Putting a human face on illegal immigration

Get Religion crickets, prepare to chirp.

You guessed it: I’m going to write about media coverage of evangelicals and immigration reform. Again

To read my previous posts, click here, here, here and here. My basic complaint in each of those posts: broad generalizations about a complicated issue.

More than once, I have voiced my desire to see a reporter interview ordinary Christians about the issue rather than rely on an advocacy group’s talking points.

Enter Bob Smietana, award-winning Godbeat scribe for The Tennessean.

A recent feature by Smietana focused on one family — and one Tennessee church — touched by the immigration issue:

NASHVILLE — The smiling faces of Heren and Ricardo Morales flashed on the screen just before the start of a recent Sunday morning service at MJLife Church in Mount Juliet, Tenn.

Below the photo, taken on their wedding day, was a simple, three-word prayer: “Bring Ricardo Home.”

In March 2012, Ricardo Morales, who’s 24, traveled to his home country of Mexico in the first step toward becoming a legal resident in the United States. He left behind his 26-year-old wife Heren, his stepson Ozman, 8, and daughter Miranda, 3.

A year and more than $7,000 in legal fees later, Ricardo is stuck in immigration limbo. His case may not be resolved for another year or more. As his wife and church family pray and write letters in his support, their pastor says Ricardo’s story has changed his own views on immigration reform. Church members say Ricardo’s plight shows just how broken the system is.

“They have done everything they are supposed to do,” said Richelle Tramel, a church friend. “They have paid every dime they are supposed to pay. He is still not home.”

Here’s the beauty of a story such as this: It takes a gigantic issue — immigration reform — and puts a real human face on it.

Read on, and we learn that Ricardo and Heren, a U.S. citizen, met and fell in love and became a beloved part of the church family.

That leads to the drama at the heart of the story:

Still, Heren said that one worry remained: Ricardo was in the country illegally. He told her about his legal status when they met, but “it’s the kind of thing you overlook when you fall in love,” she said.

The couple was particularly worried about the now-shuttered 287(g) program in Davidson County, Tenn. At the time, immigrants with no legal status could be deported after minor offenses such as fishing without a license.

“If you got caught, they just took you away and you’d have to leave your family behind,” she said.

Heren and Ricardo decided to try to get him legal status.

That legal process required Ricardo to leave the country while he applied to return to his family. But as The Tennessean reports, admitting to crossing the border illegally means an automatic 10-year ban, unless Ricardo can get a hardship waiver:

To get a waiver, Heren must prove that Ricardo’s absence has caused extreme hardship. She’s had to work two jobs since he left, along with caring for Ozman and her ailing dad. It’s putting a huge strain on the family, she said.

Daily phone calls with Ricardo keep her going. He’s in Piedras Negras, a border town just south of Eagle River, Texas. “When I am feeling down, he is the one who says, ‘Don’t give up — keep going to church, keep the faith,’ ” she said.

Robert Parham, executive director of the Nashville-based Baptist Center for Ethics, said that church members, who believe in obeying the law, sometimes see people who are in the country without legal status as bad people. Ricardo’s story shows that’s not the case, he said.

“This story is yet another reminder of how broken the American immigration system is,” he said. “Here is a married family, involved in the church, who wants to do the right thing, and the system is not working for them.”

Hmmmmm. The system is broken because Ricardo originally decided to break the law and sneak into the country? I wonder if an advocate with a different take on illegal immigration might have provided a counterpoint to Parham.

But overall, this is a compelling, nicely done story.

Space concerns notwithstanding, I do wish Smietana had included more detail on the couple’s thought process. Was the decision to apply for legal status based entirely on fear of getting caught? Did the couple’s religious beliefs — the desire to “do the right thing,” as the Baptist ethicist insinuated — play into the decision at all?

On a grander scale, I would love to have seen The Tennessean put this church’s experience into the context of the national evangelical debate on immigration reform. But I understand that Smietana — like most daily newspaper writers — does the best he can in a world of finite column inches.

