Frontline: Pushing the hot buttons

I write a lot about Frontline, PBS’s venerable and, in my view, indispensible, weekly investigative and documentary series. It is, as its name suggests, almost always on the frontline of issues confronting many Americans in their daily lives. But when you are at the frontline, and you stick your head-up, you are more than likely to get shot at.

So it was again last week when Frontline aired “Lost in Detention,” a look into what was described as President Obama’s “tough immigration (policy) enforcement” and “a troubling picture of abuse inside America’s vast immigrant detention system” where immigrants, especially Latinos who are in this country illegally, can suddenly find themselves.

The program is the result of a year-long investigation undertaken by Frontline Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa in conjunction with the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University’s School of Communication in Washington, DC.

A sampling of the letters I received is posted below. Most were critical. That is not surprising because immigration is one of the most divisive and hot button issues of our time. It is made even more so because any agreed upon political or legislative step to improve the situation seems out of reach. So the fierce, high-pitched battles just go on and on about every aspect, with no new solutions in sight.

This is a complicated and emotional subject and, since ombudspeople are supposed to have a gene that allows them to see two or more sides to stories that can be reasonably argued to have two or more sides, it should not be surprising that I had mixed feelings about this presentation.

The broadest part of that mixture for me was positive; a timely, valuable and informative program, with some of the information rather startling.

To the extent there was a problem, I felt, as did some others, that it had what I’d call a detectable tone to it, one that was generally sympathetic to the plight of illegal immigrants or undocumented workers—pick your terminology—and antagonistic to the administration’s approach to deportation policy. I felt that this slant was unnecessary and diminished, somewhat, the impact of the reporting and content of the program. I’ll come back to this.

On Balance, Very Important

Now to the larger, “on the other hand” part of the ombudsman’s split gene: Despite the “tone,” this was another powerful effort by Frontline to take on a crucial, front-burner issue for which I, as a viewer, am always grateful. It is a major public service and this particular program told me a great deal about things that I believe are largely unknown beyond the Hispanic population.

As Robert Suro, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern California, put it: “This enforcement policy and the deportations, [are] largely invisible to most voters, I’d say. It appears in the English-language media every once in a while. It’s on Spanish-language television all the time. All the time.”

Although there have been occasional stories inside newspapers, this documentary gets in our face to tell us much more directly that expanded government crackdowns have led to nearly 400,000 deportations in each of the past two years, and, as Hinojosa reports, “more than one million since Obama took office”— significantly more than under the Bush administration.

It investigates the impact of a government program called “Secure Communities,” in which federal officers from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency enlist the computerized help of local law enforcement around the country to better identify illegal immigrants who have committed crimes, even very minor offenses.

An ICE official points out that of all those now being deported annually, the number of “criminal alien removals” is almost half the total, 195,000, including “1,000 murderers, 6,000 sex offenders, 45,000 serious drug violators.” But Hinojosa points out that “critics say Secure Communities is sweeping up more than just serious criminals.” Thousands of others are caught up in this and the documentary takes viewers into the truly heart-breaking stories of families torn apart—mothers here illegally are suddenly detained because they were caught driving without a license and then deported, leaving behind American-born citizen children.

Viewers learn about a vast network of some 250 detention camps around the country. Some of them are huge, built at isolated locations, and run by government contractors. Thousands of immigrants caught up in government sweeps are kept in prison-like conditions as they wait to be deported. Many instances of abuses in detention are documented by credible witnesses on the program.

There is no way to briefly summarize this hour-long documentary in this short space, but it fulfills an obligation to inform us about a massive, legal, moral and very human drama played out every day for some of the 10 million to 11 million immigrants here illegally.


I think where it irritates some viewers, again unnecessarily in my view, is that while Hinojosa is very challenging in her questioning, for example, of President Obama’s top advisor on immigration, Cecilia Munoz, few, if any, tough questions are asked of the immigrants whose stories are otherwise so compelling.

