Sunday, July 6, 2014

Suffer the Children

By Scott Nicol

We are confronted with a refugee crisis, as thousands of children, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, run for their lives, coming to the United States in the hope of finding safe haven.

Children have been crossing the southern border for years, skirting $3 billion worth of border walls and dodging the Border Patrol, but as violence in these three countries has reached epidemic levels the number of refugee children has overwhelmed federal agencies and become impossible for the press or the public to continue to ignore.

Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate: in 2011, 92 people out of every thousand residents were murdered.  El Salvador ranked second, with 70 murders per 1,000 people.  Guatemala came in fifth.  For comparison, the U.S. murder rate that year was 5 per 1,000. 

Last March the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) released a report, titled “Children on the Run,” on the underage refugees streaming out of Central America.  UNHCR interviewed 404 children who had been apprehended at the U.S. border, and most said that they were fleeing gang violence.

A seventeen year old boy from Honduras said that, “My grandmother is the one who told me to leave. She said: ‘If you don’t join, the gang will shoot you. If you do, the rival gang or the cops will shoot you. But if you leave, no one will shoot you.’”

A fifteen year old girl from El Salvador told the UNHCR, “I am here because I was threatened by the gang. One of them “liked” me. Another gang member told my uncle that he should get me out of there because the guy who liked me was going to do me harm. In El Salvador they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags. My uncle told me it wasn’t safe for me to stay there and I should go to the United States.”

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently released a map that shows the point of origin for Central American kids who arrived at the border in the first few months of this year.  By far the largest number, more than 2,500, came from San Pedro Sula, the most violent city in the most violent country on the planet. 

The text on the DHS map says, "We analyzed these locations to determine the factors pushing child migration to the US Southwest Border. […] Salvadoran and Honduran children… come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of traveling alone to the US preferable to remaining at home."

Notably absent from both the DHS document and the UNHCR report is a false belief on the part of these kids that United States laws had changed to allow them to stay here.  Republicans have made this a key talking point, a way to blame President Obama for the current crisis. 

In a recent FOX news op-ed, for example, Senator John Cornyn wrote, “Two years ago, the president stood in the Rose Garden and announced a unilateral change to U.S. immigration policy regarding children. Between that policy change and his broader refusal to uphold our immigration laws, he created a powerful incentive for children to cross into the United States illegally.”

Like the false idea that border walls stop desperate migrants in their tracks, it may sound plausible, but there is nothing to back Cornyn’s claim up.  The children interviewed by the United Nations described fleeing for their lives, not responding to a rumor that the United States’ convoluted immigration laws had become more favorable. 

What’s more, nearby countries other than the United States – Mexico, Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama – have seen a 432% increase in applications for asylum from Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans over the last five years.  Nothing that President Obama may or may not have said caused that.

The politicization of this crisis that Senator Cornyn’s statement epitomizes may doom these children.  While both parties call the situation a “crisis,” Republicans shy away from using the word “refugee” to describe children fleeing violence.  Their knee-jerk response to any situation on the border is to call for more militarization, starting with the mobilization of the National Guard. 

Governor Perry has announced that $1.3 million per week will be spent to send in the Department of Public Safety.  The DPS sniper that shot and killed Central American migrants from a helicopter, and the Highway Patrol speedboats with machine guns mounted on their prows that prowl the Rio Grande, have had no discernible impact on the number of people who come across the border, but in Perry’s mind it is important to look tough when faced with an influx of desperate children.

Democrats, from Representative Pelosi to border Representative Filemon Vela, have been more willing to face the fact that the children fleeing violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are refugees who deserve better than being locked in a bus garage or being forced to sleep on a concrete slab.

But President Obama seems unclear on the idea of refugees.  One the one hand, the President has pledged millions to assist these countries in shoring up their courts and combating gangs.  At the same time he is asking Congress for greater authority to speed up deportations.  Far from compassionate, making it harder for a child to plead his or her case before an immigration judge would inevitably cause many to suffer and die as they are thrown back into the grip of their persecutors, their tormentors, and ultimately their murderers.

