The Miami Herald's Trump-Friendly Immigration Articles Make No Sense

Protesters lined the sidewalk along SW 104th Street bordering Miami Dade College.EXPAND
Protesters lined the sidewalk along SW 104th Street bordering Miami Dade College.
Photo by Jess Swanson

As Donald Trump and his cohorts have spread outright lies about immigrants to bolster their harsh policies, news organizations should take extra care to approach the subject with nuance and proper context.

Instead, two stories published Tuesday and Wednesday in the Miami Herald repeatedly omit basic facts about U.S. immigration, republish years-old and previously reported information about crime by U.S. immigrants, and reprint Immigration and Customs Enforcement data from anti-immigration Senators Jeff Sessions and Chuck Grassley without mentioning their names.

Author Alfonso Chardy declined to speak about the stories, but Herald metro editor Jay Ducassi said via email that Tuesday's story "stands on its own merits."

"The motivation behind the story was the fact that El Nuevo Herald recently got the six-page judiciary committee document in hand and, on reviewing it, realized the numbers were comprehensive, newsworthy, and relevant, precisely because immigration is such a hot national issue now," he said. He declined to discuss whether the paper thought the articles portrayed immigrants in a negative manner.

But the flaws are obvious in the front-page story, which was posted online Tuesday and ominously titled "Hundreds of Immigrants Convicted and Not Deported Committed More Crimes — Even Murder." The report links to a 2015 letter from the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, which cites figures from ICE. The letter warned that rules forcing ICE to release immigrants convicted of crimes instead of holding them indefinitely had led to more violent crimes.

"At least 121 killings within a four-year span were carried out by convicted immigrants who were not deported, according to a 2015 U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee document recently reviewed by El Nuevo Herald," the story says. (The Herald published the piece in print yesterday. Its presence on the front page reflects the importance editors give it. Stories' prominence in print are regularly discussed by high-level editors.)

But that very first sentence includes a factual error: The data the Herald cites says those 121 immigrants were charged with murder rather than convicted. The paper corrects itself later in the story — but the error only works to make unnamed "immigrants" seem more frightening.

The story also says nothing about the circumstances behind any of those alleged crimes. Who were these 121 people? Where did they come from? Where did the murders occur? What were the circumstances of those cases? Neither the Herald nor the Sessions/Grassley letter sheds any light on those vital questions.

Ducassi, the editor, said the letter "did not contain any specific information on the crimes involved, but we're in the process of looking into it more deeply, so there is likely more to come on the issue of foreign nationals convicted of crimes in the U.S."

The most astounding factual omission from the story, though, is the source of the Herald's data: The piece essentially rewrites a letter written by Grassley and Sessions — both noted anti-immigration Republicans. But the Herald's piece never mentions the senators by name. Sessions, who was confirmed as Trump's attorney general last night, has been accused multiple times of racism. Grassley has sponsored crackdowns such as "Kate's Law" and sanctuary-city bans. Though the figures the letter cites do come from ICE, the veneer of governmental concern comes entirely from Sessions and Grassley, who have long been accused of anti-immigrant scaremongering.

Worse yet, the Herald's story isn't even new: Factually dubious conservative website the Daily Caller published a very similar story in 2015, when the Senate's letter was first published. Headline: "121 Criminal Aliens Released by Obama Administration Have Been Charged With Murder Since 2010." Other conservative news outlets, including the Washington Times, also wrote about the Senate note.

In fact, the letter has been publicly available on Grassley's own website since June 2015. Some basic Googling and searches through Grassley's website reveal the inquiry began after Apolinar Altamirano, a 30-year-old undocumented immigrant, was charged with killing Grant Ronnebeck, an American gas-station worker. Altamirano was released on $10,000 bond but was arrested again after threatening a woman.

The Altamirano case isn't exactly a secret: Trump made the death of Ronnebeck a pivotal point in his presidential-campaign stump speech, and white-supremacist-allied websites such as Breitbart have held up Ronnebeck's death as a shining example of "illegal-alien crime."

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So why would the Herald republish the letter from Sessions and Grassley now as if it's new, knowing the data would reflect negatively on the nation's undocumented community?

The story does at least disclose that the letter came from the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee — but it's highly unlikely the average reader understands that means the letter came from Sessions and Grassley, who are not impartial sources. (It's also unlikely that most readers clicked through to read the full text of the original Senate letter.) The piece does not say whether the Herald asked either lawmaker for more information before republishing their claims. The fact that this letter was written by two anti-immigrant lawmakers is, perhaps, the central fact of the entire story.

There are other problems with the piece. Though ICE uses the terms "criminal alien" to refer to both legal and undocumented immigrants charged with crimes, the Herald's story does not explain the term at all. It brings up multiple crimes Trump has pinned on undocumented people, a connection that could imply all 121 accused murderers were undocumented. But ICE's data could include criminals who arrived in the States legally.

Chardy's second story, which was published yesterday morning, is no better. In a piece titled "He Had a Criminal Record. He Was Deported 7 Times. And He Kept Coming Back," Chardy reports that five undocumented immigrants were caught this year in Miami despite having been deported for crimes. The cases, the Herald writes, mean that ten defendants this year have been charged with illegal re-entry to the States following their deportation.

The paper writes that the cases highlight "a porous border and broken immigration system whose agents arrest previously expelled foreign nationals only to arrest them again when they return weeks, months, or years later."

But the story omits a fact that pokes holes in that thesis: the actual size of Miami's undocumented community. According to an article the Herald itself published in 2015, an estimated 156,000 undocumented immigrants live in Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties. By those numbers, those five deportation cases make up about .003 percent of that population.

Moreover, the very idea that undocumented Latin Americans are streaming across the United States' southern border at problematic levels is wholly false and a lie repeated near-daily by the Trump administration. In fact, undocumented immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border peaked around the year 2000 and has since dropped to levels not seen since the 1970s, according to the nonprofit Washington Office on Latin America.

The Herald, however, warns readers that all five recent defendants "had been previously deported and returned undetected across the southwest border" without any historical context as to the severity of the issue. (The Herald is far from the only news outlet to do this lately; Trump has succeeded in convincing scores of Americans that people are streaming over the U.S. border at record levels when they simply aren't.)

The Miami Herald's Trump-Friendly Immigration Articles Make No Sense
Washington Office on Latin America

Though it is true that people deported to Latin America often attempt to return, five deportation cases amid more than 100,000 people is neither cause for alarm nor statistically significant. At the pace of ten such cases through February, just about 120 total undocumented people would be caught illegally re-entering the country by the end of the year. That's just .001 percent of the 11 million undocumented people in the States. Though it's impossible to argue that the nation's immigration system is working properly, it's difficult to see how the particular figures cited yesterday add up to a "broken" system.

The Herald's Tuesday story did cite the fact that immigrants living in the United States typically commit fewer crimes than natural-born citizens, but its Wednesday story failed to do so.

Why did the Herald run these pieces? Perhaps they were a stab at "objectivity" — publicizing Trump's widely discredited claims alongside many other stories that have criticized the president.

But thanks to reporting holes and bad context, the pieces come across as needless scaremongering in an era when compassion is what the nation's immigrant communities need most.


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