Immigration and The Media: The Importance of Context and Questions

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By Beatriz Sánchez, Journalist at La Clave Radio

Translated by Anthony Rauld

Like many of the current issues that come out, immigration has captured our imagination during these past weeks.  It is a “fashionable trend”.  It became a “trending topic.”  As the media, we follow and cover it.  It is both sweet—since this is clearly a hot issue—and sour at the same time, the coverage being “superficial”, thoughtless, caricaturesque, and with a lot of “electioneering” thrown in the middle.  In this context, presidential hopefuls issued statements linking immigration to crime, members of parliament proposed restrictions on entry—as if we could simply turn the key—and other figures suggested the regulation of “illegals”, as if there existed a different status with respect to the immigrants who arrive to Chile, and who then seek to legalize their situation.

The public ministry affirmed, firstly, that crimes committed by foreigners are minimal in relation to the total number of crimes in the country.  In fact, the number of foreign residents who are the victims of crimes is higher than those foreign residents who commit them.  Secondly, preventing the entry of foreigners is not as simple as locking the door.  Scholars and specialists in migration indicate that if a person who is looking to enter another country to settle there, they will do whatever it takes.  If one border crossing is impossible, then they will try another.  If they cannot come in as tourists, then they will do it illegally, even putting themselves in danger and feeding the border mafias who profit from the trafficking of people.  The issue is much more complex.  If restrictions are put in place to prevent the legalization of migrants, that will not put a stop to the numbers of people who try to enter the country.  It will only lead to the growth of a black market of people willing to work in substandard conditions, without any recourse.

The media helps to reproduce and reinforce stereotypes and ignorance, but what is at the root of the problem?

We have to be clear.  A complex issue does not have easy answers.  You cannot address complex issues with simple slogans.  A complex issue shouldn’t be instrumentalized for electoral purposes.  Complex issues have solutions that are equally complex.  This is the first aspect we journalists should consider.

But I want to go beyond this.  What does immigration provoke in us?  What do we really think of the immigrant?  I ask because there are many politically correct answers.  But, do we see them so differently than we see ourselves as Chileans?

We live in one of the most unequal countries in the world.  This inequality is evident everywhere we look, in every corner of the city.  In the metropolitan region—although it is not so different in other regions—the inequality can be seen quite literally.  There are neighborhoods that are for the rich, and others for the poor.  There are schools for the rich and for the poor.  There are hospitals for the rich and for the poor.  There are even shopping malls for the rich and for the poor.  The justice system treats you differently if you are poor or rich, 95% of convicts come from poverty—and it’s not because only the poor commit crimes.  The police treat residents of Vitacura differently than those who live in Puente Alto.

Should we be surprised, then, with this racism and classism towards immigrants?

A week ago, there was a big news story where the rules and regulations of an apartment building in Ñuñoa were published—revealing that the swimming pool was off limits to the workers of the building, including the children of domestic workers.  Social media erupted.  But I ask myself, if every summer we hear about these regulations—they’re in the news—how many of us must believe that workers shouldn’t use the swimming pools?  If these regulations exist, isn’t this what the residents must think?

I insist: should we be surprised at the discriminatory treatment of immigrants?  With these facts, can we be expected to receive and treat immigrants well?  Immigration reveals who we really are.  Immigration can reveal the worst in us, Chileans.  We could end up blaming immigration for all of our problems.  We could find the perfect “sacrificial lamb” for a society that is extremely unequal and segregated.  This is another dimension we should consider as journalists.

In this context, what role should the news media play?  I have always maintained that the media is not different from the society in which we live.  If the country is centralized, then the news media will also be centralized.  Is that a satisfactory answer?  No, it is not.  And that is the challenge.  Events that are newsworthy always reflect a specific context.  They have an origin, an explanation.  Immigration is no different.  In fact, what I have expressed in this column is precisely the context that we the news media should make explicit when covering this issue.

Today, the news media replicates the classism that is endemic to Chilean society, and we extend that to immigrants.  In reporting the news, we portray a victim or perpetrator differently, depending on whether they are from Las Condes or San Bernardo, and we do the same thing with Chileans and foreigners.  So, just as the news media amplifies the differences amongst Chileans, we also amplify the differences with respect to foreigners.  Is it a coincidence that two of the presidential candidates associate immigrants with criminality?  Or is it the result of the media constructions that ignore the real figures compiled by law enforcement and the public ministry?  Today, the news media is part of the problem, and not the solution.  Are we here to resolve the problems of our society?  No.  But we do have an obligation to provide contexts for what we see around us.

I’ll give an example.  The fear associated with crime in Chile has little to do with the actual crime figures.  Does the news media share a part of the blame for this? Yes.  Is it, perhaps, because crime “sells”, and gets attention, and increases ratings?  Yes.  Should we be surprised that “the fear of Chileans” be used politically?  Certainly not.  An adequate context would encourage us to ask other questions related to crime.  In Chile, whom do we call criminals?  What is going on in the jails?  Why is there so much recidivism?  What does the system do to first time offenders?  Why do 95% of the incarcerated in Chile come from poor families?  Or, why have 50% of convicts gone through a Sename center?

In covering immigration, we the news media should also ask ourselves the right questions.  Emphasize the context.

What is clear is that immigration is here to stay.  There is no turning back.  Whether we like it or not.  Whether we celebrate diversity or not.  It is no longer up to us.  What does depend on us is how we choose to understand immigration.  What does depend on us is how we choose to normalize this issue.  What does depend on us is whether we are going to use immigrants to continue to reproduce the classism and segregation that we experience today as Chileans.  What does depend on us is whether we can overcome the fear that separates us from those who live on the other block, on the other side of the street, or next door.  What does depend on us, as the news media, is to ask questions and provide the context.  What is at stake is the building of a different society, together, and for others.

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