Let the Children Come unto Me

Young boys sleep in a holding cell where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center in NogalesYoung boys sleep in a holding cell where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center in Nogales, Arizona on June 18, 2014. © 2014 Reuters. Image Reposted from Human Rights Watch 

What has happened to our compassion? In this moment of monumental crisis, with thousands of Central American children at our border, we as a nation are called to reflect on our values. Aren’t we capable of dealing with a crisis in a compassionate manner while planning for a better future for our nation and theirs?

As an international health and development specialist who has worked in Central America and on our U.S. Mexico border for more than 25 years, but most importantly, as a mother and as a Christian, I am struggling with this issue. Jesus called us: “Let the children come unto me.” As God’s family, these children are our children. Central America has a painful history, with both Spain and the U.S. having major roles in shaping the current political, social and economic situation. U.S. relations in the hemisphere have focused primarily on economic and political agendas. The U.S. has not demonstrated parallel interest for social development.

The historical context of U.S.-Latin American relations has largely been ignored in the “debate” on immigration.  Our government has frequently intervened to protect perceived economic and political interests, without adequately weighing the long-term consequences. In 1954, the U.S. government supported the assassination of the democratically elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz, and supported subsequent military dictators in suppressing popular movements for democratic participation leading to a 25 year civil war.

In the 1980s the U.S. government supported the Salvadoran government in its civil war during which an estimated 75,000 persons were killed and an estimated 500,000 fled as refugees. (Note: I learned about the impact of the Salvadoran conflict first hand through my formal studies in Latin American Political and Economic Development and Public Health, and my work in El Salvador rebuilding water systems destroyed during the war and integrating families suffering from PTSD into community development efforts.) Neither Salvadoran nor Guatemalan people were left alone to determine their future then.

So why should we leave their vulnerable children alone now?  It is not just chance that these are the countries from which these children are fleeing – so the question remains:  What do we as a nation founded with Christian principles do about this situation? When Christ said “Let the children come unto me,” he didn’t say “unless they don’t have documents.”Should we continue to put our nation’s interests first and let other countries take care of their own? By showing the world that we do stand by these children in crisis, we show the world that we are a trustworthy nation caring for the most vulnerable. In recent years, we have largely ignored Latin America while tending to China, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and other nations on the other side of the globe.

We can help these children who have been subject to trafficking, poverty, and violence, while leading the way for strategic development in Central America. Comprehensive immigration reform needs to be matched with comprehensive economic and political development strategies in the region. We do not have to send these children back into “a burning house” and close the door on them. There are other options – Provide food, shelter and protection for these children while their parents are located; Work with Central American leaders to address root causes of this crisis, implementing strategies for violence reduction and meeting basic human needs; and develop truly comprehensive immigration policy which includes border security balanced with modernizing our concepts of the factors to be included in this reform. If we are to be a  world leader in promoting democracy we must do better. The children of Central America deserve better.

Gail Emrick
For information on how you can get involved, write to geemrick@gmail.com
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