Reckoning with the children on our doorstep

By Alan Bean

What do we do with the unaccompanied children, some say as many as 100,000, who have surrendered to American border officials in the last few months?

Barack Obama speaks of a humanitarian crisis, but thinks fast-track deportation is the answer.

Our arbitrary and capricious immigration laws are a big part of the problem.

If these children were from Cuba, they would be put on a fast-track to citizenship. If they were from Mexico, they would be immediately deported.

But these kids are primarily from three countries: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and a Bush-era law demands that border officials behave “in the best interest of the child,” which normally means placing them with family members in the United States pending an immigration hearing. If there is no family, the Bush doctrine placed the children in foster homes.

These common sense procedures were designed to assure that the unaccompanied children who come to America aren’t victims of trafficking.

But the sheer number of children, many of them girls under thirteen, has simply overwhelmed the immigration infrastructure. So the youngsters from Central America are now being warehoused in grossly overcrowded shelters. It can take a year to schedule an immigration hearing, and that was before the amazing uptick in child immigration from Central America began in earnest this past October.

The Obama administration is looking for ways to override the compassionate regulations passed in simpler times. The president wants to ensure that children who qualify as legitimate refugees are allowed to remain in the country; but how do we make that call without incurring additional delays? Providing more immigration judges is a Band-aid solution at best.

Republican critics blame the child migration on the president’s decision to allow undocumented Americans who came to the United States as children to remain in the country. Obama’s executive order doesn’t apply to the children from Central America, of course, but do the folks in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador know that? Maybe not.

Others see the current crisis as a bi-product of mass deportation. With Obama earning a reputation as the deporter-in-chief, it is argued, the coyotes who make their living shepherding undocumented people across the border have lost a large percentage of their Mexican clientele, and have gone looking for clients in Latin America.

Most observers agree that the rise of violent gangs is a major factor driving the exodus of children from Central America. A quick glance at international “intentional homicide” rates tells you everything you have to know about this phenomenon.

In the United States, 4.8 people per 100,000 population are murdered in an average year. That’s high. Really high. In Canada, the figure is 1.6 per 100,000. In the United Kingdom it is 1.0. For decades, criminologists have been asking why the American homicide rate is between four and six times higher than most Western democracies and the majority of third-world countries.

An intentional homicide rate of 4.8 may be shockingly high by conventional standards, but in Guatemala the rate is 39.9, in El Salvador it’s 41.2 and in Honduras, the most violent nation on the face of the earth, it’s a jaw-dropping 90.4; almost 20 times the American rate.

It doesn’t help that, throughout the 20th century, American foreign policy in Central America has been firmly on the side of oligarchs and death squads (many of whom were trained on American soil). Decades of political upheaval and brutal civil war have left these countries with little stability. With the worldwide recession of 2008, the three nations that are sending us their “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, descended into chaos and armed gangs have filled the void.

Consider what would make you send your ten year-old daughter on a dangerous trek across Central America and Mexico knowing that physical and sexual assault would likely be part of the ordeal? Only a desperate family pressed to the utter brink would make that kind of decision.

In other words, every unaccompanied child languishing in American detention shelters qualifies as a refugee, no matter how the definition is drawn.

Hillary Clinton thinks we should send these kids back to their countries of origin. Apparently, Ms. Clinton is far more concerned about becoming president than she is about the children. She is clearly pandering to public opinion, assuming that normal voters like you and me won’t cut these kids any slack. This might not apply to Latino voters who often identify with these children; but since the Republican Party seems hell-bent on alienating the Latino electorate, Clinton believes she will eventually be forgiven.

Are we as heartless as Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton seem to believe?

You bet we are. Moreover, religious commitment seems to have little influence on how we respond to the immigration crisis. According to a recent Pew poll, 43% of the religiously unaffiliated agree with the current policy of mass deportation while 48% oppose it. The only religious constituencies showing more compassion than the “nones” are Hispanic Catholics (59% of whom oppose mass deportation), and African American Protestants (46%).

Only 41% of white evangelicals oppose the policy of mass deportation and the white mainline is only slightly more compassionate at 42%.

To summarize, religious conviction has little bearing on the immigration debate and white Protestants find it particularly hard to empathize with the plight of the undocumented.

It could be worse, of course. Many white evangelicals, and an encouraging number of conservative politicians, had been warming up to the idea of immigration reform . . . until the kids from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador turned up on our door step. Then all bets were off.

How would Jesus deal with these unaccompanied children?

To ask the question is to answer it.

But is this the right question? Jesus went to his cross because he refused to conform to the harsh dictates of conventional morality; a path few politicians seem eager to follow. You get elected by adapting to public sentiment, not challenging it; and that makes the kingdom ethics of Jesus an annoying irrelevance for pundits and politicians.

The moderate mainline celebrates the radical compassion of Jesus, in theory, but this enthusiasm is tempered by constitutional considerations. Doesn’t the principle of church-state separation mean that religion and politics must never mix?

True, Jesus had no interest in replacing the power of Imperial Rome with the dictates of the Sanhedrin, or any other religious body. When preachers call the shots in Washington, the church of Jesus Christ loses its prophetic distance. We can’t stand too close to the political slaughterhouse where the sausage is made.

Nonetheless, the role of Christians is to speak for Jesus . . . full stop. It can sometimes be hard to know what Jesus would do, or precisely how we should speak in his name. But when unaccompanied children show up on our front door the Jesus question gets really simple.

We should welcome these children into our country, our homes and our churches without reservation.

But what about national sovereignty?

What about it? Do national boundaries trump the teaching of Holy Scripture from cover to cover? If you have no allegiance to the Christian Bible, or to the man at the center of the story, it matters little what the Good Book says. But Christians don’t have the luxury of disagreeing with their Master.

Last week I was in the Mississippi Delta with my wife, Nancy, participating in a couple of civil rights tours. We heard Margaret Block, a retired school teacher from Cleveland, Mississippi who worked with the amazing Fannie Lou Hamer in the early 1960s, address a group of high school students from Albany, New York. Margaret remembered participating in a voter drive in Meridian, Mississippi, less than a year before three civil rights workers were brutally murdered in nearby Neshoba County.

“There was a bunch of Klansman standing around watching us,” Ms. Block remembers, “and they were singing a little song, over and over, ‘Jesus loves me ’cause I’m white; I kill a nigger every night.’ The worst part of it was that none of them could sing a lick.”

We are appropriately horrified by these despicable sentiments and the language in which they were expressed. But don’t we believe, deep in our hearts, that being born in the United States of America gives us a seat in the lifeboat-of-the-elect and gives us the right to knock the undeserving “illegals” back into the shark-infested waters with the precious oar of citizenship?

And don’t we believe that Jesus signs off on our special status?

The Klansmens’ nasty little ditty reflected the notion, widely shared among Southern evangelicals, that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost were big fans of Jim Crow segregation, complete with the lynch law that made the system possible. It had to be that way because all true Christians believed it to be so; and what we have bound on earth is bound in heaven. Jesus said so himself.

We must reckon with the enormous gulf separating out lifeboat ethics from the compassionate heart of our Savior. We disagree with Jesus and we don’t seem to care because, well, we have so much pious company.

We are ardent consumers and there is no natural limit to our desires. We will always need more of everything. There can never be enough to go around. So the kids on our doorstep must go back to their gang-infested communities where rape, extortion and murder have become a way of life. If we give them the security and opportunity they crave, there might not be enough for us. We can’t give everybody a place in our American lifeboat.

Now hear the good news. In the Kingdom of God there is always a little more room in the inn, just enough space for one more bed, one more squeeze of toothpaste, one more ladle of stew. The spirit of scarcity can surrender to a spirit of exuberant abundance. Jesus said so, and what he has bound in heaven is bound on earth:

Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (Luke 6:38)

Alan Bean

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About the Author
Alan is executive director of Friends of Justice, an organization that creates a powerful synergy between grassroots organizing, civil rights advocacy, the legal community, the mass media and ultimately the political establishment. Friends of Justice is committed to building a new moral consensus for ending mass incarceration and mass deportation. Dr. Bean lectures frequently at universities, legal conferences, churches and community organizations on the issues of mass incarceration, drug policy and criminal justice reform. He has been quoted extensively in leading publications such as Newsweek, The Washington Post, USA Today, La Monde and The Chicago Tribune and CNN and his work with Friends of Justice been featured in the religious media outlets such as EthicsDaily.com and the Associated Baptist Press. Dr. Bean is the author of "Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas," an insider account of the events surrounding the Tulia drug sting. He lives in Arlington, Texas with his wife Nancy, a special education counselor and is a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth.

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  • GMG248

    Amen. The best comments on this crisis to date. We cannot send these children back to a certain death. How about this as a first step. CBF churches across the country see this as a mission project. Would it be possible to find temporary homes for as many of these children/families as is possible with our church families?