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Why some feel threatened by unaccompanied minors, despite the facts

Unaccompanied minors watch TV at the Honduran Center for Returned Migrants after being deported from Mexico, in San Pedro Sula, northern Honduras on June 20, 2014.
Jorge Cabrera | Reuters
Unaccompanied minors watch TV at the Honduran Center for Returned Migrants after being deported from Mexico, in San Pedro Sula, northern Honduras on June 20, 2014.
Posted Aug. 05, 2014, at 12:23 p.m.

Maine recently returned to national prominence when satirist Stephen Colbert spoofed Gov. Paul LePage’s reaction to news that Maine received eight unaccompanied child migrants from the country’s southern border. Colbert’s report makes us chuckle by placing the governor’s sense of alarm alongside the seemingly inconsequential addition of eight new state residents. As good political satire often does, however, it represents something deeper and more consequential.

So far, we seem unable to build a national dialogue that articulates concrete costs and benefits of addressing this crisis. Debates and potential responses are quickly waylaid by rhetoric that obscures reality and, at its core, demonstrates fear of outsiders and what they represent.

So what exactly is the “crisis” on our southern border? In short, we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of unaccompanied children arriving there, with 57,000 apprehended thus far and projections that as many as 90,000 could arrive by the end of September.

Many migrate from Mexico, but significant and growing numbers of children come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador because of heightened violence and instability over the past few years. In fact, more than 50 percent of arriving minors interviewed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported fleeing violence perpetrated by gangs, drug cartels or corrupt police and state officials.

While Mexican arrivals can be deported relatively swiftly, children from these other countries are protected by the Trafficking Victims Reauthorization Act of 2008. This law requires them to have an immigration hearing and consult with an advocate. They also must be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services, which attempts to place children with family or in foster care while awaiting decisions. The surge will mean lengthy waits for hearings designed to ensure their safety and to determine whether they have been trafficked.

Against this backdrop, the rhetorical debate over immigration has exploded with protests along the Southern border, politicians refusing to authorize emergency aid to deal with the crisis and state governors and officials reacting positively and negatively to new arrivals within their jurisdiction.

This pitched public debate reveals much about how humans collectively respond to those who are different. Research on immigration attitudes suggests that opposition to increased migration often stems from perceptions of economic threat or notions that newly arriving immigrants, particularly those from different racial groups, threaten community securityor our “way of life.”

For instance, in recent immigration attitudes research we conducted at the University of Maine, we found individuals consistently employed notions of threat consistent with racial stereotypes, even when these failed to correspond to the facts of a narrative they had just read. This shows how powerful notions of threat hinder our abilities to grasp nuance — or even make us misinterpret reality itself.

Ultimately, race-based stereotypes of threat can foster changes in rhetoric and preferences on immigration and other policy issues. For example, a recent series of studies demonstrated several components of opposition to universal health care are rooted in negative attitudes toward African-Americans.

Even our elected officials demonstrate these tendencies. For example, Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Georgia, openly expressed concern these children might be carrying the deadly Ebola virus, despite the fact it never has been seen in Latin America. Or the infamous goof of Arizona state Rep. Adam Kwasman, a Republican, who mistook a bus of YMCA campers for frightened migrant children. When our rhetoric amplifies these stereotyped notions of threat, we relax our ability to critically analyze and interpret information, and we can then be operating in a reality that simply isn’t there.

Closer to home, LePage’s response also suggests and promotes this inflated sense of threat. The crisis we face on our southern border requires careful thought and deliberation if we are to balance our concerns as a nation with the pressing human needs of children fleeing violence. Stereotyping, over-inflated notions of threat or outright misrepresentations of the crisis may “fire up the political base,” but they will not produce sound public policy. We must expect and demand more from our elected representatives.

Robert W. Glover is an assistant professor of honors and political science at the University of Maine, where his research focuses on the politics of immigration in the United States. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars from across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week. He is joined on this piece by Jordan LaBouff, assistant professor of honors and psychology, and Megan Dunphy, an undergraduate psychology student at the University of Maine.

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