An anti-deportation rally in Washington, DC this week. Photo by Mar is Sea Y, via Creative Commons.
Since October, more than 57,000 children have crossed the United States border without a parent or guardian. That's double the number of children under 13 who crossed the border last year. Both media and the public have struggled with how the country should treat these kids showing up on U.S. soil.
Despite the railings of anti-immigrant politicians, a recent poll by the Public Research Religion Institute found that nearly seven of every ten people think that these children should be treated as refugees. Roughly the same percentage thought that the government should provide these kids with shelter and support.
These numbers reveal that most Americans understand that the journey to our country is difficult and dangerous—these kids are migrating because they have to. Of the teenagers who are crossing, nearly 10,000 of them are teenage girls from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Many have reported fleeing threats of rape and other forms of sexual and physical violence in their home countries.
But while it's hard to imagine not being sympathetic to children being separated from their families to undergo the grueling journey to cross the border, about three of every ten people firmly resist feeling any pangs of compassion. That minority has been trying to make their feelings known: They've named their protests Stop the Invasion rallies, likening the flood of children to (adult) foreign invaders. The Minutemen have even vowed to line the border for May Day 2015, naming their plan Operation Normandy.
Perhaps the most extreme example of seeing the child migrants as "invaders" is a convoy will left the city of Murrieta, CA, on Friday, August 1st, to start a 1,500-mile journey from California to McAllen, Texas, stopping along the way to protest “the invasion happening unchecked at our nation’s borders.” But that's not the only major action by xenophobes on the issue: In Massachusetts, after Governor Deval Patrick announced plans to house up to 1000 children at one of two Massachusetts military bases, hundreds showed up for a Stop the Invasion rally at the State House.
However, while they've been getting a lot of media attention, it's important to note that many of these protests have been not very large or well-attended. In Las Vegas, one protester showed up with two lawn chairs. In some of these places, xenophobic sentiment has been outnumbered by pro-immigrant demonstrators. In others instances, pro-immigrant supporters hosted their own rallies—in Massachusetts, for example, two days after the anti-immigrant rally at the State House, community leaders held a press conference at Boston's Downtown Crossing, declaring their support for their "immigrant brothers and sisters." The seven out of ten Americans who want to support the refugees coming over the border are trying to make their voices just as loud as the anti-immigrant folks.
While the Obama administration is considering granting refugee status to the Honduran children arriving by themselves, most politicians have not described these children as "refugees." If they did, then according to both U.S. and international law, they would be unable to deport any of the children to their countries of origin. The exception has been Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, who went so far as to say, “It is contrary to everything we stand for to try to summarily send children back to death."
Now, viewing these kids, who are fleeing violence in their home countries, as refugees is better than treating them like foreign invaders who need to be stopped by adults wielding weapons. At the same time, we have to remember that the United States has not always treated refugees very well either. In 2000, the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children visited the Krome Service Processing Center, a Miami immigration detention center in which dozens of women, including those seeking asylum, were held while awaiting their hearings. They found widespread sexual, physical, emotional and verbal abuse by the center's guards.
Their findings caused an outcry. The Women's Commission, other immigrant and refugee advocacy organizations, local service providers and people in Miami pressed the government to either release the women or to put them in alternatives to detention. Instead, the federal immigration agency reversed its local policy of not holding asylum seekers in jails or prisons. It transferred the women to the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, a Miami-Dade County jail, where the women faced a lack of translation services, access to legal services and medical care. Those who complained were placed in solitary confinement and threatened with being transferred to prisons even further away. Some of the women were transferred hundreds of miles away to the York County Prison in Pennsylvania, because of lack of bed space at the jail.
Unlike their adult counterparts, unaccompanied children are supposedly not put in immigrant detention facilities. Instead, they are referred to the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement and placed in temporary shelters while their deportation proceedings get under way. While journalists are not allowed in these facilities, whose locations remain secret, Mother Jones did find that 80 such shelters exist and that children's average stay is 45 days. So far, no stories have come out about mistreatment of children in these temporary shelters. Hopefully this is because children wouldn't be subjected to the same abuse, lack of compassion, and physical and sexual violence as their adult counterparts. But this could also be because children in detention may be less likely to speak about abuses to total strangers.
While it's a relief to hear that most people don't equate Latin American children with Nazis and don't want them deported, media attention on the vocal minority paints a skewed picture. True, people waving flags and using hyperbole to describe teens and toddlers is easier than writing about the rampant violence they're fleeing. Focusing on them also conveniently ignores U.S. involvement in creating the conditions that the children are fleeing—from its intervention and support of repressive regimes to its creation and escalation of the Drug War to its pushing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which allowed corporations to relocate to Mexico and Latin America in search of the lowest wage.
Of course, focusing just on what to do with the kids once they're here misses an important part of the picture: we also need to examine and address the context—including the continued U.S. interventions—that have made their homes unsafe.
Victoria Law is a freelance editor and writer. She frequently writes about intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. She enjoys reading dystopic fiction to escape the realities of the U.S. prison system.