The humanitarian crisis involving the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied minors at our borders has brought out diverse opinions within our government and country. Some politicians would like to send these minors back to Guatemala on a bus. Before we become too critical about the future of these voiceless children, let’s not forget about our country’s history regarding unaccompanied minors.
The influx of unaccompanied minors is not a new phenomenon. Our great country has always opened its arms to needy children during humanitarian crisis. During World War II, Jewish families sought safe haven for their children escaping the death camps of Hitler and the Nazis. Prior to the United States’ entry into World War II, Jewish parents sent their children in small groups (roughly a dozen at a time) to the United States based on pre-existing country quotas. After 1941, when the United States became more aware of the brutality of the Nazi regime, unaccompanied children were brought in larger numbers. During their voyage to the United States, dedicated women acted as chaperones on the ships that brought the children to our country. Upon reaching the United States, the unaccompanied children went to Jewish foster homes. Although some of the children were reunited in America with the parents and siblings they left behind in Europe, most became the only surviving members of their families. This effort became to be known as the One Thousand Children. Other countries also participated in this endeavor.
Between 1960-62, over 14,000 Cuban children were sent to the United States unaccompanied to escape the oppressive Castro Regime. Known as Operation Peter Pan (Pedro Pan), the program was created by the Catholic Welfare Bureau (Catholic Charities) of Miami in December 1960 at the request of parents in Cuba to provide an opportunity for them to send their children to Miami to avoid Marxist-Leninist indoctrination. Approximately half of the minors were reunited with relatives or friends at the airport. More than half were cared for by the Catholic Welfare Bureau. The unaccompanied children from the Cuban Refugee Children’s Program were placed in temporary shelters in Miami, and relocated in 30 States.
In 1975, during the end of Vietnam War, unaccompanied children were evacuated from Vietnam during “Operation Babylift” before the fall of Saigon. During the war, thousands of babies were born and abandoned, many of them the mixed-race sons and daughters of American GIs. Operation Babylift sent these children to various countries, mostly the United States. According to Miriam Vieni, a US social worker and adoptive parent, “the ‘Baby Lift’ was a way of removing them from a dangerous situation without the usual processing…”.
Central American countries suffered greatly through years of unrest and violence during their civil wars. The United States involvement in these civil wars is no secret. Thousands of people were displaced and many came to the United States. Children who suffered immense psychological damage grew up in the inner city and were exposed to the United States gang culture. Years later, many Central American youth in the United States fell prey to the culture of gangs. In 2006, ICE’s “Operation Return to Sender” arrested and removed thousands of gang members repatriating them to their Central American homelands. The result was that the unique American gang culture infested the Central American countries. International criminal organizations were established and have ruled over these countries, driving many people to flee, including the children, to avoid being recruited by the criminal gangs.
Since 2009, Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize have collectively seen a 432 percent increase in asylum applications from the same three countries: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Many others have fled to the United States where numbers that were steadily growing over several years have now surged in the last few months. While there may be various reasons why parents are sending their children out of the country, or where parents aren’t present, the children themselves are choosing to flee, the Congressional testimony of Bishop Mark Seitz reflects that violence in the country of origin is the “overwhelming factor” pushing children to flee their country.
It is important to note under the Homeland Security Act of 2002, Congress transferred the care and custody of unaccompanied minors to Health and Human Services (HHS) from the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to move towards a child welfare-based-model of care for children and away from the adult detention model. In the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which expanded and redefined HHS’s statutory responsibilities, Congress directed that unaccompanied minors must “be promptly placed in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child.”
Under these laws, unaccompanied minors that are not from Mexico or Canada must be detained, processed, interviewed, and some information collected. The intent of these laws is to protect children from human trafficking abuses and ensure their due process rights are respected. These unaccompanied children are referred to immigration court to present their cases. These laws also provide for the creation of a system of pro bono representation for these children to navigate the labyrinth which is the immigration court system. Just a few short weeks ago, the current Administration announced the creation of a program that will provide pro bono representation for these children through “justice AmeriCorps” by recruiting 100 attorneys and paralegals.
With this backdrop, the Obama Administration is now seeking funding and assistance to speed up the deportation of these children. While many in Congress feverishly hammer the notion of the need to follow the rule of law, the concept of expeditious removal of children is unconscionable, especially when our current laws prohibit such action. Circumventing the law is not the answer. The care of these children and respect for their due process rights should be paramount. At a time when Congress and the Administration should be working together on commonsense immigration reform, it would be reprehensible if they can only agree on expedited removals of these terrified, voiceless children.
Before we are quick to judge and put these unaccompanied children on a bus, we should stop and consider our legal and moral obligations to this humanitarian crisis. Moreover, let’s not forget our own country’s history when it comes to the treatment of displaced unaccompanied helpless children. There is a legal process in place for these situations; we must not forego such protections for political convenience.
Written by Victor Nieblas Pradis, AILA President-Elect