A new analysis shows no migrant “surge” or border “crisis.” Here’s how often broadcast news has said there is one.

ABC, CBS, and NBC morning and evening news shows used that language at least 138 times in 2021

Border fence with broadcast network logos

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

Major news outlets have frequently adopted the GOP narrative that a “surge” of migrants across the U.S. border with Mexico is causing a “crisis.” ABC, CBS, and NBC used such language to describe the situation along the border at least 138 times on their morning and evening news shows since January 1, according to a Media Matters review. 

But a new analysis published by The Washington Post on Tuesday finds that the recent increase in migrant apprehensions along the southern border is not a “surge” or a “crisis,” but the seasonal bump typically seen this time of year, likely heightened by people who waited to cross last year due to the pandemic. 

Tom K. Wong, founding director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at the University of California at San Diego, and Ph.D. students Gabriel De Roche and Jesus Rojas Venzor reviewed monthly U.S. Customs and Border Protection data from 2012 to the present, finding “no crisis or surge that can be attributed to Biden administration policies.” Instead, they point out that the 28% increase in migrant apprehensions from January to February is comparable to the increases between those same months in 2019 (31%) and 2018 (25%).

Plotting monthly apprehensions data since 2012, they conclude that the recent increases are a “predictable seasonal shift."

The researchers further state that the data show the overall increase in apprehensions relative to 2019 is not due to changes in policy, but “pent-up demand” following the pandemic, during which officials summarily expelled migrants attempting to cross the border under the Trump administration’s Title 42 public health order. They write:

In other words, in fiscal year 2021, it appears that migrants are continuing to enter the United States in the same numbers as in fiscal year 2019 — plus the pent-up demand from people who would have come in fiscal year 2020, but for the pandemic. That’s visible in the first figure, earlier, in which the blue trend line for the five months of data available for fiscal year 2021 (October, November, December, January and February) neatly reflects the trend line for fiscal year 2019 — plus the difference between fiscal year 2020 and fiscal year 2019.

This suggests that Title 42 expulsions delayed prospective migrants rather than deterred them — and they’re arriving now.

The researchers note that their analysis flies in the face of how some major news outlets -- including the Post itself -- have characterized the border situation in recent weeks. Right-wing organizations and politicians, former Trump officials, and right-wing propagandists have pushed the narrative of a “border crisis” since President Joe Biden took office, as a way to damage his administration and lock in the gruesome immigration policies furthered under former President Donald Trump. Their narrative has spread to more mainstream sources, as I documented yesterday. 

Our review of broadcast news shows puts numbers to this phenomenon. The morning and evening news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC have referenced a migrant “surge” or a border “crisis” at least 138 times this year.

NBC News had the most references, with 55, after first using the language on March 6. ABC News had 53 references beginning on March 2. And CBS News had the fewest references, with 30, but used it first of the networks, on February 27.


Here’s what the data look like week-by-week.

graph 2

Notably, our data includes only spoken uses of “surge or “crisis” language, not references in on-screen graphics.

And cable news networks have regularly used similar language as their broadcast counterparts in describing the situation along the U.S.-Mexico border.

This “crisis” narrative often elides key questions: When is it supposed to have become a crisis, who is it a crisis for, and compared to what? 

The increased flow of migrants has overwhelmed U.S. border facilities, resulting in the housing of children and teenagers in often grim, overcrowded conditions. This is an administrative challenge that the Biden administration can and should solve as quickly as possible by directing the necessary resources to improve those circumstances. 

But under the Trump administration, U.S. policy was to simply push bad outcomes for would-be asylum-seekers south of the border. The children were even worse off, while the administration was able to evade the type of “crisis” coverage the Biden administration is now receiving.


Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream, Kinetiq, and Nexis databases for ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight, CBS’ This Morning and Evening News, and NBC’s Today and Nightly News for the term “border” within close proximity (within the same approximately 20-second clip for SnapStream or within 20 words for Kinetiq and Nexis) of either the term “crisis” or any variation of the term “surge” from January 1 through March 23, 2021.

We included any instance of any speaker, including speakers in clips or speakers quoted by journalists or hosts, that described migrants crossing the southern border as either a “crisis” or a “surge.” We did not include instances where speakers, or those clipped or quoted, described overcrowded conditions in detention centers as a “humanitarian crisis.” We also did not include instances that described the situation as a “political crisis” for the Biden administration.