The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The border crisis is about human pain and desperation. Why can’t the media grasp this?

Migrants at a makeshift detention center in El Paso, Texas, in 2019. (Sergio Flores/For The Washington Post)

The current emergency at the border has found the U. S. media at its most solipsistic. Coverage seems more focused on whether the emergency should be called “a crisis” (it should) and what the political fallout for the Biden administration will be. With few exceptions — like the remarkable work of MSNBC’s Jacob Soboroff or Politico’s Sabrina Rodriguez — many news outlets seem utterly uninterested in the stories of the migrants themselves.

This is wrong because it fails to provide one crucial piece of the puzzle: the very concrete context of human suffering.

The ugly truth is that for all the justified outrage over the lack of proper facilities to house the thousands of young immigrants at the border, for most of those children — and for the parents who, in many cases, sent them on their way to the United States — the alternative is much worse.

The numbers don’t lie. Crime, corruption and even climate change have made life extremely difficult for thousands of people in Central America’s Northern Triangle. America’s disengagement from the region has made matters worse (President Donald Trump cut aid to the area). People from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador don’t migrate in search of a better life. They are looking for a shot at survival.

Listen to their stories. A couple of years ago, researchers with the Washington Office on Latin America traveled to all three countries to interview potential migrants. They found stories of gang violence, police brutality, domestic abuse, extortion, rape and poverty. “The reality for many victims of crime of relatives of those who have been violently killed is that they have nowhere to turn for help or for protection,” says WOLA’s Adriana Beltrán.

WOLA asked children to give their testimonies of the horror they experienced. Karla was 14 when she was almost killed in Honduras for refusing to join a gang. She chose to “escape.” In Mexico, she encountered a new version of hell. Listening to her testimony is heartbreaking. As she describes being raped, she cannot bring herself to fully retell the experience. “They touched me a lot, they hurt me a lot,” she says. “I never imagined something like that.”

These stories are not unique. Quite the contrary. Last year, the newspaper El País published an award-winning series on the conditions migrants face in Mexico. Journalist Elena Reina’s pieceon Tapachula, a large border town in the southern state of Chiapas, where many Central American migrants are sent by Mexican authorities, revealed an horrific underworld of sexual slavery and despair. Many of those forced into prostitution are young immigrants.

Things aren’t much better along Mexico’s northern border, where the Trump administration sent tens of thousands of potential refugees to wait out their asylum processes without any access to proper shelter, police protection or education for young children. The consequences have been dire.

“These children have limited access to many of the essential services they need for their well-being,” a UNICEF study concluded in 2018. “They also run the risk of being exploited, abused or trafficked while traveling or in the vicinity of camps and rest centers on the border.” Two years later, a Human Rights Watch survey of children living under the Remain in Mexico confirmed the worst. “Many of those interviewed said that they or their family members suffered actual or threatened rape, sexual abuse, kidnapping, robbery, and other acts of violence after US immigration officials sent them to Mexico,” reads the report.

The picture that emerges from Central America’s Northern Triangle and Mexico’s border towns is one of violence and cruelty of enormous magnitude. For years, American media has failed to portray this suffering accurately, much less show it broadly for the public to understand. The reality faced by hundreds of thousands of children, teenagers and parents south of the border should be of enormous consequence in the nation’s immigration debate.

But it isn’t, and that’s a shame.

This by no means excuses the stories of anguish and confinement that have emerged over the last few weeks from within the facilities set up by the Biden administration to deal with the number of young migrants crossing the border, nor does it absolve the president himself from delivering on his promise of a humane immigration system, diametrically opposed to Trump’s cruel policies, designed in collaboration with unapologetic racist xenophobes like Stephen Miller.

The Biden administration can and should do better. But the current debate cannot ignore the very concrete despair facing thousands of immigrant families who, under the direct threat of violence or abuse, chose to push their young children to the United States, in search of safety.

If the alternative was famine, gang violence, kidnapping, rape or sexual slavery, wouldn’t you bet it all on the journey north? If more people understood this, the political debate and the coverage surrounding the crisis would be much more empathetic and we would get closer at delivering concrete, humane solutions.

Read more:

Charles Lane: Walls don’t work. Open borders don’t work. It’s time to try realism.

Henry Olsen: Biden is sending the wrong signals on the border

George F. Will: Immigration is the sincerest form of flattery. This country needs a good hit of it.

The Post’s View: Biden is right to end Trump’s inhumane border policies. The cost is a new surge of migrants.

Fareed Zakaria: Biden’s generous immigration policies could turn out to backfire