Haiti, the US, and defining the stakes of the migration crisis

Last Thursday, more than ten thousand asylum-seekers, most of them from Haiti, gathered in a makeshift holding facility under an international bridge in the Mexican-American border town of Del Rio, Texas. The staggering number of migrants living in limbo, the poor conditions in which they waited, and the question of how the US government might respond spawned droves of international coverage: in the Washington Post, Fox News, Al Jazeera, Yahoo News, the BBC, NPR, the New York Times, USA Today, National Geographic, CNN, the South China Morning Post, and more. On Saturday, the Biden administration announced that it would begin deporting asylum-seekers en masse, using a Trump-era policy to expedite their removal; on Sunday, the first deportation flights carried hundreds of migrants back to Haiti, a country many of them had not lived in for years. The flights continued through Tuesday, and international attention intensified again after photographers captured disturbing images of US Border Guards on horseback chasing migrants while holding leather straps.

Many US media outlets called the situation at the border a “crisis,” though for whom sometimes differed, according to the coverage. The Wall Street Journal noted that migrants had “overwhelmed” the small city of Del Rio. POLITICO wrote that “Biden is caught in a political vise.” Others called the large number of migrants seeking asylum a “surge” or “flood”—words used commonly in reporting on the Mexican-American border, ostensibly intended to convey disproportionately high numbers of simultaneous asylum-seekers but often erroneously, and with the effect of reducing a humanitarian problem to a logistical problem or stoking xenophobic fears.

Humanitarian crises are often logistical crises, to be sure, and both require attention. The best coverage of the Haitian asylum-seekers and the Biden administration’s response has scrutinized the US’s immigration policies and recent deportation efforts while focusing on their devastating human consequences. On Monday, Jacqueline Charles, Caribbean correspondent at the Miami Herald, led with the US government’s role in incentivizing this migration: “Lack of access to asylum in the US, confusion over US immigration policy and desperation are fueling a surge of Haitian migrants into Del Rio, Texas, where thousands who have arrived in the past few days are living in makeshift conditions under an international bridge,” Charles wrote. Jonathan Katz, a former AP correspondent for Haiti, summarized America’s “schizophrenic” immigration policy for his newsletter: “At first, the Biden administration had been fighting (and apparently proved unable to control) the unhinged bureaucratic border-security superstructure left by Stephen Miller and Donald Trump. Then the White House changed course and took the lead on deporting Haitians, dumping thousands into Port-au-Prince on private flights owned by a Trump super-donor—even as it officially found Haiti to be unstable enough to allow thousands more who had come just a few weeks before to stay, citing the instability of Haitian politics following the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. A pause in deportation flights after the Aug. 14 earthquake, which killed 2,200 people, apparently lasted a month.” Widlore Mérancourt reported with Anthony Faiola on the Biden administration’s most recent mismanagement, writing in the Washington Post that several deportees said they were returned to Haiti without being told they were being repatriated. 

Such critical coverage is predicated upon knowledge of Haiti’s history—including the role the US played in shaping its current realities—and the human stakes, which reporters like Charles, Katz, and Mérancourt have kept near at hand. Charles has recently covered the intersecting crises in Haiti—a presidential assassination, a deadly earthquake, delays in COVID-19 vaccine delivery and distribution—that are both precursors and backdrops to this story. In his newsletter, Katz, who covered Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake for the AP, considers the questions and concerns of a Haitian friend attempting to read the room on fickle US immigration policies. Mérancourt, editor in chief at Haiti’s Ayibopost, has reported recently on the influx of US weapons into Haiti, the barriers to humanitarian aid following the earthquake, and families fleeing to barely habitable shelters to escape gang violence.

“Any region’s coverage is a reflection of how outlets allocate resources,” Stephania Taladrid writes in a piece, out today, about immigration for CJR’s newest magazine. Taladrid’s piece, which focuses primarily on Latin America, speaks well beyond any one region or subject. “When reporters have less time to develop stories in place, and instead chase breaking news wherever it leads, the resulting coverage frames narratives…in response to emergencies, especially political exigencies,” Taladrid writes. “These dispatches convey a sense of urgency—which may well lead readers to favor swift and temporary solutions to what are, in reality, long-standing problems.” As newsrooms allocate resources to cover the present crisis, it’s worth investing in reporters who have a wider scope, and who take a deeper, longer look.

