Children are "fleeing for their lives," according to journalist Sonia Navario, who has investigated the root causes, circumstances, and plight of vulnerable migrants who have been traveling -- often by themselves at enormous risk -- to the United States and other countries throughout the Americas from the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
In the case of Cristian, an 11 year-old boy from Honduras that Navario interviewed in Honduras, his father was murdered in March by gangs, he witnessed the murder of three people who defied the narco-cartels that control much of the countryside, and a girl his age "resisted being robbed of $5. She was clubbed over the head and dragged off by two men who cut a hole in her throat, stuffed her panties in it, and left her body in a ravine across the street from Cristian's house."
In the case of Andrea, she was 13 years old when she was raped and forced into prostitution by the drug cartels in Honduras. Two years later, she managed to escape and fled to the United States for the United States two years and is now seeking humanitarian relief.
Cristian and Andrea are just two of the thousands of children in Central America who are fleeing their Central American homes and neighborhoods from such extreme violence. In fact, Honduras' homicide rate of 90.4 per 100,000 is the highest in the world - by a wide margin. The prevalence of drug cartels and gang violence and penetration in the country puts its murder rate at almost double the next most dangerous countries in the world, which include Guatemala and El Salvador.
In response, some of our political leaders have said they simply cannot imagine sending their children on an extremely dangerous journey to the United States and question the choices these families and children are making to come here.
But, that is precisely the point. Politicians cannot imagine it because these children are fleeing violence, rape, and fear that are unfathomable to us. These children are not leaving their home countries to make a perilous journey across hostile territory to the United States simply in search of a better job. They are children. And, as Sonia Navario says, many of them are "fleeing for their lives."
Compounding the Crisis and Making Things Far Worse
Current law is that children from Central America are afforded protections in the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 to screen them for the possibility of refugee or parolee status.
Although members of Congress and the president are professing to pursue a humanitarian response to the border crisis, the proposed solutions often undercut the very protections that children have in current law in order to have the Border Patrol expedite their deportation back to Central America.
Proposals put forth by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas are one example of this. He has acknowledged that a number of these children have been subjected to forms of torture, mutilation, and threats of death by these drug cartels. On Fox News, Cruz said:
Horrifically, they're cutting off body parts, and they're sending it back to the families. And they're forcing little boys and little girls, they're putting a gun to the back of their head, and they're saying cut off the finger, cut off the ear of another child. And if the child refuses, they're shooting and killing that kid.
This is horrific, and yet strangely, his solution is to mass deport all of these children back into the hands of the Central American drug lords. This caused Fox News host Chris Wallace to call out Cruz on his nonsensical solution. "You keep talking about helping the kids," said Wallace. "One question I have is, how do you help the kids...to just say, 'Hey, you've got to stay in Central America.' You talk about the violence in Central America, the murder rate in some of these countries....but [your proposal] doesn't help the kids."
Raices, a legal services organization in San Antonio, has conducted in-depth screenings of more than 3,000 Central American youth this year in Texas shelters and has found at least half of them could present viable claims for humanitarian relief. Consequently, their executive director, Jonathan Ryan, opposes the push to have the Border Patrol more rapidly screen and deport these children. "Many children would be sent back to harm. We would have their names here, and the morgue in Tegucigalpa will have the bodies down there," he said, referring to the capital of Honduras.
Other experts and Border Patrol agents themselves agree that they should not have the responsibility for adjudicating the response to every individual migrant child. As Dara Lind at Vox writes:
Agents say that Border Patrol's job isn't to deal with immigrant children, but rather to catch criminals crossing the border. Advocates, meanwhile, believe that screening traumatized children who've just come over the border is very difficult, and something that should be done by child welfare experts, not by Border Patrol agents.
Navario, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has investigated this issue for well over a decade, added her voice in opposition to expedited screening and removal of these children when she testified before Congress. As she explained, "...if you shortchange the due process that these children have in immigration courts where they can claim asylum, they really are, in 40 to 60% of these cases of these children, refugees fleeing for their lives. And you should not shortchange this process."
...if you put this decision of sending these children back in the hands of the Border Patrol, many of these children who really should be protected by our government will instead be hurtled back to these countries where they will die. And we will have blood on our hands.
The Best Interest of the Child
In the name of helping children, our nation should not take actions that would impose more harm upon children. As such, the president, Congress, and policymakers at the state and local level should adopt a "best interest of the child" standard when addressing the needs of children.
This is a fundamental principle for policy-making involving children. For example, although some process to be concerned about the flight of children, their proposed solutions would often do the opposite. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert both expertly mocked and satirized the false compassion and fallacy of logic of those that profess to care deeply about "the children" and yet put forth proposals that would deny them their due process rights and immediately deport them back to the terror and danger they fled.
For example, in the face of this children's crisis, Senator Cruz has not only proposed to immediately deport children back to Central America, but he has also proposed to go beyond this humanitarian situation and to create further upheaval by arguing for the deportation of DREAMers as well.
In either case, these would not be acts that would be detrimental and not in the best interest of children. But, as Senator Cruz explained his tactics to Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker, he works hard to flip the frame and change the focus in political discussions. As Cruz says, "In both law and politics, I think the essential battle is the meta-battle of framing the narrative. As Sun Tzu said, Every battle is won before it's fought. It's won by choosing the terrain on which it will be fought."
Therefore, a humanitarian crisis that should focus on addressing the needs and interests of children is being flipped on its head by some in order to place political blame on the president, block both immigration reform and the DREAM Act, and push an agenda to build more walls and barriers, further militarize the border, separate more families, and sent kids into harm's way. Without any doubt, rather than addressing the needs and best interest of children, this is an agenda that would be harmful to kids.
America is better than that and the angry, racist, xenophobic protesters in Murrieta, California, that yelled, chanted, and cursed at traumatized children.
Or, as in Oracle, Arizona, where an angry mob, including Congressional Candidate Adam Kwasman, yelled at a school bus filled that they thought were migrant children but were instead YMCA campers, who as columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr., says, were "giggling and using their cellphones to take pictures of the demonstrators and the media horde."
But, while it is somewhat funny that these adults made fools of themselves, Pitts points out:
You're still left with the reality that a bunch of adults -- one a candidate for Congress -- thought it a good idea to interdict a bunch of children who had just survived a long and terrifying journey from Central America, arrived alone in a strange land and been taken into custody -- and yell at them to go back 'to Mexico.' In English.
What they wanted to happen hardly speaks better of those people than what actually did. But it is part and parcel of what now passes for political discourse in this country. And rather than elevate that discourse, our 'leaders' routinely coarsen it.
Which is, I suppose, easier than actually confronting a problem.
America as a Beacon of Hope, Compassion, and Freedom
Fortunately, there are growing voices of reason and compassion who are demanding solutions with a focus on the best interests of the children. For example, Lupillo Rivera stopped at the Murrieta rally and brought a voice of reason to the situation as he said, "It doesn't matter where a child is from. He deserves respect and help because he's a child."
This is also much of our history that should be instructive. In fact, the very first immigrant to arrive at the immigration station at Ellis Island was Annie Moore, a 15 year-old unaccompanied child from Ireland, on January 1, 1892. According to Barry Moreno, a librarian at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, the Immigration Act of 1907 set up a system in which unaccompanied children, including orphans, were allowed hearings whereby "local missionaries, synagogues, immigrant aid societies, and private citizens would often step in and offer to take guardianship of the child."
Many of these children became very successful contributors to the growth of America. As Tasneem Raja of Mother Jones writes, "And of course, many of those kids grew up to work tough jobs, start new businesses and create new jobs, and pass significant amounts of wealth down to some of the very folks clamoring to 'send 'em back' today."
Also, between 1960 and 1962, the American government went out of its way to help Cuban children come to the United States through a program known as Operation Pedro Pan. This initiative, supported by the Department of State, which granted the visa waivers, the CIA in Cuba, and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in the U.S., and through the support of Father Bryan O. Walsh and the Catholic Welfare Bureau, airlifted more than 14,000 Cuban children out of Havana to the United States whose parents did not want them to live under the rule of Fidel Castro.
As the Miami Herald described it, "Parents of all religious creeds...put their trust in the secret program started by Catholic Charities that brought 14,048 children to the United States in less than two years before it had to shut down in October 1962. It was parents' most painful sacrifice -- to be separated from their kids to save them...."
Oscar Pichardo, who came to this country from Cuba when he was 10 years old, says, "You had to live the stark reality that our parents faced and led them to make the hard decisions born out of love and courage to protect their children. When it came time to decide to either submit to the state or send the children to safety, Cuban parents chose freedom for their children -- sending them unaccompanied to the United States."
And, earlier this year, conservatives across the country championed the asylum case of the Romeike family, who argued that Germany would not allow the family to homeschool their six children. Congressman Phil Roe of Tennessee argued that "civil disobedience" might be necessary to prevent deportation. After lengthy review (rather than rapid deportation), the U.S. Government granted asylum to the Romeike family.
So, just as the U.S. granted relief to the children in these other cases in the past, simple fairness would dictate that the government should, at the very least, carefully consider the claims of the children of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador as well. In fact, unlike the Romeike case, the actual lives of Central American refugee children are at stake.
The Moral Case for Protecting Children
Catholic Bishop Mark Sietz testified before the House Judiciary Committee last month and explained that:
...the protection of migrant children is an especially important issue for the Catholic Church, as one of Jesus' first experiences as an infant was to flee for his life from King Herod with his family to Egypt. Indeed, Jesus himself was a child migrant fleeing violence. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were asylum-seekers and faced the same choice as the one facing thousands of children fleeing to the United States each year.
...the Catholic Church's work in assisting unaccompanied migrant children stems from the belief that every person has a unique and sacred dignity. This dignity is not bestowed by governments or by laws or based upon the wealth or where they happen to be born. It inheres within the human being.
Seitz also urged the Committee to recognize and take particular notice of the fact that the children fleeing Central America are vulnerable victims and not some sort of threat, as some, including Texas Governor Rick Perry are making them out to be by sending the National Guard to the border. They aren't.
As Seitz says, "Too often, and especially recently in the media, these children are being looked at with distrust and as capable adult actors, instead of as vulnerable and frightened children who have been introduced to the injustice and horror of the world at an early age. Anyone who hears the stories of these children would be moved, as they are victims fleeing violence and terror, not perpetrators."
In an interview with the Christian Post, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, adds:
These are people created in the image of God. It's easy to forget when we're simply talking about the issue as though it were merely political. Americans, regardless of our views on immigration policy, ought to be moved with compassion for the plight of these children; and to ask: 'What should we do to address this crisis?' And see the crisis for what it is - a moral issue and not merely a political one.
In light of that perspective, the Southern Baptist Convention wrote a letter urging Congress "not to weaken our trafficking laws that were part of President Bush's strong efforts to combat human trafficking." The letter reads, "The last thing we should do is to empower even more trafficking in response to this problem."
Consequently, rather than sending in the National Guard, rolling back child trafficking safeguards, or forcing mass deportations of children back to the dangerous circumstances they are fleeing, First Focus and a number of other organizations, including Bishop Sietz's Committee on Migration of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recommend that the president and Congress focus on and adopt the best interest of the child standard in moving forward.
As Seitz testified:
For the children, the faithful adherence to the best interest of the child standard is necessary in all decision-making. The best interest of the child principle is an internationally recognized child-welfare standard used in the U.S. child welfare system. It refers to a process of determining services, care arrangements, caregivers, and placements best suited to meet a child's short-term and long-term needs and ensure safety permanency, and well-being. When applied in the United States, special importance is given to family integrity, health, safety, protection of the child, and timely placement.
They are just children, after all.
For more policy recommendations on how best to address this humanitarian crisis, see Bishop Sietz's full testimony here , an op-ed by Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, here, and a full set of additional resources from First Focus's Center for the Children of Immigrants here.