Watts Grocery edging closer to opening
Quick update: WTVD response on the City Council work session article

"Sanctuary city" rebuked; watch the shell game begin

The City Council addressed Durham's policy on illegal immigration in work session yesterday, and decided to take no action on changing the policy, after new D.P.D. Chief Lopez said, no, the current City Council resolution and D.P.D. policy are consistent with the current practice. The D.P.D. practice currently in effect states that individuals who are not under arrest will not be asked their immigration status, but that those who are arrested will be.

See Ray Gronberg's excellent Herald-Sun piece or Matt Dees' N&O article for more details.

So, this one's over, right? Not quite. Now is the time to get ready for the shell game to begin.

And what game is that? You see, this issue provides a great example of the challenges of narrowcast versus mass media in modern America. Durham's bloggers (BCR included) and the Durham and Raleigh print media have covered this story in depth, discussing the finer points of aligning policy with practice, avoiding liability, etc. Not to mention pointing out, repeatedly, Stith's admonition that this was all about the legalese, and not about sending D.P.D. around to crack-down on illegal immigrants found on the street.

Fast-forward to today. Now, we have visuals -- the Council debating the topic in work session, with policy-change opponents in full force. Now, it's time for the TV media to come out, and give it a 60-second treatment.

And, bless their hearts, WRAL and WTVD have just combined to lower the civic discourse by about 60 IQ points.

WRAL: When Words and Visuals Collide

WRAL did a pretty decent albeit brief job with their coverage of the work session, pointing out a number of important points, based on the web version of their story:

  • The second paragraph notes that the 2003 resolution "prohibits police from targeting people solely on their immigration status," and notes that status is checked if someone is involved in a "serious crime."
  • The article notes that "[m]ost police departments have the same policy" in other cities.
  • The article also quotes Stith with words more or less saying this is not about on-the-street profiling, which is consistent with his clarification statement earlier this week.

Stith_wral So, on the facts, good coverage. But check out the visual on the story, copied at right. What jumps out at you? The headline: "Councilman: Policy Makes Durham 'Sanctuary' for Illegal Immigrants." Nicely bolstered, of course, by an image directly to the right of a Latino family.

Ahh, you can just see the red blood oozing from the raw meat. Intentionally or unintentionally, a person new to the story looks at this and says, "Wow, Durham's a sanctuary for illegal immigration. Hey, this Councilman Stith guy says so."

Don't believe me? Read the comments section at the bottom of the story. The vast majority of comments are of a strongly anti-illegal immigration bent, and demonstrate an appalling, but completely unsurprising, lack of knowledge about the entire topic:

"I think after the murders in Jersey by the illegal immigrant, Durham Mayor Bill Bell said Durham was not a sanctuary city and he want to change that image. I don’t see that happing, do you? In my opinion I think he (Durham Mayor Bill Bell) broke federal law. Durham Mayor Bill Bell doesn’t know if he has once departed immigrants living in his city or other types of criminal. Is he running again for mayor, does he need the illegal immigrants vote, can illegal immigrants vote in Durham? I have email the governor and the mayor of Raleigh with question about where are the sanitary cities, no response. I bet the illegal are voting in North Carolina. This is a federal crime."

    ...or my favorite...


Ahh yes. Durham is trying to become a sanctuary and apparently Thomas Stith is fighting it.

Of course, he never said this. But he's created a media firestorm with visuals and themes that play to the right-wing base. They appear to have turned off many old hands at Durham politics, but how will this play north of the Eno? In South Durham? To the Victoria Peterson fans, who seem attracted in part by her anti-immigrant stand?

WTVD: Why No One Respects TV Newsers, Exhibit #1,429

Now mind you, WRAL's coverage wasn't all that bad per se -- it actually crammed a great deal of facts into a short piece -- but the mere coverage of it attracted the proverbial flies around a dead carcass.

WTVD ABC 11's piece, on the other hand... well, this is just bad reporting. First, the headline: Lopez, Stith Differ on Immigrant Policy. Great -- now we've set this up as a mano a mano debate against two people (titles not cited), and one of them's a Hispanic name?

Folks, this is about as good as the article gets.  Let's continue; my comments are in-line in bold/italics.

