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Children crossing in crisis: Do it for the kids

| Monday, October 6, 2014

This summer, immigration came to the forefront of the national psyche as we experienced an unprecedented surge of Central American children arriving at our border. The flow of children fleeing has slowed significantly since the summer, but the issue underlying the mass migration of 66,000 unaccompanied minors in the past year from the countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala remains.

The fact of the matter is that these nations — often called the “Northern Triangle” — are incredibly dangerous, especially for young, impoverished boys and girls in the slums of cities like San Salvador, San Pedro Sula and Guatemala City. Honduras has a world-leading homicide rate of 90 for every 100,000 people, with El Salvador and Guatemala in the top ten at 41.2 and 39.9 per 100,000 people. For some context, at the peak of Mexico’s drug violence, its homicide rate topped out at 22.8 per 100,000. Furthermore, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) found in a March survey of children who arrived at the U.S. border that 58 percent of children from the three countries cited violence as a key reason for leaving their homes. In fact, 72% of the children fleeing from El Salvador stated this.

My personal International Summer Service Learning Project (ISSLP) experience in El Salvador this summer affirms the horrific numbers I list above. The area I was in was relatively safe; Notre Dame would not put its students in harm’s way. However, the country as a whole is essentially a war zone. Every day, the news was filled with stories of a bus shooting, a brutal mass rape or bodies in the streets.  One man described how even the most ordinary moments could become deadly when, while at the market, he witnessed a child gang member shoot another kid dead in the street.

Children in the gang-infested Northern Triangle are experiencing trauma unimaginable to most U.S. citizens. So what can we do about it?

The big step will be comprehensive immigration reform, but since that appears to be shelved until after the midterm elections, we can grant asylum to those who need it most. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) found in the aforementioned March survey that “nearly 60 percent of the unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have potential claims for international protection.” With this knowledge, we need to be providing these kids fair trials when they arrive and a legitimate possibility for asylum. Yesterday, President Obama introduced a plan which will provide 4,000 refugee places for people from Latin America and the Caribbean this year. Children from the Northern Triangle will be screened before departing their countries and allowed refuge if they already have a parent legally in the States.

This is a somewhat decent start, but as the world’s superpower, we can and must do more. Jacqueline Bhaba, professor of the practice of health and human rights at the Harvard School of Public Health, writes, “Syrian refugees make up [close to] one-third of Lebanon’s population. In Jordan, more than 600,000 Syrian refugees are already registered. Turkey has completely opened its border and more than a million Syrians have arrived. These are countries that have already generously hosted other massive recent refugee flows from the region. The analogy between Syria and Central America is a valid one. Living conditions for poor children in cartel- and gang-infested neighborhoods across Central America have become as dangerous as those for children trapped in Baghdad, Homs or Aleppo.”

The United States remains the world’s superpower, with many times more capacity to take in refugees than countries like Turkey or Lebanon. We have the capability to provide for thousands of Central American children in extreme need while their home countries cannot do so; let’s do it for the kids.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Brennan Lanier

Brennan Lanier is a Junior Biology major in St Edward's Hall. He spent his Summer doing an ISSLP in San Julian, El Salvador. You can contact him at [email protected]

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