For all its aspirations of building the “newsroom of the future,” the Asheville Citizen-Times tailors a great deal of its coverage to a Western North Carolina from the past. Over the last few months, the paper’s sporadic attempts to report on immigration seem targeted to the audience described in the 1990 census, when only 1.5 percent of Buncombe County residents were born outside the United States. Over the past quarter-century, that rate has risen to 5.6 percent, with the foreign-born population growing more than 15 times faster than the native-born. In its recent coverage, unfortunately, the Citizen-Times has made little effort to include the voices of real, live immigrant residents, and its preference for talking about immigrants without talking to them does its readers a great disservice.
This Sunday, the Citizen-Times printed a column from John Boyle that epitomizes the paper’s recent approach to immigration coverage. Throughout his column, Boyle details a series of conversations intended to shed light on how “we” feel about immigrants and the prospect of immigration reform. Who are “we,” exactly? He doesn’t offer an explicit definition, though he gives a pretty strong indication in his contrast between “we” and “they.” “They’re cleaning hotel rooms, putting roofs on homes, mowing lawns, picking apples and generally doing the jobs that screen-addled Americans feel we’ve outgrown.” It’s a magnanimous-sounding sentiment, patting immigrants on the back while keeping them at arms length. None of these workers—though their labor is ostensibly the point of the column—get faces.
These workers—“they,” not “we”—receive more or less the same treatment as immigrant students in another recent article. Last week, the Citizen-Times reported on the Newcomer Center, one of Buncombe County Schools’ programs aimed at helping immigrant children acclimate to a new academic environment. The article quotes a teacher, a principal, a district official, and the director of a non-profit agency, reflecting on the challenges inherent in serving migrant students. Unfortunately for readers, the paper couldn’t find any of Buncombe County Schools’ 1,585 limited English proficient students willing to speak to those challenges directly, or they simply didn’t see reason to ask.
Both of these articles describe local immigrants in generally favorable terms, but printing kind words from outsiders is no substitute for posing simple questions to the actual subjects of the article. When English-language media organizations cover immigration without a serious commitment to engaging immigrants directly, it manifests in more than just incomplete articles. It also means vital stories are being missed because no one is taking the time to look.
So, what stories have gone unreported? If local English-language media is to take immigrant residents seriously, where should they begin? What misconceptions are most in need of correction? It depends who you ask:
The lone non-citizen quoted in Boyle’s column this weekend, Carolina Siliceo, grew up in Hendersonville and has received relief from deportation through President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. She has grown familiar with being viewed as on outsider, and when asked about common misconceptions, she begins to chuckle at the absurdity. “People always ask, ‘How do you speak English so well?’ I know a lot of undocumented people don’t, but I take it as kind of an insult.” She has lived in the United States since she was 2 years old, and recently earned her BA in English.
Here’s what I found in talking to members of the community:
* Sarah Nuñez, who lives in Asheville, was born in Colombia but has spent nearly her entire life in the United States. Now a U.S. citizen, she thinks that most of her fellow citizens “just don’t understand the complexities of living in communities that have local immigration enforcement,” citing the stress that many immigrant families feel merely getting their children to and from school without access to driver’s licenses.
* Victor Alvarez, also of Asheville, says people need to know more about why migrants have come to Western North Carolina—to start by listening to just a few of the thousands of individual stories of why people felt compelled to uproot their lives and start over in a strange new country.
* Itzel Castillo, who lives in Hendersonville, thinks the broader community needs to know how maddeningly complicated it is to navigate the immigration system as it stands today: “People think that it’s really easy to get a permit or to get a visa or something. They’re really amazed after you tell them what really happens and how it really is. They just don’t know, and it’s not that they’re closed minded or anything. They don’t get enough through the media.”
* Dulce Rosas, 29, was born and raised in Mexico but has made her home in Asheville for over a decade. “The first thing they need to understand,” she says, “is that we are here. We are already part of this community.”
At one level, Dulce’s claim is indisputable: immigrant men, women, and children have laid down deep roots in Western North Carolina over the past 25 years. Her deeper point, however, remains a matter of contention. Do migrant residents’ roots, their deep and growing connection to this region, make them “part of this community,” or do they remain apart, as problems for the rest of “us” to solve?
This is a pivotal question for the Citizen-Times, given Executive Editor Josh Awtry’s assertion that the paper is committed “make better lives and stronger communities” here in Western North Carolina. If the answer is yes, WNC’s immigrant residents are truly part of the community the Citizen-Times seeks to strengthen, then they do their readers a great disservice by publishing articles that address immigrants’ needs without including their voices. If, on the other hand, the paper’s editorial position is that no, immigrant residents are not stakeholders in the community, maybe they should say it explicitly, rather than implying as much through mere inattention.
But that would sound a lot more like the newsroom of the past.
Seth Roberts Farber is a full-time dad, occasional writer and historian, and a member of Nuestro Centro.