Commenting here on a breaking news story such as the children from Central America in custody at the Texas border runs the risk that the situation may have changed drastically by the time you read this. On the other hand, it is fascinating to look at current events “with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other,” so let’s take a look at the front pages of today’s papers and give it a try.
“President Obama Seeking Nearly $4 billion to Address Immigration Crisis,” the Latino Post tells us.(1) Actually, the President has gone out of his way NOT to frame the tsunami of unaccompanied children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador at our border as an immigration issue. He calls it instead an “urgent humanitarian situation,” figuring, I suppose, that while immigration reform is a toxic, politicized issue that is going nowhere in the U.S. House of Representatives, who could deny that we are obligated to provide care for children who are at our mercy?
The President may be overestimating our humanitarian impulses. Today’s Houston Chronicle tells us that in League City, a suburb of Houston and the largest city in Galveston County, the City Council voted 6-2 to prohibit city departments from cooperating with federal requests to process or house “illegal aliens,”(2) whether they are “designated as ‘refugee’ or otherwise.”(3) Turns out that these pesky children from Central America are somehow allowing “radical Islamist terror groups” to enter our country. Plus the kids might carry communicable diseases, don’t you know. The Galveston County Daily News adds the poignant detail that tea party groups “waved small American flags above their heads when fellow supporters spoke.”(4)
If you wonder where folks get this stuff, a Houston Chronicle columnist points out that Texas Governor Rick Perry has been suggesting that maybe the whole refugee thing is a conspiracy and that President Obama just might be behind it. And in case you are wondering what child refugees from Central America can possibly have to do with radical Islamist terrorist groups, Governor Perry informs us that the current wave of immigrants “are people that are coming from states like Syria that have substantial connections back to terrorist regimes and terrorists operations.”(5)
Hard to know how to respond to statements like that, so let us just move on and see how the President intends to spend 3.7 billion of emergency appropriations on this “urgent humanitarian situation.” More than 1.5 billion would go to Homeland Security for increased enforcement – air surveillance, overtime pay for Border Patrol agents, and so on. Three hundred million in “foreign aid” would be used to deport the kids faster and “discourage families from sending their children north.”6 None of this sounds particularly humanitarian, but, happily, there is 1.8 billion proposed for Health and Human Services to care for the children while we they are in custody and awaiting legal proceedings to determine if they have the right to stay here.
That part does sound humanitarian, but it is somewhat undercut by White House sources who assure us that the President will work with Congress to expedite the deportations, so we will not have to care for the children for as long. And, apparently, the President will work with Congress on those in-convenient trafficking laws that prevent us from just sticking the kids on an airplane as soon as we catch them.(7) Getting rid of such hindrances to deportation is, I suspect, the kind of comprehensive immigration reform that the House of Representatives would be willing to consider.
So much for todays breaking news, entertaining, certainly, but lacking in context and perspective. For one thing, it is all about us: what we want, what we can do about the situation, what’s good for us. The kids from Central America, the situations in the countries they are coming from, get lost in the shuffle. We get distracted from the questions that really matter, such as why in the world are parents in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador sending their kids on such a dangerous journey?
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a delegation to these countries in November to find out. Their conclusions bear examining:
1. Violence and bad criminal actors have permeated all aspects of life in Central America.
2. Youth who do manage to flee the violence are then exposed to extreme danger and criminal mistreatment along the migration journey. The journey north is increasingly dangerous and children find little protection in Mexico.
3. Violence and the lack of economic and educational opportunity have led to the family breakdown in poor families, leaving the children unprotected.
4. Countries of origin lack the capacity to protect children adequately.
5. A significant number of migrants, particularly youth, have valid asylum claims. (8)
The Central American refugees we have encountered at Casa Juan Diego tell stories that reflect exactly what the USCCB delegation is saying, though perhaps in more personal language. For example, you hear that Honduras now has the highest murder rate in the world, and that is true, but that doesn’t describe the horror facing a single mother unable to protect her children from the gangs in her neighborhood. Many or most of these unaccompanied children are coming from areas where their governments have lost control of their own territory to transnational criminal organizations- los Zetas, las Maras. Our newspapers call some of them “drug cartels” and some “street gangs,” but those categories have gotten mixed together; “bad criminal actors” is as good a term as any.
