Readers' Representative Journal

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"Scavenging to survive in Pasadena"

March 18, 2008 |  6:01 am


Brian Kruid of La Palma asked about the March 12 Column One that featured a woman, in this country illegally, who collects cans and bottles for a living. Juana Rivas, who lives in Pasadena, recycles the empty containers for cash, money that helps keep her family of six afloat.

Kruid started by saying that he thought the story was well written, "and certainly brought out the seemingly intended 'emotional' sense to the reader." But he went on: "Was this just another one of the ever-popular 'find a downtrodden individual and showcase how hard their life is to make everybody feel bad and want to do something to help' journalistic approach? Was this intended to push me into a certain political sphere regarding illegal immigration? Is this news?"

Other readers said they felt as if the Times was "promoting illegal immigration." A few said they thought that Rivas should be turned in to immigration officials; one said that she feared that The Times' writing about her by name would lead to her deportation.

Roger Smith, one of the editors of Column One, responds to some of the questions that came from readers reacting to The Times story that was headlined "Scavenging to survive in Pasadena."

Why report on people who are here illegally?

Illegal immigration is one of the most emotional topics we deal with as a newspaper.  People are breaking the law to get here, and frequently breaking other laws to stay here. The size of the illegal immigrant population is alarming, on many levels.  Municipal, state and federal resources are being drained in many communities to pay for the educational and health needs of illegal immigrant families.

Yet illegal immigrants are also real people, working in the shadows of society in ways we don't often see or understand.

So the purpose of undertaking a story such as 'Scavenging' is to try to cast light in the shadows, and make some sense of these conflicting forces. In the case of Juana Rivas, we found someone who is breaking the law, tapping into municipal resources, and also helping her family in a way that reminds us of the dignity and worthiness of hard work.  As the story pointed out in the 17th paragraph, her story mirrors the contradictions that make illegal immigration such a flash point. We hoped that by delving deeply into the life of such an illegal immigrant, we could contribute some light rather than just heat to the debate.

Why didn't The Times turn her in to the authorities?

We see our job as chroniclers of events, not enforcers of the law.  At the same time, readers who sympathize with Juana Rivas worry that we exposed her to possible deportation. Our feeling on that was that once Rivas cooperated with the story, our obligation was to tell it as fully as possible, abiding by our agreement with her not to use her address.

Why do you tell stories like this that seem intended to strike emotional chords? 

I think that is the byproduct of intensely personal reporting, in which the writer is observing the subject directly as opposed to relying on third parties or experts to illuminate a trend. In this case, the reporting follows a narrative, and pretty soon in the course of reading it we start seeing things from Juana Rivas' point of view.  Knowing that, we also made sure to report where she broke the law, how she paid little or no taxes, how she was costing Pasadena money.  Such insertions balance the story intellectually but not emotionally.  We felt we had to risk that in order to tell this particular story.   How do we balance coverage of illegal immigration on an emotional level?  We tried to do it in separate stories, reporting on the frustration of a volunteer border watcher (“A watcher sees the divide,” June 23 2007) or the hard training and dedication of border patrol agents (“Crossing Guards in Training”  Oct. 19, 2006).  We would welcome suggestions on additional possibilities.

Photo by Anne Cusack