Covering the border — getting beyond the bluster, a panel discussion

Endemic poverty, gang violence and cartel shakedowns force tens of thousands of Mexicans and Central and South Americans to flee their homes annually for the relative safety of the United States. That story is well-known among many Americans. What is less understood is the history behind the chaos and the deep-seated economic issues south of the U.S. border that trap people in marginalized lives.

Those were the conclusions of an hour-and-a-half panel discussion hosted by the Press Club of Long Island on Oct. 30 at Herald Community Newspapers in Garden City, titled, “Getting Beyond the Bluster: Straight Talk on Covering the Border.”

DSC_0458Photo by Scott Brinton/PCLI
Mario Murillo, vice dean of and professor of Latin American studies and communication at Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication, spoke of the U.S.’s long history of “white supremacy,” which has led to today’s polarized politics of race.  

The panel comprised:

• Mario Murillo, vice dean of and professor of Latin American studies and communication at Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication.

Víctor Manuel Ramos, a special writer with Newsday, who has covered immigration and diverse communities on Long Island since 2011.  

• Nadya Nataly, editor of the Freeport Herald Leader.

• Ronny Reyes, assistant editor of the Glen Cove Herald Gazette.

Keith Herbert, a Newsday investigative reporter who is PCLI’s vice president and chairman of its Diversity Committee, moderated the discussion. PCLI President Scott Brinton arranged the talk with Herbert.

Too many Americans, Murillo said, suffer from a “profound lack of history” regarding Central and South America. American interventionist policies in the region — in particular, in the civil wars and revolutions of the late 1970s and into the ’80s — led to power vacuums that bred lawlessness, allowing drug cartels to arise as major international players, and with them came powerful street gangs.

At times, Reyes said, gangs have been exported from the U.S. into Central America, as was the case with Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, which formed in Los Angeles during the late ’70s and ’80s. When members were deported to El Salvador following the Salvadoran Civil War in 1992, the gang grew rapidly there, transforming into a network of gangs that eventually spread from San Salvador to New York City and beyond.

All four panelists agreed that telling the stories of individuals to illustrate the deeper issues faced by the people of Central and South America and Mexico is critical to reporting. Readers must hear their voices, Ramos said, noting, “That’s really my priority.”


DSC_0461.JPGPhoto by Scott Brinton/PCLI
Victor Manuel Ramos, a special writer with Newsday.

Herald reporter Nicole Alcindor asked what the panelists might tell a conservative thinker who says Central and South Americans and Mexicans should get in line with everyone else coming to the U.S. legally, rather than crossing the border as undocumented immigrants.

DSC_0465.JPGPhoto by Scott Brinton/PCLI
Murillo, left, with Herald Community Newspaper staffers Nadya Nataly and Ronny Reyes.

Money is the reason they cannot line up, Reyes said. They have no money to apply for visas to enter the U.S. A visa from Colombia costs $320, Murillo said. That translates to more than a million Colombian pesos, roughly a year of salary for the average Colombian. Faced by the very real possibility of murder or rape by narco-gangs, good people flee, hoping and praying for a better life in America, becoming strangers in a strange land, living in the shadows in an underground economy in which they are often subject to abuse here.

Telling their stories helps to build empathy among Americans, the panelists agreed.


IMG_0455.jpgPhoto by Scott Brinton/PCLI
Roughly 15 people attended the talk at Herald Community Newspapers. 

Helping readers understand their plight is a struggle, however, panelists said. The current polarized political climate, in which the politics of race play an outsized role, are making that struggle increasingly difficult. The U.S. was “built on white supremacy,” Murillo said, adding that is an often forgotten or ignored history.

Its reverberations, though, can be seen today in President Trump’s Muslim ban and his policy of separating children from their parents at the southern border when they are caught attempting to enter the U.S. as undocumented immigrants, panelists said. Murillo called it “white fright.”

Separation of families “is not new,” Nataly said. It is a policy dating back years. “This administration,” however, “has taken it to new heights.”

Most important, she said, “we have to understand why” people are leaving Central and South America and Mexico for the U.S.

IMG_0456.jpgPhoto by Scott Brinton/Herald
Newsday investigative reporter Keith Herbert, right, moderated the panel discussion. He is pictured with Nataly and Reyes.


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