What it means is that when some 18 year old gang member comes to the little grocery store you own, puts a gun in your face and tells you that you are going to pay him 25% “tax” each week from now on, nobody will help you. No point in calling the police, who might be working for the gang, and aren’t going to come at any rate, since they are massively outgunned by the affiliated parent organizations of the local gang members – typically MS 13 or the Zetas. Same thing when the gang tells your son he is going to join the gang or else, or tells your daughter that she is looking pretty good and needs to be “nice” to the gang members.
As I mentioned in the first article in this series, it is important to see the plight of the Central American children not just as a humanitarian issue, or a political issue, or even an immigration issue, but first and foremost as an issue of justice. Impoverished Central American countries are without the resources needed to provide jobs for their own people, or even protect them. For years, those of working age have fled to America any way they can, living in the shadows, doing the work Americans do not want to do. This forced, irregular, undocumented migration, however understandable, has made things worse in their home countries, worse for the families left behind. Families with breadwinners in the U.S. get remittances sent to them, sure, but the gangs know this, and target them specifically for extortion and robbery. And the disrupted families left behind have little ability to protect their children. So they are reduced to the terrible choice of losing their children to the gangs, or sending them on a desperate journey to a country that really does not want them.
O.K, that is sad, you might say, but what does justice have to do with it? Has the U.S. ever done anything to these Central American countries that would give us any special obligation to make things right?
Well, those of you who remember your Central American history might think of the United Fruit Company, an American transnational corporation that supported Central American dictators though much of the 20th century, or the CIA overthrow of the elected Guatemalan government in 1954, or the coup in Honduras in 2010 that did so much to destabilize that country. And where did the Maras, the violent criminal gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) come from? From the U.S., via the California prison system! And, speaking of U.S. exports, would you care to guess the country of origin of all those assault rifles that the gangs use to terrorize the people?
What about all the foreign aid we send them, you say? Does not that make amends for at least some of our, well, unfortunate history in the area? I’m not referring to the President’s recent proposal that Congress come up with an additional $300 million of “foreign aid” to expedite the deportation process. I mean real foreign aid, funds for things like economic development, education and social service, humanitarian assistance, and peace and security, money that these countries desperately need to be able to keep their own people at home.
Let’s start with “peace and security” appropriations, since the lack of peace and security is the major reason for the current influx of children. Various U.S. agencies offer aid and expertise in counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, conflict management and transnational crime. This type of assistance is exactly what these countries need right now, and pursued aggressively enough, holds out the very real possibility that they would be able to stabilize their countries and offer their people a viable life at home, so that their children would not have to risk their lives coming to America.
So, how have we been doing? To take one example, our total fiscal 2014 “peace and security” aid to Honduras, the country most impacted with peace and security issues, is 5.2 million.(9) Read that figure again. That’s millions, not billions; less than one California beach house. It is about the amount the state of Texas will spend in the next 4 months paying overtime to state troopers so that they can go to the border and, I guess, babysit for the Honduran children forced from their own country by the lack of peace and security at home.
But now that it has become so crystal clear how desperately Honduras needs help with peace and security, surely the 2015 fiscal year budget has been massively increased, right? Well, no, President Obama’s budget request for this item for fiscal 2015 has decreased to 3.9 million.
Bottom line? Total U.S. foreign aid to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, for all purposes, combined, for economic development, education, social services, humanitarian aid, peace and security, you name it, adds up to about 150 million dollars a year.(10)
Now that we have some context, we can better interpret the headlines. President Obama is trying to get a one-time, emergency appropriation of $3.7 billion to deal specifically with the unaccompanied children at the border crisis, to put a finger in the dike and throw enough band aids over the problem of the “border babies” so that it gets the heck out of the news cycle. That is 25 times the amount we are budgeted to spend all this year in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, combined, to deal with the sources of the problem.
