Child refugee crisis: battle for America’s soul

Since 2011, the number of “unaccompanied” children, mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has been skyrocketing. Already since October 2013, 52,000 have arrived, and the total may reach 90,000 by December 2014.

Republicans and the right claim that this surge in child migration is caused by the Obama administration’s “lax” immigration enforcement policies, like the DACA program – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – started in 2012. This program suspends deportation and grants work permits to undocumented people who arrived with their families when they were children, who came before 2007 and who have not reached 31 years of age. Otherwise, the Obama administration’s immigration policies have not been “lax” at all, with record numbers of deportations. Furthermore, children are also seeking refuge in other countries in the region including Nicaragua and Belize, which are very poor.

The right is using the child migrant crisis to re-ignite anti-immigrant fervor, and to embarrass the Obama administration. It has fomented “nimby” (“not in my back yard”) demonstrations in Murrieta, California, and other places, creating a shameful spectacle of organized bands of right wing hate mongers attacking children. The administration has responded in part by calling for authority and funding to speed up the processing and deportation of these child migrants. This would be intolerable, and frankly, un-American.

While the situation is complicated and has many moving parts, throwing these children back into life-threatening circumstances is outrageous and wrong. What happened to the “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” ethos? Has the richest country in the world become so selfish, so arrogant, so ugly as to throw away children?

We cannot allow this to happen – or to let history repeat itself. We recall that in 1939 the Roosevelt administration caved to anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiment and turned back a ship of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. These children are refugees too.

Recent studies by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and by independent researcher Elizabeth Kennedy illustrate the real roots of the crisis.

Both studies interviewed migrant children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala; the UNHCR study sample also included Mexican children. Only a few of the children mentioned the belief that they would get a legal permit to stay in the United States as a reason for migrating. Many more mentioned fears of violence in their home countries, from gangs, drug cartels, and in some cases corrupt and brutal police and military. Girls in particular expressed fear of sexual violence. Grinding poverty was also a major motivating factor. A large number stated that they were trying to reach parents living in the United States. Mexican teenagers also stressed recruitment pressure from human smuggling gangs.

This is a refugee and humanitarian crisis, not primarily a law enforcement crisis. As such, it falls within the purview of both U.S. and international law, which has to be adhered to. But most important is the principle that children must be protected and that this must be the primary consideration guiding U.S. policy. These considerations have caused immigrants’ and civil rights organizations and some members of Congress, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, to balk at the idea of responding to the crisis by speeding up mass deportations of children, or changing 2008 legislation that requires special treatment for child migrants.

In our opinion, the principles the government should follow in dealing with the child refugee situation are the following:

*The children should be immediately protected under law and provided with adequate housing, food, health care and psychological counselling by qualified pediatric psychologists or social workers. A country that spends billions on wars can provide these resources if it tries.

*Hearings to determine eligibility for relief should take place over a sufficient time and should be carried out by people with child trauma expertise, and the proper language skills (including not only Spanish but indigenous language capacity; 48 percent of the Guatemalan child refugees come from indigenous communities according to UNHCR). Each child should have a guardian appointed. The UNHCR and the Kennedy study both conclude that a majority of the children they interviewed would probably have a cause for relief under international law.

*Children should not be returned to their countries of origin unless it can be shown that they are not being sent into a situation of mortal danger.

*Where parents or guardians of the children are living in the U.S., the children should be transferred to their custody, even if it means protecting the parents from immigration enforcement actions.

*The Obama administration should not be deterred by this development from implementing the idea of providing administrative relief for undocumented immigrants, since House Republicans have blocked legislative reform. Polls have continued to show that the American people reject harsh treatment of immigrants.

*The nations of Central America should be helped, not by sending them more guns or bullets or “training” for their corrupt police and military, but by implementing trade and aid policies that help their poor workers and farmers and not Monsanto and other agribusiness transnationals.

How we treat these children is a battle for the very soul of our country. We know which side we are on and hope you do too.

Photo: Child detainees play as others sleep in a holding cell. Eric Gay/AP