Refugee Children: Humanitarian Challenge or Border Problem

Salvadorian immigrant Stefany Marjorie, eight, with a U.S. Border Patrol agent recording family information on July 24, 2014 in Mission, Texas.

Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images

Salvadorian immigrant Stefany Marjorie, eight, with a U.S. Border Patrol agent recording family information on July 24, 2014 in Mission, Texas.

Slowly, perhaps, political leaders around the United States are coming to understand the influx of more than 50,000 children from Central America as the humanitarian crisis which it is, as opposed to another sign of perennial border problems.

“The influx of unaccompanied child migrants is a growing humanitarian crisis that we can no longer ignore,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement issued over the weekend. ”While we have our own challenges at home, we cannot turn our backs on children that are fleeing dangerous conditions,” the mayor said. “We will do our part to ensure that these children are given access to services and treated fairly and humanely.”

This translates into a bid by the third-largest city to sponsor a “broad-based pro bono campaign” of legal counsel for children seeking asylum in the U.S. and a plan to house as many as 1,000 additional children in Chicago by year’s end. The city will be seeking federal assistance to augment nine existing shelters in the Chicago area which the National Immigration Justice Center says are already housing 500 children.

In Maryland, Gov. Martin O’Malley is meeting again today with religious leaders in Annapolis organizing Maryland’s response to the influx of Central American children. About 2,000 children have been resettled in Maryland  since January as their cases go through immigration courts, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  Maryland ranks behind only a few other states, including Texas and Florida, in this regard.

O’Malley has “taken the position that the United Sates should welcome the thousands of unaccompanied minors who have fled troubles in their homelands as refugees rather than treating them as lawbreakers,” the Baltimore Sun reports.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has been seeking the same shelter for children in his state. “My inclination is to remember what happened when a ship full of Jewish children tried to come to the United States in 1939 and the United States turned them away, and many of them went to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps,” Patrick said when a reporter asked about the border crisis. “I think we are a bigger-hearted people than that as Americans, and certainly as residents of Massachusetts.”

In Texas, the immediate response of another governor, Rick Perry, has been to call out the National Guard to bolster border protection — after pleas to President Barack Obama to do the same were unanswered.

That the chorus of empathy for children fleeing for their lives comes from a handful of Democrats — including one, O’Malley, who would love to run for president in 2016 — will hardly be lost on the growing community of Hispanic-Americans who have turned away from the Republican Party in recent elections.

The New York Times’ Carl Hulse called on a former governor of Florida, Bob Graham, who presided over the arrival of 125,000 refugees from Cuba in 1980, with a retrospective of how immigration politics have backfired on politicians.“These events are so intense in part because they are so human and people can relate to children fleeing violence or adults fleeing political repression,” Graham said. “And they tend to cause divisions in the community between those who feel it should be treated as a humanitarian crisis and those who see it as a law enforcement matter.”

This reporter remembers standing dockside in Key West as Cubans disembarked with little more than the shirts on their backs, and remembers the tent cities erected under the highways of Miami until tens of thousands of exiles could be absorbed into a community where hundreds of thousands already had preceded them since the 1960s.

Obama, in inviting the leaders of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to the White House last week, has attempted to underscore that there is more to the crisis of children crossing the southern border of the U.S. than the sanctity of the border itself. At the same time, the White House is attempting to draw a line between the legitimate claims of children fleeing the persecution of drug gangs and other criminals at work in Central America and those who must be sent home.

“The American people, and my administration, have great compassion for these children and want to make sure that they are cared for the way all children should be cared for,” Obama said on Friday after meeting with the Central American leaders. “And we’ve seen an outpouring of generosity from not only families at the borders themselves that are providing assistance — you have nonprofit organizations and churches that are providing assistance — but actually from across the country people have expressed their concern and compassion for these children.”

“But I also emphasized to my friends here that we have to deter a continuing influx of children putting themselves at great risk and families who are putting their children at great risk,” he said. “And so I emphasized that within a legal framework and a humanitarian framework and proper due process, children who do not have proper claims and families with children who do not have proper claims, at some point will be subject to repatriation to their home countries. ”

The $3.7 billion that Obama is seeking from Congress to address the problem on several fronts — added border security and immigration judges as well as assistance to the Central American nations in coping with the smuggling of children — is, like almost everything else in Washington, stalled.

Sonia Nazario, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has noted that less than one-tenth of the money the president is proposing offers aid for the region. She has warned Congress that children who fail to get an adequate hearing of their claims for refugee status, with needed legal counsel, will only be sent home “to their deaths.”

“It’s a horrific journey,” says Nazario, who has written a book about one child’s journey from Honduras and rode atop the freight trains children still ride north. Drug-dealing gangs have taken control of neighborhoods, she reports.  She cites the stories of children who can count on two hands the children they’ve seen killed by “narcos” that have “taken control of the schools in these neighborhoods.”

“We need to see these children for what they are in many cases, in at least half the cases. They are refugees. Refugees are people who are fleeing for their life,” Nazario said in an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” today. “We need to put them in refugee centers in the United States, bring in judges… give them a full fair hearing with an attorney, because without an attorney it’s a sham process, and really allow these children to present their cases.”

Here’s a worthy footnote about the Pulitzer Prize that Nazario won at the Los Angeles Times for her initial feature writing about “Enrique’s Journey” from Honduras:

It was awarded in 2003.

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