Looking beyond the line

When reporters rise above politics, they deliver a broader look from the border

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.

As the story grew, the Obama Administration, later announced plans for expedited removal, which would accelerate deportation. Still unclear is how well the build up of immigration prosecutions and legal representation will be coordinated to protect the rights of children who fled their home countries because they were targets of violence and may be eligible for refugee status or visas.

A report released in March by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which deserves wider mention in the press than it has received, found that of a representative sample of 404 Mexican and Central American child migrants interviewed, 58 percent “were forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection.”  

In other words, an unspecified number of these children could be eligible for refugee status, meaning refusing the children could be a breach of U.N. Conventions.

Honduras regularly ranks as the “murder capitol of the world.” Violence in El Salvador has in recent years rivaled the levels of the civil war period. The link between violence and displacement was recently explored by Insight Crime, which noted that about 2 percent of the population of El Salvador and Mexico have been driven from their homes in recent years. In El Salvador, “Out of these approximately 130,000 individuals, nearly one-third felt compelled to leave their homes two or more times.”

Apart from the tough standards to qualify for refugee status, a 2008 law extends protections to children fleeing abuse. Between those rules and the refugee and amnesty guidelines, immigration lawyers believe up to 80 percent of the unaccompanied minors from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala may be eligible for a Special Immigrant Juveniles visa, according to a Fox News Latino report.

In much recent press coverage, these facts have been secondary to the debate over what role, if any, US policy had in inducing the wave of migrants. Republican critics of the Obama administration have been quick to put the blame on allegedly weak enforcement, and comments from the Border Patrol have, as the Houston Chronicle noted in its report about housing conditions, often reinforced that narrative.

The role of the Border Patrol in shaping coverage cries out for some scrutiny. On June 13, just one week after the photos of the children became a news item, Border Patrol officials began suspending communication with reporters, according to the McAllen Monitor’s Storify feed. “As national media outlets continue to arrive in South Texas, Border Patrol agents are warned by an assistant chief patrol agent not to talk to reporters… Reporters continue to contact the Vice President of the local Border Patrol union chapter, Chris Cabrera, for comment instead.”

An article in The Monitor last year also made clear that the union had expressed grievances over fuel and personnel shortages with Washington with Washington by leaking documents and making anonymous comments to the press. The union and agency officials also have an interest in increased resources and personnel, warranting skepticism that often did not appear in news reports.

And when the Border Patrol is quoted and officials go on to cite media coverage to Congress to make their point, it creates an echo chamber effect. During a June 24 House committee hearing, Ronald Vitiello, deputy chief of the US Border Patrol, told members, “I’m not sure (what’s driving them to come).” But when asked if US policy was a factor, he cited the very press coverage that was informed by Border Patrol comments: “I think that’s reflected in the intelligence we have collected, it’s reflected in the media.”

Among the press coverage that has focused on this debate, both in Texas and nationally, some has uncritically relayed talking points, comments from unnamed Border Patrol officials, or secondhand accounts. Other examples have been somewhat more enterprising, and there are some accounts in which migrants are quoted saying perceived policy changes played a role. But even the stronger stories rely on anecdotes. A broader—but overlooked—analysis was available within the UNHCR study, which found that of 404 children interviewed, only nine mentioned the possibility of favorable treatment from the US as a factor in their migration.

Rather than chasing the political debate and trying to parse just how much different factors are shaping the migrants’ arrivals, coverage might explore whether the children’s rights will be protected. While there are arguments that many of the children have legal claims to stay in the US, over the weekend the White House asked Congress for “additional authority to exercise discretion” in deporting migrant children, along with more funds for the task. More broadly, some observers argue that the immigration system routinely rejects legitimate asylum claims, out of “this fear of having many people come.” What happens next is an important part of the story.

Beyond the Chronicle series, there have been some other solid, insightful stories focused on the children, with enterprising reports from the ground. The Dallas Morning News produced a coordinated report from immigration court in Dallas and the migrant trail in Mexico that offered a vivid look at the unfiltered statements by the children, the complex reasons behind their migration, the dangers they face and ultimately, immigration court.

The Valley Morning Star, published in the border city of Harlingen, provided a practical overview into the challenges facing asylum petitions while focusing on the largely overlooked population of Mexican children leaving communities absorbed by violence. And the El Paso Times gave readers the local perspective with a glimpse of the children and mothers trying to find their way on the city’s streets, with evidently little oversight after being released by immigration officials.

Future coverage would be enriched by drawing on the complexity and insights of these accounts and bringing migrants’ experiences into political coverage. Even when a story is just about the official political world, though, there are often opportunities to bring scrutiny to public officials’ comments often by simply from drawing from the archives.

For example, when Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican nominee for governor, requested $30 million from the Obama administration to fund a “border surge” by state police, coverage might have noted that a month earlier, the House Speaker, a Republican, had been unwilling to commit funds to a similar operation. An account at the time tellingly explained that the multi-million dollar “surge” had been seen, even among some Republicans, as a campaign stunt.

By late June, state officials had agreed to spend the funds after all, even if the mission remained vaguely defined when the deal was struck. As plans materialized, an item in the Austin American-Statesman outlined but did too little to question the philosophy of the state’s public safety director, who favors “border surges” over investigations into organized crime.

Of course, accountability also has to extend to the officials responsible for conditions in the centers where detained migrants are kept—and those who didn’t create that problem but have done little to fix it. On June 23, months after the Houston Chronicle investigation into the conditions of the children, and three weeks after Breitbart published the photos, The San Antonio Express News published an article under the headline, “As Valley crisis continues officials point fingers.” The report rightly focused on the showboating by Democrats and Republicans who arrived in South Texas calling for enhanced border enforcement, even as “severe” overcrowding and unsanitary conditions at processing centers have largely went unmentioned.

The report cited conditions that included children housed in a “non-air-conditioned overflow area” where temperatures reached 100 degrees and, at times, alongside adult; living space limited to roughly 5½ square feet per child; and “toilets in cells where children ate and slept.”

Tough reporting has emerged from those putting aside politics to focus the largely silent players in the story: the children.

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Michelle Garcia is CJR's correspondent for Texas. She is working on a book about masculinity, myth, and the U.S.-Mexico border. GarcĂ­a reported from The Washington Post's New York bureau for three years and her work has appeared in numerous publications. She is the director and producer of the PBS film Against Mexico: the Making of Heroes and Enemies. Follow her at @pistoleraprod or email mg@michellegarciainc.com.