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What they say versus what we hear on the border situation

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Vice President Kamala Harris is back from a much trumpeted visit “to the border,” where she did not repeat her message from a few weeks ago in Guatemala, when she told citizens of Central and South American countries, “Do not come. Do not come. You will be turned back.” She tried to substitute a message of “fair, functional and humane.” It didn’t work. Reporters noted that Harris didn’t repeat “do not come,” thereby repeating it for her. A typical headline was, “Despite ‘don’t come,’ migrants still making trek.” 

So, what people have heard is, “Come on down” (or up, geographically). And come they have. The U.S. Border Patrol stopped more than 180,000 people from crossing the border in May, eight times the number intercepted a year ago. Why did these migrants hear the message “Come”? Because the invitation to come to America and the promise of leniency for illegal immigration is being made by so many channels, official and unofficial.

Almost all U.S. media outlets have carried stories about Central American migrants that tug at our heartstrings. Unlike Donald Trump’s infamous claim while running for president in 2016 that countries were sending “rapists and killers,” the picture painted is that those arriving fit into his afterthought phrase, “And some are good people.” These are good people, but there are so many of them.

Where are they getting the message to trek north? First, Harris’ supposed advice to not come is a classic example of the listener hearing a denial and jumping to the opposite conclusion. This is like the nurse saying, “This won’t hurt,” or President Nixon’s oft quoted assertion, “I am not a crook.” 

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei did a better reporting job than the American news media, explaining that the Biden administration had changed its message to “We are going to reunite families and we are going to reunite children” with parents. Giammattei continued — just in case Americans weren’t savvy enough to understand — that the day after hearing that message, those who smuggle humans were approaching families and offering to take their children to enter the United States. 

U.S. citizens are generally astonished to learn that the U.S.-Mexico border has been officially closed for over a year. Only citizens and foot and car traffic for “essential” purposes are allowed to cross. The rationale was to stop the spread of COVID-19, but another reason likely was to create the impression that the border is being lawfully managed.

The government is a powerful source of information on how to come to America illegally and then surrender to Customs and Border Protection — along with what to say, i.e., that you’re fleeing violence, domestic abuse, etc. (there is a list of categories that grants someone the right to seek asylum). U.S. Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta recently distributed a memo outlining the Department of Justice’s redefinition of standards qualifying one for admission — expanding the pool of potential asylum seekers from hundreds to hundreds of thousands, and changing the application process to one where every applicant’s case must be heard separately, a requirement that will ensure applicants are in the United States for years awaiting hearings. One applicant commented that she felt she had been given a second chance. She’s right. 

Another source of information are the advocates and organizations representing immigrants. Peruse any news article about the Biden administration’s announced change of policies and you will amass a list of lawyers and organizers assisting the “humane” policies.

The most active and effective network spreading the word about how to make it across the U.S. southern border are migrants already here — including new arrivals. They reportedly call home with advice and encouragement. One news report interviewed, and then accompanied, a father who, unable to get across the border, set up a lookout spot on a hill in Mexico and coached his 17-year-old son by phone about where to approach and how to proceed. The son successfully made it across.    

Does a politician have to turn to Trumpian rhetoric, deriding and attacking immigrants to get control of an apparently out-of-control situation? Not exactly. The key for those advocating that the U.S. get control of its immigration policy will be articulating and delivering a message of sympathy and compassion. 

We know that millions of people want to come to the United States. Of course they do; it’s the greatest country in the world, with the best (if not perfect) rule of law. Who wouldn’t want to come? But those who believe in the rule of law must articulate their message as firmly, frequently and along as many channels as those putting across other messages. It can be done — and it would be a unifying message for people across the political spectrum.

Merrie Spaeth, a Dallas communications consultant, was President Reagan’s director of media relations. Follow her on Twitter @SpaethCom.

Tags Alejandro Giammattei Asylum seeker Donald Trump Illegal immigration Mexico–United States border political rhetoric Vanita Gupta

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