Latino Empowerment through Public Broadcasting
The Immigrant Experience through Public Broadcasting
Immigration is a fundamental aspect of the American story. With the exception of Native Americans and African American descendants of slaves, most Americans are either descendants of immigrants or immigrants themselves. In 2017, more than 44 million people living in the United States, or 13.6% of the total U.S. population, were foreign-born.87 As significant as immigration is to our past and will be to our future, it is a subject that has inspired as much passion as strife throughout many periods of American history.
Americans often have branded themselves as “a nation of immigrants.” Countless politicians, activists, and historical figures have quoted the lines engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty – "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – to affirm that anyone who seeks a better life may find a home in America.88 Despite this ideal of openness, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924 drastically restricted immigration based on national origins, establishing a system that immigration historian Roger Daniels has characterized as “a triumph of nativism.”89
Four decades after the 1924 Act, the Immigration Act of 1965 was intended to create a fairer system that would allow the United States both to continue to control immigration and ”repair a very deep and painful flaw in the fabric of American justice,” as President Lyndon Johnson stated on signing the bill. Johnson characterized the previous policy as having been “distorted by the harsh injustice of the national origins quota system.”90 The new law, however, resulted in unforeseen consequences, as legal and illegal immigration since the 1960s has skyrocketed far beyond the objectives in 1965 of Congress and the White House.91 The Act’s emphasis on family unification meant that entire families could uproot themselves from their country of origin and start over in America if they had just one U.S. citizen or permanent resident alien in their family. According to Daniels, “In no year since the bill passed have fewer than a third of a million immigrants entered the United States and since 1978 half a million or more have entered in most years.”92 In 2017 alone, a total of 1,127,167 immigrants became lawful permanent residents in the U.S.; 66% of them received that status based on family connections to U.S. citizens or permanent resident aliens.93
The high influx of immigration, particularly from Latin America, has aroused a nationwide debate. On one end are those who favor a path to citizenship for immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally. On the other are those who favor their deportation.
This section concentrates on public media’s coverage of some of the most prominent legislation on the subject and how the Latino community has expressed itself about immigration through public broadcasting. The public radio and television materials in this exhibit are a representative sample of what is available in the AAPB collection. The PBS NewsHour special collection, for example, has more than 4,000 programs that address immigration-related issues. Many of the programs selected for this section are part of that collection.
Research on both English- and Spanish-language coverage of immigration has identified differences in their portrayal of the topic. Spanish-language media is directed at Hispanic communities, which are more likely to be personally affected by immigration reform. As a result, it typically offers frequent coverage of immigration policies and favorable views on immigration. The reporting also tends to include relevant information like the names of immigration lawyers, sanctuaries, and activist organizations. In contrast, English-language media, directed at a much broader audience, is more likely to report on the illegal aspects of immigration, like border crossing, identity fraud, and border violence. Although it often includes debates where both sides of the issue are presented, its coverage of immigration is not as extensive or as frequent as in Spanish-language news programs.94
Public broadcasting in Spanish is more concerned with issues related to Latino communities. For instance, the first Latino community radio stations had the mission to inform the Latino population of events relevant to their reality in the United States using Spanish-language or bilingual programming. Broadcasters were greatly concerned about meeting the needs of Latino communities and that included giving listeners accurate information about immigration. Spanish-language and bilingual community radio fulfilled the communities' needs for real-time information and access to experts that could help navigate the complicated road towards U.S. citizenship. Television soon joined the dialogue, and the airwaves carried news reports about immigration policies; information about immigration laws and processes; interviews with specialists, immigration lawyers, and advocates; and call-in segments during which audiences could receive answers to their doubts and worries. These broadcasts recorded Latino perspectives on the events and controversies they lived through to secure their place in the United States. Public broadcasting in English also has documented and broadcast these experiences. Although in different ways, both types of public broadcasting have helped the audience navigate immigration policies.
Navigating Immigration Laws, Programs, and Policies
The Great Depression, World War II, and the Bracero Program (1942-1964)
Public broadcasting often has been a forum for Latinos to tell their own stories and write themselves into the narrative. It has offered a place for the exploration of ideas by developing programs geared towards educating viewers on culturally and politically relevant topics. Mainstream media has covered the events of the Great Depression and World War II extensively, but it often has omitted aspects that are less well-known, such as the removal from the U.S. of large numbers of people of Mexican ancestry – U.S. citizens and noncitizens alike – during the Great Depression, contributions of Mexican American soldiers in the war, and the Bracero Program.95
During the first three decades of the twentieth century, approximately one and a half million Mexicans crossed the border to labor in the U.S. in the fields, in factories, and on railroads. The migration satisfied both U.S. labor demands and the needs of Mexican workers suffering from poverty and political instability in their home country. With the steep rise in unemployment during the Great Depression, however, U.S. national and local officials organized repatriation campaigns, deporting Mexican nationals and their families in raids and encouraging Mexican-American citizens to voluntarily depart. Between 500,000 and two million people left the U.S. during the early 1930s in response to anti-Mexican sentiment and efforts to “save jobs for true ‘Americans’ and reduce the welfare rolls,” according to Professor of Public Interest Law and Chicana/o Studies Kevin R. Johnson. Although the topic of Mexican repatriation in the 1930s is “standard fare in introductory Chicana/o Studies courses,” Johnson wrote in 2005, it is “entirely absent from the national consciousness.”96
In 2016, the public radio history series BackStory included a segment on Mexican repatriation in an episode on the history of unemployment in America. The segment contained interviews from the early 1970s with people who had been affected by the 1930s repatriation campaign in Los Angeles County. The interviews were recorded as part of a college oral history project by Christine Valenciana, later a professor of education, whose mother left the Los Angeles area for Mexico with her family in the 1930s because her father, a stonemason bricklayer, could not find work any longer. Mrs. Valenciana, a child of nine at the time and a U.S. citizen who had never been to Mexico, explained the reason she left with her father: “Our place was with him. He was our father. We weren’t going to be left here and be made wards of the state. That’s what we would’ve been – wards of the state. So we left with my father.” Historian Francisco Balderrama, author of a study of Mexican repatriation, noted in the BackStory segment that the repatriation campaign in Los Angeles County became a model for officials in other areas to adopt. During preparations for making the public television series The Great Depression, producer Blackside, Inc. in 1991 invited scholars to lecture during staff education sessions. Historian Zaragosa Vargas, author of a study of Mexican workers and their families in Detroit and the Midwest from 1917 to 1933, discussed repatriation of Mexican-American factory workers from that area during the 1930s in a recording of these sessions available in the AAPB collection. In March 2016, Radio Bilingüe’s Línea Abierta interviewed former Arizona State Senator Alfredo Gutiérrez, whose father, a U.S. citizen, was deported in the 1930s. Gutiérrez’s book, To Sin Against Hope, relates the anti-immigrant and white supremacist rhetoric of the 1930s with the current period of mass raids and repatriations.
