Conservative Media Stoke Fears About Humanitarian Crisis Causing Children To Enter U.S.

Right-wing media have dishonestly portrayed recent reports of children fleeing across the U.S.-Mexico border to escape violence in Central America, even portraying the immigrants as dangerous disease-carriers, terrorists, and cartel members.

Record Number Of Children Crossing U.S.- Mexico Border

LA Times: Number Of Unaccompanied Children Crossing Border Has Nearly Doubled, Become An “Urgent Humanitarian Situation.” As the Los Angeles Times reported on June 2, the increasing number of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has become an “urgent humanitarian crisis”: 

A recent surge in the number of children who are detained while illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without their parents is an “urgent humanitarian situation” that has prompted the opening of special facilities to house them in San Antonio and at the naval base in Port Hueneme, the Obama administration said Monday.

Although unaccompanied children have been crossing the Southwest border for years, a surge in the last year has overloaded Border Patrol stations and detention facilities along the border, particularly in south Texas.  Most of the children are from Central America, including Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.


Increased violence in Central America, the desire to reunify with parents and false rumors circulating in their homelands that unaccompanied children can stay indefinitely in the United States are fueling the surge, administration officials said. [Los Angeles Times6/2/14]

Refugee Crisis Is Also Affecting Other Central American Nations. The Center For American Progress pointed out that this is a refugee crisis that is not only affecting the United States, but has impacted neighboring nations such as Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Belize since 2009:

The violence currently rocking Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala is not only causing a refugee crisis in the United States. Every country in the region has also been affected as children are running for their lives and seeking safety wherever they can find it. According to the UNHCR, asylum requests from Honduran, El Salvadoran, and Guatemalan nationals have increased 712 percent in the neighboring nations of Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Belize since 2009. [Center For American Progress, 6/18/14]

President Obama: This “Urgent Humanitarian Situation” Requires A “Unified And Coordinated Federal Response.” In a June 2 memorandum, the Obama administration called the influx of children at the border an “urgent humanitarian situation” and announced plans to dedicate additional funding for a “unified and coordinated Federal response ... providing humanitarian relief to the affected children, including housing, care, medical treatment, and transportation.” [The White House, 6/2/14]

Some Unaccompanied Minors May Fall Under International Protection Claims Due To Central American Violence. Center for American Progress detailed how according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, “58 percent of unaccompanied minors 'raise potential international protection' claims” (emphasis added):

Interviewing more than 400 unaccompanied minors, researchers found that many of them had fled forcible 'join or die' gang recruitment or gang threats against themselves and their families. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, 58 percent of unaccompanied minors “raise potential international protection” claims. This means that they have a viable claim to refugee protections under international law.

One 17-year-old interviewed by the UNHCR fled El Salvador after gang members who had killed students at his school told him “if [he] returned to school, [he] wouldn't make it home alive.” [Center For American Progress, 6/18/14]

MYTH: Child Migrants Will Infect The Public With Rare Diseases 

Fox's Marc Siegel Called Unaccompanied Minors A “Public Health Crisis,” Citing Leprosy.  On the June 23 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Fox contributor Marc Siegel stoked fears that the unaccompanied minors posed serious public health risks and mentioned leprosy and drug-resistance tuberculosis:

SIEGEL: I think that this is a big public health crisis that is emerging. We talk about the problem with illegal immigration, but we're not talking enough about the medical side of this. If someone comes into the United States as a legal immigrant, we screen them for tuberculosis, we screen them for all kinds of diseases. We usually catch it before they come in. But if they come in illegally, we're faced with a situation where they're living close together, there is a lot less very good public health measures in place. We're having a scabies epidemic among illegal immigrants. Let me tell you what that is -- that's a skin condition with intense itching and rash due to a mite and it's highly contagious. And 10 to 25 percent of the immigrants coming in this way have scabies. Tuberculosis, we thought we were stamping that out in North America. It's now reemerging. Multiple drug resistant tuberculosis, which is harder and harder to treat. Dengue fever, 50 to 100 million new cases a year of dengue fever worldwide. In Mexico, it is endemic. It's a terrible disease, for anyone that's had it. You get fatigued, you get bones hurting you, muscles hurting you. It takes weeks and weeks to recover from. There's no effective treatment of it. It's now emerging in Texas because of the immigration crisis.

HASSELBECK: Measles and chickenpox and leprosy?

SIEGEL: Absolutely. Now, I don't want to scare anyone out there more than I already have. Leprosy, extremely rare. And for dengue fever, you need mosquitoes. But they're starting to breed now in South Texas. This is a major problem in Texas and Arizona now. [Fox News, Fox & Friends6/23/14]*

Laura Ingraham Stoked Fear That Disease From Immigrants Will Kill American Citizens. Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham hyped fears that American citizens would die from the spread of diseases brought by the unaccompanied minors citing a “spread of TB and other illnesses”:

INGRAHAM: And now the reports over the weekend about the spread of TB and other illnesses in this country and diseases that we thought we had vanquished that were basically eradicated from American society, including one resistant strain of TB that I believe, in 60 percent of the cases, can be fatal. So this is serious. And who's to blame if, heaven forbid, an American citizen dies of a communicable disease spread by the these folks spreading all over the country. The government spreads the illegal immigrants across the country, and the disease is spread across the country. Who gets the blame here? [Courtside Entertainment Group, The Laura Ingraham Show,  6/23/14]

FACT: Children At The Border Are Vaccinated And Undergo Health Screenings

Department Of Homeland Security: “We Are Conducting Public Health Screens On All Incoming Detainees.” The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a statement saying that it was conducting health screenings on “all incoming detainees to screen for any symptoms of contagious diseases of possible public health concern.” From ABC News:

DHS has public health controls in place to minimize any possible health risks. Throughout the RGV Sector we are conducting public health screens on all incoming detainees to screen for any symptoms of contagious diseases of possible public health concern.  U.S. Border Patrol has established Medical Units at its busiest border stations (McAllen, Weslaco, and Ft Brown) handling UAC.  US Coast Guard medical teams are assisting with the screening process, and providing healthcare evaluations for the sick and injured.

Occupational health and safety guidance has been provided to for CBP personnel in the handling of subjects with signs of health-related symptoms. Our workforce has been provided and encouraged to use personal protective gear including latex or non-latex gloves, long-sleeve shirts, and to take precaution including frequent hand washing. [ABC, 6/6/14]

By Law, Border Patrol Required To Screen And Vaccinate Children. According to ThinkProgress, the current protocols to handle unaccompanied children crossing the border from Central American countries other than Mexico were set by the Bush administration, and the Border Patrol agency is required by law to “take in these children, screen and vaccinate them, then turn them over to the Department of Health of Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement.” [ThinkProgress, 6/20/14]

Placing Blame On Immigrants For Spreading Diseases Is A Longstanding, Xenophobic Smear. As Media Matters has previously noted, right-wing media have used flawed data from anti-immigrant activists to falsely claim immigrants bring diseases such as Hansen's disease (leprosy) and tuberculosis. As the Southern Poverty Law Center explained, these claims “generally originate with modern nativist groups and ideologues.” [CNN, Lou Dobbs Tonight5/18/07 via Media Matters; Fox News, The O'Reilly Factor10/26/05 via Media Matters; Media Matters4/5/11; Southern Poverty Law Center, Summer 2007]

MSNBC: Children Receive Health Screenings And Vaccinations. pointed out many children crossing the border have access to medical facilities for vaccinations and they receive “initial screening and vaccinations” before being transported back to holding facilities. [, 6/10/14]

MYTH: Violence Will Increase Because Obama Is Allowing Gang Members To Cross Border

Fox Host “Wouldn't Be Surprised” If Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Were Fronts For Drug Dealers, Terrorists. On the June 12 edition of Fox News' On the Record, guest host Jeanine Pirro asked “how can they possibly be doing a criminal background check?” and said she “wouldn't be surprised if some of these kids are nothing more than fronts for drugs dealers, I mean we just talked about terrorists.” [Fox News, On the Record6/12/14]

Laura Ingraham Claimed Immigrants Will Cause “Pronounced And More Vicious Gang Activity.” On the June 20 edition of her radio show, Laura Ingraham hypothesized that immigrants will lead to “higher crime rates” and more instances of “gang activity”:

INGRAHAM: Right now, we have a crisis of wild proportions. Our own people are asked to pay for the care and the housing, and the transportation, education, medical, et cetera, of hundreds of thousands of people, who are part of this new wave. Okay? And now we're asking them to accept higher crime rates, higher gang activity, more pronounced and more vicious gang activity in the cities that are already still struggling. They're already struggling with this type of enhanced gang behavior and criminality that MS-13 is all too happy to import here into this country.


Everybody's running scared. Shouldn't the people have a full picture of what uncontrolled borders do to a country? Or should we only hear the sob stories or, you know -- this big propaganda machine, the results of the propaganda machine from NBC and beyond of all the DREAMers who bring all the wonderful stories to the country and all the great inputs? [Courtside Entertainment Group, The Laura Ingraham Show6/20/14

FACT: Children Are Fleeing Gangs And Gang Violence 

Bloomberg: Violent Gang Recruitment And “Claiming Children” Is Pervasive In Central America. Bloomberg News cited experts who noted that violent gang recruitment and “claiming children” was consistent with a culture of 'extreme threats and practices of violence'" in Central America:

“You have to leave your family to live,” said Abraham, 16, a Honduran at another shelter, Casa de Migrante.

