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Why Are Mainstream Media Outlets Engaging In Blatant Anti-Immigrant Propaganda?

Last Sunday, Indianapolis Colts NFL player Edwin Jackson was struck by a suspected drunk driver in Indiana, and died succumbing to his injuries.

The incident, by all accounts, is a tragic one, involving a pick-up truck driven by a man who was under the influence and driving without a license crashing into Jackson, and a second victim, his Uber driver Jeffrey Monroe, as they were both standing by the roadside on a curb. But the narrative that has caught media attention in the aftermath of the tragedy has not been the dangers of drink driving, or unlicensed driving: but the dangers of undocumented immigration.

Late this Monday, news broke out from the Indiana police that the man suspected to have been driving the errant pick-up truck was named Manuel Orrego-Savala, a Guatemalan citizen who had been twice deported from the United States. Republicans were quick to weaponize Jackson’s death to target immigrants; but worse than their behavior was that of news outlets, who played eager accomplices in the spread of an ugly and hateful GOP narrative.

The BBC, the Washington Post, WND, CNN, and all joined Fox News in reporting, in entirely separate articles from those reporting on Jackson’s death, the apparently headline-worthy details of Orrego-Savala’s immigration status. The BBC in particular was shocking in its blunt framing: the headline gleefully embraced the term ‘illegal immigrant,’ which the AP style guide, and most newsrooms, eschew because of its negative and bigoted connotations. It also used the violent and fear-mongering framing in its headline, asserting that Jackson was ‘killed by an illegal immigrant,’ conjuring the image of a knife- or gun-wielding rogue figure of an undocumented immigrant targeting the NFL star in a murder case, not a DUI one.

Though it was newsworthy that Republican congressman Todd Rokita and RNC spokesperson Michael Joyce used the incident to smear undocumented immigrants, it wasn’t their rhetoric the media focused on: indeed, neither WashPo nor CNN mentioned the Republican backlash. Instead, all the above publications considered it noteworthy to devote an entire article to telling us that Orrego-Savala was undocumented. (Notably, it was only the New York Times that somewhat abstained from this, devoting an article with updates about the incident more focused on Orrego-Savala’s blood alcohol level, which was actually relevant to the crime that he committed, and only noting as an aside his citizenship and the Republican backlash to it.)

There is no correlation between undocumented immigration and drunk driving. In fact, research has pointed us in the exact opposite direction: a study in the American Journal of Public Health showed that as the percentage of undocumented immigrants in the United States rose between 1990 and 2014, the arrest rate for drugs and drunken-driving dropped. The study found that with every percentage that the proportion of undocumented immigrants increased in a population of 100,000, there were 42 fewer drunken-driving arrests. Josefina Alvarez, a psychology professor at Adler University in Chicago, added on the release of the report that there was “plenty of research showing that immigrants in general are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than native-born citizens.” There was nothing newsworthy, in other words, about the fact that Orrego-Savala was not a citizen of the United States and did not have a proper visa: it did not speak to the kind of crime that he had committed or his propensity to commit it, and did not symbolize any meaningful trend that the public should be informed and aware of.

But the effect, if not the purpose, of these headlines is clear: to suggest that, contrary to clear research, there was something significant about Orrego-Savala’s immigration status. The media doesn’t expend resources and energy in revealing to us random tidbits about a suspect in a high profile DUI: none of these outlets, for example, have noted to us Orrego-Savala’s educational background or even his profession. The BBC even neglected to mention Orrego-Savala’s previous drink-driving arrests, which would surely be more relevant to the case at hand than his immigration status. Isolating and shedding light on the fact that Orrego-Savala was an undocumented immigrant was a deliberate, specific, and targeted action done to service a particular narrative. And the narrative, unsurprisingly, is one that serves the interests of people in power: most notably, U.S. President Donald Trump, who has previously stated “thousands of Americans have been killed by illegal immigrants,” in order to justify the near-genocidal targeting of immigrants by Immigration and Customs Enforcement under his regime.

We currently live in a United States where immigrants are being targeted in an unprecedented and unspeakably cruel way. Between the travel ban, the DACA repeal, the blatant abuse of powers and constitutional violations under ICE, and the rise in hate crimes against undocumented immigrants (and citizens),  it is clear that the dystopias we talk about — with secret police, surveillance, arbitrary arrests and violence, lack of due process and constitutional rights, abuse to women, children and families all being torn apart and general inhumane cruelty — are already here. In the face of this dystopia, the media has an important choice to make: it can become an uncritical mouthpiece of the administration, complicit in spreading propaganda that encourage dangerous stereotypes about a community. Or it can speak truth to power, and challenge a blatantly false narrative created entirely to spread hate and lies targeting vulnerable populations.

It is clear which side mainstream media outlets like the Washington Post and the BBC have chosen. It’s up to us now whether we will hold them accountable for that, or not.


Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and politics, intersectional feminism, criminal justice, human rights, freedom of the press, the law and feminism, and the politics of South Asia.

Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and gender, race and criminal justice, human rights, cats, and sports.

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