The story told by the Star Tribune in “Immigration debate comes to Minnesota in force” (July 22) distorted the conversation that unfolded at the July 21 meeting called by U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison. If you read that story, you may think that Minnesota and the United States can’t meet the challenge to help children and families fleeing for their lives from Central America. That is simply wrong.
The Advocates for Human Rights, the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, and other organizations are united to help. Nonprofit organizations, legal-aid organizations, social service and housing providers, the faith-based community, and everyday citizens are coordinating efforts and responding with support, resources and creativity. And there has been an outpouring from others asking how they can help.
The humanitarian crisis that has developed in Central America in recent years has pushed people to seek asylum throughout the region, not just in the United States. The number of asylum applications filed in Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize increased by 712 percent from 2008 to 2013. The flight of refugees has been precipitated by impunity, violence and the breakdown in the rule of law in Honduras (the murder capital of the world), El Salvador and Guatemala.
Children are literally on the run, driven from their homes by transnational cartels acting as de facto governments and by “mano dura” (strong hand) anti-cartel policies that place youth at risk of abuse by military and police forces.
Recognizing these children as refugees is often prevented by misconceptions about the situations in their home countries. First, gangs operating in Central America are not simply criminal enterprises. These cartels control expansive swaths of territory; influence politicians, the police, and the military, and extort millions of dollars from ordinary people. Those who try to oppose or defy the cartels are executed en masse, tortured, raped and dismembered. Innocent boys and girls are forced into the cartels’ ranks as child soldiers and sex slaves. Sexual abduction is now common throughout the region.
In fact, 63 percent of the Central American children in U.S. custody at Lackland Air Force Base could qualify for forms of relief, such as asylum, according to an assessment by the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services following its review of children’s intake screenings there.
Unfortunately, proximity obscures the reality of this refugee crisis. These refugees are not fleeing violence taking place across the ocean; they are fleeing persecution and violence in our back yard. We tell other countries to protect human rights and to take care of refugees. The conflict in Syria, for example, has produced over 2.5 million refugees. Syria’s neighbor Turkey hosts 670,000 refugees, and Jordan — with a GDP, population and territory just a fraction of that of the United States — has accepted 600,000 refugees.
With proper resources and management, the United States can easily face the challenges associated with screening and integrating refugees.
Most important, the United States is duty-bound to protect refugees under an international protection framework. For example, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush with the overwhelming support of the U.S. Congress, exists for children like those at the border. To turn away from our obligations is to break our commitment to international law and the 1980 Refugee Act. We would return to a time when a boatload of refugees fleeing World War II was turned back from our shores, sealing the fate of its passengers to die in concentration camps.
Unlike the criminal justice system, there is no public defender in immigration court. Whether you are poor, illiterate, mentally incapacitated or an infant, you speak for yourself unless you can hire an attorney. Imagine your child or grandchild alone, without a lawyer, pressed to respond to a government prosecutor’s legal allegations, prepare legal arguments and present any claims for relief. It is crucial that these children have attorneys to ensure fundamental fairness — a responsibility that falls on charitable legal organizations.
Do we need more resources? Yes. Does that mean we can’t handle this situation? Absolutely not.
The plight of Central American children and families is about meeting our moral and legal obligations. This is an opportunity to maximize efficiency among agencies and government, better utilize and leverage existing resources, and provide an example to the world of an international response that protects human rights, ensures due process and reflects core American values. We must respond with compassion, not fear, to children and families fleeing horrendous violence.
Deepinder Mayell is director of the Refugee and Immigrant Program at The Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis.