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Must Reads for Every Member of Congress On Central American Children Fleeing Violence

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The crisis of unaccompanied minors fleeing violence from Central America continues to be front page news across the country.  As Congress mulls how to respond – if at all – the most important pieces members should read are 1) a powerful piece in the New York Times’ “Sunday Review” authored by Sonia Nazario (the author of a 2003 book on one Honduran boy’s perilous journey to the United States); and 2) a column in today’s Washington Post by E.J. Dionne.  Here are excerpts from both:

“The Children of the Drug Wars” by Sonia Nazario:

Cristian Omar Reyes, an 11-year-old sixth grader in the neighborhood of Nueva Suyapa, on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, tells me he has to get out of Honduras soon — ‘no matter what.’

In March, his father was robbed and murdered by gangs while working as a security guard protecting a pastry truck. His mother used the life insurance payout to hire a smuggler to take her to Florida.  She promised to send for him quickly, but she has not.

Three people he knows were murdered this year.  Four others were gunned down on a nearby corner in the span of two weeks at the beginning of this year.  A girl his age resisted being robbed of $5.  She was clubbed over the head and dragged off by two men who cut a hole in her throat, stuffed her panties in it, and left her body in a ravine across the street from Cristian’s house.

‘I’m going this year,’ he tells me.

…Children still leave Honduras to reunite with a parent, or for better educational and economic opportunities.  But, as I learned when I returned to Nueva Suyapa last month, a vast majority of child migrants are fleeing not poverty, but violence.  As a result, what the United States is seeing on its borders now is not an immigration crisis.  It is a refugee crisis…

…Enrique’s 33-year-old sister, Belky, who still lives in Nueva Suyapa, says children began leaving en masse for the United States three years ago. That was around the time that the narcos started putting serious pressure on kids to work for them. At Cristian’s school, older students working with the cartels push drugs on the younger ones — some as young as 6. If they agree, children are recruited to serve as lookouts, make deliveries in backpacks, rob people and extort businesses. They are given food, shoes and money in return. Later, they might work as traffickers or hit men.

…At Nueva Suyapa’s only public high school, narcos ‘recruit inside the school,’ says Yadira Sauceda, a counselor there.  Until he was killed a few weeks ago, a 23-year-old ‘student’ controlled the school.  Each day, he was checked by security at the door, then had someone sneak his gun to him over the school wall.  Five students, mostly 12- and 13-year-olds, tearfully told Ms. Sauceda that the man had ordered them to use and distribute drugs or he would kill their parents.  By March, one month into the new school year, 67 of 450 students had left the school.

…The United States expects other countries to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees on humanitarian grounds.  Countries neighboring Syria have absorbed nearly 3 million people.  Jordan has accepted in two days what the United States has received in an entire month during the height of this immigration flow — more than 9,000 children in May.  The United States should also increase to pre-9/11 levels the number of refugees we accept to 90,000 from the current 70,000 per year and, unlike in recent years, actually admit that many.

By sending these children away, ‘you are handing them a death sentence,’ says José Arnulfo Ochoa Ochoa, an expert in Honduras with World Vision International, a Christian humanitarian aid group.  This abrogates international conventions we have signed and undermines our credibility as a humane country.  It would be a disgrace if this wealthy nation turned its back on the 52,000 children who have arrived since October, many of them legitimate refugees.

This is not how a great nation treats children.”

“Bordering on Heartless” by E.J. Dionne:

“It is said, and it’s true, that the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act that swept through Congress and was signed by President George W. Bush in December 2008 has had the unintended consequence of encouraging the Central American children to head north. To protect victims of sex trafficking, the law guaranteed an immigration hearing to unaccompanied minors, except for those from Canada and Mexico.

As the bill was making its way through Congress, members of both parties could not stop congratulating themselves for their compassion.

The bill, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) said, arose from ‘exemplary bipartisan cooperation’ and showed how big-hearted we are.

‘Together, let us end the nightmare of human trafficking,’ he declared, ‘and lead the world to see, in the poignant words of Alexis de Tocqueville, that America is great because America is good.’

Suddenly, we are far less interested in being ‘good’ than in protecting our borders — even if those we are trying to ‘protect’ ourselves from are the youngest of refugees.

…All the pressure now is to change the Wilberforce Act so it would no longer apply to Central American children. There’s a strong logic to this. The law does create a powerful incentive for unaccompanied minors from Central America (which is not that much farther away than Mexico) to seek entry, en masse, to our country.

But there is another logic: that the anti-trafficking law really did embody a ‘good’ instinct by holding that we should, as much as we can, treat immigrant children with special concern. Do we rush to repeal that commitment the moment it becomes inconvenient? Or should we first seek other ways to solve the problem? Yes, policymakers should be mindful of unintended consequences. But all of us should ponder the cost of politically convenient indifference.”