It was the kind of story destined to take a dark turn through the conservative news media and grab president Donald Trump’s attention: a vast horde of migrants were making their way through Mexico toward the United States and no one was stopping them.
“Mysterious group deploys ‘caravan’ of illegal aliens headed for US border,” warned FrontPage Magazine, a site run by David Horowitz, a conservative commentator.
The Gateway Pundit, a website that was most recently in the news for spreading conspiracies about the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, suggested the real reason the migrants were trying to enter the United States was to collect social welfare benefits. And as the president often does when immigration is at issue, he saw a reason for Americans to be afraid. “Getting more dangerous. ‘Caravans’ coming,” a Twitter post from Mr Trump read.
The story of the caravan followed an arc similar to many events – whether real, embellished or entirely imagined – involving refugees and migrants that have roused intense suspicion and outrage on the right. The coverage tends to play on the fears that hiding among mass groups of immigrants are many criminals, vectors of disease and agents of terror. And often the president, who announced his candidacy by blaming Mexico for sending rapists and drug dealers into the United States, acts as an accelerant to the hysteria.
The sensationalisation of this story and others like it seems to serve a common purpose for Mr Trump and other immigration hardliners: to highlight the twin dangers of freely roving migrants – especially those from Muslim countries – and lax immigration laws that grant them easy entry into Western nations.
The narrative on the right this week, for example, mostly omitted that many people in the caravan planned to resettle in Mexico, not the United States. And it ignored how many of those who did intend to come here would probably go through the legal process of requesting asylum at a border checkpoint – something miles of new wall and battalions of additional border patrol would not have stopped.
“They end up in schools on Long Island, some of which are MS-13!” declared Brian Kilmeade on the president’s preferred morning news programme, Fox & Friends, referring to the predominantly Central American gang.
The coverage became so distorted that it prompted a reporter for Breitbart News who covers border migration, Brandon Darby, to push back. “I’m seeing a lot of right media cover this as ‘people coming illegally’ or as ‘illegal aliens.’ That is incorrect,” he wrote on Twitter. “They are coming to a port of entry and requesting refugee status. That is legal.”
In an interview, Mr Darby said it was regrettable that the relatively routine occurrence of migrant caravans – which organisers rely on as a safety-in-numbers precaution against the violence that can happen along the trek – was being politicised.
“The caravan isn’t something that’s a unique event,” he said. “And I think people are looking at it wrong. If you’re upset at the situation, it’s easier to be mad at the migrant than it is to be mad at the political leaders on both sides who won’t change the laws.”
As tends to be the case in these stories, the humanitarian aspects get glossed over as migrants are collapsed into one maligned category: hostile foreign invaders.
The story of the caravan has been similarly exaggerated. And the emotional outpouring from the right has been raw – that was the case on Fox News this week when the TV host Tucker Carlson shouted “You hate America!” at an immigrants rights activist after he defended the people marching through Mexico.
The facts of the caravan are not as straightforward as Mr Trump or many conservative pundits have portrayed them. The story initially gained widespread attention after BuzzFeed News reported last week that more than 1,000 Central American migrants, mostly from Honduras, were making their way north toward the US border. Yet the BuzzFeed article and other coverage pointed out that many in the group were planning to stay in Mexico.
That did not stop Mr Trump from expressing dismay on Tuesday with a situation “where you have thousands of people that decide to just walk into our country and we don’t have any laws that can protect it”.
The New York Times
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies