Call it irony or call it a nightmare, but the “crisis” of Central American children crossing the US-Mexican border, which lasted for months amid fervent and angry debate, is now fading from the news. The media stories have been legion, the words expended many. And yet, as the “crisis” leaves town, as the sound and fury die down and attention shifts elsewhere (even though the children continue to arrive), the real factors that would have made sense of what’s been happening remain essentially untouched and largely unmentioned. It couldn’t be stranger—or sadder.
Since late June 2014, the “surge” of those thousands of desperate children entering this country has been in the news. Sensational stories were followed by fervent demonstrations and counter-demonstrations with emotions running high. And it’s not a debate that stayed near the southern border either. In my home state, Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick tearfully offered to detain some of the children—and that was somehow turned into a humanitarian gesture that liberals applauded and anti-immigrant activists decried. Meanwhile the mayor of Lynn, a city north of Boston, echoed nativists on the border, announcing that her town didn’t want any more immigrants. The months of this sort of emotion, partisanship and one-upmanship have, however, diverted attention from the real issues. As so often is the case, there is so much more to the story than what we’ve been hearing in the news.
As labor journalist David Bacon has shown, the children-at-the-border story was first brought to the attention of the media by anti-immigrant organizations, beginning with the radical right-wing Breitbart News Network in Texas. Their narrative focused on President Obama’s supposed failure to control the border, his timid gestures aimed at granting temporary legal status to some undocumented youth through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the attempts of Congressional liberals to promote what they called “comprehensive immigration reform,” and of course those children “invading” the United States.
In fact, there was nothing new about the so-called surge. Rather, the Breitbart Network turned a long-term issue into a “crisis” for political reasons, and the media, politicians and organizations on both sides of the political spectrum took the bait.
Breitbart’s Texas bureau chief Brandon Darby “ignited a national firestorm,” the network claimed proudly, when he released a set of exclusive photos of overcrowded detention facilities for child detainees. Darby did not explain how he was able to gain access to what he called “internal federal government photos.” He did, however, provide an explanation for what Breitbart called the “invasion”: the children “know they will not be turned away and that they will be provided for.” In other words, it was the fault of Obama, the Democrats and the liberals. The stage was set for a Republican and populist backlash.