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‘Myth-busting group’ takes on portrayal of immigrants

One of the hardest things for me to do as an immigrant, a fairly well-educated person and a journalist, is to watch so-called “discussions” about immigration on TV.

Many times, it seems as if people are less interested in facts than they are in using their sound bite moments on scapegoating vitriol.  It is especially dismaying to watch journalists add to the furor, rather than promoting productive discussion.

Last week, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) unveiled a new project, “Truth in Immigration,” (TII) to bust the myths about immigrants and Latinos so commonly presented by U.S. media outlets.

Project launches watchdog website
The project’s main focus is a website, where claims and statements will be assessed. The effort will serve as MALDEF’s watchdog for communications about immigrants. The project also will research, collect and rebut legal and factual inaccuracies about immigrants that are disseminated and promoted in the media, the public messages of anti-immigration organizations and political campaigns.

In a telephone conference call from Washington, D.C., John Trasviña, the fund’s president and general counsel, and Peter Zamora, its regional counsel, spoke about the need for this project.

The words of Thomas Jefferson, “Let us freely hear both sides,” were the inspiration for the site, said Trasviña. He disputes current misinformation being put forth by such figures as CNN’s Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck and says some of the discussions “take us back” and preclude common-sense debates about immigration.

The implications of misleading statements in the press are far-reaching and are more dire than you’d expect, he said, noting that nearly 63 percent of hate crimes in the United States are directed toward Latinos. The current climate, Trasviña said, increases levels of hatred and promotes misunderstanding, mistrust and fear while making it easier for immigrants to become political targets. 

He noted, for example, the proposed Shuler-Tancredo “SAVE Act.”  The bill, H.R. 4088, would require employers to use E-Verify, which Trasviña says has a general 4 percent error rate and a 10 percent error rate for naturalized citizens.  The bill also would provide a financial incentive of up to $100,000 for reporting people who are suspected of assisting undocumented immigrants.

“There are self-appointed experts that present things not based on real data.  [And] that stops rational policy debate,” Zamora said.

However, if MALDEF is questioning the motives of certain claims or the veracity of a certain report, who is to say that the reports on which they base their opinions are any more accurate?

“It’s not about dueling studies,” said Zamora. “We take a comprehensive look, from a variety of sources.” 

Website challenges Dobbs report
Their website, for example, includes a video regarding statements made on the Lou Dobbs show regarding leprosy in the United States. The segment, he said, stated that there had been 7,000 cases in three years, and although Dobbs said you can’t say how many were brought in by undocumented workers, there is a negative, unsaid implication.

MALDEF examined the claim, about which Dobbs was also grilled by “60 Minutes” correspondent Leslie Stahl. It found that indeed there had been 7,000 cases — in the last 30 years — according to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

It is this kind of misstatement — as well as other cases of manipulation of facts and outright lies — that MALDEF is targeting.

It also wants to focus on increasing knowledge about immigrants by including a “did you know?” section.  One example on the site is a 2007 survey by the United Way of Salt Lake that states that more than 80 percent of immigrants and refugees say they have formally tried to learn English.

“Anti-immigrant groups are dividing our country,” Zamora said. “You cannot turn on the TV without hearing lies about immigrants and Latinos.  [This] will correct the lies that do not allow for effective conversation.”

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