California Raids Test Spanish-Language Media

By Elena Shore Pacific News Service
Friday June 18, 2004

Sweeps and detentions of undocumented immigrants far from the Mexican border have sparked “hysteria,” “terror,” and “panic” in Southern California Latino communities, according to recent Spanish-language media headlines.  

With fear of the U.S. Border Patrol still rippling through Inland Empire cities in Southern California, Spanish-language media—the main news source for many recent immigrants—are caught in a dilemma. While eager to inform, media outlets also are concerned about needlessly fueling hysteria or serving as megaphones for the rumor mill.  

“’La Migra’ (immigration authorities) has become this bogeyman that is everywhere,” says Orlando Ramírez, editor of the Spanish-language weekly La Prensa in Riverside, Calif. “There is an unnecessary fear being fueled by radio and some TV and print media. As a journalist, I don’t want to make something more dramatic than it is. We’re trying to provide accurate information so people don’t get frightened.” 

Sweeps of the kind that took place June 4 and 5 in the Inland Empire cities of Ontario and Corona have not been reported for six or seven years, he says. “The INS says it’s a matter of homeland security. That’s bullshit. These are just working people.” 

Hector Villagra, counsel for the Los Angeles office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), told the Press-Enterprise, the English-language daily parent newspaper of the Spanish weekly La Prensa, that the Border Patrol must have a reason to suspect people of being undocumented before stopping them for questioning beyond 100 miles of the border. 

The same June 11 article quotes Rep. Joe Baca, a Democrat from Rialto, Calif., describing the sweeps as illegal because they single out Latinos, who comprise 40 percent of the Inland Empire’s population. Protestors marched from Ontario to Pomona on June 13, calling the interior sweeps “racial profiling.” 

Raúl Villareal, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesman, confirmed that 410 people have been detained in the raids since June 4, and warned operations would continue, the Los Angeles daily La Opinión reported on June 16. 

La Opinión, the largest Spanish-language paper in the country, has avoided reporting on every rumored raid as fact. On June 15, the paper noted that it received reports of detentions in Pomona, Ontario, Perris and the San Fernando Valley, but it scrupulously added that the U.S. Border Patrol officially denied being in those areas. 

Meanwhile, some editors at Latino newspapers criticized Spanish-language radio stations for failing to verify the validity of sightings and indiscriminately broadcasting call-ins by people who said they had seen “La Migra.” 

The Border Patrol says it has stopped its sweeps in the Inland Empire, the region east of Los Angeles that includes Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and that for now it is only conducting raids in neighboring San Diego County. But sightings of “La Migra” continue to pour into Spanish-language radio stations from throughout Southern California.  

“The position that we have taken is to provide (general) information” such as legal advice, says Vicki Bails, general manager of Lazer Broadcasting’s Spanish-language radio stations KXSV, KXRS, KBTW and KCAL based in San Bernardino. 

José Gadea, a DJ for a Spanish-language FM radio station in San Diego, says the number of calls the station receives from frightened listeners who have spotted immigration agents has increased from one or two phone calls a day to 10 to 15 a day. 

The station’s morning call-in show informs people of reported sightings and warns them to bring their documents with them. “Our only purpose is to open the phone lines,” he says. He adds that 99.9% of the time they can tell the sighting is real because many people report it. 

“The radio reflects what is happening in the community,” he says. “Right now the community is very worried.” 

Ruddy Bravo, publisher of El Sol in Fontana, Calif., says that unlike print media, live radio lacks the time to put a story together and verify sources and may sometimes be putting out erroneous information. Still, Bravo, who used to work in radio, says stations do have a duty to report sightings of immigration agents or U.S. Border Patrol officers.  

“Even though (radio) may be seen as alarmist, the fact is these detentions are happening and it’s not a bad thing to inform residents of what’s going on in the community,” he says.  

Meanwhile, “shock jocks” on English-language radio stations in Los Angeles and some anti-immigration websites have sought to capitalize on the confusion and fear by encouraging listeners to make phone calls to immigrant rights groups.  

Some DJs gave out the number for Hermandad Mexicana Nacional in Ontario, Calif., one of the organizers of a protest against the raids. The organization has received hundreds of offensive phone calls from anti-immigrant listeners.  

As rumors fly, the panic has cooled local economies. Businesses have seen a drop in sales as a result of the sweeps; the fear has kept many residents indoors, the Los Angeles-based immigrant voting organization PROVOTO told Univision Online on June 15.  

“Stores were empty, public transportation nearly empty, and many children were missing from school, because the community is panicked that the patrol could detain them if they leave to go shopping or take their kids to class,” reported PROVOTO. 

La Prensa’s Ramírez says Spanish-language media needs to exercise discipline when covering stories like the Inland Empire raids.  

He believes editors must think carefully about whether they are “providing accurate information or just adding to the hysteria.” V