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Jose Antonio Tijerino Headshot

The Lamp Beside the Golden Door: Protecting Refugee Children at our Borders

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Nelson Mandela once said, "We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear."

That phrase from the Noble Prize-winning global beacon should be our only mandate as we address the incendiary situation along the border as desperate droves of children fleeing violence in Central America for the refuge of the United States are met with an often impenetrable fence of antipathy. 

Conversely, America has had a recent history of empathy for refugees fleeing. But that was then...

This isn't 1980 when the Refugee Act signed by President Jimmy Carter welcomed more than 3 million mostly Central Americans to be provided with protection and the opportunity to establish a life in America after escaping violence in their home countries. 

And this isn't 1997 when the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA) led by Republican Congressman Lincoln Diaz Balart under Speaker Newt Gingrich provided amnesty to 150,000 Nicaraguans, 5,000 Cubans, 200,000 El Salvadorans, and 50,000 Guatemalans.

This isn't even 2008 when, at the end of the Bush administration, led by President Bush, Congress easily passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Action Act, which at this point is the only straw to which the current surge of young refugees are grasping.

No, this is 2014 when armed militia head to the border to "protect" our country from toddlers in diapers and tattered Dora T-shirts.  This is 2014 when hundreds of angry protesters in Murietta, California, chant "USA, USA, USA" and "go home" while blocking a busload of hungry, tired, lonely children from a long journey trying to make it to a holding center in search of a concrete floor to serve as a bed, and hopefully a bit of empathy as a pillow.  (They never made it to the center and the protesters celebrated as the bus turned around with no destination in sight.)

This is 2014 when a bipartisan effort is being forged to change the 2008 Bush-led law to expedite the removal of the refugee children.  It's also an era when a 2016 Democratic presidential front-runner flatly responded "send them back" when asked about the crisis during a recent CNN interview.  And a time when Texas Governor Rick Perry is calling for 1,000 National Guard to protect the borders.  Can't we protect the borders AND protect the refugee children? 

And make no mistake about it, they are refugees AND they are children. 

Yet they are being depicted as aliens invading America in a way that would have scared Orson Welles back in the day.  For instance, take note of Congressman Louie Gohmert's (R-TX) rant against this science-fiction-like form of child alien everyone is trying to protect us from when he said:

World English dictionary defines 'invasion' ... it's any encroachment or intrusion ... or advent of something harmful ... In the Constitution, it says that Congress has the authority to call for the military during times of invasion.

So, I guess that explains Rick Perry calling on the National Guard to keep these child "invaders" from destroying America. 

These are refugee children.  

Yes, the numbers are startling, more than 57,000 refugees since October and 90,000 by the end of the year.  But they aren't coming to America to hang out at the mall or to try to get famous on a reality show like other kids.  They are simply trying to survive.  And as a parent of young children, I can't fathom the choice their parents had to and continue to make -- either a dangerous journey through Mexico led by often nefarious guides or "coyotes" where if they make it to the border they are met with vitriol, uncertainty and a continued arduous journey... or the barbarity which has infected their home countries like a deadly virus piling up an unthinkable body count.  What would you choose if you were trying to keep your child alive amidst the crushing brutality of everyday life in these Central American countries?

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It is not a coincidence that of the most dangerous regions on earth, all 20 are in Latin America, with San Pedro Sula in Honduras leading the way as the murder capital of the world.  Please note that violence, not poverty, is the driving force.  Take a look at my birthplace Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere next to Haiti which borders Honduras and is in Central America near El Salvador and Guatemala -- the amount of unaccompanied minors from Nicaragua is negligible and not coincidentally so is their gang presence and murder rate.  Statistics show that the lower the violence and murder rates in Central America the lower the amount of children escaping.  This is supported by a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report that was obtained by the Pew Research Center and spelled out in an article titled "DHS: Violence, poverty, is driving children to flee Central America to U.S." by Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, Jens Manuel Krogstad and Mark Hugo Lopez.

Again, the question we all need to ask ourselves is: what would you do if you were in Honduras and not blessed to be born in the United States, the greatest country in the world? Don't we have a responsibility in our position of privilege?  How did we get to this state of callousness in 2014 when we would turn away children in a life-threatening predicament?

It's clear what is motivating the protesters -- fear, animus and misguided self-preservation. These are powerful incentives for action indeed. But what about the supporters of the refugee children? We are driven by much more powerful emotions -- empathy, responsibility for those in need, and inclusiveness. Why then aren't we matching or surpassing the protesters' intensity? We can't afford to be benign advocates. Whether it's donating, volunteering, or raising the visibility of the plight of these children as a refugee issue, not an immigrant issue, we need to act and overwhelm the protesters' rancor with grace. (Ideas for those who want to help.)

I am going to a shelter in McAllen, Texas, with other supporters to read, play and pray with the children through an effort called READ (Refugee Enhancement And Development) Project which will be executed year-round through volunteers on the ground. As I was developing the effort, I was awash in the spirit of compassion from friends and strangers across the country who were frustrated and concerned and not sure how to get involved to support the refugee children. It's important that people that care have an outlet for their benevolence. The spirit of compassion needs to be nourished.

We also have a moral responsibility. Luke 12:48 in the Bible states, "To whom much is given much will be required."  And as Americans we should not lose sight of the inspiring words at the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty which says, "Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore/Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

The tens of thousands of young refugees are looking for that welcoming lamp lighting the golden door but it has been dimmed by an insular sentiment which has surged in America at the rate of growth of the immigrant population.  The light has dimmed, but it's not out.  And I'm confident it will go from a flicker to a glorious flame! We have an opportunity to be great during this crisis. An American type of great.