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Home > Diversity > The Whole Story: Diversity Tips and Tools > Immigration reporting: How to advance it and make it original

The Whole Story: Diversity Tips and Tools
Immigration reporting: How to advance it and make it original

By Susan Ferriss
Sacramento Bee
May 30, 2007

Immigration reporting has been around long enough for stories and themes to start sounding pretty stale. I covered immigration in the mid-1990s, then went to cover Latin America for almost nine years and followed it from that side — and in the U.S., at times. Now I’m back in California covering immigration again.

The basic story hasn’t changed, but the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center altered the framework and the national attitude. Immigration was once ignored almost completely by East Coast papers and national television. Now it’s acknowledged as an essential national story in nearly every state.

Here are some ways to get ahead of the pack and provide deeper, more cutting-edge stories on this subject:

— Remember that immigrants come from all over the world. How they arrived to the United States very often directly reflects foreign policy priorities. These individual or group stories make for good tales.

— Cover the way the immigration and visa system works. Few Americans understand the complexities and limits of the system.

— Cover immigration from American employers’ side of the story, especially when it comes to illegal immigration. How have they circumvented problems with the law, perhaps through subcontracting? Do businesses openly violate the law?

— Look for things that people seem to take for granted in your area and explain them. Puncture myths, look for answers. Listen to the platitudes and assumptions you hear, for instance: “Employers just want cheap labor.” “Immigrants are using up all our health services, and don’t pay taxes." Is it that simple? You can develop great stories from listening to what you hear people repeating because they listen to talk radio and other politically charged media.

— Look for strange bedfellows on immigration. Remember that there is at least one thing that Republican, conservative agribusiness interests and farm labor advocates and union people agree on: there should be a program to allow foreign workers to enter the country and perform farm work legally.

— Look for what the economy in one area means to the rest of the country. The United States is dependent on California for much of its fresh produce, for instance, so the fate of food growers and packers in this state is relevant to the rest of the nation. The meatpacking industries in the Southern states have similar importance. The businesses in Silicon Valley also rely heavily on foreign labor as they lead technology innovation.

— Look for hidden pockets of immigrant labor. Caring for the elderly is a growing occupation in the United States, and providers consider immigrants to be part of the backbone of the labor force in the future.

— Look for any special attempts by employers to incorporate people who are undocumented into communities. Wine grape growers in America’s premiere wine country, Napa, are actively raising money to fund health care policies for workers’ children.

— Look for why immigrants end up in a particular place, and probe the relocation of villagers who now send money home to families. Why did they leave? What’s happened to their home area economically? In today’s globalized economy, it’s not enough to explain migration by saying that people are poor. Stories are always more complicated than that.

When I was a correspondent in Mexico, I wanted to explore the dynamic behind Mexican migration. I reported on the ways in which economic policies pushed by the United States had, in fact, undermined some communities' own business options and prompted more migration.

Some resources for reporting on immigration
Pew Institute for Hispanic Studies
National Immigration Forum
Migration Policy Institute
Immigration Policy Issues Overview
Office on Immigration Statistics
Foreign-born Population Reports
New America Media News

The Diversity Toolbox provides a comprehensive set of links to journalism diversity resources and institutions. Accompanying essays offer principles and strategies for improving stories from conception on through to reporting and writing.

Your suggestions and comments welcome. Contact Sally Lehrman, your national diversity chair, at slehrman(at)bestwrit.com.

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