In the vacuum left behind by Donald Trump, the ringleaders of the right-wing media ecosystem are finding new and old ways to keep stoking white hysteria.
They've already found one winner: reprising the toxic, racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric that brought Trump to power in the first place, but which had ebbed as Trump turned to other grievances instead.
Cue Tucker Carlson, stoking racialized fear the other night on Fox News, charging that under Joe Biden's immigration policies "an MS-13 member arrested for drug dealing with previous convictions for say, theft, extortion, grand larceny" could be released "maybe into your neighborhood."
Cue Fox News' Laura Ingraham, darkly warning that immigrants will "swamp the voting power of all of you Americans out there who still know the country's traditions, constitution and history," and "overthrow everything we love about America."
Cue the former Trump ICE appointee prophesying to a receptive "Fox & Friends" host that "people will die, people will be raped, people will be victimized by criminals that shouldn't even be here."
Cue Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump's most heartless anti-immigrant policies, telling Fox News' Maria Bartiromo that "the legislation put forward by Biden and congressional Democrats would fundamentally erase the very essence of America's nationhood"; and bemoaning "the cruelty and inhumanity of Joe Biden's immigration policies" with Ingraham.
It's filthy stuff — visceral appeals to the very worst elements of American pathology. It reduces immigration to one issue: race. It feeds fear and hatred. It incites violence.
We've seen it before. Throughout the 2016 election campaign, the mainstream media gave Trump seemingly unlimited, unrebutted airtime and bandwidth, even though — or perhaps because — he used the kind of language that had been considered outside the bounds of political discourse.
And two years later, the media dutifully succumbed to hysteria about "caravans" of migrants that Trump insisted were an existential threat to the country — until of course they were not, as soon as the midterm elections were over.
So the big question now is: Will the mainstream media will once again allow right-wing demagogues to establish the framing for immigration coverage? Or, after all that has transpired, have newsroom leaders finally realized that their obligation is to be on the lookout for the next big lie and, rather than enable it, figure out how to counter it and then do so insistently and enthusiastically?
With Biden slowing deportations and pushing for the biggest overhaul in immigration reform since the 1980s, reporters have countless opportunities to engage in thoughtful, nuanced coverage of a tremendously complex issue that has profound moral and practical implications for every community in the country. It's a huge and important story. And it's a government story, not a politics story.
Rather than get distracted by the ginned-up panic of racists and the click-baity conflicts at the border, journalists need to tell the real, complex stories of immigrants and immigration. They need to encourage honest, fact-based debate. And they need to remind people that immigration strengthens the nation and defines us as a people. Newsrooms need to embrace the narrative of inclusion, rather than the narrative of invasion.
And although it's tempting to simply ignore what's going on at Fox News and other toxic propaganda outlets, the rest of the media needs to call out their vile attempts to spread hate and dissension through lies.
On one recent night in particular, inspired by a hyperbolic misreading of new interim instructions for ICE personnel, Carlson and Ingraham telegraphed their grotesque game plan.
The plan is to make their viewers think about immigration as an invasion of Black and brown criminals. It's to make them fear for their safety, their children's safety, their homes, their neighborhoods, their quality of life and even their form of government. It's to make them feel personally victimized. It's to get them to blame Democrats for their problems. And right now, for good measure, it's about turning around the charge of insurrection and projecting it on their enemies.
On that one night, Feb. 8, Carlson started off by stating inaccurately that the "Biden administration is releasing thousands of foreign nationals living here illegally into American neighborhoods without bothering to test them for the coronavirus."
Carlson also complained that "taxpayers are paying for foreign nationals who should be deported to live in hotel rooms."
Ironically, it's actually the Jewish Family Service charity that is arranging for hotel rooms — so that asylum-seekers can observe San Diego's 10-day virus quarantine order. But whatever.
Well, it means, for example, that an MS-13 member arrested for drug dealing with previous convictions for say, theft, extortion, grand larceny, would have to be released back into the United States, maybe into your neighborhood, even if he had been deported many times before. That's not some crazy hypothetical, by the way. Things like that will happen.
The new instructions to ICE agents actually called for a greater focus on deporting people who had "proven themselves to be public safety threats," including gang members.
In Carlson's telling, the administration's intent is "to hurt the United States as profoundly as possible":
How does all of that conceivably help you as an American, as someone who pays for all of this stuff? Well, of course, it doesn't help you. But helping you is not the point. No one is even pretending the point of this was to help you. It's the opposite. The point is to punish you.