So mothers are not asked: Why did you overstay your visa? Could you have applied for an extension? Why have five children born in the U.S. when you know that if you are here illegally and stopped for a broken tail-light or driving without a license you are likely to be deported and separated from your family? Why did you bounce a check before you moved to another state? Why did you live here for 15 years without a visa? And what about the 40 million or so Latinos who live in the U.S. legally today? Some of them are undoubtedly angry over the deportation policies, but how do they feel about having to do things the right way?

There is a string of interviews with informers in which Hinojosa does ask a lot of questions but they are repeats of what these former detainees and guards just told her on camera. After a former detainee tells of racial epithets, she asks, “A guard to say that to you?” Another ex-detaineee says “you would see them have somebody on the ground beating them.” Hinojosa then says, “You saw this?” A former guard tells that officers beat up a detainee because he talked back, and the correspondent says, “He talked back?” This may be good for emphasis or further clarity, but I found it distracting and reinforcing.

This is a program that is mostly focused on the detention and deportation system and that is where its news value lies. The broader immigration issue is, of course, much larger than a one-hour program can deal with. Yet the larger issue, and particularly the unquestionably moving stories of hard-working immigrant families suddenly separated because of otherwise minor infractions, is also a central part of the program, and it demanded more attention to the questions that so many citizens have about the knowing gamble that these illegal immigrants make and the rules that everyone else plays by.

Here Are Some Letters

I watched with interest tonight’s Frontline broadcast on our broken immigration system. Reporter Maria Hinojosa has done some good work on the subject. What I haven’t seen in the PBS reporting on immigration in the U.S. is the viewpoint of the legal resident alien—those who have gone through the process of obtaining an immigrant visa and who have entered the U.S. legally through the front door. Interviewees have complained to Ms. Hinojosa that they or their relatives faced deportation because they lacked “a stupid piece of paper,” or were “in the U.S. without papers.” Is it the view of PBS that the Immigrant Visa (and the process behind its application and issuance) is simply “a piece of paper?” I think the absence of comments and opinions of persons who have gone through the process and entered the United States for permanent residence legally detracts from a fully-rounded view of the issue. How many immigrants are admitted to the U.S. legally for permanent residence each year? How does this compare with the immigration policies of other industrialized nations?

A balanced examination of U.S. immigration policy should also include discussion of the views of intending immigrants from geographical areas other than those immediately adjacent to the United States. As the Frontline piece demonstrates, illegal immigration is a serious national problem as well as a wrenching problem for the people personally involved.

Philip A. King, Lenoir City, TN

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Mr. Getler, I am writing you to tell you that I believe that the PBS story “Lost in Detention” as it aired on October 18 violated your posted journalistic guidelines. First and foremost I am upset at the use of the term “undocumented immigrant” as no legal term like that does exist in US law and the use of it as a euphemism for “illegal immigrant” or “unauthorized immigrant” both implies and betrays a desired slant of the story. In addition to this, when discussing the traffic stops that befell the illegal immigrants that resulted in their deportation, no explanation as to if they were actually justified stops were given and the absence of that information implies that the stops were at best random and at worst done under more malevolent undertones. Lastly, at no point did the story ever convey that coming into the country illegally was an actual crime. Number 9 on you website under Fairness does I think truly cover these omissions.

Charles Baldwin, Westlake, OH

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I’m outraged about the one-sided reporting on last night’s Frontline, “Lost in Detention.” Maria Hinojosa is clearly biased in favor of illegal immigration. I tried to make detailed explanations of what I find offensive on comments section, but apparently their “censor” decided not to publish it. Such a “free” and “open” forum! Unless of course your submission doesn’t neatly fit a rigidly liberal “political correctness”.

Tucson, AZ

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Bush started this program. Obama is following up but more strict. The woman who got pulled over for a minor ticket and then deported SAID she HAD a green card and let it expire. Whose fault is that? Then cry rape in jail. I didn’t see where any guards got arrested for that behavior, Liar! 400,000 deportations per year. That is 400,000 USA tax payers who will fill those jobs that Obama is talking about bringing back to our economy. Play by US rules and we more than welcome you here. Play by your illegal rules and Goodbye and don’t cry in jail. No one believes you. There is no justice in jail.

