McAllen, Tex.—Sister Norma Pimentel, the Catholic nun who directs the Humanitarian Respite Center in the Rio Grande Valley, surprised me when I asked about right-wing commentators and politicians using the baby formula shortage to vilify immigrants. Fox News, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, and others claim that “illegal” migrant kids are getting formula while American children are not. “Our guests don’t want baby formula,” Sister Norma explained. “They’ve spent months walking and riding buses through Central America and Mexico, and their kids got used to drinking ordinary milk.”

Republicans and Fox News are distorting the truth about the southern US border, and the rest of the US mainstream media is failing to clear it up. On May 20, a Trump-appointed federal judge effectively ordered the Biden administration to continue violating the US Refugee Act of 1980, which guarantees the right to apply for asylum. Judge Robert Summerhays, directed the US to keep using a public health measure called Title 42 to immediately deport migrants without letting them plead their cases. (The purported justification is to stop the spread of Covid-19, but the Centers for Disease Control says there is no epidemiological reason to keep Title 42 in effect.)

Over the past two years, the United States has used Title 42 to carry out 1.8 million expulsions. It was due to expire on May 23, but Summerhays extended it indefinitely. As a result, many thousands of people remain in refugee camps in Mexico. Many migrants thought that Title 42 would end and that they would be allowed to apply for asylum. But for more than two years, Washington has blocked efforts to claim asylum, creating a backlog. If you essentially shut down any US government agency for that long, the Passport Office for instance, the number of people demanding their documents would surge. The refugee crisis at the border is a direct consequence of US policy.

Sister Norma said cartels target refugees by their non-Mexican accents. Migrants have long known that if they have US contacts, they should hide those phone numbers, because the criminals in Mexico will raise their extortion demands. A young women named Esperanza Ramirez told me back in 2014 that she concealed a tiny piece of paper with the number of her sister on Long Island in case the cartels kidnapped her and her 3-year-old daughter on the road north.

Sister Norma told me that the situation is even more dangerous today: “Now, the criminals force them by saying, ‘I’m going to kill your son if you don’t tell me who your contacts are.’ They put a gun to the child’s head. ‘Call your relatives in America and tell them to send the ransom or else.’”

A study last year by Human Rights First, an advocacy group, reported more than 6,000 kidnappings and violent attacks against asylum seekers after the US sent them back to Mexico—in only the first seven months of the Biden presidency. At least the Biden administration is admitting families with children, instead of continuing the cruel Trump family separation policy.

The Respite Center in McAllen was once a night club, with dark purple walls, and now welcomes 400 to 500 arrivals every day, nearly all families with children. The former bar dispenses toiletries, clothing, and diapers. On one wall is a large US map. Respite Center workers, many of them volunteers, put the migrants in touch with family members who are already in the country, who then send money to buy bus tickets to their final destinations. There they will await hearing dates in immigration courts for their asylum applications.

Patrick Déjean, originally from Haiti, will soon catch a bus to New Jersey with his wife, 5-year-old son, and 1-year-old daughter. Déjean, in his early 30s, is an electrician. He left Haiti in 2016 when it became clear to him that the country was not rebuilding after the 2010 earthquake and that gang warfare in the capital, Port-au-Prince, was spinning out of control. He was one of tens of thousands of Haitians who took one-way flights to Chile during this time. There he met his wife, who was also from Haiti, and they started a family. But Covid hit, the economy crashed, and he, like many other Haitians in Chile and Brazil, trekked northward. The most difficult stage was through the Darien Gap in eastern Panama, a rainforest area used by drug smugglers. “We didn’t eat for five days,” he said in Spanish. “Our group all survived, but we did pass many people who died along the way.”

The Déjeans reached the United States and, because they had children with them, they were allowed to enter. Under Title 42, migrants without kids are nearly always turned back. Mexico will not accept returnees from Haiti, and so the US deports them by the planeload. There were 15 expulsion flights to Haiti in the week leading up to May 23.

It is a painful irony that the US sent Haitians back to a nation torn by gang warfare and lashed by hunger on the same week that The New York Times ran a series of articles showing how Haitians had to pay crippling indemnities to France to maintain their freedom during the 19th century and beyond.

Last year, the US ambassador to Haiti, Daniel Foote, resigned his post in protest, and released a blistering public statement denouncing American policy, including the mass deportations: “The people of Haiti, mired in poverty, hostage to the terror, kidnappings, robberies and massacres of armed gangs and suffering under a corrupt government with gang alliances, simply cannot support the forced infusion of thousands of returned migrants lacking food, shelter, and money without additional human tragedy.”

By contrast, Fox News and its Republican allies have zero sympathy for the refugees. Fox and for that matter many mainstream US media outlets rarely quote migrants, portraying them as “aliens” or “illegals.” One favorite Fox tactic is to use aerial drones, which anonymizes the migrants so they look like an invading army. And one of Fox’s favorite slanders is to insinuate that the migrants are smuggling drugs.

At the Respite Center, people scoff at the idea that families carrying a couple of backpacks who plan to turn themselves in to the US authorities and ask for asylum would ever jeopardize their claims by breaking the law like this. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a senior lawyer at the American Immigration Council, reviewed the Border Patrol’s own press releases and Twitter posts about fentanyl seizures over the last six months and found just two cases of people smuggling between official ports of entry. Drugs do come in—but usually concealed in tractor trailers.

Mainstream US media outlets, although nowhere near as incendiary as their right-wing counterparts, are still somewhat gullibly buying the narrative that the migrants are mainly economically motivated. This interpretation implies that the claims for asylum are exaggerated, or not legitimate.

The economic angle is not entirely wrong, but Sister Norma’s experience with the tens of thousands of people she has welcomed at the Respite Center suggests that most asylum seekers are looking for a safe place to live. The majority of those thousands waiting across the border are from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, where heavily armed gangs with thousands of members dominate national life, extorting everyone from bus drivers to small businesses. The gangs are effectively an undisciplined occupying army.

Meanwhile, Fox News teams up with Republican officials to warp the news. In the nearby town of Mission, Fox TV reporter Griff Jenkins interviewed Representative Jason Smith, a Missouri Republican, with the Rio Grande in the background. Smith and his delegation of 10 other representatives refused to talk to the excellent local paper, McAllen’s The Monitor, but they let Jenkins tag along with them. On June 1, the pair crammed many distortions into their few short minutes on air. Jenkins started by breathlessly revealing that the Border Patrol had “apprehended” 1,693 migrants in the previous 24 hours—failing to note that many, perhaps most, had turned themselves in, hoping to apply for asylum. Smith worked in the word “illegals” three separate times and whined that Trump’s incomplete border fence was still piles of “rusty metal.” The two continued with the standard insinuation that the migrants were trafficking drugs. And Smith even expanded on the baby formula smear, complaining that the Border Patrol is forced to “supply the illegals with products that a lot of Americans can’t even get on their own shelves at home.”