The news this past week has focused on the humanitarian crisis developing on our southern border. Thousands of unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras seeking to escape from the violence, human trafficking and extreme poverty in their countries have been entering the United States.

Two different responses to this crisis have proven highly controversial. President Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion to deal with the situation: $1.8 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services to provide housing for children and families caught crossing illegally; $1.6 billion for the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to bolster security and help speed up the deportation proceedings of undocumented immigrants; and $300 million for the State Department to help efforts of the three countries to improve safety and security.

Another kind of of response has come from media personality Glenn Beck: We Americans “must open our hearts” to avoid punishing the children caught in the middle of a political fight. “Through no fault of their own, they are caught in political crossfire. And  while we continue to put pressure on Washington to change its course of lawlessness, we must also help. It is not either/or; it is both. We have to be active in the political game, and we must open our hearts.” Beck announced that on July 19 he will help the illegal immigrant children by bringing tractor-trailers packed with food, water, teddy bears and soccer balls. In response to widespread conservative criticism of this plan, MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough commented, “Beck is not playing by President Obama’s handbook, but that of Jesus.” 

To deal with this humanitarian crisis more effectively, however, we need to move beyond our usual focus on symptoms and pay attention to the underlying pathology that has been generating the crisis. A first step would be to recognize the fact that these children are not immigrants, but refugees from the destructive effects that American power has had in their countries.

Although many in the U.S. would like to deport the children immediately, this is not legally possible. All of these young refugees are covered by the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, a law signed by President Bush that provided legal rights for children picked up by immigration authorities and bars the government from immediately deporting children from countries that do not share a border with the U.S. (e.g. El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras).

There is another critical factor in this crisis that needs to be recognized. Free trade agreements (NAFTA and CAFTA) that the U.S. has signed with nations in North America and Central America have given corporations great influence over the political and economic decisions of those governments. There’s roughly a 40-to-1 difference between the amount spent on the rich to that spent on the poor in those countries. Most of the spending on behalf of the rich goes toward military and para-military means of promoting plutocracy. As a result, the number of child refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala has increased more than 12-fold since 2010, and the number from Honduras, 15-fold. Between October 2013 and June 2014, when some 52,000 child refugees were taken into custody by the U.S., about 75 percent came from those three Central American countries.

As author William Boardman comments, “El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras shared more than a century of exploitation by Americans, both governmental and corporate. Since the 1950s, they have suffered brutal, anti-democratic coup d’etats orchestrated or approved by the United States. They have all suffered especially brutal dictatorships supported by the United States for the benefit of a tiny elite that controls most of the wealth in each country. The United States has brutalized these countries for decades, has helped make them unlivable, and now pretends to wonder why people don’t want to live there.  

“Ultimately the surge of child refugees into other countries has less to do with gangs and extortion, or with rape and murder, or even with poverty and political repression than it has to do with the American role in the world — the American power that promotes and profits from all these horrors, and expects gratitude in return.”

On July 7, more than 100 civil rights and civil liberties, human rights, faith, immigration, labor, criminal justice, legal and children’s rights organizations signed an open letter to Jeh Johnson, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, strongly objecting to the inhumanity of administration plans to open new detention centers for families. In it they said “Family detention profoundly impacts the emotional and physical well-being of children and breaks down family relationships. Locking babies in prison cells and deporting women and young children to dangerous situations is not the solution.”

Power to the walkers, letter-writers, and all who dream of a better world.  As Mother Teresa has reminded us, “If we have no peace, it’s because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

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This column by local writers is dedicated to the theme that the lion and the lamb can and must learn to live together and grow in their relationship toward one another to ensure a better world of peace and justice.  Opinions expressed in “Lion and Lamb” columns are not necessarily those of the Crossville Chronicle publisher, editor or staff.  For more information, contact Ted Braun, column coordinator, at 277-5135.

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