Close this search box.
Close this search box.

Jose Vargas And The Problem Of Emotional Immigration Stories

Anecdotes provide a cheap means of avoiding rigorous thought while making yourself appear more compassionate than others. We shouldn’t set policy by them.

Let’s discuss two stories about immigration law enforcement and the danger of adopting these stories uncritically.

Story 1: The martyrdom of Jose Antonio Vargas

There is little question about many journalists’ views on immigration law enforcement. Roll Call editor-in-chief Christina Bellantoni gave a good example with this tweet:

The link goes to a straight-up call to lobby on behalf of one Jose Antonio Vargas, an immigration activist previously employed by the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He is not a legal resident or citizen of the United States and was just yesterday arrested for trying to pass through a border check point without proper paperwork. This CNN story says that Vargas was working overtime to get arrested, presumably to serve his cause both legally and from a public relations standpoint.

Vargas was illegally smuggled to the U.S. as a child when his grandfather paid someone $4,500 to get him here from the Philippines using a fake passport and name. He didn’t realize he was not legally here until he tried — and failed — to get a driver’s license at the age of 16. Still, he graduated from high school and college and built successful journalism and activist careers. He’s traveled freely even years after publicly discussing the fact he’s here illegally. It is, apparently, so easy to live and travel without being a legal resident, that it took great effort for him to be arrested. It finally happened and he spent less time detained than I was last time I was arrested.

Story 2: The Innocents

Recently the media has begun covering a sudden humanitarian crisis on the U.S. border with Mexico. It’s an odd story with many unanswered questions. Thousands of unaccompanied minors, who are not legal residents, have made it across the border and are being cared for by U.S. Border Patrol agents while the government figures out what to do.

Human traffickers are taking advantage of the chaos of the crisis. The stories of the unaccompanied minors are varied, but here is a CNN story that is representative:

Daniel Penado Zavala was 17 when he made a heart-wrenching decision to leave his family behind in San Salvador and try to make a new life where it was safer. He saw gang members target and kill young people like him. After his stepfather was slain, Daniel’s mother was left to support him and his three siblings. He, too, would be a victim if he resisted the wishes of thugs, he thought. That’s how life had become for people without means in El Salvador. Gang members infiltrated public schools, he said, and threatened kids to join their ranks. He scraped together $7,000 — a huge sum of money for a family like his — to pay a coyote, or smuggler, to arrange a harrowing journey, first to Mexico and then over the Texas border.

It turns out that the story is further complicated by widespread misinformation campaigns about U.S. immigration policy.

But no matter, we have people who oppose keeping the minors and people who oppose sending them back to their families. And then we have people saying that if you’re on the other side you’re irresponsible or unloving or some combo of same.

On the dangers of storytelling

Am I allowed to write about immigration law enforcement when I don’t have strong opinions on the matter? I’m going to anyway, because there is danger in making decisions based on nothing more than the story that happens to be in front of you at the moment. For one thing, that story can obscure untold other stories that should be given equal weight.

In Cultural Amnesia, Clive James discusses the work of Chris Marker, the French documentary film director. James says the leftist documentary filmmakers inspired by Marker’s work “lack Marker’s spare, literate elegance, but what they inherit from him is his loose relationship with the truth.”

And of course anyone with even a modest education can cite examples of documentary films eliding important details or using visuals to suggest things that didn’t actually happen. In Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore showed video of U.S. planes taking off. The powerful narrator inveighed against U.S. imperialism, and omitted the contradictory detail that these planes were on a humanitarian mission to save Muslims from being murdered in Kosovo.

James uses the discussion to look at, of all things, an immigration crisis. It was August of 2001 when the Norwegian container ship Tampa picked up Afghan asylum seekers from their sinking ship. The asylum seekers had bypassed a few other countries in the hope they would be received by Australia. Australian Prime Minister John Howard said that these seekers shouldn’t just be given residency automatically but should go through normal procedures. And it turned out that many Australians agreed. But cultural elites did not. Novelist Richard Flanagan responded to those who argued on behalf of retaining Australia’s systems for immigrants, “In the end, politics is not about focus groups and numbers; it is about the power of stories to galvanize and forge the thinking of societies.”

It’s certainly true that we are frequently moved more by stories than by reason, but that in no way speaks to whether the stories, or the direction of change, are good.

James talks about the stories Germans told themselves in the aftermath of World War I. Stalin and Mao told some pretty great stories as well, he says, noting that there is, then, “nothing reassuring” about Flanagan’s claim and that it understates the importance of facts. “All the tyrannies of the twentieth century were introduced by powerful stories, usually subscribed to by intellectuals before the event–and, in the case of the Communist tyrannies, long after the event,” he writes.

The numbers in the Tampa story are important, he argues. “There were 433 of them, and every one of them was a queue jumper with aspirations to a place reserved for a legal applicant.”

The other number is the amount of money that was spent to jump the queue, obtain illegal paperwork or smuggle the person to his destination. And on that note, “If you reinforce the principle that illegal immigrants can pay a people smuggler to put them in a position where the Australian government will have to either admit them or leave them to die–many dreams have been brought to your doorstep–you also reinforce the principle that the queue is merely a mechanism for reducing hope to despair, one more mockery for people who have been mocked already.”

The deafening silence

So while many in our media are going to be obsessed with the stories of the people who could afford to violate our immigration laws, I’m moved to imagine the plight of those children and their parents who can’t afford — financially or morally or whatever the case might be — a smuggler or false document agent.

I’m actually all for more open immigration (something only really workable with a substantial dismantling of the welfare state), but I’m concerned with tweets such as these from Marc Ambinder:

I feel for Vargas, even if his more recent grandstanding and histrionic rhetoric is unhelpful to his cause. But justice requires a dispassionate look at the intended and unintended consequences of subverting the rule of law depending on a particular situation.

Hard-luck, heart-tugging stories are great for cheap journalism but an absolutely terrible basis for policy-making. There’s a cliche in the legal community that “hard cases make bad law.” The political corollary might be that sob stories make bad policy. Every single law — every single one — has a sob story attached to it. That’s the thing about laws: They’re meaningless when not attached to a punitive consequence.

Anecdotes are obviously more powerful than data. They’re personalized and real in ways numbers never will be. But anecdotes also provide a really cheap means of simultaneously avoiding rigorous thought and making yourself appear more compassionate or caring than everyone else. “This law hurt this person, therefore we need to change that law. What, you don’t care that that person is hurt? You must be a monster.”

That train of thought is precisely what activist reporters are trying to power in the minds of their readers. They’re doing this at the expense of all the many people in the world who aren’t well-connected enough to get their sob stories on air. They’re doing this at the expense of people, including future generations, who will have to pay in untold and unknown ways for a new policy that fails to address looming systemic problems.

I don’t know what the right answer is for any of these immigration debates, but the storytelling I’ve seen thus far concerns me.

Follow Mollie on Twitter.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments