By Jasmina Nuhanovic and Sonianne Lozada
We recently had the opportunity to take our classroom knowledge to the national stage.
We are both graduate students in the M.A. in Public Policy and Administration program, and have been working for months with our professor, Lauren Heidbrink, Ph.D., on the issue of unaccompanied minors crossing borders into the U.S.
In February, we traveled with Dr. Heidbrink to Washington, D.C. to inform members of Congress and their staffs on her research with young migrants in Central America and her assessments of U.S. foreign policies on development and migration in the region.
We had the opportunity to address some of the misconceptions about unaccompanied minors and their motivations for leaving their home nations, as well as addressing assumptions about the efficiency of current policies.
The issue has been in the news since 2014, when the numbers of unaccompanied children coming to the U.S. started to swell rapidly.
As graduate students in the MAPPA program at NLU, we’ve learned the importance of using research and data to challenge popular misconceptions and provide the basis for creating informed policy.
We have also learned the power of public discourse in shaping responses by policymakers, and how the policy they create leads to programs addressed at solving the problems.
We met with congressional staff members from both sides of the aisle, from liberal (Congressman Mike Quigley of Illinois) to conservative (Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas), as well as groups that advocate for unaccompanied minors such as KIND (Kids In Need of Defense) , which spearheads a pilot project working to safely repatriate children from the U.S. to Guatemala.
Some of the most common misconceptions about unaccompanied minors are what factors motivate them to make the arduous journey to the United States, and what happens to them when they arrive. It is not, for example, a part of the common perception that violence is a major motivating factor for some (but not all) young people from countries like Honduras and El Salvador. But it is a reality.
Consider, for example, the fact that San Pedro Sula in Honduras has been designated by the United Nations as the world’s murder capital. There is also a perception that policies like rapid repatriation are the most effective way to deal with the legal ramifications of unaccompanied minors arriving on U.S. soil. However, this is disproved by the fact that 60% of young people processed in this way will make at least one further attempt to migrate.
This experience was invaluable for us as students. We prepared for and led meetings with members of Congress. This enabled us to witness firsthand the role of advocacy and making policy recommendations.
It reinforced for us the importance of research and reliable data in policymaking. It also provided a clearer understanding of what policymaking looks like in the real world, and how we as future policy analysts will craft innovative responses.
This opportunity broadened our understanding of the issue of migration, while at the same time making it very clear that there is much work left to do.