by James Goodman, published in The Progressive Magazine, August 17, 2021
Rightwing propaganda and Biden’s continuation of Trump era barriers to migrants and refugees attempting to cross the southern border collude to create an atmosphere of xenophobia and ignorance in the United States. What was big news under the Trump Administration continues in the shadows under President Biden. Someone ought to ask Tucker ‘qui bono?’ from his cover-up of Biden’s broken promises, or does he have nothing better to talk about. Meanwhile US Sanctions and vicious kleptocratic governments under US protection continue to make life hell for many of the peoples of the global south. [jb]
Osman and his five-year-old son recently waited at the bus station in the Texas border city of Brownsville to continue a journey that he describes as a matter of life and death.
“People think that we only came here because we wanted to,” says Osman, in a telephone interview with The Progressive. “They have not experienced what we have gone through.”
A street vendor in Honduras, the forty-three-year-old Osman, who wants to be identified only by his first name, describes how gang members were out to kill him; he has scars from a machete attack to show for it. The mere thought of being deported gives him “goosebumps.”
Meanwhile, the plight of asylum seekers has given way to a hateful and xenophobic narrative being spun on Fox News shows by Tucker Carlson and his ilk.
President Joe Biden, the story goes, opened the floodgates to immigrants to build a base of future Democratic voters. Border crossers are demonized as lawbreakers and superspreaders of COVID-19, invading your neighborhood.
For starters, Carlson recently claimed that, as soon as Biden took office, “the first big policy change they made, and the one they stuck to most assiduously, has been to open our Southern border.” He said this is being done “to undermine democracy itself. When you change who votes, you change the outcome of the election.”
Stephen Miller, chief architect of Donald Trump’s draconian anti-immigrant policies, has made the rounds on Fox, saying that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Border Patrol have shed their enforcement responsibilities to become “resettlement agencies.”
And, for good measure, Miller said this “resettlement” is “the largest of its kind, I would suggest, perhaps, in the history of the world.”
Now, a few facts. The border closures the Trump Administration imposed in March 2020 remain in effect. Biden has exempted unaccompanied children from this ban. Many families apprehended by the Border Patrol have also not been returned to the Mexico side of the border—partly because of Mexico’s refusal to accept families with young children.
And while Fox blathers about open borders, most of the more than one million Border Patrol apprehensions at the Southern border through July under Biden have resulted in migrants being immediately returned to Mexico or put on deportation flights.
About two-thirds of the 791,573 apprehensions made by the Border Patrol from February through June resulted in expulsions, according to an analysis by Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel of the American Immigration Council.
What’s more, many of those apprehended are the same people making repeated attempts—a trend much more pronounced than in the past. Reichlin-Melnick estimates that 37 percent of apprehensions during the first six months of this year were repeat crossers.
Carlson’s nightly anti-immigrant rants, repeated in his Fox Nation production of “The Illegal Invasion,” drives home the fantasy that immigrants are being let in—willy-nilly—to build up the Democratic voter base. He talked about a “tip” he received that ICE was using Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas to fly migrants for release in the border region.
“The goal of the operation,” Carlson said, “is to resettle illegal immigrants throughout the country, throughout the interior—without the knowledge or permission of the people living in those places.”
In an April broadcast, Carlson said that “the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement,’ if you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate of voters now casting ballots with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.”
His “replacement” reference prompted the Anti-Defamation League to call on Fox News to fire Carlson on the grounds that he “embraced a foundational theory of white supremacy.”
Carlson insisted that was not the case. But none of this has tempered Carlson’s immigrant bashing. Nor did it stop Carlson from recently doing a week of his shows from Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban is openly anti-immigrant.
Another Fox News staple is blaming migrants for spreading COVID-19. The nightly shows leave the impression that few, if any, migrants are being tested. However, The New York Times reports that of the 96,808 migrants who passed through McAllen, Texas, this year and have been tested for COVID-19, only 8,559 had tested positive—a rate no greater than the U.S. population overall.
In the Rio Grande Valley, where the number of border crossings has been high, a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley told The Washington Post that migrants who test positive are immediately isolated, along with their family members. They are not released until they test negative.
