In an exhaustive study of news coverage in multiple borderland newspapers, Jane Zavisca, a cultural sociologist at the University of Arizona, surveyed ten years’ worth of reporting to determine the most common metaphors used by journalists writing about migrant deaths.
Economic metaphors were predominant, characterizing migrant deaths as a “cost,” “calculation,” or “gamble.” Death is a price that is paid, a toll collected by the desert. Death is the foreseeable outcome of “cost-benefit analysis, with measurable, calculable risks and consequences.” Death is the ultimate risk in a game of chance, the unlucky result of a roll of the dice. Metaphors like these, Zavisca writes, “naturalize death” and “suggest that migrants bear some responsibility for their own deaths.”
Violent metaphors were the second-largest category, depicting death as the vengeful punishment of an angry desert or the casualty of a war waged along the border. In such discourse, deaths were blamed on unforgiving weather, on lethal immigration policy, on a lack of enforcement against an invading army of migrants.
Dehumanizing metaphors constituted Zavisca’s third category. Here, migrants were depicted as animals, something hunted, the persecuted prey of smugglers, law enforcement agents, and militant vigilantes. “Lured” to the border by the prospect of well-paying jobs, migrants engage Border Patrol “trackers” in a “cat-and-mouse game” with deadly consequences. “A related metaphor,” writes Zavisca, “depicts enforcement agents as humane shepherds tending to a flock.” This allusion “reinforces the humanity of the Border Patrol while it dehumanizes migrants by portraying the Border Patrol as ‘saviors.'” An associated livestock metaphor, widespread in Mexico, casts migrants as chickens and smugglers as chicken ranchers—pollos at the mercy of their polleros.
Another subcategory of metaphors describes migrants as “dangerous waters threatening the nation. . .a metaphorical home.” Enforcement is represented as an effort to stanch the unwieldy flow migration, the border as a barrier to be plugged and sealed against a rising tide. The corresponding death toll is “a ‘surge,’ and the bodies are part of a ‘flood’ of migrants that overwhelm Border Patrol agents and medical examiners.” It is here that Zavisca cites the work of Otto Santa Ana, a sociolinguist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who argues that, ontologically, such metaphors dehumanize migrants by representing them as “an undifferentiated mass.”