Eye on the Border: CBS distorts picture of Mexican immigrants

By Melanie Lown

As George W. Bush arrived in Mexico in February to meet with new Mexican president Vicente Fox, CBS Nightly News dedicated an "Eye on America" segment (2/15/01) to the "nearly suicidal desperation" of Mexicans crossing illegally into California.

The report described the life-threatening hazards faced by illegal immigrants who cross the Mexico/California border by way of the severely polluted New River - "a sewer, really," as correspondent Jerry Bowen explains. Agents of the Border Patrol marvel at the danger and filth of the river passage. "To me, it was unimaginable that somebody would jump in sewage and come north," says Border Patrol agent Manuel Figueroa. "But people do it." Fellow agent Harold Beasley notes, "We don't want our officers going into that river because every disease known to man is there."

The viewer is left wondering why anyone would risk contamination, disease and one's life to cross the border. What reasons do immigrants give? CBS never explains, and no immigrants are asked.

"Murky as the Rio Grande"

CBS News returns regularly to border issues, running eight segments in 2000, including four for "Eye on America." Unfortunately, its sensationalized coverage largely overlooks the immigrant perspective. When CBS goes to the border, the dominant theme is that desperate and dangerous immigrants are inexplicably driven to imperil themselves, and U.S. residents and law enforcement along with them.

In February 2000, FAIR protested an "Eye on America" segment that seemed to sanction vigilante violence against immigrants (Action Alert, 2/25/00). Introduced by Dan Rather as "an in-depth report from the front lines of this country's losing battle against unlawful immigration," the piece profiled a Texas rancher under investigation for allegedly shooting two Mexican immigrants in separate incidents.

Rather and correspondent Bob McNamara repeatedly invoked military images—referring to the area as a "border battleground," and immigrants as "an army of invaders." The segment provided no dissent from the dangerous implication that violence against illegal immigrants might be justified, instead ending with McNamara's claim that the border is "a land where the line between right and wrong can often be as murky as the Rio Grande River."

By contrast, other major networks covering border vigilantism seemed to have no problem finding condemnation of violence. In a May 28, 2000 NBC Nightly News story, correspondent Jim Cummins reported, "The Mexican government is outraged with American ranchers taking the law into their own hands." In the same broadcast, Mexican foreign minister Rosario Green commented, "It is a fact that Mexicans are being chased like animals," and then-secretary of state Madeleine Albright declared, "I think that it's very important that it be totally clear that vigilante justice is unacceptable."

CBS News relies frequently on Border Patrol sources, but it was ABC (World News Tonight, 5/14/00) that quoted one of the Patrol's top officials, David Aguilar, saying, "We do not advocate, support or condone anybody, any civilian taking the law, any law, into their own hands."

NAFTA? What's that?

Of the 32 sources included in CBS's eight segments, eleven were Border Patrol agents. By contrast, only two immigrants were interviewed with translation; and only one of these two was identified. Two immigrant advocates (a civil rights attorney and a representative of the American Friends Service Committee) presented what might be called an immigrant perspective, and two Mexican consuls made brief statements. These people made some critical points, but with the exception of the attorney, who participated in a debate, their statements were brief and reactive, never providing the main focus or starting point for a story.

The dreadful risk of the journey from Mexico to the U.S. was a recurrent theme. But with little attention to the views of immigrants or their advocates, CBS gave viewers slight insight into what might motivate people to undertake it. Bob McNamara (9/13/00) did refer to the "ghosts of hunger and hard times," and Sandra Hughes (6/29/00) to the "grinding poverty" that pushes immigrants out of Mexico; what's missing was discussion of the other part of the equation: the U.S. businesses that employ illegal immigrants.

One of the two immigrant advocate sources featured, Roberto Martinez of the American Friends Service Committee, broached the issue, telling CBS Evening News (7/23/00): "They're willing to risk their lives to get jobs here because, let's face it, here they can $5 or $6 an hour, where in Mexico, they only earn maybe $3 or $4 a day." But that's as far as CBS goes. Nor do any of CBS's border segments address the impact of NAFTA, which promised to reduce migration from Mexico. Many believe the effect has been just the opposite, that the "trade pact has driven large numbers of [Mexican] farmers, small-business owners and laborers out of work," as the San Francisco Chronicle reported (10/15/98). "These people are left with few options but to seek a better life in the United States."

