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The Real Story Behind the ‘Invasion’ of the Children

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Posted on Aug 25, 2014

Photo by theilr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Aviva Chomsky, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

Call it irony or call it a nightmare, but the “crisis” of Central American children crossing the U.S.-Mexican border, which lasted for months amid fervent and angry debate, is now fading from the news.  The media stories have been legion, the words expended many.  And yet, as the “crisis” leaves town, as the sound and fury die down and attention shifts elsewhere (even though the children continue to arrive),  the real factors that would have made sense of what’s been happening remain essentially untouched and largely unmentioned.  It couldn’t be stranger—or sadder.

Since late June 2014, the “surge” of those thousands of desperate children entering this country has been in the news.  Sensational stories were followed by fervent demonstrations and counter-demonstrations with emotions running high.  And it’s not a debate that stayed near the southern border either.  In my home state,  Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick tearfully offered to detain some of the children—and that was somehow turned into a humanitarian gesture that liberals applauded and anti-immigrant activists decried.   Meanwhile the mayor of Lynn, a city north of Boston, echoed nativists on the border, announcing that her town didn’t want any more immigrants.   The months of this sort of emotion, partisanship, and one-upmanship have, however, diverted attention from the real issues.  As so often is the case, there is so much more to the story than what we’ve been hearing in the news.

As labor journalist David Bacon has shown, the children-at-the-border story was first brought to the attention of the media by anti-immigrant organizations, beginning with the radical right-wing Breitbart News Network in Texas.  Their narrative focused on President Obama’s supposed failure to control the border, his timid gestures aimed at granting temporary legal status to some undocumented youth through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the attempts of Congressional liberals to promote what they called “comprehensive immigration reform,” and of course those children “invading” the U.S.

In fact, there was nothing new about the so-called surge.  Rather, the Breitbart Network turned a long-term issue into a “crisis” for political reasons, and the media, politicians, and organizations on both sides of the political spectrum took the bait.

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Breitbart’s Texas bureau chief Brandon Darby “ignited a national firestorm,” the network claimed proudly, when he released a set of exclusive photos of overcrowded detention facilities for child detainees.  Darby did not explain how he was able to gain access to what he called “internal federal government photos.”  He did, however, provide an explanation for what Breitbart called the “invasion”: the children “know they will not be turned away and that they will be provided for.”  In other words, it was the fault of Obama, the Democrats, and the liberals.  The stage was set for a Republican and populist backlash.

Pro-Obama voices like Deval Patrick and some immigrant rights organizations played right into the sensationalist nativist narrative.  “There’s a humanitarian reason to try to find a solution, try to find a way to help,” Patrick stated, insisting that at stake was an issue of “love of country and lessons of faith”—and that it was explicitly not a political issue.

Massachusetts Republican politicians, like Lynn’s Mayor Judith Kennedy Flanagan, complained instead about the impact on their communities, turning a fiscal problem into an occasion for xenophobia.  “It’s gotten to the point where the school system is overwhelmed, our health department is overwhelmed, the city’s budget is being [un]sustainably altered in order [to] accommodate all of these admissions in the school department,” she stated.  State Representative Mark Lombardo concurred: “We just can’t afford it. We’re not adequately taking care of our own children; our own veterans, our own families who are struggling here in Massachusetts. We gotta put American families first.”

Hundreds of protesters rallied on the Boston Common on July 26th demanding that the country put “Americans before illegals.”  It was easy for wealthy liberals, many commentators added, to foist the children on poor communities, but what about the domestic poor, the homeless, the veterans who can’t get access to medical services?  Why, under such circumstances, should we direct resources to Central American children?  (Such Republican racial identity-based appeals to the white working class date back to the presidency of Richard Nixon.)

Which Central America?

These two seemingly clashing narratives—the moral, humanitarian imperative to help children in need and the plight of strapped cities and Americans in need—turn out to neatly complement each other.  Both play the game of victimology in the service of party politics.  Each asks essentially the same question: Do Republicans or Democrats get more points for defending the neediest victims?  Each side claims the humanitarian high ground, while both conveniently avoid looking at the political economy of the problem they lament—and that they have, over many decades, collaborated in creating.

Unfortunately, many liberals and some immigrant rights organizations have failed to offer their own analysis that reached beyond generalized good will and support for the Democrats.  “We stand for justice and we care for all children in need!” the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition declared wholeheartedly, but not very illuminatingly.  In addition to “standing up for all kids,” the purpose of its August 7th counter-rally seemed to be simply to support Patrick’s offer to create temporary detention centers in Massachusetts.  Unfortunately, by disseminating Breitbart’s dramatic photos and adopting the right’s basic narrative, liberals missed an opportunity to go beyond a sterile debate and take a more meaningful look at the structural issues at stake.


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