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Should We Treat Children Fleeing Violence as Kids or Criminals?

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American Values Must Remain At the Heart of Our Response to Child Refugees

With Congress embarking on several hearings this week related to the rise in the number of children fleeing violence in Central America and seeking safety in the United States, the question is what is going to guide our response: will our leaders live up to our values as a compassionate nation that offers safe haven to those in danger and put the interests of children first, or will they engage in cynical political posturing and exploit this crisis to score points?

Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, states it best:

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…

 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.

Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, said:

This week’s hearings are likely to turn out to be show trials organized by Republicans to score points on the President.  They want to blame him for a situation that, when analyzed carefully, has more to do with conditions in Central America than with U.S. border policy.  And let’s not sugarcoat it.  When you peel back the veneer of trumped up concern, what some Republicans want the government to do is to treat kids as criminals.  They think the best answer is to lock these kids up, deny them a meaningful day in court and ship them back to the violent conditions they escaped.  We need our leaders work together to organize a multi-faceted response that puts the interests of the children first.  And we need leaders who will stand up and say America is big enough and strong enough to respond to this situation with intelligence and compassion.  Instead, what we can expect in this week’s hearings is political grandstanding and cynical posturing at its worst.