How establishment media fans anti-immigrant flames

We are used to seeing, hearing and reading slanders against immigrant workers and their families from ultra-right media outlets such as Fox, Rush Limbaugh and the Washington Times. But the stridency of people like Limbaugh or Glenn Beck sometimes leads us to ignore the somewhat more subtle message of bigotry from more “respectable” media.

The Washington Post is often referred to by the ultra-right as part of the “liberal” media conspiracy against “traditional values.” But its handling of a recent traffic accident involving an undocumented immigrant from Bolivia shows us the real story.

The bare facts seem to be as follows: Bolivian immigrant Carlos Martinelly Montano, brought here by his parents at age 8 without immigration papers, was involved in a very bad traffic accident on Sunday, Aug. 1, in Prince William County, Va., near Washington, in which a Catholic nun was killed and two others injured.

It happens that Prince William County is a hotbed of anti-immigrant agitation, so inevitably this case has become, overnight, a club in the hands of immigrant-bashers. Police claim that Martinelly was drunk at the time. It turns out that he had prior DUI convictions, and in fact was in the process of being deported at the time of the accident. But meanwhile, Martinelly had been able to work in the United States on the basis of a provisional work permit the government had given him while his case was adjudicated.

I might add that if the information about the DUI priors is true and if he is convicted of drunk driving in the incident that killed the nun, he will certainly be deported. Drunk driving is a serious danger to the public and has to be decisively suppressed, whether the driver is an undocumented laborer or a senator.

So what’s the problem? One problem is that if Martinelly had a drinking problem, he certainly did not learn it in Bolivia before he was 8 years old; he learned it here as part of going through adolescence and young adulthood in the United States of America. So his being undocumented has little to do with the drinking problem that caused the accident.

But that did not stop the Washington Post and many other media outlets from instantly highlighting his immigration status and either explicitly or implicitly connecting this to the accident, as if the accident was caused by the fact of Martinelly being undocumented.

How many reports of fatal accidents and horrible crimes do we read of in the newspapers in a given year? And in how many does the story read, “John Johns, a born U.S. citizen and a member of the Anglo-Saxon race, was arrested today for driving drunk and causing an accident in which two people were killed?” But when an undocumented immigrant is involved in such behavior, the press almost always highlights his or her status.

This creates the impression in the minds of the public that there is a wave of fatal accidents specifically caused by undocumented immigrants, or that undocumented immigrants are more frequently involved in such incidents than other groups of people. In fact, highlighting undocumented status or national origin in certain individual cases proves nothing about the propensity of certain ethnic groups or groups characterized their immigration status to cause these tragedies, either way.

We have seen this before, with the old media practice to mention the race of suspects in crime stories when they were African American, but not when they were white. Civil rights leaders and organizations correctly pointed out that this played into the hands of bigots who wanted to portray African Americans as inherently criminal, and the practice has been cut back, though not completely eliminated. Sometimes the same effect is achieved by showing mug shots of Black suspects, but not white ones.

Much to their credit, the organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving is cited in the Washington Post on Aug. 5 as saying that this is a story about drunk driving and not about undocumented immigration, but the damage is already done, with the Post itself playing a very bad role.

Photo: cc 2.0




Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.