When we release people who break our laws without even bothering to test them for the virus, the same virus we've used as a pretext for wrecking your life, what we're really saying in the clearest possible terms is: We don't like you.
This isn't a policy. It's an act of aggression. It's designed to humiliate you and demoralize you.
And his jaw-dropping conclusion:
Reckless and destructive immigration policy is the penalty you are paying for your white supremacy.
Your "white supremacy," he told his audience, is making you a victim. It's putting you in danger.
Ingraham, if you can believe it, was even more unhinged. It's part of a plot to take over the government, she warned:
Folks, this is one big bienvenidos MS-13, a billboard flashing — might as well be — across Central America and beyond. Biden's open-borders zealots have what they want. Big business, they get their slave labor. And the social justice warriors, the far-left squad types, they have their new population that can be molded and formed into Socialist Party faithful.
Eventually, they hope to swamp the voting power of all of you Americans out there who still know the country's traditions, constitution and history.
We aren't insurrectionists, she argued: They are!
Democrats are arguing that Trump welcomed and incited a violent incursion into the Capitol. When it is they who are enticing illegals to bust through our borders, exploit our resources and commit crimes. And we're not talking about a few hundred, we're talking hundreds of thousands, eventually millions, if the Democrats have their way.
There is an insurrection taking place against America all right. It's been going on for years in the deepest depth of the D.C. swamp. And now its figurehead resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This insurrection seeks to overthrow everything we love about America by defaming it, silencing it and even prosecuting it. This is an organized mob funded by billionaires. It's supported by celebrities, and it's aided and abetted by propagandistic news organizations every single step of the way.
These insurrectionists have stormed our schools with BLM indoctrinators. They shuttered our classrooms by empowering union heavies. They've overwhelmed small businesses with idiotic, stupid lockdowns. They've robbed Americans of good paying oil and gas jobs with obscene climate change dictates. They've ripped down historical markers from Washington to Lincoln. They've terrorized patriotic Americans who are now afraid to just speak their minds.
I admit I don't listen to the Fox News night crew very often, but my sense is that the prospect of nonwhite people being allowed into this country again sets them off, binds their grievances and inspires them to spew evil lunacy like nothing else.
And it's not just the night crew. Earlier that same day, Steve Doocy on "Fox & Friends" interviewed Chuck Jenkins — a sheriff from Frederick County, Maryland, just north of Washington — who warned that "Americans will not be safe," and said, "This is going to be disastrous, dangerous. It's going to impact every county, every city, every community in this country. This is total lawlessness."
Two days later, Harris Faulkner interviewed Rep. Chip Roy, Republican of Texas, who said Biden's immigration policies are "endangering American citizens" — as well as "creating distractions and other channels to move vast qualities of fentanyl and dangerous narcotics into the United States."
Doocy also had on Tom Homan, the former acting director of ICE in the Trump administration. "Be clear what's happening here," Homan said. "President Biden has declared the entire country a sanctuary jurisdiction" — "Yeah," Doocy interjected — "which means more tragedy is going to come. mark my words. people will die. People will be raped. People will be victimized by criminals that shouldn't even be here."
And it continues. On Monday, Sen. Lindsey Graham told Sean Hannity that Biden's policies "will lead to caravan after caravan. By June of this year, if the Biden administration continues to dismantle the wall and change the Trump policies of asylum, we will have one million people hit the border."
"This is madness!" Stephen Miller told Bartiromo on Feb. 21. "These illegal immigrants are being put in harm's way all because of a policy choice Joe Biden made to restore 'catch and release.' That is cruel, that is inhumane, and we are seeing the results of that right now," he told Ingraham on Tuesday.
And Trump himself is expected to engage in anti-immigration rhetoric when he speaks on Sunday at the Conservative Political Action Committee meeting in Orlando.
Dump the political reporters
Immigration is the perfect fit for Fox News and the right-wing propaganda media ecosystem. It's a complex, multi-faceted issue that Fox and the others can "reduce to code language for race," then make visceral by calling up "the longstanding fear of the other, as defined by race," Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), told me.
"The rest of the media needs to contextualize much more," he said.
When it comes to meeting that challenge, the good news is that many newsrooms around the country have immigration beats staffed with talented reporters who understand the issue in all its complexities, and reject the dehumanization implicit in anti-immigrant hysteria.
The bad news is that newsroom leaders still let their political staffs cover the issue, often much more prominently.
