Journalist Laura Carlsen, writing from Mexico City, has published on the Americas Program website an important article about the way the U.S. media covers the migration of children to the U.S. – Child Migrants and Media Half-Truths. Carlsen raises key questions – the cause of the displacement that leads to migration, and the way the story of migrating children is used for political purposes in the debate over immigration policy.
The story of children in detention is being manipulated by the Border Patrol and the Tea Party to kill any possibility that moderate Republicans will introduce any reform bill with legalization, to attack Obama’s executive action for the Dreamers (and any possibility he might expand it – the demand of many immigrant rights advocates), and to push for more resources for enforcement, the Border Patrol and expanded detention facilities.
Looking at the way the story broke into the press, and who broke it, this strategy is clear. The story began with a series of photographs, showing young people and children in detention centers all along the U.S./Mexico border. These photos were published on a website, breitbart.com, which has a long history with the Tea Party and extreme rightwing causes.
Many readers will remember the phony video that killed ACORN. That video was introduced to the media by Andrew Breitbart, who started the website that bears his name. John Atlas describes that role here.
In the case of the story on children in detention, the original photos were “leaked” by the Border Patrol to a writer with an extensive history with the Tea Party in Texas, Brandon Darby. Darby has run pieces before on behalf of the Border Patrol, and was a protégé of Andrew Breitbart, who died in 2012.
According to a profile of Darby written by Breitbart senior management, “Darby became an emerging voice of the center-right populist movement called the Tea Party after working undercover with the FBI to stop former comrades from killing Israel civilians and using firebombs to hurt law enforcement and stop Republicans from assembling at the 2008 Republican National Convention … Darby and Lee Stranahan formed the “greek chorus” to Andrew Breitbart’s narration of the film Occupy Unmasked. In Andrew’s retelling of that movement everything they present is a false narrative–one that he had dedicated his life’s work to expose.”
Other Darby articles include an attack on the Sierra Club for opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, and a defense of the racist Nevada rancher and militia leader Cliven Bundy. The website even credits him with helping to defeat Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor, who was attacked and defeated by Tea Party candidate Dave Brat. Brat accused Cantor (one of the most anti-immigrant members of Congress) of possibly favoring legalization for the undocumented.
The original Darby/Breitbart article on the children in detention consists of 42 photographs, with a few paragraphs of text. All the photographs carry the watermark, “Breitbart Texas Release.” They show children in what appear to be many different rooms, probably in many different centers. One has the camera or cellphone imprint “HOLD 21:52:12.”
Any photographer who has taken photographs in a prison, jail or detention center knows that it is difficult, and often impossible, to show the face of an inmate or detainee. Yet these photographs are taken by people with completely free access to show not only faces, but also the entire context of the places in which the children are being held. There is only one group of people who have such unrestricted access: the Border Patrol itself, and the guards who work for private detention corporations like Geo and CCA.
The article brags about being leaked the photos: “Breitbart Texas obtained internal federal government photos depicting the conditions of foreign children warehoused by authorities on U.S. soil on Wednesday night.”
Breitbart Texas Border Expert and Contributing Editor Sylvia Longmire comments on “exhausted and overwhelmed Border Patrol agents and CBP detention facilities.” She condemns the Obama administration for “releas[ing] them with no obligation other than to show up for a hearing in 15 days. Most of those released will abscond and never show up for their hearings, taking their chances that ICE won’t have the time or resources to go looking for them … a humiliating example of what our government’s inability to develop solid immigration and border security policies can cause.”
Another Breitbart article, takes credit for creating the media hysteria: “Darby contends that the reason the children are leaving their home country is that ‘they know they will not be turned away and that they will be provided for.’ Although other outlets attempted to do stories about the invasion, such as the New York Times and NPR, they never really caught on. What Breitbart Texas did was ‘obtain 40 internal federal government photos showing the conditions of what exactly the government did with these children.’ The images that were released forced everyone on the left and the right to report on the story.”
Darby and breitbart.com have been joined by other anti-immigrant organizations with the same message. Mike Nicley (a former Border Patrol agent now at the nativist Center for Immigration Studies) writes: “The Obama Administration has blamed the overwhelming influx on gang violence and poverty. Hogwash … Obama’s steadfast refusal to enforce our immigration laws is directly responsible for the current ‘humanitarian crisis.’ Word has spread throughout this hemisphere that America has laid a welcome mat along our southern border.”
Nicley gives then gives the story the pro-enforcement spin. To him the problem isn’t the poverty that forces people to leave home, or the fact that the Federal government spends more on immigration enforcement than all other Federal law enforcement agencies and programs combined. It’s the lack of even greater enforcement, and even more money to pay for it: “Obama could shut the flow down by simply enforcing laws that are already on the books … The two billion dollars Obama is seeking will only pay for a fraction of the eventual cost to taxpayers.”
Carlsen’s story shows how the national mainstream media establishment has picked up this refrain. First, her article explains that the media has picked up the Border Patrol narrative: ” These stories present anecdotal evidence of the thesis that the spike in child migration is due to hopes of being allowed to stay,” she charges.
