Let’s talk about the news. More specifically, about how the news shapes perception.
Even more specifically, how immigration news shapes our understanding of immigration. What to be inspired by. What to be afraid of.
So much so that the news creates a perception that overpowers our lived experience.
In his 2017 book, Whiteshift, Eric Kaufmann wrote, “I cannot stress enough that national perceptions are far more important in shaping people’s views on immigration than local experiences.”
Picking up on this, I wrote in Crossing Borders, “Americans’ understanding of immigration is linked to their perception of global migration. What people believe is happening in the world overshadows what they actually experience in their own neighborhoods.”
In other words, “For many, when it comes to immigration, perception is reality.”
Looking back at 2021, we realize the immigration narrative that has put President Biden between the rock of enforcement and the corner of compassion was set very early on. In May, the Pew Research Center found that immigration was a top focus of early coverage of the new Biden administration. Particularly among right-wing outlets.
In fact, “among those outlets with right-leaning audiences, immigration was the No. 1 topic among stories related to the new administration.” And most of these stories offered a negative assessment of Biden’s handling of immigration. There was no nuance to this reporting, only a call for more enforcement and a return to the Trump administration’s approach to immigration.
Furthermore, the level of immigration coverage in conservative outlets was nearly three times what was found in the media ecosystem overall. While 11% of all Americans said immigration was the main topic of their primary news sources, 34% of Americans who consumed right-leaning media in those first months of the administration saw immigration as the top topic. And, again, those stories were predominantly negative.
I have no reason to believe much of this has changed. Negative immigration stories continue to drive right-wing media. And the left-leaning media pays relatively little attention to the issue.
Quite frankly, through years of breathless and misleading immigration reporting, conservative media has created an audience energized by the fear of immigration.
As a result, negative stories shape a negative perception of immigration among many conservatives. And the lack of high-profile reporting on immigration by liberal outlets leads left-leaning audiences to ignore the issue. This means an anti-immigrant narrative methodically creeps across the country, filling the vacuum left by more liberal outlets.
The political calculation by the Biden White House to avoid immigration — unless necessary — contributes to this vacuum.
Given these dynamics, I am always more interested in positive immigration stories published by conservative outlets or on local news platforms.
Therefore, here is a handful of the most interesting immigration stories from 2021. With a special shout-out to my colleagues at the National Immigration Forum for their daily compilation of the top news stories of the day. (You can subscribe to Noorani’s Notes here.)
The Diversity Visa Lottery is one of the primary paths for Africans to immigrate to the U.S. This story shows how much we owe these immigrants:
- In 2014, Takyi Botchway won the Diversity Visa lottery, and later joined the Air Force with hopes of becoming a pilot. On July 4, Rachael Riley of The Fayetteville Observer reported that Airman 1st Class Botchway hoped to become a U.S. citizen so he can sponsor his 7-year-old daughter, who still lives in his home country of Ghana. “It would really be a big turning point,” Botchway said of having his citizenship application approved. “… I’ll be so happy when I can break the news [to my daughter] and tell her to come to live here.”
A lot of the news out of the Midwest can be tough as communities struggle with all kinds of change. But there are also incredibly inspirational things happening in flyover country:
- Blessing Ovie fled Nigeria as an unaccompanied refugee when she was 9, facing unspeakable challenges, Brendan Quealy of Michigan’s Traverse City Record-Eagle reported in June. Nearly a decade after fleeing, with the help of the United Nations and Bethany Christian Services, Ovie now lives in Traverse City with her foster parents and has a 2-year-old daughter — and just celebrated her high school graduation. “Everything is a miracle,” said Ovie.
Too often, our border debate is reduced to walls, laws and enforcement. So we rarely see stories of the heroic organizations along the border doing incredible things:
- After 18 months living in Nogales, Mexico, fearing the country’s cartels would continue to target them, Selene Sanchez Maldonado, her husband Erick Martinez Campos, and three children were finally processed to enter the U.S. and apply for asylum, reported Rafael Carranza of the Arizona Republic. “We’re involved because we think that at least some people gaining access to safety is marginally better than nobody. But it does put organizations in a complicated position … without having access to the kind of oversight and reach that the government does,” said Joanna Williams, director of the binational migrant aid group Kino Border Initiative.
Don’t tell them, but every now and then even Fox News has a positive story:
- In May, Adam Shaw of Fox News reported on images from the Department of Homeland Security that showed an empty Border Patrol facility in Donna, Texas, as unaccompanied minors are transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). A far cry from the constant deluge of crowded facilities and running migrants that is typical fare on Fox.
Normal people read the sports page. (I skim the sports page but I would never claim to be normal.) So anytime there is a positive immigration story on the sports page, it is a win. And this was one of my favorites:
- Kwity Paye was just a “kid in Rhode Island trying to sign up for Junior Pee Wee football” when he realized he was different, Hallie Grossman writes in ESPN. After his mother brought him and his brother to America to escape civil war in Liberia, “Paye became an immigrant, then a citizen; a football player, then a really good football player; a star on the defensive line at the University of Michigan, then an NFL draft hopeful earmarked for first-round glory.” He hopes to travel to his home country someday soon: “Being able to become someone of status and then go back to my community, and go back to my village and uplift them? … That’s something I look forward to.”
This short list doesn’t even begin to dig into the amazing work happening every day in communities across the nation to welcome Afghan evacuees. From Oklahoma to Texas to Iowa, families are stepping up to help our newest neighbors. These are the stories reported by trusted local news outlets, amplified by faith publications. These are the messengers competing with the anti-immigrant media outlets.
These are the outlets shaping a new consensus on immigrants and immigration.