Selling Chaos at the Border

In Del Rio, the Border Patrol and Right-Wing Media Stoke White Panic, Yet Again, at the Border

There is much to be said about the recent events in Del Rio, Texas. The right-wing media coverage and racist demagoguery, which I write about today, is just one part of it. In coming weeks, The Border Chronicle will also delve into the asylum system, which has been hollowed out. The Trump administration gutted what little was left of it, replacing trained asylum officers with Border Patrol agents. Immigration courts were also starved of resources, increasing an already-backed-up caseload to more than 1.4 million pending cases.

The Department of Homeland Security, as I wrote previously for The Border Chronicle, is a mess of leadership vacancies and ideological infighting. US Customs and Border Protection, which oversees Border Patrol, doesn’t have a commissioner because lawmakers are still demanding answers about Border Patrol agents’ egregious conduct during the Trump era.

Unfortunately, border communities are often caught in the middle of Washington’s dysfunction, as Del Rio was these last two weeks. One reason for starting The Border Chronicle was to push back against the border crisis narrative. It is not the border region, or border communities who are in crisis. It is Washington, DC, that is in crisis. We hope to hear comments from you and any tips on projects or people who are pushing against the racist “crisis” narrative, which we have now heard on repeat for more than a decade.

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Selling Chaos at the Border

In Del Rio, the Border Patrol and Right-Wing Media Stoke White Panic, Yet Again, at the Border

It was September 17, and Tucker Carlson was outraged that the Federal Aviation Administration had prevented a Fox News drone from flying over the Del Rio International Bridge. For days, Fox News correspondent Bill Melugin had been broadcasting images of thousands of Haitians sheltering under the bridge, which he called “a third world refugee camp,” as they waited to request asylum.

But there was no reason for Carlson to worry. Within hours, the Texas Department of Public Safety had Melugin and his crew flying in one of its own helicopters to survey the scene. “Border Patrol agents, they are completely overwhelmed,” the Fox News correspondent reported live from the DPS chopper. “People are constantly streaming in.”

As the nation’s most watched cable news station, Fox News runs a well-oiled narrative factory, fed by Border Patrol union leaders and some local Border Patrol officials, who choose where they will grant access or leak video and photos. In the case of Del Rio, the union worked hand in hand with DPS, which Texas governor Greg Abbott is using as a backdrop to bolster his tough-on-the border cred for his reelection campaign and a possible bid for the presidency. Abbott saturated Del Rio with hundreds of DPS troopers who parked their squad cars in a solid line near the international bridge. Abbott proclaimed it a “steel wall” on Fox News, warning, “This is going to be chaos as long as the Biden administration is in charge.”

DPS and the Border Patrol’s goal was to keep in place Trump’s policies, including Title 42 and the Migrant Protection Protocols program, known as “Remain in Mexico,” and ultimately to end asylum altogether. They also aimed to maintain or even boost the profits of the border security industry, as well as the political power of Border Patrol union leaders and other immigration hardliners like Abbott. To accomplish these goals, Fox News and border enforcement worked together to stoke the now-familiar crisis narrative, portraying the southern border as out of control.

Smoke and Ponies

There’s a term for this cynical manipulation: “border theater.” From unaccompanied children in 2014 to the migrant caravan hysteria of 2018–19, and the Tornillo, Texas, tent camps to the tear-gassing of migrants in Tijuana, there are many examples. Del Rio is only the latest.

In May, Bob Moore with the outlet El Paso Matters published a story that didn’t get nearly enough attention. Through a FOIA lawsuit, Moore obtained emails from El Paso Border Patrol leadership who wanted to stage a “shock and awe” show of force at an international bridge for the news cameras a week before the 2018 elections, as Trump railed on about caravans and an “invasion” of Central Americans. The plan was hatched by El Paso sector chief Aaron Hull and Deputy Chief Chris Clem to deploy heavily armed agents on foot and on horseback to the international bridge, along with helicopters, armored vehicles, and smoke that looked like tear gas. Or as Clem called it in an email, “smoke and ponies on the bridge.”

The smoke was for the cameras, wrote another Border Patrol official in an email, whose name was redacted. “It is simulated CS [tear gas] and it is for the media. You will be famous. Wear gas masks. This is coming from the top,” he wrote to another official, whose name was also redacted.

As Moore noted, officials at US Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol, nixed the plan on the bridge, so Hull and Clem decided to do it next to the historic, largely Mexican American neighborhood of Chihuahuita, in south El Paso, which is right next to the border. And they would do it on Election Day.

But the attention generated by Moore’s coverage, together with the objections of local elected officials, forced the Border Patrol officials to shelve the smoke-and-pony show until after the election.

Moore’s story gives us a rare glimpse of how local Border Patrol officials willfully manipulate events on the ground for political purposes. Both migrants and border communities suffer the consequences.

The Border Patrol Union and Biden

Brandon Judd, the Border Patrol union’s president, was a primary force behind the union’s endorsement of Donald Trump in March 2016, which was the first time the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC) had ever backed a presidential candidate since it was established in 1967. After Trump won, Judd would advise and attend press conferences with the president, while DHS officials, normally in charge of policy making, stood on the sidelines.

Because Judd and other union leaders are representatives of the NBPC, they can speak freely with the media, unlike rank-and-file agents. This gives them an outsized role in shaping the message about what is happening at the border. The union has its own podcast, The Green Line, which is hosted by union vice president Art del Cueto and sponsored by Breitbart News, the far-right outlet formerly run by Steve Bannon, a chief Trump strategist, and funded by the ultra-wealthy Mercer family, who are Republican mega-donors. On The Green Line, del Cueto and others lambaste the Biden administration for promoting “open borders” and assert that migrants at the border spread Covid-19. They advocate for the restoration of the “Remain in Mexico” program, which would keep US asylum seekers in Mexico. (The union opposed a Covid-19 vaccine mandate for agents.) As a regular guest on Fox News, Judd pillories the Biden administration, saying it is inept and leaves areas of the border wide open to criminals. In a recent op-ed for Fox News about the operation in Del Rio, Judd praises Abbott, who was “forced to do Biden’s job,” and claims that Biden “willfully ignores his duty to protect the American people and cedes border security decisions and control of law enforcement operations to criminal cartels.”

Stoking the White Supremacist Agenda

The xenophobic rhetoric and images regularly fed to Fox News and other right-wing media stoke the white nationalist agenda that was mainstreamed and normalized under the Trump administration. Sergio Muñoz, with the Washington-based nonprofit Media Matters for America, has been analyzing Fox News coverage for years. Fox, he said, moved further to the right during the Trump era because it saw far-right outlets such as Newsmax and One America News cutting into its ratings and viewership.

“The Republican side of the immigration argument has been co-opted by white nationalism,” he said. “And Fox News has had a very big part in this.”

Fox’s biggest personality, Tucker Carlson, espouses white nationalist teachings, such as the “great replacement theory,” according to which white Americans are going to be edged out by immigrants of color. In Carlson’s view the Biden administration is allowing “open borders” so that black and brown people can replace the white population.

For many years, this “border crisis” coverage has always heated up before Republican primaries and presidential elections. For instance, in 2018, Trump and Fox News stoked fear over Central American migrant caravans for 26 days straight before Trump’s State of the Union address and the midterm elections, according to an analysis by Media Matters.

Relentless in its border crisis coverage, Fox News has influenced how other cable networks, such as CNN and MSNBC, talk about the border, said Muñoz. Major news outlets characterize the border as in crisis, playing into the right-wing narrative that it is a dangerous place and under constant assault, and that Trump’s policies, which effectively ended asylum, should remain in place. “Fox is essentially setting the narrative around immigration, which is being fed by white nationalist forces in this country, which is extremely dangerous,” said Muñoz.

It is especially dangerous for border communities, since it draws often violent, racist outsiders who have been fed a steady diet of these images and xenophobic rants. They are drawn to the border to help the “overwhelmed” Border Patrol and to protect the United States from an “invasion” of “illegal aliens.” This was the case in 2019, when a 21-year-old from North Texas drove 650 miles to a Walmart in El Paso and fatally shot 23 people and injured another 23. He later said he carried out the massacre to stave off a “Hispanic invasion,” citing the great replacement theory.

