Chicago media struggle to tell migrant stories as thousands surge into the city

Baffled travelers stepping off buses into an unknown city and life. Families huddled on police stations’ floors. Painful accounts of robberies and rapes, and of deaths in jungles and rivers – the price of escaping grim horrors.

These and other stories told by the thousands of immigrants who have surged into Chicago in recent months, joining many thousands already here, have been told by Chicago’s news media.

But has the news media done its job?

A migrant mother and her children ask for money and food in the South Loop in downtown Chicago on Thursday, June 29, 2023. More than 10,000 migrants have arrived in the city since 2022. Most of the migrants arriving in Chicago are from Venezuela like this family. (Photo by Jackie Spinner)

Has it lingered beyond the picture or quote captured on the immigrants’ first days to make them more human? Has it sketched what’s likely to become of them? 

And ultimately, has it provided an accounting of what their arrival has meant to Chicago’s institutions and its sometimes inflamed and often polarized racial and ethnic politics?

Much of the focus has been on the daily situation. Yet in time stories have also rolled out about the medical and legal problems facing the immigrants and about the costs of their care. 

What’s missing is reporting that brings together the whole picture. It starts with tracking how and why right-wing southern politicians began sending uninformed immigrants into liberal northern cities. We need a better understanding of the likelihood that the immigrants will find a haven in Chicago and other big US cities or be expelled – as New York Mayor Eric Adams did, sending migrants to neighboring counties. What happens if the new arrivals simply melt into the more than 400,000 undocumented in Illinois and the 11 million in the US?

In a broader view, the situation has become a test whether Chicago’s news media, beset by massive cutbacks and upheavals, but also benefiting from new and ambitious digital start-ups, have met the challenge.

The results have been mixed.

Immigration agency officials and immigrant advocates complain that the coverage has been episodic reporting and has failed largely to link all of the dots.

“What’s being done right now is covering chaos,” said Erendira “Ere” Rendon, vice-president of Immigrant Justice at the Resurrection Project, a major agency in Chicago’s Latino community. “There’s less coverage about how we make this sustainable. This is not going to be purely sustained by volunteers.”

Melineh Kano, executive director of Refugee One, one of Chicago’s major immigration agencies, explained that the media coverage has been important, because news reports have almost always prompted “public response” for her agency and the immigrants it services.

Yet she laments the media’s focus on the “bad aspects more than the good…..We don’t hear much about the types of people who’ve crossed the border. We mostly hear about the political issues around the border.”

Fred Tsao, senior counsel for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, points out a number of the news media should follow up on issues facing the immigrants, such as how they are settling in and moving on with their new lives. But his major complaint is over the media’s description of the situation as a “crisis.”

“It’s a loaded term,” he said. “It makes it look like the situation cannot be managed….And it feeds into the inaccurate image that the world is a hot mess.”

Mitch Pugh, the Chicago Tribune’s executive editor, doesn’t deny that his newspaper was caught “flat-footed,” and said it has since worked to catch up with better planning and coordination. “I think we covered the initial crisis, but not divined what this all means,” he said.

“I’m not sure there’s a really good model out there (for the coverage),” he added.

One of the constraints on the coverage, he said, is the reality of a much-reduced newsroom.   Neither the Tribune nor the Sun-Times has a full time immigration reporter, a one-time stable for big city news media. Rather they have relied on others to step up. 

 Laura Rodrieguez Presa has provided much of breaking reporting on immigrants for the Tribune as has Elvia Malagón for the Sun-Times. Malagón’s job is supported by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust for her reporting on social justice, immigration and income inequality.

What’s missing from the traditional news media has been made up by recently born news outlets. 

Borderless, a small, four-year-old online publication and only one of a few online publications that focuses on immigrants, partnered, for example, with Block Club Chicago, a five-year-old online outlet, when the buses first began arriving. Handing out pamphlets to immigrants as they were arriving, a team of reporters from the two publications eventually tracked down and followed 10 immigrants. The stories, which also appeared in Spanish, provide the humanity  missing at times from news reports.

Pointing to immigrants’ support needs, Borderless in recent months has created a guide for donations for the recently arrived immigrants, has written about Black immigrants and told how Syrian and Turkish immigrant groups here were helping their countrymen in the wake of the devastating earthquakes.  

As a neighborhood-based publication, Block Club Chicago, has spread its coverage out over the city. One insightful story revealed the dearth of lawyers for those in federal immigration court and a major increase in backlogged cases. Indeed, the backlog of cases in Chicago’s immigration court has more than doubled since 2021, reaching 112,000 as of April.

Mick Dumke produced a powerful story for Block Club Chicago showing that a City Council committee on immigration had not met for over a year as the immigration situation was worsening.

To Carlos Ballesteros, a reporter for Injustice Watch, covering the latest immigrants means also examining the conditions of the undocumented in Chicago area, whose ranks he points out have been declining. He has tackled that kind of reporting, writing about abuses faced by older undocumented and officials’ failure to help undocumented victims of sexual abuse obtain U visas, a road to becoming citizens.

“The coverage is incomplete. It is short-sighted. The immigrant perspective is lost,” he said.

So, too, Melissa Sanchez, a Chicago-based reporter for ProPublica, has produced investigative reporting about problems with the care of immigrant children who entered the country without a parent or guardian. As national news reports and Congressional hearings have pointed out, caring for these youths has become a dilemma. In 2022, the government referred 128,000 unaccompanied minors to its Office of Refugee Resettlement, the highest such number in recent years.

As Chicago officials moved to temporarily house newly arrived immigrants in facilities in Black or mostly White communities, the media has captured the uproar at meetings and at the City Council from those opposed to locating the new immigrants in their communities.

Jackie Serrato, editor of the La Voz, a Spanish language publication of the Chicago Sun-Times, suggested that such reporting has not been analytical enough to explain the controversy. “The good reporters will say where some of these (complaints) may come from. And one reason is the dissatisfaction that people feel with the way public officials has disinvested in Chicago-born residents and vulnerable communities and the uncollaborative process to find shelter by the Lightfoot administration.”

So, too Natalie Moore, an editor on the race, class and communities desk at WBEZ, thinks that the reporting on community conflict over the locating of  immigrants needs to go deeper and to hear more voices, not just those most outspoken at meetings. “I know about disinvestment in the South and West (sides of the city) but also what it means to have a humanitarian crisis that is spurred by the views of red state politicians,” she said.

The uproar clearly has been heard and produced op-eds and columns in the Chicago news media dealing with it. Many of these have sought to provide some salve for the unsettled emotions, a critical role for the news media in troubled times.

One of the most powerful statements came from Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell. She detailed the burdens and inequities suffered by Chicago’s Blacks, but then brought her column to a compelling conclusion:

“We can build on the legacy of segregation by turning our backs on those who do not look or talk like us. Or we can do what Johnson talked about in his inauguration speech when he summoned the “soul of Chicago,” she said, referring to new Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson. 

Stephen Franklin is a Pulitzer finalist, former foreign correspondent and labor writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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