The child migrant crisis at the U.S-Mexico border shows the need for a Catholic response and for sound government policy to help children who are fleeing violence, several Catholic experts have said.
“As a Church, our first focus is that we are assisting members of our human family in need,” Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, said during a live internet chat July 29. “The Catholic response has to be compassionate, and must recognize the human faces within this issue.”
Bishop Flores, who serves on the U.S. bishops’ conference subcommittee on Hispanic Affairs, said his diocese is one of the common entry points into the U.S. for unaccompanied children and young mothers with children.
The number of unaccompanied child migrants to the U.S. has doubled in the past year, many from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Combined with adult migrants, their numbers have helped overwhelm housing facilities on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Child migrants were the focus of a live webchat from the Catholics Confront Global Poverty initiative, a project of Catholic Relief Services and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Jill Marie Gerschutz-Bell, a legislative affairs specialist in Catholic Relief Services’ D.C. Office, said the situation is a “refugee crisis” due to “violence, insecurity and displacement in Central America and Mexico.”
“The gangs which are terrorizing young people and their families here initially got their start on the streets of Los Angeles,” she said. U.S. deportation of young people to Central America in the 1990s helped the gangs “flourish” due to the lack of jobs and easy access to weapons in the receiving countries.
“Today Honduras and El Salvador are among the most violent countries in the world, and parents are willing to do whatever it takes to bring their kids to safety,” said Gerschutz-Bell.
The current crisis is a result of “desperation” in Latin America, according to Erica Dahl-Bredine. She has served as Catholic Relief Services’ country representative in El Salvador since 2010.
The U.S. bishops’ conference is backing a Senate bill that would include $300 million to address “push factors” that encourage migration from Central America, including violence, economic deprivation and family disintegration.
Catholic Relief Services is also working to address these factors and to prevent the overturning of U.S. laws that protect children.
Dahl-Bredine said the U.S. government needs to work with Central American governments to improve policing and joint law enforcement strategies. Effort is also needed to expand violence prevention programs that have been “proven to work.”
One CRS program, Youthbuilders, helps at-risk Central American youth who are at risk find employment or education. It has an 80 percent retention rate. Its relief programs in Honduras aim to keep children in school, to create rural development programs, and to help families support themselves and their children. Other programs in both Honduras and El Salvador aim to teach life and job skills, providing job placement and social support to create alternatives to crime and violence.
Dahl-Bredine said that drug-related violence is fueled in part by U.S. demand for drugs, while the U.S.-led effort to boost anti-drug enforcement has also led to “a lot of human rights violations.”
Bishop Flores noted the importance of reunifying children with their families.
“Once children are in Border Patrol custody, the Department of Health and Human Services seeks out family members either in the United States or in their home countries, and makes sure these claims are authentic,” he said. “Ninety percent of children are successfully reunited with their families.”
Kevin Appleby, director of the U.S. bishops’ Office of Migration Policy, said that the children are being given health screenings and receiving immunizations. He noted that unaccompanied children who have arrived since October 2013 from Central America are largely still in the country, due to a human trafficking law designed to ensure they are not returned to “dangerous or even deadly situations.”
However, those who have arrived with their families or from Mexico are generally quickly deported under present law, despite the fact that an estimated 64 percent of child migrants from Mexico are also fleeing violence.
Bishop Flores encouraged Catholics to become informed about the issues and aid migrant assistance efforts in their hometowns. He noted that Catholic Charities USA has set up a refugee assistance fund.
Appleby encouraged Catholics to contact their federal legislators.
“There is a clear moral choice here – we can protect and care for these children and assist them in their need for protection,” he said. “Our country can take care of these children and live up to our international obligations.”