Since October 2013, over 60,000 unaccompanied children—many not even 12 years old—have crossed the border to reach the United States in a desperate attempt to escape drug-related violence, poverty, and abuse in Central America. These young boys and girls are fleeing their countries to escape life as a forced laborer, drug cartel member, or child sex worker. They come not to chase the American dream but to escape a nightmare.
Yet, upon arrival, they find themselves exchanging one nightmare for another. At the border, they are treated like criminals. Taken to border patrol holding facilities, they experience overcrowded conditions that are ill equipped to meet their health and trauma needs. Shortages of social workers and immigration lawyers create a void in the delivery of appropriate due process and legal protection. Protestors call for the immediate deportation of these young people; politicians stand by unwilling to protect and support them.
This is not what our nation stands for. As Americans, we do not turn our backs on children in need. And there are those among us who are doing the right thing. Organizations arranging alternative shelter are working diligently to provide children with necessary treatment and services. Many local communities are self-declared "welcoming cities," setting an example of inclusivity for the rest of the nation. Some state leaders have pushed for a compassionate approach as federal officials search for appropriate shelters to host unaccompanied children. These responses track with the view of most Americans, who believe we should provide shelter and assistance to children fleeing the conditions at home.
Unfortunately, laudable actions have been the exception rather than the rule. Too many elected officials__including many members of Congress__have failed to act, and are instead reviving the politics of immigration reform instead of offering a real solution to this urgent crisis. While our elected officials have already headed home for August recess, these children are in limbo, fearful of having to return to the violence-ridden countries they have fled, yet not knowing if they have a future here.
As a nation, we must decide how to respond to the injustice occurring on both sides of the border. What can we do to improve circumstances for these children, for a more productive and cost-effective system, and for improved political accountability?
Here are some suggestions:
- Call Congress to take action - Join the American Immigration Lawyers Association and 190 direct service providers, faith, civil, and human rights organizations to urge the passage of a clean supplemental funding bill and oppose amending the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act to water down protections for children.
- Appeal to United States and Central American governments - Sign on to this joint statement by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and CARECEN to demand that the United States and Central American governments take immediate action to initiate a process for long-term solutions that provide children with the care they need.
- Support the ACLU, along with American Immigration Council, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Public Counsel, and the law firm K&L Gates LLP - in pressuring the federal government to ensure that the unaccompanied children at the center of this crisis receive taxpayer-funded representation at deportation hearings.
While action from our elected officials is imperative, it is ultimately each of us in our local communities who must care for and stand up for the health and well-being of these children. Long after the surge at the border is appropriately addressed and media coverage fades, the needs of these children will remain.
The answer is up to us. We must demonstrate to these children what America truly stands for.
The Center for Global Policy Solutions
The Children's Defense Fund
Dr. Manuel Pastor, Director for The Program for Environmental and Regional Equity
Public Health Institute
Rhonda Moore Ortiz, Project Manager for The Program for Environmental and Regional Equity