10/02/2014 03:08 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2014

Jesuits Urge Humanitarian Protections for Asylum Seekers and Refugees Be Upheld

(Washington, D.C.) October 2, 2014 -- The Society of Jesus in the United States and Jesuit Refugee Service/USA continue to urge the government not to roll back humanitarian protections for refugees and asylum seekers simply because more people need it.

The last several years has seen a significant increase in the number of men, women and children from the Northern Triangle region of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) arriving in the United States and other countries and requesting asylum. Belize, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica collectively registered a 712% increase in the number of asylum applications from the Northern Triangle from 2008 to 2013.

Jesuits urge humanitarian protections for asylum seekers and refugees be upheld

The number of unaccompanied children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras arriving in the United States has doubled every year since 2010. From October 2013 through September 2014, 66,000 unaccompanied children and 60,000 family members (mostly mothers with very young children) entered the U.S. and turned themselves in to U.S. migration authorities. Many of these families and children requested humanitarian relief.

As the media began to focus attention on the increased numbers of young unaccompanied Central American children arriving in the U.S. in May of 2014 -- in part because the number of child arrivals overtook the government's capacity to swiftly transfer them from Border Patrol cells to child appropriate shelters -- the American public became aware of the crisis in Central America and began to express fears and concerns about being overwhelmed by this mixed migration flow of immigrants and refugees.

The region is home to three of the most violent countries in the world. Honduras has the world's highest homicide rate, and both Guatemala and El Salvador rank in the top ten worldwide. Targeted violence is on the rise as transnational criminal organizations leverage their power to further their illicit interests, often infiltrating government institutions.

The protection of unaccompanied children, and Central American asylum seekers including women traveling with little children, is at the heart of intense advocacy by Jesuit Refugee Service/USA and the national advocacy office of the Jesuits of the United States. The concern of the U.S. Jesuits mirrors that voiced by the hospitality campaign of their counterparts in Latin America.

"President Barack Obama's first intervention in this policy debate was to ask Congress in June to roll back critical protections for unaccompanied children," said Shaina Aber, Policy Director for the U.S. Jesuit Conference. "These kids are not a problem to solve, but have been entrusted to our care to be protected."

One proposed legislative change would allow for the expedited deportation of unaccompanied children, something currently prohibited by an anti-trafficking law. Meanwhile, the treatment of mothers who have arrived with young children from Central America has sparked near universal condemnation from the faith-based, humanitarian and human rights community. These families are incarcerated and subjected to an expedited deportation process that has been an obstacle for these detainees, 98% of whom are now seeking asylum, from having meaningful access to legal services.

The Jesuits and JRS/USA are firmly against both legislative changes and the detention of these family units, advocating for alternatives to detention whenever possible and for protection of the due process rights of children and asylum seekers.

In September, Timothy Kesicki S.J., President of the U.S. Jesuit Conference, joined 39 other national religious leaders to urge President Obama not to compromise the lives of children fleeing violence in Central America.

And in July, the then President of the U.S. Jesuit Conference, Tom Smolich S.J., made a personal plea to the 43 Congressional representatives who graduated from Jesuit high schools and universities to "uphold the dignity of the human person and the sacredness of human life" when considering policy solutions to address the influx of children. In November 2015, Fr Smolich will be the new director of JRS International.

JRS and the Jesuits in the U.S. are also asking the authorities to take concrete steps to address crippling violence and deleterious protection climate in the countries that people are so desperate to leave.

Children are particularly vulnerable to assaults and forced recruitment from youth gangs with 'join or die' policies, and may also be targeted by vigilante groups -- including police officers in some cases -- that seek to stamp gang violence out. In the last year new and disturbing trends in the targeting of girls and young women for forced recruitment into sex-work by gangs has generated an increase in the number of girls and women fleeing the Northern Triangle. The increase in forced migration from the Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras has significantly augmented the flow of out-migration from the region, adding to the numbers of people who continue to migrate with more "traditional" motivations of escaping poverty and lack of opportunity.

The U.S. government must uphold the humanitarian principles of protection and compassion because the implications of its decisions are global. The U.S. cannot continue asking countries like Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon to keep their borders open in the face of large numbers of people seeking protection from violence in Syria if it is unwilling to properly review the asylum and protection claims of desperate refugees who arrive at its own border.