If you've been reading or watching mainstream media over the past week or so, you've undoubtedly heard a lot about a supposed screaming emergency on the U.S.-Mexico border. More migrants are trying to cross the border, which all three network Sunday shows gave frantic saturation coverage — ABC's This Week nonsensically held a panel segment on the border itself, as if that would somehow lend gravitas to a bunch of talking heads. On Monday, the networks' big morning shows all ran segments calling the story a "crisis" once more. CNN even ran a video of a repeated boat crossing that, as numerous experts testified to The American Prospect, gave every indication of being staged, possibly even by the Border Patrol.
This is nonsense. There is a problem at the border, but it is not remotely a "crisis." It's an administrative challenge that could be solved easily with more resources and clear policy — not even ranking with, say, the importance of securing loose nuclear material, much less the ongoing global pandemic, or the truly civilization-threatening crisis of climate change. The mainstream media is in effect collaborating with Republicans to stoke unreasoning xenophobic panic.
Here's what's happening: in short, the number of people trying to cross the border has skyrocketed over the past month. There has been a particular surge in unaccompanied children — according to the Department of Homeland Security, average apprehensions of unaccompanied children have increased from 313 per day last month to 565, on average. It's unclear why this is happening exactly, though presumably it has something to do with a new president who isn't such a racist maniac, and the hope that vaccination is beginning to beat back the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S.
Now, there are genuine challenges here. Tens of thousands of people trying to sneak across the border is, at a minimum, unsafe (many have died trying to do so). And as Felipe De La Hoz writes at The New Republic, unaccompanied minors are a particularly thorny issue — the Biden administration wants to avoid the negative press of "kids in cages," but one can't simply turn young children loose with no one to care for them. The natural solution is to house them in a decent facility for a short time while host families are located. But then again, the facilities for caring for these kids are typically underfunded and loosely regulated, and often run by unscrupulous contractors with a history of abuse.
But all of these problems are, in principle at least, easily fixable. With some more money the government could build more holding facilities so children aren't stuck for days or weeks. With more staff the immigration courts system could be beefed up to process asylum applications in a timely fashion (as required by U.S. law, incidentally). Probably most importantly, comprehensive immigration reform could rationalize and streamline the legal immigration process, which is currently a Kafkaesque nightmare.
Outside the U.S., the problems of endemic violence and poverty in Mexico and Central America that are driving people to the border could also be at least ameliorated. Biden could send some surplus coronavirus vaccines to those countries to help their economies get back to normal. Or America could legalize and regulate recreational drugs, thus removing a major profit center of the criminal gangs that cause so much violence in Latin American countries.
But fundamentally, even with this recent surge of migrants, we are not talking about that many people. There were huge flows of unauthorized immigration during the Bush administration, with numbers regularly many times as large as those seen under President Trump.
Now, that was not an ideal situation for those immigrants, who are largely still stuck in legal limbo. But it's not like the country was teetering on the brink of collapse as a result. By way of comparison, in Jordan refugees now make up about 10 percent of its population. In Lebanon every fourth person is a refugee. Those places are struggling to handle so many people, but neither have they fallen into Hobbesian anarchy. To reach Lebanon's mark the U.S. would have to take in about 82 million people — about two-thirds of all of Mexico, or more than the entire population of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Belize, Nicaragua, Panama, and Venezuela combined.
The history of unauthorized immigration under Bush is instructive. The media largely ignored it because Republicans didn't raise a fuss, and most Americans barely paid attention because it was objectively a minor issue.
Now that Trump proved the political potential of xenophobic bigotry, and Republicans are desperate to talk about anything but Biden's enormously popular pandemic rescue bill, conservatives are whipping up a classic misdirection circus. All too many mainstream media sources are happy to play along, as they have done for decades (perhaps because they feel guilty for basically having no choice but to be pro-Biden during the presidential campaign).
The border situation "is a political crisis for the new president, with no easy way out," said NBC's Chuck Todd on Meet the Press over the weekend, exercising his considerable political influence to create that crisis. He contrasted the conservative demand of a "big wall and some stricter enforcement of the border" with progressive demands for "humane treatment for migrants fleeing violence … and a path to citizenship for those that are already here" — falsely implying that both are equally extreme and impossible.
It's true that it would be much cheaper and simpler to deflate the frenzy of media hysteria by doing what Trump did — basically closing the border, throwing penniless refugees back over it, and forcing Mexico to deal with the problem. Dealing with migrants in a fair and humane fashion will require money, patience, and good administration. But how better to solve a fake crisis created by Republicans and bored occupants of green rooms in Washington, D.C. than with a fake solution?