July 25, 2014


Children at the border

What should we do with all those children who are crossing the Rio Grande River into the United States? That has become a monumental problem with no easy answers.

The media have shown the thousands of unaccompanied children who are arriving from the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Just since last October, more than 52,000 of them have overwhelmed the Border Patrol stations, and the Obama administration estimates that 90,000 children will have crossed illegally into the United States by September.

This is a humanitarian crisis. Can you imagine how desperate a mother has to be to send her son or daughter on that long trip up through Mexico to the U.S. border? That shows how miserable conditions are in those countries.

In most cases, the families seem to have no choice. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the homicide rate for male victims ages 15-29 in Central America is “more than four times the global average rate for that age group.” It’s a matter of either remaining in Central America and risking being killed, or trying to escape, with a similar risk.

The children who are arriving at the border often say that they’re afraid that gangs will kill them in their native countries. And this seems to be a statement of fact, not just a ploy to remain in this country.

Michelle Mendez, an attorney for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Washington, told the Catholic newsweekly Our Sunday Visitor, “It’s not uncommon to have a girl, maybe 13 or 14, who has been the victim of sexual assault by gang members back home. The sexual assault prompts her to come to the United States, and then through that journey, she might get raped twice. Then when she’s here, we need a ton of caseworkers to help this little girl overcome the trauma she’s been through.”

And Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, auxiliary bishop of Seattle and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, told Our Sunday Visitor, “These children are indeed fleeing for their lives and must be looked at through a protection lens, not through an enforcement lens. We must not send them back if they have valid protection claims. It would be akin to sending them back into a burning house.”

Catholic Charities and individual Catholic parishes all along the Rio Grande River have been doing what they can for these children. Sacred Heart Parish in McAllen, Tex., for example, just on this side of the border, has been in the news for turning its parish hall into a temporary shelter. It provides the children with blankets, clothing, food, and a place to take a shower, after Border Patrol officials drop them off.

But why did all these children start coming in the first place, besides being in fear of their lives in their native countries? Because the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 mandate that unaccompanied minors who are caught coming into the United States illegally are to be turned over to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Word got around in Central America, therefore, that children who managed to get to the United States would be allowed to remain here. That’s not entirely true, but it is true that only a small percentage of these children are being deported.

The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement is supposed to determine if the children have relatives or sponsors in the United States. However, the vast numbers of these children have swamped the office, leaving the children in Border Patrol stations that resemble jails more than day care facilities.

The long-term solution to this problem has to be between our government and those of the Central American countries. President Barack Obama will meet with the leaders of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador on July 25 to discuss cooperation on the influx of child migrants from Central America into the United States.

We have ignored those countries for too long, and now we are feeling the consequences. If we don’t help those countries solve their internal problems, we will continue to have this problem of children trying to migrate into the United States.

In the meantime, the Catholic Church will continue to do what it can to meet the physical needs of the children who are here.

—John F. Fink

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