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U.S. MEDIA COVERAGE OF IMMIGRATION "PANICS" 1929-1994
Invisible Cycle of Scapegoating:
U.S. Media Coverage of Immigration "Panics"
Christopher N. Williams
University of Texas at Austin
April 1, 2005
1200 Claire Ave.
Austin, Texas 78703
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Cell phone in Mexico (through May 7):
The author is currently working as a visiting scholar at Tecnologico
de Monterrey, Monterrey, Mexico. He wishes to thank the Research
Chair in Audiovisual Media and Globalization in North America at the
university's Center for Communication Research for providing
financial support and research assistance in the preparation of this article.
Invisible Cycle of Scapegoating:
U.S. Media Coverage of Immigration "Panics"
This study analyzes media coverage of four 20th century immigration
"panics," in which undocumented immigrants served as convenient
scapegoats for larger social ills. The study argues that a
significant and under-researched aspect of these events was the role
played by the major U.S. mainstream media -- including the New York
Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, U.S. News and
World Report and the Saturday Evening Post -- in perpetuating this
Christopher N. Williams
University of Texas at Austin
April 1, 2005
Invisible Cycle of Scapegoating:
U.S. Media Coverage of Immigration "Panics"
The backlash against immigrants in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001,
terrorist attacks is a reminder of the contentious relationship the
United States historically has had with its immigrant population, and
especially with immigrants who enter the country without proper
documentation. In California, for example, the state with the largest
number of undocumented immigrants, voters in 1994 overwhelmingly
approved Proposition 187, a plan to deny social services, primarily
education and non-emergency medical care, to undocumented immigrants.
News stories on 187 made it seem as though its proposals were
unprecedented in the state's history. The specifics may have been
unprecedented, but in fact, California's dominant social groups have
placed punitive restrictions on the state's subordinate racial
populations ever since the Spanish established their first missions
in 1769. Throughout the past century, California has welcomed
undocumented immigrants during the good times and scapegoated them
when times are bad.
A significant, and under-researched, aspect of this issue has been
the role played by the major U.S. mainstream media -- including the
New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, U.S. News
and World Report and the Saturday Evening Post, to give a few
noteworthy examples – in perpetuating this scapegoating process. In
this article, I'll be concentrating on the coverage of the
undocumented immigration "panics" of the 1930s, the 1950s, the 1970s
and the 1990s, since these were all events that received intense
media attention. I'll also be focusing primarily on California,
which, given its large population of undocumented immigrants, is a
place where the effects of these panics were felt particularly
acutely. I begin by reviewing theories of why the media might be
expected to perpetuate the scapegoating of immigrants. Then, I
discuss how the media contributed to the scapegoating process during
these immigration "panics." I conclude by looking at the similar
social conditions that created both these panics and the negative
Scholars offer a number of insights as to why the national U.S.
media would perpetuate the social scapegoating of undocumented
immigrants. In Gans' ethnographic study of the national news media,
Deciding What's News (1979), he argues that the news contains
"enduring values," principles that are privileged over time in news
stories. One of these is the desirability of social order. As a
result, one frequently sees stories about social disturbances, such
as demonstrations or riots, with the emphasis not so much on what the
demonstrations or riots were about, but rather on the restoration of
order by public officials. The frequency of social order stories
raises the question, whose order is being restored? Since the news is
dominated by official sources – representatives of political,
business, social and cultural institutions -- their definition of
order is what news stories emphasize. "With some oversimplification,"
Gans writes, "it would be fair to say that the news supports the
social order of public, business and professional,
upper-middle-class, middle-aged, and white male sectors of society"
(61). Clearly, the undocumented are violating that order by entering
the country illegally. In an Oct. 25, 1994, editorial, the Times
reminds its readers that the undocumented are outlaws in America:
"Illegal aliens, by definition, have no legal right to be in the
U.S." In addition, Gans argues, the news is much less concerned with
the reasons for the social disruption (in this case, the reasons that
the undocumented are here in violation of the law) than it is with
the restoration of order (in this case, how to solve the social
problems the undocumented are allegedly causing).
Other values in the news also tend to protect the social order of
the powerful, Gans argues. "Ethnocentrism," for example, is
reflected in the fact that the news treats the United States and its
values and ideals as superior to other nations and their ideals and
values. This is especially true of foreign news, particularly during
wartime. During the Vietnam War, Gans writes, the North Vietnamese
were referred to as "the enemy," as though they were the enemy of the
news media (42).
It follows that if one of the media's functions is helping preserve
social order, they must also help society define socially disruptive,
or deviant, behavior. Stuart Hall and other social-constructionist
scholars argue that just as the media typically give official sources
the power to define social order, they also give these sources the
power to define deviance. The way this process works in practice is
that the further a newsworthy group or individual strays from the
values embraced by the social elite (from whose ranks official
sources are typically drawn), the more their behavior will be
portrayed in the media as deviant. For example, Gitlin (1980) writes
that when SDS challenged official policies on the Vietnam War with a
major demonstration in Washington in 1965, the mainstream media used
a number of techniques to define the demonstrators as deviant. These
included making light of movement members; presenting the antiwar
movement and ultra-Right and neo-Nazi groups as equivalent
"extremists;" undercounting their numbers, and questioning their
effectiveness (27-28). However, as social elites increasingly
questioned the wisdom of U.S. Vietnam War policies, Gitlin argues,
the media became more sympathetic to antiwar demonstrations,
rendering them as less deviant (273).
Hallin argues that when the media write about deviant groups, they
don't feel compelled to accord them the same balanced, fair coverage
they would use for groups deemed "legitimate." He divides news
coverage into three concentric spheres. The middle one, the Sphere of
Legitimate Controversy, is where objective journalism occurs. In this
region are stories on electoral contests, legislative debates,
governmental decisions and other issues recognized as legitimate by
U.S. public institutions. The innermost circle Hallin calls the
Sphere of Consensus, in which journalists write about subjects not
believed to be controversial. In such stories, journalists don't feel
compelled to be neutral, but rather act as celebrants of "consensus
values." The outermost circle is the Sphere of Deviance, which Hallin
the realm of those political actors and views which journalists and
the political mainstream of the society reject as unworthy of being
heard...Here neutrality once again falls away, and journalism
becomes, to borrow a phrase from Talcott Parsons, a
'boundary-maintaining mechanism': it plays the role of exposing,
condemning, or excluding from the public agenda those who violate or
challenge the political consensus. It marks out and defends the
limits of acceptable political conflict (1985: 116-117).
For example, echoing Gitlin, Hallin argues that in the early days of
the Vietnam War, media coverage routinely placed antiwar
demonstrators in the Sphere of Deviance as traitors who were
sabotaging the efforts of patriotic U.S. citizens (193-194).
In addition, it's not uncommon for elite sources to disagree on
issues in the news, which means that reporters can achieve balance
and fairness by presenting both sides of a story and still limit
their focus to the viewpoints of the elite. Parenti (1986) writes
that although the media code of objectivity demands that both sides
of a story be told, both sides doesn't necessarily mean all sides:
Those who have power, position and wealth are less likely to be
slighted in news reports than those who have not. On the infrequent
occasions when wealthy and powerful interests are attacked in the
media, they are almost certain to be accorded adequate space to
respond. But the media are less energetic in their search for a
competing viewpoint if it must be elicited from labor leaders,
student demonstrators, peace advocates, Black or Latino protesters,
Communists, Third World insurgents, the poor, the oppressed, or other
politically marginal and dissident interests...(Parenti: 218).
Even when non-elites and non-official sources are quoted in the news,
elite viewpoints still set the parameters of the discussion. As Hall
Opposing arguments are easy to mount. Changing the terms of an
argument is exceedingly difficult, since the dominant definition of
the problem acquires, by repetition, and by the weight and
credibility of those who propose or subscribe to it, the warrant of
'common sense' (Hall, 1982: 81).
For example, Gitlin (1980) and Hallin (1985) argue that, contrary to
conventional wisdom, the U.S. media didn't seriously question the
government's Vietnam War policies until elites themselves were
questioning those policies.
Finally, Gans (1979) also argues that journalists, simply by their
routine application of criteria for determining what is newsworthy,
create "new" events suitable for coverage as "news" stories. He
writes, "Unlike sociologists, who divide external reality into social
processes, and historians, who look at these processes over long
periods, journalists see external reality as a set of disparate and
independent events, each of which is new and therefore can be
reported as news" (167). Further, journalists create novelty by being
…in the 1960s, for example, they "rediscovered" American poverty and
hunger….More recently, some have begun to rediscover the existence of
economic classes, making it news as though classes had not previously
existed (Gans: 167-168).
A good example of this phenomenon is the media coverage of Prop 187.
As mentioned previously, news articles on 187 made it seem as though
the proposition was an unprecedented event in the state's history.
Thus, in terms of media coverage, there essentially was no history of
immigrant scapegoating in California. This "blind spot," of course,
extended to media coverage of its own involvement in that scapegoating history.
Race and the Media
Given that a significant number of the undocumented immigrant
population – and the vast majority of California's undocumented
immigrants -- are nonwhite, it's also important to look at the major
role the concept of race plays in U.S. society, and how the U.S.
media cover race. In this paper I use the scholarly viewpoint that
all human social practice is ideological, from the words that form
our languages to the complex ideological formations that make up our
belief systems. Since creating media content is a form of social
practice, it follows that the way in which the media "frame" a story
is an ideological formation. Grossberg, Wartella and Whitney (1998)
argue that because the media are "the most important and visible
cultural institutions of the society, they have become the most
important ideological battlefield. It is in the media that one finds
not only the dominant ideology -- from which people learn the
common-sense view of reality -- but also subordinate ideologies
trying to change the common-sense view" (201).
Scholars increasingly believe that a major ideological formation in
the United States today is the concept of race. For example, when
scholars talk about the "social construction of race," they're
typically referring to the idea that there are few essential,
unchanging racial differences between human beings. Instead, they
argue, racial differences are primarily ideological creations of
human societies and subgroups within those societies. Given that
humans, and the societies they live in, are in constant flux, racial
viewpoints evolve and change as human societies change. Omi and
Winant (1994) refer to the socio-historical process by which racial
categories are "created, inhabited, transformed and destroyed" as
racial formation (55). These racial categories are formed by
historically situated racial projects, in which "human bodies and
social structures are represented and organized" (56). For example,
Omi and Winant argue, social activism by people of color has been
challenged by a racial backlash that began in the 1960s and was
spurred on by the social and economic decline of the 1970s. This has
taken the form of such racial projects as the New Right. Omi and
Winant describe the New Right project as authoritarian populism,
characterized by respect for authority, distrust of big government,
defense of traditional morality and resistance to minority demands
for group rights (123). Beginning with George Wallace's 1968
presidential bid, New Right politicians also used "code words" to
avoid politically incorrect "race baiting." For example, Reeves and
Campbell (1994) argue that the New Right, through its War on Drugs,
blamed drug use and other problems of poor nonwhites living in the
nation's inner cities on the moral decay of poor populations rather
than on the myriad social ills of the time. Thus, rather than
describing inner-city residents as being deviant because they had
black or brown skin, they were described as deviant because of
various moral failings. In an earlier study on Proposition 187
(Author, 2000), I argue that the New York Times coverage of the
proposition seems to resemble this type of New Right discourse in
that it successfully marginalizes a predominantly non-white
population without overtly stigmatizing them because of race.
Historically, Wilson and Gutierrez (1995) tell us, people of color
were generally excluded from U.S. news coverage from colonial times
through the early days of the republic. When they were included, it
was because they were perceived as a threat. Media coverage served
both to alert the public to the dangers, such as Native American
resistance to colonial expansion and African-American emancipation,
and to cover society's response to the various threats, such as
Indian wars and the lynchings of blacks (152-155). These problems
didn't end with the 20th-century civil rights movements. In its March
1968 report on the violent race riots that had broken out in cities
across the United States, the Kerner Commission painted a bleak
picture of black-white relations in America: "This is our basic
conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one
white -- separate and unequal." Part of the problem, the commission
concluded, was that the news media had failed to convey the harsh
reality of life in black America. Despite this warning, and despite
efforts by the media to improve, coverage of nonwhite communities
remains unsatisfactory, scholars say. A growing body of research
(Entman, 1990, 1992; Reeves and Campbell, 1994; Wilson and Gutierrez,
1995; Campbell, 1995; Parisi, 1998; Peer & Ettema, 1998; Watkins,
1998; Heider, 2000; Entman & Rojecki, 2001) argues that a significant
contributor to racial conflict in the United States is coverage of
nonwhite populations by the U.S. mainstream media. By ignoring,
marginalizing and/or scapegoating people of color, these studies
argue, the media create a distorted picture of the nonwhite
population that contributes to race-based conflict.
Scholars have found a number of reasons why media coverage of
nonwhite populations is problematic. To begin with, the mainstream
media are commercial enterprises, and a number of researchers have
argued that an overriding concern for the "bottom line" adversely
affects their news coverage (for example, see Postman, 1985; McManus,
1994; Altschull, 1995). With such an organizational constraint, it
seems unlikely that the news media would expand coverage to include
more meaningful stories about marginalized populations.
Another problem is that U.S. news organizations remain dominated by
whites. Weaver and Wilhoit (1992) found that nonwhites were only 8.2
percent of the workforce at daily and weekly newspapers, TV and radio
stations, magazines and news services. Although the level of minority
employment has increased in some areas of the industry since then,
there is still much room for improvement. According to the American
Society of Newspaper Editors, minority employment at U.S. newspapers
has increased from 11.02 percent in 1995 to 12.94 percent in 2003.
However, their web site reminds us that this figure lags well behind
the percentage of minorities in the general population, which is 31.7
percent. The percentage of minority supervisors at U.S. newspapers
remains low, but is also increasing, from 8.4 percent in 1995 to 10.5
percent in 2003. According to the Radio Television News Directors
Association, minority employment in TV newsrooms has increased from
17.1 percent in 1994 to 18.1 percent in 2003. However, the percentage
of minority news directors in TV newsrooms has decreased from 7.9
percent in 1994 to 6.6 percent in 2003. When Heider (2000) studied
the daily operations of two TV news stations in Albuquerque, N.M.,
and Honolulu, both communities with large nonwhite populations, he
found that the top news managers at both stations were all white males.
When TV news directors are overwhelmingly white, the danger is that
the news stories they choose will tend to reveal a "white"
perspective. Essed (1991) argues that whites in the United States not
only see the world from a Euro-American perspective, but also assume
that everyone else should view the world in the same way (189). This
comment of the news director at the Honolulu TV station studied by
Heider indicates such an attitude:
...I think that what you're doing in news is covering the interests
of people, and I think that those items of interest are going to be
pretty much the same. I think news is pretty much news (27).
Not only is "news" generated from a "white-centric" perspective, but
the idea of what constitutes news is deeply ingrained in newsworkers
and difficult to change, researchers argue. Heider points out that
newsworkers learn from an early age "what news is" by their exposure
to the media. These principles are reinforced by journalism schools
and by professional and organizational norms on the job. And since
journalists spend very little time examining or reformulating these
principles (24), they become naturalized "common sense," something
known instinctively that's difficult to explain.
As discussed previously, one of these norms is reliance for
information on "official sources." As institutional representatives,
by definition they represent the societal status quo, and thus the
information they provide will likely support "the way things are"
(Heider: 24). Not surprisingly, these sources are typically white --
another reason the news typically takes a "white-centric" view of the
world. "Even in reporting events about nonwhites, the news sources
sought by reporters to interpret them were invariably white ones"
(Wilson and Gutierrez: 160).
News is not only created by whites -- it's typically written for a
white audience. As profit margin takes on increasing importance for
the news media, so does attracting well-heeled advertisers. To do
this, it's helpful for the media to demonstrate not only that they
have a large audience, but also an audience with an "attractive
demographic profile": in other words, people with money. As a result,
Heider argues, even at the Albuquerque station he studied, whose
audience was arguably majority Latino, the news was written for
affluent whites. Also assumed was that people of color didn't have
money, despite a considerable Latino middle and upper class (30).
Heider also found that people of color had difficulty getting access
to news coverage. Many nonwhites were unfamiliar with news operations
and thus lacked such important information as when to hold a news
conference or how to write a press release. Lack of finances means
nonwhite groups are less able to put together attractive "press kits"
that might attract media attention (53-61). Yet simply being
media-savvy doesn't guarantee coverage. Heider found that often
community activist groups were simply dismissed: "If the consensus in
the newsroom is that the status quo is good, that social conditions
are generally acceptable, then such activists may have little chance
of finding an audience in newsrooms" (55).
Much of the emphasis on improving coverage of nonwhite Americans has
been to increase the number of nonwhite journalists in America's
newsrooms. Campbell writes that although this is a sensible approach
that has "undoubtedly improved" coverage of people of color, simply
hiring nonwhites isn't enough to change the "dominant culture
understandings" that determine how most stories are covered (134). In
his research, Campbell found that nonwhite reporters and anchors
often seemed to accept the majority culture common sense that created
That minority journalists might adopt the hegemonic news values of
overwhelmingly white, middle-class newsrooms is not surprising.
Research has indicated that journalists tend to conform to the values
of their news organizations as a means of socialization (90).
However, Campbell continues, the alternative -- not hiring
journalists of color -- "would be unacceptable and would contribute
to the overtly discriminatory attitudes of the traditional racism of
the past" (93).
One of the key ways that the media disparage nonwhite populations is
by scapegoating them, scholars have found. For example, by analyzing
all the major network news stories on the U.S. War on Drugs from
1981-1988, Reeves and Campbell (1994) found that a major theme of the
coverage was the New Right discourse that crack cocaine use by
largely nonwhite inner-city populations was an individual moral
problem rather than a social problem related to such factors as
deindustrialization, job migration and declining wages. This theme
emerged because of the attention given to the viewpoints of medical
and law enforcement "experts," and, in particular, the political
elite. Reeves and Campbell found that the most-quoted sources in
network news stories on inner-city drug use were Ronald and Nancy
Reagan, at that time the president and first lady of the United States.
