Media Beat, Aug. 4, 1993
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Media to Immigrants: We Dim the Lamp for You

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. ... I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" The inscription is engraved on the Statue of Liberty. But these days, a very different mood dominates the United States.

Much of the blame - or credit, depending on your point of view - should go to the mass media.

Most mainstream media debates begin with the premise that immigrants are a problem, and then focus narrowly on "controlling our borders" and "ending political asylum scams." In these discussions, advocates for immigrants and political refugees are frequently marginalized.

Also pushed to the margins are basic facts:

HISTORY: Except for the African Americans, whose ancestors arrived in chains, and Native Americans, who were here millennia ago, most of us are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who begged, borrowed or stole to get here. We arrived with or without legal documents, often fleeing persecution or deprivation. More media attention to this history might reveal the unseemliness of slamming Lady Liberty's "golden door" in the face of new immigrants.

ECONOMICS: You wouldn't know it from most news coverage, but immigrants - whether legal or illegal - benefit the U.S. economy, according to studies gathered by the Reagan and Bush administrations. Immigrants spur investment and job creation, work hard at often-unwanted jobs and pay more in taxes than they take out in government services.

An exceptional Business Week cover story in July 1992, "Immigrants: How They're Helping the Economy," reported that "immigrants pay an estimated $90 billion in taxes, compared with the $5 billion in welfare benefits they receive." States with heavy immigration do carry increased school, health and welfare costs, but it's not because immigrants are ripping off the system. The problem is that the federal government doesn't share its windfall of immigrant taxes with the states most impacted.

"ILLEGALS": The overwhelming majority of immigrants and refugees - 825,000 people per year - are admitted to the United States legally in a regulated, orderly fashion. According to Census Bureau estimates, approximately 200,000 enter illegally with the intent to take up residence. Less than 1.5% of our population is here without legal documents - and they are the ones least likely to use government services.

REFUGEES: Those who contend that the United States has been shouldering the world's refugee problems are misinformed. Of the 17 million refugees in the world today, less than 1% of them have been admitted to the United States.

ETHNIC BIAS: Anti-immigrant feeling has long been driven by racial or ethnic prejudice. Ben Franklin looked down on the Germans coming to Pennsylvania. The "Know-Nothing" movement of the mid-1800s feared Catholic immigrants. Discriminatory laws sought to exclude Asians in the 1890s and Southern and Eastern European immigrants in the 1920s.

Given how racially charged the issue is, journalists should be alert to racist undertones in debates of immigration policy.

No organization on either side of the debate gets more media exposure than the Federation for American Immigration Reform. The group's leaders, who often appear without opposition in national news forums, sometimes play on racial stereotypes in calling for tighter restrictions on immigration. Speaking of Asian and Latino immigrant birthrates, Federation director Dan Stein told a reporter: "It's almost like they're getting into competitive breeding."

U.S. media outlets have shown remarkably little curiosity about the group's financial support from the Pioneer Fund - described in the London Sunday Telegraph as a "neo-Nazi organization closely integrated with the far right in American politics." From 1982 through last year, Pioneer has donated over a million dollars to the Federation, according to IRS records.

Founded in 1937 by textile manufacturer Wickliffe Draper, who favored sending blacks back to Africa, the Pioneer Fund's charter maintains that "people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds are, on the basis of their heredity, inherently unequal and can never be expected to behave or perform equally."

In recent years, Pioneer has backed a grab bag of racist projects, including a neo-Nazi publication in Virginia linked to former genetic experimenters in Nazi Germany and various studies aimed at proving that dark-skinned people are inferior.

When our associate Steve Rendall interviewed Federation director Stein, he responded that Pioneer's support represented only a "small portion of our income," and quipped that "maybe it's better that Pioneer give its money to" his organization than to racists and fascists.

Whether today's immigrants are Mexicans, Chinese, Haitians or others, they're still "yearning to breathe free." News outlets should shed light on anti-immigrant prejudices - and the forces behind them.

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