When what really matters is finding solutions, not gamesmanship, it's past time to get the political reporters off the story, and let the beat reporters do their jobs.
As part of an international study of how the media covers migration, Bill Orme wrote for the Ethical Journalism Network about the tension between the different reporting staffs in the U.S.:
Many [immigration] beat reporters have distinguished themselves with insightful, empathetic coverage of issues ranging from assimilation challenges to the legal netherworld of U.S. immigration courts to the systematic deportation of long-term residents for minor criminal offenses. Yet when immigration becomes a headline issue in a presidential campaign, the topic is often assigned to political reporters, rather than beat specialists, reflecting in some ways the accurate news judgment that this political story has little to do with demographic realities. The focus of that coverage is on the potential electoral consequences of the immigration debate, and on the political personalities who are most prominently focused on the issue, rather than on the substance of the issue itself.
Brendan Fitzgerald surveyed the field in early 2020 and wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review about the great work immigration beat reporters were doing:
In 2019, news outlets detailed the origins of America's "zero-tolerance" immigration policy and the ways in which it fractured families. They revealed the sprawl of private detention facilities, the prevalence of ICE's use of isolation cells, and the mechanisms by which domestic law enforcement agencies monitor immigrants, as well as the journalists who cover them. And they showed the unique vulnerabilities sewn into the fabric of everyday life for immigrants in the U.S.
Among the standout reporting during the Trump years that people have called to my attention:
- ProPublica correspondent Ginger Thompson's heartbreaking report on children being separated from their parents at the border, which featured audio of a 6-year-old inside a Texas detention center crying and pleading for help.
- This American Life's Pulitzer-Prize winning episode from the front lines of the Trump administration's "Remain in Mexico" asylum policy including a makeshift refugee camp, and first-person accounts from the officers who sent them there to wait in the first place.
- The work of NBC correspondent Jacob Soboroff, whose June 2018 visit to a former Walmart in Texas used to warehouse migrant boys led to two years of reporting on child separation, and a book.
- Migratory Notes, a weekly newsletter that launched just days after Trump took office and issued the first travel ban, and that has provided an invaluable roundup of immigration-related stories ever since.
By contrast, political reporters focused endlessly on Trump's words. And it wasn't until August 2019, when a Trump-inspired white nationalist opened fire on Latino families at an El Paso Walmart, that political reporters explicitly linked Trump's rhetoric to reality. Reporters who had previously offered up unrebutted stenography suddenly noticed that in the prior two years, when discussing immigration at political rallies, Trump had said "invasion" at least 19 times, "animal" 34 times and "killer" nearly three dozen times.
Going forward, political reporters' obsessions with minor incremental developments, two sides to every issue and clearly identified winners and losers are particularly ill-suited to the coverage of immigration.
Consider, for instance, that the dominant Republican position has changed dramatically over the years — not because the underlying realities have changed but because the rhetoric of the party's leaders has become so hysterical.
"If you look back to 1986, the last time there was real immigration reform, you saw so much of it being pushed by Republicans," said Daniela Gerson, a journalism professor at California State University, Northridge, and a co-founder of Migratory Notes. "The shift has just been incredible under Trump, over the last four years."
As the party of big business, Republicans used to see immigrant labor as a key to economic growth. Ronald Reagan's rhetoric about immigration was inclusive — in fact he saw immigration as central to the nation's exceptionalism. His idealized "city on the hill" was "teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace — a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here."
So what exactly do Republican leaders believe now, and why? What do their funders think? Political reporters don't really ask those interesting questions, they just assume there is a conflict and cover that.
Political reporters also often frame the immigration issue as a "winner" for Republicans, despite much evidence to the contrary.
Politico recently reported about Democratic "anxiety" surrounding Biden's immigration actions, noting that "in a recent Morning Consult poll of the popularity of Biden's executive actions, the immigration-oriented actions tended to be the least popular." But that was only in contrast to the other, even more popular executive actions. The poll actually showed support margins of 55 to 31 percent for re-evaluating Trump's immigration policies; 51-38 for ending border wall construction; and 48-39 for ending the Muslim ban. Expanding the refugee cap from 15,000 to 125,000 was the only order in negative polling terrain, 48-39.
A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 74 percent of Americans say undocumented immigrants who are currently living in the United States should be allowed to stay.
In 2020 electoral contests in the South where immigration was a major issue, for instance, Republicans lost sheriff's elections to candidates who vowed not to collude with ICE.
