BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. This week’s show is dedicated to the myriad ways truth, incomplete truth and its evil cousin, the out-of-context fact, can either serve or bedevil political interests. A case in point this week was the fate of immigration reform, in which a bipartisan Senate bill failed to overcome the countervailing narratives of dangerously porous borders and cruel racist xenophobia. The big losers here? Both Donald Trump's wall and the so-called “Dreamers,” beneficiaries of an Obama-era program offering temporary residency to undocumented immigrants brought to the US as kids.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The bipartisan agreement would grab a 10- to 12-year route to citizenship for the so-called “Dreamers.” The plan would also provide $25 billion over a decade to build a wall and other border security measures.
BOB GARFIELD: Even after the bill died in the Senate though, the battle for defining the impact of illegal immigration rages on. The president speaks of “bad hombres” but, as immigration beat journalist Gaby Del Valle reminds us, the evidence does not support his case.
GABY DEL VALLE: So the New York Times reported last January that specifically male immigrants are between one-half and one-fifth as likely to be incarcerated as people who were born in the United States, which generally means that the data shows that immigrants are committing fewer crimes than non-immigrants. That applies to both undocumented immigrants and people with visas and green cards because even if you're here with a visa or a green card, you can still be deported if you commit a crime, so people are essentially trying not to get on I.C.E.’s radar.
BOB GARFIELD: Because the daily truth for every undocumented resident remains the same, eluding arrest and deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or I.C.E. Just switch on the news.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: A 39-year-old man, Jorge Garcia, who came here from Mexico when he was 10 years old, undocumented, and because of the crackdown of the Trump Administration he was being deported. He was saying goodbye to his wife and his two kids.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Immigration agents today raided nearly a hundred 7-Eleven stores in 17 states and Washington DC. At least 21 suspected undocumented immigrants were arrested.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: For years, the federal government left Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos alone. Not anymore.
PROTESTORS CHANTING: Hell no, we won’t go.
[SOUND OF CHANTS UP & UNDER]
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Protestors gathered in Phoenix overnight, even holding the wheels of a government immigration van, in a desperate move to stop it from taking her back to Mexico.
BOB GARFIELD: But if the news is supposed to help us distinguish fact from propaganda, Del Valle says the press is often a poor arbiter. Many news outlets, she says, are reporting on deportation simply by lifting text verbatim from the administration.
GABY DEL VALLE: Yeah, exactly. I mean, if you look at these I.C.E. press releases, it'll be, like, “murderer deported, child molester deported, person who served in a foreign army and killed all these kids deported,” but it’s never, like, we deported somebody’s mom.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so that’s the I.C.E. press release but the press’s job is to put things into perspective, not to reprint the government's assertions. And you say we are, many of us, failing at that.
GABY DEL VALLE: Because when I.C.E. does these big roundups, these big arrests, they’ll publicize it and they'll say, we arrested 100 people, 70 of them have criminal records. And that may be true but then they’ll give you a list of four people, for example, or five people, the most egregious offenders on the list, and because a lot of newsrooms are so under-resourced, they’ll just print that without thinking about the context, without thinking about enhanced enforcement, and ultimately it’s damaging.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, of course, I knew you were going to say that [LAUGHS] and we've spoken to you before this --
[DEL VALLE LAUGHS]
-- recorded interview. And so, I’ve come prepared with a fairly standard I.C.E. press release from March, 2017 about a series of arrests in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. And, in fact, I’d originally planned to read from the press release itself but why bother because we have local Washington, DC area TV stations to simply -- read it for us.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, 82 people were arrested between March 26th and 30th; 68 of them were convicted criminal aliens.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Of the remaining 14, two had ties to the MS-13 street gang, two had orders of final removal, three overstayed visas. One was wanted by foreign law enforcement. One was a verified human rights violator from Somalia.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: A 40-year-old man from Trinidad had drug and gun convictions and a 35-year-old are from Guatemala had a DUI conviction. They are all subject to immediate deportation.
GABY DEL VALLE: Sometimes it's rearranged but it’s generally the same information, same wording. It’s an easy tip off when they say “criminal aliens,” for example, because it’s like I.C.E.’s favorite term.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so you can understand why local TV stations, which don't have a whole mess of reporting resources, would be likely to use the prepared text over some B roll footage of roundups taking place. And it's equally unsurprising that TheDaily Caller ran the same story and that Breitbart and the like routinely publish articles cribbed entirely from I.C.E. press releases. But it's not just the right-wing media and low- resource TV stations.
GABY DEL VALLE: Yeah, the Washington Post had a really similar piece that was basically the I.C.E. press release plus a paragraph about how similar arrests happened under the Obama administration but now Trump is arresting more people. And that was really the only thing that was added, in terms of context or additional reporting outside of the press release.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, in fairness, this was a kind of an outlier for the Washington Post, which has usually been pretty good at the due diligence. In a separate piece, they actually do contextualize I.C.E.’s numbers, correct?
GABY DEL VALLE: Yes, so in the press release it says that 68 of the 82 people arrested had previous convictions for, quote, “crimes like armed robbery, larceny and drug distribution.” But other people had been arrested for DUIs or traffic offenses. And it was also the Washington Post which reported that about half of the immigrants arrested by the Trump Administration, by that point, either had no criminal record or had only committed traffic offenses ranging from DUIs to driving without a license. If you're looking at the news, especially local publications, local TV stations reporting that this many criminals were deported and this many criminals were arrested, then you'll have this link in your mind between immigration and crime, even if that link isn’t actually there in reality.
BOB GARFIELD: Another thing about the way these press releases are constructed, since they are the harvest of raids, taking a lot of people into custody at once, is that we are under attack by swarms of dangerous undocumented immigrants. But the underlying crimes haven’t necessarily just all happened yesterday, right?
GABY DEL VALLE: Right, so the way that a lot of I.C.E. arrests work is that if you've committed a crime, let’s say, within the past 20 years or even been arrested, your fingerprints are in your state's Department of Corrections system, so I.C.E. can go through those databases and get people's fingerprints, information, home address, whatever. And I have talked to lawyers from Brooklyn Defenders and other organizations who have told me that their clients have been arrested by I.C.E. recently for crimes committed 5, 10, 15, 20 years ago. And a lot of things that people get picked up for aren’t even crimes anymore. Like, in New York City, for example, turnstile hopping, fare beating, fare evasion, whatever you want to call it. You can get a ticket for that now, instead of just being arrested but, if you did it 20 years ago, then you're in the database forever.
BOB GARFIELD: What, in your view, are the basic elements that should be included in any story about I.C.E. enforcement?
GABY DEL VALLE: I think just contextualizing the press release is the most important thing, reach out to a local immigrant search organization to get the other side, the other perspective for a more full picture. And these things don't necessarily take a lot of time. I.C.E. has public information officers all over the country. If you find the one for that particular region and you call them or email them and you say, hey, you put out this press release saying that you arrested this many people, can you send me a list of the crimes committed, they’ll send it to you. Even that is helpful because they don’t necessarily always break it down saying, 20 people had DUIs and one person was a murderer. The press releases are crafted to create a specific narrative, and it’s not just that you should question I.C.E.’s press releases, you should question any press release, as a journalist. That’s part of your job.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I'm curious. The Trump administration, obviously, has built its image on immigration issues, but the previous administration, Obama's, deported 3 million people or some enormous number. Did they also try to skew public opinion by stacking the deck in press releases to suggest that the deportees were more dangerous than they actually were?
GABY DEL VALLE: Yeah, absolutely. This is definitely not a problem that started with the Trump administration. This predates Trump. This goes back to Obama and even Bush, I would say. I mean, so this isn’t necessarily a new problem but I do think that, especially given an administration that has proven to be so hostile to immigrants, that it’s even more damaging than it was under Obama.
BOB GARFIELD: Gaby, thank you very much.
GABY DEL VALLE: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Gaby Del Valle is a staff reporter for The Outline. The Washington Post declined our request for comment.