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MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry: How Will US Respond to Children at the Border?

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WATCH: This segment with MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, who interviews author Sonia Nazario, associate professor Yolanda Pierce, and United We Dream’s Cristina Jimenez about children fleeing violence.  As Sonia and Cristina make clear, we’re facing a refugee crisis, and how we respond to it will define who we are as Americans.

First, here’s Sonia Nazario, author of the book Enrique’s Journey, speaking about the roots of the crisis, how Americans have not wanted to confront these reasons, and why these children must be cared for:

Americans are showing a complete disconnect, an inability to truly grasp what these children are fleeing.  I was just in Honduras for a week, and what I saw astounded me in terms of the level of violence. Between 2006 and 2011, the number of homicides doubled. And just this year you’ve seen 500 children killed in Honduras. This is a country with a population that’s smaller than the size of New York City.  These children are being threatened multiple times, and that’s what’s forcing them to flee. A decade ago, it was largely economic conditions, poverty, that was getting these kids to come to the US. It was the desire like that of the boy I wrote about, Enrique, to reunify with his parents. But now it is this incredible level of violence directed at children being recruited by the cartels and gangs to be their foot soldiers in this war to control this turf. Our use of illegal drugs in this country is killing children in places like Honduras. I think there’s a real unwillingness to understand what is driving these children. They are refugees and we must treat them as refugees. You can’t talk about compassion and being humane and then basically try to interdict these children in Mexico and Guatemala and send them back to conditions where they may be killed…

I think that the pressure these children face to join narco-cartels is not very different from what child soldiers face in Sudan.  We ask countries surrounding Syria to take in nearly 3 million refugees, and we ask them to be humane toward refugees, and we have signed protocols and conventions that we will do the same.   I believe there is a humane, practical, legal approach to dealing with this crisis.  President Obama has shown very little leadership on this issue.  He is basically saying, let’s keep these kids from coming to the border, let’s seal them into this deadly fate, let’s expedite their removal so they don’t have a fair process here in the US.  What we need to do is have these refugee centers in the US and bring in a lot of immigration judges and asylum officers and you give these kids a full, fair hearing — and you give them an attorney, because it’s not fair unless they have someone to advocate for their right to asylum.  And if they qualify as a refugee, let them in…These are not economic migrants, largely, they are refugees.  And we have to show the same compassion that we demand from other countries toward them.  We must lead in this area.

Yolanda Pierce, an associate professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, emphasized the moral obligations the US has to treat these children with compassion:

It’s a question of which side of history are we going to be on. We have to be completely clear about the racist undertones that imbue all of this [anti-migrant] language. We have to be clear that we are in a human rights crisis. That these children are not only being stripped of their humanity, they’re being stripped of their protective status as children.  It’s a human rights crisis. What morally and ethically are we as one human being to another to do when faced with these children fleeing conditions that we have in part helped to create?

And Cristina Jimenez, Managing Director of United We Dream, called on President Obama to lead — both on the child migrants crisis and on immigration reform:

The president has not always been clear about how he wants to treat this refugee crisis.  His administration has been vague about about whether they’re going to mass-deport or fast-track deport these children.  And the fact of the matter is, this administration has also deported the most number of immigrants in the history of the US, over 2 million people.  This is a question of whether or not the President is going to really use this opportunity to step up and lead and live up to the values of this nation — not only on the refugee question, but also on immigration.  He’s already said that he is going to step up and take action, and if he does not act in a way that provides administrative relief for the most number of people living here in the US, I think that will be a sign that he is caving in to all of the Republican rhetoric on this….

The same thing that done with these children, they’ve done to me and my family and all the immigrants who live here without status.  They have dehumanized us, criminalized us, to the point that our families have been put in deportation, and we have gone through massive family separation.  Every day, more than 1,000 people get separated–that means children without their mothers, fathers without their children.  That’s the crisis that we have and DREAMers won’t stop pushing the president to not only do the right thing on this refugee crisis — because let’s be honest, Congress is not going to resolve this before August recess.  This is going to be on the president, and he has the opportunity to lead and to fix his own record of being called the deporter-in-chief.

Watch the full MSNBC segment below: