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Migrant Deaths Aren’t “New,” But the Intentional Default of Border Policy

Recently there's been a lot of hype over the news on the rising migrant death toll along the U.S.-Mexico border, and publications have been remarkably giddy over it. TheNew York Times ran an article in late May titled, 'Arizona Desert Swallows Migrants on Riskier Paths.' USA Today ran a similar article titled, 'Big Surge in Border Crossing Deaths Reported.' Earlier this week the Guardian ran another article titled, ''Death map' of deserts aims to save lives of desperate Mexican migrants.'

But, what I don’t get is why this is news- ‘news’ here meaning it is (duh) new. I have to point this out because the rising death toll of migrants attempting to cross the border is NOT new. In fact, it’s incredibly old!

Here’s a list of headlines (that could go on and on, but which I’ve shortened for your convienece) that have covered this ‘new’ story topic before:

So, it’s been a sort of odd, and quite frankly, frustrating experience for me to see article after article report on this rising death toll as if this is the first time we’ve seen this.

For instance, not once did the May New York Times article mention that the New York Times has reported on the very same subject, with close to identical headlines, multiple times before. The article didn’t even mention the running total of deaths along the border (a number more than 5,000), but instead cited only the 2,100 deaths the Humane Borders ‘death map’ has collected since 2001. (What kind of reporting is that?)

At first I didn’t understand why reporters were neglecting to comment on how the surge in migrant deaths along the border is an old, ongoing epidemic. But then I realized the potential political consequences there might be if media were to acknowledge this relentless epidemic.  

Migrant deaths along the border are not some sort of rare, unpredictable event. What most Americans don’t know is that the U.S. government is (and has been since 1994) intentionally and strategically channeling undocumented migrants toward lethal terrain, and ultimately their death.

The militarization of the border has only ensured this escalating death rate. In the past five years, the border enforcement budget has expanded from $6 billion to $10.1 billion, adding unmanned drones, hundreds of miles of fencing and vehicle barriers and a huge jump in patrol agents to the equation.

Now migrants are dying more than ever before as they continue to cross lethal frontiers like the Arizona desert and the Rio Grande river. Border Patrol agents have even gone as far as to vandalize life-saving resources such as food, water and blankets that are dispersed about the desert.

In a 2011 New York Times article titled ‘Crossing Over, and Over’ the reporters subliminally acknowledged that the militarization of the border has been a total failure. They wrote, “The number of immigrants found dead in the Arizona desert, from all causes, has failed to decline as fast as illegal immigration has.” And yet, they went on to exemplify their dumb understanding of this interconnected web of death when they wrote, “Has the more aggressive approach — bigger fences, more agents and deportations — contributed to, or diminished, the danger?”

It’s a duh moment, and yet they (intentionally?) don’t make the connection.

Death has been, by design and by default, the ultimate intention of border enforcement. We can see it in the numbers: In 2009, the risk of dying along the border was 1.5 times higher than in 2004 and 17 times greater than in 1998. Today there is at least one migrant death along the border every day. 

The call for additional border security in the immigration reform debate only further exemplifies this embedded and concealed goal.

But if media were to acknowledge this little fact, not only would their precious headlines not be news, but they would be acknowledging that migrant deaths is an ongoing trend that the government allows and perpetuates. That being said, they would also be recognizing that the U.S. government leads people to their death and lets them die.

So, here’s the catch:

If we were to recognize that surging migrant deaths along the border is an ongoing problem that we, as a nation and through policy, are creating, then something would actually have to been done about it. And (gasp!) if we were to do something about the thousands of deaths that take place every day inside the U.S. then we’d be acknowledging that the death of these (brown) migrants actually means something to us.

But, as we can see with the hundreds of brown people who have died by drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan or the hundreds of brown and black youth in the U.S. who have been shot by raving gunmen with badges and police uniforms, the U.S. really doesn’t care about the deaths of these colored folk, do we?

We don’t care because, well, heck, it’s not happening to ‘us’ in every sense: the U.S. isn’t brown (let’s just ignore the 51.9 million Hispanics living in the U.S.), we aren't ‘illegal aliens’ (let’s ignore the 11 million undocumented people living in and contributing to the U.S. and its economy) nor do most of us know anyone who hangs out in the Arizona desert or who swims in the Rio Grande (we only know people who camp in Death Valley and competitively swim in the Hudson).

If it’s not happening to ‘us,’ then U.S. policy doesn’t care if it kills.

What this all loops back to is the U.S. constant prioritization of the lives of white people over the lives of people of color.

And, again, we can see it in the numbers.

Remember 9/11? (How could we forget.) How many times have we been reminded of the 3,000 lives that were lost that day? (A number that, though large, is not that big in the big scheme of things, especially when we compare it to 158,000 to 202,000 civilians who have died as a result of the U.S. conflict in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.)

Or, what about the Boston Marathon bombing? Those three deaths (though tragic) were all the nation was supposed to care about for those two weeks following the bombing.

Each Sunday on George Stephanopoulos’ This Week, viewers watch the scrolling list of the names and ages of U.S. soldiers who have died over seas for that particular week. And yet, rarely do we see the numbers of those killed by U.S. forces; and when we do, the numbers and the names have little impact.

This is exactly my point. Not only are we rarely told of the 5,000 migrants that have already died along the border (a death toll that is only growing), but the number means little to us. In fact, it means close to nothing.

In 2008, a blogger for NewsBusters commented on the San Diego Union-Tribune’s report of 22 migrant deaths along the San Diego sector of the U.S.-Mexico border for the 2008 fiscal year alone, by arguing the report “lacked perspective.” Criticizing the Union-Tribune for “worrying” about these deaths, he declared that 22 migrant deaths were “statistically insignificant numbers” and therefore unworthy of the time the Tribune spent reporting on the subject. He wrote,

"Now, of course, no one wants a single person to die just because they want to take advantage of the wonderful opportunities that they might find in these great United States. But, even a quick glance at the numbers of illegals coming in shows that the 22 or so that have died is a tiny number and that it isn't really anything to get too alarmed over in the statistical sense."

I can almost guarantee you that if 22 (or less) white Americans were to die in one city in one year by an institutionalized policy these deaths wouldn’t be “statically insignificant numbers,” nor would anyone be saying, “let’s not worry about those guys.”

But what’s important here is that this blogger, like the New York Times and other mainstream media, doesn’t have the full historical picture. And in lacking the history not only does he sound dumb, but he and his publication are absolutely ignorant.

It’s time, then, that we start holding our media accountable for the history. We can’t afford to have gaps in reporting due to a neglect of history. If media had a better (and frankly a more professional hold) on history then as a nation we could begin connecting the dots between our government’s disparate treatment toward people of color.

But it’s also time that we start reevaluating what we think of as news. News (by definition) is supposed to be new. We can’t continue to accept article after article that neglects to capture the history of an issue for the sake of calling it ‘news.’

Although publications that have been reporting on the rising migrant death toll are absolutely right to tell this story, it’s absolutely fundamental that they realize how dangerous it is to report on issues without telling their readers the back story.

I’m speaking to all publications and media sources, and especially to you New York Times – and that means including running totals.