Editorial: Immigrant children deserve safe harbor

Last modified: Monday, July 28, 2014
The term “unaccompanied minors” sounds so clinical, it’s easy to distance from it. The phrase has been everywhere in the national media lately because of the unprecedented surge in the number of children fleeing Central American countries in hopes of finding refuge in the United States.

We prefer the word, “children.” It is children who are traveling thousands of miles through dangerous terrain, risking assault, starvation and abuse while on a journey without any adults to watch out for them.

This qualifies as an urgent humanitarian crisis, the likes of which should transcend politics, posturing and gridlock. When it comes to immigration policy and practice, children are a special case. Doing the right thing is often inconvenient. The presence of these children creates a complex, multi-tentacled problem that has no easy fixes. But fixes we must find, perhaps right here in western Massachusetts.

Since October, more than 52,000 children have been caught illegally crossing the border into this country, double last year’s figure. The majority of these children came from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, mostly from impoverished towns where rising levels of violence and other lawlessness endanger their lives.

The reasons these children are striking out on their own are, again, complex. Yet they can be summed up in a single word: desperation. They are fleeing violence in towns where gangs rule and where they or their loved ones might be in mortal danger. Their fear is real: Honduras, for example, has the world’s highest murder rate.

A July 20 New York Times article makes clear that the lives of many of these children would be endangered if the U.S. government were too quick to send them back home. One 13-year-old girl from El Salvador reported being taken off a bus at gunpoint. A young man from Guatemala described two friends who were murdered by drug traffickers while he was being pressured to work as a drug courier.

In some cases, the children are running to something, rather than running away, in that they are seeking to be reunited with family members already here — including, sometimes, their parents.

In a recent Boston Globe column by Yvonne Abraham, a 9-year-old girl who fled El Salvador explained: “We couldn’t leave our back yard. If we dared to go out after 6 p.m. the gangs would come and kill us.” This girl had been living with her grandmother in El Salvador after her parents came to the United States, her father to earn money to send back home, her mother to care for her own mother who was dying of cancer.

When her parents’ efforts to get their daughter a visa failed and they realized how unsafe she was in El Salvador, they borrowed $4,500 to pay a smuggler to bring her north. She was picked up by border agents and reunited with her parents, pending an immigration hearing. Other times the children picked up by authorities are placed in shelters while awaiting immigration proceedings.

Because of the influx, the 100 shelters in the country are full to bursting, so the government has opened three additional temporary shelters on military bases in California, Oklahoma and Texas. More may open elsewhere including, if Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has his way, here.

In proposing the federal government use either Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee or Camp Edwards on Cape Cod to care for up to 1,000 of the children, Patrick noted that this country has a history of providing refuge for children from all over the world, including Irish children escaping famine, Russian and Ukranian children fleeing religious persecution, Asian children coping with the aftermath of earthquakes.

“It bears remembering that these are children alone in a foreign land,” Patrick said of the latest young refugees.

Some people in this state and around the country say these children are not “our” problem. But they are inside our borders, and that presents a moral imperative, because all children deserve safe harbor. These are children without responsible adults looking out for them. That makes every one of us responsible.