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News Hole

What the Media Gets Wrong About the So-Called Border Crisis

The mainstream press’s dark warnings about a flood of migrants are underpinned by a staggering ignorance about where asylum-seekers are coming from—and why they’re fleeing for their lives.

Qian Weizhong/Getty Images
Asylum-seeking migrants receive bracelets with their date of arrival from a Border Patrol agent after crossing from Mexico, at a makeshift camp next to the U.S. border wall in Jacumba Hot Springs, California.

That Fox News would lie and distort the truth about what’s happening on the southern border of the United States is, by now, no surprise. What’s increasingly dismaying is the behavior of the rest of the mainstream U.S. media, which has followed suit, twisting the story and leaving out essential truths. The New York Times, National Public Radio, and CNN may not be as malicious as Fox, but their failures still amount to media malpractice—and leave your average American with a fearful and misleadingly alarmist view.

Errors abound. First, the mainstream media has been implying that the latest surge of migrants comes from “all over the world,” leaving the impression that some global tidal wave has hit these shores and shows no signs of cresting anytime soon. This inaccurate implication has only served to reinforce Donald Trump’s dangerous demagoguery. Trump’s postings on TruthSocial have echoed the claim that “millions of illegal aliens are invading from all over the world.” He’s all but stopped talking about “building the wall.” He’s replaced this rhetoric with something more radical: On January 10, for example, he told a Fox News town hall audience that if he wins, he will carry out “the largest deportation effort in the history of our country,” adding, “We’ll be sending everybody back where they came from.”

Second, and even worse, the mainstream media has failed to explain why so many have recently sought asylum at the border. Disastrous U.S. policies—some recent and some dating back a few decades—have greatly contributed to this rise in migrants. To address this reality, changes to these policies are in order.

It is true that the number of migrants who showed up at the border in December 2023 set a new record of more than 225,000 apprehensions. But the estimable Adam Isacson, at the Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA, assiduously maintains statistics on these asylum-seekers, and a closer look at the numbers weakens the “global tidal wave” theory substantially. Last August, more than 90 percent of the migrants who showed up at the border were from the usual sources: Mexico and Central America, with the addition over the past few years of some from Venezuela and Haiti. Meanwhile, if you add migrants from the rest of the world to those coming from China and India, you’ll end up with less than 10 percent of the total.

But you wouldn’t have learned these basic facts from the U.S. media. One New York Times report in late December was characteristic: “Thousands of migrants are arriving at the border every day, trekking from the farthest reaches of the globe, driven by relentless violence, desperation and poverty.” The report went on to quote only a single migrant, from the Sudan. A few days later, the Times drove home the point with an entire article headlined: “African Migration to the U.S. Soars as Europe Cracks Down.” National Public Radio’s year-end roundup, by its chief border correspondent, only cited three migrants: a Venezuelan pharmacist, a Kurdish English teacher, and a Russian doctor. And The Washington Post also reinforced the “global tidal wave” with its recent sub-headline: “Brazen smugglers saw through border wall, coordinate travel from Africa and Asia to bring tens of thousands across the U.S.-Mexico border.”

These distortions are surely not sinister; mainstream journalists look for novelty and are attracted to shiny objects. But they’ve dangerously compounded these errors by failing to inform their audiences that the U.S. government bears significant responsibility for this rise in migrants. A closer look at the sending nations—an analysis that none of the mainstream outlets has undertaken—will show the connection, and how this so-called crisis is firmly rooted in our own bad foreign policy choices.

Let’s start with Venezuela. It is absolutely true that over the past few years, the number of Venezuelans showing up at the U.S. border has exploded; this past September they were in first place, with 54,833 arrivals. But scant attention has been paid to what’s driving these numbers.

William Neuman, a former New York Times correspondent in Venezuela, has written a superb book that suggests some answers. Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse chronicles Venezuela’s economic crash, which he explains is “one of the most extreme collapses of a country in peacetime that has ever been recorded.” In response, seven million people have left the country—by far the greatest number of refugees in Latin American history. Neuman notes at length that mismanagement and antidemocratic repression by Venezuela’s governments, particularly the current Nicolás Maduro regime, are mainly responsible for the disaster.

