Editor’s Note: In response to questions from our publisher and editorial team regarding recent immigration stories by the Associated Press, the following memo from the AP dated March 24 was shared with our publisher/editor Julio Ricardo Varela. News of this memo was first reported in a Washington Post Opinions piece our publisher wrote on March 25. As a service to our readers, fellow journalists and editors interested in how to cover immigration stories, we are sharing the full memo here. Latino Rebels pays for an AP subscription and has been publishing AP stories since 2019.
From the Standards Center: A note about the current increase in border entrances
With immigration and the border back in the news, it is especially imperative for the AP to consistently use accurate and neutral language in its coverage along with giving proper context to border numbers given the political rhetoric on the topic.
There has been a rise in unaccompanied minors crossing the southwestern U.S. border in the last two months since the start of the Biden administration. This follows a monthly increase in border crossings each month since April, or the last eight months of the Trump presidency. The current level of crossings in 2021 is roughly equal to the last upturn that occurred in mid-2019.
Migration has waxed and waned in recent years. The variability is tied to changes in economic and political conditions in the countries of origin and in the United States, as people decide whether the opportunities and risks justify making the attempt to try to cross into the United States. Some believe that the current increase is a product of regular seasonal fluctuation.
Currently, many migrants turn themselves in to border officials, aiming to apply for asylum. Unaccompanied minors are generally released to sponsors after some time in government custody, often to parents or other relatives, pending asylum applications. Single adults are generally expelled under pandemic-related authority, continuing a policy of the Trump administration that relied on a public health law. Cases involving families are handled in a more mixed manner.
Here is more detail: In March 2020, the Trump administration invoked pandemic-related powers that let it suspend immigration laws at the border, including the right to seek asylum. The government can immediately expel people under “Title 42” authority, named for a section of a public health law. “Expulsions” carry no legal consequences, unlike a “deportation,” which can result in felony prosecution for repeat offenders and bars on entering the country legally through marriage or other means.
Here are some tips to language to use and not use:
“Crisis” The current event in the news —a sharp increase in the arrival of unaccompanied minors— is a problem for border officials, a political challenge for Biden and a dire situation for many migrants who make the journey, but it does not fit the classic dictionary definition of a crisis, which is: “A turning point in the course of anything; decisive or crucial time, stage, or event,” OR “a time of, or a state of affairs involving, great danger or trouble, often one which threatens to result in unpleasant consequences [an economic crisis] —SYN. Emergency.” Therefore, we should avoid, or at the least, be highly cautious, about referring to the present situation as a crisis on our own, although we may quote others using that language.
If using the word “crisis,” we need to ask of what and to whom. There could be a humanitarian crisis if the numbers grow so large that officials cannot house the migrants safely or in sanitary conditions. Migrants may face humanitarian crises in their home countries. In theory, there could be a security or a border crisis if officials lose control of the border, allowing people to enter unencumbered in large numbers. But, in general, avoid hyperbole in calling anything a crisis or an emergency.
Because migration is such a hot-button issue, we also should try to avoid imagery conjuring war or natural disaster, which could portray migrants as a negative, harmful influence. Avoid emotive words like onslaught, tidal wave, flood, inundation, surge, invasion, army, march, sneak and stealth.
Rather, let’s be as neutral as possible while backing up our characterizations with numbers and facts. So, for example, Biden is contending with the largest number of migrant encounters at the border since a four-month streak in 2019. It is the among the largest number of unaccompanied children encountered at the border on record. Overcrowded detention facilities that have sent U.S. authorities scrambling for space and prompted the administration to dispatch FEMA to the border.
Using words like rise, increase, upturn, uptick, fall, decrease or downturn is legitimate to describe the change in numbers of people entering across the border as long as it is supported by facts, but try to be precise about what time period these terms refer to and, again, provide details and context. Here are two useful links: our explainer and hard numbers.
Also keep in mind the broader picture. The new U.S. policy under Biden has been to not deport back minor children because of unsafe conditions for them in Mexico. Some of these asylum seekers face danger of gangs and violence in their home countries, which is why they are trying to get to the United States to seek a new life. In addition to violence and lack of economic opportunity, devastation from last year’s hurricane season, other natural disasters and the effects of climate change are also among reasons why some are immigrating.
Lastly, reporters should think twice —three times— about any characterizations and ask questions if they are uncertain.
We should mention in our stories that the Biden administration has clamped down on journalists’ access to the border operations and to the holding centers for migrants, making it harder to know the reality of what is going on at the border. It has canceled the long practice of “ride-alongs” for journalists with border agents. Mentioning this reality helps explain the gaps in what we know and why.
In making decisions on language to use in our stories we should consult with people of a variety of backgrounds and opinions and consider a wide range of viewpoints and criteria.
The same applies to our coverage: We should explore widely all perspectives on this controversial issue. That means getting input from the migrants themselves, NGOs, residents along the border, those who oppose any increase in immigration and who want stepped-up border enforcement as well as those who would rather see a more permissive border regime. At the same time, we should be mindful of misinformation and to think through which quotes we are using to ensure that we are not repeating factual misinformation in quotes or soundbites and provide fact-checking as part of the story.
The United States historically has taken in more immigrants than any country in the world, and debates on the proper level of immigration to permit have been engaging experts and policymakers for decades. In other words, the current situation at the border is just one chapter in a continuing saga.
That said, the laws, policies and practices around this issue are a vital question for AP to explore in depth, and in a sober, fair, inclusive, respectful and balanced way.
Thank you to the members of the Washington bureau, the immigration reporting beat team and the inclusivity champions who contributed to this guidance.