Adapting Investigative Reporting Skills to Policy Advocacy: 'My Motto Remains What It Was When I Reported on Immigration: Always Hard-Headed, Never Hard-Hearted.'

By Kammer, Jerry | Nieman Reports, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Adapting Investigative Reporting Skills to Policy Advocacy: 'My Motto Remains What It Was When I Reported on Immigration: Always Hard-Headed, Never Hard-Hearted.'


Kammer, Jerry, Nieman Reports


At the end of 2007 I took the now-familiar buyout route as my organization, Copley News Service, began a slide toward oblivion. A year later I began a new job, with a title that feels elaborate to someone who for three decades was happy to list "reporter" as my line of work. I'm a senior research fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a Washington think-tank that advocates reduced immigration.

It's a big shift to be an advocate. But I approach my work here with the same fundamental goal that animated my reporting. I want to help inform public discussion about a complex, rancorous issue that is important to the future of our country. My motto remains what it was when I reported on immigration: always hard-headed, never hard-hearted.

I began observing immigration in the late 1980s, when I was northern Mexico correspondent for The Arizona Republic. Later, as I lived in Phoenix during the huge illegal influx that followed the 1994 peso collapse, I developed an appreciation of the immigrants' struggles and of the anxieties often felt in receiving communities.

I believe that the scale of immigration has become overwhelming. Two decades ago, illegal immigration was mostly a matter of people leaving seven or eight states in Mexico and heading to five or six U.S. states. But in the aftermath of the amnesty that Congress provided in 1986 to some three million illegal immigrants, immigration has exploded. Now immigrants are coming in large numbers from all regions of Mexico and from many other countries to all regions of the United States. There's no telling how many millions more, now plugged into immigration networks, intend to come.

I have two principal concerns. First, that the influx of mostly poor people from desperate parts of the Third World is importing a new permanent underclass to the bottom rungs of an economy that is losing its middle rungs. This threatens to bring us the social structure of Latin America.

Second, immigration is the demographic engine that is driving the United States toward a doubling of its population by late in this century. The social, political and environmental consequences would be enormous. Yet, immigration demographics receive scant attention in the press. Meanwhile, environmental groups like the Sierra Club have retreated from the issue, muzzled by political correctness and liberal coalition politics.

My concerns are fundamentally progressive. But I believe that the late Richard Estrada, who worked briefly at CIS before he joined the editorial board of The Dallas Morning News, had it right when he wrote that "apologists for illegal immigration tend to be activists and ivory-tower academics who opposed any immigration controls from Day One; Hispanic advocates who worship at the altar of political clout based on numerical increases; liberals a generation or two removed from having to worry about competition for jobs in the secondary labor market; profiteering agribusinessmen (and certain other employers), and libertarians who do not care so much how things turn out in practice as long as they work in theory."

My work at CIS is allowing me to pursue stories with investigative depth that is increasingly rare at newspapers. For my first project, a report on the labor markets and working conditions at six Swift meat-processing plants in six states, I had the budget to spend four to five days in each community. It was the most intensive reporting I'd done since 2005, when Copley leadership made sure we had everything we needed to pursue the Randy "Duke" Cunningham bribery scandal.

The biggest difference in my new job, of course, is that now I am an advocate, helping present the case for reduced immigration. I disagree with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who effusively declares that expansive immigration is "who we are" as a nation. I think our immigration policy should be guided less by nostalgia for our grandparents and more by concern for our grandchildren. …

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