Abraham said he and a 28-year-old cousin, Nery, left under cover of the night. Nery, who wept at a photograph of his daughter, Daisy, 5, wore a black t-shirt with an image of Homer Simpson and his right hand lacked the tops of two fingers. Gang members had accosted him on the street and wrapped fishing line tightly around them, said Nery, whose last name is withheld to protect his minor cousin.

While the migrants' stories couldn't be independently verified, violent gang recruitment and extortion is pervasive in Central America, said Ev Meade, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. Claiming children or amputating fingers is consistent with a culture of “extreme threats and practices of violence,” he said. [Bloomberg, 6/20/14]

PBS: Children Are Fleeing Violent Narco Gangs. PBS News reported that the children fleeing to the U.S. are fleeing gangs that target them for recruitment or threaten then with violence: 

Here's a look at why these children flee their homes, the dangerous trip to the border and the challenges they face on the other side.

Childhood under threat at home

Countries in what's known as the isthmus, the region that stretches from Nicaragua to Guatemala, have the highest murder rates in the world, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Data from that office shows Honduras is home to the deadliest city in the world, San Pedro Sula, where 169 out of every 100,000 people are murdered. The murder rate in Guatemala is nearly as bad and getting worse. And while El Salvador has seen a slight decrease in murders, it is still ranked fifth globally, according to the latest figures available.

“The gangs buy congressmen and political support” said Roger Noriega, former Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere and Ambassador to the Organization of American States. “In Honduras, the president is actually involved in narco-trafficking. He's certainly not going to put up a fight against these gangs.”

Honduran policemen frisk a young man belonging to the Olympia club's Ultrafiel fans group, notoriously infiltrated by the “maras” (juvenile gangs), in Tegucigalpa, on February 10, 2013. Photo by Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

Gang violence in Central America escalated in 2006, when the Mexican army went to war with the cartels there, setting off a years-long street fight with thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire. The war squeezed out the weaker gangs and “the smaller ones were displaced to Central America” said Noriega, where they were able to take root and in some instances displace local governments and police entirely.

The MS-13 gang in El Salvador, is a violent exception to this trend. It started as a powerful criminal organization with a national reach in the United States but moved to Central America when many of its top leaders were deported.

In El Salvador “you have the current president admitting that he elicited the support of MS-13 for his get-out-the-vote effort,” Noriega said.

When Children Become Narco Targets

Children are among those targeted by narco gangs, along with women and the very poor, and they're often pressured into service as drug-mules and even assassins, according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Sexual violence against them is common. [, 6/20/14]

MYTH: Children Are Getting A Free Pass To Stay in U.S.

Fox's Steve Doocy: Obama Admin Is Giving A Free Pass To Child Immigrants. On June 16, Fox & Friends' co-host Steve Doocy claimed the Obama administration was giving a free pass to the unaccompanied minors and was responsible for luring them to the United States with the hopes of amnesty and “free stuff”:

DOOCY: According to members of the border patrol, that in addition to children who are getting a free pass for the most part, often times what they're doing is they're winding up having to process members of known Mexican gangs, in particular, you know, there's a lot of the young men with the tattoos for MS-13, and that is a problem. Because the way the law is right now, if somebody who is a child asks to come across, for the most part they give them a pass.


DOOCY: This administration created it. The President of the United States has made it very clear they're not going to enforce the sovereignty of the United States with the borders. And so, for the most part it's come on down, we've got free stuff. Anyway that's what's going on down there. A lot of members of gangs coming on in -- part of the unintended consequence. [Fox News, Fox & Friends6/16/14]

Fox's Heather Nauert: DHS Is Releasing Children Who Crossed Border Illegally To Parents In U.S. On the June 19 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, news anchor Heather Nauert claimed that the Department of Health and Human Services was releasing some of the children who had crossed the border illegally to their parents in the United States:

NAUERT: And no citizenship, no problem. We have just learned that the Department of Health and Human Services is releasing some children who crossed the border illegally to their parents here in the United States. No questions asked. They're not asking their parents if they're here legally. Saying their primary focus is clearing space in those facilities. [Fox News, Fox & Friends6/19/14]

FACT: Minors Will Have To Appear In Court For Deportation Proceedings

Mother Jones: Children Placed In Temporary Shelters While Awaiting Deportation ProceedingsMother Jones reported that the children from Central America are being placed in temporary shelters while they await deportation proceedings, while “those coming from Mexico are taken straight back across.” [Mother JonesJuly 2014]

New York Times: To Clear Space In Facilities, Some Women With Children Are Freed By Border Patrol But Issued Deportation Hearing Notice. On June 16, the New York Times reported that, due to lack of facilities near the border, the Border Patrol was releasing women with children who had crossed into the U.S. illegally to relatives in the U.S. The Times noted that they still have to appear in immigration court within thirty days:

With no immigration detention site equipped for women with children in the area -- the closest one, in Pennsylvania, is overbooked -- they are freed by the Border Patrol with a bus ticket to travel to where they have relatives in this country, and an order to appear in immigration court in 30 days.