KVIE, a public television station located in Sacramento, California, developed programs like Valentía: Mexican Americans in World War II (2007) and Los Braceros: Strong Arms to Aid the U.S.A. (2006) that preserved for posterity stories of World War II Mexican-American soldiers and braceros. As World War II approached, agricultural and railroad industries in the U.S. feared that during wartime there would be a lack of workers to cultivate the land. On August 2, 1942, the U.S. and Mexico established a guest worker program to assuage these concerns, the “Mexican-United States Program of the Loan of Laborers,” also officially called the Mexican Farm Labor Program, but more commonly known as the Bracero Program. The word “bracero” comes from the Spanish word “brazos” (arms). It alluded to the physical strength of the Mexican workers and the hard labor nature of their jobs. The program allowed American farms and other industries to temporarily contract Mexican nationals for low-paying, low–skilled jobs. The employers would ask for braceros to satisfy their labor needs, and once their contract was finished, they would send them back to Mexico. During the 24 years of its existence, braceros signed 4.6 million contracts with U.S. employers.97
KVIE brought to light the stories of Mexican American soldiers, many of them children of immigrants, in the half-hour documentary Valentía: Mexican Americans in World War II (2007). As an example of Mexican American patriotism of the time, when asked about his identity, veteran Livorio Correa stated pointedly, “Let me get this straight, I am an American, and proud of it, and, by the grace of God, a Texan.” With regard to those who questioned his American identity, Correa answered, “I don’t listen to that garbage. It doesn’t affect me. It doesn’t bother me because I AM an American. We earned it.” The veterans did not get their desired recognition in the immediate postwar period, but through public broadcasting, today we can pay them the respect they are due.
Similarly, the braceros earned no medals for their effort, but their contributions to Latino culture in the states in which they labored are felt to this day. In 2005 and 2006, as rumors of a new guest worker program brought the braceros back into the limelight, KVIE and the Pacific Mountain Network, a public television organization, developed the program Los Braceros: La Historia de Los Braceros en Los Estados Unidos and the English-language version, Los Braceros: Strong Arms to Aid the USA. The 30-minute documentary portrayed the experiences of several clerks, professors, and former braceros as they recalled their involvement in the program. Each of these men, their families, and other participants in the Bracero Program contributed important pieces of oral history that contextualize and humanize the figure of the migrant.
The documentary (available in English, Spanish, and bilingual formats, along with raw footage of the extended interviews), provides testimonies of people who came to the United States because they were requested by the United States and yet suffered unequal treatment. Dr. Paul López, professor of Chicano studies, contributed a brief background on the working environment of braceros who were sent to Texas. He stated, “Discrimination was still evident.... There were still signs that said ‘No Mexicans or Dogs Allowed’ in various restaurant or public areas.” This discriminatory experience was shared with Mexican Americans, who were segregated from the white community.
In a Mexico stricken with poverty, the Bracero Program offered a way to survive. Former bracero Mauro Rodríguez recalled in the documentary, “If I didn’t do that, pass, you know, like bracero, we’d died over there because we were poor out there.” In the raw footage of his interview, he can be seen walking the abandoned husk of the Rio Vista Center, the old clearing house where the braceros signed their contracts. He remembered, “Some of the people over here were crying because they left México and they did not know what was gonna happen right here in the United States…. You’d probably cry yourself too because it’s hard to leave the house and start doing that kinda work in some other country.” Minerva Cheatum, former clerk at the Rio Vista Center, recalled the hardships that some braceros would go through just to be part of the program. The braceros whom she remembered most vividly were those who came from Oaxaca because “they were indigenous people and they were very poor, and they had walked for miles and miles, and when they came here, they had a type of sandals, and their feet were bleeding. It was just awful.”
Everyone involved in the Bracero Program wanted something different. The recruiters were looking for strong arms and calloused hands that showed evidence of experience with manual labor. Braceros like Mauro Rodríguez wanted to survive by earning enough money. Other braceros like Angel Albiso had no interest in money or material things. He stated that his only interest was working hard, so that his children could study and have more options than he did. There are even braceros like Cris Luna, a retired teacher in San Jose, California, who looked at the program as a way to better themselves. He stated, “I already knew that I wanted to get an education. The Bracero Program is the instrument that helped me start on that road.” KVIE’s Los Braceros and Valentía documentaries are a celebration of the lives of millions of hardworking and brave Latinos. Some came to the United States to look for a better future and left their marks on the land and economy of this country. Others, born in the U.S., went to war to fight for a better future and gave their lives for the people of this country.
Operation Wetback of 1954
Although it was originally intended to deter illegal immigration, the Bracero Program ended up being counterproductive in that regard. As sociologist Marjorie S. Zatz has written, “By providing growers with a seasonal labor force for whom they had little responsibility and by providing jobs that paid better than those available in Mexico, the Bracero Program aggravated the very condition it was designed to alleviate – illegal immigration.” Men who could not pass the sanctioned process to become braceros would cross the border illegally and bring their entire families with them.98
Becoming a bracero was not easy. Angel Albiso, a bracero mentioned earlier in this essay, recalled in his interview for KVIE’s Los Braceros documentary how difficult it was for him to become a bracero: “Yo no podía ingresar a los braceros porque era un poco difícil. Cuestión de que tenías que hacer gastos. Mi familia ya era como de unos tres o cuatro niños y yo no podía hacer tantos gastos” [I could not get into the braceros because it was a little hard. You had to make some expenses. My family already had three or four children and I could not make so many expenses]. Like many others in his situation, Mr. Albiso crossed first illegally and then managed to legalize his status by securing a bracero contract.
Regardless of the existence of the Bracero Program, farms continued to hire workers illegally. Alicia Schmidt Camacho, professor of Ethnicity, Race, and Migration at Yale University, has written, “By the 1950s, hundreds of thousands of unauthorized migrants labored alongside the legally contracted braceros.”99 The increase in illegal immigration, the protests of American citizens, including braceros who blamed those entering illegally for lower wages and worsened working conditions, the interests of Mexican farming interests who lost laborers to the U.S., and an already ethnically discriminatory environment, led to the mass deportation of hundreds of thousands of people beginning in 1943 and culminating in “Operation Wetback” of 1954.100
Operation Wetback, according to historian Kelly Lytle Hernández, “was lawless; it was arbitrary; it was based on a lot of xenophobia, and it resulted in sizable large-scale violations of people’s rights, including the forced deportation of U.S. citizens”101 The word “Wetback,” or “Mojado” in Spanish, is a derogatory term meant to refer to a Mexican national who would swim the Rio Grande to cross the border to the U.S. Operation Wetback, Hernández writes, was “designed to confront the rapidly increasing number of illegal border crossings by Mexican nationals.”102 The Border Patrol systematically swept through Latino communities in California, Arizona, and Texas looking for immigrants who had entered the U.S. illegally. They captured 1,075,168 people of Mexican descent, some of them Mexican Americans. More than 300,000 were forcefully deported back to Mexico. Border patrol agents raided local hot spots, farms, diners, parks, and ranches in their search for Mexican nationals. Often they apprehended more immigrants than they were equipped to handle. In Mexico, many deportees were relocated by Mexican officers to distant locations.103
Throughout the years, Latinos have used public broadcasting to denounce this operation. On May 11, 1979, Vilma S. Martinez, at the time president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, addressed a meeting of the Commonwealth Club of California and talked about the history of legal and illegal Mexican immigration to the United States in a speech broadcast over public radio. She explained that during the operation, “Homes were illegally searched by INS, [and] movie theaters were raided.” Concerning the more than one million people deported, she stated emphatically, “They had as much right to be here as you or I.”
Operation Wetback became a topic of national discussion again in 2015. During a discussion of immigration policy during the November 10, 2015, Republican presidential primary debate, then-candidate Donald Trump, in a clip broadcast the following evening on the PBS NewsHour, stated that President Dwight D. Eisenhower “moved a million and a half illegal immigrants out of this country. Moved them just beyond the border. They came back. Moved them further south. They never came back. They moved a million and a half out. We have no choice.” Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center Immigrant Justice Fund, reacted to the comments in a follow-up NewsHour segment analyzing the debate. She expressed how she “was initially shocked . . . and then deeply, deeply troubled” by them. Hincapié stated, “I think many viewers may not realize that when Donald Trump was invoking President Eisenhower’s immigration plan that resulted in the deportation of over a million individuals, he was actually referring to Operation Wetback. Operation Wetback is one of the darkest and most shameful periods of our immigration history in this country, where immigrants from México, including U.S. citizens of Mexican descent, were deported. . . . Historians think of it as ethnic cleansing. That is shocking that in 2015, one of our presidential candidates is espousing that as his model for immigration.”
Two highly educated Latina lawyers, 36 years apart, categorically condemned Operation Wetback and how harmful it was to Latino communities. These echoing points of view were possible because of the efforts of public radio and public television to capture public opinion and use it to inform Americans. If the 1940s and 50s were a period of intolerance, the 1960s were a period of reparations.104
The Golden Doors Are Opened: The Immigration Act of 1965
This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives, or really add importantly to either our wealth or our power. - President Lyndon B. Johnson, October 3, 1965105
It is a colossal understatement to say that President Lyndon B. Johnson was wrong about the Immigration Act of 1965. The bill was revolutionary. In the civil rights era, the bill sought to remove national origin quotas, which were racially and ethnically discriminatory, and replace them with hemispheric ceilings (120,000 visas annually for immigrants from the Western Hemisphere and 170,000 for those from elsewhere). For the first time in history, the U.S. established numerical restrictions on Western immigration, and Mexico now had to compete with Canada and Latin American countries for available visas.106 Coinciding with the end of the Bracero Program, legal Mexican immigration fell by 40%, and two-fifths of Mexican immigrants were undocumented.107
The key part of the bill was its emphasis on family unification. Of the seven preference requirements for application, four were reserved for reuniting U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens with their spouses, adult children, and siblings. By the 1990s, more than 60% of legal immigrants were accepted through their family connections, a pattern that remains to this day.108 In this Radio Bilingüe Línea Abierta program broadcast in October 2015, fifty years after the bill’s enactment, guests discuss the goal of the legislation and how it changed the U.S. Although there currently are few radio or television programs featured in the AAPB collection that pertain explicitly to this bill, many of the authorized Latino immigrants who have shared their stories through public broadcasting have benefited from the measures enacted in this bill. After the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, immigration became a more prominent topic in the minds of the American people. The policy opened the door to an unprecedented number of newcomers. This environment fostered the passage two decades later of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.109
IRCA: The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986
On November 6, 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) into law. The bill changed the lives of millions of migrants by bringing them out of the shadows of anonymity. It was designed to reduce illegal immigration by increasing enforcement at U.S. borders, requiring employers to verify their employees’ legal status and sanctioning those who knowingly hired workers who had entered the U.S. illegally. The most distinguishing part of the bill was that it gave amnesty to any immigrant who had arrived in the United States illegally prior to January 1982.110 Immigrants had to prove they had continuously resided in the U.S. without ever having left the country, were law-abiding residents without criminal records, could speak English, and by completing a test, prove that they possessed a working knowledge of U.S. civics and history. Additionally, they had to confess to their unauthorized entry, pay a fine, and pay any back taxes they might owe.111
This period was prominently discussed in Spanish-language public radio and television. For example, Radio Bilingüe hosted a series of episodes called “Beyond the New Law” to talk exclusively about IRCA. In episodes broadcast in English and Spanish, Richard Gonzalez and Samuel Orozco hosted expert panels and call-in segments to discuss the legalities and implications of this legislation. In November 2011, twenty-five years after passage of the law, Mark Silverman, Director of Immigration Policy at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco, discussed the legacy of the law on Radio Bilingüe’s Línea Abierta. The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour was careful to allow guests from divergent perspectives the time necessary to argue their points and represent their communities. Public broadcasting coverage of bills like this one often would include members of the Latino community giving their side of the story.
On May 3, 1988, The NewsHour covered the story of the Martinez family and their experience with IRCA. The Martinez family represented some of the more than two million immigrants in the United States illegally who applied for amnesty. The government only approved five of their family members for resident alien cards. IRCA gave them the opportunity to have some form of identification that could allow them to receive healthcare. Maria, the eldest sister, said: “One of my brothers, him with the little card. He was sick. When we get sick. We stay sick. But now he can go into the hospital and get attended because now he has the card.”
Of an expected four million applicants, only a few more than two million chose to apply. In the same NewsHour report, Andrew Rodríguez, regional legalization director for the U.S. Catholic Conference, argued that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) did not publicize the amnesty enough. He also ventured to predict that half of the people would not complete the process due to the testing requirements. He stated, “We have encountered a substantial number of people who are barely literate in their native language. Now they’re gonna have to get literate in English? Enough so that they can speak it. Write it. And then they’re gonna have to be able to answer questions on American history and American government.” He considered those requisites to be an enormous task for anyone to do, even more so when they still had to work and sustain themselves. IRCA was the last comprehensive immigration reform bill signed into law. Other bills and propositions have followed afterwards to lesser degrees of success. Proposition 187 was one such initiative.
"Save Our State" (S.O.S): Proposition 187 of 1994
California Proposition 187, colloquially known as the “Save Our State” (S.O.S) initiative, was included in the state’s 1994 general election ballot. The initiative, if implemented, would have prohibited undocumented immigrants from accessing non-emergency health care services, public education at all levels, and public social services. The law mandated a screening system to require agencies to report people suspected of being in the United States illegally to the California Attorney General and the INS.112 On October 10, 1994, The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour covered the arguments for and against Proposition 187. Once again, Latino professionals and members of the community made use of public television as a weapon of protest. Juan José Gutierrez, director of the One Stop Immigration and Education Center, argued that the initiative would encourage discrimination against the entire Latino community. Part of the proposition required school and public officials to report suspected immigrants to the INS. Mr. Gutierrez stated: “[A suspected immigrant] is probably going to be someone that looks like me, that speaks like me … with an accent, someone that dresses … in the stereotype of what a Latino looks like. So that means the Latino community at large.” As an opponent of Proposition 187, he organized a demonstration in Los Angeles that more than 70,000 people attended, according to an estimate.113
Proposition 187 mobilized and polarized the Latino community. POV, a long-running PBS series that features personal, independent films about a myriad of social issues, broadcast the documentary Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary in 1997. Directed by Laura Angelica Simón, a schoolteacher turned filmmaker, the film took a close look at the consequences of Proposition 187 at the community level and how it impacted one of society’s most vulnerable groups, children. The proposition, if enacted, would have denied public education to undocumented immigrants at all levels. The film captured the rising anxiety that the campaign for and against the proposition caused in a school where 90% of the students came from Mexico or Central America. Ms. Simón stated, “I thought if I told the story, if I just told [the students’] story and my story, people would understand why they shouldn’t have this debate in a school and why they should never ask a teacher to kick students out or deny education to anybody.”114
Although Proposition 187 was approved by voters, the community continued its fight by filing several lawsuits against the state. Eventually, a federal judge issued a permanent injunction against Proposition 187, prohibiting its enforcement.115 The battle against Proposition 187 turned teachers into filmmakers, elementary students into advocates, and galvanized an entire generation of young Latinos.116 In November 2019, twenty-five years after the passage of Proposition 187, Radio Bilingüe’s Línea Abierta included a discussion of its impact on politics in California and the nation.
Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005
In December 2005, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 4437, the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, also known as the “Sensenbrenner bill,” after Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner. The most controversial aspect of the bill was that it made “illegal U.S. presence a crime” (Sec. 203). It elevated first-time illegal entry from a misdemeanor to an aggravated felony and provided mandatory minimum prison sentences to immigrants convicted for re-entry (Sec. 204). Like other immigration bills, it also required employers to verify the legal status of their employees and increased employer sanctions for law violations.117 Because it criminalized immigrants, H.R. 4437 aroused a wave of civil protests from social and religious groups. As Ramón Gutiérrez, professor of history at the University of California, San Diego, stated, “These were the events that birthed an immigrant rights movement that had been a long time in the making.”118 The Latino community took to the streets for weeks, and hundreds of thousands of sympathizers marched all over the country to express their opposition to the bill.
