In December, Fernando García, the executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, gave the incoming Biden administration a warning—that if they ignored the needs of migrants and asylum seekers at the border, it would quickly become a manufactured crisis, one that would, as García put it, not only derail hopes for comprehensive immigration reform, but “derail the administration itself.”
“We warned the administration, we talked to some people close to Biden, and we talked with members of Congress to say, you know, if you don’t do this well, then you’re going to have the appearance of a crisis, which it is not, and then certain people will use it politically, especially Republicans,” García told Jezebel. “And then it happened.”
What García means is that the border has, in recent weeks, once again become the site of disingenuous outrage. People presenting themselves at the border, including thousands of largely teenagers traveling without their family members to seek asylum in the U.S., is being painted once again as a “surge,” or a “wave” and a “growing crisis.” It has dominated cable news, with predictable and depressing effects. According to a recent Politico and Morning Consult poll, support for offering undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship has dropped 14 points since January, even among Democrats. “What’s likely happening here is that the GOP’s messaging on the border surge is starting to bleed into other aspects of the conversation on immigration,” Politico noted.
The reality is that not much has changed at the border, according to an analysis by Tom Wong of the University of California at San Diego’s U.S. Immigration Policy Center. “This year looks like the usual seasonal increase, plus migrants who would have come last year but could not,” Wong wrote of the numbers of people coming to the U.S. What else hasn’t changed is that the border remains, far from “open,” effectively closed, the result of decades of militarization and ramped up border security and begun in earnest during the Clinton years, and that Biden, continuing some of his predecessor’s worst policies enacted under the guise of covid-19, has been turning away the vast majority of single adults and even families who are attempting to seek asylum under Title 42.
You wouldn’t know that, though, from watching or reading the mainstream political press. That this crisis narrative has been eagerly pushed by rightwing news outlets like Fox News and Republicans like Ted Cruz who now suddenly have found it politically expedient to pretend to care about unaccompanied minors crossing the border, while simultaneously characterizing them and other migrants as a threat, is wholly unsurprising. It’s political theater, meant to score cheap and all-too-easy points and to dehumanize people fleeing poverty and violence, in an effort to maintain the status quo and derail any chances of significant immigration reform.
But this crisis narrative has been promoted by other mainstream press outlets, a narrative largely devoid of context but full of the conflict and drama that cable news depends upon. Take a segment aired by CNN earlier in March, which featured CNN correspondent Ed Lavandera motoring along the Rio Grande and encountering a group of people from Honduras. “The Rio Grande Valley has been ground zero for the latest surge in migration and here you see the operation unfolding right in front of us,” he states. Immigrant rights advocates have raised the possibility this video was staged with the cooperation of Border Patrol officials and that CNN, in a bid for dramatic footage, found themselves doing the work of rabid racists and xenophobes like Stephen Miller. (CNN’s head of communications denied these suggestions on Twitter.) “I used to call [Customs and Border Protection] and say, ‘Why can’t you get more reporters to ride alongside?’” Miller told Politico recently. “I want to turn on 60 Minutes and see footage.”
If the response by the mainstream political press and Republicans (as well as some conservative Democrats) has been predictable, the Biden administration has boxed itself into a corner largely of its own making, responding in a late and contradictory manner that has appeased no one. His administration only belatedly threw resources into ensuring that unaccompanied minors were treated well. And Biden’s continuation of the use of Title 42 to asylum seekers quickly in a likely effort to show he is no softie on immigration has not done what he hoped it would. As the immigration reporters Gaby Del Valle and Felipe De La Hoz noted, Biden has accomplished nothing but harming people who are seeking asylum and dismaying his allies:
The position has triggered steady backlash from pro-immigrant and progressive groups, but predictably won him zero points among right-wing critics who—despite Biden having kept in place what amounts to a discretionary and near-total bar to asylum, the longtime dream of Stephen Miller—continue to claim that Biden is both abandoning enforcement and has single-handedly created a humanitarian crisis among migrants, which is something they suddenly seem to care about. The first part is obviously false, while the second is just incomplete; Biden certainly has caused suffering to asylum seekers by keeping Title 42 in place and failing to adequately prepare for the predictable consequence of a growth in the number of minors attempting entry alone, leading to prolonged stays in Border Patrol cells.
As the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote, “To the extent that the United States has a border crisis, it is an enduring one: the mistreatment of human beings in American custody. That problem is resolvable, but only by the U.S. meeting its legal obligation to treat migrants humanely.” Serwer added, “But if the ‘border crisis’ is the American government’s failure to be as cruel as possible, there is no solution worth pursuing, and none that would actually work.”
This would require a wholesale rethinking of how the border is popularly conceived, a project that is not solely the work of one administration alone. BNHR’s García often describes the border as “the new Ellis Island.” As García put it to me, “The border is going to define, for good or for bad, how the nation is going to look.”
This post has been updated to include CNN’s response.