As thousands of Central Americans, mostly of Honduran origin including a vast number of children, are attempting to escape unfathomable violence, making their way across Mexico by foot, the primary response of President Donald Trump, along with Fox News, has been fear mongering. By hyping the nonexistent security threat posed by the caravan with false claims that mixed-in are “unknown Middle Easterners” and “criminals” carrying multiple diseases on their way to invade America, the manufactured crisis is a transparent bid to garner support for Trump’s immigration policies ahead of the midterm elections. But to counteract the hysteria, some commentators on the left—as well as many observers in the media—have responded by minimizing the importance of the caravan, and by extension, the brutal humanitarian crisis that caused it.
Last week, after The New York Times made the caravan their front-page story two days in a row, some questioned whether it was even worth paying attention to. CNN wondered whether it would’ve been covered at all if Trump wasn’t talking about it. “It’s news because Trump made it news,” wrote Oliver Darcy. Esquire’s Jack Holmes dismissed it as, “not important in the homestretch of an election,” and made the comparison, echoing Vox, that the amount of coverage the caravan has received is as unjustified as the coverage of the 2014 Ebola outbreak and Hillary Clinton’s emails during the 2016 election.
The idea that between 3,000 and 7,000 Central Americans migrating together across borders is only worth covering in light of Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric is not only offensive, but dangerous in its own right, as it downplays a historical occurrence and the dangers these people are facing, both at home and during their journey north. This is the largest mass migration that’s taken place in the region in recent times, and it also adds to the more than 60 million people around the globe that the United Nations estimates have been displaced, which is a record high in recorded history.
The caravan got its start with about 160 people in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, which according to data from the Mexican non-profit group, Civil Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, ranked as the most violent city in the world from 2011 to 2015. Adding to the rampant violence, the World Bank estimates that slightly over 60 percent of the country’s population live in poverty. As it made its way along the Northern Triangle, more and more joined, as people in El Salvador and Guatemala face similar challenges. For decades, Central Americans risked the perils of the journey north through Mexico—sexual assault, extortion, kidnapping, and death at the hands of smugglers, corrupt police and cartels—because the prospect of staying home was that much grimmer.
Their decision to travel in large groups is not as much an act of protest as one of self-preservation. They’re choosing glaring visibility as a safety measure, even when they know the United States will be waiting for them, ready to send them back. Indeed, safety is the caravan’s driving force, but it is also a desperate attempt to get people to recognize their humanity, and a friendly cry for help. Their visibility clarifies that they are not looking to enter the United States as undocumented immigrants, but as self-recognized asylum seekers.
Admittedly, the left’s argument against exhaustive coverage of the caravan wasn’t just about the importance of it, but the concern that blowing the issue out of proportion could galvanize fear-mongering and drive hysteria in favor of conservative voting—a tactic the right has used successfully in the past. It is what Vox’s Matt Yglesias has dubbed “the hack gap,” a conservative strategy to control news cycle through the manipulation of polarizing issues to create panic and influence election outcomes. In this sense it is vital to consider the effects of coverage and the news cycle, but there’s a way to do it without downplaying a humanitarian crisis, which is independent of American politics.
As it is, U.S. and Western media don’t report enough on issues that are happening outside the country’s borders, and framing this only in terms of its importance to the election or the U.S. debate over immigration reduces thousands of people to props. They deserve more.