Influx of migrants at border gains renewed attention as ‘crisis’ rhetoric spreads

The debate over immigration at the southern border is raging once again, dominating the discussion at the GOP debates, sparking criticism of the White House’s policies among a growing number of Democrats, and fueling renewed media coverage and protests in cities inundated with an influx of migrants.

While it remains to be seen whether immigration will be at the forefront in the 2024 presidential election, as it was in 2020, the momentum has been building in recent weeks and recharged with a tougher tone from both Republicans and Democrats, observers say.

At the second GOP presidential primary debate, the candidates mentioned the “border” about two dozen times, with some threatening the use of military intervention to “take out” drug cartels in Mexico and secure the border.

A review of Fox News coverage shows an increase in air time given to reports about the southern border in recent weeks, following a summer devoted to more gender-identity stories.

The increased coverage tracks with how the number of migrants illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has risen steadily since the start of September, NBC News reported, with more than 200,000 migrants unlawfully crossing last month — a record high for 2023. The number is up from more than 182,700 people who border agents encountered in September 2022 and 142,710 people in September 2021, according to Customs and Border Protection data.

Major cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Denver, have reported a spike in the migrant population after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, began busing asylum-seekers to so-called sanctuary cities. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, applied a similar tactic last year, sending two planes of migrants to the upscale Massachusetts island Martha’s Vineyard.

Image: Texas National Guard troops look at immigrants that crossed the Rio Grande into the United States from MexicoTexas National Guard troops look on after immigrants crossed the Rio Grande into the United States from Mexico on Sept. 27 in Eagle Pass, Texas. John Moore / Getty Images file

Initially, Democratic leaders from Texas to New York decried such actions as “horrific“ and “bigoted,” and vowed to be more welcoming, but as the surge has overwhelmed cities now scrambling to find emergency shelters and classroom space for migrant children, some of those same officials have reversed course.

The office of New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, announced he would be touring Latin American countries this week to better understand how asylum-seekers are coming to the United States, a trip that follows his recent remarks lamenting how the arrival of 10,000 migrants a month to New York is an “issue that will destroy” the city. On Wednesday, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson said he would travel to the southern border but did not say exactly when that trip would take place.

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New York Gov. Kathy Hochul pleaded on CNN last month that “if you’re going to leave your country, go somewhere else,” and reiterated on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that the border is “too open right now.”

“We are one of the most diverse places on earth because of our welcoming nature, and it’s in our DNA to welcome immigrants,” Hochul said. “But there has to be some limits in place.”

Frustrations over a deepening “crisis” isn’t only coming from New York’s leadership.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Chicago mayor, both Democrats, held a call with the White House on Sunday to discuss how migrants have been straining housing and social services since their arrival 13 months ago, creating a “humanitarian crisis.” Pritzker in a letter Monday to President Joe Biden wrote that “the federal government’s lack of intervention and coordination at the border has created an untenable situation for Illinois,” which is set to host the 2024 Democratic National Convention.

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, has said her state’s border communities are also “struggling” with more migrants and little help from the federal government.

“Time and again, I’ve asked the Biden administration for assistance at the border, but instead, they have chosen to redirect resources to speed the release of migrants without the support and coordination our local communities deserve,” Hobbs said last month.

A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent arrives to pick up a family of five in the Tucson Sector of the U.S.-Mexico borderA U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent arrives to pick up a family of five claiming to be from Guatemala after they crossed the border fence in the Tucson Sector of the U.S.-Mexico border, on Aug. 29, in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument near Lukeville, Ariz. Matt York / AP file

A spokesperson for the White House said in a statement that Biden has supported “comprehensive immigration reform since his first day in office,” and blamed House Republicans for blocking efforts, including the approval of $4 billion to address the needs of the Department of Homeland Security.

A Trump-era immigration border policy put in place during the pandemic was lifted by the Biden administration in May. The Covid-related restriction had allowed border patrol agents to quickly turn away migrants at the border for the past three years, but with its ending, the U.S. has seen an uptick following fears of a surge that didn’t immediately materialize.  

Now, that has prominent voices beyond politicians trying to drive the conversation. Tech billionaire Elon Musk visited the Texas border with Mexico last week, posting in a video-selfie on X, formerly known as Twitter, that the “situation is beyond insane and growing fast,” and called for the overhaul of a legal immigration system that also bars migrants “breaking the law.”

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Musk is himself an immigrant from South Africa and called himself “extremely pro-immigrant,” Reuters reported.

A.J. Bauer, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Alabama who focuses on right-wing media, said a ratcheting up of hard-line language is only going to embolden the anti-migrant sentiment rather than provide actual solutions.

The anti-immigration far right may “amplify a ‘crisis’ narrative on the border — that pretty directly serves their open ideological ends, and it isn’t particularly new,” Bauer said. “I am more troubled by the ‘crisis’ rhetoric coming out of Democratic office holders like Mayor Adams and Gov. Hochul.”

“Their rhetoric and stunts extend right-wing framing into mainstream and liberal discourse in ways that only aid and abet the right,” Bauer added.

The issue has remained a consistent one for former President Donald Trump, who in remarks outside the courtroom of his civil financial fraud trial on Monday attacked the Biden administration for “what they’ve done with open borders … it’s a disgrace.”

While Republicans have been largely unified on supporting border enforcement, there are growing divisions on how to tackle immigration among Democrats following the influx of migrants being bused to cities like New York, likely putting the issue “at the center of a lot of right-wing media messages in this campaign season,” said Matthew Sheffield, a former conservative media consultant and now publisher of Flux, an independent media outlet.

Reece Peck, an associate professor of media culture at the City University of New York-College of Staten Island, said he only expects coverage to intensify in the coming months, as presidential campaigning heats up.

Adding to the mix will be how the issue is amplified on social media sites such as X, owned by Musk.

Now, Peck said, someone like Musk can highlight a topic like few can.

“We’re at the end of the era, where the influence of the cable news-centric landscape of the 2000s is waning,” Peck said. “We’re watching the over-the-top streaming media sector, and Musk has positioned himself as this new conservative media baron setting an agenda where people are cutting the cord and not watching cable. He’s trying to play the role of Rupert Murdoch 2.0.”

Erik Ortiz

Erik Ortiz is a senior reporter for NBC News Digital focusing on racial injustice and social inequality.

Jasmine Cui and Nigel Chiwayacontributed.