For Reeves and Campbell, poor nonwhite populations targeted by the
War on Drugs served as convenient scapegoats for larger social ills.
Psychologist Gordon Allport (1954) writes that the term "scapegoat"
originated in the Bible in the Book of Leviticus. In a holy ritual, a
priest symbolically transferred the sins of the children of Israel
onto a goat, which was then taken out into the wilderness and let
go. As a result, Allport writes, "the people felt purged, and for
the time being, guiltless." Today, he continues, "we are likely to
label this mental process projection. In other people we see the
fear, anger, lust that reside primarily in ourselves. It is not we
ourselves who are responsible for our misfortunes, but other people."
However, he adds, "Psychological theory alone will not tell us why
certain groups are scapegoated more than others ...It is chiefly the
historical method that helps us understand why over a course of years
scapegoats come and scapegoats go, and why there is a periodic
lessening or intensification of the hostility they receive" (244, 246).
Race and immigration in California
When California voters passed Proposition 187 in 1994, analysts
charged that the measure scapegoated undocumented immigrants for the
many social and economic ills California was suffering under at the
time. If so, such scapegoating was not an idiosyncratic event, but
rather the reappearance of a recurring theme in California
history. From the time of the first permanent Spanish settlement in
1769, the history of "race relations" in California has been
intimately connected with issues of labor and power. Dominant racial
groups in California have relied on subordinate race populations for
cheap labor ever since the Spanish missions in the late 18th century
used Indian workers to maintain their extensive farmlands. From the
Indians, to the Chinese, to the Japanese, to the Mexicans, these
subordinate populations have also served as scapegoats for the
economic, political and social problems of the dominant groups. Since
the second half of the 19th century, immigrants from China, Japan and
Mexico have come to the United States to fulfill the needs of the
capitalist economy that emerged in California after the U.S.
conquest. Once here, they were kept in a socially subordinate
position by the economic needs and racial fears of the American
public. Periodically, in times of economic, political and social
stress, these fears would lead to major backlashes against these
populations. White working-class animosity toward the Chinese led to
the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. White farmers' concern about
increased competition from Japanese farmers led to restrictions on
Japanese immigration in the first decades of the 20th century.
However, in the past century the group that has suffered the most
from these scapegoating episodes has been Mexican immigrants.
After restrictionist policies began limiting immigration from Asia in
the late 19th century, California businesses in need of cheap,
tractable, reliable laborers turned increasingly to Mexico. From the
1880s to the 1930s, declining economic conditions in Mexico and the
blandishments of U.S. business agents brought increasing numbers of
workers northward, not only to California, but to the rest of the
Southwest as well (McWilliams, 1949: 162-188; Limerick, 1987: 244;
Montejano, 1987: 203-204; Gutierrez, 1995; Foley, 1997:
46-47). Between 1900 and 1920 the Mexican-born population of the
United States grew from 103,000 to 478,000. By 1920, Gutierrez
estimates, ethnic Mexican workers in California made up "nearly 17
percent of the unskilled construction labor force and as much as
three-quarters of the state's farm labor force" (45).
The growing Mexican population added fuel to the fire of the
virulent anti-immigrant sentiment that had been growing in the United
States since the 1880s. U.S. anti-immigration activists were
convinced that the waves of immigrants from southern and eastern
Europe were racially and culturally inferior to white Americans of
Anglo Saxon heritage. To stem this tide, they pressured Congress to
restrict this immigration. Subsequent congressional restrictions on
immigration culminated in the Johnson-Reid Omnibus Act of 1924, which
established a national-origins quota system and restricted
immigration from southern and eastern Europe, Africa and Asia
(Gutierrez: 51-52). Mexicans were not affected by most of these
restrictions because of the intense lobbying by Southwestern
agribusinesses and their supporters. Ironically, the growers used
many of the racist arguments put forth by the anti-immigration
activists to justify their need for Mexican labor and to allay the
racial fears of the American public. Not only were Mexicans backward,
slow, docile, indolent and tractable, the growers argued, they would
take on labor that white workers would not because the hours were too
long, the pay too low and the working conditions too harsh. However,
as the Mexican population of the Southwest increased through the
1920s, so did pressure to restrict Mexican immigration (Gutierrez:
54-55; see also Limerick, 1987: 246-249; Montejano, 1987: 179-191;
Foley, 1997: 51-59).
The onset of the Great Depression brought with it a backlash against
Mexican immigrants that resulted in hundreds of thousands of Mexicans
being pressured to return to Mexico. This type of immigration "panic"
was repeated periodically throughout the 20th century during times of
economic and social unrest in the United States: the anti-Communist
"witch hunts" of the 1950s, nationwide economic recessions in the
1970s, and the severe economic recession in California from
1990-1995. Scholarly research on news coverage of these episodes,
although limited, indicates that the scapegoating of Mexican
immigrants that occurred during these panics was perpetuated by the media.
In an earlier study (Author, 2000), I analyzed the New York Times
coverage of the most recent of these immigration panics, the debate
over Proposition 187 in California. I focused on the first 89 news
stories the Times published on 187, from May, 1994, when 187
supporters were working to get the proposition on the ballot, to
December, 1994, when a California judge ruled that most of the
recently-approved proposition was unconstitutional. I found that the
Times stories were profoundly shaped by the discourse of California's
elite politicians (both liberal and conservative, both pro-187 and
anti-187). Although these elites disagreed on whether 187 was "the
solution," all agreed that the predominantly nonwhite population of
undocumented immigrants were "the problem." By "framing" the
undocumented as deviant, this coverage helped perpetuate the elite
"blame the victim" discourse that diverted public attention from
other important aspects of the complex immigration issue, such as
U.S. reliance on cheap immigrant labor.
