Children in the wrong place at the wrong time

Aug. 02, 2014 @ 10:41 PM

85.60 × 53.98 mm of plastic: these are the dimensions of a "green card." How disturbing it is that this piece of plastic is what separates treating someone with dignity from treating someone with reproach and without empathy. In light of the humanitarian crisis on the border, the people of this nation should look inwardly and ask what makes these kids undeserving of compassion?  It is as though this nation is suffering from a humanitarian crisis in our hearts as long as we allow the plight of these children to continue.

When the Senate unanimously approved, and President George W. Bush signed, the Trafficking Victims Reauthorization Act (TVRA), they did not anticipate 50,000 children arriving at the border. TVRA allows migrants from non-contiguous countries an immigration hearing and representation instead of  immediate deportation. Moreover, TVRA states that children found along the border are to be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). However, HHS has only allocated for 8,000 children a year, not 50,000 plus, meaning that facilities are utterly over capacity.

Because HHS cannot accommodate all of the children in their facilities, many children are being placed in improvised facilities at military bases and at DHS processing centers, which are essentially refugee camps. To be clear, this is a humanitarian crisis that needs to be dealt with immediately. Given the politically polarizing nature of immigration, the issue of the children at the border has been swept under the rug of immigration reform alongside Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act.

However, Congress and the general public must be able to differentiate the recently arrived children from immigrants. These children are refugees. Immigrants leave their native countries for a chance at better quality of life; but refugees (and asylum seekers) leave their countries for a chance at life.

The United States has seen an increase of children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in recent years. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, asylum claims have increased from these three countries by 712 percent in the past five years. This figure accounts for claims made to the other Central American countries as well. Were this only a matter of ineffectual immigration policy, and not a humanitarian crisis, we would not see a rise in refugees from nations that are now hotbeds of violence. But we do; refugees from Nicaragua through Honduras have increased by 238 percent.

Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are embroiled in gang violence from rivals MS-13 and M-18, two notorious gangs originating from Los Angeles. The US deported MS-13 and M-18 members to their native countries in Central America, but we did not ensure that "they [Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras] were properly forewarned" of the arrivals.  Children growing up in these environments face forced recruitment, sexual assault and death. In their native countries, children guilty only of existing are in the wrong place to do so. The threat of these gangs is so extreme that parents are willing to send their children on a desolate journey facing dehydration, sexual assault, or being swept into the black market of human trafficking for a chance at life. Here in the US, the children must navigate a confusing and ineffectual program to deal with them. This is the wrong time for the children to be here, again for no fault of their own.

The Obama administration should provide these vulnerable children with humane living conditions. Moreover, the administration should ensure the refugees are given due process as set out by our own rule of law in the TVRA. We should also work jointly with the origin countries of these children to reduce the threats they are fleeing. The children are not the problem. They are a simply in the wrong place at the wrong time: the extreme violence in Central America, and the extreme gridlock in the USA. Treating these vulnerable children with humanity and decency is not a partisan issue. Despite the partisan bickering here, the Obama administration must act with compassion to provide a safe haven for the children regardless of documentation.

Brenda Onyango and Ritika Patil are juniors at Duke University. Both were Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami interns in Miami this summer as part of Duke Engage They worked with ­Haitian Women of Miami, which provides services to immigrant women and their families and assists with filing for statuses.