We work at the George W. Bush Institute on challenges that would appear to be disconnected: modernizing America’s immigration system and promoting a reliable flow of information. But they come together directly and forcefully at America’s southern border, which remains the epicenter of the nation’s immigration debate and has emerged as a new front line in the need for truth-telling over “fake news.”
We see border issues and disinformation converging in three ways: smugglers spreading false information about border security, those same smugglers spreading disinformation about the safety of trips to the border, and a Russian campaign to spread misleading narratives. Combating these realities will require comprehensive immigration reform, a vigilant effort to counter disinformation, and better use of Spanish-language media to convey truthful information.
Of course, human smugglers have long used lies to tempt migrants to come to the United States border. They continue that habit today by leading would-be migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to believe that the Biden administration is throwing the gates open for them to seek a new life in the United States. As NPR reported this spring, “Misinformation being spread by smuggling organizations is helping spur this surge in migration from Central America.”
The border, however, is not wide-open. While President Joe Biden rescinded the Trump administration policy of not allowing in unaccompanied minors or some asylum-seekers with children, the current administration is drawing upon public health guidance as it continues to expel migrants along the southern border. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 103,014 of the 178,416 migrants that Border Patrol encountered in June were sent back to Mexico.
Smugglers also maliciously trick migrant families into thinking that their trip to the United States will be an easy, comfortable family vacation. In reality, crossings at times run from brutal to deadly. Sometimes migrants get rounded up and sent back to Mexico on a bus.
The Russians, meanwhile, are adding an extra wrinkle. Adm. Craig Faller, head of the U.S. Southern Command, recently informed Congress that disinformation can drive migration. As an example, pieces from RT en Español, which is part of the government-controlled Russia Today operation, end up in popular local media outlets where they provide misleading information about the border to potential migrants.
The best way to stop the unreliable flow of information is to fix our broken immigration system, which gives smugglers ample room to spread disinformation. If we modernize our system with regularized, legal and realistic pathways for immigrants to enter our country, we could help curb inaccurate information. We particularly should expand temporary worker visa programs and diversify employment-based green cards so that migrants who want to work here can do so without attempting to cross the southwest border.
Countering disinformation also involves a smart media strategy. Advertising in Central American media outlets is crucial to countering the smugglers’ misinformation as well as misleading RT en Español stories. Earlier this year, the White House launched an ad campaign in Spanish and Indigenous language media outlets to inform would-be migrants our border is not wide-open. Good. Keep up the just-the-facts campaign.
For their part, U.S. journalists should remain vigilant about distinguishing between asylum-seekers and other migrants. U.S. law stipulates that seeking asylum is the legal right of people trying to escape corruption, violence and extortion at home. TV footage of people crossing on foot, especially, should provide context about who isattempting to cross the border legally and illegally. Otherwise, the footage risks sensationalizing immigration realities.
Spanish-language media outlets in the United States are an important means for the administration as well as journalists to get the facts out, and they should take that responsibility seriously. Spanish-language papers in Los Angeles, New York, Dallas and elsewhere are major sources of information for families here and abroad.
Spanish-language TV stations are especially important. The Pew Research Center’s latest data shows that about 1.1 million viewers watch Univision’s evening newscast while about 700,000 people view Telemundo’s evening newscast. Those networks also own affiliates that reach local audiences with their own reporting.
We can and must solve our immigration challenges, starting with reforming our immigration system. Solving that challenge, however, also requires a reliable flow of truthful information.
Laura Collins is director of the Bush Institute – SMU Economic Growth Initiative, where she leads its immigration work, and William McKenzie is senior editorial adviser at the Bush Institute, where his work includes examining reliable information flows.