For this study, to better understand media framing of undocumented
immigration, I compared the Proposition 187 coverage of the New York
Times and the Washington Post, generally considered to be the two
most influential general-interest national newspapers in the United
States. I also analyzed national media coverage of previous
immigration panics to see how undocumented immigration was framed in
those earlier eras. For reasons of space alone, this study can't be
an exhaustive analysis of how the media framed undocumented
immigration in each of these periods. Instead, my goal is to offer
examples of how social ideologies about undocumented immigrants have
been perpetuated in the media over time, and to point the way for
future research. As Foss (1996) points out, the unit of analysis in
ideological criticism of cultural artifacts is not an individual
artifact – in this case, a news story – but rather elements of the
artifact that reveal the ideological content in question (291). Thus,
for an analysis such as this one, a researcher doesn't need a large
number of stories.
What do scholars mean when they refer to media "framing" of an
issue? In general, writes Reese (2001), "framing" refers to the ways
in which the media make sense of events and issues. More
specifically, Entman (1993) argues, media "frames" include some
combination of the following four attributes: defining problems,
diagnosing causes, making moral judgments and suggesting remedies.
For example, he argues, using the "cold war" frame that dominated
U.S. foreign affairs coverage for decades, the media might define a
foreign civil war as a problem, diagnose its cause as Communist
rebels, condemn the rebels as atheistic aggressors and recommend
support for the other side (52).
How does a researcher go about identifying these "frames"? Scholars
argue that it's important to compare the primary text one is
analyzing with other accounts of the same issue or event in order to
better understand how the frame is constructed. Entman writes:
Unless narratives are compared, frames are difficult to detect fully
and reliably, because many of the framing devices can appear as
"natural," unremarkable choices of words or images. Comparison
reveals that such choices are not inevitable or unproblematic but
rather are central to the way the news frame helps establish the
literally "common sense" (i.e. widespread) interpretation of events (1991: 6).
In addition, Reese (2001) argues that scholars would benefit from
studies of different time periods to better understand how frames
emerge, and cross-cultural work to see how social conditions affect
the framing process.
For my analysis of Proposition 187 coverage, I studied the 19
articles and editorials in the Post, and the 22 in the Times, that
focused on 187 and were published from Oct. 25 to Nov. 13, 1994, a
time period that began two weeks before Election Day and ended the
Sunday after the election. It was chosen because both papers could be
expected to give their audience their most extensive overview of the
issue right before the election. I included the time period after the
election to include articles on the results and their significance.
For my analysis of the earlier immigration "panics," I read scholarly
analyses to find cites of stories and editorials in the national
media in which the primary focus was Mexican immigrants (see Hoffman,
1974; Reisler, 1976; Garcia, 1980; Gutierrez, 1995), and then read
the complete versions of those stories as they appeared in the
original publication. The publications analyzed include the Los
Angeles Times and the Saturday Evening Post in the 1930s, the New
York Times and the Washington Post in the 1950s and U.S. News and
World Report in the 1970s. The coverage from the 1950s and 1970s
focuses on "illegal immigration" as a national issue. The coverage
from the 1930s focuses on Los Angeles, the U.S. city most affected by
efforts to repatriate Mexicans during the Great Depression.
However, echoing Pauly (1991), I would argue that it's impossible
for a researcher to understand how the media framed undocumented
immigration without understanding the larger social context in which
the coverage was created. Therefore, my comparative research was
informed not only by the publications I used for my analysis, but
also by other articles on the issue in the mainstream press, the
alternative press and in journals of opinion, as well as by academic
studies of California society. Also, to better understand the framing
of immigration as it evolved over time, it was important to study the
lengthy and complex history of immigration to California. For
example, one central theme of this history is race. As discussed
above, since the arrival of the Spanish, California has relied on
subordinate racial populations to provide cheap labor. During the
20th century, a major source of cheap labor has been undocumented
immigrants, the vast majority of whom are nonwhite.
In terms of analyzing the text itself, my guides for finding these
ideological formations or "frames" include Gitlin (1980), who defines
media frames as "persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation,
and presentation, of selection, emphasis and exclusion by which
symbol handlers routinely organize discourse" (7). Entman (1993)
argues that information excluded from media texts is as important as
what is included:
Receivers' responses are clearly affected if they perceive and
process information about one interpretation and possess little or
incommensurable data about alternatives. This is why exclusion of
interpretations by frames is as significant to outcomes as inclusion (94).
In addition, Sumner (1979) offers five basic techniques for
uncovering ideological formations: 1. repetitions of statements,
words or phrases; 2. assumptions contained in certain statements; 3.
inconsistencies in arguments; 4. avoidance of certain topics, and 5.
the general "drift" of a discourse or series of discourses (191-192;
Finally, Foss (1996: 297) gives a three-point outline for analyzing
ideology in cultural artifacts. First, what is the preferred reading
of the artifact, and what does it suggest is unacceptable,
undesirable or insignificant? Second, whose interests are privileged
in the ideology? Whose interests are negated or not represented?
Third, what strategies are used to create and support the ideology?
What strategies legitimate the interests of some groups over others?
Media Coverage of Immigration Panics
In general, the needs of U.S. businesses for cheap labor offset
anti-immigrant sentiment against Mexicans during the 1920s. By the
end of the decade, however, the federal government had significantly
slowed Mexican immigration by tightening up enforcement of existing
immigration regulations (McWilliams, 1949: 185; Montejano: 209) In
the 1930s, Gutierrez writes, the Great Depression sparked a national
campaign to repatriate Mexicans.
As nationwide unemployment reached six million by the end of 1930 and
eleven million by the end of 1932, Mexican workers were singled out
as scapegoats in virtually every locale in which they lived in
substantial numbers. In this atmosphere the nativist litany that had
been employed against Mexicans in the 1920s --charges that they were
disease-ridden, that they committed crimes, that they displaced
American workers, and that they were, in short, singularly
un-American -- was raised with new vehemence. Moreover, as the number
of unemployed Mexican and Mexican American workers seeking relief
from local welfare agencies began to rise, American communities
across the country took steps to pressure Mexicans to return to Mexico (72).
