< A Look South at the Look North


Friday, March 31, 2006

While much has been made of the way the immigration debate has been covered on either side of the language divide in the United States, it pales in comparison to the difference between coverage of the issue in the United States and Mexico. For many in the U.S., the restrictions proposed by the Sensenbrenner Bill have come to the fore this week with the demonstrations and Congressional coverage, but in Mexico, where an election season is in full swing, the issues have been brewing for months. Hector Tobar is a reporter for The Los Angeles Times stationed in Mexico City. He has written about the impact of the border on the coverage of immigration issues, and he joins us now. Hector, welcome to OTM.

HECTOR TOBAR: Thank you for having me. Hello.

BOB GARFIELD: As we speak, President Bush is in Cancun, Mexico at a NAFTA Summit with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. How is the Bush visit, in the midst of all this immigration debate, playing in the media right now?

HECTOR TOBAR: Well here in Mexico, it's seen as the last opportunity for Vicente Fox to make good on one of the promises from early in his presidency, which was that he would somehow deliver the whole enchilada of immigration reform – that was the expression used then – that there would be a program whereby there would be amnesty or some sort of amnesty for people who live in the United States who are illegal immigrants. That has been dead in the water ever since September 11th, and people were really heartened here by the proposal that came forth in the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month that would allow a sort of forum, for people who are illegally in the United States, to get their naturalization and to become guest workers. So I think people are following it very closely. There's a lot of skepticism here about what Fox can deliver. He's seen by many Mexicans as a good-meaning but weak leader.

BOB GARFIELD: In the United States, there are essentially two poles of thought about illegal immigration. One is that it's a net boon to the United States because it provides low-priced labor and all of the advantages of the great melting pot. The other side says that it's a vast drain on resources and that the illegal immigrants steal jobs from citizens. I'm curious. In Mexico, is there anything like a consensus on this issue? Is there a school of thought there that says illegal immigration to the States is actually not so great for Mexico?

HECTOR TOBAR: I think the focus here tends to be on the treatment that Mexicans receive in the United States and how each Mexican who goes to the States represents national pride. And every time that there is an incident on the border in which a border crosser is killed or a group of border crossers die, it reinforces the image of Mexicans as victimized when they go to the North. When a legislation is put forward in the United States that would criminalize them even further, that really is the focus of what the coverage is. There are only really a minority of voices who say that, in fact, immigration to the United States is a greater threat to Mexican national identity than it is to American national identity, and that the safety valve that currently exists here, whereby the poorest of the poor and the most desperate can leave and thereby liberate Mexican society of the need to feed them and to educate them, that can't remain open forever. We are going to have to deal with the root social and economic causes of migration eventually. And we better start doing it sooner rather than later.

BOB GARFIELD: As we've discussed, you're in the middle of an election season there, three major parties vying for the presidency and other spoils. To what extent have the candidates tried to exploit the immigration issue in their media campaigns? Is there any symbolism or imagery that's being invoked by the candidates to take best advantage of the public sentiment in support of the paisanos?

HECTOR TOBAR: The image that comes up again and again in the rhetoric is the image of the wall. You know, the idea, even though, of course, the wall might never be built, it's just a proposal - the idea that the United States could build another 700 miles of fencing and try to seal itself off, as the argument goes here, is something that really hits home. It's a very visceral issue for Mexicans. It's been referred to as a kind of Berlin Wall. It's been compared to the Great Wall of China. And so, that metaphor has worked its way into a lot of campaign speeches. You know, what are we going to do as a country in the face of this power next to us, the United States?

BOB GARFIELD: Apart from invoking symbols like the wall, how much coverage is there of the life north of the border?

HECTOR TOBAR: Well, as you say, coverage of what is happening with Mexicans north of the border, the pan de cada dia, the daily bread of the Mexican media here, all the newspapers have correspondents not just in Washington but also in Los Angeles, which is sort of like the capital of Mexicans in the United States. When the student walkouts and then the big demonstration took place over the weekend in Los Angeles, it was something that was covered extensively by all the newspapers and the television stations and the radio stations. All the Mexican newspapers ran that photograph of Los Angeles City Hall surrounded by a multitude on their front page. And the television stations, many of them ran interviews with people in the marches talking about, you know, "viva la raza," “long live the race.” The Latino neighborhoods and communities in the United States are seen as an extension of what it means to be a Mexican. And so it was covered as the milestone in civil rights for the paisanos north of the border.

BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, Hector, thank you very much.

HECTOR TOBAR: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a great pleasure. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BOB GARFIELD: Hector Tobar is the Mexico City bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times and author of “Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States.” Coming up, a Mexican columnist explodes stereotypes, and European filmmakers take on immigration. This is On the Media from NPR.