Quick Survey of Detainees Is Needed for Policy Purposes

By David North on June 27, 2018

We need a quick, policy-oriented survey of the Central American detainees now the guests of Uncle Sam.

In order to reduce future waves of illegal immigration, we need to know more about the demographics, the skill levels, and the thinking processes of those now in detention. We should also seek data on how they might be diverted to other nations.

The (unstated) assumptions of the study would be that most of the detainees will not stay in the United States, that the experiences and motivations of those interviewed are pretty much like those of the rest of the detainee population, and that no names would be shared with U.S. authorities. A random sample of the camp populations, maybe 500 to 1000, would be interviewed.

The work probably should be done by a research contractor, not by government staff, and certainly not by the rent-a-prison companies.

As one who has designed and managed such studies, of various groups of aliens, legal and illegal, over 40 years, let me make some suggestions both as to its content and regarding the nitty-gritty of conducting such a study.

We need three groups of data:

  1. Demographics: What are their genders, family size, ages, places of residence, education and skill levels, income, language(s) spoken, and other basics?
  2. Motivation: Why did they leave home, what routes did they take, and what obstacles did they encounter? Interviewers would have detailed maps of the nations of origin, of Mexico, and of the U.S. southern border;
  3. Alternatives: Do they have ties to any other nation, in the hopes that some could be resettled there (perhaps with that process being partially funded by the United States)? Why did they not head to Costa Rica or Panama, or settle in Mexico?

The inclusion of the languages-spoken question might raise eyebrows.

Don't they all speak Spanish, and little else? I included the question because there are large numbers of non-Spanish-speaking indigenous populations in the Northern Triangle, and it would be good to know to what extent they are participating in the trip north. These populations, if they are on the move, are further disadvantaged because of their inability to speak the dominant language in their home countries.

For more on the speakers of K'iche and other similar tongues, see this earlier blog on their presence in the Dilley, Texas, holding center.

Conducting the Survey. The general notion is that a survey instrument, carefully written in Central American Spanish, be used in a series of random sample interviews in the camps. The entire structure of the interviews would be designed to put the detainees at ease and to lure them, as far as possible, into telling the whole truth about their backgrounds, their motivations, and their preferences.

The first time I managed such a survey — it was of illegal aliens at the U.S.-Mexico border — I made a serious error: I hired a Hispanic academic who had grown up in Northern New Mexico to translate the instrument.

When I showed it to the interviewers, all borderland residents and native Spanish speakers, at a meeting in El Paso, they told me that the Spanish was all wrong. It was the somewhat archaic language of northern New Mexico, and not the Spanish spoken by our subjects, mostly from the rural southern part of Mexico. The interviewers spent a long evening creating a more appropriate survey instrument, which still asked for all the information I wanted.

The proposed interviews of the Central American detainees would not include recording any names and would be conducted only by nonthreatening people, operating in a nonthreatening atmosphere. For example, I would suggest the hiring of Central American-born, legal residents of the United States, who speak the right kind of Spanish, and who are dressed pretty much like the migrants. While the interviewer might be an elite Honduran working on her PhD, she would not look or sound like such a person and would be casually dressed.

To set the detainees at relative ease, they would be asked to suggest a quiet place in the camp for an interview (thus eliminating the possibility that the subjects might think that the session was being recorded). The interviewers would go out of their way not to learn even the first names of the adults in the study. (Camp staff would be told how to select people for the interviews in keeping with a random sampling design.)

And, as usual in such settings, the questions that might be the most upsetting to the detainees would be held till the end of the interview. I would also suggest that a payment of $50 or so, in cash, be made to the subjects when the process is concluding. That would further ease the whole process.

This is the second of a series of postings on the government and the detainees.

Read the first part, "Let's Change the Border Debate, for Both Humanitarian and Policy Reasons", here.