By: M.L. STEIN
OMBUDSMAN ART NAUMAN wasn’t too concerned about complaints the Sacramento Bee got over a series about an American reporter and photographer who accompanied a Mexican on an illegal border crossing that led all the way to Chicago.
A few readers, Naumann reported in his recent Sunday column, argued that the journalists “made a hero out of a lawbreaker” or that the series didn’t delve into the financial and social problems brought on by illegal immigration.
The more important question, according to the ombudsman, was: “What role did the reporter-photographer team play in the . . . crime?” Only that of reporter-observer, Nauman determined after checking sources.
E&P got the same assurance when it phoned S. Lynne Walker, Mexico City bureau chief for Copley News Service.
She wrote the series, “Undocumented: A journey of hope to the promised land,” after making the hazardous trip with 21-year-old Luis Munoz, an illiterate man from an impoverished rural family.
“We were with him strictly as journalists,” she said. “At no time did we assist him in any way to enter the United States.”
After hearing complaints, Nauman discussed the series with Bee assistant managing editor Marjie Lundstrom, who said Copley editors were convinced that Walker and photographer Jeffrey Brown in no way “aided and abetted” Munoz.
Added Walker: “We gave him no money or any other material assistance.”
However, they did share Munoz’s danger since first joining him in his home village of Chichimequillas and then riding on a bus with him to the Mexican border city of Tijuana, near San Diego, where, by prearrangement, he hooked up with a “coyote,” a paid smuggler of human beings.
Walker and Brown were present in the coyote’s home, where a scared Munoz waited until it was safe to leave. The three then were driven to Tecate, another border town, in a dilapidated van that was intercepted by Mexican police, who seized Munoz, the coyote and several other immigrants in a wild foot chase on a muddy hill. Walker and Brown also were hauled to the police station and questioned.
Recalled Walker: “We identified ourselves as reporters. They treated us very well, but they asked us to make a statement. Under Mexican law, we were not obliged to do this and didn’t.”
The commander, she added, allowed them to call the U.S. consulate in Tijuana and then told her, “I have a feeling you will try this again.”
Actually, Walker explained, Mexican authorities do not arrest migrants, but smuggling them is against the law, so Luis’ coyote faced six months in jail.
But coyotes abound on the border and Munoz soon enlisted another one who got him ? and the Copley pair ? into the United States by crawling under a steel fence beneath the stabbing light beams of Border Patrol helicopters and other officers combing the border in Broncos.
Even then their troubles were not over. Wrote Walker: “It is here, in the canyon, that border bandits often lie in wait to beat, rape and rob the terrified migrants. The vegetation, nourished by a foul mixture of rainwater and human excrement, provides a shelter for both bandits and migrants. Under the thick canopy, not even the bright spotlight of the Border Patrol’s helicopters can flush them out.”
More perilous adventure lay be-
fore the trio.
They were driven to San Diego by a third coyote in a beat-up sedan, which broadsided another car and sped off.
“Then for some reason,” Walker recounted to E&P, “he turned around and headed for the Mexican border, smashing into the back of a bus before taking the last exit ramp for the U.S. It was some ride.”
As he raced along at over 100 miles an hour, the driver turned to the passengers and screamed: “You are bad people. We are all going to die and it’s your fault. You can all go straight to hell.”
Miraculously, she said, no one was seriously injured, the Copley reporters not at all. A number of migrants have died in auto crashes while fleeing local police and border agents.
From a safe house in San Diego, there were more stealthy vehicle moves to avoid Border Patrol checkpoints en route to Los Angeles, where Munoz was to board a plane to Chicago and a dishwasher job awaiting him. In Los Angeles, Walker and Brown watched as Luis paid for a fake green card and then hopped a plane with him to Chicago.
In the entire series there is no first-person reference to Walker or Brown. In the interview, Walker said the idea of the story was to put illegal immigration into “human terms, make the subject readable and show that there is a well-developed, intricate network for getting [migrants] across. “I also wanted to show why so many Mexicans take this dangerous journey and that there are many employers eagerly waiting for them. I do not feel we took part in a crime.”
Neither did U.S. Attorney Alan Bersin in San Diego. Interviewed on a radio talk show, he stated: “No, I don’t think in this case the reporter was aiding and abetting. She was simply witnessing the crime of illegal entry.”
Besides the Bee and the Copley newspapers, the series ran in the San Francisco Examiner, Denver Post, Arizona Daily Star, Trenton (N.J.) Times, Palm Beach Post, Mexico City News and other papers.
“Reader reaction was mixed,” said Walker. “Immigration is a flash-point subject that both rivets and upsets people. This was one part of the story.”