The Center for Immigration Studies, a far-right, anti-immigrant group, was frequently cited by major U.S. newspapers in the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency — without mention of the group’s deep ties to the Trump administration, according to a report released Thursday.
Ninety percent of news articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today that cited the Center for Immigration Studies from 2014 to 2017 did not mention “the extremist nature of the group or its ties with the Trump administration,” according to “The Language of Immigration Reporting: Normalizing vs. Watchdogging in a Nativist Age.” The report, which was produced by researchers at Define American, a nonprofit media and culture organization, and Media Cloud, a project of the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab and Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, focuses on immigration reporting in those outlets over a four-year period starting in 2014.
The researchers found that the Center for Immigration Studies — which was founded by the late John Tanton, a white nationalist considered to be the father of the modern anti-immigrant movement — was often cited as a neutral authority in providing expert opinion or data. In 2018, the news outlets did a slightly better job of identifying the group, with context missing only 82 percent of the time, and negative sentiment expressed in 13 percent of references.
“Basic standards of journalistic integrity are that these organizations be properly contextualized as the white nationalist organizations that they are.”
Hassan Ahmad, a Virginia-based immigration lawyer who has sued the University of Michigan for the release of Tanton’s archives housed there, said it’s important for news organizations to explain what these Tanton-linked groups are. Such context is necessary, he said, because the groups’ ideology, which he described as “camouflaged white nationalism,” has become enmeshed in the national conversation.
“When it affects our discourse — or infects our discourse — on immigration so deeply, then it’s hard for even Democrats to stay away from it,” Ahmad said. “And that’s why it’s so important for there to be proper contextualization whenever these organizations speak.”
Ahmad added, “Quite frankly, these organizations, they are not legitimate opposition voice in the immigration debate. They’re a white nationalist voice. If people want to give them airtime, that’s their thing. But I think basic standards of journalistic integrity are that these organizations be properly contextualized as the white nationalist organizations that they are.”
The Define American report also noted that Trump’s rise brought with it an overall increase in immigration coverage. At the same time, however, the study noted that the news outlets under review increasingly used dehumanizing language, such as “illegal immigrants” or “illegal aliens.”
The terms often appeared in direct quotes from Trump or his political allies, an indication that the bump was more a consequence of newsmakers using those terms with increasing frequency, rather than a stylistic shift by the news outlets. Still, the Define American authors say, reporters and editors who choose to repeat such terminology in their work have a responsibility to contextualize it.
“Ideally, we could see a 500 percent increase in immigration stories and zero increase in dehumanizing terms used,” said Kristian Ramos, communications director at Define American and an author of the report.
“This type of reporting is not occurring in a vacuum: White supremacists are killing Latinos in Walmarts to stop an ‘invasion’ of Hispanics into Texas,” Ramos added, referring to the manifesto believed to have been written by the suspect in a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, last month. “The words reporters are using matter. Just because there is more immigration reporting overall does not require reporters to fall into old tropes, outdated language, and dehumanization.”
John Tanton, who died in July, spent the last four decades of his life building an anti-immigrant movement rooted in white nationalism. An ophthalmologist by training, his interest in immigration was spurred by his concern over population growth — there were too many people competing for too few resources. The solution, in Tanton’s mind, was to restrict immigration by overturning the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, a law that eliminated the racist quota system that had virtually excluded everyone who wasn’t a white European from immigrating to the U.S.
In 1979, Tanton launched the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR. He also founded the Center for Immigration Studies and NumbersUSA. The “big three,” as the groups are collectively known, went on to become the intellectual backbone of the nativist movement in the United States.
Tanton’s groups argued that unchecked immigration brought with it unemployment, high crime rates, and other social ills. Their ideas were, for many years, infrequently cited in the mainstream media, where they were considered on the fringe of the immigration debate. Though they are still not widely cited, there has been a noticeable increase in references to these groups since Trump’s rise to political power.
“John Tanton walked in, eyes wide open, and embraced white nationalism as a motivating factor, injecting it into our immigration policy,” said Ahmad. In a bid to make more information about this controversial figure available, Ahmad set out in 2016 to win the release of Tanton’s files, which were to be released by the University of Michigan in 2035. A Michigan appellate court ruling in Ahmad’s favor in June, but the university is in the process of appealing the decision.
Ahmad said Tanton’s long view and network of groups allowed his message to spread far and wide. “It might have ended with him, but he was so influential in creating this entire framework,” he said. “He wasn’t thinking about policies for the next five years or 10 years; he was thinking 100 years. Fear of an ‘invasion,’ ‘Latin onslaught,’ ‘America being less white,’ appealed to — and is in a sick, symbiotic relationship with — bona fide white nationalists.”
The Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda runs parallel to the agendas of the Tanton-linked groups. In 2016, Trump cited a study by the Center of Immigration Studies in a campaign ad that fearmongered about immigrants, accusing them of “collecting Social Security benefits, skipping the line.”
That influence has moved into the halls of power with Trump. A number of individuals formerly employed by groups in the Tanton network now work on immigration at Trump’s Department of Homeland Security. Julie Kirchner, who was the executive director of FAIR from 2007 to 2015, is the ombudsperson of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at DHS. Robert Law, who was the government relations director at FAIR from 2013 to 2017, has been a senior policy adviser at USCIS since October 2017. Elizabeth Jacobs, another senior adviser at USCIS, was also a lobbyist for FAIR, where she advocated for ending Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans and reducing refugee admissions. Jon Feere, who was a legal policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, joined U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2017 as a policy adviser.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, has leveraged the revolving door between the Tanton organizations to try to get easy access to information. “Do you know if an actual person I can call at E-Verify for statistics (or maybe in your shop)?” Krikorian wrote to Law, the USCIS adviser, in December 2017, according to a record obtained by American Oversight through a public records request. “I’m trying to go through public affairs, but that may take a while and there’s some problems with the numbers at the E-Verify site, and a PR person isn’t going to know what I’m talking about.”
