Night and day: The Washington Post offers two totally different stories on the U.S.-Mexico border

Depending on what day it is, the Post says it’s either a “crisis” that Biden has “failed” to deal with — or a regular cyclical occurrence

The Washington Post ran an article on Saturday that bluntly pinned a supposed “crisis” at the U.S.-Mexico border on the Biden administration. But now, three days later, the Post is running another piece that largely dismantles that entire narrative — with crucial details that the prior article had only just hinted at.

In its March 20 article, the Post details how “the new president began tearing down some of the guardrails” around immigration policy after his inauguration, cautioning: “Now, the Biden administration is scrambling to control the biggest surge in 20 years.” But a March 23 analysis actually found that “there’s no migrant ‘surge’ at the U.S. southern border,” explaining that the situation “isn’t a surge or crisis, but a predictable seasonal shift.”

As Media Matters’ Matt Gertz explained yesterday: “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. … In this case, the ‘crisis’ tone plays into weeks of right-wing demagoguing of the border issue.”

Furthermore, as Washington Post opinion columnist Greg Sargent has explained, this framing also plays into right-wing media narratives and the terms of Republican policy goals, in which the number of migrants who can apply for asylum would be kept as low as possible — even if this results in a further “humanitarian catastrophe outside our borders for the migrants themselves,” and the total disregard of established U.S. law on the asylum process.

The cyclical analysis: This has happened before — plus “pent-up demand” after COVID-19

Tom K. Wong, associate professor and founding director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at the University of California at San Diego, looked at all border apprehensions since 2012 — and crucially examined the flow according to the time of the year.

Wong argued in the new Post article that “no crisis or surge that can be attributed to Biden administration policies.” Instead, the current increase simply comes from “a predictable pattern of seasonal changes,” along with “pent-up demand” from migrations that would have occurred in 2020, when movement of people was largely shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Wong also said that Trump’s blanket expulsions in the name of COVID-19 public health measures simply “delayed prospective migrants rather than deterred them — and they’re arriving now.” (Emphasis in the original.)

This graph from the article illustrates the point, as the migration numbers so far in fiscal year 2021 match up with the pattern from 2019, while filling in some of the gap that occurred in 2020.

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Citation Professor Tom K. Wong, via The Washington Post, March 23, 2021

In addition, Wong found that looking at each year going back to 2012, the spring months tend to be a peak period for migrations, getting ahead of the potentially deadly heat of the summertime.

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Citation Professor Tom K. Wong, via The Washington Post, March 23, 2021

Based on this, Wong makes a prediction: “When the numbers drop again in June and July, policymakers may be tempted to claim that their deterrence policies succeeded. But that will just be the usual seasonal drop.”

The Post had earlier castigated “the Biden administration’s failure” to contain the border, with little regard for other factors

Over the weekend, the Post ran a piece that cast the “surge” at the border entirely in terms of changes in rhetoric and policy from the Biden administration, such as promising “an immigration policy far more humane and welcoming than that of his predecessor.” At the same time, the piece acknowledged, leading figures in the new administration had sent messages in Spanish-language media telling migrants not to come right now.

The Post’s piece boldly rendered a verdict in its sixth paragraph, after running through some recent events: “The situation at the border — which Biden and his advisers steadfastly refuse to call a crisis — is the result of an administration that was forewarned of the coming surge, yet still ill-prepared and lacking the capacity to deal with it.”

But only rarely did the piece acknowledge that Biden inherited a situation that was continually getting worse at the end of former President Donald Trump’s term, and that a border surge was already taking place.

The ninth paragraph explained: “Some of the factors facing Biden and his team are outside of their control, from deteriorating conditions in Central America to the increasing flow of migrants that had already been happening in Trump’s final months.” In addition, the Mexican government decided in January to stop taking back some of the migrant families, further increasing pressure on U.S. authorities.

But in the next few paragraphs, the increase at the border was largely treated as a series of “warnings” from before Biden took office, describing briefings by Customs and Border Protection to the incoming administration about “modeling projections showing a steep increase in the arrival of unaccompanied minors if Trump’s policies were suddenly lifted.”

In fact, the increase at the border was already happening, as it usually would at this time of year.

Furthermore, the actual policy changes that Biden announced after taking office covered a wide range of immigration-related issues, and would largely not have an immediate effect on the people coming to the border:

On his first day, Biden suspended border wall construction, affirmed protections for young immigrant “dreamers,” scrapped Trump’s ban on travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, and ordered a 100-day moratorium on deportations by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He also sent a broad immigration overhaul proposal to Congress, including an eight-year pathway to citizenship for immigrants without legal status.

More moves followed in rapid-fire succession. The president ordered a major increase in refugee admissions. He launched a task force to reunify families separated by Trump’s “zero tolerance” crackdown while easing restrictions for minors under Title 42. And he ended the “Remain in Mexico” program Trump had used to send asylum seekers back across the border to wait outside U.S. territory for their cases to be decided — allowing hundreds of families crowded into squalid camps to enter the United States, producing emotional scenes that circulated widely in Spanish-language media.

While that section said that Biden had “ended the ‘Remain in Mexico’ program” that Trump had begun, that article had previously noted that Mexico had already taken steps to cut off support for the program on its own end (while it only briefly acknowledged a major problem with that policy — the families who were already “crowded into squalid camps”).

And only in the 35th paragraph did the article mention a recent deal that the Biden administration had reached with Mexico, providing the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine — which is being used around the world, but has not yet gained approval in the United States — in exchange for that government taking back more families and taking other important measures at its own southern border.

The 43rd paragraph finally gave a hint of another important aspect that would be detailed in Wong’s piece — but only sourced it as an argument coming from the White House: “Several administration officials have also argued that immigration surges are cyclical, and the current one would probably have occurred regardless of who was president.”

But instead of exploring this argument and its supporting evidence in greater depth, as the paper would do several days later, the Post’s Saturday piece then quickly pivoted back to decrying “the administration’s struggle to send a coherent message on the border.”