Photo above: Angry protestors stop buses with refugee children in Murrieta, CA.
The over 52,000 unaccompanied minor children who have crossed our country’s borders in the past year are not an immigration problem — they are a humanitarian problem. Many of these children are fleeing situations so abhorrent, lives so abusive, with childhoods so totally corrupted by violence and war that the more appropriate terminology for their status would be refugees, or more technically, asylum seekers. As a nation, we must respond to this crisis with urgency, sensitivity and humanity, and afford these children legal protection and processes to determine their future.
According to the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a refugee is an individual who is outside his or her country of origin due to a well-founded fear of persecution and who is unable to, or owing to such a fear, unwilling to avail him- or herself of the protection of that country. Notably, the definition is sometimes expanded to include people fleeing war or other armed conflict.And many of these children fit that bill.
The youngsters who are entering this country are primarily from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, where political and drug cartel related violence has turned their countries into a war zone without the declaration of any actual war. According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, in its report Children on The Run, Unaccompanied Children Leaving Central America and Mexico and the Need for Protection, over 58 percent of unaccompanied children are here because “before leaving their countries of origin they had suffered, been threatened or feared serious harm of a nature that raises international protection concerns.”
Unraveling what created the tipping point for this unprecedented exodus will take a while. It is a vastly complicated problem with plenty of blame to be spread around: unstable governments, a violent illegal drug trade, deep poverty and even our own laws, such as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act which guaranteed an immigration hearing to unaccompanied minors.
Establishing a decent and moral response to the crisis should not be as problematic as determining its cause. But it has proved to be embarrassingly difficult. Many Americans are up in arms, some of them literally, over the idea that this many children have come to this country without authorization.
Protestors line streets jeering at young Central American children in buses on their way to containment facilities, screaming to get out of our country. Some opponents to these refugees claim that the children are unvaccinated disease carriers likely to create a pandemic, and will overtax our country’s medical resources. Then there are the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) government representatives that say there is no room in their states or towns for these children. Even President Obama’s response is not child-focused, as his primary response to this crisis seems to strengthen border control and intercept children en route to America.
Heartbreakingly, they have all lost sight that these are children coming across our borders and failed to examine the simplest of questions: What could possibly drive any child to flee his home, alone, and walk thousands of miles through darkness, face dangers from strangers and animals, and do so without food, money or adult help? Staggering into the unknown alone, uncertain of what would happen when he arrived penniless in a new country, is not something any child would do unless life was unfathomably desperate, bleak and endangered.
As a country we should respond to this desperation with the special concern that we would afford any young child in crisis. We do not thoughtlessly send children in crisis back into the root cause of their problems. Instead, we should establish refugee centers to begin to manage the masses of unaccompanied children here already, locate family members for reunification if possible, implement hearings to determine the cause for each child’s migration, and provide legal services for each child at these hearings.
Providing these processes will grant transparency in determining what is right and best for these children; it may be that some children will not meet the criteria necessary to attain refugee status, but at least they will have been afforded due process and humanitarian aid in their time of crisis.
To those who say that these provisions will cost too much, consider that doing less creates a moral bankruptcy that is far more costly to America.
Lisa Perez Tighe has been an attorney, writer and a professor. She attended the University of Notre Dame and New York University School of Law. A native of the Bronx, Lisa currently resides outside of Boston with her husband and four children.