Refugees, Children at the Border, Nativism, and the American Way of Life

Posted on October 01, 2014

CHILDREN AT THE BORDER: Media discussion the last few months has focused on thousands of Central American children coming to our border, seeking asylum, and seeking to join family members in the U.S. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and international organizations have designated them as being an at-risk group and as meeting the United Nations definition of refugees with a well-founded fear of persecution. They are primarily coming from three countries: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. As of the end of June, over 57,000 children were registered. The U.S. and other countries in the region have become “countries of first asylum,” the first countries a potential refugee goes to in search of protection.

The UNHCR published a report earlier this year entitled Children on the Run: Unaccompanied Children Leaving Central America and Mexico and the Need for International Protection. Based on in-depth interviews with 404 children who were attempting to cross into the US by way of Mexico and apply for asylum, UNCHR determined that children from these three Central American countries conformed to international definitions of refugees and were in need of international protection. UNCHR also determined that many of the children from Mexico had also been exposed to the same levels of violence as the others, but did not meet official refugee criteria because of international regulations.

These three Central American countries have several things in common. They all have seen a breakdown of law and order, and parts of these countries have no government protections. Families are victimized by organized crime, while children are targeted for recruitment into gangs and drug cartels and are killed if they don’t comply. Teachers and parents who try and resist are also killed. These countries, because of their weak central governments, have become a launching area for the drug cartels that supply America. They have also been subject to multiple initiatives by U.S. interests over the past few decades that have destabilized their governments. “Arms for Contras” and other CIA-related activities have contributed to the social unrest. The asylum criteria for Mexico is more complicated because it is intertwined with economic issues which are not a criterion for refugee status. In addition, the U.S. has specific laws related to countries on its borders.

The three Central American countries, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, all fall under
the U.S. anti-trafficking law that allows people coming to the U.S. under duress to apply for asylum and receive court hearings to determine their eligibility for protective status. This anti-trafficking law, which excludes the two countries contiguous to the U.S., Canada and Mexico, is intended to deter human trafficking and protect the victims of trafficking. Trafficking is the practice of recruiting or kidnapping victims overseas to be forced into sex work or enslaved factory work in the U.S. It comes as a surprise to many people that trafficking is a serious problem in the U.S.

In keeping with U.S. and international law, the U.S. is providing temporary protection to the Central American children. They await court hearings to evaluate their status, case by case. Because of a shortage of immigration judges, they have to wait months and years for hearings. Even as the hearings come up, most do not have legal representation or even trained court interpreters. U.S. law allows for legal representation in these cases but does not provide it. Most children do not have the resources to secure an attorney, and there are not enough trained attorneys to help with the backlogs. In the interim, the children are sometimes placed with U.S. family members where they can be located. There are an estimated 1,600 children now placed with families in N.C. Other states are also accepting children for protection as they await court hearings. Other, less fortunate children who seek asylum in the U.S. are in jail-like holding facilities in different parts of the U.S.

REFUGEES: These children are a tiny portion of the refugee challenges facing our world today. We encourage other countries to address the world’s refugee problems. UNHCR reported that at the end of 2013 there were 16.7 million refugees in the world, seeking safety in nearby “first asylum” countries. This figure does not include the 5 million Palestinian refugees under UN protection, nor does it include the over 33 million internally displaced people according to UN figures. “Internally displaced” refers to people in refugee like situations who have not crossed national borders. There are many countries of first asylum around the world. Examples include Rwanda and Uganda for Congolese refugees; Jordan and Turkey for Syrians; Turkey and – sadly – Syria for Iraqis, Nepal for Bhutanese; Malaysia for Burmese; and so on.

The U.S. strongly urges these countries of first asylum to honor their United Nations obligations regarding refugees and provides incentives for these countries to provide protections. Our motivations probably includes our commitment to human rights and our U.N. signatory responsibilities as well as our political and economic interests in stability in these regions. The U.S. itself has provided first asylum protection in the past, primarily to Cuban refugees.

NATIVISM: Nativism is the term to describe a society’s tendency to blame outsiders for whatever problems are predominant at any given time. “If only those outsiders weren’t here, we wouldn’t have drug problems, high unemployment, crime, school drop-outs, bad drivers,” and so forth. Newcomers without political influence become the scapegoat for society’s ills, and the phenomenon becomes more intense during periods of rapid social change and political unrest. Nativism has contributed to a negative response to the children at our border. Some political groups want to deny them the rights of due process, international protections, and a chance to find safety with family members in the US.

THE AMERICAN WAY OF LIFE: Many things compose the “American way of life.” One of these is our belief in equal rights and opportunities. Another is our historic commitment to newcomers seeking freedom and economic opportunity. A third is our tremendous economic growth and potential as the world’s strongest country. This economic strength is and has been built on the backs of newcomers seeking economic opportunity and freedom. It is also well-recognized that the young are the best economic investment for a society. Young newcomers will contribute the most to a country’s ongoing economic growth and stability. This is most successful when they have access to free, high-quality public education, preparing them to be part of the next generation’s workforce.

Though our state government has resisted these newly-arriving children at risk, there are some signs of welcoming in North Carolina. In Charlotte, a group has organized to address needs of children relocated there while awaiting hearings, calling itself Compassion Action Network for Children – Charlotte CAN. They are mobilizing services for these children including health and social services, identifying legal support systems, interpreters, and outreach education.  A similar movement is underway in Raleigh, spearheaded by the Justice Center and other organizations. In Greensboro, the Immigrant Rights Working Group and AFSC have begun a process of identifying resources and support systems for these children at risk. Hopefully we will be able to assure both protection and legal due process for these people.

Nativism rears its head from time to time in America, but we are at our best when we can see beyond nativism to our historic American role as protector of freedom and opportunity. With these children on the border, our commitment to human rights combines with an opportunity to invest in these young newcomers, part of the potential workforce and citizenry for our next generation.

More information on this timely topic will be shared in a workshop of the ARSP conference at UNCG on October 8 at 1:00 p.m. The topic is “Plight of Unaccompanied Minors from Central America,” and the presenters are Dr. Carmen Monico from Elon University, Dr. Maura Nsonwu from NC A&T State University, and Dr. Justin Lee from UNCG.

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