Imagine, after days of terror on a long train ride, you arrive in another country where you are placed inside a big building and you do not know from one minute to the next what will happen to you. Oh, and by the way, you are only 10 years old, with no parent to comfort you. You are utterly alone, fearful in an alien land.
That, sad to say, is the plight of more than 50,000 children who crossed the Texas border in recent months. It is an appalling dilemma that has left everyone baffled.
Why did these children come here? How did they get here by themselves?
This past weekend, those questions were hounding me. News reports were contradictory and confusing, so I did some online research. This is what I found:
The Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are rife with drug cartels, gangs, coercion and extortion, all of it boiling in a foul elixir of horrific violence. This past June, 23 children were killed in Honduras, the murder capital of the world. In San Pedro Sula, one of its most vicious cities, 7-year-old Anthony Castellanos was tortured and then beaten to death by young gang members. His older brother had been a “lookout” for that particular gang but decided to quit. An order from prison was given to kill the older brother. The gang members shot to death the brother and a friend when they were going around looking for Anthony who’d already been murdered. Arrests were made.
In those three countries, young children are routinely forced to join gangs. If they do, they have a chance of being killed during criminal activities or ending up in prison. If they don’t join, they will likely be hounded or killed.
Young thugs sliced the throat of an 11-year-old boy because he refused to pay them the equivalent of 50 cents in extortion money. Other children are killed when gang members or druggies go to butcher their parents.
From January to May of this year, more than 2,200 children have fled to the United States from the horrors of just that one violent city, San Pedro Sula.
How do these children manage to come all the way to the United States? Parents or relatives pool money to pay traffickers to bring them to the Mexican-American border. If there is no room in the trains, many children have to cling to the tops of train cars for days and nights during the harrowing journey. They are sometimes robbed or raped along the way.
The traffickers who profit from these children’s misery make golden promises these kids will be welcomed in the United States and find a safe life there. What they find instead is a limbo their young, traumatized minds cannot understand.
Here’s a question that nags at my mind: Are all of these children victims of back-home violence? Or, are some of them pawns manipulated by those who want laxer immigration laws? Those who think America should have an anything-goes immigration policy might think all those children in a terrible plight will melt the hearts of Americans, who will allow them to stay. Then, later, parents, siblings and others in those countries might have an easier time gaining legal status north of the border.
The blame game has begun. Obama’s fault? Bush’s fault? A 2008 law addressed the trafficking of children from Central American countries. If such children arrive here, they must be given a chance to prove they were in imminent danger in their countries, in which case they can be granted asylum. Mexican children who come here can be deported almost immediately. Why the difference in treatment between Mexicans and Central Americans? I’m still seeking an answer to that question.
Some say the 2008 law gave traffickers just the excuse they needed to ship children to the United States. Others claim Obama’s “Dream Act” was misconstrued by traffickers and their victims as a “free ticket” to this country.
Obama wants to spend $3.7 billion to help deal with the mess. Many want the 2008 law changed so children from Central America can be deported, like Mexicans, in just days rather than letting them stay here for court appearances that can be delayed for up to three years or more.
The urgency, of course, is that the more children we let stay here, the more children will come, coaxed on by despicable traffickers.
If there were only an easy answer. But one thing we do know: This crisis underlines the long-overdue need for a comprehensive immigration reform, something that continues to keep the U.S. Congress in its inexcusable, stupifying deadlock.