Below, more on immigration coverage:

  • “Out of Focus”: For CJR’s newest Politics magazine issue, Stephania Taladrid writes that, too often, immigration coverage is viewed through the lens of American politics. “If immigration is always cast as a crisis, it will always be treated as a new phenomenon, unrelated to a structural issue which is directly tied to US foreign policy,” Alexandra Délano, the cochair of global studies at the New School, told her. “When the Biden-created ‘crisis’ at the border magically disappeared, in the view of news outlets, so did the countries from which migrants came,” Taladrid writes.
  • “Biden Border Crisis”: For Washington Monthly, James North wrote about the GOP’s manufactured outrage against the Biden administration and how its talking points successfully proliferated throughout media coverage of migration at the Mexican-American border. “Some reports emphasized the political ‘challenge for Biden,’ instead of the humanitarian challenge for the Haitians,” North writes. “But the mainstream media’s biggest failure is that it ignores U.S. complicity in the chronic crisis in Haiti, especially in the decade since the devastating 2010 earthquake.”
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Other notable stories:

  • Former president Donald Trump is suing the New York Times, along with three of its reporters, as well as his niece, Mary Trump, for a 2018 investigation into his tax records. The article, which was the product of eighteen months of reporting, documents previously undisclosed tax records and reports that Trump “received at least $413 million in today’s dollars from his father’s real estate empire, much of it through tax dodges in the 1990s.” The reporting won a Pulitzer Prize in 2019. Trump—whose lawsuit claims actual malice, based, in part, on some of Mary Trump’s statements to Molly Jong-Fast in an interview for a Daily Beast podcastplans to seek $100 million in damages.
  • Danny Fenster, an American journalist detained in Myanmar in May, was ordered to remain in prison during a Monday hearing which marked his 120th day in custody. Fenster was arrested under a vague allegation that he reported information that might be harmful to the military; he has not been formally charged. Myanmar’s military junta, which seized control of the country in February, has arrested more than 100 journalists since taking power, nearly half of whom remain in custody.
  • The NewsGuild labor union is investigating the workplace culture at newspaper conglomerate Gannett following Twitter exchanges about unpaid labor at the company. After Rebekah Sanders, an Arizona Republic reporter, tweeted about her own negative experiences with unpaid labor, editor Michael Braga responded by tweeting, “Every business exploits the young — it’s called gaining experience, and I don’t regret it one bit.” (Braga has since apologized.) Jon Schleuss, NewsGuild’s president, says the exchange prompted other Gannett staffers to share their experiences. “To end this culture of exploitation for the future and repair Gannett’s reputation as a place that best-in-class journalists want to work, the company must also agree to reasonable commitments in its union contracts,” Schleuss wrote.
  • NewsGuild also released a report detailing multiple cases of harassment across a twenty-year time period at the Pittsburgh Guild, the union representing workers at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Poynter reported. Last year, Pittsburgh Guild president Michael Fuoco stepped down after multiple misconduct allegations. Following the publication of its report, the NewsGuild announced that it would revisit and clarify its procedures for reporting harassment and misconduct.
  • The Wall Street Journal’s recent investigation into Facebook’s inconsistent treatment of high-profile users prompted an inquiry from the tech platform’s oversight board. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that Facebook is testing a feature to amplify news stories that favor its platform. “The idea was that pushing pro-Facebook news items — some of them written by the company — would improve its image in the eyes of its users, three people with knowledge of the effort said,” Ryan Mac and Sheera Frenkel wrote.
  • Tonight, a group of late-night talk show hosts will feature the climate crisis in their shows. For the Washington Post, Margaret Sullivan considered the benefits of using comedy and entertainment to bring the grave and pressing crisis to a broader audience. M. Sanjayan, chief executive at a conservation nonprofit, told Sullivan that “humor can build community, add crucial hope to a movement that seems up against insurmountable odds, and keep people engaged.” (Comedian Jimmy Kimmel, for his part, told Sullivan that he’s up for the collaboration because he “[doesn’t] want to die.”)

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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites

TOP IMAGE: Migrants, many from Haiti, are seen wading between the U.S. and Mexico on the Rio Grande, Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, in Del Rio, Texas. AP Photo/Julio Cortez