The “border crisis” narrative doesn't add up


Several leading news outlets appear to have decided that this is Border Crisis Week. 

On Sunday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas appeared on five different political talk shows to discuss the situation along the U.S.-Mexico border, a sign of how much elite journalists are focusing on the issue. NBC’s Chuck Todd, host of Meet the Press, warned on his program that it posed “a political crisis for the new president, with no easy way out,” while ABC’s This Week shipped its panel south to film in front of border fencing in Texas. On Monday, all three broadcast morning shows ran chyrons describing a border “crisis,” and commentators on MSNBC and CNN used falsehoods to criticize President Joe Biden’s administration’s handling of the border.

News outlets are making a judgement call by describing the situation as a “crisis.” Republicans, who hope to use the issue for partisan gain and believe that successful immigration policies prevent asylum-seekers from making claims in the U.S. even if the result is a humanitarian catastrophe outside our borders, say it is. The Biden administration, as one might expect, says it is not. Some local officials and nonprofit leaders engaged on the issue also say that the situation, while difficult and requiring care and attention, has not reached crisis levels.

While journalists often treat themselves as passive observers of political events, the volume and tenor of coverage they provide actually shapes the views news consumers have of the importance of different stories. Reporters who devote substantial attention to a story and describe it as a “crisis” are using their agenda-setting power, priming their audience to treat it as one. When The Washington Post reports that the border situation “threatens to overshadow the president’s recent political victories in passing a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package and making rapid strides in vaccination efforts,” its writers are implicitly discussing the result of more press coverage of the former and less of the latter. 

In this case, the “crisis” tone plays into weeks of right-wing demagoguing of the border issue. Major news outlets risk repeating the flawed 2018 coverage of migrant caravans, which surged as then-President Donald Trump, congressional Republicans, and propaganda outlets like Fox News made it the centerpiece of their midterm strategy, then plummeted after the election when Trump and his allies stopped talking about them.

A crisis compared to what?

The media debate over the border is missing a comparison point, as The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent pointed out last week. In other words, when is it supposed to have become a crisis, who is it a crisis for, and compared to what?

Migrant apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border have risen every month since April 2020 and are currently at levels last seen during a spike in 2019. The bulk of the migrants are single adults, in contrast to that year when a majority were people traveling in families. But apprehensions of family units and unaccompanied minors have also surged. 

Adam Isacson, an analyst at the human rights advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America, pointed to a variety of factors behind this increase in an interview with The Associated Press:

He called it a perfect storm of factors: hurricanes that hit Central America last fall; the economic fallout caused by the coronavirus pandemic; typical seasonal migration patterns; the thousands of Central American migrants already stuck at the border for months; and the persistent scourge of gang violence afflicting Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

The vast majority of apprehended migrants are being turned away without due process under Title 42 COVID-19 restrictions implemented under Trump and retained under Biden. But in November, a federal court forced the Trump administration to allow unaccompanied children to seek asylum, a policy the Biden administration has voluntarily continued. 

The federal government is straining to manage that flow of children and teenagers, who are overwhelming federal facilities as they wait to be placed with relatives in the United States while their asylum claims are processed. It’s incumbent on the Biden administration to improve their housing and sanitary conditions as quickly as possible from their current grim status

But the circumstances for children and teens seeking asylum in the United States under the Trump administration last year were hardly better. Instead, as the Los Angeles Times noted, “nearly 16,000 children migrating alone” were expelled to Mexico under Title 42, “generating little of the media attention now being given to more than 9,500 unaccompanied minors languishing in U.S. border jails.” If what we are seeing under Biden is a humanitarian crisis at the border, what was that? 

Likewise, Biden has canceled Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which forced more than 71,000 asylum-seekers and immigrants to wait in that country while immigration judges reviewed their cases. “That was a humanitarian catastrophe,” Sargent noted. “Many were exposed to violence and even kidnapping, or stranded in horrific refugee camp conditions for months.” But the camps were on the other side of the border, so they largely escaped the sort of frenzied press coverage the situation is currently receiving. 

Biden has now begun bringing some of those asylum-seekers to the U.S. The right treats this as a crisis, because its policy aim is to keep out people who are exercising their legal right to seek asylum. But there’s no reason for the press to play along.

The right’s weeks of “border crisis” demagoguery

The “crisis” frame plays into a narrative that right-wing organizations and politicians, former Trump administration aides, the former president himself, and the propagandists at Fox have all hammered on since Biden’s inauguration in hopes of garnering political benefit and defending Trump’s immigration policies.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an anti-immigrant policy organization, warned in a January 21 press release that Biden was “inducing an immigration and border crisis” through a series of policy changes and proposals announced by his administration. FAIR, which is classified as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, further stated that Biden’s actions would “certainly spark a new border crisis.”

The Heritage Foundation has likewise sent dozens of tweets arguing that there is a border “crisis,” dating back to February 4. The right-wing think tank often cites Fox appearances by Trump administration veterans Chad Wolf, Mark Morgan, and Ken Cuccinelli, who joined Heritage as fellows in January. 

Numerous Republican senators and representatives have talked about a border “crisis,” including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). “The call to repeat the ‘border crisis’ language also appeared in a memo from the House Republican Study Committee that urged party members to use the term and blame it on President Biden,” as my former colleague Oliver Willis noted at The American Independent.

And of course, Fox, which has a long and lurid record of anti-immigrant bigotry and currently identifies as the “opposition” to Biden, has featured a constant and increasing drumbeat of such rhetoric beginning right as he took office. A search of the Nexis database of Fox transcripts for “crisis” within five words of “border” returns 49 results over the last week, 148 results since Inauguration Day -- and none in the month before that, even though border apprehensions had been rising for the last months of Trump’s tenure. 

Laura Ingraham, the Fox prime-time host whose rhetoric about immigrants “invading” and “replacing” Americans often echoes white supremacists, led the way. “Our next guest says President Biden has not just incited the next border crisis but opened the door to violence,” she said on January 21 while introducing Morgan and Stephen Miller, a former Trump White House adviser with ties to white nationalists. Ingraham or her guests also referenced an incipient or active crisis on the border on February 8, February 10, February 24, March 1, March 3, March 4, March 5, March 8, March 9, March 10, March 16, March 17, March 18, and March 19. 

Ingraham’s colleagues have warned that Biden is deliberately ignoring the “border crisis” as a way to “punish” or “replace the disobedient” populace; deceptively scapegoated migrants for future COVID-19 outbreaks; and baselessly warned that they are agents of drug cartels

None of these people are acting out of deep concern for the safety and well-being of migrant children. They are simply creating an incentive structure to drive those children back into even worse conditions over the border. Journalists should be wary of helping them by adopting their “crisis” frame.