Journalists Take Note -- Some of the Best Migrant Youth Reporting You'll Ever Read

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If you haven't read this article in the Harvard Crimson, yet, you should

When Elizabeth Pezza approached Harvard College Act on a Dream about writing a feature story on undocumented youth for the weekly Harvard Crimson magazine, Fifteen Minutes, my first reaction was that I hope it's better than the FM piece that was written about me:

"Altar, Mexico. That town is crazy," says Kyle De Beausset '08.

But De Beausset is not talking about the kind of Mexican crazy that happens when you mix margaritas in your mouth on the beach at 10 a.m.

Instead, he's referring to the last stop on his journey documenting the experience of South American migrant workers trying to make it to the United States.
Shifra Mincer - Harvard Crimson (3 May 2006)
For those that didn't catch it, Guatemala is not in South America.  I've actually never been to South America, I'm sorry to say, even though I was just a few months shy of being born in Ecuador.

It's not just inaccuracies I was worried about, though.  FM often tries to put a sort of "fun" tone into articles that I just didn't see working well with undocumented students at Harvard.  After multiple assurances from Pezza that she wouldn't use that tone, as well as the assurances of trusted pro-migrant students who knew her, I had faith that she would do a good job. 
What I didn't expect was that Pezza would do as excellent a job as she did.  Pezza's reporting is one of the best, if not the best, pieces of unauthorized migrant youth reporting that I've had the pleasure of reading (not counting, of course, the reporting migrant youth do on the themselves).  I hope every journalist uses this piece as a model for reporting on migrant youth, and I hope migrant youth use this piece to show journalists what they expect when they are being written about.

There's a lot to praise in Pezza's reporting, but one of the most important things is how deferential she is to the wishes of unauthorized migrant youth when it comes to identifying them publicly.  This allows her to paint a complex picture of the different lives and choices of undocumented students at Harvard.  She even goes so far as not to name the one Harvard student who came out publicly at our coming out event, because, I assume, she did not get affirmative permission from him, or did not want to put him needlessly in the public spotlight.

Kyle A. de Beausset '08-'11, a member of Act On A Dream and a Crimson editorial writer, gave the next speaker a special introduction. "I gave him every opportunity to back out of this," he said, as an undocumented Harvard student stepped up to the statue to tell his own story.

As the student recounted his efforts to contribute to American society--"I pledged the Pledge of Allegiance, I did it all"--Michael could also relate, but he still did not speak up. And when seven other students in the crowd raised their hands as fellow undocumented students, Michael did not raise his.
Elizabeth Pezza - Harvard Crimson (1 April 2010)
I can only wish that other journalists had this sort of deference and sense of responsibility when it comes to using unauthorized migrant youth as sources.  Again, this allows for a much richer portrayal of what different undocumented students are going through.  I can't use pull quotes to convey this.  I recommend you read the whole article to understand what I mean.

Somewhat related, the fact that Pezza uses the term "undocumented" as opposed to "illegal" is extremely important as well.  No human being is illegal.  That statement and the ideas behind it are the foundation of the modern pro-migrant movement.  It's also how unauthorized migrants prefer to be identified.  Journalists should defer to how their subjects want to be identified whenever possible. 

Pezza also seems to grasp the politics of the DREAM Act better than most mainstream immigration journalists that I know.  Here's what I mean:

Relative to more comprehensive immigration reform, the DREAM Act already has a broad support base because it targets a specific population and requires that beneficiaries contribute to society, either through military service or higher education. Many scholars also agree on the economic importance of the bill.


The DREAM Act has become tangled in this politicized [immigration] debate, despite a solid base of bipartisan support. "The real political issue is that both sides are using the DREAM Act to hold the other side hostage," Schumacher-Matos says. Proponents of more progressive immigration policies want to leverage the bill's bipartisan support to pull through comprehensive reform, while their opponents will support the DREAM Act only in exchange for stricter enforcement. There are also those who reject amnesty in any form.
Elizabeth Pezza - Harvard Crimson (1 April 2010)
Mainstream journalists have completely missed this analysis of the DREAM Act.  I think that's partly because they're beholden to narratives manufactured by organizations like Reform Immigration For America, and partly because they just don't treat the migrant youth movement as the force that it is. 

