Framing determines how you view immigrant ‘caravan’

Published 6:34 pm Friday, December 14, 2018


Contributing Columnist

“The Asylum Wars” — Time, Nov. 26/Dec. 3

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“Desperate People in Troubled Times” — Courier-Journal, Dec. 2

“What the caravan really is” — Christian Century, Dec. 2

These titles are clues.  The metaphors or images that we use to frame social problems often drive the solutions we espouse. The current debate about the caravan is a striking example of the sway that our framing metaphors hold over the policies that we advocate in response to this migration. They shape our view of the people involved, the reasons they have left their home countries, and what our government should do.

The framing metaphors of human rights organizations and some religious communities for the caravan members are asylum, refuge, and survival. They are said to be fleeing poverty, joblessness, violence perpetuated by gangs, cartels and government security forces, environmental devastation and corruption at every level. Many are drought refugees. El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have been the most severely affected by a four-year drought that has destroyed 60 to 80 percent of the main crops (corn and beans) in the dry corridor of Central America.

Some hope for asylum based on the United Nations refugee protocols signed by the U.S. in 1967 and the criteria spelled out by the Refugee Act of 1980. Others hope to enter illegally, surrender to authorities, and get a year or two of work in the U.S. before their cases are adjudicated and they are deported.

In 2018, 89 percent of asylum seekers passed the initial “credible fear” test, but after the burden of proof was raised, only 17 percent have. Their hope level is indicated by the fact that nearly a third fail to appear at the subsequent court hearings, bringing accusations of “bad faith” from critics.

Some simply hope desperately for food, shelter and security for their families against all odds.  They are rolling the dice and hoping for a miracle. They believe they are doomed if they remain in their home countries. 

Maybe they do not even know that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ruled that gang or domestic violence is not sufficient grounds for amnesty. Often they do not realize that potential sponsors and family members in the U.S. may be afraid to take them in because they too are undocumented and fear deportation themselves if they offer support.

The caravan started with 160 people in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, a center for gangs and drug trafficking called the murder capital of the world. In Honduras as a whole, 60 percent of the population is unemployed or underemployed, and violence and threats of violence from gangs and the police are daily occurrences. The caravan had grown to 1,000 by the time it reached the border of Guatemala with its similar social, economic and political mess. In El Salvador the numbers grew to 7,000. In that country, the murder rate is 65 per 100,000, compared to the U.S. rate of 4.9. In the last 10 years, the number of asylum seekers has shown a 2,000 percent increase — from under 5,000 to 97,000. No matter what the migrants may be facing, they know what they are fleeing. 

What they are facing is a very complex border and Homeland Security infrastructure, which has been called a broken immigration justice system. They could be in holding cells for days until a recent ruling required release within 72 hours. They face being slow-walked through the asylum-seeking process that deals with only 30 to 100 cases a day, and months are required to log all requests.

When people make allegations about who may be orchestrating this huge movement (drug trade in the U.S., terrorists, or wealthy Democrats) Irineo Mujica, director of the human rights organization Pueblo Sin Fronteras, counters, “[N]o one has the power to organize this many people. No one can engineer an exodus.”

Contrary to claims by President Trump, law enforcement agencies on site have not been able to confirm that there are terrorists involved.

The framing metaphors for the Trump administration are invasion, assault, onslaught and attack. Their claim: The invading mob is composed of criminals, terrorists, gang members, drug traffickers, “grabbers” (who latch on to gain cover by the thousands of threatened poor) and other undesirables who pose a threat to our national security and our national identity.

Failed Central American countries are foisting their problems on us, so their aid should be cut.

Overlooked is the fact that past U.S. policies and business interests have helped cause the current problems. Honduras and her neighbors have been tagged as Banana Republics for a reason. Never mind that the U.S. market for drugs has fueled the traffic. This is war! The answer is to close the border and deport the invaders. 

Warfare requires a wall, troop mobilization, tear gas, razor wire, holding cells, detention centers, separation of families and even lethal force. The counter argument is that what is most needed is more lawyers, bureaucrats and humanitarian assistance to facilitate the process as national and international law require. The contention of human rights activists is that what is happening is not only illegal, it is cruel. 

The caravan migration is a complicated problem that poses huge challenges, and no one is claiming that open borders would be the answer. However, categorizing the caravan as reckless criminals or desperados in a war instead of desperate human beings in need of help is only making matters worse. We have a problem-framing problem.

Do our religious communities have any help to offer? Here in the Bible Belt, we might note that hospitality to strangers is essential to the Biblical ethic. Read about Abraham and Sarah.

And in this Christmas season, church members could take note of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt to survive soon after the birth of Jesus. One church in Massachusetts even had the audacity to include in its manger scene the Wise Men behind a wall and the Baby Jesus in a cage. I wonder what the response has been.

Eric Mount is the Nelson D. and Mary McDowell Rodes Professor Emeritus of Religion at Centre College.