Mike Littwin: A humanitarian crisis that brings out the worst in us
July 17, 2014
There is a rush to send the children back. That's the message we get from Washington.
There are 50,000 unaccompanied minors at the border now. The number may grow to as many as 90,000 by year's end. It doesn't seem to matter so much why they came here, just so long as they go.
We hear stories. We hear awful stories. Stories of rape and murder and even dismemberment. There is the now famously sad quote from the young boy to the Women's Refugee Commission: "In El Salvador, there is a wrong — it is being young. It is better to be old."
The young are being targeted. They are forced to join gangs, or they refuse to join gangs. It's hard to know which is more dangerous. Young girls are taken and raped, or worse.
And yet, what seems to matter most in Washington is that the children are dealt with, as quickly as possible. And then go.
We know they have come, in the main, to escape poor, gang-infested countries with weak, corrupt governments. We know they come from Honduras, which has the highest murder rate in the world, and from El Salvador and Guatemala, which also both rank among the leaders. We hear the stories, and we can't really doubt they're true.
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It is definitely a true border crisis, but mostly a humanitarian crisis, and one that defies easy solution.
Some children come on their own, risking everything, often seeking a parent who already has made the trip. If their desperate parents in Central America have sent them, the voyage costs a year's pay or more, which goes to the coyotes, who sometimes pass the children off to the Mexican drug cartels. The children come, and many are abused along the way, and some even die. They come and when they cross the border, they turn themselves in to the nearest Border Patrol agent and hope for the best.
That's not exactly an invasion, as some would call it. But what exactly is it, other than repeated tragedy?
The United Nations High Commission on Refugees released a study in which it interviewed 404 of the children, and 58 percent said they were fleeing violence. They flee just as refugees flee in Syria or Iraq or from any war zone. The numbers tell the story. The children who arrive in the United States — and in other countries in the region, too — come from cities where the violence is the most serious.
If the children reach America as refugees, they get a hearing. That's part of the lure. But the law is different for Mexican (and Canadian) children, who can be sent home immediately if they can't show they are endangered. And what we hear from many in Washington is that we need to change the laws so that children from Central America are treated the same way — quick hearings and quick work. Barack Obama is asking for $3.7 billion to get the necessary resources to the border, but the money, you can bet, will come with strings.
No one seriously doubts the level of violence or lawlessness. Statistics gathered by Vox state that civilians are twice as likely to be killed in those three countries today than Iraqi civilians were at the worst moments of the Iraq war.
And so you'd think, whatever else we do, our first priority would be to make sure the children were safe, to make sure that before we send anyone back, we know we are not sending them to their deaths.
We are a generous people. We care about children in far-away lands, kidnapped children with hashtags to know them by. But these children who have crossed our border are somehow seen differently. They've crossed our border illegally, and so they must go back.
To think otherwise, writes conservative wise man Charles Krauthammer, is "nonsense." There always has been violence and poverty in Central America, he said. Why should now be different?
It's hard to know what to make of this, other than a willful refusal to look. A story in The New York Times tells about 60 bodies stacked in a morgue, one night's work in the violent streets of San Pedro Sula, Honduras. The story goes on to say that 2,200 children who crossed the border from January through May came from San Pedro Sula.
Still, in Washington the response — or at least the loudest response — comes with pointed fingers, most of them pointed at Obama for slowing deportations of so-called Dreamers. It's an awful sight: In the face of a real crisis, not a fake Washington crisis, there are politicians waving the flag of dysfunction for the world to see.
Obviously, we have to do better. Yes, the issue is complicated. It's complicated because we don't want children making this dangerous trip. And it's complicated by the politics of immigration, which rarely brings out the best in us and sometimes the worst — like those California protesters yelling at a busload of kids. But this is a humanitarian crisis, and these are children, and something must be done.
David Gergen — who wrote a piece for CNN comparing this crisis to a time 75 years ago when America turned away German Jews fleeing the Holocaust — suggests that we set up safe zones in Central America, where we can send the children back and ensure their safety. Others have proposed setting up places in Central America where people can seek asylum without the risk of leaving the country.
And then there are those who would tell desperate children that the only crisis is that they came here at all.