Herald-Leader Editorial

U.S. must not return child refugees to violence

July 22, 2014 

The difference between refugees and immigrants is being lost — or, maybe, abandoned — in the furor over children and families fleeing violence in Central America for the United States.

Honduras has the world's highest murder rate (90.4 homicides per 100,000 people compared with the U.S. rate of 4.1 per 100,000.) Children, even as young as 10, are victims of brutal gang warfare and lawlessness.

Of Honduras, The New York Times recently reported, "children are killed for refusing to join gangs, over vendettas against their parents, or because they are caught up in gang disputes. Many activists here suggest they are also murdered by police officers willing to clean up the streets by any means possible."

Guatemala and El Salvador are close behind in violence and threats to the young.

It's hard to imagine the desperation and danger that are driving parents to entrust their children to smugglers on a hazardous 1,000-mile journey north. Smugglers — who are misleading families about what awaits them at the other end — charge $5,000 to $10,000 a child, making this a lucrative form of human trafficking.

In 2008, Congress enacted and President George W. Bush signed a law aimed at protecting child victims of trafficking by guaranteeing children from countries other than Mexico and Canada due process — including a hearing before a judge and a lawyer — to help them make a case for being granted asylum.

Now there is a bipartisan push to revoke that protection, so that youngsters can be deported immediately, sending them right back into the violence they fled.

Surely, we are a better country than that.

The notion that the United States cannot afford to humanely harbor the estimated 50,000 children, now being held in less-than-optimum conditions, is absurd. For reference, Fayette County Public Schools enrolls about 40,000 children. We're talking about a manageable number. Many who fled have family in the United States who would care for them.

Congress was right in 2008 to protect children crossing international borders. This country's long history of dominating Central America creates an additional obligation. The region's lawlessness and poverty can be traced in great part to U.S. support for corrupt despots.

The United States helped stamp out democratic movements in order to protect U.S. business interests and further Cold War policies. We trained death squads that raped Catholic nuns and brutalized indigenous people.

The raging drug trade in Central America is a result of U.S. policies and consumer demand, while U.S. gun dealers are profitably arming the narco-gangsters. When it comes to Central America, the United States' hands are not just dirty, they are bloody.

This past weekend a group called Americans First rallied in Lexington with the goal of halting any reforms that would make it easier for refugees fleeing violence or migrants who have fled poverty to stay in this country.

It's an interesting name choice for a group that wants to put the interests of U.S. citizens first; the first Americans were the dark-skinned people who lived here before Europeans started drawing colonial boundaries.

If the standard for being a first American is how long your family has been here, the children seeking asylum have a much stronger claim than those holding protest signs on a New Circle Road overpass.

The children, fleeing on freight trains and across deserts with nothing but what they can stuff into a backpack, are ours — whether we want to admit it or not.

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