We need to stop oversimplifying the situation at the border
Fellows Friday Series
Journalist Jonathan Blitzer discusses the nuance that gets lost in America’s conversation about immigration — and how the media must change.
Two months into a term that has already included accelerating a massive vaccination effort and passing trillions of dollars of economic relief, the Biden administration must now confront the complex situation at the U.S.-Mexico border.
In March, border crossings continued to increase, with more than 170,000 encounters reported by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials. A record number of those were unaccompanied children and teenagers crossing the border without a parent or a legal guardian. Others were migrant families, about a third of whom were expelled back across the border to Mexico, along with the vast majority of single adults. The U.S. immigration system — already flawed before it had been decimated by the preceding administration — still struggles to provide fair and humane treatment.
And yet, as the media breathlessly report the number of border crossings during the Biden presidency, close watchers of immigration in the Americas know that the stats do little to explain the issue, which is built on a web of complicated historical relationships between the U.S. and the home countries of many of these migrants, particularly in the “Northern Triangle” of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Among the keenest observers of the “near abroad” is Jonathan Blitzer, an award-winning journalist with The New Yorker and current Emerson Fellow at New America. The culmination of a half-decade of reporting, his forthcoming book, tentatively titled The Golden Door, contextualizes this current moment and examines its root causes —and does so in a way that centers on immigrants. “For me, the starting point always — from the very beginning of my interest in some of these issues — has been people themselves, specific people,” Blitzer says.
He recently joined Anya McMurray, senior director of immigration strategy and policy at Emerson Collective, to discuss the nuanced picture of immigration captured in his book and why the media so often oversimplifies it.
Can you give us a brief summary of the book you are working on? And can you say a little bit about why you’re tackling this material in the way that you are?
To tune in to this story at the U.S. border is really like picking up a book and reading the last chapter. The Golden Door is an attempt to tell a full narrative history of the relationship between the U.S. and Central America from the 1980s to the present. My hope with this book is to try to lay out the story of how closely entwined the U.S. is with the Northern Triangle — and to have human beings be at the center of it. There are people whose lives actually demonstrate and plot out the broader history and policy questions, and if you start to think about these issues in those human terms, it unlocks the broader story. It also gives you a window into how policy moves made in Washington have vast human implications. If you start to think about approaching these subjects in that way, resisting the impulse to start from the top down, you learn more.
Perhaps you can give us an example: How do you approach climate change’s impact on migration?
The journalistic impulse I have is to say: OK, we have a big phenomenon like climate change. It stands to reason that that would force people to emigrate. What does that look like on the ground? How does a little community start to reckon with the fact that, for the last seven years, crops that they’ve grown for their whole lives will not take in the soil for reasons related to humidity or pests? What happens when, within a single family, one person decides she will try to adapt and find a way to make her life at home sustainable, while others drop everything and leave for the U.S.? Getting that granular is, I think, going to be the most helpful and illustrative.
Then you get to the related policy question. The asylum system ought to be updated to face the reality that we know exists in the region. The definition of asylum so often involves people fleeing a particular form of persecution, and we haven’t even made good on that promise in our asylum laws. But what do you do when there are people who aren’t fleeing government persecution per se, but who are fleeing a tangible phenomenon that we are also contributing to? My only hope is that through truly diligent, responsible storytelling, you’re at least building up people’s capacity to think and empathize with this reality.
And then of course, U.S. immigration policy itself creates new challenges. What are policymakers missing when they think about immigration?
If you were to listen to the policymakers on the whole, the sense you would get is, “This is a thing that befalls us. We’re a rich, powerful country, so inevitably we’re dealing with people who are desperate to get here.” Of course, that leaves out everything. But, specifically, U.S. immigration policy actually creates — and this is something that I’ve become really fascinated by — a new, global demographic. You have people who are Salvadoran, who then come to the U.S. and live in the U.S. for a while. They’re not, in a legal sense, American, but nor are they Salvadoran. They get subsumed by a different identity. Then if they were to leave to go home, whether by choice or because of deportation, they are this other thing — they’re an amalgam of the places that they’ve been. How do we understand what it means to be a global citizen in that way?
In Washington, policymakers either don’t care or don’t want to have to face up to what this means, and the consequences snowball over decades. The politics around this issue are so stultifying. There’s so much lying and cynicism and misinformation on the right. But I think the understandable impulse among people who are more progressive-minded to try to push back against that misinformation by valorizing or romanticizing some of the people who are making these trips to the U.S. also seems like a storytelling trap. Because that’s not the people I meet, who are the most normal, interesting human beings, with contradictions and blind spots and incredible resiliency and senses of humor. If your focus is on people, then I think you’re protecting yourself against falling into these kinds of binaries that are otherwise dictated by very artificial versions of the immigration debate.
As a journalist what do you think newsrooms can do to encourage more nuanced reporting?
Without wanting to seem like I’m in the tank for one administration or another, or one party over another, I think at this point we have to call it like it is. There is one party that is sowing misinformation around this issue and it is turning this issue into its main cudgel with which to try to beat Democratic politicians. So the first and most obvious thing is for the media not to take the bait every time. Almost all of the terms that are dominating the conversation right now about the border with the Biden administration are terms that originated with Republican congressmen. Journalists have a responsibility to do more than just regurgitate the “on the one hand, Democrats say, on the other hand, Republicans counter …”
Also, you have to take a lot of spin off the ball as a reporter, and I don’t think people do that enough. There are sources inside the government who I think are not necessarily acting in bad faith, but who deliver information with a slant. It applies to every little nook and cranny of this issue. At The New Yorker, I have the luxury of space, but even I can’t get into all of it every time. I can’t always give you the deep cut of what I’m working on. So I ask myself, “What are two or three of the main misconceptions I’m seeing?” and then try to work against those with my reporting.
Through truly diligent, responsible storytelling, you're at least building up people’s capacity to think and empathize with this reality.
One thing we’re seeing unfold right now is that when reporters take the crisis narrative, it builds on itself. What will be different for storytellers about immigration during this administration?
The thing that I think is going to be a problem unique to the Biden era is that the political crisis of immigration is such a big part of the immigration issue. As much as I would like to pull back from, say, the bumbling craziness of political press conferences, the more I’ve come to think that actually part of the policy conundrum is the political problem associated with the policy conundrum. I’m stumped by it. It’s not clear to me yet how you handle it. There needs to be some way to expand immigration coverage to include political coverage — but from the standpoint of immigration expertise. That’s going to be a really important thing over these next few years.