With the ascent of a fellow traveler into the White House and, with him, a gaggle of former employees from Tanton-linked groups into key policymaking positions, the groups have increasingly been cited as sources in mainstream immigration coverage. These citations are almost always in neutral terms that do not provide context about the groups’ agendas.
Once the researchers working on the Define American report identified instances in which the Center for Immigration Studies, FAIR, and NumbersUSA were cited, two coders manually studied the data to determine whether any context was provided, according to Ethan Zuckerman, a report author and the director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media.
“They looked at each of the mentions, and they looked to see if things were mentioned in any critical terms,” Zuckerman explained. “The theory behind that is that this group of think tanks is a pretty heavily agendaed group of organizations — groups that have been really sort of leading the anti-immigrant movement — and there’s a great deal of a relationship between them. And they’re far from a neutral provider of research and data. So, what we were looking for in that was, was there a caveat that says, you know, ‘This center, which has a track record of advocating against immigration’ or ‘This center, which takes a strong stand against immigration’?” Zuckerman added, “When we’re saying that we don’t find that, that means they’re simply just being cited as a source.”
The Washington Post consistently used what the Define American researchers considered denigrating language more frequently than the other outlets; along with the New York Times, it had a higher percentage of stories with degrading terms as compared to a sample collection of 227 national news sources, as well as collections of news sources that lean left or center-left. Right and center-right sources consistently used denigrating language more frequently than other news outlets.
Despite a 56 percent increase in the use of denigrating terms in the pages of the Los Angeles Times over the four-year period, it had the lowest overall percentage of stories that included such language — even though it had the highest overall increase in immigration coverage.
Zuckerman said the Los Angeles Times stands out as a newsroom that appears to have made a deliberate decision to avoid normalizing language that dehumanizes immigrants.
“They’ve made some very conscious newsroom choices that they don’t want to normalize this language, even by putting it in quotes.”
“We see evidence from our study of the LA Times that they handled it differently,” Zuckerman said. “They’ve been very reluctant to use that denigrating language, and in fact, even after it ticked up for a bit, they’ve brought it back. What that indicates to me is that they’ve made some very conscious newsroom choices that they don’t want to normalize this language, even by putting it in quotes.” He added, “We find that really interesting because that creates clearly an alternative way to handle this language.”
The Los Angeles Times’s style guide allows for the use of “illegal immigration” to describe entry or residence into a country in violation of the law, but it encourages writers to avoid “illegal immigrant” or “undocumented immigrant,” unless it appears in a direct quote. “We know that migration and immigrant communities are essential parts of day-to-day life in Los Angeles and across our region, and we have worked diligently to expand our coverage in recent years,” the paper’s managing editor, Scott Kraft, said in a statement to The Intercept. “Our language and style guidelines for immigration-related topics are fairly strict. They’re based on the expertise of our staff and are intended to help reflect our diverse city.”
In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for the New York Times shared the paper’s stylebook entry for “immigration status,” which notes that “the language of the immigration debate is often politically charged” and cautions reporters to “be as specific as possible in describing immigration situations.”
Illegal immigrant remains accurate and acceptable, but be aware that some people view it as loaded or offensive. (Illegal immigration, because it describes the issue rather than an individual, is less likely to be seen as troubling.) Undocumented, the term preferred by many immigrants and their advocates, is also acceptable, though using that term exclusively may be seen as one-sided. Unauthorized is also accurate and may be perceived as more neutral than other descriptions.
Consider other alternatives whenever possible to explain the specific circumstances of the person in question, or to focus on actions: who crossed the border illegally; who overstayed a visa; who is not authorized to work in the United States.
Take particular care in describing people whose immigration status is complex or subject to change — for example, young people brought to this country as children, many of whom received temporary reprieves from deportation under federal policies adopted in 2012. The common colloquial term Dreamers may be used sparingly for this group, but avoid making it the routine description, which may seem tendentious.
Do not use illegal as a noun, and avoid the sinister-sounding alien.
USA Today did not respond to a request for comment. The Washington Post did not provide a comment in time for publication.
The Define American report authors posit that U.S. newsrooms face a distinct challenge when reporting on immigration in the age of Trump. “Do they adopt terms used by public figures and use them throughout their coverage?” the report asks. “Do they acknowledge denigrating terminology but parrot the language, separating themselves by using quotation marks to make clear they do not endorse the framing? Or do they resist denigrating language by simply avoiding it, choosing instead to omit or rephrase?”
At present, news outlets are often choosing the middle path. The Define American researchers suggest that journalists think more deliberately about the language of immigration reporting. They offer five basic ethical standards of reporting, including focusing on the people most impacted by policy prescriptions, setting high standards for when it’s necessary to quote newsmakers using denigrating terms, not quoting nativist groups without context about their history and ties to the government, continuing to work toward diversifying newsrooms, and establishing these standards in public style guides.
“This study creates an important opportunity for self-reflection by major news organizations in deciding whether to purge denigrating phraseology in their style guidelines,” Peter Perl, the former assistant managing editor of the Washington Post who oversaw the newspaper’s guidelines, said in a written statement. The use of big data gives journalists “an unprecedented insight into the impact of their language choices and their selection of information sources,” added Perl, who sits on the board of Define American. “We hope they will use this chance to provide a fairer, more balanced presentation of the U.S. immigration debate to better serve their millions of readers worldwide.”