It's immoral to turn our backs on children in need

On July 14, Pope Francis sent a message about the tens of thousands of Central American and Mexican children arriving at U.S. borders. He said, “This humanitarian emergency requires, as a first urgent measure, [that] these children be welcomed and protected.”

He is right. Children fleeing violence and hunger should not be met by irrationally fear-driven protesters waving signs in their faces or news that legislators want to deny them some of their current legal rights. And yet that is what happening in our country, to our shame.

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A few days before the pope sent out his message, I went to the Texas-Mexican border to offer my legal services to the children and young mothers who were pouring in to the detention centers and shelters there. On my first day I visited respite tents where I saw exhausted young mothers holding babies. They seemed to be more passed out than sleeping, and one young girl slept with a baby still nursing at her breast. All of the young mothers were very thin, and one had terrible bruising around her arms, as if she had been beaten.

The children I saw had dirty shoes with holes in them – and no shoelaces, just like prisoners.

I learned that Catholic Sisters and other volunteers used to provide them with food they were familiar with like beans and rice. They quickly learned, however, that the young mothers and children were so dehydrated and malnourished that they vomited immediately afterwards. They were advised by doctors to serve them soup and crackers, and maybe a half sandwich.

The moms and kids were able to shower and given a change of clothes. Those with bus tickets to family members were awakened at 4:30 AM and taken to the bus stop with care packages of water, fresh fruit and yogurt bits.

One of the scary parts of this last part leg of their journeys is that many travel on alone. One young woman headed to New York was told by a man on the bus that her real destination was Boston. When she got off with him, he kidnapped her and got her family’s phone number. He then demanded $1,500 for her return.

I met “Maria,” a little seven-year-old from Honduras, who told me that her trip north began on a train that had derailed. She was then taken to a boat to continue the journey. She didn’t know anyone on the train or boat. I can’t even imagine her fear – and marvel at her courage. I also can’t help thinking that most of the privileged people we know would not willingly experience such fear.

I am deeply frustrated that so many people refuse to believe that these children and young mothers take part in these dangerous journeys because they face greater terrors at home. Little Maria is from Honduras where crime against girls and women is violent, escalating and rarely prosecuted.

It frankly sickens me that some in Washington want to weaken legal protections for unaccompanied children afforded by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. The desire to process these children more quickly, without fully understanding their stories, and then deport them to places where they will face violence and hunger is immoral and inhumane. Every child deserves legal counsel. Every child’s case should be considered carefully by a judge.

Those of us working with the children sometimes ask them to draw their hopes. Many draw simple scenes of themselves with their Mamas or families. I plan to take those pictures with me when I talk to some members of Congress in a few days. These are children who simply want to be safe with their families. Can this be too much to ask of the wealthiest nation on earth? How can we turn our backs on them?!

One sign of hope is that there has been an outpouring of love and concern for these children and young mothers from many faith communities and individuals. This story doesn’t appear enough in the media.

When one mother was not allowed to have one of her three children stay with her because she couldn’t afford an extra bed, I told her story and was overwhelmed by the number of people willing to give her the money to buy one. It seemed like a scene out of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

It is like that around here. You just ask people for something that may help these young women and children and they generously respond. The protesters and adults who would stop a busload of children we see on the news do not dim the light of Christ that is beaming so bright in Harlingen, Brownsville and McAllen, Texas. When we treat each other as human beings with inherent dignity, it really is a wonderful life.

In his July 14 message, Pope Francis repeated something he had said earlier: “A change of attitude toward migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization – all typical of a throwaway culture – towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only cultures capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world.”

Demonstrators, those who respond with fear and prejudice and many congressional leaders need to hear heed this message. We cannot turn our backs on children in need.

Lacy is a lawyer who, until last year, worked as a lobbyist at NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby. She is also part of NETWORK’s Nuns on the Bus campaign for justice.

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