Public Opinion Monthly (August 2014)
Unaccompanied Children at the U.S.-Mexico Border: Public Opinion and Messaging Recommendations
Numerous reports and several children have reported increasing violence in their home countries and a lack of protection against it which spurred them to flee. Upon arrival, some children reunite with family members they have not seen in many years, but their migration is often motivated by violence and other factors, in addition to family separation.
Most Americans think that the U.S. should provide refugee to such children. In a recent survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, researchers found that a majority of Americans (70%) believe that the United States should offer shelter and support while beginning a process to determine whether the children should be deported or allowed to stay in the U.S. In contrast, only 26% believe that the children should be deported immediately back to their home countries.i
The study also reveals (Fig. 1) that there are large demographic differences in support for the two competing policy responses, where age appears to be the most predictive. 18-29 years olds are the most likely group (82%) to support aiding the children while beginning a process to determine whether they should be deported or allowed to stay. In contrast, those 65 years of age and older are the least likely group (50%) to support aid and most likely group to support immediate deportation (45%).
The same study also shows (Fig. 2) that most Americans (69%) believe that children arriving from Central America should be treated as refugees and allowed to stay in the U.S. if authorities determine that it is not safe for them to return to their home countries. Although majorities across party lines want these children treated as refugees, Democrats (83%) are significantly more supportive than Independents (66%) and Republicans (52%).
Additionally, the study identified partisan differences in opinions about the cause of the increase in migration over the past few years. A majority (56%) of Americans believe that Central American families are mostly trying to keep their kids safe in difficult circumstances, and a majority of Democrats (69%) and Independents (54%) also support this explanation. In contrast, a majority of Republicans (52%) believe that families are arriving in the U.S. primarily seeking a back door to immigrate to the U.S.
In general, a majority of Americans (71%) believe that we should offer refuge and protection to those who come to the U.S. fleeing harm in their home countries, but appear to be torn about whether or not the children are, in fact, fleeing harm. While 45 percent of the population believes that these children are refugees from violence and threats to their safety, 34 percent believe that the children are coming to the U.S. seeking better economic and educational opportunities. This divide in public opinion, according to recent focus groups, may be related to little of the actual conditions in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.ii Following from that, the focus groups showed that if some populations do not fully comprehend the degree of life-threatening violence that endangers these children, they are less likely to accept and support the need for policies that offer aid.
Improving the American public’s confidence that the situation is manageable will increase support for policies that assist these children. Focus group studies found that voters have naturally increased their belief that people are “flooding” over the border and that the situation is growing increasingly chaotic in response to current media coverage.iii In reality, the number of unaccompanied children arriving at the border represents only one tenth of one percent of all refugees worldwide.
Advocates calling for a humanitarian approach to the issue need to emphasize, according to the research, that there are solutions and a system in place to deal with the children immediately as well as over the long term. In the short term, placing the children with hosts in the U.S. is popular with the American public. Seven-out-of-ten Americans agree that while the children are awaiting their immigration hearings, they should be released into the care of relatives, host families, or churches, rather than be detained by immigration authorities. However, a majority of the public (59%) is concerned that if we allow the unaccompanied children to stay in the country it will encourage others to ignore our laws and increase illegal immigration. It is important for advocates to reiterate the fact that there are rules and an orderly process in place that gives every child a fair chance to tell his or her story while they are looked after by family and other sponsors ready to welcome them.