AUSTIN, TX — On June 5, the conservative news blog Breitbart.com published photographs of Central American children packed into an overcrowded US Border Patrol processing center in South Texas. Within hours, the images, leaked from an unnamed source, became a news sensation, bringing new attention to a surge in child migration at the US-Mexico border. Just days before, the White House had announced a much less publicized emergency response to what President Obama described as a “humanitarian crisis” on the border. In the prior eight months authorities had detained more than 47,000 child migrants traveling without their parents and hailing from countries in the grip of organized crime and gangs.
Over that period, and even before, some strong press coverage had followed the experiences of those children and other migrants. But within days after the photos’ release, the story about detention conditions for children was subsumed by political grandstanding and politicking as Texas politicians redefined the crisis within the emotional issues of immigration and border security. Here in Texas, when the press went the way of politics, the coverage lost much of its bite as news reports became platforms for posturing and political point-scoring.
For example, the week after the images appeared in the press, The Texas Tribune published a report that relayed accusations from Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz that the influx was due to the Obama’s administration’s immigration policies, and on a call from Cornyn for the US to commit resources to help Mexico seal its southern border.
What elected officials have to say about a live political issue is news. But in ceding an open platform to the politicians, the story and others like it allowed the focus to shift from the condition in which the children were being held. It also omitted key context, like the problems with past US security interventions within Mexico and a wave of Central American migrant deaths in the South Texas desert—not a sign that migrants thought they would be welcome, or that they found evading the Border Patrol easy.
Lost in the shift to political coverage of the crisis was the considerable information contained in reports published before the issue had taken on political currency, which explained that number of Central American children arriving on the border has been growing in recent years. The detention issues which triggered the media and public attention this year were present two years ago, when the federal Border Patrol federal converted an Air Force Base in San Antonio into a temporary shelter for Central American child migrants. And, last year, Border Patrol union representatives in the Rio Grande Valley complained about overcrowding of detainees, primarily Central Americans, and described resorting to housing the migrants in a garage.
These stories provide critical context for understanding and explaining the ongoing conditions and problems already present when the photographs of the conditions for detained children became public. And, when Texas outlets focused on the experiences of migrants, they often delivered strong work with context and through a wider lens that emphasized accountability.
For example, well before the images made national news, the Houston Chronicle published a multi-part series that offered an in-depth look at the mounting crisis, with a focus on the safety of the children who are shuttled within a “labyrinthine network” of shelters, foster homes, and detention centers.
The Chronicle series also anticipated an emerging conflict—one that would mark much of the June debate—over how to define the child migrants and the reasons behind their increasing numbers. The paper kept the record straight about the players involved in shaping that debate:
A January report by UTEP’s National Center for Border Security and Immigration blames U.S. policy for creating a “lack of deterrence” for crossing the border illegally. The report, based largely on interviews with U.S. immigration officials, suggested the practice of quickly reunifying children with family members in the U.S. interior is luring more children north.
Several child advocates disputed the UTEP study’s findings, saying interviews with children from Central and South America show they are seeking refuge, not exploiting the system.
“They are being forced out,” said Kimberley Haynes, director for children’s services at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. “This is an absolute humanitarian crisis.”
It’s not an academic discussion. How the issue is framed and explained plays a critical function in shaping the public policy response. The Obama administration initially responded with a plan to ensure that the children received legal representation. Unlike criminal cases, the government is not obligated to provide detainees with an attorney for immigration court.