A group of migrants stands close together on Martha's Vineyard.

A group of migrants huddle on a sidewalk in front of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Martha’s Vineyard on September 15, 2022.

(Photo: Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

How the Media Turns Migrants Into Monsters

As long as the U.S. continues to manufacture conditions ripe for mass migration in Latin America, news readers must come to grips with how today’s journalism coaxes Americans into hating migrants.

“Yahtzee!! We’re full,” wrote Florida state operative Perla Huerta, once she had tricked enough desperate migrants to fill two Martha’s Vineyard-bound planes (CNN, 11/15/22). In the days leading up to her celebratory text, the recently discharged Army counterintelligence agent scoured San Antonio gas stations, churches, and McDonald’s parking lots for asylum seekers who would believe her when she promised them employment and three months’ free rent in Boston (Boston Globe, 9/19/22). All they would have to do is get on a plane.

By September 12, 2022, she had convinced nearly 50 migrants, mostly Venezuelans, to depart Texas. On September 14, they landed unheralded, not in Boston, but in Martha’s Vineyard—an affluent island community largely closed for the season, and wholly unprepared to accommodate the aircrafts’ precious cargo.

Immigration attorney Rachel Self told the MV Times (9/15/22) that

not only did those responsible for this stunt know that there was no housing and no employment awaiting the migrants, they also very intentionally chose not to call ahead, to any single office or authority on Martha’s Vineyard…. Ensuring that no help awaited the migrants at all was the entire point.

‘Begging for More Diversity’

Huerta had lied. And it was a sadistic, labor-intensive, and costly lie, designed to overwhelm “sanctuary destinations” (The Hill, 9/16/22) and thereby draw attention to the politician orchestrating and bankrolling the airlift: Florida governor and GOP presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis (CNN, 9/17/22).

But, as Matthew Gertz of Media Matters (9/15/22) tweeted, “When GOPers do depraved stuff, it’s worth looking for the Fox host who suggested it.” It appears that DeSantis was taking notes when former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson declared on primetime TV (Fox, 7/26/22):

Next stop on the equity train has got to be Martha’s Vineyard…They are begging for more diversity. Why not send migrants there in huge numbers? Let’s start with 300,000 and move up from there.

Characterizing human beings as pests that ought to be dumped onto others is regular programming at Fox, which unapologetically peddles white supremacist conspiracy theories (CounterSpin, 5/27/22), promotes alarmist anti-immigration rhetoric (Media Matters, 5/23/23), and portrays migrants as boogeymen (Washington Post, 12/18/18).

However, this is far from a Fox-exclusive phenomenon. Established media—both conservative and centrist alike—treat the subject of immigration with stunning callousness. FAIR’s Janine Jackson (CounterSpin, 8/2/23) noted:

Reporting evinces nowadays an implicit acceptance of the goal of border “management,” keeping things “under control,” keeping immigrants’ efforts to enter from “surging.” The way we’re to understand that the U.S. is doing things right is if there are just fewer people trying to enter.

The problem is not simply that media buy into sensationalist accounts of immigration. When the news amplifies anti-immigration hysteria, asylum seekers are drained of their humanity. Their mere presence constitutes a “crisis,” their desperation amounts to an existential threat, their movement must be sanctioned and scrutinized. In the public imagination, they are no better than monsters.

As long as the U.S. continues to manufacture conditions ripe for mass migration in Latin America, news readers must come to grips with how today’s journalism coaxes Americans into hating migrants. Only then can we begin to treat immigration rightfully—as a natural part of human history, to be celebrated rather than feared.

The Monster Playbook 

Turning migrants into monsters is simple. According to philosopher David Livingstone Smith in his book Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization, all it takes is a combination of a physical and cognitive threat. Grizzly bears, he noted, may gnash and claw at us: They are physically threatening. But they are not monsters, because they are part of the natural order.

A singing rose, on the other hand, challenges our conception of normalcy: It is metaphysically threatening. But it is not a monster, because it cannot hurt us.

It is only when the physically and cognitively threatening intersect (think zombies, werewolves, or Chucky dolls) that a monster is born. And this is precisely what media do to migrants.

Despite women accounting for a little over half—51%—of U.S. migration, national magazines play up the “bad hombres” archetype by picturing Latino migrant men at far greater rates than their female counterparts.

In their 2018 research, Emily Farris and Heather Silber Mohamed analyzed ten years’ worth of immigration coverage in Newsweek, Time and U.S. News & World Report. They revealed that media have a “general tendency to frame immigrants in a negative light, consistent with a ‘threat’ narrative but inconsistent with actual immigrant demographics.”

For example, while the vast majority of migrants—77%—are in the country legally (Pew, 8/20/20), the study found that news media overwhelmingly display photos of asylum seekers crossing the Southern border or cooped up in detention facilities, thus implying criminality (Washington Post, 7/27/18).

In another instance, despite women accounting for a little over half—51%—of U.S. migration (Migration Policy Institute, 3/14/23), national magazines play up the “bad hombres” archetype by picturing Latino migrant men at far greater rates than their female counterparts. This disparity fortifies the “physical threat” mirage, as the perception of Black and brown men in the U.S. is often blighted by the assumption that they are intrinsically dangerous (Atlantic, 1/5/15).

