01/10/2008 - 07:28 pm.

    Well, Lorena, if we refrain from using illegal immigrant to describe immigrants, what phrase do you suggest? Immigrant? Then, the discussion goes something like, we have to deal with immigrants that come to this country, and they don’t have the proper papers. To solve this, we would have to have all immigrants report to town hall, and pick up their paperwork. If the immigrants don’t have the money to pay whatever the fee is, we would then have to arrange payment plans. I’m afraid such an approach is entirely un-American. Can you think of some other phrase we could use? 🙂

  2. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 01/10/2008 - 10:23 pm.

    I guess it depends on what your definition of illegal is. Oops – then you would have to call them ILLEGAL immigrants, since they are not here legally. We wouldn’t want to offend anyone by hurting their feelings though. Maybe we could come up with a term to identify them as the reason the DFL is against voter registration.

  3. Submitted by Jon Tevlin on 01/11/2008 - 09:07 am.

    Ms. Duarte: Where can I find that report? I don’t see it on the web page. Thanks.

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