The Durham mayor's race continues to heat up. One candidate has raised immigration as a campaign issue, calling the Bull City a "sanctuary city" for illegal immigrants. But Thursday the city council and the new police chief rebuffed Thomas Stith's hope for change. The last sentence in the lede sets up "rebuffed" against "hope for change" -- rather loaded language.

When Durham police holds a license checkpoint or question someone on the street, should they ask people to prove legal residency in the U.S.?

"No, I don't see a reason why," Chief Police Chief Jose Lopez.

The above two paragraphs set this up as a debate as to whether the Durham P.D. should or should not ask about immigration status during pre-arrest stops. Stith never proposed changing this practice. The rest of the Council never proposed changing this practice. But apparently, Durham's new Latino police chief has an opinion all his own on the subject that's more important than those facts. And remember, we know from the headline this is all Stith v. Lopez. So, I'm sure Stith would support such checkpoints. Right?

Lopez, the new police chief, agrees with a city council resolution passed four years ago. But council member Thomas Stith has said that rule brands Durham as a "sanctuary city" for illegal immigrants.  There's no information about what that resolution states. No mention of the fact that Stith voted for that resolution and doesn't want to change current practice. As read here, Stith seems opposed to the current practice. Again, inaccurate.

"We needed to modify it for lack of a better word, for clarity," Lopez said.  Needed to modify what? Lopez, according to every other press account, opposed 'modifying' anything in the policy.

Stith wanted the policy changed and a deputy police chief agreed on Monday. But in front of dozens of immigration activists who flooded City Hall Thursday the new police chief did not agree.   Again, here we are with the man-to-man opposition: Some guy named Lopez, backed by lots of immigration activists, backs down Stith and Hodge.


Stith said his effort is to help stop crime, not immigration.  

"We are a sanctuary for civil rights, for law abiding citizens," Stith said. "We are a sanctuary for people who are moving forward and prospering. That's not what this debate for me is about."

The Durham City Council did not support Stith, but the councilman is correct about a contradiction.

The city has a written rule that police are not to ask anyone, under any circumstances, about their immigration status. But the new chief did say officer might ask immigration status of someone who is a criminal suspect.

First of all, the "written rule" has been broadly discussed, here and in other forums, and while opinions disagree -- it is in no way clear that the existing rule does prohibit such questions of individuals who are under arrest, a point we've addressed here since coverage began last Saturday. Claiming the councilman is "correct" about something is, frankly, either shoddy reporting or bias. I'm guessing the former, given the preponderance of evidence to that effect elsewhere in the piece.

Second, and much more importantly, the article implies this Lopez guy "might" do something about immigration issues for someone "who is a criminal suspect." No mention of the fact that such activities have been the status quo for several years.

If you have concerns over the coverage of the story by WTVD, I'd suggest you email the news director or director of web operations. Based on past correspondence with WTVD personnel, I believe this is the reporter's email address. If I get any feedback from any of them on this story, I'll post it in the comments.

Predictable: John Locke Goes Hobbesian on Immigration

Finally, to no surprise to anyone, the John Locke Foundation blog is spinning the issue as a 'slippery slope' for immigration, and changing the game. No longer is this about City policy vs. police practice. Suddenly, it's about, "Hey, why shouldn't we be asking people on the street their immigration practice, huh?"

The Durham City Council today basked in PC glory as they decided that asking illegals if they are illegal is just, well, not a feel-good thing to do. New Police Chief Jose Lopez Sr. concurred. ... The advocates at City Hall today said they were satisfied with the police asking about immigration status when someone is arrested or is involved in a criminal investigation. But that’s just for now. Once you’re headed down the slippery slope, it’s hard to stop.

Of course, none of this reflects the actual debate, since stopping individuals and asking them their immigration status was never in question. Stith never proposed that, though his robo-calls sure were misleading.

But hey, why let facts get in the way of pretty good rhetoric?

Why This Matters

This whole issue of media coverage matters because it all manages to give mayoral candidate Stith what I suspect he was after from day one: a public perception of being "tough on immigration."  An issue that, as people like Victoria Peterson and John Best have shown, does resonate with segments of the community.