This stereotyping is enforced when right-wing outlets work tirelessly to prove a nonexistent correlation between violence and heightened immigration. The trend is latent in the conservative media pandemonium surrounding the MS-13 gang:

  • “The Illegal Immigration/Crime Link Politicians Are Not Discussing” (Daily Caller, 2/2/23)
  • “How Many MS-13 Gangsters Is Biden Settling in the U.S.?” (Washington Examiner, 3/2/23)
  • “Grieving Mother Demands ‘Secure’ Border, Vows to be Daughter’s ‘Voice’ After Alleged MS-13 Member Murdered Her” (Fox News, 5/23/23)
  • “Killer MS-13 Gangsters Are Being Bused Into Our Communities as ‘Minors’” (New York Post, 6/6/23)

In reality, the most recent estimates suggest that less than 1% of U.S. gang membership can be attributed to MS-13 (Washington Post, 12/7/18), and native-born U.S. citizens are over twice as likely to be arrested for violent crimes as undocumented immigrants (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 12/7/20). Despite that, these headlines represent only a drop in the right-wing fearmongering ocean (Media Matters, 6/30/21, 4/29/21, 8/6/19).

Media scare tactics are not without consequence. According to a 2021 study, the preponderance of negative immigration news has engendered outgroup hostility toward asylum seekers and ingroup favoritism toward the native-born. It’s no wonder that many Americans have begun to believe it when the likes of CNN (Media Matters, 12/20/22), the New York Times (FAIR.org, 5/24/21) and Time (FAIR.org, 6/2/23) deem the arrival of migrants a “border crisis.”

But the real crisis at hand is the wanton depiction of migrants as physical threats.

Infections and Invasions 

Anti-migrant animus is now part of the zeitgeist, and Donald Trump is the poster child. “Everything’s coming across the border: the illegals, the cars, the whole thing. It’s like a big mess. Blah. It’s like vomit,” he said in a characteristic 2015 speech (HuffPost,8/25/16). Trump likening asylum seekers to inanimate objects—like “vomit” and “cars”—is indicative of the dehumanizing language that afflicts contemporary immigration discourse.

Media follow suit, discussing migrants as if they were devoid of human qualities. Valeria Luiselli (Literary Hub, 3/16/17) observed that “some papers and webpages announce the arrival of undocumented children like a biblical plague. Beware the locusts!” Fox News’ Todd Starnes (Media Matters, 8/7/12) once actually compared undocumented immigrants to “locusts.”

A scholarly investigation (Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Winter/08) into media representations of migrants asserted that there are two principal metaphors:

When the nation is conceived as a physical body, immigrants are presented either as an infectious disease or as a physical burden. When the nation is conceived as a house, immigrants are represented as criminals, invaders, or dangerous and destructive flood waters.

Heavy-handed right-wing media are more likely to employ the “disease,” “burden,” and “invasion” tropes when referring to migrants:

  • “Medical Expert: Migrant Caravan Could Pose Public Health Threat” (Breitbart, 10/26/18)
  • “Border Crisis: ‘Invasion’ at the Border” (Washington Examiner, 11/1/22)
  • “Biden’s Open Borders Mean Disease at Your Doorstep” (Newsmax, 4/19/23)
  • “Migrant Crisis Sparked ‘Unprecedented’ Burden on NYC Shelters: City Hall Report” (New York Post, 1/31/23)

Surges, Floods, and Tidal Waves

But water metaphors abound in both conservative and centrist sources:

  • “Immigration Crisis: Official: ‘A Tsunami of People Crossing the Border’” (Fox News,5/7/15)
  • “A Migrant Surge Is Coming at the Border—and Biden Is Not Ready” (Washington Post, 4/1/22)
  • “’Tidal Wave’ of Asylum Seekers Could Head to New York City When Title 42 Expires” (CBS News, 5/8/23)
  • “Migrants Bound for U.S. Are Pouring Into Mexico While Biden Takes Victory Lap on Immigration Crackdown” (DailyCaller, 7/29/23)
  • “New York’s Flood of Migrants Puts New Pressure on Adams, Hochul Bond” (Politico, 8/21/23)

The water metaphors may be poetic, but they are insidious. In the 2014 fiscal year, the U.S. saw a marked increase in unaccompanied Latin American minors hoping to reunite with their parents beyond the southern border (Vox, 10/10/14). A linguistic analysis (Critical Discourse Studies, 8/12) of New York Times and LA Times’ coverage of the child crossings found that “surge” appeared 91 times, “flood” 21 times, and “wave” 14 times. The study remarked:

This water-based terminology establishes a metaphor that represents immigrants as floods. Consequently, these representations call upon ideologies of immigrants as natural disasters who should be dealt with in an inhumane fashion.

As Livingstone Smith wrote:

When we accept the view that some group of people are less than human, we have to overrule the evidence of our senses. At this point a problem arises, because even though a person has accepted that these others aren’t human, they can’t stop themselves from recognizing the other’s humanity. The belief that these people are human coexists in your brain with the belief that they’re subhuman.

The impossibility of migrants being simultaneously human and—as media have convinced many—subhuman generates a cognitive threat. The dissonance between the two statuses challenges our conception of natural order. And, thus, Livingstone Smith’s monster-making formula is complete; the media has provoked within us an unjustified hatred for migrants by successfully casting them as monsters—an affront to our safety and sense of reality.

In describing the demonization of Black men in America in 1955, James Baldwin wrote: “And the strain of denying the overwhelmingly undeniable forced Americans into rationalizations so fantastic that they approached the pathological.” Likewise, today it is virtually impossible for Americans to accept migrants as human when the news persistently degrades, brutalizes, and distorts their image. But not to accept them as such is to deny them their “human reality,” their “human weight and complexity.” It’s not a fictional caravan of monstrous migrants we should beware of; it’s the monster-makers in U.S. media.

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