Nationwide, scholars estimate that between 350,000 and 600,000 people
of Mexican descent returned to Mexico during the 1930s. In Los
Angeles alone, targeted by federal, county and city officials, tens
of thousands of Mexican nationals and their children returned to
Mexico (Gutierrez: 72; see also Foley: 8, 75).
The changed attitude toward Mexican workers from the 1920s to the
1930s was reflected in the media. For example, the Imperial Valley
Farmer, a newspaper covering a major agricultural region of southern
California, estimated in September 1929 that local ranches had more
than 10,000 Mexican workers, but would need to hire nearly 10,000
additional Mexicans for "agricultural activity" during the winter
season. Five years later, the attitude of local media had changed
drastically. On March 15, 1935, the Brawley News editorialized: "The
sooner the slogan 'America for Americans' is adopted, the sooner will
Americans be given the preference in all kinds of work -- instead of
aliens" (Gutierrez: 71-72). In Los Angeles, media coverage helped
local officials scapegoat undocumented immigrants. In an article in
the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 13, 1931, John R. Quinn, who served on
the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, said that not only were
undocumented immigrants responsible for "a large part" of the crime
in the county, but that the widespread unemployment caused by the
Great Depression would disappear if the undocumented were deported.
"If we were rid of the aliens who have entered this country
illegally," Quinn claimed, "our present unemployment problem would
shrink to the proportions of a relatively unimportant flat spot in
business." Because Quinn was the only source used in the story, the
newspaper allowed his inflammatory viewpoints to remain unchallenged.
Nationally, the Saturday Evening Post, a prominent magazine with a
weekly circulation of close to three million, had published frequent
editorials in the 1920s in support of restricting Mexican
immigration. With the onslaught of the Great Depression, the Post
found new ammunition for attacking immigrants. In an editorial on
July 21, 1934, the magazine complained about the 45,000 Mexicans on
relief in Los Angeles: "They are sitting pretty, for they entered the
country lawfully and they may not be deported unless convicted of a felony."
Although Mexican immigration to the United States slowed to a
trickle during the Depression, the number of immigrants coming north
steadily increased during World War II. Spurred by the increased
labor demands of the massive U.S. war effort, Southwestern employers
vigorously lobbied Congress to once again permit recruitment of
Mexican workers. In response, the United States and Mexico in August
1942 created the Emergency Farm Labor Program (popularly known as the
Bracero Program after a Spanish term for farm laborer). "By 1947,"
Gutierrez writes, "nearly 220,000 braceros had worked under contract
in the United States, almost 57 percent of them on large-scale
corporate farms in California" (134). Moreover, the booming wartime
economy also brought large numbers of undocumented Mexicans to the
United States to work. As in earlier periods of large-scale Mexican
immigration, the lure of higher wages, the promises of recruiters and
the encouragement of friends and relatives induced these workers to
make the trek north. As an indication of how many came, the
Immigration and Naturalization Service reported apprehending only
7,023 undocumented migrants a year between 1940 and 1943. However,
that figure grew to 69,111 in 1945 and to nearly 200,000 in 1947.
Between 1947 and 1954, the INS apprehended an average of more than
500,000 undocumented immigrants a year (Gutierrez: 142).
A backlash against Mexican immigrants occurred again in the 1950s.
The anti-Communist fervor sweeping the country prompted the passage
of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, which gave the government the
right to deport any alien who had entered the country since 1924,
"regardless of his or her character, length of stay in the United
States, employment record or familial relationship to bona fide
American citizens" (161). One result of this law was 1954's
Operation Wetback, in which the INS claimed to have deported over a
million undocumented immigrants, primarily those living in the
Southwest. Gutierrez points out that according to the 1950 census,
"the combined population of resident Mexican aliens and
Mexican-Americans with at least one parent who had been born in
Mexico amounted to 55 percent of the total Mexican population of the
United States" (162). As a result, these mass deportations were
devastating to the ethnic Mexican community, causing the breakup of
many Mexican-American families (161-163).
Concern about the increase in undocumented immigration from Mexico
in the 1950s was fueled by the national media. In an editorial,
"Wetback Problem," on Nov. 28, 1952, the New York Times argued that
the presence of the undocumented Mexican immigrant in the Southwest
"constitutes an adverse social and economic factor that is so
recognized by all but those who profit from it." The Times also
chastised members of Congress for not doing more to "protect" the
nation's southern border:
It is remarkable how some of the same Senators and Representatives
who are all for erecting the most rigid barriers against immigration
from Southern Europe suffer from a sudden blindness when it comes to
protecting the southern border of the United States. This peculiar
weakness is most noticeable among members from Texas and the
Southwest, where the wetbacks happen to be principally employed.
Six months later, on June 7, 1953, the Washington Post published
"'Wetback' Tide Overflowing Rio Grande Again," a much more strongly
worded article on the problem posed by the increasing numbers of
undocumented immigrants from Mexico:
The annual spring tide of wetback labor reached record proportions
last month, when 87,416 were picked up at the border. An influx
sustained at this rate for a year could conceivably add up to more
than two million in 1953, as immigration authorities estimate that
for every wetback caught, one to three others escape.
With only 600 patrolmen to guard the 1600-mile international
boundary, the United States Immigration Service recently declared,
"If the entire Mexican nation wanted to move to the United States,
there is little we could do to stop them."
Undocumented immigration from Mexico declined sharply over the next
two decades, but picked up again in the late 1960s, spurred by
America's booming Vietnam War economy and by an economic downturn in
Mexico. In 1967, the INS reported that apprehensions of undocumented
immigrants had once again increased to more than 100,000.