But Neuman also takes pain to note how the Trump administration’s harsh economic warfare made an already bad situation worse. Before Trump, the United States planned to impose “targeted” sanctions, aimed at the regime’s top figures, as a form of concentrated pressure. But Trump, partly pandering to right-wing Latino voters in Florida and elsewhere, overruled them. A leader of the opposition inside Venezuela, Jesus (Chuo) Torrealba, is on record saying said that the comprehensive sanctions backfired. “The Trump administration believed that if you make people suffer, if you impose the politics of pain, that you will promote a general insurrection,” Torrealba said. “That has not happened. Hungry people do not revolt.”

Neuman says the Biden administration has started to relax the economic pressure, which is a promising sign. “The U.S. has recognized that it is in our national interest to promote a more stable Venezuela,” he said. “The huge refugee flow threatens stability in the rest of the region, and also ends up on our southern border. And allowing Venezuelan oil back on the world market should ease the upward pressure on global prices.”

The U.S. is also partly to blame for the sharp rise in Haitians showing up at the Rio Grande. Dan Foote was a career American diplomat, whose last posting was as the special envoy for Haiti. He quit in September 2021 to protest U.S. policy, at which time his biting resignation letter became public. At the top of his indictment was the U.S. policy of deporting Haitian migrants back to a country that is dominated, especially in the capital, by vicious criminal gangs that outgun the police. Foote points out that the U.S. continues to prop up the unelected and widely hated regime of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, instead of respecting a broad-based Haitian initiative to form an interim government that would eventually hold new fair elections.

Foote says Haitians would not be leaving in such numbers if the U.S. had not helped to destabilize their country. “Haiti is one of the most beautiful, fertile places in the world, and the people who live there are exceptional people,” he says. “But over the past 13 years or so, the U.S. has propped up a regime that is corrupt, that is aligned with the gangs, and that has no popular support. Haiti is a failed state, and we continue to support the people who made it fail.”

Foote added: “Today, if you leave your house there is a chance you will be assaulted, kidnapped or killed. People are willing to die to escape. The U.S. is creating the additional emigration.”

The flow of migrants from Central America also continues in force. Add together Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, and the total number of migrants comfortably outnumbers all who fall under the “Other” category in the statistical tally.

Douglas Massey, a professor at Princeton, is arguably the leading American expert on the history of migration. (He is inexplicably not consulted by the mainstream U.S. media, although he has spent decades on detailed research.) Massey agrees that the “global tidal wave” is an exaggeration. “The migration is still very heavily concentrated in the Western Hemisphere, from nations that we’ve had long entanglements with and interventions in various places,” he says.

He’s even more specific about the exodus from Central America: “The migration from there is the direct result of U.S. interventions in the 1980s. Back then, the U.S. intervened directly in El Salvador and Honduras, on the side of right-wing/military regimes, and the Reagan administration enthusiastically endorsed a similar government in Guatemala that carried out a genocide against indigenous people in the Mayan highlands.” The death toll in El Salvador’s upheaval was proportionally equivalent to the number killed in the American Civil War.

Massey and others have explained how the widespread violence in the 1980s reverberated down through the years. Anyone who visited the region before 1980 can confirm his observation: While Central America during that period was clearly impoverished, there was almost no emigration. This changed once decades of war and violence broke out. A vicious cycle followed, in which refugees fled to the U.S., where some of the younger migrants got involved in street gangs and were subsequently deported back to Central America. There, they recreated the gangs, in part using the weapons left over after the wars. The notorious Calle 18 gang, which has an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 members across the region, is actually named for 18th Street in Los Angeles.

These Central American gangs did not just menace poor people in the out-of-the-way neighborhoods of the region—they grew to dominate their nations. If in the 1980s you visited, say, San Pedro Sula, the commercial capital of Honduras, you would have seen people filling the streets at all hours. In the evenings, married couples promenaded through the central plaza, and people visited movie theaters and restaurants without a thought.

Anyone returning to the same city in recent years would have witnessed a wholesale transformation, the fruits of this vicious cycle. As soon as the sun goes down, people scurry home. The small shops close, and armed guards appear outside them. Taxi drivers, bus drivers, even the sidewalk vendors who can now only work during daylight tell you they make regular protection payments to the gangs—and they worry that their children will be forced to join up.

