Coming to America
Television journalist Jorge Ramos, the author of the book Dying to Cross, on immigration reform and being called the “voice of the voiceless.”
A brief numerical synopsis of Jorge Ramos’ successful journalism career reads something like this: five wars covered, seven books written, seven Emmy awards won, and nineteen years as lead anchor for Noticiero Univision, a nightly news show watched by approximately 98 percent of the 40 million Spanish households in the United States. All of this, plus a daily radio commentary and weekly newspaper column, by the young age of 47.
Ramos is many things to the U.S. Hispanic community, most certainly a household name: The Miami Herald says he’s “bigger than Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw” because his newscast ratings consistently trump all other networks in Miami, San Francisco, and Houston. He’s as influential as Oprah: The book club he started in 2002 regularly catapults his three monthly recommendations into Spanish-language best-sellers. He’s the face of a changing nation: Ramos came to the United States from Mexico with a student visa in 1983, and his own immigrant experience has focused his reportorial eye on the plight of what he calls the country’s “second wave” of immigrants.
In his latest book, Dying to Cross (excerpted in Texas Monthly’s pages this month), Ramos recounts the “worst immigrant tragedy in American history”—the harrowing tale of the deaths of nineteen Mexican immigrants crammed into a sweltering truck trailer that was abandoned near Victoria, Texas.
texasmonthly.com: Tell me about the book. How long did you work on it? How many interviews did you conduct?
Jorge Ramos: The book actually started with a television program that we did about a year and a half ago, and through the program, I had the opportunity to interview many of the survivors of this tragedy, including the mother of the five-year-old who died in the truck. I had direct access to many of the people who actually lived through the agony of being in the truck for those four hours, but also with many of the politicians involved in the investigation and some of the families who learned later on that their husbands and brothers and friends had died.
texasmonthly.com: Were they open to talking? Were any hesitant to talk to you?
JR: All of the survivors were undocumented immigrants—though the U.S. government has granted them residency while the trials go on—and right at the beginning they were very reluctant and afraid of speaking to anyone, officials or reporters, because they didn’t know what was going to happen to their immigration status. But after that was resolved, they were very open in telling me, in detail, what they went through during those four hours and how they got into the U.S. Mostly I talked with four of them who were not only willing to talk to me at length about what happened but were also willing to go back to a truck that was exactly like the one they were in and relive with me for the television program and for the book their experience. That was a shocking, dramatic experience because they had no idea how difficult it was going to be for them to relive what they went through.
texasmonthly.com: What spurred you on to investigate this particular tragedy?
JR: The most important thing to remember is that this is one of the worst tragedies involving immigrants ever to happen in the U.S. Never in the past has there been nineteen immigrants who’ve died in a tragedy like this. It set a precedent. And we have never seen an investigation in which the U.S. government has looked for the death penalty for some of those implicated in this [type of] crime. It seems that the U.S. government wanted to make an example of this case. They looked for the coyotes, or human traffickers, in ways in which I’ve never seen before—no expenses were spared and many of them were even found in Mexico. Thirdly, and very importantly, this case highlights the tragedy of undocumented immigrants coming to this country and dying. Every single day on average one immigrant dies at the border, so every year we have between 350 and 400 immigrants dying at the border, trying to cross.
It is much more difficult to cross the border because of new security measures put in place after 9/11; however, every single day on average 1,300 immigrants cross the border illegally from Mexico into the U.S. and stay in the U.S., so for them they are betting on this cruel statistic that only one out of 1,300 [immigrants] dies at the border, and that’s why they keep on trying. I just read a report released by the Pew Hispanic Center that stated as of March 2005, the undocumented population is approaching 11 million people and nearly 6 million are Mexican. Right now there’s chaos at the border—the border is not under control, people are dying at the border. It doesn’t matter if you’re for the immigrants or you have an anti-immigrant position. What’s important is that something has to be done at the border, and I think this book highlights the tragedy that goes on but also makes the case that something has to be done between the U.S. and Mexico. Unless there is an immigration agreement between Mexico and the U.S. and unless we have a more orderly flow of immigrants coming into the U.S., this tragedy will keep on repeating every nineteen days.
texasmonthly.com: What’s the best-case scenario for immigration reform?