While most men are held and processed quickly for deportation, border authorities struggling to manage the influx have been releasing pregnant women and parents with young children, allowing them to join family members living here and issuing them a deportation hearing notice. [New York Times, 6/16/14]

Wall Street Journal: “Recent Border Crossers Are A Priority For Deportation Under Obama Administration Policy.” The Wall Street Journal pointed out that, although some children are being released to family members while their deportation cases proceed, they were recent border crossers and are “a priority for deportation under Obama administration policy”:

All such children are put into deportation proceedings. But HHS officials are required to look for family or other sponsors in the U.S. with whom they can stay as their cases play out. That can be years in some parts of the U.S. because of backlogs in immigration courts.

About 90% of the children are placed with family or friends living in the U.S.--55% go to their parents. And while recent border crossers are a priority for deportation under Obama administration policy, by law the children's cases aren't expedited. [The Wall Street Journal6/19/14

FACT: These Children Are Not Eligible For Obama's Deferred Action Policy

Center For American Progress: New Immigrant Children Are Not Eligible For Deferred Action. The Center for American Progress reported that these children are not eligible to apply for any deportation relief policies previously set into place by the Obama administration. The 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) memorandum only exempts some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. before age 16 from deportation on a renewable two-year period. Only minors who came to the U.S. before the age of 16 and are under the age of 31 on June 15, 2012 are eligible, and only if they have been in the United States for at least five years. [Center for American Progress, 6/15/12

MYTH: Obama's Immigration Policy Caused Children To Cross Border

Fox's Andrew Napolitano: Obama “Personally And Directly Caused” Immigrant Humanitarian Crisis. On the March 9 edition of The Kelly File, Fox legal analyst Andrew Napolitano blamed Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy for this immigrant humanitarian crisis because it sends a message to families in Central America to “send your children here and they won't get deported.” [Fox News, The Kelly File6/9/14]

Fox Business Host Lou Dobbs: Obama Admin “Orchestrating” Immigrant Crisis “In Coordination With” Central American Governments. During the June 13 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, Lou Dobbs baselessly accused the Obama administration of coordinating the immigrant humanitarian crisis with the governments of Central America saying, “there's no doubt about it.” [Fox News, The O'Reilly Factor6/13/14]

Michelle Malkin: “The Latest 'Crisis' Is A Wholly Manufactured Byproduct Of White House Administrative Amnesties.” In her June 10  syndicated column published by the New York Post, Michelle Malkin claimed that efforts to deal with the influx of minors at the border amount to a political play “supported by a toxic alliance of ethnic vote-seeking Democrats and cheap-labor-hungry Big Business Republicans.” Malkin also characterized efforts to aid the children as “dumping illegals.” [New York Post6/10/14]

FACT:  Violence In Central America Is Primary Reason For Recent Influx In Unaccompanied Minors

Violence Is Leading Factor Forcing Children From Central America To U.S. Center for American Progress reported that “violence is the leading factor forcing unaccompanied children from Central America” to the U.S.:

Violence is the leading factor forcing unaccompanied children from Central America to the United States. Honduras has become the murder capital of the world and gang violence has increased dramatically--including in El Salvador and Guatemala--over the past few years. In fact, El Salvador and Guatemala rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in terms of the highest worldwide murder rates. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of State describes the violence level in Honduras and El Salvador as “critically high.” [Center for American Progress, 6/18/14]

Vox: Unaccompanied Children Are Being Pushed Out Of Their Countries By Violence In “Refugee-Like Situation.” According to a Vox interview with Megan McKenna of Kids in Need of Defense, the unaccompanied minors report that violence in their home countries was the primary reason they left: 

Children are being “pushed” by violence in Central America. Megan McKenna of Kids in Need of Defense, a group that works with unaccompanied migrant children, says that the children her group works with point to violence in their home countries as the primary reason they left. “They're telling us stories of gangs and criminal elements coming into their communities and forcing them to join a gang or some kind of criminal activity, and when they say no, they and their family members are subject to threats and violence,” she says. “It's a refugee-like situation.”

Indeed, the children coming to the United States appear to be increasingly more vulnerable -- implying it's just getting less and less possible to stay in their home countries. Over the past few years, the average age of these unaccompanied children has dropped. And a larger proportion are girls -- even though, McKenna says, “it's widely known they'll be a victim of sexual abuse” during the journey through Mexico. “It points to the sheer desperation of these kids in trying to leave their home country.” [Vox, 6/4/14]

*Transcript updated for accuracy.