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer provided public exposure to the Latino community and brought together activists and legal experts in debates about immigration. In its April 10, 2006, edition, The NewsHour covered immigration protests that were taking place all over the country. In Washington, D.C., more than 200,000 people marched. Many of the protestors waved American flags and carried signs with messages like “We work hard to make U.S. thrive and prosper” and “We are America.” Reporters interviewed participants willing to express themselves on public television. Saul Solorenzo, a documented immigrant from El Salvador, stated, “H.R. 4437 is the worst bill that there could be. Is not good for America. Is not good for immigrants and is not good for this country.” He continued by stating that the bill “criminalizes immigrants and turns people that work with immigrants into criminals.” This NewsHour program also featured a panel with three Hispanic professionals who provided different views on immigration. Rev. Luis Cortez, of Esperanza U.S.A., a network of Hispanic Christian churches, argued that the religious community had a moral imperative to help those in need. It could not turn its back to immigrant families. For her part, Yanira Merino, of the Laborers International Union of North America, gave voice to many Latinos who believed that several cultures can coexist and benefit from one another. Latinos often are asked to give up their language and traditions to assimilate into a larger homogeneous America, she stated. Victor Cerda, former Immigration & Customs Enforcement Official, offered counterpoints in the debate. He underscored the importance of enforcing immigration laws to assuage security risks of the nation.
What started out as a march born of fear, fear of a House bill that would criminalize and create felons out of hardworking families … has now become a movement of hope. - Sen. Barack Obama, May 1, 2006
On May 1, 2006, social movements protesting the law organized a one-day strike called “A Day without an Immigrant,” and Latinos were encouraged to walk out of their schools and jobs in protest. The NewsHour covered the nationwide boycotts. Hundreds of thousands of Latinos took to the streets to fight for immigration reform. Victoria Vergara, a hotel worker, stated, “Nosotros no somos criminales, nosotros somos trabajadores. Todos contribuimos. Trabajamos en el campo. Trabajamos en hoteles. Trabajamos en restaurantes.” [We are not criminals. We are workers. We contribute. We work in the fields. We work in hotels. We work in restaurants.] Other participants, such as Cynthia Contreras, a high school student in Los Angeles, were fighting for their education. She explained: “Most students immigrated when they were very small with their families. They didn’t choose to come here, but unfortunately they can’t continue their education just because they don’t have the legal status.” This statement refers to a controversial aspect of immigration reform: the legal status of children who grew up in the United States yet cannot participate as legal members of their communities. This particular issue was brought out in Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary and will be addressed in greater detail in the next section.
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer interviewed members of the Latino community representing both sides of the debate. People like Angelica Salas were in favor of the idea behind the boycott, but not the boycott itself. She believed that asking people to risk their jobs for a day of protest was not the best way to send a message. Likewise, Carmen Velázquez was not sure that a boycott was the right way to get their point across, but she respected the need of others to speak their truth. She encouraged people to talk about immigration even if it is a difficult topic to tackle, saying, “You have to have the courage to call attention to your issue…. We are not afraid to talk about [immigration] and this country has to stop being afraid to talk about it.” She continued, “We have come out and said, “DEAL WITH US, you cannot erase us from the blackboard.” The protests received criticism from some of the English-language media. As a response, Univision Radio host Javier Salas stated, “We are not burning flags. We are not singing anthems in bilingual. We are not offending this country. We want just to share the American Dream.” The program also featured a panel discussing the effectiveness of the marches and whether or not they meant that immigration reform could be on the horizon.
In 2007, a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill backed by President George W. Bush failed to pass. If it had managed to accrue the necessary votes, it would have offered a path to citizenship to 12 million immigrants, more resources for border control, and a guest worker program. Efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform continued into Barack Obama’s presidency.
DACA and the DREAMers: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (2012-2017)
In its June 15, 2012, edition, PBS NewsHour provided coverage as President Barack Obama instituted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy through an executive memorandum. The policy granted temporary deportation relief to undocumented immigrants who were brought into the U.S. as children. It also granted them the option to apply for a two-year work permit. DACA implemented some of the measures delineated in the DREAM Act, an immigration bill with similar goals that Congress earlier had failed to pass. More than 800,000 young immigrants or DREAMers benefited from the DACA program. To be eligible, a person had to show substantial proof that they had arrived in the U.S. before their 16th birthday or June 2007. The applicant could not have a criminal record, and needed to currently be in school, have a high school diploma, or have been honorably discharged from the military. Although DACA did not provide a path to citizenship, the President stated, “It makes no sense to expel talented young people, who, by all intents and purposes, are Americans – they’ve been raised as Americans; understand themselves to be part of this country.” On the same PBS NewsHour program, Victor Pealafox expressed to viewers what DACA meant to him: “I graduated in 2010 and was accepted into various universities … but I wasn’t able to attend any of them because I was undocumented. This is the most important day of my life.” PBS NewsHour provided a space of debate where both sides of the argument could make their case to the viewers at home. For instance, this episode also included interviews with Cecilia Muñoz, White House Director of Domestic Policy, and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, an opponent of the DREAM Act. The PBS NewsHour edition of November 21, 2014, presented a segment called “Voices of Immigration” that shed some light on how Latin American communities reacted to President Obama’s 2012-2014 immigration measures, including the DACA program.
On November 18, 2016, four years after DACA was initiated, the PBS NewsHour continued covering the stories of DACA recipients. Diana Chacón, who was brought into the U.S as a child, stated: “DACA changed my life. It allowed me to be involved in school more, spend more time doing my classwork assignment, and just get involved in my community in general…. I was also encouraged to keep going. I was encouraged to pursue law school.” Not all members of the Hispanic community were satisfied with DACA. Immigration attorney Carlos Batara was reluctant to provide services to DACA applicants. He believed it was unethical to aid his clients with the DACA process since there was little guarantee that the government would not use the information against the applicants.