Forecasted Mexican jobs have not materialized, and U.S. employers seeking low-wage workers have shown themselves impervious to fines levied on them for hiring undocumented immigrants. Any serious consideration of border issues would have to address this economic context, yet aside from frequent references to immigrants' "desperation," economics are mostly missing from CBS border reporting.

Deadly Gatekeeper

Despite returning several times to the "danger and chaos along the U.S.-Mexico Border" (6/6/00), CBS News doesn't really engage head-on the main fact of that story: the impact of Operation Gatekeeper, a Clinton administration border strategy that many say has been nothing short of disastrous.

Begun in 1994, Gatekeeper greatly increased Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) presence along the border near San Diego. The ostensible objective was to discourage illegal border crossing, but instead illegal immigration shifted to more dangerous regions—towards the California and Arizona deserts. This shift has proved deadly: Reported immigrant deaths rose from 23 in 1994 to 145 in 1999 (Foreign Affairs, 9/00), and increased a further 57 percent in 2000 (L.A. Times, 11/2/00)

Operation Gatekeeper has been linked to so many deaths and charges of abuse that in February 1999 the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation filed a petition with the Organization of American States, accusing the U.S. government of human rights violations.

Likewise, U.N. human rights commissioner Mary Robinson criticized U.S. policy after visiting the Tijuana border in November 1999, charging that Gatekeeper is "deflecting people at risk to their lives when they decide to immigrate." In March 2000, the U.S. division of Amnesty International cited "credible evidence that persons detained by the INS have been subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, including beatings, sexual assault, denial of medical attention, and denial of food, water and warmth."

Threats make news

CBS sometimes seemed to acknowledge Gatekeeper's impact, stating in one segment (6/29/00) that "immigrants take the dangerous routes to avoid beefed-up security in other areas of the 2,000 mile border." On other occasions, though, this view is presented as just an opinion, as when McNamara (9/13/00) said that "some Mexican officials say" the Border Patrol's tougher policies are "a reason more illegals are drowning."

Sandra Hughes concluded a heartrending segment about families dying in 110 degree heat (CBS Morning News, 8/10/00) by saying, "Critics claim INS policy blocking other sections of the border pushes people into this dangerous desert." But she continues, "Border officials deny that, blaming the smugglers for the new human pipeline that leaves agents to search for those who disregard the law and take their chances crossing the desert."

Ironically, the closest CBS came to a real discussion of questions of abuse against immigrants was in a debate occasioned by threats against the U.S. Border Patrol. A June 6, 2000 episode of the Early Show addressed the threat, made by a Mexican group called the Citizens Defense Committee, to kill Border Patrol agents found on the "wrong side of the border." The group claimed this was in response to killings of immigrants by federal agents and landowners. The Early Show featured the president of the National Border Patrol Council, T.J. Bonner, who called charges of abuse "totally unfounded," and civil rights attorney Ray Gill, who retorted: "There have been a number of abuses. There have been deaths; a recent shooting in Brownsville of an unarmed immigrant by a Border Patrol agents."

In addition to the Early Show, the Citizens Defense Committee's call for violence against the Border Patrol was the hook for segments on CBS Morning News and CBS Evening News that day. CBS has yet to devote a news segment to any of the charges of abuse by the Border Patrol.

CBS News' most recent look on border issues—the segment on the New River cited above (2/15/01)—represented little advance by the network. It's unfortunately typical in that immigrants do not speak but are spoken about, and in terms that make them sound barely human, as when an unnamed Border Patrol agent says, "When we apprehend them, we're basically handling them like they're contaminated because of the chemicals in there. We try to send them back to Mexico as quickly as possible."

As with previous reports, the motives of those crossing the border, their economic and political situation, and the U.S. role, were not explored. Careful viewers might even note that two of the taped comments in the February 2001 piece—from Border Patrol agents Manuel Figueroa and Harold Beasley—are the exact same clips CBS aired on July 23, 2000. Evidently, for CBS, it's the same old story.

Melanie Lown is a senior at Sarah Lawrence College and a FAIR intern.

This article first appeared in the May/June 2001 edition of Extra!, a publication of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, and is posted here with permission.

It was reprinted in Defending Immigrant Rights: An Activist Resource Kit, published by Political Research Associates, © 2002.

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