A bifurcated tale of two immigration crises in the American media

Open any American newspaper in these last few weeks and one is struck by how immigration stories dominate the front page, but also how the stories are segregated not just by geographical region, but in their framing.  You'd think from the U.S. coverage that refugees are not part of U.S. immigration policy.  Here, according to the GOP hopefuls and the mirroring news coverage, our "immigration problem" is that we have to deal with those pesky. allegedly criminal Mexicans and anchor baby dropping Asians.  Political scientists have long known that the media can play an important role in setting the agenda and shaping public opinion, which is why it is particularly disconcerting that the U.S. media's recent coverage of immigration issues has been bi-modal, either European refugees, or Trump/GOP/undocumented. This, even though the U.S. has been historically and recently held the best record on resettlement of refugees among all nations.

European Union nations are being challenged by a major humanitarian crisis, the largest wave of refugees since World War II are on the move as tens of thousands of people flee the war torn Middle East, mainly exiting Syria, and trying to reach the wealthier European nations.  Each day, there is a new, more tragic report, and accompanying pictures of desperate people trying to get out of their unstable home countries.  This week, a picture of the body of drowned three-year old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy found on a Turkish beach, may have done much to turn the tide of public opinion and jolted European nations into action. (The picture below is from The Guardian of a Turkish solider carrying away the boy's lifeless body.) After months of inertia, Germany has pledged to take in 800,00 refugees, and the UK's Cameron has signaled that his country will accept "thousands more" refugees.

Meanwhile, I could not even find one hard news story in the New York Times or Washington Post which discussed the U.S. government and the refugee crisis in Europe in the same article, in the last few months.  The most recent news article I found was dated April 17, 2015 in the New York Times on the UN's call for more western nations to take in additional Syrian refugees and the U.S. reluctance to do so due to security concerns.  Since that story, that crisis has dramatically escalated, but more stories on U.S. obligations toward refugees have not appeared in either the NYT or the Washington Post --except as op-eds.

Ironically, just 2 days ago on September 1, The Washington Post ran an article mocking Great Brittan for the minuscule number of Syrian refugees they have taken in, saying in the headline, "Brittan takes in so few refugees from Syria they would fit on a subway train."  At least the reporters also noted, "The United States, a country five times the size of Britain, has resettled about 1,500 Syrian refugees, with plans to accept more next year.", but that one sentence of coverage of the U.S. role (or the lack thereof) in the face of a massive international crisis was all that there was.

It seems that Trump and the other GOP contenders are dictating the coverage in the U.S. print media (at least in the WashPo and NYT) of the immigration content, with much of it in recent weeks being devoted to coverage of undocumented immigration, and not even to other aspects of our complex immigration system, such as legal immigration, and non-immigration visa categories.  While both papers have covered the European refugee crisis as well, the lack of content on the U.S. in those very same stories has several consequences.  First, it suggests that the current refugee crisis is a problem over there in Europe, and not our problem to deal with.  Our "immigration problem" is only Mexicans and Asians.  Second, the coverage elides the domestic politics (ably covered by the international press) that have led to the timid U.S. resettlement role. Third, the recent coverage at least ignores the role of the U.S. in precipitating the instability in the region that has led to the present mass exodus of people.

I found the most in depth coverage about the United States, including the fact that now 14 U.S. Senators are calling for the U.S. to resettle more Syrian refugees, in The Guardian which reported that Obama Administration's policy has long been limited to sending mostly financial humanitarian aid overseas and that his administration's view is that long term solution to these kinds of problems "is not resettlement of refugees in the U.S. or else where."  Of particular interest to U.S. readers, The Guardian article addressed explanations of why the U.S. has taken in so few Syrian refugees.  One has to wonder why American papers have not run a similar story even as they have run the same stories tracking the worsening crisis within Europe and among the EU member countries.

Deutche-Welle, a German international broadcaster, also has an excellent article dated August 27 investigating the domestic politics causes of the anemic U.S. role in the current refugee crisis.  The DW article states, "Barack Obama publicly lauded German Chancellor Angela Merkel's European leadership role in the Syrian refugee crisis. But the US president's praise also draws attention to his own country's meager record on the issue."  The article added that the main impediment to a more active U.S. resettlement was a fear that Syrian refugees were security threats to the U.S.

The poignant pictures of human suffering have moved public opinion, which in turn put pressure on European leaders to act.  Even citizens far from Europe have been motivated.  A Facebook page set up by an Icelandic writer has garnered much praise and attention for spurring debate and moving 12,000 Icelanders to offer Syrian refugees either a place to stay or at least messages of compassion or other material support.  As a BBC story reported, it may not sound like much, unless you consider that the total population of Iceland is "not much more than 300,000."  That generous response has also shamed many other nations and individuals. 

Every scholar of U.S. immigration law and policy knows a key component of this policy area includes refugee and asylum policy, but you'd never know that from observing the print media coverage in these two major newspapers in recent months.  Why is the tail wagging the dog?

As this blog post was going live, the NYT posted a story about the failure of the west in the refugee crisis which also detailed the role the U.S. played in causing this catastrophe.  This is exactly the kind of story that is a welcome corrective to the bifurcated coverage I am referring to.  The Washington Postalso has a story about why Europe's refugee problem is also America's problem.

PS: In case anyone wishes to sign, the International Rescue Committee, a well-known refugee relief organization, has set up a White House petition to urge resettlement of more Syrian refugees in the U.S.