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Does National Geographic’s “Border Wars” series sensationalize border enforcement?

Picture 1The issue of long-term and comprehensive immigration reform has gained tremendous momentum over the last month. Be it progressive bloggers, faith-based groups, immigration rights activists, the White House or Congress, the buzz is that those in power must deliver a sustainable and humane solution to the immigration problem. But the disconnect between the mainstream media and the issues of immigration continues to remain challenging.

National Geographic Channel‘s new reality series, “Border Wars”, is a perfect example of how the popular media tends to misconstrue the issue of immigration through a sensationalist approach to the problem. Launched on January 10th 2010, and co-produced by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), “Border Wars” follows agents from CBP as they go after drug trafficking, human smuggling, and undocumented migrants trying to cross the border.

The description of the show from the National Geographic website says -

The U.S.-Mexico border stretches for 2,000 miles, over mountains, through deserts and dividing cities. Each year over one million undocumented people cross this border….U.S. dollars are the answer for many poor people struggling in Mexico, Central America, and beyond….From the skilled tracker on foot to the agent able to see in the dark with special night-vision equipment, the U.S. Border Patrol faces the challenge of controlling the desert every day. In “Border Wars”, National Geographic goes inside the world of the U.S. Border Patrol with unprecedented access to the surprising world of the southern border.

On the day that it was launched, the premiere episode received the highest ratings in the history of the channel. This is not surprising considering the conspicuous usage of words such as “war” and “terrorist” in the promos, the sensationalistic imagery, and the battle hardy agents.  A look at the title, the way that the promos for the show have been framed, and the description of the series all work to invoke fear and reinforce stereotypes associated with immigrants. More importantly, while the show frames the agents and the migrants through the simplistic binary of “good” and “bad,” it fails to provide any contextual information about the fact that despite the huge amounts of money that have been pumped into border enforcement, the success of border policies remains questionable. It also fails to address the fact that while drug trafficking remains a huge problem, a majority of those who attempt to cross the border do so in search for a job, and are far from posing a threat to anyone.

In a scathing critique of the show, Huffington Post writer John Carlos Frey, who denounces the ratings-hungry tactics of Border Wars, writes -

What the show fails to mention is that “raising the stakes” has deliberately and inhumanely forced migration over deadly terrain resulting in the death of thousands of migrants on U.S. soil. Conveniently, “Border Wars” also fails to mention that current border policy and security infrastructure is not working…The multi-billion dollar project was supposed to be completed in 2008 and now is scheduled for completion in 2016 if at all…Billions of dollars, tens of thousands of border guards and horribly, thousands of dead migrants later, the National Geographic Channel’s ratings darling, “Border Wars”, forgets to mention the border policy they are glorifying in their program is deliberately forcing people to cross deadly terrain and may not be “halting illegal immigration.”

The Equal Justice Society has taken a stand against the show, claiming that it works foster false impressions that are extremely dangerous in their potential to engender racism against immigrants and detract from the reality of the situation. In their critique of the show they say -

The promotions for this new show, as well as the show itself, have managed to recklessly imply that the U.S. and Mexico are at war, that the U.S.-Mexico border is a terrorism hot spot, that undocumented immigrants are the terrorists attempting to infiltrate this country, and that U.S. border agents are our soldiers ensuring national security and justice. These implications are false and dangerous. What “Border Wars” will not show you are fleeing immigrants being shot, immigrant children being separated from their families, and immigrants being forced to return to lives that include poverty, violence, and despair. That is the reality of the U.S.- Mexico border.

Worse still, the website allows viewers to participate in a simulated version of the show in which they can “play” at being a Border Patrol agent. For years, The National Geographic Channel has remained committed to intelligent and sensitive programming of shows that celebrate the beauty of our planet and the diversity of its cultures. When a channel such as this one gives up its integrity in favor of ratings and in the process, compromises the access to knowledge around an extremely sensitive topic, it is difficult not to be despondent about the future of television.

If you would like to contact National Geographic about “Border Wars” to express your disappointment and outrage, you can do so by clicking here.

Photo courtesy of

7 Responses to “Does National Geographic’s “Border Wars” series sensationalize border enforcement?”

    That is disgusting. National Geographic has lost all credibility with this family. I like their magazine but I find their coverage of situations like this, as well as their “reality” prison shows to be beneath their formerly excellent standards. It’s sad that they are no longer a channel that I can just casually pop on secure in the knowledge that the content is family friendly. Seeing the hunting and caging of one’s fellow man promotes a dangerous us against them attitude. It is at times an unfortunate necessity, but it should always be done reluctantly, never should it be broadcast for mass market entertainment!

    Ned Hamson says:

    Money Honey if you want to get along with me – It would not make any difference if this was the Red Cross airing a “reality” show with fast cut editing of Red Cross workers helping people in Haiti, Lebanon, and Honduras, or the ASPCA searching out people – live on camera – who are abusing animals.

    Television is about making money and anyone, it seems, can try to boost its “sales” by playing to the desire of people to pretend they are “watching life in action.” Like rubber necking when you slow down, as you drive past an auto crash on the highway.

    So, now they are the National (Pandering) Geographic.

    leareiter says:

    Let’s do to Border Wars what we did to Lou Dobbs.

    jessie says:

    I fail to see how a realistic account of the situation on the border is wrong or unfairly treats the law breaking illegal immigrant. The show is objective and educational. The reality is there is a “war” going on at the border between drug and human traffiking cartels and the US authorities that are tasked with securing the border. If you think it’s just a bunch of innocent bus boys making the crossing, maybe you should watch a few more episodes.

    Good idea learieter about shutting those down that you disagree with like you did with Lou Dobbs. Actually, you’re advice is pretty scary!!!

    [...] for futher analysis of the show, you can visit the Restore Fairness [...]

    Read this trackback on the original site.
    Paula says:

    I just heard about “Border Wars” and watched the first episode. It was heartbreaking but I thought it was very well done. It was informative and very sympathetic to the migrant workers. In no way did it, “fail to address the fact that while drug trafficking remains a huge problem, a majority of those who attempt to cross the border do so in search for a job, and are far from posing a threat to anyone.” It did just the opposite, repeatedly focusing on the men and women just looking for work.

    Also, I have to strongly disagree with the quotes from John Carlos Frey that state:

    “raising the stakes” has deliberately and inhumanely forced migration over deadly terrain resulting in the death of thousands of migrants on U.S. soil.”

    “their program is deliberately forcing people to cross deadly terrain…”

    That’s completely ludicrous! No one is “forcing” anyone to come here illegally. For reasons I can’t begin to understand, they make that choice.

    mike says:

    This shw sucks. Seeing hispanics wrkin for the border patrol makes me sick. They think their rite by turn their bk on their own race. Stupidest show ever. FYI AMERICANS TOOK THIS LAND FROM NATIVE AMERICANS N ETC. UR ALL ILLEGL TOO YAL COME FRM ENGLISH N ETC. READ A HISTORY BooK!