During this last year a humanitarian crisis has developed along our nation's Southern border. While we are used to seeing on the nightly news refugees crossing into other countries, this is the first time in recent history that we have experienced it along our own borders.
To date, over 57,000 children have been apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection attempting to enter the United States. These children, many of them 12 years of age or younger, endured great hardship as they fled the dangers of their homeland for the safety and protection of the United States.
For many American parents, we cannot fathom how a mother and father could intentionally send their young children on a 1,500 mile journey, fraught with danger and hardship, when we ourselves struggle when deciding a suitable age for our children to walk to school alone.
Parents are driven by an innate desire to protect their children. To us as parents in the U.S., the concept of sending our children on a transnational journey is simply unimaginable. However, parents in Central America are driven by the same fundamental principle of parenthood but under the harsh reality of rampant murder and rape. Central American parents send their children knowing that keeping the family together could result in having no family at all.
The threat in Central America is very real. Cartels and gangs have turned children into their foot soldiers, couriers, and personal prostitutes. Central American children in the U.S. have testified to being forced at gunpoint to sell drugs or witness the murder of family members. Rape and slavery flourish as young girls are targeted as prizes for loyal gang members. In fact, the United Nations has been tracking the growing crisis for over 10 years and has found that many of the children in these three countries are in need of international protection. A fact unsurprising since Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras closely compete for the title of “Murder Capital of the World.”
For those fortunate children who do survive the journey, many border patrol agents report they do not flee upon seeing them, but rush to them for aid.
Their exuberance after the long difficult journey is quickly replaced by fear and doubt, as today they are rushed to overcrowded detention centers. Overwhelmed by the number of children, U.S. Customs and Border Protection have been forced to hold them in overcrowded holding cells, sleeping on concrete floors.
This growing humanitarian crisis involving the border children is further complicated by the divisive debate that continues in the U.S. Congress. This week, Speaker John Boehner announced that the House of Representatives will push forward a bill to further expand enforcement and deportation operations on the U.S.-Mexico border. It would also change the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 and strip away the right to due process provided under current law. This change denies these children the right to consult with counsel and an immigration hearing.
House leadership moves forward with this effort in spite of a recent poll released by the Public Religion Research Institute which found that 69 percent of those surveyed believe “U.S. authorities should treat the children as refugees and allow them to stay in the country if it is determined it is not safe for them to return to their home country.”
What is needed is true leadership and a comprehensive approach to immigration reform. For far too long a few loud voices have imposed their will on a nation that agrees on the need to reform our immigration laws in a manner that provides for our nation's security and economy, while reaffirming our nation's commitment to human dignity.
Let us urge our elected representatives to look beyond partisanship and act with compassion and common sense. To deny these child refugees access to counsel and a proper hearing, would be to condemn them to a life of violence, rape, and in many cases, death. The U.S. once denied a ship of Jewish refugees access to our shores. These refugees had fled Hitler's Germany. Many of them were forced to return to Germany and later perished in concentration camps. Let us learn from history.
The most successful countries are those whose immigration laws apply equal value to security, economy and humanity. Let us be a nation that is not just great, but humble, not just strong and secure, but welcoming. Let us be once again, in the words of President Ronald Reagan, “a shining city on a hill.”
Darryl Morin is the national vice president-Midwest of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Franklin and president and chief executive officer of Advanced Wireless Inc. He is the co-founder of the Justice for Immigrants Committee of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, serves on the Advisory Committee for the Hmong American Peace Academy and is a member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin and the Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee.