Maybe we should just send the Statue of Liberty back where it came from.
That long- and much-beloved iconic statue, standing in New York Harbor, greeting immigrants by the tens of thousands, is inscribed with Emma Lazarus’ poem: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” Our beloved Lady Liberty has been a beacon of hope for millions of people seeking a better life.
The first human being to come through Ellis Island was an unaccompanied minor. Her name was Annie Moore, and a statue of her (and her two younger brothers) now stands on that tiny piece of hope in New York Harbor, along with one of her in Ireland, from whence she came. Thousands of unaccompanied minors followed her through Ellis Island.
But these days, with unprecedented numbers of children reaching our border with Mexico, many in Congress would have you believe that we are dealing with barbarians at the gate, rather than children seeking refuge from violence in their home countries. Congress is refusing President Obama’s request for emergency funds to deal with this crisis and seeking to overturn a human trafficking law (which grants a hearing to apprehended immigrants in order to determine whether or not they qualify for asylum), in order to deport these children more speedily. These are not immigrants simply looking for a cushier life, but rather refugees seeking relief from a dangerous and deadly, domestic “war” in their own countries.
In contrast to the increasing violence in this “northern triangle” of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and its attendant and dramatic surge of refugees, there is Nicaragua. While it is the second-poorest nation in our hemisphere (second only to Haiti), violence there has not increased in recent years, and there is no comparable surge of immigrants northward. If this surge of unaccompanied minors were about economics, and a “better life” financially, then we would see an equally dramatic surge in immigrants from Nicaragua—but we don’t.
While recently in El Salvador, a country where gang violence, brutality, and death are an everyday reality, I talked with people about parents who were making the excruciating decision to send their children north, in the hands of corrupt smugglers, across the equally dangerous countries of Honduras and Guatemala, across the expanse of Mexico, to reach the United States. They do it because that precarious journey is safer for their children than being in El Salvador, where the police and government are impotent against the power of the gangs that rule the country. One mother saw gang members kill her 15-year-old son for refusing to be drafted into the gang and her 13-year-old daughter raped and then murdered, just because they could. Now that she has identified their murderers, she herself has been targeted and is trying to escape from the country.
Just imagine for a moment what it would be like to feel that you needed to send your own beloved children away, just to be safe from violence—not knowing if they would ever arrive at their destination, or might be abused and raped along the way, or held hostage for additional money from unscrupulous smugglers, or die in the desert reaching America. Do we really think that El Salvadoran parents love their children any less than we love ours?!
We fully expect other countries to take in refugees and deal with them as best they can. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees reports that Turkey has taken in more than 800,000 refugees from the Syrian civil war, and tiny Jordan over 600,000 from that same conflict. That represents a number equal to 1.1 percent of the population of Turkey (73 million), and 7.5 percent of the population of Jordan (8 million). These are countries with impoverished people of their own, with national budgets that can ill afford it. But they do it because humanitarian (not to mention religious) sentiment requires it. Every major religion in the world addresses God’s will that demands caring for the world’s most vulnerable and showing hospitality to the stranger.
Contrast that to the 50,000 or so unaccompanied minors at our border with Mexico. They represent only 0.16 percent of our population (316 million), and we are the richest nation on earth. We have enormous resources. What we don’t have is the will to step up and respond to this great humanitarian crisis at our border. What we have are too many members of Congress playing to the xenophobic fears of their conservative base, rather than seeing these children as the refugees from violence that they are.
I know that this is a complicated situation. No, I don’t think we should simply open our borders and let anyone in who can reach a portal into the United States. Yes, I think an orderly and measured immigration policy is appropriate. I understand that we need to work with El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to discourage migration north, but that won’t happen until the violence and ever-present danger in those countries subsides. In 2011, Honduras had a murder rate five times that of Iraq. Military-style weapons are readily available from North American-provided stockpiles of weaponry from the ’80s and ’90s. We might start by trying to stem the sale of arms to those who are perpetrating the violence in the first place.
In the meantime, there are these children at our border. Most of them do not speak English. Most of them do not understand—or even know enough to ask for—asylum. If they do ask for asylum, they don’t have any idea how to navigate the cumbersome legal process for acquiring that status. And we don’t have enough people to assist them in their rightful claims as refugees and asylum seekers (part of what the president’s request would help fund). How can the answer be “Send them back to the violence from which they came,” where they will undoubtedly be harmed?
We are better than this. Some Americans believe we should respond positively, especially religious people. In Syracuse, New York, Mayor Stephanie Miner has actually written a letter to President Obama, requesting that some of the children be sent to their community for appropriate care. It’s time that other communities step up to the plate.
As Mayor Miner writes, “Our nation is rightly proud to point to the famous promise at the entrance to New York Harbor: ‘Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me’ … Here in Syracuse, we stand ready to live up to that promise.” If the rest of us can’t, or won’t, we should just return Lady Liberty to France.
The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson is the IX Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @BishopGRobinson.