JR: The best-case scenario includes three measures. First, there has to be an immigration agreement between Mexico and the U.S. to have a more orderly flow of immigrants coming to the U.S.—immigrants who, by the way, are needed in this country. Number two, there has to be a comprehensive immigration agreement to legalize and to identify the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country. Third, there has to be an investment—a huge investment program—in Latin America so that people living in those countries can stay in their own countries without having to come to the U.S. to find a job. Those are the three most important measures to take to create order and keep the border under control, otherwise we will keep on having immigrants crossing the border illegally, immigrants dying at the border, and even anti-immigrant groups trying to take justice into their own hands.
texasmonthly.com: How would you explain to a person born and raised in the U.S. what it feels like to be an immigrant? What drives a person to want to flee his country so badly that he’ll take such a deadly risk?
JR: There’s a lot of misinformation about immigrants in this country, and it’s very un-American to criticize new immigrants and to forget that most of our families were also immigrants. It is important to emphasize that all immigrants, both legal and undocumented, contribute up to $10 billion to the country every single year according to the National Academy of Sciences (a prestigious group of distinguished science and engineering scholars in the U.S.). In other words, immigrants contribute much more to the economy of this country, to this culture, and to this society, than what they take away from it. We tend to forget these things. We have to take a second look at immigration in this country. Since 9/11 many people are very sensitive to the fact that our border is not under control, but we also have to remember that not a single one of the terrorists involved in 9/11 crossed the border illegally from Mexico and that those terrorists have absolutely nothing to do with the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country whose only objective is to find a job and get a better life.
texasmonthly.com: Shifting a bit to your own experiences in this country: You are an anchorman and a best-selling author, and you write a weekly column and have a daily radio commentary. How do you do it all?
JR: You just have to be very organized, and that’s what I do. I try to write and do my radio commentaries every morning after I drop my sons off, so I usually write from 9 [a.m.] to 11 [a.m.], and I try to exercise before that if I can. After that I spend most of my day at the television station. I still need to exercise to try to get a clear mind, so I play soccer every Saturday morning, which is like a ritual, and on other days of the week, I try to jog, play tennis, and I’ve just discovered yoga—so maybe that helps me.
texasmonthly.com: What drives you to maintain such a demanding schedule?
JR: Even though I’ve been living in this country for more than twenty years, I still feel like an immigrant. I am an immigrant, and I feel that I have a responsibility to voice the concerns of those immigrants who don’t have a voice in this country. That’s what drives me professionally, not only to be an objective reporter or anchorman every single day, but also when I can—and I can when I write my articles and give my opinion on radio—to try to explain to those who do not understand the immigrant experience what it is to be an immigrant in this country. So in a way I am trying to be a bridge between those of us who are immigrants and those of us who are not.
texasmonthly.com: You’ve been called the “voice of the voiceless.” Why is that important to you?
JR: It is not something that I chose to be, but as a journalist and as a writer, I have a responsibility, as many other Latino authors and journalists have, to represent our country and try to explain to those who are not Latinos or immigrants what it means to be Hispanic in this country. Also we have to understand that the U.S. is becoming a more diversified country. Latinos will become the majority in this country by mid-century. We won’t be here to live it and experience it, but Latinos will eventually, because of a demographic revolution, become the majority. Latinos are already the majority in cities like Miami and San Antonio, and eventually Latinos will become the majority in states like California and Texas. This process of transformation is well under way, and the U.S. sometimes does not realize that this process of transformation is changing everything: It’s what I call the Latinization of the U.S. It’s changing the way we work, the way we speak—already the U.S. follows closely behind Mexico, Spain, and Argentina as the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world—so we have to be aware that this country is changing, for the best I think. It is more diversified than ever before, and we have to be prepared for that change.