The 3,500 or so unarmed men, women and children seeking asylum in a country of 350 million represents as much a threat to the United States of America as a glass of water is to the ocean. Nevertheless, the U.S. media has been full of scare stories about the “caravan” of Central American migrants making the dangerous trek north through Mexico. News outlets have obsessively covered the caravan like an approaching hurricane.
For xenophobes, the caravan has created the perfect visuals to trigger white demographic anxiety: young brown people headed north. Images of the caravan are featured prominently in many campaign ads for Republican candidates in this year’s midterm elections. For some, it looked to be the perfect “October surprise.”
The caravan has created the perfect visuals to trigger white demographic anxiety: young brown people headed north.
The tragic irony of this story is the local activists who initially organized the caravan sought to raise awareness about the abuses faced by Central American migrants. But the likely outcome is a harder journey north than ever before. President Trump is reportedly preparing a travel-ban style executive order to close the border to all Central American asylum seekers, which would leave them with no legal way to seek entry.
Whatever “crisis” has been provoked by the caravan is a one of perceptions. The border is secured. Gone are the days when all one had to do was sprint from Tijuana to San Diego when the Border Patrol wasn’t looking. Today’s migrants instead actively look for the nearest Border Patrol officer to turn themselves in and ask for asylum, which is (for now) perfectly legal to do.
Much of the footage of the caravan presents the migrants as an indistinguishable mass, with the camera at a far distance.
Instead, the real threat to the United States is the very fear and hate the caravan story has fomented. According to his posts on social media, the man who attacked and killed 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh believed that Jews were the ones behind the migrant caravan. The president’s habit of amplifying and spreading racially charged conspiracy theories about Central American migrants and the caravan cannot be ignored as a possible factor in the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue.
Yet the incessant media coverage of the caravan has played into Mr. Trump’s hands and may also be fueling racial violence. Words like “army” have been used even in mainstream, reputable news outlets to describe unarmed, desperate families seeking safety or opportunity. Is it any wonder that the most fearful in the United States may feel compelled to lash out? Even well-meaning pundits defensively point out how far the migrants remain from the United States, implicitly conceding that the best Latino is a faraway Latino.
Even more powerful than the words have been the images. Much of the footage of the caravan, whether on CNN, Fox or MSNBC, presents the migrants as an indistinguishable mass, with the camera at a distance. The frame is always full of people; but each of them are small; the details of their faces lost within a single pixel. Meanwhile, the talking heads and expert panelists get close-ups, hair and makeup. They are allowed to be individuals; we always know their names.
It is not that the media should avoid images of the migrants’ journey. But there can be better, more humanizing footage. The photographers who are with them should get close. Show their faces; show their eyes; make the viewer recognize an individual. If the only footage of migrants available as background for cable news had close-up faces of men, women and children, the immigration debate in this country might be a little different.
Was it naïve to think increased focus on migration from Central America might spur more sympathy for the migrants themselves? Not if the media in the United States were more responsible and more diverse than it is. For now, I fear immigrant advocates must confront the truth that many in the undocumented community have long understood: Deer should not call attention to themselves when surrounded by wolves.
And yet I find even the distant images of migrants beautiful. I see neither weak victims nor threatening invaders. I see brave people, on an exodus across half a continent of mountains, jungles and deserts. In these journeys I see reflections of my own ancestors. I see the struggles they went through to get here. I see the pursuit of happiness. Images of the caravan evoke the words of Walt Whitman, in his ode to the pioneers: “Come my tan-faced children.... All the past we leave behind, we debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world, fresh and strong the world we seize.”
I am holding out hope that we might still somehow recognize the best of ourselves in the migrants heading toward the United States. If we did, our nation might rediscover some of that courage, decency and determination to seek better lives that we ourselves lost somewhere along the way.