The situation with migrant children at the border is so complex and filled with emotion that it is not easy to be objective. Still, above all, we must remember that these are children. They are innocent, vulnerable, deserving of love and protection by all of us. It is not a country’s or a single individual’s responsibility to care for them. It is a responsibility that falls upon all of us, whether we signed up for it or not, because children are humanity’s legacy. Simple: No children, no future. So, what can be done to solve this problem? A migrant’s journey is fraught with perils. All over the world the movement of people comes with danger and death. How many have drowned trying to get to Europe from Africa, been enslaved in Libya, or died in the desert crossing into the U.S.? Migrating is a dangerous business that must be understood as inherently dangerous. So why subject a child to that danger?
We can argue that in the case of the current migrant situation at the border there are two reasons. Whether leaving the child behind is impossible or bringing the child helps that journey. The former is what drives most cases. Families flee together or are fleeing because the children are the targets of violence themselves. The central American situation is fraught with children that are victims of domestic violence, gang recruitment and generalized gender abuse against women – yes in these places an 11-year-old girl is sometimes considered a woman. The other reason, that bringing a child along helps gain access into the U.S. is practiced by some individuals, but that is not the norm. Either way the historical understanding of how this happened is important.
In the last 19 years, thanks to hurricane Mitch, a whole generation of central American children grew up without their parents. Impoverished by a natural disaster many came to the U.S. to work. Their children stayed behind with family members while their mother and father left for the U.S. The children grew up in relative comfort provided by their parent’s income, but did not see them for years. This changed in the mid 2000’s as those children became teenagers. While those children had grown up so had the gangs and cartels. Fueled by the deportation of gang members and the displacement of drug transport from the Caribbean and the pacific to overland routes, organized crime exploded in central America. To gangs and cartels, the teenagers were foot soldiers or trafficking victims that could be monetized. Either way, the parents who were in the U.S. could do nothing to protect their children except send for them. This would have significant consequences that drive the migrant issue today.
The first consequence is the first significant increase of childhood arrivals to the U.S. From 2009 the number of unaccompanied minors grew and grew. Remember TPS came about for central American countries in ’99. A one-year old child was 11 by 2009. The parents sent for their children and the gangs that were recruiting them found a new source of income: human trafficking. So, while driving the migration of children those cartels began profiting from it too. The number of children coming to the U.S. started increasing exponentially.
The second consequence would be the passage of certain policies regarding children at the border during the first years of this phenomenon. While the Obama administration was strictly enforcing immigration laws and deporting more individuals than any other administration in history, children and the adults who accompanied them were released almost immediately. This was in stark contrast with the fates of adults who were deported almost immediately or held in detention for prolonged periods of time. Thus, as in all immigrant circles, word traveled fast: those who had a child with them would not be detained by immigration and would be released into the U.S. almost immediately. The result was inevitable, now children were not only being brought because they were victims in their countries, they were brought to facilitate the entry process for some. Now, let me be very clear this is NOT the case of all individuals who come with children to the U.S. seeking refuge. The social changes noted above are the main drivers of that migration, but the fact that these cases exist mandates a very careful review of the relationship and reasons for the accompanying adult to bring that child along. We cannot allow children to be exploited and victimized further. Now the policies that allowed for easy access to the U.S. by bringing a child have been restricted. Too far actually. It takes an evil mind to try and deter immigration by separating a child from their parent. Because let’s be realistic, the policy of separating children from their parents was not, as it should have been, designed to protect those children. It was implemented and set in practice to scare and deter immigrants fleeing with their children. A significant moral distance from one reason to the other.
Lastly, some individuals saw this change as a new economic and political bounty. They used the images of immigrant children to push and claw their way into better positions and to obtain more government funding or private donations. Working for the immigrant children became a mantra for some who were in it just for the power and the money. And then again, they were not the only ones. Private contractors who house and detain immigrants for the federal government saw their numbers go up and were not going to complain about it. Why? A contractor makes around $100 a day for a detainee, no reason to stop that. And still, they were not the only ones. Politicians on the left and the right have lapped up the issue and paraded it around to rile their bases. So, what to do?
Well the first thing that should be done is call out to the U.N. to create a refugee camp in southern Mexico to tend to the needs of those fleeing central American countries. Yes, non-profits in the U.S. and the contractors for the government won’t get those dollars, but guess what? Asylum claims will be verified. Children and families will have a safe place where they can wait for their cases to be resolved. It will make this issue a shared one that not only Mexico or the U.S. must burden. As I said in the beginning, it is the responsibility of all, not just a few, to make sure that children are protected.
Secondly the needs and situation of those children already in the U.S. must be addressed. Are they safe? Are they where they are supposed to be and with whom they are supposed to be? They are after all in our country and if in any place in the world children should be able to feel safe is this one.
Finally. Let’s take count of those who have profited from these children and bring them to the light. Those who stoked the fires, those who made millions housing them, those who placed their pictures and images all over seeking donations and funds to “help” them, those who used them to come to the U.S., and those who are politically responsible – on both sides – for dealing with this issue so badly. To be effective, compassion must be ruled objectively. So, if we really care for these children, let’s create a way where they are not exploited and may find a safe haven that does not end, as in so many cases, in their death.
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