Children in the Desert
Bishop Minerva Carcaño, the Los Angeles Area Resident Bishop of the United Methodist Church, is acting with urgency. Along with more than 100 other religious leaders and activists, she was arrested for civil disobedience at the White House for protesting the deportation of the unaccompanied children crossing our border after fleeing from the brutal violence and poverty of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. A few days earlier she visited Port Hueneme Naval Base in Oxnard, California for the second time and met some of the hundreds of migrant children temporarily housed there. Joining her this time were Bishop J. Jon Bruno of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, Dr. Robert Ross of the California Endowment, and Fred Ali of the Weingart Foundation.
About her first visit to Port Hueneme she said,
The naval base has been turned into a holding site for these children, and it was to capacity with 575 children and young people between the ages of 13 and 17, and they've all been through horrific experiences. Many of the girls have experienced sexual assaults, and some of them have been raped... If you ask them what the prayer in their heart is, they'll tell you immediately, with a sense of faith, that indeed it's going to happen -- and their prayer is that God will give them life.
Bishop Carcaño spoke to a rapt congregation at the Children's Defense Fund (CDF)'s Samuel DeWitt Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry at CDF Haley Farm in mid-July about the humanitarian crisis of thousands of desperate children crossing our border. The details are haunting: An unaccompanied toddler being cared for by little girls sitting in a locked cell for 12 days. A grandmother with three little granddaughters who a gang had threatened to take if she didn't pay over $20,000. These are stories from one point of the border at McAllen, Texas -- just a few of the tens of thousands of children who have crossed the desert in this current migration wave, including nearly 60,000 unaccompanied children traveling alone.
These children are in many ways the latest innocent victims of the U.S. war on drugs. Even as the U.S. worked with Mexico and Colombia to close down the drug cartels and gangs there, the massive market for illegal drugs here in our nation has remained. To feed our illegal drug habit, the drug lords and vicious gangs have moved operations and created unprecedented levels of violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Now these essentially lawless countries have become some of the most dangerous places on the planet.
My friend Kent Wong, the director of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Labor Center, recently returned from Honduras and wrote: "I had a series of meetings with courageous union, community, and women leaders who are organizing in the face of tremendous obstacles. We met in San Pedro Sula, the murder capital of the world. Many of the leaders we met with have had family members and friends who have been killed. The northward migration to flee the violence and extreme poverty is an act of desperation. Deportations are not the answer."
Part of the solution may rest with the faith community here and abroad. I am encouraged to see the coming together of many faiths in McAllen, Texas to respond to the crisis in their city. But this crisis needs a compassionate response from every city and our entire nation. I shudder when I see the angry outbursts about these helpless children coming from some communities.
The best solution, as always for children, is to reunite them with their families whenever and as soon as possible. Of the nearly 60,000 unaccompanied children who have crossed the border since October, it is reported that nearly 50,000 of them have been released to sponsors or family members, sometimes even to a parent already living in the U.S. The continuing horror is for those children being kept in detention like those Bishop Carcaño keeps visiting.
In her July Haley Farm sermon, Bishop Carcaño said: "If our children see us ignoring the plight of the immigrant child, what do we teach them? Do we not teach them that immigrant children are worthless, not worth our attention or our care? And what do we teach the immigrant children if they never see anyone extend a hand, a caring hand to them? Do we not confirm that lesson of worthlessness, and do we not teach them that the world is indeed cruel and unjust? And will either lesson bring them and us any justice, any equity, any peace, any joy?"
Bishop Carcaño's words are a reminder that those of us who follow Jesus' teachings and the call in every major faith tradition to care for children must act on our faith. We must see these thousands of children in need of help right now not as a political dilemma but as an urgent humanitarian crisis. As Bishop Carcaño says: "We must be the strongest witness for justice in God's reign that we can muster, a witness for the children ... not just for some children, but for all of God's children." As such witnesses, we must help ensure sufficient resources are provided by the government and faith and other community organizations so these vulnerable children will be treated humanely, find safe families and warm food to eat, and receive the counsel and due process hearings guaranteed them in law before any are returned to their dangerous homelands and possible deaths. It is deplorable that Members of Congress left town for their own summer vacations with the humanitarian crisis continuing and without providing the resources the government needs to ensure safety and justice for these innocent children.
© 2014 Marian Wright Edelman