The word crime is not sufficient to describe this awful reality. It is more akin to a military occupation by an undisciplined army. Ongoing proof of the desperation of those fleeing this violence (which is also underreported by the mainstream media) is that in 2022 nearly 700 migrants died crossing the Arizona desert, or in south Texas, trying to reach safety.

Until 2022, Honduras was ruled by Juan Orlando Hernández, a repressive, corrupt president whom both the Obama and Trump administrations propped up—supposedly because he represented “stability.” (Fortunately, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York was not buying it. Hernández’s preferred successor lost the 2021 election, and soon thereafter the ex-president was on a plane to New York, where he is presently jailed, awaiting trial for narcotics trafficking.)

Let’s turn to Mexico, which has historically provided the vast majority of people who come north. As it happens, until recently migrants from Mexico had declined sharply. Professor Massey explains that normally the primary group who emigrate are people between 18 and 30 years old. But the Mexican birth rate has over the years dropped greatly, leaving fewer people in that age range. (In fact, after the 2007 Great Recession, the number of undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. actually shrank, by an estimated 1.7 million, as many had planned to return home and retire there.) Today, however, Mexico is living through a new crisis.

Mexico’s reality is contradictory. Much of the country is safe—1.6 million Americans, many of them retirees, live there. But other regions are mired in the same gang/narcotics trafficking violence as much of Central America. Maureen Meyer, the vice president for programs at WOLA and an expert on Mexico, says that in recent years many of the migrants from Mexico have fled the states of Michoacán and Guerrero, which “have been overwhelmed by organized criminal violence.”

Michoacán is also Mexico’s biggest avocado-exporting region, and the American enthusiasm for guacamole has triggered a boom. While the criminal gangs got their start trafficking drugs, they also seize new opportunities. True to form, they now extort from the growers and exporters, and murder those who don’t pay up.

Mexico obviously bears the lion’s share of responsibility in terms of addressing the internal crime and violence that’s sparked a migration boom. But Meyer points out two areas in which the U.S. is exacerbating the situation: The market for illegal drugs is north of the Rio Grande, and the assault rifles and other weapons that the Mexican gangs use are nearly all bought in the U.S.—in Arizona gun stores, for instance—and smuggled southward. She concludes: “U.S. demand for drugs and lax U.S. gun regulations certainly have contributed to the violence and insecurity in Mexico.”

Massey, who has studied Mexican emigration northward for decades, says in recent years that the flow has changed character. “In the past, the majority were migrants of opportunity, largely single men, and some women, looking for work opportunities,” he says. “But in recent years, we now see from Mexico migrants of despair—entire families, including children.” He concludes: “What we have on the border now is a humanitarian crisis, and not really an immigration crisis.”

The U.S. media rarely reports on America’s responsibility for the latest migrant surge. In fairness, here Fox News finds a way to be still worse—dishonestly insinuating, for instance, that the poor migrants are smuggling fentanyl northward, when the facts show that most smuggling is done by U.S. citizens, in vehicles crossing at official ports of entry.

Another danger is that it’s a just short step from the global tidal wave to the “great replacement theory”—the fascist allegation that powerful sinister forces are promoting the influx to win elections and maintain themselves in power. Donald Trump has already started charging that the Democrats are signing up “millions of illegal aliens to vote.”

But if recent history leaves little reason for comfort, there is a positive example to follow from the past. After the U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia ended in failure in the mid-1970s, refugees fled from Vietnam and other nations around the region. These immigrants were, at the time, colloquially referred to as the “boat people.” Massey points out that the U.S. eventually took in 1.3 million of them.

There was understandably some friction at first, but with time the Southeast Asian refugees and their descendants have become a valuable addition to America, as members of Congress, award-winning writers, and members of the West Point Vietnamese-American Cadets Association. So as entrenched as all the media malpractice seems, we’re not locked into a fate where U.S. policy drives despair and our politics promotes cruelty. We know how to do this; we can break the cycle if we want to—and we can hold our press to a higher standard.