Children at the Border | Analysis

Over the summer I covered the Texas press for the Columbia Journalism Review’s U.S. Project. In early June the increasing number of unaccompanied children arriving on the border from Central America captured the nation’s attention and became one of the most important stories of the summer.

Here is a recap.

On June 5, the conservative news blog published photographs of Central American children packed into an overcrowded US Border Patrol processing center in South Texas. Within hours, the images, leaked from an unnamed source, became a news sensation, bringing new attention to a surge in child migration at the US-Mexico border. Just days before, the White House had announced a much less publicized emergency response to what President Obama described as a “humanitarian crisis” on the border. In the prior eight months authorities had detained more than 47,000 child migrants traveling without their parents and hailing from countries in the grip of organized crime and gangs.

The story quickly became the subject of much political spin and posturing, and the effect on press coverage was striking.

But in ceding an open platform to the politicians, the story and others like it allowed the focus to shift from the condition in which the children were being held. It also omitted key context, like the problems with past US security interventions within Mexico and a wave of Central American migrant deaths in the South Texas desert—not a sign that migrants thought they would be welcome, or that they found evading the Border Patrol easy.

In this piece I analyzed the coverage, the messaging and the overlooked facts and stories that offered a broader look at a crisis loaded with political currency while urging some much needed public accountability in the treatment of the children.

A month later, in July, journalist turned activist, Jose Antonio Vargas was detained at an airport in the Rio Grande Valley by immigration agents. In a piece for CJR, I explained that Vargas’ detention served to reveal what “border security” actually entails.

While the border is a literal line in the sand or demarcated by the Rio Grande River, “border security”—as Vargas learned firsthand in recent days—reaches far broader, stretching some 100 miles inland. Vargas’ recounting of being “trapped” on the border offers an important look at the elaborate apparatus of local, county state, and federal agencies involved in “border security.”

Too often, reporting on “border security” fails to look beyond the border itself—the border wall, images of the Border Patrol broncos kicking up dirt across the levees along the river, or agents in their familiar green uniforms riding on horseback or cruising the river, patrolling the line.

Later in the month, I examined the symbolic power of the “border” in shaping perception and debates about the children arriving from Central America. The piece appeared in The Atlantic’s Quartz. 

The US-Mexico border stretches across 1,933 miles of desert and brush country but its symbolism reaches far into the minds and imagination of the US public and press. We are a nation hypnotized by border imagery and the soundtrack of a distorted immigration debate that governs our discussion about the lives and, ultimately, the fates of tens of thousands of children.

The border mythology, I argued, serves as a reflection of ourselves, obfuscating facts and complexities of the crisis.

If we could somehow free the children from the weight of the contentious border, we would have to peer into the long trail of death behind them and the US government policy in the region that undermines a nationalistic immigration narrative.

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