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Two of the Nation’s “Most Well-Resourced Law Enforcement Agencies”

Wade McMullen, senior vice president of Programs and Legal Advocacy with the RFK Human Rights Center, was in Del Rio last week working with the nonprofit Haitian Bridge Alliance, to provide food, clothes, and other humanitarian assistance to Haitian families. McMullen said it was laughable for members of the Border Patrol to claim that they didn’t have enough resources to handle the situation in Del Rio. “Between Border Patrol and ICE, we are looking at two of the largest, most well-resourced law enforcement agencies in the entire country,” he said.

The small city of Del Rio, McMullen said, had been flooded with hundreds of Texas state troopers deployed by Governor Abbott. “They’ve filled all the hotels and are parked in front of the mattress store twiddling their thumbs, not doing anything productive,” he said. “Wasting all of the money that could really be used right now to meet both the humanitarian needs of the people in the camps, including legal assistance and social workers to help people deal with the trauma they’ve experienced and continue to experience as they’re forced to sleep in the dirt, with no tent and no food for days.”

McMullen said DPS and CBP were preventing humanitarian organizations, except for World Central Kitchen, from entering the camp where Haitian migrants were stranded between a border wall and the Rio Grande. “We just keep watching Fox News being shepherded in and around the camp by DPS,” he said. “We keep requesting access, but they always say no.”

In the last decade, Haiti has been pummeled by a series of economic, climate, and political disasters. Many of the Haitians who arrived in Del Rio had been living in Brazil and Chile after fleeing the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 people. Others had been living in migrant camps in Mexico since 2016.

Several weeks prior, according to the Associated Press, rumors spurred by smugglers and other members of the Haitian diaspora, had begun swirling on social media that US asylum applications were being accepted at the Del Rio port of entry. As a result, thousands of people started traveling on buses toward the Texas border city of 35,000.

The men, women, and children camped for days under the international bridge in the heat without food or shelter, waiting for an opportunity to request asylum.

CBP, which has extensive intelligence capabilities and monitors social media, would most certainly have been aware of the circumstances leading up to their arrival. On September 13, Breitbart published an exclusive written by Randy Clark, a former Border Patrol official from Del Rio, with information from a source within CBP saying that thousands of Haitians were heading toward Del Rio. Two days later, Fox News was on the story too.

“It pisses me off,” said Jenn Budd, a former Border Patrol agent who is now a fierce critic of the agency and was also in Del Rio to help Haitian migrants. “Every time the Border Patrol does this, they make the problem worse. They slow-walk the processing, whether it’s unaccompanied children or Haitians, and they let the crowd build up, then they bring in Fox News and other media to come see it.”

Next the humanitarian groups arrive, she said, and then the administration. “Biden comes down on them and gets everybody out of there and acts like the problem is solved,” she said. “Then the Border Patrol moves on to its next crisis to create.”

The Border Theater Continues

The repeated message that there is “crisis” and “chaos” at the border unnerves many voters, already shaken by the global pandemic, economic losses, and other worries. The Biden administration and many Democrats are terrified of looking soft on the border and immigration, and they fear it will hurt them politically, said Representative Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, of his colleagues.

With more people on the move due to climate-fueled disasters and political and economic upheaval, we will undoubtedly see large groups of asylum seekers and migrants at the border again soon. This has been the new normal for several years. Many Democrats would prefer not to talk about it altogether, and when they do, the message is incoherent. President Biden promises a more humane border, then deports thousands of Haitians back to a country where they will suffer. The administration bans border agents on horseback in Del Rio, but not the cruel and inhumane practices that agents use regularly in border communities. The border theater continues, but the entrenched problems that perpetuate the cruelty and suffering are never meaningfully addressed.

Meanwhile, Border Patrol union leaders like Judd keep stoking the crisis machine and undermining any immigration policy they don’t agree with. It will be difficult for Biden and DHS secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to create more humane policies if Border Patrol leaders won’t carry them out, said Grijalva. “They’re just going to keep resisting it every step of the way and wait it out,” he said. “They’re hoping that in four years they’ll get that hardline philosophy back. That’s what they’re betting on.”