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Life in the shadows

April 22, 2008 |  6:00 am

Illegal_immigration_series_2 The Life in the Shadow series has since mid-March been examining the impact of illegal immigration on the region and its residents, and the stories have tried to capture the day-to-day realities of life for those here illegally. The series complements the paper's continuing coverage of the debate over legislative reforms, and the effect of illegal immigration in the state and nation. The effort to reach and reflect the region has extended to having the articles published online in both English and Spanish.

Both the series and translations have brought, predictably, strong reaction.

Four articles have been part of the series: The Column One on March 12 about a woman, in the U.S. illegally, who makes a living by collecting cans and bottles (it's in Spanish here, and there was an earlier posting on this journal). The front-page piece on March 23 about how those who wash cars are often here illegally and get paid under the table -- many times being shortchanged in the process (the translation). The April 2 story, also a Column One, on how families can be divided after someone here illegally dies (the Spanish version).

And the most recent, on April 13, which focused on two young illegal immigrants whose liver transplants were paid for by the state, but whose treatment costs when they turned 21 went to L.A. County -- which doesn't have the resources to cover additional transplants.

Passionate responses include thank yous, such as this from Frank Galvan of Los Angeles in reaction to the April 2 piece: "I appreciated your article on the traumas many undocumented workers face when dealing with a death of a loved one.  Your article helped put a human face on a population which is too often only considered by many to be just a 'problem' for the United States."

And there are objections, such as this from David Duron of Yucaipa, who wrote, "Your penchant for writing sympathetic stories about the 'plight' of illegal aliens has driven me over the brink. I tolerated the reports until I read the article about liver transplants. That was the last straw." And half of the 400 comments offered by readers as online postings were too filled with profanity to be used.

The editor of the series, Carlos Lozano, is aware of comments like Duron's, but says that the paper would not be doing its job if it wrote about illegal immigration without including the people at the center of the controversy. "I realize that some readers would prefer that we write about illegal immigration in the abstract or simply as an issue story," says Lozano. "But it is also a human story. And once you introduce a real human being, things tend to get more complicated. We make a conscious effort to remove any traces of  sentimentality from each story and to keep it balanced."

An example he cites was this passage, in the most recent story: "[Ana] Puente's case highlights two controversial issues: Should illegal immigrants receive liver transplants in the U.S. and should taxpayers pick up the cost?" The story went on to say, " 'All transplants are about rationing,' said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which favors stricter controls on immigration. 'I just don't think the public ought to be funding any kind of benefits for people who are breaking the law."

To those who believe the purpose of the coverage was to show sympathy toward its subjects, Lozano points out, "Most readers probably didn't even know that illegal immigrants qualified for taxpayer-funded organ transplants in the U.S. until we told them. As a result of the story, I'm sure there are probably going to be changes in the way Medi-Cal works."

When it comes to The Times' offering translations of this coverage, Edward Ruelas of downtown Los Angeles was among some two dozen who reacted this way: "If I wanted to read the news articles in Spanish, I'd buy La Opinion... KEEP THE L.A. TIMES IN ENGLISH! I understand the market you’re trying to tap -- ME. Second-generation bilingual Hispanics. Some may like your approach but I want my La Opinion in Spanish & L.A. Times in English. It's that simple."

David Lauter, as editor of California, gave the green light to get the translations online. The translations come from Tribune-owned Hoy, which also publishes some Times articles. Anna Gorman's first story, on the woman who collects bottles for a living, prompted a request from a local radio station for an interview. Because La Nueva 101.9, and the Eddie "Piolin" Sotelo show, have Spanish-speaking audiences, Gorman said it made sense to offer the story in Spanish. The effort to appeal to more readers, including the large percentage of those who read primarily in Spanish, has worked, as evidenced by a score of e-mails Gorman received in Spanish.

Lozano hopes to run at least one "Life in the Shadows" story every two months as part of the paper's overall coverage of the topic of immigration , which he notes is fascinating -- and complex: "We are definitely seeing tougher enforcement at the border and for the first time ever employers are being held accountable for their hiring practices. But at the same time, both a Republican- and a Democratic-controlled Congress have failed to come up with a plan to deal with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already here. So who are they? And how do they manage to survive in this increasingly hostile environment? That's a good story."

Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez, Los Angeles Times, of Ana Puente, 21, who is waiting for her fourth liver transplant. Puente is an undocumented immigrant.