“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” is part of a poem by Emma Lazarus that is immortalized at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. My grandparents and hundreds of thousands of other immigrants fleeing from the oppressions and trials of their home countries in Europe and elsewhere first saw the Statue of Liberty as they looked for refuge and a new life in the US. In a conversation on immigration I recently asked a young college student if she were familiar with this quotation at the base of the Statue of Liberty. She looked at me blankly unaware or forgetful of what is such a large part of all of our families’ histories. That in fact we are all from a stock of immigrants (native Americans and African Americans excepted). That our strength and vitality as a nation has come from immigrants fleeing oppression going back to the Pilgrims to more recently, Vietnamese and Southeast Asians making their way to our shores. My young friend’s lack of understanding of this basic underpinning of our national heritage unfortunately is not unusual. Witness the recent uproar by public and private citizens with the arrival of more than 62,000 Central American children since October of last year, “illegally” crossing our border with Mexico and seeking asylum status. We fail to understand our history and further lack understanding of the meaning of the word “refugee” and the national and international laws which pertain to refugees here or elsewhere in the world.
First and foremost, the tens of thousands of children arriving from the Central American countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are not here looking for an economic handout. A quick look at the stories of these children shows they are clearly fleeing the violence and social upheavals of their homes and neighborhoods -not looking for a handout or economic advancement. They represent a unique immigration challenge. Many have seen violence or murder first hand either of friends or relatives. The governments are either corrupt, unwilling, or unable to control the waves of violence that are driven in large part by the drug cartels that have become such a scourge in these Central American countries. These children, many as young as 8 or 9 years of age, are faced with dismal choices – either join the criminal gangs controlled by the cartels or face brutal beatings, rape or worse. Many have seen the bodies of their friends or brothers killed by the gangs when they refused to join. If they accept recruitment into these gangs they become “street soldiers” for the cartels – facing a shortened life of crime perpetrating the very evil they would look to flee.
This is not unlike the child soldiers of Central Africa now ravaging that continent. We are willing to send aid and resources, including armed soldiers, to help deal with the problems creating the child soldiers of Africa. Why not invest similar resources to help the children of Central America?
El Paso Catholic Bishop Mark Seitz returned from a recent mission to Honduras with stories of young boys and girls, forced to flee their homes or face brutal consequences. Quoting the Bishop:
“We sat down with a number of children and one story I remember very clearly is a visit I had with two young men, very clean cut and good looking who were 15 and 17. They had left their home in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, when they were threatened by gangs there. And they were told either they had to join the gang or they would be killed,” he said. “They said if they were returned to their home, they would not go back because they felt that would be for them certain death. That’s one case among many.”
It is important that we understand international law pertaining to these children … they are refugees – they are not illegals as often described in the media and shouted by those who demand they follow the “rule of law.” The United States along with 146 signatories abides by the UN Convention on Refugees which clearly defines who is a refugee. More recent conventions (the Cartagena Declaration of 1984 and those of the Organization of African Unity) adhering to the principals of the UN Convention define refugees as:
“Persons who flee their countries because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.”
In regard to U.S. national law, The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, in particular, required that all unaccompanied alien children found to be entering the US be screened as potential victims of human trafficking. This law, while dealing with immigrant status per se, requires that immigration authorities turn most unaccompanied minors over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to coordinate care for them, find them safe housing, and advise them on their legal rights in their immigration cases. It is this law on which Congress and the President have focused their attention and look to deal with the influx of alien children. Without over-generalizing, both Congress and the President are looking to change national law (designed to protect these children) in order to expedite their return to their home countries without really looking at their status as refugees or to consider the consequences of returning them to the violence and turmoil they fled in the first place. As such we are actually trying to circumvent international law and conventions. Whether we modify or not the 2008 law. we must remember we are members of an international community and must abide by those international conventions to which we have agreed.
Knee-jerk reactions by many, including Governor Rick Perry, to militarize the border in response to these recent “illegal” child immigrants as representing dire security threats to our nation detracts from finding any real solution to why they are here and what should be done. His solution of placing boots on the ground to “detect and deter” has no bearing on the security of the border or the plight of these children. Unfortunately, politics keeps rearing its ugly head when clear, cool and rational analysis would serve us better. President Obama and the Congress are wrong in proposing simple political solutions, looking for “expedited” return of the children, rather than looking for a humanitarian solution with justice that serves both national and international law.
This is a humanitarian crisis as clearly stated by Bishop Sietz while making an appearance on the ABC News program “This Week,” recently. “We know there is great concern about people coming to our borders,” Seitz said. “We need to find a way to receive them according to existing laws. We must receive people who are seeking asylum. In fact, they are not illegal if they are coming under those circumstances. We need to look at the root causes and see what we can do as a country to help the situation in Central America,” Seitz continued.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” These words and the policies that they represent have served us well for more than a hundred and fifty years. We would do well to continue to follow them. — Paul Maxwell