US-Cuba Migrant Crisis Rep. Pic
Representational image Max Böhme/Unsplash.

The economy remains Americans' main priority ahead of November 2024 elections, but immigration, among the top 10 concerns for U.S. voters this year according to the Pew Research Center, is playing a central role in the public conversation. So much so that a February Gallup poll shows Americans think immigration is the most important problem facing the country today for the first time since 2019.

Monthly migrant encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border hit an all-time high last December, and both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump recently visited the U.S.-Mexico border to promote their respective policies after a bi-partisan border security bill was blocked by Trump loyalists in the Senate, who followed the former President's lead in saying it wasn't tough enough.

According to Pew, the share of Americans citing immigration as a top priority during Biden's presidency jumped from 39% to 57% with the "change coming almost entirely among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents."

The spectrum of news coverage on the topic of immigration is as polarized as the U.S. media landscape (and its population). From harrowing stories of migrant women crossing the perilous Darien Gap to flee appalling conditions in their home countries, to fear mongering reports of "bloodthirsty" gang members crossing the border, you probably have a different outlook on immigrants depending on the media you consume.

According to a 2021 study published in the International Journal of Communication, people who consumed news from CNN -- an outlet which tends to be associated with the political left -- perceived migrants with a higher level of deservingness, while those who got their news from the conservative Fox News Channel tended to perceive migrants as a threat and security risk.

In recent weeks, conservative-leaning media and political pundits have highlighted specific incidences of crimes committed by Venezuelan migrants in the U.S., stoking fears of higher crime rates despite research pointing to the contrary being true.

Alex Nowrasteh, vice president for economic and social policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, wrote in USA Today earlier this month that "undocumented migrants in Texas were about 26% less likely to be convicted of homicide than native-born Americans over the decade of 2013-22. Legal immigrants were about 61% less likely." His research draws on data from the Department of Public Safety (DPS) and Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) in Texas, which is the only state in the U.S. that keeps data on the immigration status of criminals.

A similar study published in 2020 by professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who analyzed Texas DPS data from 2012 to 2018 and found that "relative to undocumented immigrants, U.S.-born citizens are over two times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes, 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and over four times more likely to be arrested for property crimes." The Latin Times contacted the study's authors to inquire if they had more updated data, which they currently do not.

Why it matters

The news media's portrayal of migrants is relevant because it sets the tone for policy and cultural debate in the country.

The media not only "define for the majority of the population what significant events are taking place, but, also, they offer powerful interpretations of how to understand these events," writes cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall in his 1978 book "Policing the Crisis."

In today's media landscape, many news outlets aren't even attempting objectivity when offering their interpretations of events.

"Both Fox and CNN know where their audiences stand on the issues, and often don't even try to present a topic from multiple perspectives," Christine Ogan, Professor Emerita at The Media School at Indiana University told The Latin Times. "Journalists are not supposed to take sides, we are taught. And yet that happens because objectivity is an impossible goal."

Ogan, who co-authored the study on threat perceptions of migrants in the media for the International Journal of Communication, said the polarization of coverage has become increasingly pronounced since Trump's arrival on the political scene ahead of the 2016 elections.

Trump has famously called immigrants crossing the border "rapists," instituted a ban on migrants from some Muslim-majority countries when in office and recently said that undocumented migrants "are not people."

President Donald Trump speaks at CPAC in Washington
President Donald Trump speaks at CPAC in Washington. Photo by: Reuters/Yuri Gripas

"Media follow the candidates and the perception of how the public appears to be picking up on the candidates' expression of the issues," said Ogan. "We seem to have come full circle where many journalists, news networks, etc. don't even attempt to be objective but merely want to present the perspective their audience research tells them to follow."

This leads to more polarization on each side of the political aisle. A February Gallup poll revealed that 90% of Republican respondents view "illegal immigration" as a "critical threat", while only 29% of Democrats feel the same. And a March Pew study found that 70% of white evangelical Protestants -- a traditionally conservative political base -- say an influx of migrants at the border is a "crisis."

"As far as the overall increase in asylum seekers in the United States (which has raised our population less than 1 percent), the rhetoric on Fox News and from politicians like Eric Adams is harmful, but it's harmful more in a general way that triggers people who already hate migrants," Adam Isacson, Director of Defense Oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a D.C.-based think tank, told The Latin Times. "The average American continues to be indifferent or even supportive [to migrants]. Beyond pro-Trump diehards (who may be more than a third of the population), there is not a growing wave of xenophobia against asylum seekers, or against Venezuelans in particular."

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