At the border, access is no substitute for humanity

A week ago, anonymous Customs and Border Protection officials told NBC that the Biden administration had imposed an unofficial “gag order” at the US-Mexico border. They were instructed, they said, to forward all press queries to Washington, keep custody data close to their vests, and deny media requests for “ridealongs” and to access the facilities where children are being held. Since then, journalists have pressed White House officials on the latter restrictions, in particular, and have been supported in their fight by tireless media and transparency champions such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz and the Trump-era press secretary Kayleigh McEnany; the White House responded by citing privacy and public-health concerns, then by pledging to arrange access, likely via a pool system, at some unspecified future date. In the absence of access, reporters have had to make do with images released by CBP and by Rep. Henry Cuellar, a conservative Texas Democrat who has criticized Biden’s handling of the border. They show children sitting tightly packed in soft-sided “pods,” and lying on mats on the floor under blankets.

Meanwhile, the political press, in Washington and beyond, has, in recent days, given the border story unrestrained “crisis” treatment. Late last week, Politico’s Playbook newsletter called the Biden administration’s refusal, to that point, to use the C-word “Orwellian”; over the weekend, the border was the wall-to-wall top story on the Sunday shows—quite literally in the case of ABC News, which flew the cast of This Week to El Paso to sit on a makeshift stage in front of a giant fence. “DON’T COME,” Dana Bash blared at the top of State of the Union, as Alejandro Mayorkas, the Homeland Security secretary, pulled a full Ginsburg to hammer home that point. Much coverage has presented the “tide” of unaccompanied children at the border as a direct consequence of Biden’s “welcoming” rhetoric. “A lot of the migrants coming in [are] saying they’re coming in because you promised to make things better,” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos told the president last week; “You want to be humane,” CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, on Monday, “but at the same time that humanity might serve as beckoning for some of these migrants. Do you accept that?” Other outlets have cast the decision to allow unaccompanied children to apply for asylum as a “Biden administration policy.” (In fact, it is a legal requirement—and Biden’s “welcoming” stance still involves automatically expelling almost everyone else applying for asylum, under Trump-era “public-health” protocols.)

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Such coverage often touts the border situation as a “bipartisan” concern—usually quoting Cuellar and/or Vicente González, another Texas Congressman, as Democratic critics of Biden. Many media critics, however, have made the case that the mainstream framing of the story has often echoed Republican talking points about border security, as pushed both by politicians and their right-wing media boosters. (Last week, Tucker Carlson hosted an episode of his Fox News show from El Salvador, which resulted in this surreal screen grab.) “Now that Trump proved the political potential of xenophobic bigotry, and Republicans are desperate to talk about anything but Biden’s enormously popular pandemic rescue bill, conservatives are whipping up a classic misdirection circus,” Ryan Cooper wrote in The Week, and “all too many mainstream media sources are happy to play along.” The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch pushed back on the “crisis” frame and criticized “Beltway journalists eager to go back to the brunch of lazy punditry”; Salon’s Heather Digby Parton wrote that one should “never underestimate the overwhelming incentive for some in the press to seize on a storyline that allows them to prove that they are not the ‘liberal media.’” A Washington Post story headlined, “‘No end in sight’: Inside the Biden administration’s failure to contain the border surge” came in for particular criticism. Sawyer Hackett, an aide to the Democrat Julián Castro, called it “pure hot garbage, beginning to end.”

Yesterday, the Post ran a very different piece: an analysis headlined, “There’s no migrant ‘surge’ at the U.S. southern border. Here’s the data.” Tom K. Wong, Gabriel De Roche, and Jesus Rojas Venzor, of the University of California at San Diego, analyzed CBP figures since 2012 and found “no crisis or surge that can be attributed to Biden administration policies,” but rather “a predictable pattern of seasonal changes in undocumented immigration combined with a backlog of demand because of 2020’s coronavirus border closure”; they also noted a large body of scholarship showing that “border security policies do not necessarily deter migration” so much as delay and reroute it. Some immigration reporters have made similar points: Felipe De La Hoz tweeted last week that he has “yet to see a single piece of evidence that administration messaging—of any type, in any administration, at any time—has discretely had a meaningful impact on asylum seekers’ decisions to travel”; on Monday, NBC’s Jacob Soboroff said, on The View, that “it doesn’t matter what any president says: migrants who are fleeing desperation are going to come.” These and other reporters have noted other issues with the data, pointing out, for instance, that border apprehensions increased more in 2019 than now, and that in any case, a growing number of arrests, as ProPublica’s Dara Lind put it, “doesn’t mean anything on its own.”

What’s happening here, in short, is complicated and contested—greatly more so than the Biden being too nice has driven a surge narrative that many outlets have pushed. What constitutes a “crisis” is complicated, too—coverage that alludes to political and national-security crises is contrived, at best, but as Soboroff and others have pointed out, the detention of children in overcrowded border facilities is a humanitarian crisis. Irrespective of data trends, Biden has inherited an immigration system that his predecessor overhauled in ways both intricate and shockingly cruel, and that is riddled with other flaws dating to the last administration that Biden served, and beyond. There are then, of course, the crises of violence, political oppression, poverty, climate change, and natural disaster in Central America, many of them exacerbated by decades of US foreign policy. And yet, as Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar told CNN’s Brian Stelter, much coverage has overlooked, or skimmed past, this context, resulting in stories in which migrants “are not humanized,” and that don’t “recognize that they are not that much different than ourselves, if we were to find ourselves in the situations they’re finding themselves in.”

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The Biden administration should give reporters access to border facilities—but reporters must remember that images of detained children alone are not enough to humanize border coverage. We don’t, in fact, need access to make a start on that: we can end the language of “surges” and “tides”; stop treating human beings, with their multiplicities of emotions and motivations, as inputs in a game-theory exercise; and better understand that bad conditions for children are a moral problem regardless of what side of the border they’re on. There are many excellent reporters on the immigration beat—but there are many journalists out there, too, who seem more interested in the humanity of American politicians than the people fleeing dangers that those politicians helped cause, or won’t address. And, in bending over backward to prove their evenhandedness in covering Biden—to the point of questioning whether his basic humanity is the right approach—many reporters in the latter group have flipped right past a much better way to inject bipartisanship into the border story: illustrate the complicity of both parties in the broader long-term failures of the immigration system, access or none.

Below, more on the border:

  • The data: Sara Fischer and Neal Rothschild report, for Axios, that the border story has started “to take over the news cycle, pulling attention and coverage away from the COVID-19 vaccine.” This trend has been driven, in no small part, by right-wing outlets: “Nearly all (forty-six) of the top fifty stories about the situation at the border in the last two weeks have come from conservative media, according to data from NewsWhip.”
  • Debunking work: In a Sunday night interview, MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan pushed back on Republican Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw’s claims that the border is “effectively open.” Since the pandemic began, “border apprehensions have gone up month after month,” Hasan said, putting a graph up on screen. “The truth is Joe Biden did not inherit falling numbers. He inherited nine consecutive months of increases.” Crenshaw said he wasn’t sure where Hasan’s data had come from; Hasan replied that it came from CBP.
  • Donald from Queens Palm Beach is on line 1: On Monday, Trump was patched into Harris Faulkner’s show, on Fox News. At one point, Faulkner told the former president that Mayorkas had just resigned, leading Trump to hail “a big victory for our country”—but Mayorkas had not resigned and Faulkner corrected her mistake. (“Cross out that victory,” Trump said.) Later, Faulkner asked Trump why he’d decided to come on and weigh in on immigration, given that former presidents typically refrain from commenting on their successors’ policies. “You called me,” Trump replied. “I didn’t call you, in all fairness.”
  • A bizarre story: Writing for the American Prospect, Marcia Brown asks whether CNN broadcast misleading footage that purported to show human trafficking across the Rio Grande. “Immigrant rights advocates and others claim that the footage was staged, potentially with the cooperation of the Border Patrol,” Brown writes. “CNN was warned that the clip appeared to be a fabrication before it aired, but the network decided to run it anyway. A similar clip that appears to show the same or a similar trafficking incident from another angle was shared across right-wing media and even linked to on the social media accounts of members of Congress.” Matt Dornic, CNN’s head of comms, said that “CNN did not participate in any type of coordinated effort to shoot a staged scene of migrants crossing the river nor have we found any credible evidence that suggests our team was unknowingly part of a set-up by Border Patrol or anyone else.”


Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.