Media’s ‘Border Theater’ Ignores Constant U.S. Brutality

by | Oct 20, 2021 | Commentary, Featured, News

For one week, all eyes were on the U.S.-Mexico border. The conservative media was stoking the perception of chaos, a crisis narrative made for national television with headlines such as “Images of Haitian Migrant Surge at Del Rio show chaos under bridge as number soars past 11,000.”

The other side of the partisan media divide brought a more “compassionate” crisis narrative exemplified by titles like “Biden administration scrambles to contain fallout from another border crisis.”

No matter which way you put it, the overall framing of a “border in a crisis” creates the impression that it’s the border that needs more “help,” more funding, more resources for its “well-being,” and not the thousands of Haitians arriving to Del Rio, sometimes traveling thousands of miles on dangerous journeys.

This framing works only because the border reporting was following the normal recipe: while churning out stories for the fickle and partisan interests of the 24/7 news cycle, it became obsessive and decontextualized. Not only did the Haitians appear out of thin air, but so did the border itself, and the Border Patrol. The images of the agent whipping back people at the Rio Grande appeared as if they came from another century.

But far from being an anomaly, what the U.S. public got was a glimpse into the everyday. For a moment the veil was pulled, and the border was revealed for what it has been for decades: brutal and violent. What the myopic media coverage misses time and time again, as it manufactures racialized chaos scenes or focuses on banning horses, is that the border is this way by its very design.

It didn’t have to be the whip-like reins. It could have been pepper spray or billy clubs or real bullets from real guns. It could have been the border walls, surveillance equipment, or armed agents that are deployed in such a way to force people into the deserts. It could have been helicopters dropping from the sky and “dusting” groups of migrants, causing people to run in all directions, sometimes over cliffs, sometimes into cactus, but most of the time getting lost in a desert where they can’t carry enough water. This decades-long strategy purposely brutalizes people, leaves people dead, or incarcerates them. The passively named “deterrence” doctrine (in place since 1994) is aggressive and lethal.

But we never learned that because, after the expulsions of thousands of Haitians from the country, the obsessive coverage simply vanished. The cameras caught a glimpse of the violence, but as quickly as the media came, it pulled away, no longer chattering about a “border crisis.” This happened in 2018 when Border Patrol was forcibly separating families. This happened in 2014 when Customs and Border Protection (CBP) incarcerated minors in crowded warehouses.

What the media misses by doing this come-and-go border reporting is precisely this everyday brutality. For example, between 2009 and 2014, the ACLU exposed the widespread abuse of minors in Border Patrol short term detention, using 30,000 pages of documents. The reason that you’ve never heard of this is that it was not covered in the media.

The border is not in a crisis. This framing is theatrical and lends itself to partisan bickering. The border is an inanimate apparatus composed of more than 700 miles of walls and more than 20,000 armed agents; it is drones, automated surveillance towers, command and control centers, forward operating bases, networks of detention centers, a system of incarceration and expulsion that continually ruins peoples’ lives and forcibly separates loved ones. It is not in a crisis, but is designed to create them for people already in crisis.

In 1994, the budget for border and immigration enforcement was $1.5 billion. In 2021, it is $25 billion (combining Customs and Border Protection with Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Since 2003, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was implemented, there has been $332.7 billion spent on ICE and CBP. This represents the most massive expansion of the U.S. border and immigration apparatus in its history. And much of this apparatus is designed by corporations: since 2008, CBP and ICE have issued  more than 108,000 contracts worth $59.5 billion to private companies that design the equipment.

Yes, the border is also profitable, and the border industry lavishes its campaign contributions fairly equally on both sides of the aisle. But these points are never made on the cable networks that tend to suffocate these stories with partisan politics.

This is not about Biden. This is not about Trump. This is about the brutality that is at the very core of the border. It has been designed, across administrations, both Democrat and Republican, over decades, to inflict violence on some of the poorest people in the hemisphere, people displaced by economic subjugation, by persecution, by military occupation and war, by climate change, by a host of reasons rarely brought up in the news media, or if so, rarely connected to U.S. foreign policy or U.S. practices in the world. (If you are concerned about climate change, for example, try looking up U.S. historic greenhouse gas emissions and compare them to Guatemala.)

An MSNBC segment titled “The Biden admin is helping fuel the horrifying border crisis with this Trump-era policy” about Haitians in Del Rio fell into the same trap. The featured interview with Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, however, did offer a glimpse into the bigger picture. She said, “generations have experienced American policy that has contributed to their starvation, to the criminalization they are dealing with,” and that these “inhumane policies” continue to destroy lives. She also explained that “cruelty is embedded in our immigration system,” and has been over years, or even decades.

For a moment, viewers were able to linger on this broader history, an understanding that went beyond just today, and that showed Haitians didn’t just appear from nothing. But then the partisan questions immediately churned on again, caught in the 24/7 news cycle.

And now that the U.S. public has had its dose of border theater, and the cable media has left the borderlands yet again, the 24/7 brutality continues, out of sight, out of mind.


See Todd Miller speak at Ithaca College on Thursday, October 28.

Todd Miller is an independent journalist and writer. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, San Francisco Chronicle, Guernica, and Al Jazeera English, among others. Miller is also the author of “Build Bridges Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders” (2021), “Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World” (2019), “Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security” (2017), and “Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security” (2014). He was the recipient of the 2018 Izzy Award for his outstanding contribution to independent media.

Image by Chess Ocampo / Shutterstock

More from The Edge

For Patty Zimmermann, with Revolutionary Love

These words were written for a late-April weekend memorializing Patty Zimmermann, who was Editor-at-Large for The Edge, Director of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, Professor of Screen Studies at Ithaca College, and a fierce friend and ally.  ...

Finding My Way to Max Tohline’s ‘A Supercut of Supercuts’

We often discover new media fascinations in roundabout ways. In February of 2022, when filmmaker J.P. Sniadecki emailed me to ask if I’d seen Chloé Galibert-Laîné’s “Forensickness” (2022), I had only the vaguest sense of what had come to be called the “video essay.” I...

Complicity and Resistance in a Time of Genocidal Agony

What to Do? I am writing especially thinking about Palestinian women. They have suffered so immeasurably and grotesquely while they have tried to care for their children and their pregnancies, while being malnourished, dehydrated, starved, and heartbroken while death...

The Key to Maintaining Democracy? It’s Conversation.

On January 25th, the Harvard Kennedy School hosted a panel to discuss how candid conversations about  differences in opinion contribute to healthy democracy and social cohesion. The event, which was held on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts,...

Elitism and the Rest of Us as the New Semester Begins

This week, most college and university campuses will open across the country. The ghastly war in Gaza continues and the U.S. has become more involved as it bombs Yemen. So, I am thinking about how unsettled the surround is as higher education institutions begin a new...

War Rape and the Question of Hamas

Israeli Zionist women have been speaking out these last few days to bring attention to the horrific rape of Jewish women, and the lack of outcry of feminists, for them, to this plight. They demand an indictment of Hamas and its sexual treachery towards women on...

The 10 Freeway Has Been Reopened but L.A.’s Transit Problem Remains

During the early hours of November 11, a fire erupted in a storage yard underneath the I-10 freeway near downtown Los Angeles, structurally compromising a large section of the road and resulting in, what was at the time, claimed to be an indefinite closure of the...

From My Body to Yours, and Gaza to the World

A Meditation on Death, Killing, and Possibility I knew my body was healing from the surgery when I found myself ready to engage with the world and posted on Facebook: I am always anti-zionist. And never an antisemite. And always an anti-racist feminist against...