Katy Burns: America’s ugly side is showing on the border
Let’s make one thing clear: We Americans pride ourselves on our love of children.
After all, our GIs in World War II famously carried chocolate bars for the ragged and hungry urchins haunting the ruined streets of Europe after that cataclysmic strife. It is a treasured image – that of a generous nation and people who above all treasure and protect society’s youngest and most vulnerable members.
Okay, our record’s not perfect. Way back, we had slavery. A lot of those slaves were little kids, bought and sold like cord wood. We had indentured servitude, where young people were treated barely better. And of course, like the rest of the world, we had child labor and similar horrors.
But we’ve really cleaned up our act, thanks in part to some of the great reforms of the progressive era a century or so ago and in part because (like most civilizations), we’ve become ever more civilized.
Today, as a nation of largely middle-class parents, we dote individually on our own youngsters. We support policies – on the local, state and national levels – designed to protect children and to nurture them for as long as possible.
We support children internationally, not only through our government’s participation in a host of aid organizations. Each year Americans donate billions to help children around the world, spurred by heart-wrenching images of big-eyed waifs staring mournfully at cameras as if searching for better lives.
Through our organized charities, we contribute even more across the globe. We cultivate the image of an extraordinarily giving people.
Fast forward to the present: For the last week or so, the eyes of the nation – at least those reflected in the lenses of TV cameras – have been fixed on the country’s border with Mexico as hordes of children, some with young mothers and others without adults accompanying them, have made their way to the United States, where they’ve essentially fallen into the arms of border agents.
They’ve been streaming across the border in increasing numbers for several years, but lately it’s been a flood. That flood has captured the rapt attention of politicians, news reporters and editors, and millions of ordinary Americans.
These children are overwhelmingly coming from just three Central American countries – Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador – with cultures of pervasive gang violence and soaring murder rates against children in addition to abject poverty.
In such circumstances, parents are desperate to save their children.
Enterprising reporters and others who’ve talked to the young refugees have (at some personal risk) made their way to the places where these children and young people lived. They paint vivid and heart-breaking pictures of the lives the youngsters are trying to escape, even if – for a not inconsiderable number of children – the trip in fact means death along the hazardous route.
As one parent who had sent her child on a treacherous thousand-mile trek north said, “She can stay here, and she will die. Or she can go, and she may die. But she may not.” That any parent would have to face such a draconian choice is horrifying.
The fearful exodus has been promoted by coyotes – agents who spread rumors that there is safe haven in the U.S. and thus profit from parents who pay to have their children ferried north.
Some here say a factor is a compassionate law passed in 2008 with overwhelming bipartisan support and eagerly signed by then-President George W. Bush mandating that border-crossing children from non-contiguous countries have to be given judicial hearings before being sent back. It was designed to stop the serious problem of human trafficking – to protect child victims.
And of course this flood has been blamed on President Obama because, well, it’s July and the GOP smells blood in the political water.
Now everyone wants it stopped, or at least brought under control. Somehow.
That can’t happen unless the partisan furies raging now in our political class, especially in the once Grand Old Party, can be tamped down at least temporarily. Until our political leaders start acting like adults with a common problem to solve.
Meanwhile, what’s chilling – beyond chilling – is the way these smallest and weakest refugees are being greeted by so many American people. They are, somehow, The Other. Trash. Vermin. Untouchable.
It’s crazy. Awful. And dreadfully sad.
When the big-eyed waifs (and their somewhat older brothers and sisters) we’re so eager to support through, say, Save the Children, hit our borders, we hear hysterical warnings that they’re nothing but carriers of drugs and disease.
The worst thing we all saw was the horror in Murrieta, Calif., where a Border Patrol station was set to receive several bus loads of refugees until they could be processed under that 2008 law. The cameras captured the chaos as the buses pulled into town to be met by a mob of hostile townspeople.
As the buses sat idling, their frightened passengers behind tinted windows, the overwhelmingly white protesters screamed their objections, their faces contorted in hate and rage.
And at least for some of us of a certain age, it was chillingly reminiscent of many years ago when we saw similarly hate-filled faces on people in places like Little Rock and South Boston, where the targets of their vitriolic fury were also wide-eyed children.
I am well aware of the fact that the U.S. cannot rescue all the suffering children in the world, even in parts of it so close to home. But I also know that when those children arrive on our own shores, we can’t just pretend they’re not there. Or, worse, use them as pawns and tools in our dysfunctional political wars.
As one minister from Dallas who’d visited the children at the border earnestly told reporters last week, “These aren’t criminals. They’re children, just children, children like any others.”
We’ve spent generations burnishing our image as a compassionate nation, especially when it comes to children. Time to start living up to it.
(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)