By Dr. Kate Brannum
Program Director, International Relations at American Public University System
There has been a great deal of attention paid in the media over the last several weeks to the push and pull factors that are bringing unaccompanied minors across the border. Much of the current debate seems to focus on the idea that these people are not making rational decisions.
For instance, in a recent opinion column in the Dallas News, the author compares migrants’ belief that they can find safety in the United States to belief in the legendary chupacabra monster. In the op-ed, author Edward Retta states, “Disadvantaged people do not research the Web or try to uncover the truth in the stories they hear. They act, they move, they go — hoping for the best, their hope fueled by rumor and misinterpretation.”
This is an extreme example of a more widespread tendency to deny that impoverished people make rational choices based on the information that is available to them. There is also a tendency for U.S. politicians and activists to somehow think that they themselves are acting with complete knowledge of the situation in Central America and with total rationality in response to this crisis. This belief in superior thinking skills can be seen in new discourse from podiums and press conferences.
Recently, an essential part of the debate surrounds the argument that U.S. politicians and activists are acting in the interest of migrants, particularly unaccompanied minors. While there has certainly been a great deal of rhetoric about the threat these immigrants pose to the U.S., the most common rhetoric from policy makers is the idea that they need to guide and think for these migrants.
One strategy has been to advise Central Americans that the journey is simply too dangerous. A recent open letter from the secretary of Homeland Security illustrates this attitude. He writes, “I have one simple message: Sending your child to travel illegally into the United States is not the solution. It is dangerous to send a child on the long journey from Central America to the United States.” This statement assumes that parents are not aware of the dangers that could await their child along the journey. President Barack Obama has issued similar statements, pointing out that “I’ve asked parents across Central America not to put their children in harm’s way in this fashion.”
This strategy assumes that if they tell migrants that safe refuge in the U.S. is just a myth–in other words, the chupacabra doesn’t exist—they will simply stay home. However, in a place where school children are recruited by and killed by gang members, a few words from a White House official will not lead to changes in behavior. For parents, the choice is sending their children on a dangerous border crossing or keeping them at home were they are at risk for becoming victims of violence and deadly hunger.
U.S. policymakers believe they can make better decisions than the children’s’ parents. If they read their own reports, the problem with their assumptions and tone might be obvious. A U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) document states: “…the U.S., Salvadoran and Honduran children… come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of traveling alone to the U.S. preferable to remaining at home.”
Until policy makers take into account the reality of violence and poverty in many countries and acknowledge the rational decisions that migrants are making, they will not be able to respond effectively to this crisis.
About the Author
In 2011 and 2013, Dr. Kate Brannum was awarded the Excellence in Teaching Award for the School of Security and Global Studies. Kate received her bachelor’s degree with a concentration in international relations from James Madison College of Michigan State University. She earned her Ph.D. in political science from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her research focused on international compliance with norms against torture. Dr. Brannum has been working as an instructor and administrator for the last 20 years. Her current interest is international norms and human rights. She loves to teach online courses and is committed to helping her students succeed in their endeavors.