Do Images of Immigrant Suffering Along the Border Help the Open Borders Cause?

Television footage showing the mistreatment of nonviolent civil rights activists during the 1960s may have greatly benefitted the civil rights movement.  William G. Thomas III of the University of Virginia observes that Historians, commentators, and participants have suggested connections between the media, especially television news, and the course of the civil rights movement. Generally those who consider television news as a powerful force for change refer to the nationally broadcast images of police dogs and fire hoses turned on the demonstrators in Birmingham. They see this moment and other similar ones that followed, such as the violence at the Pettus Bridge in Selma, as key turning points when Americans witnessed violence, repression, and hatred directed at African Americans and began to change their minds about the U. S. South and segregation. According to one activist, shortly after the attack on civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama by troopers, people arrived from New Jersey and told activists “‘We are here to share with the people of Selma in this struggle for the right to vote.  We have seen on the television screen the violence that took place today, and we’re here to share it with you.’”  Two days after the attack, “… Washington was saturated with telegrams and newspaper editorials condemning the Selma attack and demanding the passage of voting rights legislation… By afternoon the president had issued a statement deploring the brutality, guaranteeing protection for Alabama marchers, and promising expedited legislation.” (from The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-1968 by Steven Kasher, New York: Abbeville Press, 1996, p. 168)

So how do Americans react when they see government authorities physically stop immigrants who are seeking a better life in the U.S. or when they see other images of immigrant suffering caused by immigration enforcement along the border?  Sympathy for these immigrants could lead to support for open borders, just as media images created support for the civil rights movement.  Unfortunately, open borders advocates shouldn’t rely on images of border apprehensions and other consequences of immigration enforcement to shift public opinion towards favoring open borders.

Denver Post photo on dead bodies in bags

Dead bodies in bags: part of the Denver Post’s photo collection on border deaths

In late March, a group of U.S. senators toured part of the U.S.-Mexico border.  They witnessed “border agents apprehend a woman who had climbed an 18-foot-tall bollard fence” and crossed into the U.S. from Mexico. One might think that being directly exposed to the apprehension, in which an immigrant presumably desperate to enter the U.S. is intercepted by agents, might arouse sympathy for her and discomfort with the apprehension.  Apparently not.  Charles Schumer, one of the senators, had this reaction:  “‘Well, I’d have to know all the details there to give you a judgment,'” Schumer said. “’One of the things we learned is that a lot of people cross the border are doing it for drug purposes, too. But I don’t know what happened in this situation.'” (What he “learned” is contradicted by the remark below by Senator John McCain.) Senator Michael Bennet benignly stated that what he saw was “surprising” and “I just have never seen it before.” Senator John McCain tweeted: “Just witnessed a woman successfully climb an 18-ft bollard fence a few yards from us in Nogales. And Border Patrol successfully apprehended her, but incident is another reminder that threats to our border security are real.”  To Mr. McCain’s credit, he later stated that “One of the sad things about all of this is that most of those people who jump over the fence are doing that because they want a better life… And I understand that. So we separate the drug cartels from individuals or somebody trying to cross over so they improve their lives.”

Like the senators, the American public generally doesn’t seem to be affected by television footage or photographs of immigrant apprehensions or immigrants being sent back to Mexico.  Americans can see footage of apprehensions on television news (this footage was located on news sites and was presumably previously aired on television) and on National Geographic Channel’s “Border Wars” reality series and website.   There are also photos of apprehensions on the sites of major newspapers such as The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. I could not locate evidence of protests against or public discomfort with these apprehensions.

People have reacted more to instances of mistreatment of immigrants by authorities along the border.  At least one instance of such abuse was caught on tape, which led to a small protest. There are groups that monitor the mistreatment of immigrants along the border, but again there is no widespread public outrage over these incidents. (Mistreatment of immigrants by smugglers is also in part a side effect of immigration enforcement.)

Thousands of immigrants have died over the last two decades from the harsh desert elements while trying to avoid immigration agents. There are some images of the bodies of immigrants who died trying to cross the border illegally. An organization that provides aid to those crossing deserts has been working to highlight this issue, but once more public reaction is muted.

On the other hand, there is some public disapproval of immigration enforcement away from the border.  There have been small protests against the apprehension and deportation of immigrants around the country. In addition, polls show widespread support for legalizing the millions of undocumented already in the U.S., especially for those who entered the U.S. as children. This resistance to internal immigration enforcement seems to reflect in part the personal attachments that Americans and legal residents make with immigrants in their communities, as well as a widespread perception that immigrants are good for America.

What explains America’s general apathy toward immigration enforcement at the border?  Perhaps since apprehensions are not usually violent like the aforementioned civil rights television footage (and violent ones usually go unnoticed) and since cases where immigrants suffer or die from exposure to the elements are usually not captured in videos or photos, they do not viscerally affect audiences. Another explanation may be that, unlike undocumented immigrants who have settled in the U.S., many Americans may perceive immigrants crossing the border illegally as being disconnected from American society.

Even if the public were exposed to more images of immigrants dying or suffering along the border, Fabio Rojas of Indiana University suggests that so long as Americans are convinced that immigration restrictions are acceptable, suffering caused by immigration enforcement will not change Americans’ views about immigration policy. He argues that what is needed to change public opinion on immigration restrictions is “a simple and concise idea that undermines the belief that people from other countries must be forcibly separated from each other. This idea must subtly, but powerfully, undermine the distinctions that make people believe that only citizens have the right to travel and work without impair.”

So for now, images in the media and on the Internet of border apprehensions, violence, and deaths won’t be the ally of open borders advocates that it was for the civil rights movement.  Perhaps public reaction to images of immigration enforcement and its consequences is a barometer of public support for open borders; the more advocates can convince the public of its merits, the more outrage there will be to images of the suffering caused by border enforcement.

Open Borders note: See also John Lee’s post I don’t care about immigration sob stories. This is about justice, not compassion.

Joel has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

See also:

our blog post introducing Joel
all blog posts by Joel

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