Over the last few weeks, there has been somewhat of a panic over the recent relocation of Central American immigrant children to Naval Base Port Hueneme. Most of these children, ages 13 to 17, fled their native countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to escape squalor, poverty and violence. Many of them traveled thousands of miles through Mexico, putting themselves in danger of being caught by cartels just in the hope they will reach the United States — some of them will be reunited with family, others have no family but would rather come to the U.S.
Now, many children in the U.S. contemplate running away from their homes, either to escape abuse from relatives or because they refuse to accept the authority of their parents. In Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, these issues seem to be the least of their concerns. Perhaps Americans have a misguided notion of the situation. What if the U.S. isn’t just the land of opportunity but the land where they have the best chance of survival?
Unfortunately, in this country, the term “illegal” takes precedence over “safety.” The fact that these teenagers are willing to trek thousands of miles to escape the misery they confront in their countries seems to have little bearing on what some Americans think of them. After all, it’s their fault that they were born in dangerous and impoverished countries. Oh wait.
It’s hard to imagine that some Americans lack the ability to feel compassion, much less empathy, for those trying to escape so much hardship, but so it is. In order to give some context to what’s happening in these countries, the website www.refugees.org provides a list of cases where the U.S. has granted certain “illegal” immigrants asylum. Here are some examples:
“Asylum was granted on the basis that Salvadoran women who have been the victim of gang rape and violence constitute a particular social group satisfying a statutory ground for political asylum.”
“Asylum was granted on the basis that ‘male siblings of those murdered by gangs who resist active recruitment efforts by the same gang’ constitute a particular social group ….”
“17-year-old male grew up in small fishing village. Around 2004 (he was 13) the MS gang came to that village and tried to recruit child and his friends to join the gang. The gang members targeted the child because his young age made him less likely for the police to suspect, his slight build made it possible for him to fit into small places, and he was a member of the church that the MS said was ‘worthless’ and ‘trash.’ He was held at gunpoint and shot at by gang members. The gang members repeatedly threatened his life and harassed him on a daily basis for a period of two years. Moreover, his friend and uncle were murdered by the gang. The child refused to join the gang because his religious convictions and membership in the Pentecostal Church prevented him from joining a gang and doing bad things. The court held that the child’s ‘religious convictions were ‘at least one central reason’ why the MS [Mara Salvatrucha] gang members targeted him in Honduras.’ ”
The list goes on and on, some stories worse than others, individuals usually no older than 20, and it’s only going to get longer from this point on as the situation in these countries only seems to be worsening. The Obama administration expects the number to increase to 90,000 by September, the end of the 2014 fiscal year, versus 26,000 for 2013. As the U.S. government tries to sort out the situation, providing safety, nourishment and a limited education and as children are placed with U.S. relatives and sponsors, we must put ourselves in their shoes, in their worn, thin and tattered shoes. How dare we look down on such young ones who put everything at risk in the hope that their next landing spot will offer a better chance of survival than their native land? We should be ashamed to call ourselves a superpower and even consider turning our backs on these youngsters.