R.D. Littleton, CO

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Frontline program on illegal immigration is one of the worst I have ever seen; slanted and racist, a Latino view, all Latinos are discriminated against. Well, come to Mexico illegally and see what happens. You are out of here in 10 minutes. I am not impressed by the laws of the US or their behavior. The solution to illegals in the US is simple, but so are the minds of the people in Congress. Regardless it was a bad program and does not show both sides.

Arnt Thorkildsen, Jalisco, Mexico

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If your wife is sent back for Mexico, take your children and go to Mexico. Keep the family together. You apparently are illegal and should not be here. The children should be in Mexico with their mother.

Robert Tremain, Escondido, CA

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I just watched Frontline: Lost in Detention. What a pile of tainted crap. The government is the bad guy because they are arresting those who are here illegally? Well boo who! Oh and the narrator is about as bias as they come.
Milwaukee, WI

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Last night, 10-18-2011, I was watching the article about illegal immigrants. Why such a big deal is made about them I don’t understand. What part of ILLEGAL don’t the stations understand? I have no problem with legal, but I have to live by the law, however stupid I feel some of them are. So why should these people be given a free ride?

Mike Soda, Sacramento, CA

On ‘The Man Behind the Mosque’

The following letters relate to a Frontline broadcast on Sept. 27 titled “The Man Behind the Mosque.” It deals with Sharif El-Gamal, a Manhattan property developer who, last year, became the center of a media and political storm when he proposed to build what came to be known as the “Ground Zero Mosque,” a multi-level Islamic community center that contained a space for worship and was about two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks in lower Manhattan. Since then, numerous stories have appeared raising questions about El-Gamal’s background, including CBS and Daily News. I’ve asked Frontline about this but thus far have no response. I’ll post a response when it arrives.

I watched your documentary on the Ground Zero Mosque last night [Sept. 27], or should I say PR piece for the “Park Community Center.” I was blown away by the completely biased portrayal of Gamal. None of his shady background was included. None of Imam Rauf’s background and connection to Islamic extremist groups was revealed. You demonized Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer as hate mongers when they are courageous truth tellers. I am NOT a hater of Muslims. I am against Islamic Jihad as is Geller and Spencer. A recent study was conducted of the Mosques in this country, 80 percent were found to be teaching hate and violence against unbelievers. Why don’t you do a story on that!

Ruby Rivera, Los Angeles, CA

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I was singularly disappointed in PBS’ running of the British documentary, “The Man Behind the Mosque,” about the Ground Zero Mosque. The American public knows enough about Sharif El-Gamal to detect blatant deception in lionizing this two-bit crook. Let me give you some examples:1.El-Gamal has been arrested several times for disorderly conduct and once said beating up people is a great “stress reliever. 2. With several DUI arrests, El-Gamal is hardly a model Muslim. 3. He has been charged with failing to pay more than $200,000 in taxes. 4. El-Gamal has defaulted on two bank loans. To portray this man as a noble citizen serving the community is a lie. There are much better quality, much more accurate American documentaries on the Ground Zero Mosque which PBS should, in the public interest, be offering to its viewers. One in particular, “The Ground Zero Mosque: The Second Wave of the 9/11 Attacks,” would be a counter-balance to the deceptive British puff piece. Do the right thing.

Chris Chrisman, Los Angeles, CA

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Please don’t use my tax dollars to pay for this propaganda piece on the Ground Zero mosque. You should have told the truth. Islam and the Quran definitely, without a doubt, teach its followers to hate and kill those who are not Muslims. Your putting on this crying guy in the pink tie about how unjust it is that he can’t put another mosque in NYC.

R. Stuckey, Jacksonville, FL

This column was originally published on on Oct. 20, 2011.


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