Mary’s Story Behind the Story

29 Jan

By Mary Sanchez

The Kansas City Star

The demands of immigration were daunting and relentless in 2010.
I don’t expect the topic to lighten its call to journalists anytime soon. In fact, the peak might arrive in 2011.
I use the term “demands” because as a columnist, I often listen for what tone, what voice on the news of the day seems to be beckoning the reinforcement of an opinion piece.
People absorb news stories either in print, online, radio or through television and almost instantaneously begin forming an opinion.
They don’t want to be told what to think, but they appreciate seeing their view either upheld or disputed by others. They want the perspectives that are shaping their opinions validated by facts, or debunked fairly. That is the hallmark of columnists.
But when I accepted the Immigration in the Heartland fellowship it was initially with the intention of peeling away a significant piece from the processes of immigration and examining it with analysis and conclusions, but largely with the eyes of a reporter. A longer piece, a series even, was envisioned.
Then, reality hit.
The churn of near daily column deadlines is ever-pressing. And immigration continuously kept calling out. A quick scan of the year’s columns shows I wrote two dozen columns with an immigration theme.
In retrospect, I should have realized this would be the case.
The 2010 elections certainly laid the groundwork. Immigration, whether pitched as a positive or a negative factor, has long been fertile territory for candidates on the prowl for votes. The recession fed anxiety about just who might be filling jobs that U.S.-born workers no longer hold. Global terrorism threats and realities made anything even remotely linked to Muslims of heightened interest.
For extra inspiration, one of the main architects behind many of the harsher immigration laws being passed by states nationally resides in my community.
Kris Kobach, formerly a constitutional law professor and now the Kansas Secretary of State, works with FAIR. But he lives in a suburb of Kansas City and has long been a valued source. Agree or disagree with his stands, (I usually disagree if the issue is immigration), I value his willingness to speak and explain his positions.
Even if you oppose someone’s views, they are your source. It’s a delicate balance to pen criticism and then still expect someone to speak with you the next go-round. But if you plan to write columns routinely on the topic of immigration, accepting this reality is crucial.
I wrote four columns specifically on Kobach in 2010. We’re still speaking.
And yet, it is counterproductive to overload readers on one topic. The pitfall for any columnist is to become too predictable. You do not want to be dismissed by readers who assume they already know your view. And yet, there must be a rational, consistent nature to how you reason, approach issues. Readers will notice, so if you deviate from a past opinion, it must be explained.
So it was with this in mind that I spent the year carefully choosing when to address immigration and when to hold back.
By job description, I’m a generalist, able to comment on national, international and local events. Some of my work is syndicated for Tribune Media and therefore widely available. I also write metropolitan columns for The Kansas City Star.
So some thought is given to which pieces need the national prominence, and which are better left primarily for local readers. Sometimes timing made the decision. A topic without shelf life and a strong local angle goes to the metropolitan pages.
Immigration in particular offers the columnist the ability to tease out the attitudes and opinions that underlie a view of immigrants, particularly those illegally present in the country.
Simply explaining the fallacies behind many American’s belief that their ancestors all arrived perfectly legal and speaking English can be extremely eye-opening. But it must be done with finesse, not overly harsh tones.
Occasionally, I coordinate with other columnists.  Readers do not need to have all three of the Star’s metro columnists writing on the same topic. And sometimes, it holds more impact for readers to have someone other than a Latino address the issue.
“I wouldn’t expect anything different from someone with your last name…” goes a common criticism.
Personally, I love pulling out my mother’s lineage here, her three direct descendents who fought in the Revolutionary War and my ancestor’s well-documented arrival in 1640.
But I also view the comment as a call to be very clear and factual when backing up my opinions. I cannot remain relevant if viewed as speaking only from emotion, without factual grounding for my beliefs.
Words matter greatly in achieving this endeavor.
I routinely interchange the terms illegal immigrant and undocumented immigrant in columns. This riles some immigration reform advocates. But using only the term undocumented gets a piece dismissed as pandering political correctness by the very people I wish to reach. If you are not being read, you accomplish nothing.
My favored compliment from a reader is something to the point of: “I don’t always agree with you, but I always learn something.”
Efforts to repeal or recast the 14th Amendment are a perfect example. I did one piece addressing the issue overall, the fallacy of the term “anchor baby.” In a second piece, I apologized to the Native Americans and Chinese living in the United States in the 1860s. Their history is left out by those who think the 14th Amendment only addressed the descents of slaves. New information for many readers.
So much of what was studied during the Immigration in the Heartland fellowship will continue to be precursors for future reporting, mine and that of new fellows.
The future is ours to craft as a nation in regards to immigration.
I do believe journalists will play a significant role. Informing, probing and, yes, especially in the case of columnists, forcing people to deeply think about their views.
Here is how I framed that thought in a recent column:
“The U.S.-Mexico border has no Statute of Liberty asking for “your tired, your poor,” no Ellis Island for future generations to romanticize. And yet the migrants who traversed that border in the massive wave of the past few decades — they are now part of the United States. Like it or not, their children and now their children’s children are reshaping the nation’s demographics. How do we want their chapter of U.S. history to read?”

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