Wearing a tactical green armored vest and a stern look, Fox News contributor Lawrence Jones looked more ready for eastern Syria than the southern U.S. border.
Jones appeared on Sean Hannity’s program this week show to discuss the border in “crisis,” using the stark terms of border officials and President Trump, who has driven home violent imagery on the borderlands to justify moving billions of dollars from defense spending to construct a wall.
To a viewer, it was not clear from the segment whether Jones faced any threat of violence. In other moments of the segments aired Wednesday and Thursday, Jones and his border agent escort wore no vests as they stood on the banks of the Rio Grande and roamed scrub land at night.
Responding to criticism later on Twitter that he overplayed the actual threat, Jones said border officials “instructed” him to wear it for a ride-along.
“Does ‘live from the border’ mean Party City?” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wrote, referring to a photo Jones posted. “Fox is really out here doing the most on a budget to make the border look more dangerous than it is.”
The criticism spun to Thursday evening, when Jones appeared on Hannity’s show to continue his defense, doubling down with a different armor vest that would offer more ballistic protection.
“What people don’t understand is we control this side of the border, but the cartel controls the other side of the border. So there’s been gunfights,” Jones said. “I’m going in danger with these Border Patrol agents to report on this story.”
It’s not clear why Jones swapped for more protection after catching flak on social media, why he wore a vest but no helmet, or if he was directed to wear anything by agents. Customs and Border Protection did not return an earlier request for comment.
In his Thursday segment, he wore a vest that houses ballistic armor plates to protect vital organs. It is not clear he wore the actual plates inserted. The vests themselves typically have soft armor commonly rated for smaller, handgun-type ammunition.
Other people who have done similar segments called Jones out.
“This is totally ridiculous. I have never once worn a bulletproof vest at the border, nor has CBP ever asked me to — even while on a chase with Border Patrol to apprehend migrants in remote Arizona desert in the middle of the night,” said Jacob Soboroff, an MSNBC correspondent. “Because. The. Border. Is. Not. A. War. Zone.”
Images matter when they convey an idea to an audience of millions, on a network the president’s surrogates have used as a platform to argue for stricter immigration policies and the wall. Trump has portrayed the border as a frontier marked by unrelenting violence, while more often the opposite is true.
The vest Jones wore on Wednesday had a Customs and Border Protection patch or badge affixed alongside empty pouches, and it is possible the vest was provided to help border agents identify Jones as a vetted reporter.
It is not clear whether that was a safety regulation or what kind of safety a plate carrier with minimal ballistic protection but no helmet is meant to provide. Jones appeared in other segments in dress shirts. The plate carrier would take less than half a minute to put on.
A Fox News spokeswoman referred a reporter to Jones’s tweet.
Jones was dispatched to Laredo, Tex., a border town that has seen falling violence in the past decade and that, in 2016, had a lower rate of violent crime than the state average, the Laredo Morning Times reported, citing FBI data.
In fact, crime rates in U.S. border counties are lower than the average for similarly sized inland counties, with one exception out of a total of 23, according to the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank.
Laredo’s Webb County, where Jones filed his report, is safer than 80 percent of comparable counties nationwide, the institute said, using FBI crime statistics.
“There is no doubt, the U.S. side [of the border] is a very safe place,” Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the institute, told The Washington Post last year.
There are a few general conclusions as to why this is the case. There is a substantial federal law enforcement presence in towns and along highways in the border counties.
There are some exceptions. Ranchers in southern Arizona have encountered drug traffickers on their property, though traffickers are more likely to settle problems with violence in Mexico, where police and the rule of law are barriers they can more easily overcome.
But on Wednesday’s show, the segment ended with some artfully created tension of what Jones called “breaking news,” as he was about to describe a routine occurrence.
“We just got word from the agents that are with us, keeping us safe: There is an attempt to cross the border right now,” Jones said.