The Solution to the Central American Refugee Problem Is a Thriving Central America

If we’re serious about the refugee crisis, we must deal with the source of the problem before someone reaches our borders.

Years ago, I watched the animated movie An American Tail with my children. It was a popular, funny, G-rated family movie, one you could watch on a Friday night while eating pizza with the kids.

But the story made me surprisingly proud to be an American. The tale is one of an immigrant family (of mice!) who go through a series of trials as they emigrate from Russia to America. It is a truly American story of a family seeking a better life here in the United States. Watching the movie with my kids allowed me to tell them how great our country was, that we allowed anyone with courage and hope to work for greater opportunities, freedom, and a better way of life.

The children crossing into the United States today, however, are not experiencing Hollywood story lines with happy endings. In Yoro, Honduras, Brayan Fugon Caballero said that at age 17 he left his mother and family in the hopes of reaching America and being reunited with his father. “God be with you, son,” she told him in a heartbreaking moment. Brayan said, “I clearly saw a tear rolling down my mother’s face. It is challenging for me to put a picture of my mother in this condition into words. I had to leave my house behind, carrying with me the dream of getting to the United States.”

He constantly held on to that dream in order to survive the arduous journey. During his travels, Brayan suffered from dehydration and severe fatigue. He watched as traveling companions jumped off of trains to avoid immigration agents only to badly injure themselves. He hid while a mother and daughter were raped. He hid from angry villagers along the route who tried to send him home.

At a young age, Brayan faced an awful choice. One can only imagine the circumstances that would force a child to leave their home, their parents. The poverty and violence they face is tremendous. Gangs are killing their friends. Their families suffer from poverty. Brayan described his home village as a “hell.” Honduras has a homicide rate of 90 per 100,000 compared to the U.S.’s 4.8.

The America I love — the one celebrated in An American Tail — doesn’t turn its back on desperate children. It isn’t enough to do a better job of detaining and processing the children seeking refuge here. Or even to offer them asylum. A real solution is to create a better, safer world, where children grow up loved and nurtured by their communities.

If we really wanted to make a difference, there are things that we can do. The U.S. government could work with those in Central America to not only strengthen law enforcement and keep their citizens safer, but also to support child welfare agencies that can help protect the most vulnerable children. Individual citizens can support organizations that are developing healthy and thriving communities. World Vision is working on both sides of the border, assisting children who are detained here in the U.S. and working to create communities in Central America where they don’t want to leave.

It may not be our responsibility to fix problems in other countries, but it seems as though it is in our interest. In this case, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I’ve seen how families tend to stay in communities where they thrive. In a village I visited in Honduras, children were loved by their parents and neighbors. They attended school freely and without fear. They participated in the health of their community and their government. Parents had jobs and incomes and were involved in the civic life of their community through health education groups, co-ops, and agricultural training. It is hard work, but it is possible. On the other hand, World Vision has also seen how violence can tear a community apart and make development impossible.

Let’s recognize that if we only address this problem when people arrive at the U.S. border, we are merely treating symptoms of a deeper problem. Certainly, we need secure borders. And we need to be fair and just toward people who have come into this country illegally. But we must also recognize the human urge to find a better life and respond with compassion, especially to kids. And we must deal with the source of the problem before someone reaches our borders.

Until we can create thriving communities like this across Central America, let’s remember America’s long history of embracing the tired, poor, and huddled masses. Because they, like every human being, are yearning to breathe free.

Richard Stearns
Written by
  • Martin Hughes

    Migration in search of work and a bit more money isn’t a problem to be dealt with before it reaches our shores, it’s a basic economic process. There aren’t two situations, one ‘here’, one ‘there’. There’s one economic nexus in which well-being will always be limited if people aren’t allowed to move to where the work is. Mr. Stearns is advocating, in effect, moving the work to them but that is and always has been impossible to do on a sufficient scale – it is to be done, evidently, by some entity to which Mr. Stearns refers in the first person, ‘we’: but there is no ‘we’, certainly not the governments or peoples of the western countries, with the power to do that sort of huge-scale economic planning. One thing we – or ‘we’ – definitely should not do, if we want prosperity in Central America or North Africa, is restrict the process whereby some family members move ‘here’ and send remittances back ‘there’, an enormous help to ‘them’ in breaking out of hellhole status.
    As in Jen S’s contribution the other day there is emphasis on the suffering of children and photos presenting children as adorable moppets in gleaming apparel, obviously from loving families. But it isn’t all like that. Extreme deprivation is a very hard school and immigrants, however young, bring trouble as well as loveliness with them. If you’re at your wit’s end about how to stop your children from starving you won’t react – will you now? – like a middle-class parent in a leafy suburb to a gangster who wants to employ them. A slightly unrealistic sentimentality can’t really be the answer to the intense anxieties of the anti-immigrationists.
    The real power behind immigration isn’t fear of crime, it’s the massive need of people ‘there’ for more work and more money, corresponding to the need of employers ‘here’ for well-motivated workers. Moderate and local improvements in the conditions of some developing countries cannot conceivably meet all that need. I think we should begin by facing up to that fact.
    I live in a country, the UK, which despite its island geography has utterly insecure borders and is bleeding with worry and anxiety over immigration. So I don’t wonder about the insecurity of the United States, with its thousands of miles of land borders. We need to talk about all this realistically.