DALLAS – When editorial writers at The Dallas Morning News chose the illegal immigrant as the newspaper's Texan of the Year, they expected some criticism. But not this: 800 blog postings and more than 150 letters to the editor blasting the decision.
Some of the critics threatened to cancel subscriptions or pressure advertisers to stop doing business with the paper.
"What an asinine article!!!" exclaimed one reader.
"What part of stupid are you guys that support illegal aliens? This puts us ALL in danger," another wrote.
Editorial writer Rodger Jones said he was "surprised at the nastiness" of the backlash, some of which came from readers who had only seen the editorial's headline.
The Texan of the Year designation, announced in Sunday's paper, has been an annual year-end editorial page feature since 2003.
It recognizes — without passing judgment — someone who has had a major impact or effected change in Texas during the past year. Previous recipients included the city of Houston for its response to Hurricane Katrina and a former police officer whose two sons died in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as George W. Bush and Karl Rove.
None provoked a reaction on the scale of this year's choice, Jones said.
"All of those readers, it seems to me, who objected, conceded that it is a huge story," Jones said. "They just don't like the label applied. They construed that as some kind of honor that we bestow."
In its editorial, the News noted that illegal immigration directly affects Texas because of its proximity to the border and reviewed how policies aimed at curbing it have played out across the state.
For example, it cited efforts by Irving police to identify suspected illegal immigrants arrested for minor infractions, even traffic offenses, and turn them over to immigration agents.
The newspaper also mentioned Farmers Branch, another Dallas suburb, where residents and leaders marched into the immigration debate by requiring landlords to make sure renters are U.S. citizens or legal residents before leasing to them. And, the Morning News noted, a planned border fence has riled officials throughout the Rio Grande Valley.
The newspaper would not say how many readers actually canceled their subscriptions as a result of the editorial.
"Against our customer base, it's just not a material number," said Keven Ann Willey, vice president and editorial page editor. The Morning News has an average daily circulation of about 373,500 and a Sunday circulation of about 523,000, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
Willey and Jones say they hope the editorial makes readers reflect on the issue.
"No one disagrees that illegal immigration is a huge deal, and no one disagrees that the system is broken and needs to be fixed," Jones said.
Dallas activist Elizabeth Villafranca praised the News for its courage in giving the immigration debate such importance.
"The animosity is already at the highest level that it can be," she said. "I don't think it can hurt. Maybe it is going to make people think."