Calif. Rep. Says Immigration Issue Misunderstood

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Congresswoman Hilda Solis (D-Ca) explains why she believes many Americans don't understand the actual effects of immigration. She partly blames the media for spreading misinformation. Solis explains her strategy for changing public opinion and why she's made immigration a central issue of her congressional service.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Just ahead, our money coach Alvin Hall continues our series, Investing 101. Today he's going to talk about building a portfolio, what that means, and how to do it. And we have our monthly visit with the book lady. American Library Association President Loriene Roy is back with some books to celebrate Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.

But first, a newsmaker interview with Congresswoman Hilda Solis of California. A Democrat, she was elected to the U.S. House in the year 2000. Her career has featured a series of firsts. She was the first Latina elected to the California State Senate. She sponsored what's considered the first environmental justice law passed in the country. And she was the first woman to win a John F. Kennedy Profile and Courage Award for that work. Most recently she's been speaking out about what she considers biased news coverage of the immigration issue. Congresswoman Solis joins us today from California. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Representative HILDA SOLIS (Democrat, California): Hi, Michel. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm great. Thank you so much for coming in. I'd like to begin by talking to you about immigration, specifically illegal immigration. It's a huge issue for the country. Last week you were part of a group of members who wanted to showcase a report by a media watchdog group. It said that certain cable news shows anchored by Lou Dobbs, Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck consistently present illegal immigrants in a negative light. That's by the group called Media Matters. It's a liberal watchdog group. Now it's not unusual for politicians not to like news coverage, but it is unusual for them to single out specific shows and anchors. So why did you think that was important?

Representative SOLIS: Well, I joined in with Media Matters, an action network made up of different organizations. And I think it was at that point, I guess, where members of Congress said, you know, we finally have some factual information that's being presented by, we think, a very reputable group. In fact, what we found in reading the report was that during 2007 Lou Dobbs' program alleged 72 times that undocumented immigrants drained social services and don't pay taxes. That's very misleading because, as we know, undocumented people are prohibited from receiving any federal aid right now. That's been the law since 1996.

In fact, you have to wait five years even if you are a legal, permanent resident to receive any kind of assistance. And in many cases, immigrants - or undocumented, in this case - are very fearful of going into a doctor, a clinic and utilizing services because they are very, very intimidated by government officials. So, much of the information that we found presented in this report, I think really helped to shed light and clarify what the statistics are. In fact, hate crime is growing in the Latino community against Latinos. In fact, we saw in a report also issued that in November of 2007 the FBI said that there was an increase of anti-Latino crimes in 2004 by 25 percent.

MARTIN: Are you saying, though, that you feel that cable news shows, these three shows which were the ones highlighted in this report, are responsible for an increase in hate crimes?

Representative SOLIS: They help to incite that uneasiness. And because they repeat these stories over and over again, there's a tendency for people to believe, in many cases, the information that's being presented. And granted, if you do that repeatedly most people will say, well, gee, maybe it's true. And unfortunately these three different cable programs have been the ones that have been most forceful in breeding this kind of anti-immigrant sentiment. And it isn't just towards Latinos.

It's also towards people of color who may look even Middle Eastern or even African-American. But what's really notable here is that the increase against Latinos overall. So you could even be here as a citizen, naturalized citizen, legal permanent resident, and you in some cases will still be profiled in a negative light. And that's what we're trying to say, to call that out.

MARTIN: But how do you know that? How do you know that they and the way they talk about these issues are responsible for that kind of conduct? I think the report makes two points. One is that these programs emphasize the issue of illegal immigration to a great degree. It said that 70 percent of the 2007 episodes contained discussion of illegal immigration. That was Lou Dobbs' program. Fifty-six percent of the 2007 episodes on "The O'Reilly Factor" discussed it. And Glenn Beck, 28 percent.

But it also says that they present this issue in a predominantly negative light in criticizing illegal immigrants. But how do you know that simply because they're very concerned with this issue, that they are in fact responsible for promoting hostile behavior toward people?

Representative SOLIS: Well, some of what they're saying is inaccurate. I mean, there have been reports by these news organizations, so-called fair and balanced news organizations, that undocumented immigrants are spreading leprosy and all kinds of diseases. And in fact, there's no verifiable evidence to show that. So I really do think that the way that media - and we know how manipulative media can be in certain cases unless they're held accountable. And that's all we're asking here, that there be accountability, that there be a balance here as well, that there also be a promotion of positive aspects of what immigrants have really brought to this country.

And in this case, in the southwest we have a majority of Mexican descent undocumented or immigrants. And we just feel that there should be more of a balanced approach. I think with time this might happen. We've actually seen an increase in economic strength in communities that have been left blighted. Traditionally in the last few years low income, say, low-skilled immigrant workers are coming in and helping to revitalize, even, our own cities here in California where I live in the San Gabriel Valley. And also immigrant populations from China and other places are helping to revive our communities. So I think that people are saying, you know, enough is enough.

