Stories of the Border Crisis

A Narrative Analysis

If you paid attention to the immigration discourse this week, it would seem that there are two very different crises happening at the border.

Here’s a rough overview of how these narratives appear to be split:

There is a surge of immigration at the US-Mexico border. The border is currently closed due to the pandemic, but the Biden administration has set a policy that unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border should not be turned away. Now there are about 15,000 children in Customs and Border Patrol custody with 600 new unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border every day. Roughly 5,000 of these children have been detained over the legal limit of 72 hours.


To the right, there’s a battle going on at the border that is threatening the safety and security of our nation. This is a natural consequence of the Biden administration’s pro-immigration policies—chaos at the border. The hypocrisy of Democrats—who are now apparently fine with kids in cages—is stark.

To the left, we need to be patient with the new administration. They inherited a dysfunctional immigration system in the middle of a pandemic. Biden had no choice but to end the previous administration’s inhumane policy of turning away children. Holding them in crowded facilities is not ideal, but a far better alternative to releasing them back into the dangers they came to our border to escape.

Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut who visited the border a week ago (and expressed concerns about the conditions), asked his Republican colleagues the following during a speech on the House floor:

“What’s your alternative? Do you support just dumping these kids, these 10 and 11 year olds, on the other side of the border, scared and alone? And just leave them to die? Or to be forced into the hands of drug cartels or traffickers in northern Mexico? That’s un-American. And I’m glad my president chose to end that inhumane temporary policy.”

Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC, put this sentiment more bluntly:

“Republicans believe that compassion creates a crisis for this country, but cruelty does not...Republicans believe humane treatment of immigrants is a crisis.”

Past border crises are built into the current conversation

Our current conversation has echoes of the 2018 “kids in cages” crisis. It’s easy to see why.

Here’s a video taken by Senator Ted Cruz during a visit to the border by some Senate Republicans on March 26, 2021:

Here’s a video taken by the Associated Press during a tour of border facilities in June of 2018:

So is Biden’s rose-colored framing really the only factor that distinguishes 2018 from 2021? Not quite.

The Trump administration increased prosecution of adults crossing the border to crack down on illegal immigration, which the administration claimed necessitated the separation of parents and children during the parents’ court proceedings.

The Biden administration recently changed CBP policy to take all unaccompanied minors at the border into custody (despite the border being closed to all others), which the administration claims is much better than releasing them back into the exact dangers they are seeking asylum to escape. 

Finger pointing in immigration disputes is a tale as old as nations and borders. Just as people on the left point are pointing fingers at Trump for the current crisis, in 2018 people on the right were quick to point out that it was actually Obama who built the cages where Trump was holding children:

The blame game continues, just as we should expect it to. 

There is one thing Republicans and Democrats agree on: all of these crowded facilities could be avoided if we finally pass immigration reform. Of course, immigration reform means something very different to each side.

It’s all about protection

Policy specifics aside, however, the core theme in either side’s immigration narrative is protection. The left talks about protecting immigrant children seeking a fresh start, and the right talks about protecting the nation from law-breakers. It’s not that the right doesn’t care about immigrant children, it’s that they want to protect people from the dangers of mass illegal immigration. And it’s not that the left doesn’t care about the rule of law, it’s that they want to protect children seeking refuge.

The frustrating truth is that the left doesn’t hate the rule of law, and the right doesn’t hate immigrants. 

We discuss illegal immigration in very different terms because we think of immigration very differently. “There are 600 immigrant children coming to the border every day” elicits vastly different responses from different people. The distinct partisan realities are created in the moment our brains, fully embedded in existing political narratives, read the number on the page.

Part of this response also comes from some broader narrative context of who is doing the detaining. While to some on the left, Trump is exactly the kind of person who would put kids in cages, the current President just doesn’t fit that profile. So now that the detainment is under Biden, the cages, with that dark, dank, dungeon-y image, have transformed into detainment facilities, with the sort of safe, clinical warmth of a pediatrician’s lobby.

And the right, having accepted the necessity of such detainment with the last administration, now accuse the left of doing something nefarious and hypocritical. And so the cycle continues.

While the question of how best to deal with immigration is up for debate, the best many of us can do is to be mindful of our instinctive emotional response to the information we’re consuming, and consider whether it’s a reaction we’d prefer to have.

Immigration issues (particularly involving children) often invoke an emotional response on both sides. This can lead us to finger-point and accuse our contra-partisans of intentionally engaging in baldly evil actions. Fortunately, that’s probably not the case.

That’s all for now.

Author’s note: Since we at the Narratives Project are strong advocates for transparency in the media, I’d like to note that my views on immigration are more aligned with those on the left. I consider myself pro-immigration, and this is an issue I care deeply about. While it is difficult (if not impossible) to be perfectly unbiased, I’ve nevertheless worked hard to represent each side fairly.