Journalists Discuss Reporting on Border, Immigration Issues in Chapman University Panel

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Border Fence beside a road near Nogales, Arizona separating the United States from Mexico.

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Amidst increased nationwide tension around immigration, four journalists spoke about documenting border issues, which they said are misunderstood by a majority of the American population.

The speakers visited Chapman University as part of the “La Frontera/The Border” series presented by the Peace Studies Department, aimed at engaging students and faculty in an ongoing discussion and analysis of the events happening at the U.S.-Mexico border. Recently Patriot Front, a white supremacist group, covered La Frontera’s posters on campus with stickers, in the days leading up to the speaker panel’s Sept. 19 discussion. The panelists used a range of their own experiences to comment on immigration issues.

“People put a lot of emphasis on borders, but borders are always going to fall,” said Gustavo Arellano, a features writer for the Los Angeles Times. He called the border a “joke”  and a creation of governments and xenophobes. Over the years, Arellano covered the border mainly through hate groups and food, saying that food brings cultures together and helps to change nationalist attitudes.

Joe Mathews, editor and columnist for Zócalo Public Square, a nonprofit Los Angeles-based news organization, agreed with Arellano about the emphasis that the government and people put on the border.

“This renders the border as this abstraction, as an issue, a platform to project their hopes, their fears, their bigotries upon,” said Mathews. He also said the border’s significance should be less than it is and that Americans know less about borders than they think they do, which leads to culture clashes.

Historian Maytha Alhassen, a journalist and visiting professor at Chapman, has worked with refugee populations from Turkey to Greece. Alhassen discussed her role as a journalist to tell the stories of those who cannot make their voices heard.

“I’ve been critically thinking about what it means to be in these border spaces that are geographies of human construction and what it means to tell the stories of other people who also have their own voice but rely on you to do the storytelling,” she said.

Alhassen used the question and answer period to urge students to act. “Borders aren’t going to matter when climate change gets at its ugliest – make a big noise about that,” she said.

A.C. Thompson, a senior reporter for New York-based nonprofit newsroom ProPublica, gave audience members insight as to how political attitudes around immigration began.

“It was insane,” said Thompson, referring to the early “cowboy culture” of the Border Patrol, now part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He talked about the original attitudes toward the border, saying that the lack of training and disregard for immigrants has had lasting effects on the organization.

Students in the audience found the panel informative, but not necessarily what they expected.

“I wish there had been more conversation between them,” said Hunter Jowell, a junior political science and peace studies major, about the structure of the event. He was looking forward to a conversation between the panelists about the current situation at the border. Jowell also wanted more discussion of the rise of groups like Patriot Front, especially since incidents like the ones that occurred at Chapman have happened on other campuses, including Cal State Fullerton.

The “La Frontera/The Border” series is set to continue at Chapman through a conference in November. The next event, “Words of Memory and Hope: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust” is being held Sep. 24 in Memorial Hall at 7 p.m. and is open to the public.