Dozens of people rallied on Monday outside the U.S. federal building in downtown Los Angeles to show solidarity with tens of thousands of migrant children who have sought refuge in the United States - and to denounce President Barack Obama's efforts to send them back to the countries they fled.
"I call upon the president not to deport any of these children and to embrace them as refugees," said Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo, who joined other speakers in attributing the recent influx of children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to decisions made in Washington. "They are products of our foreign policy. They are seeking an opportunity."
The rally, organized by the Human Rights Alliance for Child Refugees and Families, came as the president is seeking another $2 billion to bolster border security and speed up the deportation process, a request that comes in response to a significant rise over the last couple years in the number of unaccompanied minors from the Americas crossing into the United States. In fiscal year 2012, just over 10,000 youth sought refuge in the U.S.; between October 2013 and June 2014 alone, that number rose to more than 39,000.
The dominant media narrative has been that these children are coming to the United States because of misinformation; because they believe that the administration which has deported more immigrants than any of its predecessors would show them leniency. But Leisy Abrego, a professor of Chicano/a studies at UCLA, said that what was causing these children to leave the only land they have ever known - and to leave everything, including their parents, behind - was the dire situation in their home countries.
"Today, as I see these very heartbreaking images of children coming here, risking their lives . . . I remember that this is just the most recent chapter of a very long and painful history in the region," said Abrego, who came to the US as child after fleeing a U.S.-backed civil war in El Salvador.
"As a child, I did not understand what was causing the bombings and shootings that forced us to leave our country," said Abrego. "It took many years for me to learn that history and to understand the very central role of the U.S. government." Today, she argued, U.S.-backed violence continues under the guise of "free trade" agreements that compel the nations of Central America to favor US corporations at the expense of independent economic development.
For its part, the Obama administration has sought to dispel the notion that it is welcoming of those fleeing violence and economic hardship in Central America, arguing that it would be deporting these children at a faster pace were it not for a law signed by President George W. Bush in 2008 that "made it nearly impossible to repatriate unaccompanied minors to Central America without letting them appear before an immigration judge," as The Los Angeles Timesreported. Because of the law, which the administration is trying to change, these children are allowed to request asylum, which delays deportation but is almost never granted to Latin Americans.
Alex Sanchez, who also fled the war in El Salvador as a child - "seeking refuge, ironically, in the country that was investing in the war" - said the Obama administration should show compassion toward those child migrants who are today fleeing "economic violence" and breakdown of society caused by the U.S.-backed war on drugs.
"We need to have the U.S. government redirect those 2 billion dollars to support those children here," said Sanchez, who founded the group Homies Unidos, which works with LA youth to provide peaceful alternatives to gang life. "These are children. Children! These are children coming here seeking refuge."
And these are children the Obama administration are deporting - children who have learned that talk of American compassion was just a rumor.