But the biggest problem with reporters who focus on the politics rather than the policy is that they look at the growing number of migrants headed for the border, and the need to shelter migrant children, and their big conclusion is: "The risks of an early political backlash for Biden are growing."
While Fox News and political reporters see a one-dimensional story with winner and loser, in real life immigration is a complex issue to cover because, as Saenz told me, it's all about the "balancing of different interests."
"It should be like 50 different debates," Saenz said. He helped me think through some of them:
For instance, one debate should be about undocumented immigrants who have lived in this country for decades. That's a very different debate from what you do with someone who has just arrived. Similarly, the right approach for people seeking political asylum is not necessarily the same as for economic refugees.
One familiar debate is about how to treat the Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and went to school here. But what about people who entered with temporary protected status?
There are also a whole set of issues around due process and the workings of the immigration court system — all of which vary enormously based on whether someone is claiming asylum, and why, and from where, and whether they're newly arrived or have been here a long time, and so on.
What about immigrants who have criminal convictions? For some people that's the easiest call: You send them back. But what if they arrived here as children? And what if they became criminalized here? Is it fair to send them back to terrorize the countries of their birth? Arguably, sending hardened criminals of Central American origin back to Central America has destabilized the entire region.
Consider detention. When is it appropriate, for whom, under what circumstances and for how long? What is the role of private detention facilities?
How should the future flow of immigration be controlled? Should the priority be to provide needed labor? To unite families? A hybrid? How do we evaluate per-country quotas?
And the reality is that there has be some enforcement going forward. So what needs to be done to reform ICE and the Border Patrol? Can they be reformed? What sort of independent oversight is reasonable?
How should we manage the border? Is surveillance a better solution than a wall? What should interior enforcement be like? What happens when arrests disrupt families, communities and workplaces?
When the Columbia Journalism Review asked immigration beat reporters what issues deserved more coverage, they suggested the undocumented population from Asia, the immigration courts, and the massive immigration processing backlog and its effects on people's lives.
Gerson, the founder of Migratory Notes, said that it's "important to give voice to people's concerns about immigrants" and hear them out. She's right about that.
But Saenz noted: "The media doesn't help itself when it goes to right-wing extremists and portrays them as if they are reasonable policy thinkers who have a reasonable point of view, when they are objectively right-wing freaks." He's right about that, too.
Holding Biden to account
Counterprogramming Fox News and writing about immigration with sensitivity and nuance is not, by any stretch, the same thing as becoming a Biden booster. The goal should be fact-based reporting and accountability.
The mainstream media went way too easy on Barack Obama, allowing the focus on politics — and his big promises about immigration reform — to obscure his real legacy, which was deporting more undocumented immigrants than Bush or Trump ever did.
The Biden administration is already disappointing some pro-immigration activists. The ACLU's Naureen Shah recently wrote that "for now it has chosen to continue giving ICE officers significant discretion to conduct operations that harm our communities and tear families apart."
The situation Trump left behind — with refugees in camps in Mexico, children still separated from parents, radicalized ICE agents and an enormous backup in every category — is not something that can be cleaned up easily or quickly.
But to his credit, Biden isn't oversimplifying the issue. In fact, at a CNN town hall on Feb. 17, he discussed its complexity:
There's a whole range of things that relate to immigration, including the whole idea how you deal with — you know, what confuses people, is you talk about refugees, you talk about undocumented, you talk about people who are seeking asylum, and you talk about people who are coming ... from camps or being held around the world.
And there are four different criteria for being able to come to the United States. The vast majority of the people, those 11 million undocumented, they're not Hispanics; they're people who came on a visa — who was able to buy a ticket to get in a plane, and didn't go home. They didn't come across the Rio Grande swimming.
He summed up his overarching immigration philosophy by saying that "everyone is entitled to be treated with decency, with dignity. Everyone is entitled to that. And we don't do that enough."
For instance, he said:
For the first time in American history, if you're seeking asylum — meaning you're being persecuted, you're seeking asylum — you can't do it from the United States. …
Come with me into Sierra Leone. Come with me into parts of Lebanon. Come with me around the world and see people piled up in camps, kids dying, no way out, refugees fleeing from persecution. We, the United States, used to do our part.
The onus on journalists going forward is to avoid the simple take — especially as refugees start to make their way to the border in higher numbers, which is widely expected.
"That conflict works really well for the media," Gerson said. "But reporters should try and tell a more complete immigration story."