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Sen. Menendez, Rep. Gutierrez Call for Compassion for Children at the Border

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Today is World Refugee Day, and some members of Congress are using the opportunity to speak compassionately about the children at the border fleeing violence.  As they and others have made clear, the children are refugees who are traveling to the US as well as other countries to escape conditions back home.  They may have faced trauma and need to be cared for — and the issue should not be politicized by those seeking to score cheap points.

As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement today, “Safe haven for those fleeing persecution is at the core of refugee protection,” before calling on “all countries in the Americas to uphold their shared responsibility to protect displaced children, families or adults who are in need.”

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) today expressed concern over how the children are being housed:

I don’t think small children should be locked up in jail. There is consensus that we must quickly address this refugee and humanitarian crisis, but to say that a child who is apprehended at the border with their parent must remain locked up throughout their judicial proceeding is simply a step too far. To better address this refugee and humanitarian crisis, we need to look at smart 21st century technological solutions. Alternatives to detention programs have been used effectively by DHS to monitor families, the programs have a 96 percent success rate in making sure people show up for their proceedings, and they are extremely cost effective. We need to respect due process. It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to get the kids the legal and social services they need while they are detained. We need to make sure that families have a chance to make their case before a judge.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) in a floor speech yesterday sought to explain the story and call attention to the needs of the children:

Thousands and thousands of young children – some in families but many alone – are fleeing Central America because they think it is their only option for survival.

Faced with death threats, sexual assault, poverty, and no legal immigration options, little boys and girls are simply leaving their Central American countries by the tens of thousands.

Some are coming to the U.S. to reunite with relatives, while many others are seeking asylum in any country they can get to, including this one.

Girls as young as 11 and 12 –threatened with rape in their own country — are risking rape, smugglers, murder and exploitation for the slim chance of a life in the United States.

Eighty percent are coming from just three countries – Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala –countries that top the list of the highest murder rates.

Guns, gangs, poverty and hopelessness are driving kids as young as kindergarteners to countries like Belize and Costa Rica, Mexico and the United States.  This is a complex international crisis that does not have easy solutions…

The first goal is to get the children and families in a safe place.

Eventually, some may pass the rigorous test for asylum. Others may be considered for legal status as victims of traffickers, but many have no legal avenue and had none to begin with.

And in many cases, children will face an immigration judge alone, without a lawyer and without a clue what is going on.

The majority get orders of removal and face deportation.

I have urged parents that the risks are too great, the danger too real, and the survival rate too low to attempt such a perilous journey.

But let’s be clear: Adults on all sides of the border are failing when children feel they have no way to survive other than risking their lives to cross thousands of miles…

In Congress, we are quick to point fingers of blame – especially in an election year – but surely we must accept some of the responsibility ourselves.

For decades, no realistic legal immigration options have existed for most people and this breeds a clandestine network of smugglers that feeds on desperation and hopelessness.

Opponents of immigration mock the children on their radio shows and have even cooked up a new conspiracy theory that claims President Obama has been calling these children to our country so he can put more people on welfare and so these children who can never become citizens will somehow vote for him.

But we must not make light of this tragedy.  These are children.  Desperate boys and girls who are being demonized.

Opponents of immigration are exploiting their desperation for political sport.

But the stakes could not be higher for the Republican Party.