Carlsen discusses the use of stereotypes and lack of context: “The New York Times, AP and others outlets have been running stories that follow a pattern of emphasizing two general conclusions. One, that parents in the United States are selfishly and irresponsibly encouraging this phenomenon and putting their own children at risk by sending them north and, two, that more children are migrating to the United States because they perceive Obama administration policies and practices as lenient on child migrants and think they have a good chance of staying–even if they get caught.
“Although most of these stories mention conditions of poverty and violence in the places where the children come from, they almost never mention how these places have become so poor and violent, or much less the direct role that U.S. foreign policy has played in making them that way and forcing the children to leave … Readers were left with the impression that it was the parents’ fault, not a system of injustice that stretched from the Andes to the US-Mexico border.”
Finally, Carlsen documents the political use of the articles: “The predictable result of the spate of articles on children migrants is to urge the creation of more detention facilities (potentially good for the private prison industries) and call for an end to releases, as noted in the AP article: Texas Gov. Rick Perry last week asked that the Department of Homeland Security stop releasing immigrants with notices to appear. On Monday, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer asked the same for the hundreds of immigrants, mostly women and children, who in recent weeks have been flown to Arizona from South Texas for processing.”
Bob Goodlatte, Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, read from the Border Patrol playbook: “Word has gotten out around the world about President Obama’s lax immigration enforcement policies, and it has encouraged more individuals to come to the United States illegally… Enforcement at the border and in the interior of the U.S. is crucial to end these kinds of situations, not another bureaucratic task force.”
Brandon Darby himself got credit on the floor of Congress. The Breitbart site crowed: “In a floor speech on Wednesday evening from the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) cited a June 13 story by Brandon Darby reporting Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC), warning the Obama administration’s handling of the influx of Central American youth at U.S.-Mexico border is putting lives of border patrol agents at risk.”
The media campaign kicked off by breitbart.com had its predictable effect on the Obama administration. The White House press secretary’s office released a statement, announcing that it would respond with an increase in enforcement: “The Department of Justice and [Department of Homeland Security] are taking additional steps to enhance enforcement and removal proceedings. We are surging government enforcement resources to increase our capacity to detain individuals and adults who bring their children with them and to handle immigration court hearings – in cases where hearings are necessary – as quickly and efficiently as possible while also while also protecting those who are seeking asylum. That will allow ICE to return unlawful migrants from Central America to their home countries more quickly.”
The administration further reacted to the media-created idea that migrants are coming to the U.S. because they’re attracted by the prospect of immigration reform, despite the fact that there is virtually no chance that the House of Representatives will pass a reform bill. Vice President Joe Biden went to Central America, where he spoke on the phone to Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, and “reiterated that arriving migrants will not qualify for legalization under proposed immigration reform legislation or deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA).”
Carlsen suggests four immediate demands that migrant rights activists can make, in response to the push to increase enforcement:
1) A return to humane family reunification policies. Not to legalize undocumented children on arrival at the border, but to arrange legal and safe passage for children of U.S. residents who face endangering situations at home.
2) Respect the right to asylum.
3) Create a trade adjustment fund for economic integration and re-negotiate free trade agreements. Now Central American nations have expressed concern that they could lose some 100,000 jobs in the textile sector under the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership. If we do not consider the impact of the so-called “free trade agreements” we will set ourselves up for continuous crisis.
4) Suspend support for abusive military and police forces. US training and equipment has empowered corrupt forces and even organized crime groups. The priority on the drug war has fueled a return of authoritarian power and internecine violence.
A long-term solution also involves looking at the kinds of solutions put forward by the Dignity Campaign and others who have proposed alternatives to the comprehensive immigration approach taken by Congress. They include:
* Giving permanent residence visas, or green cards, to undocumented people already here, and expanding the number of green cards available for new migrants.
* Eliminating the years-long backlog in processing family reunification visas, strengthening families and communities.
* Prohibiting local law enforcement agencies from enforcing immigration law, ending roadblocks, immigration raids and sweeps, and closing detention centers.
* Allowing people to apply for green cards, in the future, after they’ve been living in the U.S. for a few years.
* Ending the enforcement that has led to thousands of deportations and firings.
* Repealing employer sanctions, and enforcing labor rights and worker protection laws, for all workers.
* Ending guest worker programs.
* Dismantling the border wall and demilitarizing the border, so more people don’t die crossing it, and restoring civil and human rights in border communities.
* Responding to recession and foreclosures with jobs programs to guarantee income, and remove the fear of job competition.
* Redirecting the money spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to rebuilding communities, refinancing mortgages, and restoring the social services needed by working families.
* Renegotiating existing trade agreements to eliminate causes of displacement and prohibiting new trade agreements that displace people or lower living standards, including military intervention intended to enforce neoliberal reforms.
David Bacon is a California writer and photojournalist and the author Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants.