Same Border Rules, Vastly Different Portrayals

Trump's pandemic travel bans received vastly different media treatment than Biden's.


On January 31, 2020, when there were six confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, then-President Donald Trump imposed a travel ban on non-citizens who had recently visited China. A few hours later, Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden slammed Trump's approach to the nascent pandemic.

"We have right now a crisis with the coronavirus, emanating from China," Biden said. "In moments like this, this is where the credibility of a president is most needed, as he explains what we should and should not do. This is no time for Donald Trump's record of hysterical xenophobia and fear mongering to lead the way instead of science."

Biden's speech did not specifically mention the China policy. But six weeks later, on the day after the NBA suspended its season and actor Tom Hanks announced he had tested positive for the virus, Biden, by then the Democratic front-runner, decried the futility of Trump's newly expanded travel restrictions. "A wall will not stop the coronavirus," he tweeted. "Banning all travel from Europe—or any other part of the world—will not stop it." In remarks to reporters, he added that "travel restrictions based on favoritism and politics rather than a risk will be counterproductive."

Many things about coronavirus science and politics changed during the ensuing 20 months. So when news hit around Thanksgiving that the omicron variant had been identified in South Africa, Biden, having supplanted Trump in the White House, was working with a much bigger toolbox of scientific knowledge and proven mitigations. What was his position on COVID travel bans now? The same as Trump's, it turns out.

"As a precautionary measure until we have more information, I am ordering additional air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries," Biden said. Six of the eight African countries did not have a single reported case involving the omicron variant at the time of the announcement. "As we move forward," the president added, "we will continue to be guided by what the science and my medical team advises."

When Trump announced his China restrictions, the reaction from the news media tilted toward the alarmist. "The travel disruption sent shocks through the stock market and rattled industries that depend on the flow of goods and people between the world's two largest economies," The New York Times reported. "Planning was upended for companies across a vast global supply chain."

Yet when Biden pulled the same move, the decision was treated with something closer to empathy. "The sudden arrival of Omicron represented a jarring, here-we-go-again moment for a weary and politically divided country after nearly two years of battling the pandemic," the Times reported. "It also underscored the difficult position the president is in as he seeks to respond aggressively to yet another public health threat." Later in the article the paper tut-tutted that "Republicans seized on the existence of another variant to attack the president."

If political polarization and tribalism are contributing to a bifurcation of how two huge clumps of Americans view reality, journalism has a potentially critical role to play in mediating informational disputes. That's especially true when news organizations cover emotional, life-and-death issues involving immigration and disease, which tend to generate some of the most hyperbolic and consequential differences in perceptions.

Yet the journalism profession increasingly sees such political refereeing as an anachronistic trap set by bad-faith conservatives who want to smuggle asymmetrically extremist ideas into a "both sides" frame. "To the extent…that journalists and pundits focus critically on President Biden and Democrats and give short shrift to Republicans' obstructions—as if the cancer of Trumpism was in remission, if not cured—that indeed distorts reality and disserves readers, listeners and viewers," former New York Times White House correspondent Jackie Calmes wrote in an October 15 Los Angeles Times piece. Calmes warned that "democracy is literally at stake."

It's true that Trump, as both candidate and president, was a font of spectacular, policy-shaping lies on subjects such as sanctuary cities, voter fraud, and the visa lottery system. When Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman James Schwab resigned in 2018, his reasoning was simple: "I didn't feel like fabricating the truth." But because they aim their alert systems at Republicans, news organizations look ridiculous when they cover Biden moves on immigration that are indistinguishable from his predecessor's.

The 46th president, for instance, has continued 45's use of the 1944 Public Health Service Act, codified in Title 42, to rapidly remove unauthorized visitors who try to enter the U.S. during the pandemic. When it was Trump doing it, news outlets such as the investigative nonprofit ProPublica were filled with headlines like "ICE Is Making Sure Migrant Kids Don't Have COVID-19—Then Expelling Them to 'Prevent the Spread' of COVID-19" and "Democratic Senators Demand Answers on Trump's Secretive Border Expulsions." After Biden doubled Trump's monthly rate of Title 42 expulsions, the response from ProPublica and Democrats was considerably more muted.

In December, Biden complied with a court order requiring reinstatement of Trump's controversial "Remain in Mexico" policy of rebuffing asylum seekers at the southern border. He reemphasized the Obama-era policy of denying Cuban and Haitian asylum seekers who arrive  by sea. He has let stand a 2018 Board of Immigration Appeals ruling that people who were held as slave laborers by terrorist groups cannot qualify for asylum because they provided "material support for terrorism." His administration has continued seizing private property along the U.S.-Mexico border to accommodate a wall he vociferously campaigned against.

Like many other immigration policies, these examples demonstrate far more continuity between Democratic and Republican administrations than mainstream news outlets are inclined to recognize. While activists on both sides of the issue recognize that commonality, many journalists prefer a simplistic morality play.

When Trump announced the China travel ban, The New York Times highlighted criticism from University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm: "The cow's already out of the barn, and we're now talking about shutting the barn door." Covering Biden's similar attempts to contain the omicron variant, the Times quoted an epidemiologist voicing a sunnier attitude: "When you go to a crime scene, what do the police do right away? They lock everything down so they can figure out what's going on. But that doesn't mean they are going to keep things locked down for the rest of the day or the rest of the week."

The source of that sentiment? The same Michael Osterholm.

"To see what is in front of one's nose," George Orwell famously wrote, "needs a constant struggle." When it comes to immigration or COVID, don't count on the media to be much help.