Conscious Communication: Why Did Jakelin Caal Maquin Die?

Jakelin and her father were among a group of Guatemalans who turned themselves in at the Antelope Wells Port of Entry in New Mexico, intending to request political asylum in the United States. (Photo by wbaron)

Conscious Communication is a new, semi-regular column that focuses on how to communicate effectively and the importance of honing communication skills. It challenges humanists to be conscious of how they address and interact with others. Ideally each of these posts will motivate humanists to work on specific aspects of communication, as well as improve their listening skills.

The tragic December 8th death of seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin, who had journeyed with her father from Guatemala and had been in US custody for two days, has moved many immigration activists and communities to grief and fury. Her death has started a massive call for more investigations into the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency as well as increased oversight of the agency.

Jakelin’s death was initially attributed to dehydration, but reports since have suspected she died of septic shock. Many suspect that CBP officers didn’t do enough to prevent her death; according to the LA Times, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics thinks her death was “without doubt preventable.” Others, including immigration hardliners, defend the agency for doing all it could for someone who crossed into the country illegally. The challenge here isn’t to determine who’s correct in this difference of opinion, but rather how to communicate effectively with people who are grieving and who are enraged.

Grief and fury are immensely powerful emotions. They move people to action and can motivate truly fiery statements. When people are engaging communities, especially if they themselves aren’t from those grieving or enraged communities, they need to be cognizant of the emotional realities of those who are. Many of the voices who’ve been calling for more calm from activists in response to Jakelin’s death fail to explicitly recognize the pain those activists are feeling. This hinders effective communication, even though the people calling for more nuance in responses to this news are doing so in good faith and want to be understood and engaged on this topic.

Ignoring the emotional realities of grieving and enraged responders can become a form of tone-policing, an often unintentional response to an argument or statement that refuses to address the substance of the response and instead focuses on the presentation of the argument or statement. Often with tone-policing there’s an assumption that because a statement or argument is communicated in an angry or mournful way, it can’t be a rational response; those who’ve made the statements or arguments need to “calm down” to be capable of having a reasonable and productive conversation or debate. However, thinking consciously about communication, we must acknowledge that anger and grief are appropriate and rational responses to tragedy—and the death of a child is without a doubt a tragedy. Statements or arguments that come from places of anger and fury are valid, and can absolutely be rational.

If we want to have productive conversations about injustices when we disagree with each other about how to correct those injustices, here are a few things that can help:

1: Accept that you might have to wait and let a community mourn. This is the best choice for people who are unsure of their ability to communicate effectively with those who are moved by and are speaking from a place of anger. It’s okay to be unsure of your ability to handle speaking and engaging with people who might lash out. That’s a fair and valid concern for anyone, especially people with less experience in engaging with folks holding an oppositional viewpoint. Some people recognize that when tragedy strikes a community, the best response should be to wait and let that community react before trying to introduce productive solutions and responses.

2: Don’t try to debate people. Rather, prioritize sharing opinions and learning from each other. Framing a conversation as adversarial and trying to convince someone of your viewpoint misses the opportunity to learn about how a real person is reacting to a tragedy in a place of mutual respect and good faith.

3: Create or at least support real opportunities for the affected community to speak their truth, share their feelings, and be recognized by people in power as valid and authentic. This could come in the form of vigils, protests, and the creation of content such as articles, videos, or art.

4: Be aware that people can disagree productively, respectfully, and positively. Be even more aware that disagreements don’t mean one person/perspective or the other is more valid or correct. If someone pretends they have a monopoly on correctness they could miss real and constructive points by the people with whom they disagree.

Having conversations, learning from others, and engaging with people in efforts to find actionable responses to injustices and tragedies matters a lot, so ultimately it’s necessary to engage with victims and work to make sure similar tragedies don’t repeat. Part of that involves having bold, productive conversations with people who are mourning and people who are enraged.

Jakelin’s death is a tragedy that has caused unimaginable pain to her family and grave concern from and among the immigrant community nationwide. And it has prompted a range of conversations discussing accountability and justice. As new developments emerge, we have to ask ourselves what we want from this. It’s easy to say we want justice in whatever way possible, but how is that achieved? Do we join calls for a formal and full investigation? Do we want to hold someone accountable? Are we calling our members of Congress and writing letters to the editor?

Another valuable question is: How we do actively improve the conversations we’re having with people who disagree with us? How do we convince people who are unaware of the protections and rights immigrants, including undocumented ones, have according to our constitution? Of the importance of holding government agents maximally accountable? Arguments that appeal to our shared humanity and rely on the value of life would seem best.

Communicating effectively and persuasively is difficult but it can be done so long as we are conscious of how we communicate and we are willing to learn from the conversations we have with both those we agree with and those we disagree with. Let’s learn together and move forward with justice and hope in mind whenever possible.