Children waiting in the Desarrollo Integral de la Familia in Reynosa, Mexico.
Eugenio del Bosque

Your Brain on the Border

The science of the brain can shed some light on the rhetoric surrounding the border surge and the Texas Legislature's policy decisions.


A version of this story ran in the March 2015 issue.

Above: Children waiting in the Desarrollo Integral de la Familia in Reynosa, Mexico.

For insights into the thinking behind the Texas Legislature’s proposed border policy—which amounts to more boots, guns and money—we look to the science of the brain. Mind you, left-brain/right-brain dominance won’t explain the record $815 million in proposed border security funding at a time of historically low insert-your-descriptor border crossers. Higher thinking dims when state lawmakers approve $85 million for an ongoing border “surge” despite the lack of clear goals and the fact that border security remains the province of the federal government.

The surge, mainly a deployment of state troopers and the National Guard, was meant to address perceived vulnerabilities created by a distracted Border Patrol coping with the tens of thousands of Central American children arriving in the Rio Grande Valley last summer. The children’s presence triggered an aggressive, deport-them-now stance, along with calls for more boots on the ground. Quickly, the children came to symbolize the “porous border” and provided ammo for pols to justify the unfolding chapter in the Texas border battles.

But the children also provoked humanitarian responses from the mayor of McAllen and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who told Mother Jones magazine, “In Texas, we don’t turn our back on children.” Clergy and regular folks in Houston, San Antonio and across the border established shelters, attorneys and psychologists volunteered their services, and countless people donated food and clothing.

Science suggests these starkly different responses likely emanated from the same brain functions. According to the academic article “Violence and compassion: a bioethical insight into their cognitive bases and social manifestations,” researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico found that “the activation of similar neuro-cognitive regulatory systems” produces compassion and violence. A key factor, they concluded, is “the sociocultural settings in which individuals live.” In Texas, the children became swept up in a cultural context that likens the border to a war zone.

“A civilization has to create an enemy to be violent and the migrant is the enemy in many places,” one of the authors told me.

Across the state, virulent rhetoric relied on the argument that the children had “breached” the border. The perceived threat obliterated the fact that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found that 58 percent of child migrants sampled “were forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection.” The refugee and immigrant rights center RAICES screened 925 children and found that 63 percent likely were eligible to be granted relief by an immigration judge. Indeed, most later passed this initial hurdle.

“A civilization has to create an enemy to be violent, and the migrant is the enemy in many places.”

Although the children likely were victims in need of help, within the threat paradigm they were described as a staggering burden on state resources or, at least, an unwelcome addition to the state’s undocumented population. But consider this: While 8,085 kids stayed on with family or a sponsor in Texas, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, most went off to Florida, New York or California. The majority of those who stayed in Texas reunited with family in Houston and Dallas.

“When you’re not directly in contact with the person who is suffering, you don’t have a form to understand their suffering. You only have the rhetoric,” said Mercadillo.
Cultural context, however, abides by no political affiliation. Gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis responded to the “crisis” by calling for speedy deportation hearings and support for the surge.

Compassion does not mean flinging open the border, but remembering we are a nation of laws with rules for processing refugee claims. Compassion arouses concern that state health inspectors have not returned to assess the Border Patrol stations where children were housed in deplorable conditions. Compassion demands accountability for alleged sexual and other abuse suffered by the children. And critical thinking should question the wisdom behind a cartel-fighting strategy that emphasizes highway stops over dismantling networks.

Such details scarcely matter. Lawmakers claim success when drug seizures decrease, saying it represents effective deterrence, and when seizures increase, applauding it as successful interdiction. Either way, Texas border policy succeeds immeasurably by shaping the cultural context that informs the very minds and actions of Texans.