January 20, 2017, was the day the press rediscovered its profound interest in the deportation of illegal immigrants. Since Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, media have rushed to craft a deceptive narrative of innocent “immigrants” being deported en masse by the Trump administration, all while failing to draw the crucial distinction between legal immigrants and illegal immigrants.
Take last week’s revelation that the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has begun targeting an increased number of illegal immigrants with criminal backgrounds. In Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, and San Antonio, ICE officers arrested more than 680 individuals. “Of those arrested,” DHS secretary John Kelly said in a statement, “approximately 75 percent were criminal aliens, convicted of crimes including, but not limited to, homicide, aggravated sexual abuse, sexual assault of a minor, lewd and lascivious acts with a child, indecent liberties with a minor, drug trafficking, battery, assault, DUI and weapons charges.”
This policy should be uncontroversial, but apparently it’s not. As a result of the action, the Washington Post warned, “Immigrant community on high alert, fearing Trump’s ‘deportation force,’” while National Public Radio worried that “Immigration Raids Are Reported around the Country.” Most, if not all, of the press failed to use the more specific term “illegal immigrant” when describing the subjects of these ICE raids.
CNN published a feature piece last Friday titled “‘I did it for love,’ says mother deported in Arizona immigration case,” detailing the story of Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, an illegal immigrant who was recently deported to Mexico. After being convicted of a felony in 2008 for using a fake Social Security number, Garcia de Rayos was required to appear at immigration check-ins; it was at her eighth annual immigration check-in that she was deported. Her “immigration case underwent review at multiple levels of the immigration court system, including the Board of Immigration Appeals,” ICE said in a statement. “The judges held she did not have a legal basis to remain in the U.S.”
On Wednesday the New York Times published a similar feature to CNN’s, calling national attention to an illegal immigrant, Jeanette Vizguerra, who was also convicted of using fake documents. “Should she present herself to the immigration authorities Wednesday morning for a scheduled check-in, risking deportation?” the Times asked. “Or should she stay in the church, one of the few places federal agents do not go, almost surely resigning herself to months or years trapped inside?” Vizguerra chose the latter, and her lawyer soon informed her that her request for another “stay” was rejected. Now she and her three youngest children wait in a Denver, Colo., church, praying that ICE officers will abide by federal policy: that immigration officers won’t enter sensitive locations such as churches “unless they have advance approval from a supervisor or face ‘exigent circumstances’ that require immediate action,” the Times explained.
Reporting on such events, which have been a feature on the American landscape for decades, has just recently come back into fashion. On Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor on Monday, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr. expressed his frustration that journalists have only recently decided to prioritize reporting on the deportation of illegal immigrants. “I wrote about the 3 million deportations carried out by the Obama administration,” Navarrette said, “but I couldn’t get a lot of liberals in the media to join me on the front lines.”
In fact, according to ABC News, President Obama deported more illegal immigrants during his tenure than the sum of all deportations throughout the 20th century. (This statistic is based only on “removals,” or individuals deported from within the U.S., rather than “returns,” or individuals sent back to their native country at the U.S. border.)
In other words: Illegal immigrants in the United States have long dealt with the fear that ICE officers would be knocking at their door. In fiscal year 2012, for example, ICE removed over 400,000 illegal aliens, a number that was high enough to prompt frenzied anti-deportation rhetoric and, eventually, motivate the Obama administration to sign the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order that the president had previously insisted was illegal. Where, it must be asked, was the press outcry then, back when the Obama administration conducted ICE raids that were nearly indistinguishable from last week’s? Where were the Valentine’s Day Twitter hashtags such as #ToImmigrantsWithLove that we see today?
Over the last half-decade, the press has routinely acquiesced to the demands of illegal immigrants and their supporters by conflating all immigrants when covering deportations.
Media bias notwithstanding, it is difficult to overstate just how successful activists have been in corrupting the language around immigration law. In January 2015, the Santa Barbara News-Press ran what seemed to be a non-controversial headline distinguishing between illegal immigrants and legal immigrants when reporting on the large lines at the local Department of Motor Vehicles: “Illegals Line Up for Driver’s Licenses.” The headline prompted protests and a red spray-painted message on the paper’s building — “the border is illegal not the people who cross it.” In response, the News-Press refused to back down. “We will not give in to the thugs who are attempting to use political correctness as a tool of censorship and a weapon to shut down this newspaper,” co-publisher Arthur von Wiesenberger said at the time.
Unfortunately, Wiesenberger and his staff were taking a brave last stand. Over the last half-decade, the press has routinely acquiesced to the demands of illegal immigrants and their supporters by conflating all immigrants when covering deportations. According to the Los Angeles Times, “a few decades ago, it wasn’t unusual for American newspapers to refer to people living in the U.S. without legal permission as ‘illegal aliens,’ or even ‘illegals.’” But following the Associated Press’s decision in 2013 to modify its journalism stylebook to ban the terms “illegal immigrant” and “illegal” in this context, as well as the backlash after newspapers defied the AP’s stylebook change, it seems that anyone opposing illegal immigration is now labeled “anti-immigrant.”
Especially when it comes to the Republican party and President Trump.
Last August, the Republican party adopted a more protectionist political platform to support its presidential nominee, and subsequently was labeled the “anti-immigrant” party by proponents of illegal immigration. With Trump now residing in the White House and Republicans building their agenda in Congress, activists will turn their attention to the narrative. There is a new outpouring of articles on the deportation of illegal immigrants not because the press suddenly has a profound interest in the deportation of illegal immigrants, but because radicals who wish to erase our borders see an opportunity to demonize Trump and exploit his shortcomings for their agenda. As always, language and timing are the key weapons in the fight.
— Austin Yack is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.