The Wellbeing of a Child Is a Sacred Trust

With thousands of child refugees arriving at U.S. borders, it’s time to move beyond dehumanizing politics.

Having lived and worked in Washington, D.C. for years, I thought I’d seen all imaginable forms of government dysfunction — from partisan gridlock to government shutdowns. But even I am shocked when I see elected officials use children as fodder for political gamesmanship. Now, unfortunately, I’ve seen it all.

No fewer than three committees in the House of Representatives are holding hearings on the unfolding humanitarian crisis at America’s doorstep — the surge of young children coming to our country from Central America, in particular from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. By year’s end, we expect 60,000 unaccompanied minors to come knocking on our nation’s door.

Clearly, reasons for this crisis are complex, including untrue rumors about U.S. border policies being spread in Central America and families seeking to be reunited. Many, many of these children, however, are arriving because they are desperately fleeing violence in their homelands. Protecting them is our moral obligation.

Rather than simply turn them away, sending them into further danger, Congress should examine why they are fleeing and devise compassionate, effective ways to address the crisis here and in their home countries.

Current congressional hearings, however, are not intended to shed light, but rather to justify building bigger walls and higher hurdles — creating a virtual fortress America — and to foster a fiction that America has no responsibility for the well-being of these children. But we are better than that.

Some public officials, in an attempt to hide the faces of these young children, have labeled them “unaccompanied alien minors.” Why? Because the term alien is intended to dehumanize. As long as they are “aliens,” I suppose the logic goes, lawmakers can lull themselves into believing that these vulnerable and traumatized children aren’t their responsibility.

Those seeking to score political points would also have us ignore the facts that Honduras is called the “murder capital of the world,” that El Salvador and Guatemala are close behind at fourth and fifth places, and that the U.N. High Commission on Refugees and other organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have been tracking this growing problem for years.

I find it deeply disturbing when immigration reform opponents in Congress use the current crisis to scare their colleagues into believing that efforts to reform our broken immigration system are somehow responsible and that passing reform will cause the crisis to escalate. Five-year-old children are not seeking employment in the U.S.; instead, their parents are so desperate about their children’s safety that they put their children on incredibly dangerous journeys — ripe with the possibility of human trafficking and sexual violence — in order to reach safe ground in Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, Canada, and yes, the United States. These children are running for their lives.

Many Catholic Sisters and humanitarian organizations are reaching out to help. We should all be grateful for that and offer whatever we can to aid their efforts. And we should insist that Congress effectively fund the Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement and similar programs.

But charity alone will not resolve the crisis. Action is needed, and all of us must insist that our elected officials act in the children’s best interests. That means working with other governments to address the reasons these children are fleeing, including economic conditions that lead to gangs and drug cartels. It means not exposing the children to further danger or suffering when they reach our borders. And it also means passing comprehensive immigration reform, which, ultimately, will be far more helpful than piecemeal efforts to address one problem at a time.

Pope Francis has asked leaders to engage in “sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots — and not simply the appearances — of the evils in our world. Politics,” he states, “remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good.”

The common good cannot be achieved by dehumanizing these children or their parents, nor can it be achieved through political grandstanding. This is a humanitarian crisis and politicians must respond humanely and in a way that protects the dignity and well-being of the children. The pact we make with our next generation must be based on love and care. This is a sacred and holy duty owed because we are all brothers and sisters in our shared humanity.

Image via Korean Resource Center.

  • Martin Hughes

    Is it your view that when homicide reaches a certain level all persons under a certain age have a right to move to another country of their choice? This might be roughly equivalent to the pre-war ‘Kindertransport’ of Jewish children from Germany to the UK. That programme was not subject to any limitation of numbers by the government, though money for it had to be raised privately and seems to have run out just before the war started. Almost everyone in the post-war British generation has met at least one of those involved and they have been of great value to us over many decades. On the other hand, it seems very hard to ask any country to make its immigration policy essentially subject to events completely beyond its control – unless you say that the UK then and the US now are more responsible for the existence of bad governments or bad governments beyond their borders than they care to admit.

    • Martin Hughes

      Just to add that the well-being of an adult who is in great difficulty and distress is something of a sacred trust too.