Pezza also offers a nuanced look into the world of migrant youth organizing that you're not likely to get anywhere else.  I, admittedly, care much more about the mechanics of organizing than most folks, but that's because I believe organizing offers the most concrete and teachable model for making change.  Here's an especially good excerpt:

In March of 2008, Scott M. Elfenbein '11 led a group of students to found Harvard College Act on a Dream, which strives to raise awareness and push immigration reform forward. But since then, the club has had to reassess and redirect its initiatives multiple times.

Tran recalls that one of the club's first initiatives was to prompt Harvard to advertise itself as a "sanctuary university", modeled after sanctuary cities. There are more than 30 of these cities around the country, which openly publicize practices that refrain from inquiring about immigration status. Act On A Dream reached out to Harvard University Police Department and the admissions office, but faced some resistance. They backed off amidst worries that pushing too hard on HUPD would draw negative attention to undocumented students.

"We wanted the undocumented students to still feel safe, so in creating this safe space we didn't want to unintentionally make them feel unsafe," Tran says.

The group faced a similar situation last spring, when it began lobbying for President Drew G. Faust to show her support for the DREAM Act. "People got a little scared that we were pushing her too hard and undocumented youth started pushing back against us," says de Beausset. "They didn't want to push her so hard that Harvard would stop accepting undocumented students, so we kind of stopped agitating."
Elizabeth Pezza - Harvard Crimson (1 April 2010)
Through multiple sources, Pezza offers a window into the negotiations involved in unauthorized migrant youth organizing that I haven't really seen anywhere else (again, except for when migrant youth create their own media outlets).   

Getting Drew Faust to come out in support of the DREAM Act was my first real on-the-ground organizing campaign, and you quickly learn to throw all ideology out the window.  The sanctuary university idea was my initial idea, but when you got the Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) yelling at you on the phone in one ear for forcing them to stake a position on cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and undocumented youth whispering into your other ear that this isn't something they want to prioritize, it forces you to reevaluate what you're trying to achieve.  Focusing on getting Drew Faust to come out in support of the DREAM Act bore more fruit than pushing HUPD ever would have.  I'm happy we collectively made that choice.

Finally, Pezza was able to get a money quote Drew Faust which, to my knowledge, is only the second public statement she's made in support of the DREAM Act.

"What influenced my decision was a meeting I had with students whose lives were so deeply affected by their inability to be full citizens and participants in American society," Faust says. "It seemed like such a terrible betrayal of human potential and such an unfair burden for these young people to carry for no fault of their own, and so I felt very moved by that experience."
Elizabeth Pezza - Harvard Crimson (1 April 2010)

A journalist's greatest power is her ability to ask public questions and get public answers.  In organizing, in order to build power, we deal in public relationships, based on respect (as opposed to private relationships, based on love).  Journalists often are better able to secure public statements than organizers on the ground are, mostly because that's what most people think they're supposed to do.

Drew Faust's quote also further proves something we've long known is true in the migrant youth movement.  Some of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to make change are our personal stories.  Something happens to people when you tell them your story.  If told in the right way, it moves them to act in a way that facts, figures, and research never can.  Power is nothing more than the "ability to do" (the word poder, in Spanish, makes that relationship even more explicit as it is synonymous with both power and the "ability to do" at the same time).  Our stories have the ability to move people in a way that very few other things can.

If I had any critiques for Pezza, or "deltas" in organizing speak, they would just be small points.  For instance, the one thing I wish Pezza had conveyed a little better is that under current immigration law, there is no real way for unauthorized migrant youth to secure legal status.  In other words, contrary to nativist claims, there is no line for undocumented youth to get into the back of, or for the vast majority of unauthorized migrants, for that matter. 

When describing the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, I also would have emphasized that the reason the undocumented population ballooned after 1986 isn't because more unauthorized migrants came in, but because it became harder for unauthorized migrants to go out.

Both of these points are just small errors of omission in my opinion, though, that don't take away from the overall greatness of Pezza's reporting.  Thank you for telling our story, Liz.  It will be a powerful tool as we move forward.

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This page contains a single entry by kyledeb published on April 10, 2010 9:36 AM.

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