Apprehensions had grown to nearly 500,000 by 1970; by 1977, they had
reached nearly 1 million. This rise in undocumented immigration was
defined as a national problem when a recession in 1970-71 threw many
Americans out of work, rekindling concern that immigrants were
stealing jobs from U.S. citizens:
This impression undoubtedly was reinforced when prominent news
publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the
Los Angeles Times and U.S. News and World Report began to publish
stories describing the illegal alien influx as a human flood or a
silent invasion. In a series of particularly inflammatory articles
and public statements, INS Commissioner Leonard Chapman described the
illegal alien issue in alarming terms, warning of dire long-term
consequences to the national interest. In one widely publicized
article Chapman termed the illegal alien issue a "national disaster,"
claiming that illegal aliens were "milking the U.S. taxpayer of $13
billion annually by taking away jobs from legal residents and forcing
them into unemployment; by acquiring welfare benefits and public
services; by avoiding taxes." "Clearly," Chapman asserted, "the
nation can no longer afford these enormous, growing costs" (Gutierrez: 188).
In response to the growing public outcry on the issue, in
1972 and 1973 the INS initiated a new effort to control undocumented
immigration by picking up "aliens" (primarily in Mexican-American
neighborhoods in the Southwest) and returning them to Mexico
(188-189; see also Acuna, 1988: 373-374).
As mentioned above, the INS commissioner's public comments
on the dire consequences of rising undocumented immigration were
reinforced by the media. For example, on Jan. 17, 1972, U.S. News and
World Report published a three-page article headlined "Surge of
Illegal Immigrants Across American Borders." According to the story,
undocumented immigration to the United States had reached unprecedented levels:
Never have so many aliens swarmed illegally into U.S. -- millions,
moving across the nation. For Government, they are becoming a costly headache.
What started as a trickle of aliens sneaking into the U.S. illegally
has grown into a flood -- and there are no signs the flood is cresting.
Three years later, with the country in the midst of a recession, the
magazine ran a four-page story on undocumented immigration ("Rising
Flood of Illegal Aliens") that was even more alarmist. The subhead reads:
As recession worsens, concern is mounting over foreigners who slip
into U.S. undetected and take jobs from citizens. Here is a
nationwide, in-depth look at a big and growing worry.
The story begins as follows:
A swelling tide of illegal aliens coming into the United States is
stirring alarm nationwide.
This year, says the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 2 to 2.5
million "illegals" will sneak into the country. More than half will
Illegal aliens already are filling at least 1 million well-paying
jobs at a time when unemployment is rising among U.S. citizens.
Some jobless aliens are turning to crime. Others are illegally
siphoning off welfare money, medical aid and unemployment benefits.
During the 1980s, the California economy grew by 350,000 jobs a
year, and the immigrant population grew by 287,000 people each
year. From 1990-95, however, the state endured its worst recession
since the 1930s. During the recession's first three years, the state
lost 135,000 jobs a year, while the immigration flow abated only
slightly, down to an average of 270,000 people a year. In this harsh
economic climate, residents grew increasingly apprehensive of the
growing nonwhite immigrant population -- in particular, the state's
million or so undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom were
nonwhite (McCarthy and Vernez). In 1994, this led to the development
of a plan to deny social services to undocumented immigrants, the
plan that became Proposition 187. In November of that year, the
measure was overwhelmingly approved (59 percent in favor, 41 percent
against). Although 187 received multiracial support, whites were the
only major racial group to give it majority support. Majorities of
Latinos, African-Americans and Asians turned it down.
The primary elite supporter of 187 was Pete Wilson, California's
Republican governor, who used his 187 advocacy to successfully win
re-election in 1994. (Michael Huffington, the Republican candidate
for U.S. senator who was narrowly defeated by incumbent Sen. Dianne
Feinstein in her re-election campaign, also was a 187 supporter.)
Wilson, like the other 187 supporters, wanted to cut off social
services to undocumented immigrants. He also called federal
immigration policy a "dismal failure" and wanted stronger border
patrols and federal reimbursement for the state's expenditures on
services to the undocumented. Primary liberal opposition to 187
included Feinstein and State Treasurer Kathleen Brown, Wilson's
opponent in the gubernatorial election. Feinstein and Brown were both
concerned that the proposition would be declared unconstitutional,
since it directly challenged the Supreme Court's 1982 Plyler vs. Doe
ruling that children of undocumented immigrants residing in the
United States have a right to public education. In addition,
Feinstein argued that the measure had serious practical problems.
Children thrown out of school were more likely to turn to crime, she
argued, and cutting off non-emergency health care would increase the
risk of epidemics. However, Feinstein and Brown agreed with Wilson
that the federal government needed to do a better job of keeping out
the undocumented by doing a better job of policing the border and
enforcing existing immigration laws. Thus, although these elite
politicians disgreed on 187 as a solution, all agreed on the
underlying problem -- undocumented immigrants.
This "immigrants are the problem" viewpoint emerges as a significant
theme in the Washington Post's 187 coverage. In a page one story Nov.
3 on how 187 is dominating California's election season, the writers
offer this overview of the proposition:
Proponents…argue that the measure would force the federal government
into action, save the state billions of dollars and oblige many of
the nearly 1.5 million illegal immigrants here to leave.
Opponents insist that by putting some 300,000 illegal immigrant
children out of school and into the streets and by denying them
health care, Proposition 187 would eventually increase costs to the
state while failing to stem the flow of people who come here
primarily to find work (italics mine).
This definition of 187 accepts as an uncritical given that
undocumented immigration is a problem that the state needs to solve.
Left out of the discussion is the argument that scapegoating
immigrants might do nothing to solve the underlying social and
economic problems the state was facing at the time. In fact, some
opponents of 187 were making this argument. In the Post's version of
the "opponents" position, however, the viewpoint of elite 187
opponents like Feinstein and Brown, and that of the leading
opposition group, Taxpayers United Against 187, is allowed to
represent all opponents, whatever their actual concerns might have been.
Another example shows how the "immigrants are the problem" concept
became naturalized common sense during the 187 campaign. A Nov. 5
article, "California Teen-agers Rise Up," talks about the campaign
strategies of 187 opponents:
To combat the emotional appeal of the proposition as a quick fix
(italics mine)… opponents have emphasized the dangers of denying
education and health care to people likely to remain in the state, as
well as other practical concerns…
The key question here is, the proposition as a quick fix of what? In
the context of the story, it's clear that what needs fixing is the
undocumented immigration problem. Here, the Post overview of the
"opponents" argument is that given the severity of the immigration
problem, it's easy to see the appeal of 187. However, on closer
examination 187 seems to have practical problems that make it unworkable.
