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Is The Media (And Blogosphere) Killing Immigration Reform?

President Obama has resolutely and repeatedly stated his intention to move immigration reform this year and create a path to citizenship for 12 million hardworking, new Americans. The two major American labor federations recently agreed to a plan that will help immigrants as well as US-born workers, ending the stalemate that hampered reform in 2007. A major funder, the Ford Foundation, has announced unprecedented support for grassroots organizations pressing reform this year.

So why is the mainstream media in a perpetual state of disbelief? On April 9, 2009, the New York Times ran a front page story citing aides in the Administration who say comprehensive immigration reform, including a workable path to citizenship for America’s undocumented population, will be a priority this year. Note that the story was front page news only because it was so counterintuitive --- not to the President, who sees immigration reform as an imperative moral and economic issue, but to the news media, who can’t understand why Obama would pursue another complicated priority that the media can joyfully turn into a political soap opera. Shouldn’t Obama just take a breather and save the whales?

Obama has made clear that he intends to help suffering Americans, citizens and immigrants alike, and recognizes that comprehensive immigration reform must be prioritized alongside other strategies to rebuild our struggling economy. Yet a full two weeks later on April 22, with plenty of time in between to read the New York Times cover story in between, Fox News reported, “The Obama Administration has not seemed anxious to deal with this political hot potato, at least not this year.” Perhaps it’s not fair to pick on Fox News, whose reporters have repeatedly proven they’re illiterate, but privately, far more reliable journalists and columnists have expressed their unyielding skepticism. When Vice President Joe Biden told reporters, "We’ve got to start serious discussions, serious negotiations on immigration now. I hope we’d be able to complete it this year, but whether we can or not, we have to start," the AP reported only that Biden said overhaul of the existing system may have to wait for 2010. This is all a publicity stunt, the media suggests, for Obama to simultaneously woo and placate Latino voters. He couldn’t be serious!

“The unprecedented political participation of immigrants in the past election, new allies and alliances supporting reform, the leadership of the White House --- immigration reform is at a level of possibility and necessity like never before,” Chung-Wha Hong, Executive Director of the New York Immigration Coalition told me recently. But here’s what’s going to happen. The May 1st immigration rallies across the country, which had swelled to millions in the streets in the past, will undoubtedly be smaller this year --- in part, says Hong, because “we’re more sophisticated now and engaged behind the scenes to make reform happen” but also because the media has created the perception that reform isn’t really on the table, tamping down the hopes and thus energy of immigrant communities. So on May 2nd, when the mainstream media says, “See, we told you that there isn’t enough political pressure and mobilization for immigration reform to be a serious priority,” the media will be guilty of creating the self-fulfilling prophecy they like to call news.


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It is no coincidence that the mainstream media is faltering as the opinion-driven blogosphere is on the rise. While newspapers and television news have long denied that they are part of the stories they cover, that the concept of what is “news” is not objective but rather a subjective determination they drive and thus create, the blogosphere not only acknowledges but seeks to exploit its power to shape the environment on which it opines. Bloggers don’t just comment on elections, they seed candidates. Facebook doesn’t just track social movements, its starts them. Meanwhile the mainstream media, congenitally averse to acknowledging its point of view, is by design or by default a defender of the status quo. As the blogosphere tries to act at the speed of light to capture and catalyze change, the media reports on change only once it has happened --- inevitably behind the curve. So the prospect of not only sweeping change that would affect the lives of 12 million new Americans and their millions of US-born family members and friends and neighbors and classmates, all for the better, is so hard to believe for the change-adverse media that they require proof. Words from the President and his aides won’t suffice. But the trouble is hard proof, like, um, passing legislation, will not happen as long as the media insists it’s unlikely. It’s a Catch 22 that not only hobbles the possibility of much-needed reform but the credibility and relevance of the media as well.

Not that the blogosphere is much better. In a 2007 study, the Opportunity Agenda found that immigration was woefully under-addressed in leading blogs, compared with other key social justice issues. And what’s worse, posts that did speak to immigration reform were commonly pelted with deeply anti-immigrant comments, including on the most progressive blogs. Immigration reform is not an issue that the liberal establishment, new or old, has stepped up to champion. But again, that doesn’t mean the Obama Administration isn’t serious about making this a priority nor that the immigration reform movement has the moral suasion and muscle to win. All this says is that the white liberal mainstream, online or off, is as behind on this issue as many others affecting primarily low-income communities of color.

Immigration reform is a priority --- this year --- for our President, who prioritizes unity and shared prosperity over the lunatic rants of the fringe Right, and for millions of immigrants and their millions and millions of allies who know that as an American community, we can only move forward together. The mainstream media hasn’t been skeptical about the commitment to health care reform and budget priorities and for these priorities, the blogosphere has shown its clear support. What about immigration reform? Will the media cover it, the blogosphere champion it, or both be culpable in killing it?

Meanwhile, if you want to add your voice to the millions calling for a workable path to citizenship and an immigration policy that lifts up all Americans, text JUSTICE or JUSTICIA to 69866 from your mobile phone, or visit

Sally Kohn

Sally Kohn

Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn.

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