How To Talk About Immigration & Family Separation, According To The Pros

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Americans of all political backgrounds are feeling outraged about the Trump administration's policy of separating families at the border — but they're also unsure of how to talk about it. Sensitive topics can make for difficult conversations, but if you need help on how to talk about immigration and family separation, experts have a few ideas for you.

First things first: There is some basic terminology to know before jumping into the conversation. Use the the label "undocumented," not "illegal," when talking about immigrants. People aren't objects or actions, so people cannot be illegal. Second, be sure to note that the family separation policy applies to all families who are crossing the border — both those who have crossed illegally and those who are crossing openly to request asylum, which is their legal right. Many aren't immigrants who are leaving their own country voluntarily; they are refugees. Or, they would be officially labeled "refugees" if they were able to obtain the protection status. Until then, they're called "asylum seekers."

If you've been following this issue, you've seen the photos, videos, and audio of children being ripped away from their parents at the border and put in cages. The truth of the situation makes any discussion about it difficult, but certain conversations are particularly hard to have. Bustle spoke to three experts who shared tips, all of which had a common theme: Ground these conversations in emotion.

In Every Case: Start With Emotions

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"Whenever you are trying to encourage a person to change their beliefs, the most important step is being able to connect the issue to the person’s emotions," Dr. Suzanne Degges-White, chair of Northern Illinois University's Department of Counseling, tells Bustle. "Unless you are able to get others to feel what you’re feeling, there’s little chance that they will change their minds."

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, an expert on emotional and social intelligence, agrees. "Don't start with facts or blaming," he tells Bustle. "First, figure out what drives the other person emotionally. What emotions cause them to have the position they do about family separation? Then, see what kind of policy goals drive them to hold their position. Next, evaluate whether their emotions may be clouding their long-term policy goals, and help them see that."

If You're Trying To Convince Someone To Oppose The Policy

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A Quinnipiac poll released Monday showed that the family separation policy is opposed by two-thirds of Americans, but a minority of Republicans. In fact, 55 percent of Republicans are in favor of Trump's policy. Chances are, then, that you could be speaking to someone who supports it.

Tom Jawetz, the vice president of immigration policy for the Center for American Progress, recommends turning the tables on the person with whom you're speaking and asking them questions — and again, these questions should be emotional appeals.

"Think about how you'd feel if your own child was separated from you and you didn't know when or whether you would ever be reunited," he recommends saying. "That's what thousands of families right now are experiencing when their kid is taken away."

"It's also important to pose to people the question of what they would do if they were in a situation where they knew that their life and the life of their child was in danger," he tells Bustle. "Because the reality is that many of these families that are coming here are fleeing countries where the killing of women and girls in particular is at record levels."

Jawetz also brought up the policy "fixes" suggested by GOP leaders and argued that they don't actually solve the problem. A bill introduced by Ted Cruz on Tuesday, for example, would create new shelters for families and children to be held together.

"The final thing to ask," Jawetz tells Bustle, "is basically: Given that there is nearly universal moral outrage to the idea of separating children from their parents and holding kids in cages at border patrol stations, is the solution to that really to lengthen the amount of time that children can be held in cages or to transfer them to another cage?"

If It Gets Personal

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Obviously, it's hardest to talk about this family separation policy if you're personally affected by it. When you're speaking with someone who isn't connected to the issue, "it's important to come from a place of wanting to educate them to expand their perceptions," Degges-White tells Bustle.

"We all have to recognize that everyone brings their own biases into every conversation," she says. The other person may say something insensitive, but remember that no opinion or belief of theirs makes your experience invalid.

If you don't have a personal connection to the issue, but you're talking to someone who does, Degges-White outlines two scenarios. If this person supports the Trump administration's policies, "inviting them to share their ideas and their experiences with the issue can help you begin to understand how the polarization of the topic has happened," she says. "If you want to change this person’s mind, you have to recognize their own pain or anger and find a bridge to the pain that is being felt by innocent people as a result of the current actions underway."

If you're talking with someone who is against separating families, Degges-White says that you should "invite them to share their story and offer empathy and support." She explains that people need a place to "vent and express their emotions about events that are happening outside of themselves over which they have little control."

"We all want to have our stories heard and validated by others," she tells Bustle. "Do what you can in the time that you have to provide this."

And Just Remember

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Conversations like these can feel insurmountably difficult, but they can still be productive. As Jawetz notes, most people are predisposed to be empathetic on this topic. "This issue has cut through in a way that no other issue on immigration has connected with the American public in the last 18 months," he tells Bustle. "People understand at a very basic human level that taking children from their parents in wrong."

Learn some of the many ways you can help immigrant families who have been separated at the border here, and for a broader list of organizations to donate to, check out this list.