El Salvador. Honduras. Guatemala. Three countries in Central America with increasing, rampant gang violence and homicide.
These are also the 3 countries from which the greatest influx of unaccompanied minors are crossing the border, fleeing to the United States. If we look at the graph, it is clear that the increase of unaccompanied children crossing are not coming from Mexico, but through Mexico to the United States. These children and those who are traveling with their mothers are fleeing from horrific violence and insecurity. I want to be clear from the very beginning of this post – these children are refugees.
So why is it that every time I turn on the television I hear elected officials pontificating about border security? Listening to the litany of Republican congressman, Tea Party activists, and pundits like Governor Palin I have seen interviewed over the past 4 days, it is as if the primary crisis on the border is one of security – all these children are getting across the border. As much of the nation was ensconced in celebrating “independence,” protesters blocked a bus transporting unaccompanied minors. I am horrified, disgusted, and ashamed of my fellow citizens.
The humanitarian crisis at the border is not a political problem. It is not even an immigration problem. It is merely the latest instance of a global refugee crisis. These children are fleeing for their lives, they are refugees and we need to readjust our national discourse accordingly. currently, the global refugee crisis is at an all time high – 9 million children globally.
Now at this point I could point out that, according to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,
“In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be the primary consideration…” (article3)
But the United States will shortly find itself as the only member state in the United Nations to sign but fail to ratify the document (South Sudan has begun the process and Somalia has stated an intent to re-commit). However, there are plenty of Conventions on Human Rights, Refugees, and so on to which we have committed ourselves and which demand that the treatment of refugees prioritize unequivocally the safety and well being of the children (not political concerns).
Within this national context, the voice of the Catholic Church has been steadfast – the dignity of these children is the primary concern. Both the USCCB and Catholic NGOs like Network have spoken out against calls for increased border security and deportation. While some Texas towns are attempting to create city ordinances to keep undocumented children out, Sacred Heart Parish in McAllen, Texas has transformed itself into a safe haven for women and children stating “This is not about politics, it’s about kids.”
For Catholic moral theology, it is quite simple. These children fleeing across our border are in the image of another child who was forced to flee political violence – the Infant Jesus. Shortly after his birth, Jesus, Mary and Joseph were forced to flee across the border into Egypt. Jesus of Nazareth was a child refugee. Jesus Christ is a child refugee.
On Monday, I returned from a Vincentian pilgrimage. In 17century France, plagued by poverty and generations of constant war, children called “foundlings” were abandoned by mothers who could not afford to feed them. One of the earliest missions of St. Vincent de Paul was to organize homes for foundling children staffed by the Daughters of Charity and funded by the Ladies of Charity. An unpopular cause, no one wanted to bother with the foundlings – if even their mothers do not care for them, why should we? In response, St. Vincent created foundling homes named for the Infant Jesus reminding everyone that these children were the Infant Jesus in their midst. Jesus Christ is alone, afraid, and in need of care. When a group of ladies questioned continuing to pay for the foundlings – it was expensive, how long were they expected to pay? St. Vincent listened to their concerns and responded pointedly – a child can die two ways; through murder or by refusing to feed him.
Like Moses’ mother Jochebed, mothers in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala feel they have no choice then to send their children down the Nile and pray for their safety. The fate of thousands of refugee children in our community are at stake – American Christians need to lift up our voices and like Sacred Heart parish change the conversation. As Christians and as Americans the choice is clear – to live up to our ideals and welcome the oppressed yearning to break free or betray the very core of our community and return children to a situation of immense suffering and danger and possibly death. It is their lives at stake and it is our soul.