There is only one correct way to view the estimated 52,000 unaccompanied minors who have streamed through the United States-Mexico border over the past year and who are now crowding federal detention facilities: They are children fleeing desperate, dangerous places and they need our help.
Instead, they have become political pawns and targets of vitriol to a small group (we hope) of anti-immigration zealots who are intent on demonizing them as a way to push their own agenda.
It was utterly unacceptable that Americans – no matter how angry – would surround buses filled with children and a few adult women, shaking their fists and yelling angry epithets through bullhorns. But that’s what happened at the U.S. Border Patrol facility in Murrieta in Riverside County this week. Those in the buses were being taken from overcrowded facilities in Texas to Riverside County. After a long journey, they were forced to stay on the buses and retreat more than 100 miles south to San Ysidro.
It’s hard to imagine an uglier, more disappointing picture of America on the eve of its celebration of independence from foreign tyranny. The protesters shouted and shook their fists at the children while waving U.S. flags and chanting “U.S.A.” as if this were a sporting event, not the sad occasion of a bunch of scared women and children being ferried between detention facilities. We should all be ashamed.
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Fox news called the Murrieta demonstration a “vivid and angry flashpoint for the immigration debate.”
Rep. Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, had a more accurate description: An “angry, hateful mob, screaming at these kids as if they were inhuman or something. It was awful,” Vargas told the Desert Sun newspaper.
It was a much different reception for detainees later Wednesday in Imperial County, where Vargas and others welcomed them with smiles, a Bible and prayer. A former Catholic seminarian, Vargas talked to some of the detainees. Because of the reception in Riverside, kids on the buses said they initially “were afraid they would be hit by sticks” when they arrived in San Ysidro.
Sticks? Has our political discourse fallen so far that foreign children believe Americans would beat them with sticks? After seeing the faces in that crowd, and hearing their vows to return if any more children are brought to the area, we share the fear those children felt. We hope authorities will not tolerate any additional cruelty.
As citizens, we can – and will – argue about immigration policy and President Barack Obama’s request for $2 billion to respond to the explosion of immigrants illegally crossing the border. It’s a debate worth having – but it shouldn’t hijack response to the immediate crisis or frighten children.
Border detention facilities in Texas are overflowing with children, a large percentage of whom traveled from violence-plagued Central America. Some have parents working and living here legally; some will be returned to their native countries. Some might meet the criteria of political asylum, but all must be processed in accordance with our country’s laws and, we hope, with human decency.
Simply tossing them back over the fence without examination isn’t an option. These are not terrorists or drug mules or even people sneaking across the desert to take a job. They are children, for heaven’s sake, many of whom are trying to reunite with their parents. They might not deserve entry into the U.S., but they do deserve our compassion. And not venomous taunts from flag-waving bullies.