On Thursday members of the U.S. House of Representatives will hold a field hearing in McAllen to discuss the refugees who are coming across our southern border.  Hopefully the assembled members will set aside the election year desire to blame the other political party and score political points, and will instead focus on the suffering of children who have traveled more than a thousand miles, and who have endured unspeakable abuse during their journeys, in a desperate effort to simply survive.

These children are not aliens, they are not invaders, they are refugees. 

If we reject them, if we deport them, if we put them on planes and send them back to the countries that they fled, or if the only response that we can muster is to line the border with more “boots on the ground” and machine guns pointing south, we will show ourselves to be no more humane than the gangs whose brutality prompted their flight. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Arresting Babies on the Border

by Scott Nicol

“They’re arresting babies.”

The thought struck hard, and it kept echoing.  I had come to the border wall with a correspondent from National Public Radio to see its impact on the environment.  We had also seen evidence of the apprehensions that occur there daily.  Piles of shoelaces and belts that immigrants were forced to abandon before being taken into custody, and even a pair of plastic toy helicopters, littered the ground.

The Border Patrol agent said that they had captured eighteen people.  Most sat in a line in the dirt beside the rusting wall as agents took their names and bagged their possessions.  Only three or four were adults.

Inside a Border Patrol van, escaping the heat, were two mothers, each with an infant in her arms.  On the seats beside them were a pair of toddlers.

The Border Patrol would probably prefer not to use the term “arrest,” but the children were taken into custody along with the rest of their family.  All eighteen will be included in the sector’s apprehension statistics.

In 2013 the Border Patrol apprehended 26,027 juveniles in its Rio Grande Valley sector, 21,553 of whom were unaccompanied.  Border-wide 38,833 out of the 47,238 minors who were captured were traveling without an adult.  At least these children were not on their own.

Call it an apprehension, call it an arrest, for a child too young to walk or talk the terminology does not matter.

The United States of America, through elected Representatives who are meant to express the will of its citizens, spent $18 billion last year to keep these families out.  A few years back taxpayers spent $12 million per mile to build the border wall that stood nearby, and more than $3 billion was spent to wall off 652 miles of the southern border.  From 1995 to 2003 we doubled the size of the Border Patrol, then over the last decade we doubled their ranks again.  They carry out the mission that we have given them.

We are arresting babies.

And toddlers.  And teenagers.  And adolescents.  And their parents.

We have decided that the people I saw lined up beside the wall, parents who traveled hundreds of miles from Guatemala looking for work with children in tow, threaten us.

Like most who walk or swim across the border they are not terrorists, they are not smugglers, they simply want a better life.  They are parents struggling to feed their families.  They are children hoping to escape violence, go to school, live the American Dream.  So long as that desperation and desire remains people will keep coming. 

This is not a challenge to our nation’s defenses, it is a test of our conscience.

When the Senate took up immigration reform they failed to grasp this.  They made a “border surge,” with hundreds of miles of new border wall, a further ballooning of the Border Patrol, and tens of billions of dollars of new military hardware, a “trigger” that must be completed before anyone currently in the country could start on a thirteen-year-long pathway to citizenship.  The irrational fears of middle American voters who only see the border when they watch FOX News or Border Wars on TV had to be appeased.

Even with the “surge” Republicans in the U.S. House refuse to even debate immigration reform.  They are far less concerned with the children sitting in a line on the dirt beside the wall than they are about a Tea Party challenge in the next primary election.

The Border Patrol agents called headquarters to have child car seats sent out.  Older kids shuffled back into the green and white van, now lacking belts and laces for their sneakers.

After they drove off we began to walk back along the top of the levee.  Through the border wall’s rusting bollards we could see another mother being marched out of the brush, clutching an infant to her chest.

As the sun settled into the treetops the wind carried the baby’s cries.