In Martin Scorsese’s searing movie, “Gangs of New York,” Bill the Butcher, a “native-born” brute played by Daniel Day-Lewis lounges on the docks screaming and hurling stones at newly arrived immigrant “trespassers” as they step off the gangplank and onto America’s shore. Now, 170 years later, the slurs and epithets are just as hurtful when hurled by “natives” in California at refugee children, alone or with young mothers, as they attempt to find asylum here.
While the Irish immigrants of the 1850s were fleeing famine, today’s waves of refugees are sent by parents making a life-or-death decision to send their children thousands of dangerous miles across the desert, with little water, holding on to the tops of train cars, to escape a more immediate danger at home. Central American children have been making this perilous journey for decades, often alone. Lately, the situation has worsened; neither their parents, nor the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, are able to protect them from rampant gang violence, drugs, and sex trafficking afflicting those nations.
According to one report, a child living in New York City has a 1 in 25,000 chance of being murdered; those odds are increased to 1 in 14 in these lawless areas of Central America. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ranks Honduras as No. 1 in the rate of murders, followed by El Salvador at No. 4 and Guatemala at No. 5. Gang activity includes forced recruitment, where saying “no” is a death sentence, even for 10- and 12-year-olds.
This influx of asylum-seekers has not resulted from any change in policy. The Obama administration has already deported more than 2 million undocumented individuals in the last five-and-a-half years; in prior years, many of the deportees were members of the very gangs that are terrorizing the Central American countries today. The number of border agents and their weaponry has increased dramatically, as have economic conditions in Mexico, which has resulted in decreasing numbers of Mexicans crossing the border. Meanwhile, the numbers fleeing from torture, beatings, and murders in Central America has risen to floodgate proportions.
Congress recognized the dire situation by passing a 2008 law with near-unanimous approval, allowing unaccompanied minor victims from Central America to enter our borders. Under this law, these minors are to be transferred to Department of Health and Human Services custody within 72 hours, and they must be granted a hearing and an eventual decision on whether they will receive asylum, or be deported.
In the meantime, these tens of thousands of desperate, poor, vulnerable children need and deserve our protection and to be treated with respect. Our obligation is not unique; border states of Turkey, Lebanon, Congo, and contiguous Central American countries have received millions of refugees fleeing places where they can no longer live. America is vastly wealthier and many times larger than these countries. We are capable of handling this crisis, and must do so with compassion and efficiency.
President Barack Obama has requested that Congress authorize a $3.7 billion emergency supplemental spending bill to be spent on expanded border enforcement in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras; detention and exportation of undocumented adults traveling with children; additional air surveillance and border security agents; hiring of additional immigration judges and facilities; and a media campaign delivering the message that unaccompanied children will not automatically be given permission to stay here. It is discouraging to note that even though this bill appears to weigh heavily in favor of border control and expedited deportation, some of the very same elected officials who have called for more militarization of our border are now balking at giving the president a “blank check” to deal with this humanitarian catastrophe.
As for the children themselves, once they are here they face a new risk: a one-sided immigration hearing in a foreign language without the assistance of counsel. The American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of immigrants’ rights groups have sued to ensure that the refugee children receive a fair hearing. Many or most of these children are potentially eligible for special visas or have otherwise-valid asylum claims. In addition to determining whether they qualify for political asylum, these children should be protected under the principle of non-refoulement – a moral imperative under international law that prohibits refugees from being returned or expelled to their home countries when their lives will be at risk.
So long as we do not dismiss these children as “others” or “aliens” or “trespassers,” or treat them as prisoners, we must and we will find a way to make sure we do not deport otherwise-qualified children. Even conservative talk-show host Glen Beck has pronounced that our nation is in danger “the minute you go cold inside.” At the present, however, a dangerous and cold public sentiment is emerging that more closely resembles the attitude of Bill the Butcher than it does Emma Lazarus. We must show the world that we are better than that.