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Border ‘crisis’ misses the big picture

The nation has a new chance at passing historic immigration legislation. Instead, we’re debating semantics.

Migrants who were found crossing into the United States and were deported rest under a ramp that leads to the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge on Thursday in Reynosa, Mexico.Julio Cortez

Border mania is back.

Just as Congress prepares to debate major immigration bills, the surge of migrants at the US-Mexico border has prompted criticism of the Biden administration from Republicans — as well as increased press coverage — and a semantic debate has begun about what to make of the chaos.

The White House has refrained from calling it a “crisis.” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas appeared on four Sunday news shows to insist that the situation is under control. “Our message has been straightforward — the border is closed,” Mayorkas said. “We are expelling families. We are expelling single adults. And we’ve made a decision that we will not expel young, vulnerable children.”


Here are the numbers behind the frenzy: The US government has roughly 15,000 unaccompanied migrant minors in its custody, while it’s apprehending and expelling family units and adults at the border. Put in proper context, the surge of migrants is not unprecedented. A large number of unaccompanied children have been showing up at the border since 2014. The total number of apprehensions, while increasing, is actually lower than in 2019. In fact, these numbers are not inconsistent with what we’ve seen in recent decades.

What’s happening at the US-Mexico border is more accurately called a continuum. It doesn’t have a great ring to it, but it represents a reality that brings desperate people to do almost anything to flee their countries. The border as political fodder — and the simplistic approach to its coverage — ignores complex circumstances on the ground in places like Guatemala, Honduras, and Haiti. The coronavirus pandemic hit the Guatemalan and Honduran economies particularly hard; in Guatemala, by June of last year, the number of people facing hunger had doubled. Then, in the fall, two back-to-back hurricanes devastated the two Central American countries. Analysts estimate that the level of poverty in Honduras will rise above 70 percent of the population. In Haiti, President Jovenel Moïse’s authoritarian tendencies have resulted in political instability, social unrest, and violence.


Focusing on the border — and not on the underlying circumstances that cause people to flee their country — is like covering the coronavirus pandemic only from inside an emergency room, as journalist Enrique Acevedo tweeted.

There needs to be more deep, insightful reporting about what makes people migrate — with a focus on the continuum of despair. The decision to leave one’s homeland is complex and involves many factors — lack of economic opportunity combined with political instability and targeted violence. It’s never impulsive. People don’t leave their countries or their families spontaneously — or just because Biden is president.

But when you’re in the White House, you inherit problems and own anything that happens after taking office. On Sunday, Chuck Todd said on “Meet the Press”: “It’s fair to call the deteriorating situation at the US-Mexican border a crisis — even if the Biden administration refuses to use that word. But it’s more than that: It’s a political crisis for the new president, with no easy way out.” But if it is a crisis now, it was a crisis before. Meanwhile, ABC News practically used El Paso as a prop and faced criticism from many, including Texas congresswoman Veronica Escobar, after the network broadcast its Sunday political show from the border town.


The coverage implied that Biden is failing to control the border. It’s as if the last four years of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant fear-mongering never happened.

Meanwhile, the House passed two bills last week that would grant citizenship to young immigrants known as Dreamers who came to the United States as children and hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have Temporary Protected Status, the humanitarian program. The bills’ impact cannot be overstated: They would legalize hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrants in the country. Of course, it’s not the first time Congress has gotten close to overhauling the immigration system. Republicans, time and again, kill any meaningful reform, using the same talking points about the border and migrants.

And the media eat it up: We’re seeing another cycle of overblown rhetoric about the border. The media must be held accountable for shallow reporting. The nation has a new chance at passing historic immigration legislation that fully embraces the millions of undocumented young people and workers living in the shadows, and other Biden-sponsored plans to give targeted aid to Central America. Instead, we’re debating semantics. That’s the real crisis.

Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.