06/24/2014 02:37 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2014

Remembering What Is in the Best Interest of the Child

As we confront problems in society, the lives of children in this country and across the world would improve if we would more often just ask and answer one simple question: is it in the best interest of the child?

While some adults seem not to care at all, most adults profess to care for children. Far too often though, we fail children. For example, we are one of only two countries that have failed to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. And, we tolerate that over 1 in 5 kids in American are living in poverty, and that there are over 2,500 firearm deaths of children annually.

And, in the case of the thousands of children fleeing unspeakable violent crime, abuse, rape, exploitation, and extreme hardship from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to the United States, we are witnessing a humanitarian crisis that increasingly cries out for a national and unified response. The lives of thousands of traumatized children are at stake and that alone should bring people together to address this crisis and preclude our nation's leaders from attempting to score political points with this tragedy.

One would also hope that policy would be driven by some key facts. As Donald Kerwin of the Center for Migration Studies points out:

The crisis in unaccompanied migrant children has been building for years. Its roots have been visible in the projected four-fold increase between FY 2011 and FY 2014 in arrests of children by border officials; the high murder rates in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico; the low prosecution rates for murders and violent crime; the painful separation of parents from their children; astounding levels of domestic violence in sending communities; poverty and lack of opportunity; and systematic predation on youth by criminal enterprises. It has culminated in the painful calculation by growing numbers of parents, grandparents and other caregivers that it is safer for young people to make the extraordinarily dangerous trip to the United States than to remain at home.

As Linda Chavez, a Fox News contributor, writes:

Most of these children are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, which means they've traveled at least 1,300 miles to get to the US border.

They walk or ride on the tops of trains, sometimes falling to their deaths or incurring severe injury. Some are abused, beaten, robbed, raped.

The fortunate ones make it here only to end up sleeping on the cement floor of a cell, shoulder to shoulder with dozens of other children.

This is the definition of a humanitarian crisis. According to Biship Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Migration:

It is truly a humanitarian crisis which requires a comprehensive response and cooperation between the branches of the U.S. government. Young lives are at stake.

And, in response, our actions will undoubtedly speak louder than words. But, the words do matter and they are, unfortunately, increasingly being used to manipulate the debate away from what is important to the children.

In fact, nativist and anti-immigrant groups, which recognize most Americans won't easily turn their backs on vulnerable and desperate children, are using a number of tactics to undermine support for immigrant children. Their goal is to dehumanize, disregard, dismiss, and divert attention from a focus on the children by politicizing the issue and driving the country to adopt a new set of punitive measures that would only serve to impose more harm to children and families.

One tactic is to dehumanize the children. Such tactics have been exemplified by Rep. Steve King, who said of DREAMers that "for every one who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert," and Rep. Louis Gohmert, who referred to the children of immigrants as possible "terror babies".

The effort here is to use racist frames to cast little children as being either criminals or sub-human, and thus, not deserving of sympathy, concern, or assistance.

In a conspiracy corollary to Rep. Gohmert's bizarre "terror babies" theory, the National Association of Former Border Patrol Agents, Inc. argues:

This is not a humanitarian crisis. It is a predictable, orchestrated and contrived assault on the compassionate side of Americans by her political leaders that knowingly puts minor Illegal Alien children at risk for purely political purposes.

Certainly, we are not gullible enough to believe that thousands of unaccompanied minor Central American children came to America without the encouragement, aid and assistance of the United States Government.

Incredibly, they are gullible enough to claim there is no real crisis at all and argue that tens of thousands of Central American children are engaged in an enormous conspiracy in partnership with the U.S. government that would have to go back to at least 2002 when "Enrique's journey" from Honduras through Mexico to the United States was followed by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Sonia Navarro and photographer Don Bartletti.

Beyond efforts to dehumanize kids and employ strange conspiracy theories, another tactic to justify denying vulnerable migrant and refugee children assistance is to change the story and politicize the issue. As Sen. Ted Cruz is quoted in Jeffrey Toobin's profile of him in the New Yorker:

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.

Rather than focus on the plight of children, a favorite among a number of lawmakers and, most recently, by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is to focus on enforcement and to blame President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order in 2012 as the catalyst for open borders, even though the reality is that the Obama Administration has deported a record number of immigrants and the growth in the number of unaccompanied children traveling to America was, as Kerwin noted, "building for years" and began accelerating prior to the creation of DACA.

As an example, Sen. Cruz, in just two sentences, flips the frame from one that would focus on a humanitarian assistance to migrant children to an anti-immigrant, border enforcement response. In his letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Cruz writes, "While we are obligated to keep those children safe, we are also obligated to stop more children from risking their own safety and being forced into such a terrible situation. Without a doubt, the growing humanitarian crisis at our border is a direct consequence of the Obama Administration's refusal to secure the border."

He concludes, "Preventing people from illegally immigrating to the United States should be the primary purpose of Customs and Border Protection." In other words, helping children should not be.

Sun Tzu would be proud of his narrative flip. A humanitarian crisis that should focus on addressing the needs of children is suddenly being flipped on its head in a manner to blame and block both immigration reform and the DREAM Act and to push an agenda to build more walls and barriers, further militarize the border, separate more families, and permanently deny an opportunity for undocumented children and young adults to earn permanent legal status if they came to the United States as children, have good moral character, finish high school or obtain a G.E.D., and complete two years of college or military service. Without a doubt, rather than addressing the needs of children, this is an agenda that would detrimental to children.

Furthermore, it is important to note that, despite the attempt to blame President Obama for this humanitarian crisis, DACA does not apply to anyone who entered the United States after June 15, 2007, so none of the children fleeing gangs and violence in South America today would benefit from DACA. While there is evidence that false rumors and fantasy are driving a small fraction of children to make the dangerous 1,300-mile trek and the Administration should work with South American nations to dispel this lie, it is still not true. And, we should all agree that our nation's public policy should not be built upon myths and lies.

Instead, a humanitarian crisis involving children should, first and foremost, focus on the best interests of children. And, solutions should never be detrimental to children. This is why we support the Administration when it says, "Our first priority is to manage the urgent humanitarian situation by making sure these children are housed, fed, and receive any necessary medical treatment."

However, we are deeply concerned that the Administration appears to be planning to also ramp up detention and deportation efforts against families. While their plan to increase aid to Central America to address the root causes of the problem is helpful, reopening detention centers for children and families is not.

The best interest of the child standard needs to be asked and built into all decision-making throughout the process. As a result, we support a number of recommendations with a focus on the "best interests of the child," including:
  • adopting the "best interests of the child" standard for all immigration processes and decisions involving children;
  • appointing independent advocates for children in custody;
  • ensuring legal counsel for children in removal proceedings;
  • creating sufficient community-based alternatives to detention; and,
  • developing secure repatriation programs.

This is what children fleeing oppression, poverty, and violence need from us - not more politics and trauma.