John-Michael Torres, a spokesperson for La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), notes that Texas Governor Greg Abbott “has been casting immigrants as responsible for spreading COVID-19, even though he has been responsible for a series of missteps that have allowed the virus to spread.” On August 9, LUPE—in a show of solidarity with migrants—organized a “Chain of Protection” protest outside of the bus station in McAllen, Texas, where many migrants leave to travel to their sponsors.
Community groups in Brownsville, in Southeast Texas, have also stepped up. The Good Neighbor Settlement House has worked with the city and Department of Homeland Security, which have tested about 20,000 asylum seekers this year, says Good Neighbor Executive Director Hugo Zurita.
As migrants prepare to board buses, Moises Zuniga of the community group Team Brownsville helps prepare them. “We give them the basics—and orientate them to where they are going.”
A Honduran man named Ever talks to me three days after he swam across the Rio Grande with his five-year-old son on his back. “If you were in my shoes, you’d understand what I’ve gone through,” he says.
Unable to carve out a living as a farmer, the thirty-nine-year-old Ever couldn’t even fully clothe his son.
The Homeland Security document that Ever had in hand says he and his son tested negative for COVID-19. It also says they should report to an ICE office within sixty days of reaching their destination in Arkansas, where they will stay with Ever’s cousin.
Such a scenario doesn’t fit the playbook of Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis. Like Abbott in Texas, DeSantis has let the COVID-19 infection rate in his state skyrocket with a prohibition against requiring masks. And, like Abbott, DeSantis blames Biden for letting “COVID-infected migrants pour over our Southern border by the hundreds of thousands.”
In July, it was revealed that since mid-March about 50,000 asylum seekers let in by Border Patrol were given notices to check in with the ICE office nearest their sponsor within sixty days. But about 15,000 of them had failed to do so.
The news prompted Carlson to declare, “The Biden Administration is not even bothering to figure out where they are going.” And the New York Post editorialized: “Surprise, surprise: The migrants Biden’s letting in aren’t reporting to feds.”
But immigration lawyers and activists cite such common problems as asylum seekers not understanding the instruction materials given to them, the fact that some ICE offices are often closed due to the pandemic, and that it can be difficult to get an ICE officer on the phone.
Homeland Security, lawyers note, knows where these migrants are supposed to be, but the vague instructions given migrants have been a source of anxiety. “I’ve had people come to me and say they tried to report—and they’re terrified they are in trouble,” says Helen Parsonage, an immigration attorney in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
A revamped Homeland Security would devote the necessary resources to better coordinate and strengthen the testing system. But instead, Biden has let the GOP define the border debate, while refusing to rescind Trump’s 2020 border closure—commonly known as Title 42. And the Biden Administration is expected to make less use of exceptions to Title 42 that have allowed a limited number of asylum seekers, who are especially vulnerable waiting in Mexico, to pursue their claims in the United States.
Osman and his son were let in under one of these exceptions. Charlene D’Cruz, who heads Project Corazon, a program of volunteer lawyers that helped Osman, tells of many thousands of other asylum seekers who remain stuck on the Mexico side of the border.
Moreover, in recent weeks, the Biden Administration has put an emphasis on expedited removal, which allows deportation of asylum seekers without a court hearing. Flights have started up to expel immigrants deep into Mexico—so they are less likely to try crossing again. Customs and Border Protection has also warned that repeat crossers could face jail time in the United States.
On August 13, more than one hundred immigrant rights’ groups submitted a letter to Biden and top officials expressing “profound disappointment” in the administration’s pursuit of “cruel, unlawful, and ineffective deterrence-based policies that extend rather than dismantle the previous administration’s approach to immigration.”
The contrast between that reality and Fox News’s fantasy world is vast.
*Featured Image: Protesters showing support for immigrants outside bus station in McAllen, Texas on August 9.
James Goodman was a staff writer for the Rochester, NY Democrat and Chronicle for many years, and is currently writing a series of articles for The Progressive on migrants entering the US through the southern border.