I have started and ended my recent posts on the topic of the current immigration crisis by calling for everyone to focus on political policy as opposed to political posturing. In a similarly cliche vein, I’ll start today by reminding everyone of yet another thing that they should already know about political discourse.
Words matter; and a picture can be worth a thousand of them.
But this value is not inherent in the words themselves.
On their own, even when a thousand of them are put together, words are meaningless when they lack a message. The messages we convey inform not just political policy but also, and arguably more importantly, public perception. So the words we express and the images we communicate with bear extreme importance. This reality is especially true for those in the media who maintain large platforms attracting wide reaching attention, but it is also no less pertinent to those who merely share their political views on their private social media accounts or in their everyday conversations.
With regards to the current immigration crisis, and any political predicament for that matter, this generally understood truth means many things.
It means that we should use severe caution prior to flippantly comparing our government to the Nazi regime of Germany’s past. It means that our nation’s influential public figures should think twice before they convey provocative messages on their clothing. In a time of political turmoil, it means that leaders in Congress should do more than just outwardly delegate decision-making away to others, and, above all else, our leaders in the media should be ever more cognizant of their publications’ words and images. And it also means that those of us who are not in the mainstream media and those of us who are not public officials need to be cognizant of the stories we search for and the ones we retell.
A Big Time Mistake
In case anybody needed a reminder of all of this, Time Magazine provided one this past week. For those who have not yet been made aware, the magazine used as its cover a photo of a crying toddler from Central America being towered over by a smirking President Trump. On the left side of the cover’s red backdrop were the harrowing words “Welcome to America.” Published in the midst of the growing criticism against the president’s “zero-tolerance policy” at the border, the magazine’s message was an obvious condemnation of the parent-child separations that have been occurring.
Far from being an assumption, this interpretation of the cover was provided by the editor in chief of the magazine itself in the following statement: “Under the policy enforced by the administration, prior to its reversal this week, those who crossed the border illegally were criminally prosecuted, which in turn resulted in the separation of children and parents. Our cover and our reporting capture the stakes of this moment.”
There was just one major problem.
This statement was not released at the time of the magazine’s publication. It was released in response to the widely expressed frustration that was brought against Time after it was reported that the magazine’s poster child was in fact never truly separated from her mother. She was only temporarily placed on the ground.
Depending on how much benefit of the doubt one wishes to provide the publication, which I am personally not very inclined to provide, this decision-making was at best just sloppy journalism. And to be clear, the trauma that the toddler was suffering from in that moment should not be belittled, but it should also not be exploited, and Time Magazine was hardly the only source of news to spread the image of this crying girl in an effort to castigate the president and his immigration policies.
The consequences from this controversy were wide ranging. Those who distrusted the media and found no problem with the president’s policy were vindicated in their suspicions and beliefs, while the claims of those who were dedicated to advocating against the separation of families that was occurring at the border were, for a significant moment, credibly undermined.
Above all else, it forced the media to report on itself at a time when our news providers should have been holding out a mirror as opposed to looking into one.
Why did all of this ensue? Because words matter; and a picture can be worth a thousand of them.
The Central American Nightmare Not Being Discussed
What is perhaps most puzzling about all of this highly questionable editorial decision-making is the fact that many troubling stories are in fact occurring under our current immigration system, stories which don’t require trickery or deception to tell. Yet many of these stories are not even being reported on or being widely discussed.
If those in the media truly wanted to highlight the absurdity of some of our current immigration policies, and specifically draw attention to the plight of those immigrants coming from Central America who are seeking asylum, then they did not need to utilize an image that was largely disconnected from this message. They instead should have engaged the situation with more attention to detail and simultaneously spread that attention to more details than just the issue of family separation, which, as I have described in previous posts, is much more legally and politically convoluted than mere poor policy decision-making.
