EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Americans aren’t the only ones divided over irregular migration, new research suggests.

People in the Northern Triangle of Central America also have mixed feelings not only about third-country migrants passing through their communities, but also about their own countrymen forced to return from the United States.

Understanding what prompts communities with the same basic core values to reach different conclusions and what drives the narrative might be a useful tool for governments like the U.S. to fine-tune their immigration policies, a group of researchers said on Wednesday.

Such governments should consider fine-tuning their messages as well, for would-be migrants are more likely to take at their word people they know than a local or even a top U.S. government official.

“You can tell people the border is sealed all you want, but if they receive a message on WhatsApp that someone got through, it can discredit the message,” said Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan. She is one of the authors of the new “Migration Narratives in Northern Central America” report cosponsored by Rand Corporation, Metropolitan Group, Migration Policy Institute and the National Immigration Forum.

Smugglers long have used this familiarity and immediacy to persuade people to trust them in their journey north.

The trust issue means governments would be well-advised to include grassroots communities in their planning of migration management policies and social development investments, the researchers said in a Zoom call about their report on Wednesday. One of the cornerstones of the Biden-Harris administration’s migration management plan, for instance, includes encouraging investment in Central America.

“To build trust in Central America where trust has long been an issue, programs that can be designed with community input have the highest probability of being successful. A top-down approach that will invest millions of dollars don’t often lead to what local communities will find more impactful,” said Ariel Ruiz Soto, policy analyst at MPI and lead author of the report.

Panelists discuss the dynamics that shape the narrative of migration in the Northern Triangle of Central America during a Zoom call Wednesday. (Border Report)

Some of the key findings of the research on migration suggest:

  • There is a disconnect between how governments view migration and how the migrants themselves do.
  • Moral tenants such as personal pride, dignity, loyalties and self-sacrifice are invoked by people who justify staying in their beleaguered communities just as much as by those who decide to migrate, including to the United States.
  • Government narratives selling legal pathways for migration aren’t viable for most would-be migrants. “The number of visas available remains vanishingly small compared to the demand for jobs abroad …”
  • Fear of migrants, prejudice and perception of a threat are not exclusive to one country. Returnees to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have triggered some of the same threat narratives around security, public health, and even culture that in other contexts are typically associated with foreigners and other groups.

“With large-scale movement (of people) there is a legitimate amount of anxiety that would be considered normal. It’s important not to paint all anxiety over migration with the brush of xenophobia,” Banulescu-Bogdan said. “We found a lot of the fear narratives applied to (citizens of) other countries as a threat or a drain on resources are also being applied to returnees. That’s eye-opening.”

Ruiz added that the passing-through of Venezuelans has elicited mixed reactions in Central American countries used to people leaving, not necessarily coming in. “It is normal in many of these cases for people (in Central America) to initially be put into difficult positions. But as more of this becomes normal, this perception of xenophobia is likely to change,” he said.

The researchers are urging policymakers to be aware of how different stakeholders perceive the migration narrative, that policies may not succeed if communities are misunderstood and that how migration is framed can influence outcomes.

“Political pressure to curb irregular migration — especially during election campaigns — may fail to take into account the life-changing role migration can play as a unique source of stable livelihoods in areas rife with political, economic, social, and environmental uncertainty,” the researchers said. But, “political rhetoric around harnessing the benefits of migration may not cohere with the difficulties migrants face” when their American dream ends and they are forced to return home.