Keep vulnerable migrant children out of Washington politics

Our nation would rightfully be outraged if another country turned away 52,000 children seeking safety from violence, gang conscription, rape and drug wars. Yet, as this happens right now inside our own borders, some lawmakers have the audacity to use these innocent migrant children for their own partisan agenda. As neighbors, we have a moral obligation to support and protect these young sojourners from harm – whether it be extreme violence and desperation in making a dangerous journey – or the partisan abuse of their circumstances for political ends.

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), and Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Darrell Issa (R-calif.) have tried to cast blame upon the Obama administration by suggesting that the president created this crisis. The argument by these lawmakers that the administration has been weak on immigration enforcement couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is that President Obama has deported more immigrants than any president in history.

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Another claim made is that the Deferred Action for Childhoods Arrivals program is the reason for the significant increase in child migration. This program is not “amnesty” as Cruz has testified. In fact, it does not even provide a temporary legal status but only temporary “deferred action” from deportation to youth brought here as children before they were 16 and who have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, and would not apply to children who arrive today.

All of these claims ignore the fact that this is a regional humanitarian crisis impacting El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras most poignantly. The rate of displacement from these countries into neighboring Belize, Mexico and Nicaragua has soared by 435 percent according the United Nations, showing that push factors are much more to blame than pull factors.  What’s the real reason that children are migrating? The threat of violence means they simply have no other choice.

As Church World Service, we have deep experience working on child migration, protection and poverty reduction throughout the world and particularly in Central America. Every day we see children cross dangerous war zones to find safety. When fleeing violence, an “analysis” of immigration laws abroad does not compel a child to make such a perilous journey. The root causes of fear, physical violence and extreme poverty are typically the driving forces. In the case of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, a report from the UN Refugee Agency documents that these children are fleeing conscription into gangs and threats to their personal safety, including gender- and sexual- based violence. Honduras now has the highest homicide rate in the world.

We must set aside partisan bickering and stop the bold-face lies, so that instead we can work together as a people committed to protecting children. We need the right policy response and the resources and skill to back it up. The administration's current approach of detaining, removing, and denying many of these children access to life-saving protection is immoral, illegal and entirely short-sighted.

The Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services need to embrace the recommendations of experts and non-governmental organizations to ensure access to medical care, mental health services and legal representation along with the quick release of children to families, foster care or group homes as soon as possible while they await their immigration court dates.

In addition, we have heard recent reports that the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency responsible for the care of unaccompanied children, is seeing a major shortfall in funding, since the number of children has exceeded projections. ORR has announced that they plan to divert funds intended for the resettlement of refugees in order to respond to this growing crisis. The administration seems able to find additional funds to add to the billions we spend on border security, while refugee services bear the brunt of cutbacks. This is not a moral solution.

We can’t shortchange our international obligations and global leadership in protecting refugees – including many children – to respond to this new crisis, as though we can only live by our values in convenient times. As Americans, we must rise to the challenge and approve additional funding to meet our moral and legal obligations to provide adequate services to unaccompanied children, refugees, and all vulnerable populations in ORR's care.

And we must go beyond just supporting these children that we now find in our midst. We also must identify ways to collaborate with the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to create programs that foster local economic development and protect youth from armed criminal groups.

As we respond as a nation and as faith communities to this great need, I am reminded of the familiar Biblical story in Luke 18 when the disciples suggested that the children be taken away. Instead, Jesus responded, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

McCullough is president and CEO of Church World Service, a global humanitarian agency with programs in development and humanitarian affairs, advocacy for social justice, and refugee assistance.