A refugee crisis clouded by a leadership crisis

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Today, my colleagues and I in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus meet with President Obama to discuss the ongoing refugee crisis along our southwest border. 

I have not been in Washington long, but the response to this crisis reaffirms, to me, everything wrong with our politics today. 

Imagine a child braving inhuman conditions, risking beatings, rape and murder along the way, to come to our border. She is weak, hungry and seeking the America in our history books, the America that has always provided sanctuary to those in danger. Not trying to sneak into our country, she presents herself to the nearest border guard, seeking asylum, though she is far too young to use, or understand, that word.

In her home country, she faces gruesome, violent death, but we turn her away.

Imagine a mother seeing the mutilated corpse of her neighbor and his 3-year-old child, a warning from drug gangs. She knows violence extends across her nation. There is no corner of safety where she can run. She simply cannot protect her daughter. The only possibility of safety for her child is a country she has never seen, paying a man she has never met with her life savings, to guide her daughter along a path that could end with her beaten, dead or raped.

A lifetime of fear and uncertainty is her best possible option. As a father of four, I cannot imagine the crushing weight of this decision. 

Imagine a survivor, a small boy who knows only his home. Hundreds of miles away, he hears shouts in a language he does not understand. His parents promised life will be better here, but he is met at gunpoint. He feels the hot breath of hatred as he is moved to a holding facility. He does not understand the hate-filled words but their meaning is universal. 

This is not America but, because of our broken politics, this is who we are becoming. 

Many of my colleagues mistakenly call this an immigration crisis. Their solution is “deport and ignore.” 

I challenge that. When human beings cannot survive in their nation, America does not look the other way. We offer the welcoming arms of a nation built by those who feared the future in their own homeland.

Our immigration crisis is not one of refugee children. It is a crisis caused by the Speaker of the House refusing to debate comprehensive immigration reform that is supported across party lines by law enforcement, business, religious leaders and nearly two-thirds of the American people. 

It is a crisis of inaction. 

In contrast, the refugee crisis we face does not require the extreme solutions of immigration hard-liners. 

It does not require border surges that make great sound bites but do little to address the needs of these defenseless children or those of our nation. 

Most importantly, this crisis does not require the usual political posturing that defines Washington today.

It requires leadership and a partnership between Congress, the president and Central American nations. 

America must reassert itself as a regional leader in our own hemisphere. The president must convene a summit, bring together regional leaders and stop the bloodshed, forging a new path forward for South and Central America. 

He must create a plan for the United States and our neighbors to strengthen economic ties, so that young people are not left with only the choices of death, crime or poverty. 

Congress must, without delay, pass an emergency supplemental appropriation. These resources should fund the growing refugee and humanitarian crisis we face, rather than further militarization of our border. For more than a decade, we have spent billions on our border. The more guards we’ve put on the border, the more children have come. Throwing money at the border will not solve this crisis. 

Refugee children must receive the due process and protections that we have historically granted to those fleeing violence. They need services to help cope with losing their parents and the horrible images they have witnessed at such a young age. 

These are not new proposals. We have done this successfully, many times, under both Democratic and Republican presidents.

Our politics may be broken, but our policies don’t have to be. 

The world expects much from the United States. We welcome those expectations, and we must not run in fear of this responsibility.

Many have fled to our shores, escaping violence and oppression. Now, it is these refugee children who need us. 

It is time to remind them of the leaders we are.

Cárdenas has represented California’s 29th Congressional District since 2013. He sits on the Budget; Natural Resources; and  Oversight and Government Reform committees.