We should help children at the border, not criminalize them

You’ve surely seen the pictures by now: children crowded together in rooms too small to hold them all, warehouses covered in space blankets and gym mats, concrete rooms filled to overflowing with families. The photos recall images of people displaced by natural disasters throughout the world — only this time the disaster is created by U.S. immigration policy, and the photos of the humanitarian crisis on the border are showing the desperate reality for tens of thousands of unaccompanied children.

These children and families are fleeing deadly circumstances in their home countries. Murder rates and gang violence are at all-time highs, with many facing ‘join-or-die’ gang recruitment. 

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The reality is that children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, some as young as 5 years old, are fleeing for their lives and looking for the safety of neighbors and strangers. 

The moral thing to do when a child shows up in your yard scared, dazed, and possibly wounded or taken advantage of by less caring people, is to take them in, care for them, and protect them from harm. You do not send them back to the violence and poverty that forced them to flee in the first place. 

Right now we are doing the wrong thing for unaccompanied children on the border, and we should be ashamed of ourselves. When children and families are found wandering the desert that divides the United States from our neighbors to the south, they are confronted with a militarized force.

We should be confronting this humanitarian crisis head on by providing adequate food, housing, and protection from abuse, and finding a long term solution for these vulnerable children that reflects our values as a country. Instead, President Obama is once again playing to the xenophobic and racist far right elements of the Republican party-- using “tough on immigration” rhetoric to mask human rights abuses that would appall most Americans if the children were in their own backyard.

It is a false solution to lay blame at the hands of the very children and families who are suffering — fleeing countries riddled with political and economic violence.

President Obama’s decision to expedite deportations as a message to other children considering making the trek is ludicrous and will put countless children directly in harms way. The only purpose of it is to appease a volatile political climate heading into an election season. 

While legal under current immigration law, President’s Obama’s actions will do nothing to solve our immigration crisis but will undoubtedly continue to ensure that Latinos feel the the political burn doled out by both Republicans and Democrats.

The president’s decision to address scared children as criminals instead of looking at the whole of this humanitarian crisis contributes to the poisonous immigration debate that rests on dehumanizing and criminalizing Latino migrants and citizens, and pits Latinos against other Americans. It is the opposite of what the president has always promised Latino communities on immigration.

This is already playing out in the small southern Virginia town of Lawrenceville where local residents are opposing the government’s plan to house unaccompanied children in a defunct historically black college .

Racially motivated fears, stoked by national politicians seeking political gain, are causing strife in local communities across America.

Rather than sending children from the frying pan into the fire we should be scooping them off the heat completely. We should treat this as the humanitarian issue that it is by sending an independent group of humanitarian observers who can observe conditions and investigate allegations of abuse. We should make sure that each child receives legal representation as they head into a confusing legal system, that children are reunited with their families in the United States, and offer protection instead of detention and deportation.

How we handle this humanitarian crisis says a lot about who we are as a country right now and who we want to be in an ever shrinking globalized world. If we allow these children to be abused, deprived, and deported from our borders without a second thought, any remaining moral authority we have on the national stage will be lost.

Carmona is executive director of Presente.org, the nation’s largest online Latino organizing group. He lives in Los Angeles, California.