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Covering the border wars

From the Winter 2011 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1. The Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico…

From the Winter 2011 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1.

The Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a reporter. As difficult as it sometimes is for American reporters to get access to government meetings, records and court proceedings, at least they don’t get jailed, beaten, shot or beheaded when covering a corrupt American politician or drug boss.

As Stephen Miller’s cover story illustrates, every time a Mexican journalist writes a story about Mexican drug cartels, they risk assassination. Some Mexican journalists are seeking asylum in the U.S., while American journalists have dramatically cut back on how often they cross the border to report stories. As a result, citizens on both sides of the border are deprived of information about how dangerous the situation really is.

But that’s not the only border story. Every month we get several calls from reporters in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas seeking help to pry information out of the federal government about illegal immigrants they have in custody: Where were they picked up? Are they charged with a crime? What’s going to happen to them? Most of them disappear into a bureaucratic black hole in the desert.

It wasn’t always this way. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, the federal government dramatically changed the way it manages cases involving foreign nationals — not just for the 1,200 mostly Muslim, Arab men secretly arrested after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, but routine arrests of illegals along the Mexican border as well.

Prior to 9/11, reporters seldom had trouble covering deportation hearings. But in September 2001, then-Chief Immigration Judge Michael Creppy ordered immigration judges to close immigration hearings and seal all immigration proceeding records.

Although media and civil rights groups filed lawsuits, the results have caused nothing but frustration and confusion. In Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati (6th Cir.) found in 2002 that across-the-board closure of immigration proceedings was unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s presumption of openness.

About one month later, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.) ruled in North Jersey Media Group, Inc. v. Ashcroft that a blanket closure of immigration courts was justified by the potential threat to national security. “Congress has never explicitly guaranteed public access” to immigration proceedings, the court said.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied media parties’ petitions to review the Third Circuit’s decision in 2003 and the split still stands. Numerous reporters have had difficulty accessing immigration proceedings, but, in this magazine, guest columnist Kevin Kemper shares tips for successfully getting into immigration proceedings. While reporters might make it in to more hearings by following his advice, keep in mind that immigration judges are completely in control of the situation and can kick you out at any time for virtually any reason.

There’s may be little average Americans can do to stop the drug-related bloodshed over the border. But U.S. lawmakers certainly could pass legislation to loosen up information coming out of the U.S. Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security about what is being done to the Mexicans and Central Americans being picked up by the Border Patrol in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas.


The Reporters Committee is proud to announce the hiring of its first Communications Director, Debra Gersh Hernandez. Hernandez is a well-respected former journalist whose previous employers include Editor & Publisher, where she served as a reporter and Washington editor from 1985 to 1997. She also served in a variety of positions, including vice president and editor of Presstime magazine, for the Newspaper Association of America for six years.

We are particularly familiar with Deb’s work as the first coordinator of national Sunshine Week for the American Society of News Editors from 2004 to 2009. Her first assignment will be to help the Reporters Committee upgrade its extremely useful website. By pushing more information to new “constituents,” particularly those who have never worked in a traditional newsroom, Deb will help make the Reporters Committee’s services available to more journalists. In addition, we expect those same efforts will help us persuade new and existing funders that supporting the Reporters Committee is the first step in assuring First Amendment rights for a new generation of reporters.