On Sunday, ABC’s This Week sent its weekly roundtable—excuse me, its Powerhouse Roundtable—on a field trip to the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s possible that a Sunday show has never looked more striking: host Martha Raddatz and her three guests, all social distanced, seated in front of an immense chain-link fence, the Texas sun low overhead. Raddatz announced that they were broadcasting not only from the border, which has faced a surge of migrants in recent weeks, but from “the heart of an emerging crisis for the Biden administration.”
That “crisis” has arguably been the biggest media story of the past several days, surpassing Covid-19, vaccinations, the stimulus bill, Cabinet confirmations, and the Biden administration’s embryonic infrastructure package. Coverage of the crisis led every Sunday show, setting the agenda for a week of increasingly hyperbolic rhetoric. Meet the Press’s Chuck Todd described the situation as a “political crisis for the new president with no easy way out,” noting that Republicans blame Biden’s policy shifts on the surge, while Democrats point to the “dismantled and unworkable” immigration system they inherited—if only someone could figure out what was true! Politico Playbook, running particularly hot as it struggles to conjure Beltway conflict out of thin air, described the Biden administration’s failure to use the word crisis as “Orwellian.”
All the crisis talk is telling. The Biden administration has been relatively drama-free in its first two months—compared to the nonstop turbulence of its predecessor, it is downright serene. The situation at the border—accompanied by any number of descriptors, typically “deteriorating” or “chaotic”—injects some conflict, otherwise absent, into the picture. These poor migrants are less a humanitarian issue in these instances than a political one: All that really matters is that Republicans are criticizing Biden’s immigration stance. The Beltway press is back to doing what it does best: being a laundering mechanism for Republican talking points.
There is precious little context in much of the mainstream coverage of the “crisis” at the southern border. You rarely hear that apprehensions at the southern border have been slowly increasing throughout the pandemic, a point that suggests that a new, more welcoming president is not the only factor driving the surge. You hear little about the fact that the current swell in people apprehended at the border is lower than one that occurred two years ago or that, as a Relief Web study found, “the Trump administration presided over the largest flows of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border since the mid-2000s.” The number of apprehensions is also far lower than it was during the Bush administration, when these surges received far less mainstream attention.
That lack of context creates a misleading picture. Donald Trump’s candidacy was based on xenophobic anti-immigrant rhetoric but did nothing to solve the underlying problems driving migration and, in fact, put many policies in place that made them worse. On top of that, “persistent violence, a pandemic economic collapse, and historically severe hurricanes have created an acute need to migrate to seek protection and economic survival,” the authors of the Relief Web study wrote. A different study, published in The Washington Post on Tuesday, argued that there was no surge at all. Instead, we were witnessing “a predictable pattern of seasonal changes in undocumented immigration combined with a backlog of demand because of 2020’s coronavirus border closure.”
There is little in the short term that the Biden administration can do to change these factors. The rise of unaccompanied minors being apprehended at the border is particularly vexing, as well—these children can’t simply be sent back into Mexico, and prior efforts to deal with this problem were inhumane and inadequate. For the Biden administration, they pose a political problem, given the rightful attention to the humanitarian travesty of “kids in cages” during the previous administration and increasing focus on the Obama administration’s immigration failures.
But there’s little focus on the human side of the surge at the border. Instead, this is being presented as a showdown between Republicans (tough on immigration) and Democrats (big softies). There is little information about the violence in Central America driving the surge or the fact that it is fueled by America’s appetite for illegal drugs. There are many reporters who cover this particularly well, at outlets like ProPublica, The New Yorker, and NPR. But so much of the mainstream political press is focused on this only as a sensitive spot for the Biden administration and as an opportunity for Republicans to score political points.
Stephen Miller, the ghoulish figure behind the Trump administration’s most draconian immigration policies, has found a welcome audience in the press as he plots his second act. He has hammered the administration on its failure to treat the situation as a crisis and the lack of access it has given the press. “It was a global policy, allowing and encouraging media access,” Miller told the four reporters in a trench coat writing Politico Playbook. “I used to call [Customs and Border Patrol] and say, ‘Why can’t you get more reporters to ride alongside?’ … I want to turn on 60 Minutes and see footage.” But as The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent wrote on Wednesday, Miller is purposefully misleading the press about Biden’s immigration policies in the hope that Republicans will reap political benefit.
The political coverage of the story gets it wrong, as well. The underlying assumption—that Republicans can successfully use immigration as a wedge issue to win elections—may be correct, given Trump’s rise and the GOP’s success in Congress, though it also might not be. (Remember the “migrant caravan” that Trump tried to use to hold onto the House in 2018?) What is absolutely clear, however, is that the GOP has no interest in ameliorating or fixing the crisis. The Republican Party has deemed any immigration reform at all a political third rail and is unwilling to do anything that will actually improve the situation, either at the border or in Central America. In fact, it has done a great deal to make the situation worse, understanding full well that it can use it to its political advantage, as it’s doing now. The Democrats are more serious about fixing the problem but have also done little, afraid of electoral blowback.
Cynically using a humanitarian crisis you have no intention of fixing to win elections is an interesting political story, and it’s one that captures what the Republican Party is at the moment. But many in the mainstream press have no interest in covering that story. Instead, they’re using it to, as Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop wrote, “prove their evenhandedness in covering Biden.” The surge at the border is complicated and requires empathy and a focus on the profound human cost of America’s draconian, imperialistic immigration and foreign policy. It is, in other words, a story the mainstream press is particularly bad at covering.