We live in a world dominated by images and soundbites. A picture of a quick video clip can ricochet around the world and harden perceptions before context even has a chance to announce itself. In this world, the first image you see is often the one that most informs how you feel about something.

America is going through a bout of images and complicated issues devolving into barely-understood and half-baked passions. In the last several weeks, an immigration issue has pushed itself, with pleading insistence, to the forefront of our debate. Hundreds and thousands of children have escaped terrible violence from Central America, enduring a horrifying journey across unforgiving lands and the human refuse that prey off misery, to try to find shelter at the U.S. border. The pictures have elicited a cruel response, as many see this as a grim invading horde trying to break into America. They have responded with anger, bigotry, and threats of violence.

The flip side of that is the image it presents of America, trying to figure out how to solve a “problem,” with seemingly scant concern for the human costs, while the worst, full of passionate intensity, paint the picture of a nation consisting of racist violence-junkies. For people considering studying in America, this could be an image that dissuades them. This is a problem for international recruiters, for the students themselves, and for the country. Figuring out the root, and how to make sure this doesn’t forever alter attitudes toward the United States, it a huge challenge for international recruiters.

US/Mexico border is focus of immigration debate

The U.S./Mexico border, where the policies are currently as shaky as the fence, leads many to have negative attitudes toward the United States.
Image source: Flickr user Brooke Binkowski

The debate over immigration

To get one thing out of the way, no one is really in favor of illegal immigration. Although it isn’t as much a drain on the economy as people make it out to be, it is still illegal and subverts the rule of law. That said, no one floats across the Rio Grande into a swimming pool of easy money on the taxpayer dime. Crossing the border is difficult and dangerous, and life as an undocumented immigrant is full of challenges and fears. No one does it due to laziness. It’s an obscene myth.

This is doubly true for people who come, like the children at the border, from Central America, places like Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. They have to cross many borders, rely on various coyotes- the men who “help” migrants cross. Such a profession rarely attracts the moral, though there are many who try to help. These are dangerous men who will sell you out if the heat or the price gets too high. It is especially dangerous for vulnerable children.

The reason there are so many children here is the result of a well-meaning law signed by the Bush Administration late in 2008, when it was on its way out the door, helping victims of sex trafficking to gain asylum. Basically, the gist of it was that children wouldn’t be immediately deported, but would get a hearing to determine if they are in need of asylum. Given the apocalyptic violence in their home countries, few fair observers would argue that they don’t. Just as few could argue this was how the law was intended to work, or that America has an absolute moral responsibility to help all endangered children (or, if it does, the practical abilities to do so).

The humanitarian crisis has been subsumed by the maddening grind of daily politics. It has produced many bad ideas designed to make people sound tough (people who haven’t wondered about their next meal or daily safety for many years, if ever). It has also unleashed a wave of potential vigilante violence, unshaven thugs with guns vowing to unlawfully protect our border from a menacing horde of hungry children. In short, it makes America look very bad.

How it affects your school

In light of this horrible humanitarian crisis, with absolutely no good outcomes or fully-positive solutions, it might seem trite or tactless to think about your recruiting. But helping people of different cultures mingle, and helping people to understand that people everywhere are just that- people, with hopes and dreams and fears- is one of the main features of international education. So dealing with the perception image now is important, and could help, in a small way, to defuse future situations by building empathy.

(For some reason “empathy” is seen as weak and conciliatory, but it really just means the ability to see something from someone else’s point of view, and not even in a Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” way. It’s just basic human understanding.)

If recruits ask about this, there are a few possible responses.

  • It is unfortunate, but every country has its spasms of jingoistic nonsense. This doesn’t make America’s even better- and, considering founding principles, it might make it worse- but this shouldn’t be seen as an American problem alone, and thus, shouldn’t disqualify American schools.
  • The truly hateful are a deep minority, even among those who are essentially “anti-immigration.” Most people recognize that, regardless of whether or not we should grant asylum, the children are the victims here. Most people are good-hearted enough to recognize that. It’s just the loudest and most pridefully hateful that receive air time.
  • There has always been a subset of people who are xenophobic, but America has always welcomed immigrants despite their noisome ignorance.
  • They’ll help teach the next generation that mindless prejudice is a terrible thing. Most people have good hearts and no issues with immigrants or students studying abroad. Your presence will help increase that number.

At the end of the day, there are no good answers. Your best pitch is to remind potential students that they will be fine, that the overwhelming majority will accept them as easy as breathing, and like every other country, America contains multitudes and contradictions. Being on the right side of those contradictions is a good thing.



The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.