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U.S. panic and demagoguery over the arrival of vulnerable children betray a great nation’s values

Demonizing these children may make for good sound bites, but it is wrong — just as it was wrong in 1939 to send the passengers of the St. Louis back to Europe.

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

—  Engraved on the foot of the Statue of Liberty

Being open and receptive to huddled masses is not a value our nation has always practiced.

As the Nazi Holocaust unfolded, there were inexplicable obstacles to relaxation of U.S. immigration quotas driven by public opposition to immigration. Some of the opposition that stemmed from concern about the economic depression might have been understandable, but a lot was purely anti-Semitism. Once the United States entered World War II, the State Department implemented even stricter immigration policies, purportedly because of fear that Jewish refugees could be blackmailed into working as agents for Germany. If your application for entry into the United States indicated you still had relatives in Germany, you were denied entry. People died because of those policies.

Judge Kevin S. Burke

History gives us the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of prior generations. On May 13, 1939, the ship St. Louis sailed from Germany, for Havana, Cuba. The ship had 938 passengers, only one of whom was not a refugee. Although most of the passengers were German citizens, some were from Eastern Europe, and a few were even officially “stateless.” Most of the passengers had already applied for U.S. visas. When the ship arrived in Havana, Cuban authorities refused to allow the refugees ashore and the ship St. Louis sat in the harbor for days. At least one suicide attempt occurred. The St. Louis passengers were never allowed into the United States and were compelled to return to Europe. An estimated half of the passengers were to die later after both the United States and Cuba rejected their plea for refuge. Today there is reference to this tragic part of history in the Holocaust Museum. Let us hope there is no such historical reference to the children who are now coming to our southern borders seeking freedom and safety.

According to the Pew Research Center, there has been a 117 percent increase in the number of unaccompanied children ages 12 and younger “caught” at the U.S.-Mexico border this fiscal year compared with last fiscal year. By comparison, the number of apprehensions of unaccompanied teenagers ages 13-17 has increased by only 12 percent over the same time period. This is a “crisis” of children – very young children.

Poverty and violence in Central America

Poverty and violence – horrific violence – are among the main reasons these children are coming to our country. Children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador account for 74 percent of the surge. These countries have become especially dangerous in recent years: Honduras now has the world’s highest murder rate. According to the Los Angeles Times, “the homicide rate is stoked by the rivalry of the brutal street gangs, mostly descendants of gangs formed in Los Angeles and deported to Central America in the 1990s, including gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street gang. The gangs are emboldened by alliances with Mexican drug traffickers moving cocaine through the country.”

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San Pedro Sula, Honduras, which has the world’s highest homicide rate, is where 2,000 of these children are from. Nearly 95 percent of the murders in Honduras are not solved. The New York Times reported, “Children are killed for refusing to join gangs, over vendettas against their parents, or because they are caught up in gang disputes. Many activists here suggest they are also murdered by police officers willing to clean up the streets by any means possible.” El Salvador has the world’s second-highest murder rate. Guatemala has the world’s fifth-highest murder rate. A report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found that 58 percent of the 400 children interviewed “had suffered, been threatened, or feared serious harm” that might merit international protection.

“This is becoming less like an immigration issue and much more like a refugee issue,” said Wendy Young, executive director of Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit that helps unaccompanied immigrant kids. “Because this really is a forced migration. This is not kids choosing voluntarily to leave.” According to U.S. Border Patrol statistics, the number of “unaccompanied alien children” encountered from those countries has far outpaced those coming from Mexico.

Extortion is ‘widespread and intolerable’

Why are these children coming now? News outlets have noted a recent spike in gang-related violence. Extortion has become “widespread and intolerable,” says Cynthia Arnson, the Latin America director at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Everyone is hit, down to the person at the bottom of the informal economy selling chewing gum.” There is no delicate way of describing the situation that has driven these children to flee to our country: “Gang violence” is akin to terrorist attacks.

Demonizing these children may make for good sound bites, but it is wrong — just as it was wrong a generation ago to send the passengers of the St. Louis back to their death. Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Indiana, recently suggested “that immigrant children from Central America could be carrying the ebola virus that has killed some 800 people this year in West Africa,” the Northwest Indiana Times reports. Referencing a conversation he said he had with Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-IN), who is a heart surgeon, Rep. Rokita said: “He said, look, we need to know just from a public-health standpoint, with ebola circulating and everything else — no, that’s my addition to it, not necessarily his — but he said we need to know the condition of these kids.”

Rep. Rokita is not the only member of Congress to insinuate that the children apprehended at the border since last year may be infecting Americans with a deadly virus. Last month, Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Georgia, who is a physician, wrote: “Reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis are particularly concerning. Many of the children who are coming across the border also lack basic vaccinations such as those to prevent chicken pox or measles. This makes those Americans that are not vaccinated – and especially young children and the elderly – particularly susceptible.” Yet another doctor, Sen. Tom Coborn, R-Oklahoma, has not weighed in on the deadly virus rationale; he simply wants to put all the children on a commercial airliner and send them home.

Most of the parents of children who are coming to our country are not naive. There are dangers for children who attempt this flight, including rape, extortion, kidnapping, and even death. The journey to the United States is neither cheap nor safe for these children. Saying goodbye to your child and not knowing if you will ever see him or her again is emotional torture. It may cost $5,000 to pay the coyotes (human smugglers) to get a child into the United States. The coyotes often force an undocumented alien to call home to plead for more money to be wired or else the captors will murder them.

A 2008 law requires a court hearing

An anti-human-trafficking statute was adopted with bipartisan support in 2008. The law provides that children from Central America cannot be deported immediately and must be given a court hearing before they are deported. U.S. policy allows Mexican children caught crossing the border to be sent back more quickly. There is far too much discussion about changing this 2008 law (the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act) aimed at protecting victims of human trafficking. The law does make it more cumbersome to deport these children. The law provides a right to counsel and individualized attention to each of these children’s situation. You cannot expect an 11-year-old child who does not speak English to adequately explain to a judge why he is here, to go up against an experienced prosecutor and to understand the nuances of our immigration system.

Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them. Former U.S. Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat said in a report in May 1997, “Restrictive U.S. immigration policies kept hundreds of thousands of refugees from finding safety in the United States, most tragically exemplified by our refusal to allow the St. Louis to dock with its cargo of refugees — many of whom perished when the ship was forced to return to Europe.” Today too many of these children from Central America are in extreme danger if they are returned to their home countries.

There is a lot of discussion about where the United States stands as a world leader — or in this case, a moral world leader. There is something in our political fabric that aspires us to be a world leader. We live in an era where throughout the world there are terrible refugee problems. Turkey, Egypt and Jordan are all accepting millions of Syrian refugees. These countries are far less able to do so based on their economies than in comparison to the wealth of our country, and the number of young children we are talking about.

Yet, here we are, the United States, panicking because of the arrival of vulnerable children. That panic sends a poor message to the world about the capacity of this country for leadership. But more important, that panic, and the demagoguery associated with it, betray the values that make this a great nation. 

Kevin S. Burke is a trial judge on the Hennepin County District Court and past president of the American Judges Association


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