When I first met Mario, my husband and I had been married for six months and were volunteering at the local detention center for unaccompanied minors. We knew very little about him other than he had been coerced to the US and forced to sell drugs. We were in no position to care for a traumatized teenager and yet we decided to take him in as our foster son. Almost four years later, we agree that saying "yes" was the best decision we have made as a married couple.
Choosing to engage Mario meant looking at Immigration through a different lens. It meant listening to his story without judgment. It meant accepting him into our family. It meant constantly praying for his safety, whether he is here in our country or has to return to his home country. Being apart of Mario's life has opened our minds and hearts to the reality of the migrant, specifically the unaccompanied minor migrant.
As the story of these unaccompanied minors has flooded the media over the last couple of weeks, my heart has grown even heavier for these children. Unfortunately, there is not much about Mario's story that is unique. He was an unaccompanied minor from Central America. He is one of thousands who make the dangerous journey through Mexico with the hope of a better life. One where you do not have to worry about being forced to join the gang or go to bed hungry night after night.
In my four years of befriending children in a local shelter for unaccompanied minors, there have been three primary reasons that drive these children to cross our borders.
Fleeing violence: Violence in these countries is unfathomable by many Americans. Children at young ages are recruited or forced into gang activity and can face death if they resist.
Orphaned in their home country: Children are left by one or both parents who have already migrated to the US and want to be reunited with their families.
Coercion or Trafficking: Children come with the false understanding that they will be given a job, a place to live, and be able to send money back to take care of their families.
These kids, many of them very uneducated, have no concept of our immigration policy.
They simply see an opportunity to escape their desperate realities and take it.
The current rhetoric I hear has been overwhelmingly focused on how the influx of these children, just over 47,000 as of the end of May according to US Customs and Border Protection, will affect us. How will we pay for all these kids? How will this impact our economy? How will we suffer because these kids are here?
As I have witnessed firsthand, our potential "suffering" because of these children being in our country is nothing compared to the suffering of the actual children in question. These are children who have found themselves in a place they do not know separated from their families. No matter what you believe to be the reason they are here, there are thousands of children who are desperate enough to come.
There are thousands of children who are so scared to die that they are willing to take the most dangerous journey of their lives for the chance of a better future.
I am not implying that the US government should assume responsibility for every single one of these children. I also do not think we should drop them off at the border like unwanted animals. Actually, I am completely at a loss as to what should be done. What I do know is that we have a choice to make as a country. We can chose to allow fear and self centeredness to drive the conversation, or we can chose to look at these children for exactly what they are: traumatized, scared, and vulnerable human beings.
In the past few weeks I have been asked repeatedly, "what can I do?" I think there are several ways we can respond very practically to this crisis. Collect and donate basic supplies for the children in detention including, socks, underwear, toothbrushes, soap, etc. Join me and my husband and become a foster parent. Many of these children will transition into foster homes while they wait out their immigration court cases. There is a huge need for loving families to welcome a child into their home. And finally, we need to pray. Pray for the children and pray for our elected leaders to figure out a compassionate solution to this humanitarian crisis.
Nothing has challenged and shaped my husband and I more than welcoming Mario into our home and family. We cried with him as we heard the depth of pain in his story. We celebrated with him as he completed his GED. We prayed with him when he was overwhelmed with worry for his family back in his home country. He was there when our first biological daughter was born and we have celebrated more holidays as a family with him than without him. We experienced the depth of brokenness within our immigration system and began to understand the factors that push children to leave their home countries in the first place. Mario gave us insight into suffering that we could not ignore.
I hope that our country can answer suffering with compassion. I hope we can find solutions to our broken immigration system that work for all of us, immigrant and non-immigrant alike. I hope we can remember that behind all the talk about policy and border security, there are faces with names.