CNN and Fox News now have a new set of images to play during montages about undocumented immigration: The “caravan” of several thousand Honduran migrants making its way toward the U.S. border from southern Mexico. Last week, behind the flag of the country they were leaving behind, the migrants marched out of the Guatemalan city of Chiquimula, a long parade of people bending with the road to the edge of the frame. On Saturday, they filled the bridge to Hidalgo, Mexico (which Mexican immigration police had shuttered with a gate), like runners at the start of a road race.
The photographs from Guatemala and southern Mexico are reminiscent of the now-iconic imagery that accompanied the migrant surge in Europe in 2015. Some of those images, like the photograph of Alan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian boy on the beach, generated compassion for refugees around the world. Others, like the footage of migrants on the roads of southeastern Europe, invoked comparisons to the great displacements of the world wars. Still others were used by the European far-right to justify harsher treatment of new arrivals.
In America, by contrast, the global migration crisis has produced few enduring images—in part because it has scarcely touched us at all. The migrant caravan making its way through Mexico might number a few thousand; in 2015, tiny Slovenia was seeing twice that many arrivals every day. In a country where rhetoric over immigration has never been matched by reality, the images offer Republicans a rare, misleading approximation of a threat they have long oversold—a chance to finally show Americans what they’ve been warning about.
Lasting images have been slow from American frontiers in part because the U.S. has largely managed to avoid any responsibility for the enormous number of civilians displaced by wars in Syria and elsewhere. In fiscal year 2016, the Obama administration sought to admit just 85,000 refugees—a year after Germany registered nearly a million asylum seekers. (Under the official terminology, refugees are asylum seekers whose claims have been verified.) Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. didn’t even get halfway to its 2017 refugee admission goal; through August 2018, Trump appears to have cut last year’s meager tally in half again. In the first eight months of the year, fewer than 4,000 refugees had been settled from the Middle East.
Meanwhile, as much as Trump has tried to drum up outrage over a “crisis” at the U.S.-Mexico border, apprehensions there are also near historic lows. While illegal border crossings did surge this summer (as they do every summer), they’re a fraction of what they used to be. Where the U.S. is seeing spikes is in asylum claims: According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the U.S. registered 331,700 asylum claims in 2017—almost twice the total from 2015. Most of those people are permitted to live in the United States while they await a decision on their claim. The Trump administration has, in turn, done everything in its power to discourage asylum seekers—up to and including policies that lawyers say violate international law. The family separation policy that the administration instituted this summer was a response to a caravan of asylum seekers that arrived in the spring. The Trump administration is learning that it’s hard to deter people who are fleeing for their lives.
Needless to say, images of this month’s caravan nevertheless give the wrong impression about how undocumented immigrants arrive in the United States. A 2017 report by researchers at the Center for Migration Studies underlined just how secondary the U.S.-Mexico border has become to the issue of illegal immigration. New arrivals overstaying their visas make up a larger share of new undocumented immigrants in the U.S. than those who illegally crossed the border—and have since 2007. In 2014, the most recent year covered in the report, the proportion of new unauthorized immigrants who had come with a valid visa reached two-thirds. If you wanted a photo of unauthorized immigration in the United States, you could try an airport or, more precisely, an expired visa. Neither of those images—nor the dispersed nighttime crossings led by coyotes—would make for a very sensationalist slideshow.
But then it’s not even accurate to call caravan members undocumented; most will say they are seeking asylum in the U.S., a legal procedure that occurs at a border checkpoint. No matter: Trump has always tried to conflate asylum seekers with the gang members they’re escaping, so to say he’s misrepresenting the situation is to miss the point entirely. The idea is making the rounds. On Fox News, Chris Stirewalt said the caravan would play well for the GOP because “you have video every day of a scary-looking thing, a mob of humanity driving towards the U.S. southern borders.” In a now-deleted tweet, even the Associated Press invoked this Camp of the Saints–style description, comparing the migrants to “a ragtag army of the poor.”
It makes sense. Coverage of immigration to the U.S. hasn’t made much of a visual impression. Airport halls didn’t generate award-winning photos during the travel ban, and the Statue of Liberty has been working overtime. During the family separation scandal, media repurposed an image of a migrant child in a cage from 2014, and Time magazine later put on the cover of its family separation issue a crying child who had not, in fact, been separated from her mother.
Now comes a moment that appears to rise to Trump’s rhetoric about the border. It’s not what he says it is, but it won’t matter. The images will tell their own story.
Correction, Oct. 23, 2018: This piece originally misspelled Chris Stirewalt’s first name.