Originally published by The New Yorker
Thousands of people are trying to make their way to the United States’ southern border. President Donald Trump calls them “criminal aliens,” a “national emergency,” an attack on the nation’s sovereignty, and a threat to the “safety of every single American.” He claims that “very bad people,” MS-13 gang members, and “unknown Middle Easterners”—by which he apparently means terrorists—are in the group. Of those last claims, even Fox News has seen fit to fact-check Trump and point out that his statements are unfounded. And yet the story of the procession across Honduras and Mexico has served to normalize more of Trump’s xenophobic anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Everyone, it seems, is calling the procession a “caravan.” The journalist Luke O’Neil has pointed out that the word’s Persian roots conjure the image of “people trekking across the desert with camels (ie terrorists of course).” It is less an organized trek than it is an “exodus,” a spontaneous movement of thousands who are fleeing a place more than they are pursuing a destination. More insidiously, writers have adopted the word “deter” and its derivatives. Outlets ranging from Breitbart to the Times to Jezebel are debating whether the Administration’s policies have been, or can be, effective in “deterring” asylum seekers. The question has been standard for several months. Back in the early summer, at the height of the media’s attention to the separation of children from their families at the southern border, I was on an MSNBC show when the host, Ayman Mohyeldin, asked me if the tactic was serving the Trump Administration’s declared purpose of “deterring” asylum seekers. I responded that the question was immoral and should not be posed. Mohyeldin acknowledged my point. Then he followed up: “But is it?”
A quick survey of mainstream-media coverage shows that, with some exceptions, before 2017 the words “migrants” and “asylum” and “deterrent” appeared primarily in coverage of foreign countries. Denmark was trying to “deter” Syrian refugees from approaching its borders. Australia used the word “deterrence” a lot. Indeed, the Australian far right, aided mightily by Rupert Murdoch’s media outlets, got about a decade’s head start on its American counterpart in this method of talking about asylum seekers. The word “deterrence” comes from the language of crime prevention, and its use reinforces the view of asylum seekers as criminals.
These days, MSNBC is asking “whether anything will deter these people.” Brian Stelter, of CNN, has taken to Twitter to exhort the news media to show the location of the procession on a map, demonstrating that it is still many hundreds of miles from the U.S. border. His argument seems to be that the pro-Trump media is overestimating the immediate danger posed by the asylum seekers by minimizing the distance they still have to traverse, as if the people seeking refuge were an advancing army, or a natural disaster. By implication, he and Trump do not disagree about whether the caravan presents a threat, only about its current potency.
But the people walking through Mexico right now are not an army or a hurricane. They are not even planning to cross the border illegally. International law guarantees their right to seek asylum. The U.S. has an obligation to consider their claims. Trump does not have a moral or legal leg to stand on when he talks about deterring the asylum seekers, much less when he promises to send the military to stop them. But most of the media, across the political spectrum, is standing right there with him. They may be mortified by some of the language that Trump uses in discussing immigration, but he has still succeeded in shifting their frame. They are being more polite than the President, but by discussing the effectiveness of “deterrence” and the immediacy of the caravan’s danger, they reinforce his politics of hatred and fear-mongering.