After at least 50 migrants were found dead from heat exposure after they were left trapped in an abandoned truck in San Antonio, Texas, this week, some mainstream media outlets became vehicles for right-wing politicians to exploit the horrific event by printing their outlandish comments without sufficient pushback.
On Monday night, Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted, “These deaths are on Biden. They are a result of his deadly open border policies. They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law.”
It ought to be obvious that “open border policies” are not responsible for this horrifying tragedy; people would not resort to sneaking across the border, the victims of human smugglers, if the border were in fact “open” and easy to cross. As University of Texas Rio Grande Valley political science professor Terence Garrett told PolitiFact while responding to Abbott’s previous lies about Biden’s immigration policies, “There's no such thing as an open border.” According to Garrett, current border security measures include nearly 20,000 Border Patrol agents, aerial surveillance systems, and hundreds of miles of fencing. “We don’t have an open border,” Garrett said. “That’s absurd.”
Though this week’s horror was perhaps the deadliest human smuggling event in modern American history, these types of tragedies are not a new phenomenon and neither is the predictable right-wing response. After the deaths of 10 migrants in Texas in July 2017 — when Donald Trump was president and Abbott was also the governor of Texas — right-wing media voices called for more border wall construction and the defunding of so-called “sanctuary cities.”
However, recent history shows that more fencing and Border Patrol resources do not actually deter migration. Instead, such policies simply divert migrants into more dangerous routes, while the core issues that lead them to flee their homelands remain unaddressed. In fact, the increasingly intense security along the southern border is in part responsible for greater suffering and death among migrants. Migrants have been killed or injured from falls when attempting to scale the barriers, while others are driven deeper into inhospitable desert regions as they search for accessible crossings.
Mainstream media are privileging Abbott’s lies
In a tweet, The New York Times simply publicized Abbott’s smear of Biden without adding any explanation. The linked article from the Times’ live page included Abbott’s full quote, without any direct pushback or inclusion of data about the Biden administration’s continued enforcement efforts or any clear demonstration that the Times realized Abbott’s claim was false.
Other news outlets carried the basic facts that the Biden administration is indeed fully enforcing border security. But they also created a false political balance by still repeating Abbott’s outrageous accusation and not specifically debunking his false claim. The Washington Post, for example, pointed out that Customs and Border Patrol had made 239,416 arrests in May, further commenting: “The agency is on pace to surpass the record 1.73 million border arrests tallied in 2021 — presenting an ongoing logistical and political challenge for the Biden administration.” Immediately following that sentence, the Post still ran Abbott’s baseless accusation that the deaths were purportedly the result of Biden’s “refusal to enforce the law.”
Similarly, The Associated Press quoted immigration advocate Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council, who pointed out, “With the border shut as tightly as it is today for migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, people have been pushed into more and more dangerous routes.”
But then the AP immediately quoted not only Abbott, but also former White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, a notorious white nationalist who sought to push asylum entries down to zero during the Trump administration.
The AP did not provide any of this context to readers, instead simply serving as a stenographer for an anti-immigrant zealot: “Stephen Miller, a chief architect of former President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, said, ‘Human smugglers and traffickers are wicked and evil’ and that the administration’s approach to border security rewards their actions.” (As documented above, tough border policies do “reward” human smugglers by fostering the economic and logistical incentives for them to prey on migrants — though Miller would insist upon even tougher crackdowns and more exclusionary policies.)
Following the article’s citation of Miller, the AP then quoted Abbott: “Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican running for reelection, was blunt in a tweet about the Democratic president: ‘These deaths are on Biden. They are a result of his deadly open border policies.’”