Or, for an even broader perspective, the operational price tag of one new aircraft carrier, $26.8 billion,(11) is 178 times the budget for all foreign aid for all these countries. If we could somehow make do with one less aircraft carrier, the life opportunities of the children in Central America would be very, very different.
Context is important, but perspective even more so. You might have heard quotes from a sermon by St. Basil the Great that argued that we needed to give the poor that unused coat in our closet, not out of charity, not out of humanitarian impulses, but because that coat belongs to the poor. Here is the complete homily, well worth reading:
From a homily preached over 1600 years ago by St. Basil the Great, perhaps the greatest theologian of his time, recognized as Doctor of the Church by both Eastern Orthodoxy and the Roman Catholic Church:
“Naked did you not drop from the womb? Shall you not return again naked to the earth? Where have the things you now possess come from? If you say they just spontaneously appeared, then you are an atheist, not acknowledging the Creator, nor showing any gratitude towards the one who gave them. But if you say that they are from God, declare to us the reason why you received them. Is God unjust, who divided to us the things of this life unequally? Why are you wealthy while that other man is poor? Is it, perhaps, in order that you may receive wages for kindheartedness and faithful stewardship, and in order that he may be honored with great prizes for his endurance?
“But, as for you, when you hoard all these things in the insatiable bosom of greed, do you suppose you do no wrong in cheating so many people? Who is a man of greed? Someone who does not rest content with what is sufficient. Who is a cheater? Someone who takes away what belongs to others. And are you not a man of greed? Are you not a cheater? taking those things which you received for the sake of stewardship, and making them your very own?
“Now, someone who takes a man who is clothed and renders him naked would be termed a robber; but when someone fails to clothe the naked, while he is able to do this, is such a man deserving of any other appellation? The bread that you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear moldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need.” (12)
As for me, I am kind of glad that St. Basil is not around today, saying hard-to-hear things about how we owe these children some justice, how we have helped to mess up their countries, then turned out backs on the whole area until we are shocked, shocked by the consequences showing up at our door.
But maybe, just maybe, we ought to get that coat that is sitting unused in our closet and give it to those we have stolen it from.
1. Leicht. A. (2014, July 8). President Obama seeking nearly $4 billion to address immigration crisis. The Latino Post, p. A1.
2. George, C. (2014, July 9). League City bans undocumented children. Houston Chronicle, p. B2.
3. Aulds, T. (2014, July 8). Immigration resolution headed for council vote. Galveston County Daily News, p. A1.
4. Aulds, T. (2014, July 9). LC Council Approves immigration resolution. GalvestonCounty Daily News, p. A1.
5. Falkenberg, L. (2014, July 9). Immigrant children in crisis are worthy of humane treatment. Houston Chronicle, p. B1.
6. Diaz K. and M. Ward (2014, July 9). Obama seeks 3.7 billion to handle crisis at border. Houston Chronicle, p. A1.
7. William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. 110th Congress, 2007–2009. Text as of Jan 01, 2008 (Passed Congress/Enrolled Bill). H.R.7311.
8. Committee on Migration (2013, November). Mission to Central America: the flight of unaccompanied children to the United States. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
9. Retrieved from ForeignAssistance.gov Hondoras
10. Retrieved from various tables in ForeignAssistance.gov
11. Retrieved from http://www.facethefactsusa.org/facts/New-Aircraft-Carrier-Does-More-with-Less-Crew
12. From St. Basil’s Homily, On the Saying from Gospel of St. Luke, “I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones.” Quoted in St. Theodore the General Monthly Newsletter, Jan 2012, Vol 4, Issue 1, p.1.
Houston Catholic Worker, June-August 2014, Vol. XXXV, No. 4.