Pundits and op-ed page writers agreed on one thing last fall: As Americans, Puerto Ricans deserve our help.
After Hurricane Maria, the worst natural disaster in Puerto Rico’s history, decimated the island in September, voices on the right, the left, and center of the political spectrum invoked patriotism in an effort to increase rescue and recovery efforts. CNN commentator Errol Louis’ started his piece with “Congress, help your fellow Americans in Puerto Rico.” The New York Times editorial board titled their plea “Puerto Rico Is American. We Can’t Ignore It Now.” Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera said, “Puerto Ricans are suffering. Your fellow Americans need help, not a lecture.”
The calls for help were and remain important. Trump all but ignored Puerto Rico in his State of the Union speech, mentioning it only once, saying disingenuously, “To everyone still recovering in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, California, and everywhere else—we are with you.” Meanwhile, about a third of Puerto Ricans still don’t have electricity nearly five months after the hurricane and in timing that would make a normal administration cringe, FEMA is cutting off food and water aid to the island today. Implicit in these columns and commentaries is a surprising presumption: It is only Puerto Ricans’ status as Americans, and not as human beings, that makes them so deserving of aid.
From candidate Trump to president Trump, newspapers and networks have boldly challenged what they see as his dangerous penchant for nationalism, bigotry, and xenophobia. From the Times to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post to the Economist, NPR to CNN, outlets with differing values and approaches have worked to expose hypocrisies present in Trump’s “America First” agenda. During Hurricane Maria it was odd to see these same outlets try to leverage support for Puerto Ricans with an appeal to something in the gray area between patriotism and nationalism, something that hinted at an “Americans First” attitude. This cognitive dissonance in the media isn’t new, and there are indications the habit of inconsistent thinking could continue through the many humanitarian crises on the horizon.
Last fall’s op-ed pages echoed last spring’s coverage of Trump’s original travel ban. During the initial flurry of stories about the ban, the media often overlooked how it would affect typical refugees. Instead, much of the attention focused on the impact the ban had on exceptional individuals, individuals who protect, heal, or in some way provide crucial help to native-born Americans. As part of a large chorus on the topic, USA Today published a column about border agents barring the entry of Iraqi translators who worked with the US forces fighting ISIS. The Times produced a huge story on how crucial foreign-born physicians are to our country’s health care system—turns out 15,000 doctors from the seven majority-Muslim nations in the initial ban fill key roles in rural clinics, poor urban hospitals, and Veterans Affairs facilities.
When not about doctors or translators, stories often focused on the highly-educated, Christian minorities from Muslim majority countries, and other populations writers can relate easily to “the typical American.” Keith Olbermann used his GQ web series to highlight the story of a sick Iranian infant in desperate need of heart surgery, whose parents were wealthy enough to pay for it, if allowed entry to the US. Contemporary art magazine Art Forum ran something on how an Argentine curator with permission from the US government to live and work in America was barred from returning.
Now, to be clear, these stories are a vitally important. They matter for so many reasons and are key to advancing the national conversation on race, religion, immigration, and social and economic justice. The Times’ story carefully, smartly outlined an interdependency between immigrants and native-born Americans. The Art Forum piece pointed out how border agents enforcing the ban subject people to degrading, dehumanizing treatment. But when viewed as a trend, coverage of both the travel ban and the plight of Puerto Rico laid out a hierarchy: American citizens deserve more help than non-American citizens, prospective immigrants that can offer tangible help to Americans deserve preferential consideration, a sick child with wealthy parents or an educated gallery curator will receive attention others may not.
The media is currently covering a fresh set of crises: The Trump administration’s attempt to strip a million people of legal right to live here. Trump has worked to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which covers 800,000 people. The president has also decided end protections for 200,000 people from El Salvador living in the United States for more than a decade under a program known as Temporary Protected Status.
Wading into these issues, the media seems to have made a slight course correction. Much of the coverage brought attention to the humanitarian crisis in El Salvador, one of the most violent places in the world. But many news stories and op-ed pieces have also used the crises to renew the debate about who is an American, who is worthy of staying and who must go.
The New York Times report highlighted “the Salvadorans’ deep connections to America” —a typical rationale for justifying that someone should stay. More common were headlines such as “DREAMERS are Americans Just like you and I” and “Dreamers are Americans, not our enemies.” And of course there have been calls to overhaul immigration, not to serve the immigrants, but to make more money (see this op-ed from the Hill, which flirts boldly with codifying a modern indentured servitude program).
While some takes seem compassionate and others cruel, the commonality is they continue to sell the idea of a hierarchy. Not all hierarchies are insidious or illogical, but ranking groups of people remains the cornerstone of the “America First” idea. It is the philosophical backbone of the administration’s xenophobic, nationalistic, and jingoistic policies. And again, it is in direct competition with the espoused values of much of the media.
Outlets on the left, right, and center have sought to discredit or destroy Trump’s ideas and logic. But op-ed writers, TV anchors, and editorial boards need to understand what they advocate for when they proclaim, “Puerto Ricans deserve our help because they are Americans,” or “we need to save DACA to save Americans,” or “without doctors from the banned Muslim-majority countries Americans would be sicker.” They, like Trump, are advocating for Americans first.
Puerto Rico is already falling away from the news cycle. Next, the plight of Dreamers and the Salvadorians living in the States will disappear from front pages. But, because of Trump’s agenda, immigration advocates, human rights workers, and everyone in the fight to stop the creep of nationalism will stay busy—next up is the battle to allow 60,000 Haitians with the special status protections to remain in the US lawfully. Sadly, there will be a continuous stream of opportunities for the media to clarify its values. If newspapers and networks expand on this trend of championing people only because they are Americans or can help Americans, they will undercut their own efforts to combat Trump’s worldview.