07/24/2014 01:13 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2014

Have We Lost Our Humanity?

This past weekend, anti-immigration actions swept the country; on Tuesday, Texas Governor Rick Perry sounded the call for the immediate deployment of 1,000 national guardsmen to the U.S. border; and our leaders are currently considering gutting a bill that allowed for the humane treatment of child migrants from non-contiguous countries.

Republican Congress members have made it clear that immigration reform is effectively dead this year. But these women and children are effectively dead if we do nothing. These refugees are facing life and death while Republican Congress members worry about their re-election campaigns. If they truly care about family values, they'll consider the plight of these families caught at the border between war-torn hometowns and an inhumane detention system. They'll consider the power of citizens -- who are themselves mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, who know the pain of loss and the hard choices of caring for children or other family members -- voting their family values at the polls.

We can't lose our humanity when faced with unaccompanied children and women fleeing gang and domestic violence. I am outraged at the lack of compassion being shown by Republicans choosing politics over people; that is not what makes our country -- a nation of immigrants, of mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers -- great.

In our broken immigration system, women and children are routinely marginalized and victimized, and this border crisis is no exception. While Republicans in Congress have refused to pass fair immigration reform, women and children continue to suffer the consequences. President Obama is compounding the problem by listening to misguided republicans. He needs to stand up and show leadership and resist the GOP calls to be harsh instead of humane.

Here are seven ways President Obama and Congress can help ensure the safety and well-being of the women and children caught at the border, and make our immigration system fairer now and in the future:

  1. Stop the detention of families with children and the funding of new detention facilities. Alternatives to detention should always be used for children, including release to family members, foster care, or adequate community-based care.
  2. Increase funding for agencies that provide needed resources and services, including the Office of Refugee Resettlement and the Department of Justice, to protect the safety and rights of children who have been detained.
  3. Ensure that any Customs and Border Patrol facilities used to temporarily house women and children must meet humanitarian standards including adequate sanitation, sufficient drinking water and food, and medical and mental health care.
  4. Strengthen the screening process for women and children apprehended by Customs and Border Patrol to identify survivors of trafficking and violence and ensure that they have access to needed services and humanitarian protections.
  5. Provide legal representation and child advocates to all immigrant women and children placed in immigration proceedings, and ensure due process rights.
  6. Ensure U.S. foreign policy and aid priorities address growing gang and organized crime violence and other root causes of this forced migration.
  7. Reform our current immigration system to strengthen protections for women and children and promote family reunification.

President Obama and the majority of Congress members are parents. They should know well that mothers with young children and unaccompanied minors being held in makeshift detention facilities with sub-standard care at the border right now are not political pawns. Keeping them detained in these conditions is inhumane, and sending them back to their gang- and war-ravaged hometowns means turning our backs on our nation's legacy as a safe haven for people from all over the world. Thousands of parents have had to make the difficult choice to send their children away in exchange for a chance to save them from the merciless hands of neighborhood drug lords. The violence these women and children are escaping is a real and present danger. They deserve humanitarian protections in the United States, not be subjected to unjust detention and deportation.

It's time that the administration and Congress put women and children first in addressing our current refugee crisis and in enacting lasting reforms to make our immigration system fair and reflect our nation's true family values.

Pramila Jayapal is a co-chair of We Belong Together, a national campaign to bring forward the priorities of women in immigration reform and to mobilize women to push for immigration reform.