There's been lots of nuanced coverage of the facts behind the issue -- and what this issue is, and is not, about -- in print and on the blogs (if I do say so myself to the latter point.) But the former reaches an attractive but shrinking audience. And while BCR's readership is literally growing weekly, it still amounts to only about a couple thousand hits a day, from about 5,000 unique individuals per month (most of whom are in the Triangle).

I'd wager more people saw or will see/read WTVD's coverage of the subject in 48 hours' time than will read any blog -- Durham-focused or otherwise -- in two weeks' time.

Durham voters should know what the issues are, now what they're voting on. TV news watchers just walked away with a very different opinion of what Thomas Stith is trying to do than what he's actually trying to do. And this is before WPTF and other conservative outlets try to jump on the story.

Perhaps the Hizonner-in-campaigning could make robo-calls to voters to correct their misconceptions and clarify his policy, or send out mailers. After all, WTVD at least got his stand dead wrong.

Somehow, I'm not holding my breath.



Sad to say, this issue is indeed resonating with some voters. We may be overwhelming Democratic in Durham, but our more conservative Dems are perilously close to Republicans on issues like this. Politicos worry about the immigration issue causing black voters to leave the Dem Party but I see it as more of a problem with white voters on the right end of the scale around these here parts.

What I'd like to know is why no one has raised more of a stink about basic civil rights here. Have we really sunk so low as a country and been so beaten down by the past 8 years that it's now acceptable to even consider, as legitimate, the idea of allowing people to be stopped by the police and required to produce proof of citizenship papers? Hello?! Are we in Nazi-occupied France?

Oh, wait, if we were, the wine would be a lot better...

Elizabeth T.

I was up all night with the stomach virus (I know, too much information!) and got to see the WTVD report several times. Each time I saw it, I got more angry. The impression conveyed was even less nuanced than the story online because it was such a short piece.

Michael Bacon

There's another interesting angle to this. Durham has over 200,000 citizens, probably somewhere around 130,000 that are eligible to vote. But in any municipal election, particularly city elections where there's no federal or state races, we don't usually see more than 30,000 votes or so. And, as has been demonstrated repeatedly in the past, a lot of those folks at least pay attention to the endorsement slates, even if they don't follow them faithfully every time.

Will the TV news coverage move some of these folks? Possibly, but I'm not clear how much. I think the majority of reliable voters in Durham dig a little deeper than your average TV news watcher. As for the others, will they even remember who was saying what by the time the election rolls around?


Thanks for the thoughtful media critique. On something of a crass note, or at least a potential cheap shot, the comments on the WRAL piece that you selected brought to mind a classic Simpsons episode that takes on the issue of illegal immigrants. Mayor Quimby (perhaps standing in for Councilman Stith), when considering how to deal with a mob up in arms over high taxes to fund a bear patrol program, notes that "dodging this issue will take real leadership" and then proceeds to blame high taxes on illegal immigrants. Moe the bartender quips "Immigants (sic), I knew it was them! Even when it was the bears, I knew it was them." Indeed. Here's hoping Durham maintains its "sanitary" city status...


As the parent of children of US Citizen's who are also of Hispanic Desent, I am deeply concerned with the idea of Durham law enforcement being pushed in the direction of Immigration Enforcement or inquiry of any kind.

It is disgusting that any Politician would play political football with an issue that destroys the lives of local citizens. Having a hand in the disruption of a mixed status family containing US Citizen family members is morally reprehensible.

It is a bad idea for many reasons to be advocating for the local police in Durham to enforce immigration law. If we want to take a lesson on where this will lead we need only look at NY. This week a law suit was filed against ICE (the fugitive operations team of Department of Homeland Security)

Suprisingly LEGAL US CITIZENS OF HISPANIC DESENT are having thier civil rights violated by the Feds!!! Sounds like racial motivation, looks like racial motivation... perhaps it is racial motivation?

ICE Officers operating in NY are being accused in the lawsuit with "targeting" Latinos. The suit stems from several cases where US Citizens who are Hispanic have had thier doors bashed down in warrantless pre-dawn raids looking for illegal aliens. The families and particularly young children are being terrorized. Many have been handcuffed, dragged to local police departments and interrogated. Then when it is established that they are legal US Citizens they are dumped on a street corner in thier pajamas to figure out how to get home. I predict this will end badly for ICE officers.

Durham Police should avoid being caught up in this mob mentality, we cannot afford another law suit.

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