Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

When the hero is an immigrant - and the suspect is foreign-born, too

A short piece that appeared on AlterNet made an interesting point about how media handled the story of Shervin Lalezary, the attorney and Los Angeles County Sheriff's reservist who made the traffic stop that netted suspected mass arsonist Harry Burkhart on Monday.

Both men are foreign-born. Lalezary was born in Iran and is an immigrant to the United States. Burkhart is a German national reportedly born in Chechnya. He had spent some time living in the U.S., although he held a non-immigrant visa. His mother Dorothee Burkhart, who became part of the story as she went to court Tuesday on fraud charges and faces extradition to Germany, is undocumented. It's unclear how long she had been living here without a visa.

Why, Maurice Belanger asks in the AlterNet post, was so much made of the Burkharts' immigration status, while there was little mention of Lalezary's immigrant background? He writes:

In fact, few if any media outlets refer to Mr. Lalezary as an immigrant, much less a heroic immigrant who saved Los Angeles from additional damage.

Where media treat the arson suspect in an immigration-related framework, talking about their immigration status and her pending extradition, they bury the fact that the good guy in this story is an immigrant. Most don’t even use the term.

Over the past few days, Lalezary's background has been reported in some news outlets and blogs (including this blog and also LA Observed, but it's true that most mentions of his ethnicity have been passing ones. As for the focus on Burkhart and immigration, this partly stemmed from early news reports - which were incorrect - that he'd had an angry outburst in immigration court over his mother's pending deportation.

As an immigration reporter who has been covering the increase in deportations and divided families, the notion that the son of a potential deportee might have snapped grabbed my attention, as it did that of other reporters. Later on, when it became clear that the elder Burkhart had appeared not in immigration court, but in federal court related to fraud charges in Germany -and that her arrest might have prompted her son's anger - it became a matter of setting the record straight.

Perhaps most importantly, as typically happens in stories like these, reporting on the suspect took priority. That said, the point made is good food for thought.

As for the story of Mr. Lalezary, it's a fascinating one that shouldn't be ignored: Lalezary, who is 30, was born in Tehran and arrived as a young child in the United States with his family. He holds a law degree from USC. He hadn't been volunteering as a reservist long, with his third solo shift Jan. 2. What does he earn from this potentially dangerous part-time gig? A dollar a year. He told the Washington Post: “I can tell you this is a lot more exciting than my day job."

And yes, he's a 1.5 generation immigrant.