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The disagreement at the heart of the migrant debate: is the crisis the journey, or at home?

Yesterday, I laid out some basic facts about asylum, for the purpose of explaining that "children should just apply for asylum in their home countries" isn't a suggestion that makes sense. But I wanted to say a little more about why the discussion matters. It actually reflects two different understandings about what the humanitarian crisis really is.

Everyone agrees that the journey Central American children and families are taking through Mexico to the US is dangerous and horrifying. That's why stories about mothers giving their girls birth control before they leave, in case they get raped on the journey, are being used by both sides: those who think children and families should be allowed to stay, and those who want to send them back to send a message to others.

And everyone agrees that it would be best if these children and families remained safe at home in their home countries. But what policymakers think the US ought to do now depends on how feasible they think that possibility is.

The real danger: what's on the journey, or what's at home?

Some policymakers believe that the heart of the crisis is that children and families are making the journey itself. If only children and families weren't agreeing to make the trek to the US, and were willing to stay in their home countries, they believe they would be better off.

So those policymakers believe that the most humane thing the federal government can do is to make it as clear as possible that coming to the US is a bad idea. That means making it as hard as possible to stay in the US, quickly deporting the children and families who are already here. It also means launching a PSA campaign in Central America to tell parents that they and their children won't be welcome in the US, and that the journey is too dangerous to chance it.

Other policymakers believe that the heart of the crisis is the danger that children and families face in their home countries. Put another way, the crisis is that children and families feel so unsafe at home that they are willing to take a life-threatening journey to the US in order to escape.

For these policymakers, the most humane thing the federal government can do is to avoid returning these families to the place they risked their lives to leave. That means being relatively generous in allowing them to seek relief in the US. It also means working with Central American governments to make it easier for them to keep their citizens safe. And it might mean working with other governments in the region to help them accept asylum-seekers.

How well do migrants understand their choices?

This divide is connected to other fundamental questions about the crisis, such as the question of what role US policy — or confusion about US policy — plays in encouraging people to come. It's also a question about how well children and families truly understand the danger of the journey. If you believe the journey is the crisis, you believe that children and families just don't know what they're signing up for. That's the point of the PSA campaign.

But most experts believe that migrants understand the choices they're making. It's not terribly likely that children and families are choosing to leave safe homes for a dangerous trip to the US. It's more likely that they're weighing the danger they'd face on the journey against the danger they'll face if they stay — and deciding the former is the option that gives them the best odds of survival.

That's why thinking that children and families should just apply for "asylum" — or even for refugee status — in their home countries isn't a workable solution. And even proposals to expand refugee processing in home countries, like the one that the White House is reportedly considering, will only solve part of the problem. Families who feel that their lives are so threatened that they need to get out of the country — even to take a journey that's life-threatening in its own right — aren't going to be helped.

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