Chanting “News-Press, you’re a mess!” and “Undocumented, unafraid!” a large group of demonstrators descended on De La Guerra Plaza Thursday night to protest a front-page headline in the daily’s Saturday edition that labeled immigrants without U.S. citizenship as “illegals.” The crowd gathered in a circle and listened to impassioned speeches about race relations and media bigotry before marching through downtown streets.
Police spokesperson Sgt. Riley Harwood estimated 200 people attended the demonstration, which ended with a State Street sit-in that temporarily closed a block of road. No arrests were made. Sometime during the previous evening, vandals spray-painted and paint-bombed the News-Press offices, but police have so far been unable to identify any suspects.
In published news pieces, the paper’s management condemned the $1,400 in damages and equated the incident to Wednesday’s 12 Charlie Hebdo murders. Like the Parisian killers, they said, the Santa Barbara vandals are trying to stifle free speech. Protestors on Thursday night denounced the News-Press vandalism and said it was counterproductive in their efforts toward fair treatment in the press and their communities. The only movement from the News-Press building throughout the evening came from a photographer who briefly appeared on a second-floor balcony and a blinking video camera trained on the crowd below.
Current and former Santa Barbara city councilmembers, along with a host of Latino civil-rights and social-justice leaders, attended the two-and-a-half-hour event, which featured performances from Aztec dance group Kalpulli Huitzilin Ihuan Xochitl. Ana Becerra with Just Communities said she had to watch her words as she represented her organization because of the personal hurt and frustration she was experiencing. She called on the crowd not only to boycott the paper until it issues a retraction and apology — organizers declared a January 19 deadline for the responses and promised more protests if none are issued — but also to not do business with its advertisers. “If we go spend our money there, it’s shame on us,” Becerra said.
Nayra Pacheco said she moved from Mexico to the United States when she was 6 years old and that her father, who didn’t attain citizenship, worked for the News-Press for years as a delivery employee. “They’ve hired so many undocumented people,” she said. Pacheco criticized the paper for its hypocrisy and said the headline “pisses me off.”
“That word, it’s ridiculous. It’s uncalled for,” Anthony Rodriguez said to reporters about the term “illegals.” “You don’t degrade people. We’re all human beings, and we have rights.” During an interview with KEYT News, City Councilmember Cathy Murillo said, “We need to have respect for our immigrant families. The city of Santa Barbara runs on the economy of our service workers. They deserve more respect than that headline.”
In a statement to other regional and national media outlets, the News-Press defended its word choice and said the paper has used “illegals” for the last 10 years to describe people living in the U.S. illegally. Multiple former employees of the paper, however, have emailed The Independent to dispute that claim. The former employees, who wished to remain anonymous, said the News-Press had a long-standing policy to not use the term until around two years ago when editors began including it in headlines and stories. When writers and copy editors would object, higher-level editors dismissed their complaints.
Many of those upset at last weekend’s headline have pointed to Associated Press (AP) Stylebook rules that advise news outlets not to use the word “illegal” to describe a person. Actions can be illegal, the guidelines state, but not people. In a news article published Friday morning, News-Press city editor Scott Steepleton said while the paper is an AP member, it is not required to follow AP style. He compared the debate to editorial choices between Veterans Day, Veteran’s Day, and Veterans’ Day.
Also in Friday’s paper was a letter to the editor from Ventura resident Robert Ostrove. “Please do not be cowed into submission!” it reads. “Please do not apologize! Tell the illegal alien enablers to go to hell!”
Despite multiple attempts to reach News-Press editors since Monday, The Independent has not received a response. Below is the full statement the paper has provided to other news organizations:
“It has been the practice for nearly 10 years at the Santa Barbara News-Press to describe people living in this country illegally as ‘illegals’ regardless of their country of origin. This practice is under fire by some immigration groups who believe that this term is demeaning and does not accurately reflect the status of ‘undocumented immigrants,’ one of several terms other media use to describe people in the United States illegally.
“You have to look no further than the White House website to see the term ‘illegal’ used when describing the 2 million illegal immigrants President Obama has deported since taking office for being in the U.S. illegally.
“It is an appropriate term in describing someone as ‘illegal’ if they are in this country illegally.
“The colossal mess that describes the U.S. immigration policy is a product of unenforced laws, conflicting legislation, unsecured borders, executive action and political pandering. However the most egregious aspect of the U.S. immigration condition is the appearance of lawlessness that subjects millions of people living in this country illegally as pawns in a never-ending game of political posturing.
“The outrage voiced by immigration advocates should be directed at the current immigration system that takes years of bureaucratic red tape to complete. This outrage is shared by those who go through the process legally and stand at the end of the line of those who skirt U.S. law.
“Ours is a system of laws, a system so valued that people from around the world — including many from lawless nations — flock here to be a part of it. The United States of America affords those seeking it a lawful immigration process; it also affords the politically persecuted a haven from persecution. With this freedom comes responsibility. As history has shown, some choose to wait out the process, while others choose to come here on their own terms. The latter are illegal in the eyes of this valued system and the Santa Barbara News-Press calls them so.
“When breaking the law becomes the norm, America is no better than other lawless nations.”