One story that has mysteriously received no where near the attention that Time Magazine’s cover has garnered, involves a woman from Central America seeking asylum after “she was kidnapped by guerillas in El Salvador in 1990 and was coerced into undergoing weapons training.” You would think that such a background would reasonably provide this woman’s application for asylum with the prerequisites necessary to be seriously considered under our current immigration laws.
Instead, the reality is just the opposite.
After being dragged through legal proceedings for years, beginning when President Obama’s administration repeatedly buried her application in court battles and continuing when President Trump’s administration furthered the matter, this woman was effectively denied asylum several weeks ago under laws that prohibit terrorists and their supporters from legally entering our country.
At this point, even semi-astute readers have most likely thought of multiple questions.
What else did this woman do to be denied asylum in such a fashion? Well, there are of course several other relevant details to this story. The guerillas who kidnapped this woman were members of a known terrorist organization, and in addition to being intimidated by this organization into undergoing weapons training, this woman was compelled into “performing forced labor in the form of cooking, cleaning, and washing their clothes” while under the threat of death.
Oh, and she was also coerced into all of these tasks after being “forced to witness her husband, a sergeant in the Salvadoran Army, dig his own grave before being killed.”
How did the government justify their verdict in this case? It was in fact on this set of information alone that the Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) rejected this woman’s latest appeal for asylum. As stated above, this case involved the examination of anti-terrorism laws that prohibit the entry of those who engage in terrorist activities as well as those who provide material support to such individuals. According to the BIA’s decision, this woman “afforded material support to the guerillas in El Salvador in 1990 because the forced labor she provided in the form of cooking, cleaning, and washing their clothes aided them in continuing their mission of armed and violent opposition to the Salvadoran Government.” While the woman understandably reported to the court that these activities were completed under coercive pressure and lethal intimidation, the majority in this case ruled that the relevant law in question, in accordance previous rulings, “does not include an implied exception for an alien whose material support to a terrorist organization was provided under duress.”
The Immigration Judge from earlier in the proceedings stated that “but for the material support bar, she would have granted the respondent’s asylum application on humanitarian grounds.”
One does not need to have a law degree to understand the absurdity of this verdict, but as law professor Ilya Somin points out in his article on this matter, “a person who was coerced into performing slave labor for terrorists surely is not thereby a menace to American security, nor can she be said to be considered a genuine supporter of their organization in any meaningful way.” Jennifer Daskal and Paul Rosenzweig, two experts in national security law, also write in their piece on this case that there is plenty of blame to go around for this ruling.
The court’s reliance on previously flawed proceedings and its application of a “de minimis degree” standard for proving the provision of material support is ridiculous in this matter. Additionally, President Obama and President Trump’s convoluted policy decisions on the issuing of waivers during such judicial proceedings complicated this woman’s case well beyond what should have been necessary.
While her application has not actually been fully removed from consideration, since the BIA merely remanded it to back to the Immigration Judge, this recent legal proceeding has effectively ended this woman’s appeal for asylum as the majority’s opinion will be nearly impossible to legally maneuver around in the upcoming hearings.
As professor Somin points out at the end of his article, this ruling has major implications not just for this woman but also for future asylum seekers as well.
“Sadly, this decision has applications far beyond the specific case of asylum seekers coerced by Salvadoran guerrillas. Other terrorist organizations also make use of forced labor. The most notorious recent example is, of course, ISIS, which enslaved captured civilians — particularly women and children — on a massive scale. Under the majority’s approach, Yazidi women used as sex slaves by ISIS must be denied asylum because, as the majority might put it, their forced labor had a “reasonably foreseeable tendency to promote, sustain, or maintain the [ISIS] organization” by improving the morale of ISIS fighters who were allowed to sexually abuse them.”
But none of this will make headline news in widely circulated magazines.
The maintstream media will not dedicate their time on this matter to even communicating a word.
Certainly not a thousand of them.
This woman, and all of those individuals who will later be impacted by this decision in ways that many of us will find equally egregious, will just become another anonymous “matter” in our backlogged immigration courts.
Another unspoken story in our media’s messages and our daily political conversations.