The understanding that undocumented immigrants are causing
California's economic problems is a central theme of the Post Nov. 6
story, "Clinton Assails California Proposal to Cut Illegal Immigrant
Services." It describes Clinton's California rally the weekend before
the election to benefit Feinstein and Brown:
Clinton told a rally here that his administration was working to find
other ways to
deal with the tide of illegal immigration that has swamped this state
and strained its
Again, the story uncritically accepts the "immigrants are the
problem" theme without offering a differing point of view. And
because this theme is presented as a common-sense fact of life
(rather than a potent political construction), no other point of view
When one looks at the Times coverage, one finds similar
presentations of the meaning of Proposition 187. For example, in the
Oct. 25 story "Candidates Hedge Their Bets on an Immigration
Measure," the writer gives an overview of arguments advanced by those
campaigning against 187:
Opponents of the proposition have conceded from the start that
illegal immigration is a major problem. But they have argued that
cutting off aid to undocumented aliens would be the wrong approach:
they suggest stepping up border patrols and enforcing existing
For the Times as for the Post, all 187 opponents share the elite
common-sense understanding that "illegal immigrants are a problem."
When non-elite opponents of 187 are interviewed by the Times, their
concerns fit within the elite 187 critique. For example, in a Nov. 1
story on growing minority opposition to 187, sources cite
constitutional issues as the primary reason for their opposition:
With Proposition 187 headed for a vote on Nov. 8, [Ruben] Rodriguez,
who runs a bakery in east Los Angeles, is worried about America and
its immigrant success story. He wonders what kind of opportunity the
future will hold if the proposition is approved.
"Passing it would be a terrible step backward," he said. "I know
there's an immigration problem. But 187 is no answer. It's just
lashing out without rhyme or reason, and the people who will be
targeted and questioned will be the people whose skin is not white,
particularly Latinos and Asians. We can't let it pass."...
The requirement is nothing less than a constitutional insult to Miya
Iwataki, a second-generation Japanese-American who is organizing
Asian-Americans in Los Angeles to fight Proposition 187.
"The word 'suspect' just sends chills all through me," she said. "Am
I to be treated different just because I don't look like the white
Here, Rodriguez and Iwataki are talking about provisions of 187
that would require all public officials who suspect someone of being
an undocumented immigrant to turn them in to the authorities. These
provisions were also a major concern of gubernatorial candidate Brown
and senatorial candidate Feinstein.
As mentioned before, in an earlier 187 paper (Author, 2000), I
argued that the Times, by focusing on the elite "blame the victim"
discourse, diverted attention from other aspects of the complex
immigration issue, such as California's reliance on cheap immigrant
labor. It also directs attention toward undocumented immigrants as
the cause of California's economic problems, and away from other
issues, such as the fact that California was enduring its most
serious recession since the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Although admittedly brief, this overview of 20th century immigration
panics and their coverage by the U.S. mainstream media reveals
significant elements these events had in common. All of them took
place in times of intense social stress in the United States: the
Great Depression in the 1930s, economic recessions in the 1970s and
1990s, and the anti-Communist "witch hunt" of the 1950s. In response,
elite social leaders and major national institutions blamed
undocumented immigrants for the social crisis, from local leaders
like John R. Quinn, the county supervisor of Los Angeles, in the
1930s; state leaders like Pete Wilson and Dianne Feinstein in the
1990s; the U.S. Congress, which created the punitive McCarran-Walter
Act in the 1950s, and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service
in the 1950s and 1970s. These elites all employed a discourse of
emergency in alerting the public to the dangers of undocumented
immigration. For John Quinn, the Los Angeles country supervisor, the
Great Depression would have been an insignificant downturn in
business if not for undocumented immigrants. In the 1950s, INS
officials made ominous allusions to a Mexican invasion of the United
States: "If the entire Mexican nation wanted to move to the United
States, there is little we could do to stop them." For INS chairman
Leonard Chapman in the 1970s, undocumented immigrants were stealing
$13 billion annually from U.S. citizens by taking their jobs,
collecting welfare benefits and committing crimes. And for California
Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994, the undocumented were driving his state
into bankruptcy. Finally, all had plans to solve the problem. In the
1930s, 1950s and 1970s, the solution was forced repatriation and mass
deportation. In the 1990s, it was cutting off social services (which,
it was argued, would result in the undocumented leaving of their own accord).
For the media, all these factors would seem to have encouraged
extensive, uncritical coverage. Each of these panics took place
during a social crisis that, by itself, commanded media attention as
a threat to the social order. In each case, social elites proposed
solutions that, according to them, were vitally important to the
national health (or California's health, in the case of Proposition
187). According to Gans (1979), the restoration of order is a key
element of "social order" stories. Finally, the solution involved
punishing a population routinely regarded as deviant by U.S.
citizens. Simply by setting foot in the United States, these "illegal
immigrants" were breaking the law.
A review of the literature on these immigration "panics" indicates
that the topic lends itself to future research. Although media
coverage of the Proposition 187 debate has received scholarly
attention, little has been done on the coverage of the earlier
panics. More in-depth analysis of how these panics were portrayed in
the media would help answer some useful questions: Just how
widespread was the "anti-undocumented-immigrant" frame that appears
in the stories I discuss here? Was there a difference between the
local, state and national press? I think more comparative analysis
would be useful as well. Were there differences in the nature of
these panics that prompted differences in the coverage they received?
Are there differences in how undocumented immigrants were "framed" by
the media? More specifically, how were the undocumented portrayed
before the panic, when times were good, and how does that compare
with coverage during the panic? Such analyses would hopefully help
increase public awareness of the media's power in portraying certain
groups as deviant, and the dangers inherent in such labeling. In the
case of these immigration "panics," for example, the scapegoating of
undocumented immigrants helped keep the public from thinking
critically about the social crisis at hand, whether it was the Great
Depression, anti-Communist witch hunts, or the economic recessions of
the 1970s and 1990s.
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