In fact, 70 to 65 percent of the population when asked, how do you feel about immigration? Many, once they hear what the facts are, say that they are in support of comprehensive immigration reform. Granted, no one gets in front of the line, they get in back of the line, they pay a fine, they have to go through a criminal background check, they also have to pay a fee and learn in English. I think with all those aspects, people are saying, you know what? There's nothing wrong with that.

MARTIN: But what kind of accountability are you talking about? For example, this is not the first time that particularly some lawmakers have weighed in on a media issue. Earlier in the year the Congressional Hispanic Caucus also weighed in on Ken Burns' documentary about the war saying that they don't feel that the Latino experience was adequately covered. Some people raise the question, is it really appropriate for elected officials to be trying to shape news coverage? Isn't that a slippery slope?

Representative SOLIS: I don't know that we're really trying to shape it. I think what we're saying is be balanced about it. Show the other side of the evidence and report accurately. And I think that that's really where we're going. Why don't we see more Latinos in the media? Why don't you see any commentators that can talk about our positive experience? Why does it always have to be shown in a negative light or used whenever there's a crime - Latino origin, or something that really depicts color and ethnicity, as opposed to a person? And I think that, you know, this is a civil rights issue. And obviously profiling of people because of their race or their color I think is very bad. And I would hope that our country would move forward, that we be more objective, and that we really look at information in its totality.

In fact, I just want to share something. I'm a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee on the Subcommittee on Health, and we had hearings that were - two years ago - that were run by the Republican majority, and they wanted to try to make the case that Latino, undocumented Latinos, were over-utilizing our health care services. Well, we found out, in effect, that what was happening is, these regulations that the administration was proposing was actually putting off people who were U.S. citizens from obtaining aid assistance in the health care system. Predominantly low-income blacks and low-income whites. And part of it was because they were not able to get birth certificates. Many of them were born many years ago in their homes through midwives. There was no documentation or, say, for example, people that went through Hurricane Katrina lost all their paperwork. And how are you supposed to provide and get that information when you don't have the financial means to get it, but also because you've been moving around quite a bit.

MARTIN: Sure.

Representative SOLIS: And that's typical of what happens in our society.

MARTIN: Congresswoman, excuse me, I have to interrupt for just one second to say, if you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News, and I'm speaking with Congresswoman Hilda Solis. I wanted to talk a little bit about your environmental work. You were one of the first national political leaders to make the connection between the environment and the civil rights issue. And I still wanted to ask you, first of all, how it is that you made that connection, as quickly as you can tell us, since you've had such a long involvement in it? But if you could...

Representative SOLIS: It's a matter of where I grew up, Michel. It's a matter of where I grew up. I grew up in San Gabriel Valley in a town next to at that time the second largest landfill in the country. Now it is the largest. It's called the Los Angeles Sanitation District. And of course, we're finding now evidence to show that where you put your garbage seeps into your water table. And there are many different contaminants, airborne as well as in the water and soil. These do have detrimental effects. We find it also in army bases where you find rocket fuel that's injected, for whatever reason, into our soil that penetrates our water table.

People can get cancer. People can have serious respiratory diseases. And we find that in communities that are low income, that are predominantly, you know, struggling. And what we try to do in this legislation, Environmental Justice, we say, you know what? Let's level the playing field here. Let's make sure that no community is harmed because of economics or because of educational level. And this was, in part, an idea that was introduced by President Clinton back in 1994. And so we took that executive order that he put forward and put some teeth behind it. And we were the first state, in California, to adopt that.

It took three years lobbying against big business, big corporations, big polluters, big chemical corporations, but we finally got it in law. And after that, about 20 to 30 other states adopted the same type of legislation. And now at the federal level we're trying to institute this so that there's much more meaningful implementation of the law. In fact, the Senate has a companion bill, like mine, that's been sponsored by Senator Hillary Clinton.

MARTIN: Congresswoman, just one more question. We only have a minute left. But it says up here that as a political leader of color you seem to be one of the few that are very high-profile. It does seem to me that this is an issue that many people of color have difficulty engaging in. Is there an environmental issue that you most wish you could get the public to focus on, particularly the diverse communities that you represent? Just a minute if you will.

Representative SOLIS: I think that asthma and obesity have a lot to do with where we live. The lack of open space, the fact that we have contaminants in the air, respiratory diseases, contaminated water. All those factors need to be looked at. And we need to look at it in a more global area sphere in terms of health care, because if you don't take care of the health care these people are going to end up expending more money when they have to go to a trauma unit.

And if we do these preventive measures, I think we can curtail and prolong people's lives. We can prolong their lives. You know, bring about a better quality of life for them, but also clean up some of these blighted neighborhoods that have been left on their own. In Washington, D.C., where I also work, you find that there really has to be a lot more attention paid not just to minority communities but to low-income communities. This also affects low-income rural populations, as well.

MARTIN: Sure.

Representative SOLIS: So, my voice is really to try to speak to everyone on this issue, not just as a Latina.

MARTIN: And we hope we'll hear that voice again on this program. Congresswoman Hilda Solis represents California's 32nd Congressional District. She joined us from member station KPCC in Pasadena, California. Congresswoman, thank you so much for your time.

Representative SOLIS: Thank you, Michel.

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