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In My Words: U.S. has moral imperative to help children at the border

Elon University professors Mathew Gendle and Carmen Monico co-authored a newspaper guest column in which they argue U.S. actions played a role in the nation's southern border crisis and that all citizens have an obligation to aid children fleeing their homes in Central America.

The following column appeared recently in the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News, the Winston-Salem Journal and the Gaston Gazette via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are of the authors and not Elon University.

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Mathew Gendle & Carmen Monico

U.S. has moral imperative to help children at the border
By Mathew Gendle (mgendle@elon.edu) and Carmen Monico (cmonico@elon.edu)

 
It takes a special kind of hypocrisy to destabilize a child’s home and culture only to turn your back on that child when he reaches out for help.

That’s how we’re treating thousands of unaccompanied minors who have appeared at our southern border in recent years and it’s what President Barack Obama exuded this month when he announced a delay in executive action on immigration until after the November elections.

So much for America being that “shining city on the hill.” We’d prefer to stay in the dark and not have to see the faces of those who suffer.

The overwhelming majority of these immigrants, some as young as 5, flee their homes to escape poverty and exceptionally high rates of violence stemming from a regional epidemic of gang activity and civil strife. In 2013, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees conducted interviews with 404 unaccompanied children that entered the United States through its southern border and found that 58 percent had been forcibly displaced because of past or prospective harm. The adolescents interviewed by UN staff pointed to violence, domestic abuse and deprivation that made escape their only real option for survival.

Minors typically endure unspeakable hardships en route to the United States. Some travel the length of Mexico on foot, routinely exposed to malnutrition and a host of other health hazards as well as exploitation, abductions and beatings at the hands of human traffickers.
 
Others choose to complete their journey atop the cars of the Mexican freight train system.  Riders typically fare no better than those on foot. They are subjected to various train-hopping injuries such as broken bones, lacerations and loss of limbs, as well as robbery, physical and sexual assault, harassment, and abuse by officials and locals during train transfers. Some are kidnapped for ransom by the Zetas and other Mexican criminal organizations.
 
Despite the perils, tens of thousands of children have appeared at the border largely intact, and American policymakers struggle to respond. The federal government is following a rigid plan of deportation and resettlement, temporarily housing the youth around the country in often crowded and sub-standard detention facilities and providing them a rote deportation hearing before returning them to their country of origin.
 
This approach is problematic in at least two ways. First, it has been documented that many children are not being provided with proper legal representation during their expedited deportation proceedings, which makes a mockery of our stated intent to afford them due process. Second, there are several lines of evidence that indicate that children returned to their country of origin are at a greatly increased risk of suffering “death by deportation,” falling victim to violent acts they intended to escape via their migration north.
 
These children might be classified as refugees and eligible to apply for political asylum if granted adequate legal representation in deportation procedures. Details of a recent lawsuit filed by the ACLU and other civil rights defenders, based on allegations out of a federal detention facility in New Mexico, paint a disheartening picture of that absent due process.
 
Some local communities have even introduced specific resolutions to forbid the housing of immigrant children within their own borders. It is clear that local leaders view the crisis as a Central American problem that needs to be solved by the governments of those countries. This anti-immigrant view casts these children to the wind and attempts to absolve the United States of any responsibility for their care.
 
Such a one-dimensional worldview overlooks the clear reality that our foreign policy has played a central role in the very upheaval that these countries now experience. The failed U.S.-led and financed “War on Drugs” in Colombia and Mexico has pushed illicit drug related activity and violence into Central America, and decades of political and economic exploitation and interference at the hands of the United States has produced debilitated Central American governments that are now incapable of effectively dealing with corruption, endemic gang violence, severe economic challenges, and widespread civil strife.
 
A number of bills in Congress address this humanitarian crisis and countless petitions advocate for children who aren’t afforded due process. We must not let up pressure on Congress or our president to act. At the state and local level, we must likewise condemn anti-immigrant rhetoric. In a country where everyone is the descendant of immigrants, xenophobic views defy our own national identity.
 
The ongoing humanitarian crisis defies quick solutions. Yes, we are a nation of laws that need to be upheld, but to use them to deny our own role in the decay of Central American society and to refuse assistance to these children who have already suffered so much is unconscionable and an affront to basic human decency.
 
The United States has an obligation to find solutions that protect our own interests while providing meaningful assistance to those whose human rights under international standards deserve to be upheld and who are rightfully entitled to a due process in our legal system.
 
Mathew Gendle is an associate professor of psychology and Carmen Monico an assistant professor of human service studies at Elon University.

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Eric Townsend,
Staff
9/23/2014 8:45 AM