The shocking account by the New York Times today (Sunday, Jan. 10) of the death of a Guinean immigrant — and the efforts government officials exerted to cover up the incident — is journalism at its best.
Reading this searing narrative, you can’t help but wonder whether the mistreatment of one isolated African detainee is a single example, or the tip of the iceberg in the way the U.S. Department of Homeland Security handles immigrants under its supervision. That’s an especially urgent question because the Obama Administration, vowing to “clean up” immigrant detention policies, has appointed to lead the reform one of the very same officials who was in on the cover-up. Many of the underlings also implicated in the incident are still on the job and still prevaricating, including public affairs officers who suggested sending the immigrant’s corpse back to Guinea for burial as a way to cover up (pun intended) the death from the prying eyes of reporters.
The Times’ account is also a caution that the news media’s watchdog oversight role, critical to the proper functioning of a free society, is always under threat by organizations and officials who act as if the public has no right to know of their misdeeds. This is an age-old conflict, but there’s real urgency now because of the deteriorating financial condition of American media, which is leading to newsroom staff cuts, the closings of news bureaus, and more canned content. If no one’s minding the store, what’s to prevent mindless bureaucratic bumbling and malfeance to metastasize?
One clear danger, which the Times’ article clearly exposes, is that as the United States becomes increasingly diverse and multi-cultural, our news media (or whatever is left of it) needs to sharpen and broaden its coverage — and understanding — of the flow of the world’s population into and inside this country. We already know that upwards of 20,000 people are illicitly brought to the U.S. through human trafficking networks; thousands more are smuggled across our borders as migrant field hands, and still others, while here legally, exist in near slave-like conditions as they try to earn enough money to send back home.
It’s an ugly underside of the American dream, and without the scrutiny of news media and human rights organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (which helped uncover the records exposing the Guinean immigrant’s death), there will likely be more attempts by government to gloss over or cover up its gross incompetencies. That’s an unacceptable situation, certainly for those whose basic human rights are ignored or violated, and more broadly for all of us who believe we live in the world’s most advanced and civil society.