“Border Security TV: Crossing the Line?” — Al Jazeera, 2018, 9:55 — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrCLzrDJAsQ
A thought-provoking video that forces us to question popular media related to immigration, border security, and human rights. Much of the imagery people consume of immigration uses a militarized (and sensationalized) media frame. When the issue is dominated by a narrative that problematizes migration through the experiences of border security, we lose sight of the overwhelming majority of migrants who pose no threat, enter legally, and become productive citizens. Unfortunately, the hyped story of threatening immigrants and heroic security attracts more viewers and more advertising revenue than stories of typical migration experiences. It may not be too much of a stretch to say that border security television shows amount to little more than racist and xenophobic propaganda.
How could the media depict immigration in a more honest fashion? What stories and experiences are excluded when there is a hyperfocus on borders and security? Why have anti-immigration television shows become popular in the first place?
From the video’s description: For the past few years, Border Security TV has become a regular fixture on airwaves around the globe. It's a subgenre of reality TV where camera crews follow border control officials as they search for illegal goods, interrogate suspicious newcomers, and deport those deemed unwanted. Its popularity, some say, is a clear sign of the times.
"We're in a time where immigration is increasingly part of popular discourse and anti-immigration discourse is increasingly part of popular culture - the idea that we need to shut down our borders, that, quote-unquote, 'illegal immigration is changing our culture and our demographics'. And so, border security shows really appeal to people's desires to control borders", says Harsha Walia, author of Undoing Border Imperialism.
While producers of shows such as Border Security: Australia's Front Line and Border Patrol New Zealand argue that this kind of programming accurately reflects the important work border security agencies undertake to protect the homeland, critics say it misrepresents what happens at nation's borders.
"The shows do make good TV, but in order to do that, they need to sensationalise and exaggerate the idea of a threat at our borders. These shows give the impression that countries are under siege from overwhelming numbers of people seeking to break laws and flout regulations. What they don't show, because it doesn't make good TV, is the tens of thousands, in fact, hundreds of thousands of people, who pass through borders legitimately, every day," notes Benjamin Doherty, the Guardian Australia's immigration correspondent.
Stewart Morris is the executive producer of Border Security: America's Gatekeepers, a series that follows the Customs and Border Protection agency and their operations at the bridges that connect the US and Mexico. He disputes the notion that such shows exaggerate the threat posed by border crossers.
"We're recording things which would happen even if our cameras aren't there. It is truly a kind of fly on the wall obs doc series watching from the point of view of Customs and Border Protection officers. One of the problems that we had is that we had a small crew covering 28 bridges. But there's a drug bust on a daily basis. If we had a crew on every bridge we would show the true extent of the problems that officers face."
Another major critique is that these shows lack any balancing commentary or journalistic rigour, telling just one side of the story - that of the immigration officials.
"We're not actually talking to the people that are being humiliated on screen", says Nevin Thompson, Japan Editor at Global Voices. "It looks journalistic because you're with the officers with your camera. So, you as the viewer feel that you can judge what's happening. But we don't actually talk to the other side, the people being targeted, we tend to think that they're guilty. But there's been no due process. We don't really know anything about their background."
The programmes' simple format means they offer production companies TV hits on the cheap. But access to border officers does come at a cost: Handing over editorial control to the government agencies they embed with. And with final say in the hands of the border agencies involved, there is an argument to be had that these shows are nothing short of free propaganda.