Undoubtedly, adding more background on the big picture would have required stripping the story of real-life human details that made this piece work so well.

Image via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Elaine T

    As far as it goes I suppose it’s a good story, but putting in the quote you highlighted about the system being broken without bringing in something about the problems being self-inflicted by the original illegal border crossing makes it seem slanted to push readers to the amnesty side.

    Maybe the reporter didn’t find anyone willing to say it.

  • dalea

    What proof is there of illegal boarder crossing? In LA, many undocumented aliens entered the country legally, on visas for work or school, and stayed when they expired. The story needs a lot more detail on just how Ricardo entered the US, if he has family ties here, where he is from in Mexico and so on. The assumption that he snuck across the boarder just doesn’t hold up.

    Does he speak English? What sort of job did he have? Is there an Hispanic community in the area he is part of? The story needs a lot more detail, and a lot more knowlege of the issues here.

  • Elaine T

    I guess I got the idea he simply crossed the border illegally from the post, and didn’t question it because he went to Mexico. Yes stereotyping. I did read the original story and didn’t see it covered. Maybe he was brought as a kid, maybe he came as an adult, the story doesn’t say and yes, it might have been helpful. OTOH, does it really change anything? He was here illegally for whatever reason, fell in love, married, etc. without regularizing his status. Now the family is having trouble because they tried to finally make him a legal resident. The root of the problem is the fact he was here illegally and while an illegal alien did all those other things that are now affecting innocent people. At some point where do we, as a society, stop and say: there’s got to be more to law than exceptions for people presented sympathetically in the media? The sympathy angle seems to be what the article is written to support.
    Even if he didn’t sneak across the border, he’s here illegally, however he got here. Does how make a difference, and if so, why? And is the difference journalism related or for the impact the story seems to have been aimed at having? I don’t think they’re the same thing.

    [deleted non-journalism related comments]

    Also it seems to be a story about how the church or faith community or whatever the preferred term is these days, is responding to the situation, not so much about the specifics of this particular guy. The old, if you can make it specific and personal, people care more about the issue.

    Not that there aren’t problems with INS, I read about them all the time, and those are certainly contributing to the hardships. I wonder if the reporter could do a story on what might be holding things up at INS for this fellow? Is it just the notorious slowness of that bureaucracy, or are there issues and questions with this fellow? (if they’d even talk with him about a specific case, which, I gather, is not likely.)

  • Bob Smietana

    Hi Elaine:
    Your comment about amnesty caught my eye. One thing that made this story stand out is that neither the church or Ricardo’s family mentioned amnesty. What church members said is that here is someone who admits they did something illegal — crossing the border without legal permission- and is trying to make amends for that. They feel like he is being punished for trying to gain legal status.

  • dalea

    The journalistic issue here is that reporters have fallen into an established narrative about the immigration problem. A narrative that does not address the full problem. It runs along the lines of this story which just assumes an illegal boarder crossing, life underground etc. It ignores the obvious question: how does someone without papers get a marriage liscense? And it feeds the stereotype that most illegals are Mexican.

    A better approach would be to look into the wider types of immigants. Here in SoCal we do get coverage of non-Hispanic undocumented aliens. There are lots of Irish, Israelis, Asians, Armenians in these catagories. A typical case is someone who came on a grad student visa, got a degree and a post-grad extension of the visa, married a citizen and continues to work and pay taxes . The article here promotes a stereotype that all illegal immigrants are poor, uneducated etc even though the subject appears to be a middle class person.

  • Elaine T

    Looks at article again. You’re right, it doesn’t mention amnesty. [ponders] I guess I read it in because my local (N. California) newspaper has been running articles focusing on sympathetic illegal alien people, and their friend & supporters which do have people quoted hoping for amnesty. so I read your article through as falling into that category of writing, even though no one in the text actually brought it up.


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