Although DACA was for many migrants a way to a better life out of the shadows of illegality, during the last period of Obama’s presidency, there was uncertainty about whether it would survive after he left office. This anxiety was conveyed in WTTW’s production, My Neighborhood: Pilsen (2017). WTTW, a PBS affiliate in Chicago, has developed many programs focusing on the Latino community in the Chicago area throughout the years. In My Neighborhood: Pilsen, the viewer could see the community efforts that transformed the community of Pilsen in Chicago. It mostly follows a family of Mexican immigrants and their struggles to better their living conditions and retain their Mexican culture. In one of the scenes, Alma Silva, a community organizer in the neighborhood, talked to her children during a family dinner about the importance of the presidential elections. Two of her daughters were DACA recipients and the last two were born in the U.S. When she mentioned DACA, one of the youngest daughters asked what DACA was. The viewer was given a glimpse at how hard and emotionally difficult these conversations can be. The oldest daughter stated: “Por eso es que estas elecciones son tan importantes para mi, porque yo de un día para el otro, quedo sin trabajo, sin perdón, sin nada… and they can just decide to kick me out.” [That’s why this election is so important for me, because from one day to the next day I can be without a job, without relief, without anything, and… (continued in English) they can just decide to kick me out.]
On September 5, 2017, PBS NewsHour covered the announcement by the Trump administration to cancel the DACA program. The decision to end the program led to a backlash from many in the Hispanic community who took to the streets in protest. A young protester was shown visibly crying, while speaking to the other protesters through a megaphone: “We don’t know what that [the end of DACA] means to our futures. But I do know that we are here right now because we are outraged.” She continued, “Even without DACA, we won’t go back into the shadows.”119
“Zero Tolerance Policy”: Family Separation Policy of 2018
In April 2018, the Trump administration unveiled a “Zero Tolerance Policy” that called for the immediate prosecution of any individual caught crossing the U.S. border illegally. If the individuals were with children, the children were to be taken from their families and placed in separate detention facilities. Nearly 3,000 children were separated from the parents due to this policy. Many were seeking asylum.120
NewsHour programs covered the lifespan of the policy. The news segments included members of the Latino community personally affected by the policy as well as political experts who debated the topic of immigration. Before the policy was announced, a PBS NewsHour program on December 22, 2017, told the story of José Demar Fuentes, an asylum seeker from El Salvador, who was forced the leave his home due to gang violence. With his youngest son Mateo, Fuentes, who had a degree in journalism, tried to cross the border to the U.S., where he was detained and separated from his child. His wife Olivia and his other son André were staying in a shelter in Mexico. Fuentes told the NewsHour, “Me siento impotente por no poder estar con ellos. No poder abrazarlos, besarlos o jugar con ellos.” [I feel powerless not being with them. Not being able to hug them, kiss them or play with them.]
During the month of June 2018, PBS NewsHour covered the backlash from the Zero Tolerance Policy almost daily, often presenting images of the detention centers where children were seen lying on the floor and covered with tinfoil blankets. On June 20, 2018, President Trump rescinded the family separation policy by issuing an executive action indicating that families were to be detained together.121 In that day’s broadcast, the NewsHour reported the journey of a grandmother, Angelica, and her three-year-old grandchild Sofi as they crossed a bridge to the United States seeking political asylum. Their family was being targeted by Mexican cartels. When asked if she was aware of the policy, Angelica stated: “Yes. It makes me afraid that they’ll separate me from my granddaughter, and I pray that they won’t separate me from her.” She was escorted across the bridge by Ruben Garcia, who runs a migrant shelter in El Paso, a group of activists, and the NewsHour field reporter, Amna Nawaz. They were stopped before reaching the border, but after an hour, were allowed to cross the border into the U.S. Garcia said afterwards, “I have a suspicion that had we not been with them that they would have been turned back.” Nawaz, seeming to agree with him, added: “The thing, of course, that people worry about is what happens when the cameras aren’t there? … What happens when people aren’t looking for the vast majority of folks seeking refuge here?”
On June 22, 2018, the NewsHour followed up on Angelica’s story. Her granddaughter had been taken away from her and placed into custody. The mother was contacted but given little information about the case. On August 10, 2018, Sofi was reunited with her family after seven weeks in government custody. Sofi’s mother stated about Sofi’s experience in custody: “She cried all the time. Told me she didn’t want to be there.” When Sofi saw her mother, she broke down crying. Commenting on the possible reasons for the child’s release at that time, Nawaz stated that the NewsHour broadcasts “have been providing sustained attention as a national media network” and speculated that by “highlighting the story over several weeks,” those broadcasts, along with pressure by others, including a volunteer group, a pro bono immigration lawyer, and a U.S. senator, who “caught wind of Sofi’s story,” may have led to her release.
These three programs followed a grandmother’s journey to seek legal asylum and her experience with the family separation policy. They allow us to see the impact that public broadcasting can have on the lives of its viewers and on the people whose stories they cover. Many other asylum seekers do not have the strong support system that Angelica had. They depend on the U.S law to work in their favor. On June 29, 2018, the NewsHour covered the story of a 17-year-old boy who fled Honduras with his father. They were separated from each other after they crossed the border. The authorities did not give the boy any information about his father, his whereabouts, or when they could see each other again. He recalled that in his detention facility, the kids were constantly upset: “All of the kids cried because they were told that their parents were going to be deported. They were all crying. All of them.”
Legal Advice through Public Radio
Spanish-language radio and television broadcasts in the United States are directed towards a community that is likely to have a special interest in the subject of immigration. As Regina Branton and Johanna Dunaway, professors of politics and communications, have explained, this media usually follows a civic journalism model and is likely to encourage viewers to be more politically active. The programs often tend to showcase immigrants, immigration, and immigration activism in a positive light.122 Media historian Dolores Inés Casillas states, “Not only did [Spanish-language] radio act as a tool to disseminate information on the particulars of IRCA, but its interactive call-in element allowed listeners to air their concerns and detailed questions” while cloaked in the anonymity radio provided.123 In Washington State, KDNA aired its series Buenas Noches on the same day that President Ronald Reagan signed IRCA into law. During the program “Amnesty--Application Process and Requirements,” the host and studio guest Virginia Santillanas, who worked for a congressman collecting information about IRCA, talked about the new law and its implications for immigrants and held multiple call-in sessions to answer questions. In two of the programs from Radio Bilingüe’s “Beyond the New Law” series, “Simpson Rodino, Employer Sanctions” and “Simpson Rodino, Los Arreglados,” broadcasters discussed the act’s stipulations concerning organized labor and its impact on immigrant laborers.
