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MediaWatch: August 1997

Vol. Eleven No. 8

Janet Cooke Award: Don't Give Us Those Huddled Masses

America has prided itself on being a "nation of immigrants," but what happens when immigrants abuse America's freedom and commit crimes?

Criminal aliens are a growing problem: according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, they account for over 25 percent of federal prison inmates and represent the fastest growing segment of the federal prison population. Not only is the federal government spending almost half a billion dollars incarcerating criminal aliens. It is also spending hundreds of millions of dollars reimbursing alien-heavy states for the costs of illegal aliens in state prisons.

To help remedy the problem, Congress passed a law last year broadening the definition of "aggravated felony" as a reason for deportation to include nearly any drug offense, sexual abuse of minors, and other crimes, giving the Immigration and Naturalization Service new power to apprehend and deport criminal aliens. For airing two stories that resembled ads against government efforts to deport criminal aliens, ABC's World News Tonight earned the Janet Cooke Award.

On July 20, ABC's Anderson Cooper focused on deported Salvadoran gang members with names like Little Mousie and Sloppy, suggesting a Blame America First approach to crime problems in El Salvador: "San Salvador today seems a lot like Los Angeles. You cruise through streets of fast food, fancy cars, and radios blasting the oldies. Everywhere you look, American culture stares back. But by deporting what Salvadoran officials say are at least 3,000 gang members to the country of their birth, the U.S. has also been exporting a darker side of its culture. The deportees, most of whom grew up in Los Angeles, return to a country they barely know. The gang life they learned in the U.S. is the one thing that gives them some status."

Cooper continued: "Sloppy was 12 when he joined L.A.'s 18th Street Gang. Upon returning to El Salvador, he formed a new gang clique with Nasty, a deported drug dealer. Together, they recruited a half-dozen young Salvadorans eager to join something hard-core, something American."

Cooper concluded: "The gangs just keep on growing. Some kids do get out. Rosa was shot and paralyzed by a rival gang member. Her gang then abandoned her. The deportees, she says, bring nothing but disgrace. 'They come here,' she says, 'and recruit and tell us the rules from L.A., but in the end, we are the ones who suffer.' But for every one who leaves a gang, there are two or three to take their place. A whole generation in El Salvador has come of age enamored with those deported from the U.S., enamored with this violent side of American culture."

Jack Martin, special projects director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), told MediaWatch that Cooper "ignores that the persons in question are not persons that the United States sought out to come to this country. In fact virtually all of them entered alone or with their parents as illegal aliens. While it is surely true that they should have been deported back to El Salvador long ago, perhaps before they became so adept at criminal activity and gang conflict, the fact that they turned to crime in the United States can in no way be accepted by the United States as its fault."

Martin also questioned if violence is the result of "American culture" or El Salvador's civil war: "The segment might have pointed out that the civil strife in El Salvador that some of the deportees were exposed to as children often involved children as combatants. The fact is that the proliferation of gangs in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the United States in recent years is related to the heavy influx of immigrants, primarily but not entirely illegal entrants."

The very next night, ABC's Peter Jennings announced: "Congress passed a series of bills which permitted authorities to deport immigrants, including legal immigrants, who have been convicted of a crime. The laws are very sweeping, and it turns out, very unforgiving." Antonio Mora found the most sympathetic of subjects: "In most ways, Charlie Jaramillo is the ideal immigrant. His parents brought him legally to America from Colombia when he was just a baby. In the 32 years since, he married an American, who is a deaconess at the local church, had two children, and became a successful and respected contractor in West Chester, Pennsylvania. But there is a blemish: eight years ago he was convicted of selling $40 worth of cocaine. He says it was a one-time thing."

Mora elaborated: "After completing five years probation, Jaramillo thought he'd paid his debt to society. But then a few months ago, he decided to become an American citizen. He applied here at the INS office in Philadelphia, admitting he had been convicted of a crime. When he returned for his citizenship test, federal agents were waiting...They handcuffed him and told him the government was deporting him to Colombia, a country whose language he barely speaks."

Despite a lobbying campaign on Jaramillo's behalf, Mora reported: "The outcry over illegal immigration has led to tough laws against all non-citizens, allowing authorities to deport even legal aliens, like Jaramillo, if they've committed one of a wide range of crimes."

Mora allowed a sentence from Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.): "This legislation is to say that we have enough criminals in this country without having to import them." Mora added: "Attorney General Janet Reno is applying the laws strictly, booting out permanent residents for crimes committed years ago."

Mora ended: "In a case similar to Jaramillo's, a federal judge granted two immigrants the right to appeal, calling Reno's position an 'arbitrary abuse of power' that could lead to 'cruelty' to immigrant families. Experts believe the issue will not be resolved until it reaches the Supreme Court, but for the Jaramillos and thousands of other immigrants, that might be too late."

Martin told MediaWatch: "Congress has decided that aliens who are drug pushers, if they were convicted of crimes serious enough to be sentenced to at least one year in prison, are not welcome and should be deported. Prior to last year's reforms, the standard for citizenship ineligibility was whether the alien had committed a 'crime of moral turpitude.' Selling cocaine was such a crime. So, regardless of the change in the law, the alien in this case became deportable at that time. The fact that the INS didn't fulfill its responsibility earlier is hardly a reason they shouldn't do so now."

In both stories, ABC reporters were too busy explaining the dark side of American culture and jurisprudence to explore the costs (both financial and social) criminal aliens impose on American society, or the bad name criminal aliens give to those immigrants who come to America asking for nothing more than the chance to breathe free and make their own way.