What Happens When A News Organization Treats Immigrants As People

Al Jazeera America is set to debut a new original series called "Borderland" that will attempt to take viewers beyond the debate on illegal immigration and tell the stories of the undocumented immigrants who attempt to cross illegally into the United States and the residents on the border.

Al Jazeera America's focus on the human side of the border story is in sharp contrast to the way Fox News and other right-wing media outlets discuss illegal immigration and undocumented immigrants.

In a press release announcing the series, which is set to begin on April 13, Al Jazeera America stated that “Borderland” “reflect[s] the channel's commitment to outstanding investigative journalism focusing on the human side of important, underreported stories, arising out of such national issues as immigration.” Al Jazeera America president Kate O'Brian went on to say:

“Immigration is one of the most divisive topics in our country, and it is easy for the real issues to get lost in the noise of politics. ... Borderland looks at the issue in an entirely fresh and compelling way -- allowing the viewer to become immersed in the experiences of actual border runners.”

In “Borderland,” six Americans of all ideological stripes are tasked with retracing the journey of three migrants who died while attempting to cross illegally at the U.S.-Mexico border. “To make the story relatable,” Al Jazeera America stated, “the filmmakers said participants on the trip faced the same dangers as the migrants whose stories they were charged with retelling.” Filmmaker Ivan O'Mahoney explained:

“We wanted to expose them and immerse them with the families and the people that lived on the other side [of the border], including relatives and friends, and include random interaction on the way. ... If you manage to make a personal connection to a migrant, it becomes a meaningful part of your world.”

Filmmaker Darren Foster added: “If you can get to the humanity of any story, people will see beyond their personal viewpoints.” Referring to the participants, he continued: “They certainly understood we are talking about human beings and lives, not statistics.”

Al Jazeera America is not the only media outlet engaged in an effort to tell the stories of illegal immigration from a more humanistic viewpoint. In NPR's similarly titled 22-episode "Borderland," which started airing on March 19 on Morning Edition, also sought to tell the personal stories of immigrants. As host Steve Inskeep wrote of the series:

We were seeking stories of people, goods and culture that cross the border. Heavily fortified though it is, the border remains the place where two nations meet, trade, clash and influence one another. It's a place to see history -- how the United States spread across the West, into lands that once belonged to Mexico -- and a place to glimpse both nations' emerging futures. We meant to explore big issues like immigration, crime and business through the personal stories of people who cross.

NPR accompanied the show with a multimedia website with the same name, which features 12 more stories of immigrants. It also includes a counter showing what is happening on the border as readers progress through the site.

Other outlets, including Fusion and BuzzFeed, have also delved deeply into how undocumented immigrants have been personally affected by border enforcement and illegal immigration.

By contrast, right-wing media have continually refused to acknowledge the humanity of undocumented immigrants and the human cost of strident border enforcement. In fact this notion was reinforced this week when former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) expressed compassion for the sometimes deadly journey undocumented immigrants undertake when crossing illegally into the United States.

When Bush referred to the journey as “not a felony” but “an act of love,” conservative media responded by calling Bush, “the dumbest of the Bushes,” and described his comments as “kind of bizarre.” Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham responded to Bush on her radio show: “People do all sorts of things out of love, right? I would imagine there are a lot of people who steal, do it out of love.”

They went after Vice President Joe Biden for voicing a similar sentiment.

More recently, Fox News has taken their cue on illegal immigration from an anti-immigrant organization with ties to white nativists in order to tar undocumented immigrants as rapists and murderers. The coverage has gotten so ideological at times that even a policy aimed at helping current and former U.S. service members and their families was cast as "amnesty."

In 2010, Fox News aired a series called "America's Third War" that focused on border enforcement as the solution to illegal immigration, claiming that “one thing virtually everyone close to the border security issue can agree on: America seems to be waging a third war with the Mexican cartels that will stop at nothing to smuggle humans and drugs into our homeland and the national security threat it poses.”

It ended up being a vehicle for launching the public persona of Arizona Sheriff Paul Babeu and others opposed to immigration reform.

Despite Fox News' anti-immigrant bent, Rupert Murdoch, chairman and CEO of Fox News' parent company 21st Century Fox, has repeatedly voiced support for immigration reform and has said of immigrants: “Most are hard-working family people.” The Partnership for a New American Economy, an organization he co-chairs with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, unites more than 500 leaders “in making the economic case for streamlining, modernizing, and rationalizing our immigration system.”

It's too early to say how or even if right-wing media will respond to the media's efforts to elevate the personal stories of undocumented immigrants and show the human cost of border enforcement, but this is a welcome change to the conservative narrative about “illegals.”


In a statement to Media Matters, Alex Nogales, CEO and president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, a media advocacy and civil rights organization whose goal is to increase Hispanic representation in the news, welcomed media's role in putting a human face on border enforcement, saying:

“When media covers immigration by putting a human face on the issue, telling the stories of real undocumented immigrants and shedding light on their aspirations, their struggles and the policies that affect them, audiences begin to understand and form their own conclusions on the issue -- and we start to see more support emerge from public figures like Jeb Bush, who recently said that people who enter the country without authorization do so as an 'act of love' and 'commitment to [their] family,' and that it is 'not a felony'.”