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.
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.
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