Broadcasts about IRCA continued for years. Since 1988, when the deadline for IRCA applicants expired, radio and television hosts have informed their audiences about the steps immigrants needed to follow to complete the process leading to permanent residency and citizenship. In the 1988 Buenas Noches program “Immigration,” KDNA hosted Jamie Hernandez, the supervisor for the immigration program at Yakima, Washington, to detail the procedures, documents, and other arrangements immigrants had to complete. During the call-in session, she answered numerous questions and gave advice to callers on what to do and how. Likewise, television programs participated in the process. In an En Camino broadcast “The Second Step of Amnesty,” KRCB provided its immigrant audiences with information about Phase II: The Path to Permanent Residence, accompanied by a panel discussion to help viewers with the immigration process.
In addition to connecting with state officials, broadcasters invited community leaders and attorneys to go on the air and explain other legal issues immigrants could face with the authorities. During the first hour of Línea Abierta’s “Deportation for DUI,” Samuel Orozco hosted the weekly edition on immigration alongside a guest attorney to discuss the lifelong deportation punishment for driving under the influence of alcohol. In Yakima, Washington, the director and lawyer of the Immigration Project (Proyecto de Inmigración) went on air in an episode of Buenas Noches to talk about what someone should do if he or she is detained by immigration officials (la migra), the deportation process, and citizenship. This broadcast highlights stations’ commitment to the community to provide immigration information despite technical difficulties. Nevertheless, those in the studio persevered and accepted call-ins to answer the most pressing, often personal, questions listeners had about how to remain in the United States. Spanish-language television also followed a similar pattern of advocacy.
Patrolling La Migra: The Latino Community and the Border Patrol
Some radio stations warned listeners when and where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents were conducting raids or patrols. KDNA, for example, broadcast “migra alerts.” According to Casillas, the station had witnessed a series of immigration raids, and they responded by designating an individual as a periodic “INS watch” in the mornings. These alerts were so successful that labor rights leader César Chávez praised the station. According to Casillas, “La migra alerts allow listeners to live under the radar of surveillance by offering a form of inverse-surveillance” and allowing them to “‘outwit’ the state's radar.”124
In 1998 the U.S. Border Patrol came under fire from human rights organizations, who documented numerous incidents where unarmed men, women, and children had been fired upon or were sexually or physically abused by agents.125 In 1989, Radio Bilingüe broadcast a public forum on the practices and behavior of the Border Patrol. The bilingual forum was an attempt to openly discuss the grievances of the Latino community with the agency. In 1990, Radio Bilingüe also provided the raw audio of a congressional hearing regarding excessive use of violence at the hands of the Border Patrol. At the beginning there is a summary of deaths, injuries, and violent incidents involving immigrants and Border Patrol agents. On April 5, 1996, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer reported an incident in California involving police agents and immigrants who were fleeing from the police. In the process of arresting the immigrants for illegally crossing the border, the agents violently attacked an unarmed man and a woman with nightsticks. Although they were not Border Patrol agents, the report demonstrates that excessive use of force against migrants was a widespread problem at the time.
The Migrant Saga: A Closer Look at Different Latino Communities with Images/Imágenes
The exhibit features several programs from Images/Imágenes (1972-2011, 2019- ), a multi-Emmy award-winning television show that aims to promote the “diverse history, culture, and life experience of the Hispanic/Latino communities in the state of New Jersey and the nation.”126 Imágenes [Images] was born out of a need within the Hispanic community in New Jersey to tell its own stories and challenge the negative stereotypes of Latinos that were rampant in the Anglo media. The show’s vision was to create informative programs in English and Spanish to educate viewers on the history, needs, achievements, and culture of diverse Hispanic/Latino communities.127 For more information on Images/Imágenes, see the Latino Public Television History essay in this exhibit. The following Images/Imágenes programs allow us to take a close look at the migrant experience of three of the largest non-Mexican Latino groups in the nation.
Puerto Ricans are not immigrants. Since 1917, all Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens and can move freely between the U.S. mainland and the island without visas or resident alien cards. Although they are not immigrants, their migrant experience in many ways echoes that of immigrants from Latin America. Their first language is Spanish, their culture is Caribbean, they are largely non-white, and, like people from other Latin American countries, they have a history of Spanish colonialism. As Juan Gonzalez notes in his book Harvest of Empire, “The contradiction of being at once citizens and foreigners, when joined with the reality that ours [is] a racially mixed population, has made the Puerto Rican migrant experience in America profoundly schizophrenic.”128
Puerto Rican migration to the United States started after they became American citizens in 1917 during World War I, but the largest wave came after 1946. The Great Depression and the collapse of the sugar cane industry had left Puerto Rico in crisis, and thousands of Puerto Ricans sought to leave the island to have a better life. New York and Chicago were the major destinations for these migrants. During the 1950s, more than 40,000 Puerto Ricans moved to the U.S. mainland. The Images/Imágenes program “Puerto Ricans in Newark” focuses on the history of Puerto Rican migration to the city of Newark, New Jersey. After World War II, the city was no longer the industrial hub that it previously had been. It was during this time that African Americans and Puerto Ricans moved to the city by the thousands. As the narrator explained, “Vinieron a recoger los despojos del pasado glorioso de la ciudad” [They came to collect the remains of the city’s glorious past]. In Newark, Puerto Ricans formed a close-knit community. The crew of Images/Imágenes interviewed an unnamed past member of the community, and he recalled: “Era un barrio que era todo humilde. Todos nos llevávamos muy bien.” [It was a humble neighborhood. We all got along very well]. The program explored the discrimination that Puerto Ricans suffered in Newark, because they did not fit it within the black/white margins of American society. A past member of the community recalled protesting with the Puerto Rican Political Association because of the discrimination they were suffering at the hands of the police. He remembered: “La policía no nos podía ver en ninguna esquina. Si habíamos tres en una esquina o nos íbamos o nos maceteaban.” [The police could not see us in any corner. If there were three of us in a corner, we either had to leave or they would beat us up]. The community broke apart after the neighborhood was destroyed to expand the Rutgers University campus. The episode gave the viewers the opportunity to know the story of one Latino community, how it came to be, and how it ended.
In April 1981, Images/Imágenes broadcast the episode “Dominicanos en New Jersey” [Dominicans in New Jersey]. The period marking the largest number of Dominicans immigrating to the United States occurred after the assassination of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1961. According to the program, many people feared that Trujillo sympathizers would take revenge after the death of their leader and decided to look for refuge in the United States. The political and economic instability of the country have been some of the main reasons for immigration. The number of people seeking to come to America far exceeded the national quotas assigned to the Dominican Republic. The episode featured interviews with many members of the Dominican community in New Jersey. They discussed their experiences in the United States, their community in New Jersey, and other topics relevant to them as Dominicans. The episode briefly touched on illegal immigration and explained that some Dominicans gained entry by illegally crossing the Mexican border. One of the men interviewed stated that immigration and residency laws were more restrictive towards Latin Americans than they were for Europeans. He emphasized that people who come into the U.S. illegally were not illegal themselves. This opinion echoed a general point of view across all groups within the Latino community that fervently oppose the use of the word “illegal” when used in reference to a person.
Most of the Dominicans interviewed were grateful to the U.S. for allowing them to prosper and raise their families. All of them, however, expressed a deep desire to return to the Dominican Republic. The same man previously mentioned commented on this particular aspect of their immigrant experience: “Un gran porcentaje de los dominicanos que nos encontramos aquí piensa retornar a su patria y eso se debe al amor tan grande que el dominicano le tiene a su tierra.” [A large percentage of the Dominicans here in the U.S. plan to return to their country and that’s because of the great love that Dominicans have for their land.] The Dominican community in New Jersey flourished and sustained strong ties of solidarity with the other Latin American groups in the state. Even then, Teudy Vizcaíno, President of the Dominican Club in Newark, stated that the golden dream for most Dominicans was to be able one day to return to their country of birth. For Mr. Vizcaíno, the only way that their golden dream could be realized is if there were basic and substantial changes in the form of government of the Dominican Republic.
In the 19th century, Cuban workers moved freely between the United States and the islands. The cigar industry flourished in the U.S., and thousands of Cubans relocated to America to work in the factories. In the early 20th century, between 50,000 to 100,000 Cubans moved back and forth between Havana and the U.S. During the regime of Fulgencio Batista (1940-1944, 1952-1959), the Cuban government adopted increasingly harsh and repressive policies that eventually escalated to a dictatorship. In 1959, he was overthrown by the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro. Although the American government was initially amicable with the new government, relations between the two countries soured after the Castro government began espousing communist ideas and expressing resentment for American’s support of Batista during the revolution. The mass Cuban immigration started after Castro’s victory in 1959.129
In June 1979, twenty years after the Cuban revolution, Images/Imágenes broadcast “Diálogo entre Cubanos” [Dialogue between Cubans]. This episode allowed Cubans, both in Cuba and in exile, to express their thoughts on the dialogues that were then taking place between the Cuban diaspora and the Castro regime to free political prisoners. After the dialogues, the Cuban government agreed to liberate most political prisoners, allow visits from Cuban exiles, and allow prisoners to leave the country. Mariana Gastón, member of the Maceo Brigade, a group of young Cubans in exile, explained how the dialogues between the Cuban government and the exiles came to be. Those in favor of the dialogues and keeping favorable ties with Cuba believed that it was good thing to have the possibility to visit Cuba. They wanted to see family members and connect with their country of origin. In a street interview, a woman stated that she was in favor of the dialogues: ”Yo misma voy a ir a Cuba. No sólo una vez. Si puedeo ir 10 veces, voy 10 veces….En resumidas cuentas de que usted vaya o no vaya, eso no va a arreglar el comunismo” [I am going to Cuba. Not only once. If I can go 10 times. I will go 10 times…. In short, if one goes or doesn’t go, that is not going to fix the communism]. Other members of the Cuban community had a different take on the situation. In another street interview, a man stated: “Creo que nosotros los Cubanos que estamos en el exilio no debemos olvidar que hemos sufrido mucho para abandonar la patria…Y que ahora tengamos que contribuir con dinero para comprar armas…” [We Cubans in exile cannot forget that we have suffered a lot to leave our country…. And now we would contribute money that they would use to buy weapons?] The diversity of opinions of the people interviewed is an example of the richness and depth that Images/Imágenes strives for with their programs. Regardless of their stand in the political spectrum, all members of the Latino community can watch and learn the complexities of each other’s experiences in America.
There are many other programs and collections in the American Archive of Public Broadcasting, in both English and Spanish, with great material regarding the immigrant experience of Latin Americans in the United States. Radio Bilingüe broadcast a series in Spanish and English on experiences of Immigrant Children in public schools. Radio Bilingüe’s Línea Abierta broadcast more than 700 “Immigration Edition” programs from 1998 to 2021 and devoted more than 30 programs to braceros. The series En Camino from KRCB in the North Bay, California area has episodes related to immigration and worker’s rights. Leonel Castillo, the first Hispanic Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, spoke to the Commonwealth Club of California in 1979 in an address broadcast over the radio about issues of Mexican immigration to the United States. In a Línea Abierta program from 1998, Dolores Huerta discussed guest worker legislation. The Say Brother series has material on Cuban exiles in the Boston area and bilingual education. In 2005, WUNC’s North Carolina Voices: Understanding Poverty series profiled the dreams of an undocumented immigrant about to graduate from high school who will not be able to receive in-state tuition for college because of state law. An episode of the series Florida Matters from WUSF in Tampa spotlights the story of a young man’s journey on a raft from Cuba to the U.S. This is a brief selection of some of the resources available in AAPB that showcase ways the Latino community has used public broadcasting to represent themselves, their communities, their stories, and their interests pertaining to the immigrant experience.