The Press Paid Little Attention When the Immigration Act Was Passed: By Personalizing Cases of Injustice, a Columnist Connects Readers to Its Consequences. (INS Coverage)

By Lewis, Anthony | Nieman Reports, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Press Paid Little Attention When the Immigration Act Was Passed: By Personalizing Cases of Injustice, a Columnist Connects Readers to Its Consequences. (INS Coverage)


Lewis, Anthony, Nieman Reports


Mary Anne Gehris was brought to this country from Germany when she was a year old. She grew up in the South and sounds it. But she never did anything about becoming an American citizen until she was 33, in 1999. She filled out the forms, and in October she got an envelope from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in the mail.

She expected that it was a notice telling her when and where she would be sworn in. Instead, the letter told her that she was targeted for deportation.

Why? In 1988, she pulled a woman's hair in a quarrel over a man. Georgia prosecutors charged her with battery, a misdemeanor. On the advice of a public defender, she pleaded guilty. She received a one-year sentence, suspended for a year's probation.

Such sa guilty plea was not a ground for deportation at the time. But eight years later, in the Immigration Act of 1996, Congress defined such trivial misdemeanors, with a one-year sentence, as "aggravated felonies" requiring deportation of the offender. And the statute was applied retroactively.

I wrote a column for The New York Times about the case of Mary Anne Gehris. It embarrassed the INS, whose top officials really understood that such outrageous deportation cases should not be brought. But in the end the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles saved Gehris. It pardoned her for her hair-pulling crime, commenting that it wished Washington would find ways to "bring some measure of justice" to such cases and use "the nation's resources more appropriately."

Why Write About Immigration?

During a five-year period I wrote several dozen columns about the 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act and its consequences. Nieman Reports asked me to try to explain why, as a columnist, I did this--and to say whether, in my judgment, what I reported and wrote had any effect.

While the legislation was going through Congress in 1996, I wrote about its harsh provisions. I was critical of the Congressional draftsmen and of President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, who hardly objected to the cruelest clauses.

The effect of those early columns was nil, so far as I could tell. Politicking against immigrants was the fashion, and that was the spirit that prevailed in what Congress passed and the President signed. The press took almost no interest in the legislation, scarcely covering it and certainly not explaining the drastic changes it was going to make.

The lesson, I think, is that describing immigration legislation in the abstract--without providing human examples of its consequences--does not excite either readers or editors. That was so in this case, even though the law was so harsh on its face.

My first encounter with an individual result of the 1996 act came when I was telephoned in 1997 by John Psaropoulos, a British subject who worked for CNN in Atlanta. He had taken a two-week vacation in Greece. When he flew back to Atlanta, he was told to go to an INS office because his work visa had expired, and the necessary papers for its renewal were filed late.

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