header icons

Babies in the River: “Urgent Humanitarian Situation,” Part I

President Obama recently called the explosion in the number of migrant children crossing our southern border without parents or caretakers an “urgent humanitarian situation.” Ninety thousand children this year, some as young as five years old, making a journey alone that is incredibly dangerous even for adults, many of them beaten, robbed, forced to sell their bodies, arriving in a country where they know no one and where the government’s response to their plight is in disarray – hard to deny the “urgent humanitarian” aspects of the situation.

But to see the situation as a humanitarian issue only, one that can be made a little less horrible with more federal money and maybe a task force or two, is to miss an important point. Homeless victims of a natural disaster are properly described as facing a “humanitarian situation.” The situation at the border is a disaster, all right, but nature has nothing to do with it. It is entirely human-made. And as such, the core remedy is not just aid, not just help, not just charity, but justice.

The distinction between situations that call for charity and those that cry out for justice is hard to make, because human-made disasters require both. Still, the distinction is important. To illustrate the difference, I start my “Introduction to Social Welfare” courses by telling an old story about a fictional community by a fictional river:

One day, some one notices that there are babies floating down the river. The community responds im-mediately. Villagers jump in and rescue what babies they can. Later, as the babies keep coming, they set up a net to catch them and bring them to shore. They organize health screenings, food, and arrange temporary housing with foster families.  The babies keep coming, and after a few years the community gets pretty darn good at providing these important direct services, organizing babies-in-the-river institutions to professionalize the help they are giving.

I keep talking about these admirable social wel-fare efforts until someone finally gets the point and interrupts me. Isn’t someone going to hike up stream and find out why in the world those babies are in the river in the first place?

My “babies in the river moment” came five years ago when I visited the small Catholic Worker community in Chiapas, the southern-most state of Mexico, in the center of the path of migration from Central America through Mexico to the United States. This is where I first learned of the growing number of children from Central America trying to make the journey to the U.S. on their own, without a parent. Some of these children had made it to the Chiapas Catholic Worker. They were in terrible condition, mostly, and they had just started their terrible journey.

After listening to these horror stories, I traveled “up the river,” so to speak, to Arriaga, Mexico, the focal point of the journey from the slums of Central America to the United States. After crossing the Guatemala-Mexican border, the migrants, whose presence in Mexico is illegal, would have to run the gauntlet of La Arrocera, one of the most dangerous places on earth, a lawless area where it was open season on migrants, where they could be robbed, raped, and killed with impunity. If they could get through that to Arriaga, they could hop on the roof of a train they call la bestia, “the Beast,” which they hoped to ride as far north as possible to the U.S. border.

La bestia, if they can board, is an improvement insofar as they can ride instead of walk, but safety-wise, not so much. For one thing, it is easy to fall off or get thrown off the roof of the train, and the suction drags you under the wheels where you lose your limbs or your life. For another, if it is not bad enough that petty criminals can and will rob you or kill you, the route of the train goes through territory controlled by organized crime syndicates – the media calls them drug cartels, a term from economic textbooks that seems a bit mild when referring to extraordinarily violent organizations whose favorite prey are migrants from Central America.

In Arriaga, the migrant can also find help at the House of Mercy, run by Padre Heyman Vázquez. When we arrived at the shelter, Father Vázquez was kind and generous with his time. He talked about doing all they could to help the migrants as they passed through. He showed us photos of their work. The facility had just been updated, and now they had bunkhouse-style sleeping quarters. He was proud of that.

We visited a bit with a group of young teenagers from Central America. This was during the worst of the economic downturn in the U.S., and my husband asked them if they knew that jobs in the U.S. were very hard to find right now? Did they know about the recession? I will never forget the look on their faces, a kind of pity at our ignorance of the conditions from which they were fleeing.

Of course they knew, likely better than most Americans, the state of the U.S. economy. O.K., maybe they did have no future in America. Maybe they would be hurt or killed on the journey to get there. Maybe they had no future anywhere. But one thing they did know, come what may, they would not go home. Home was worse than anything that could happen to them.

Two years later, Pádre Vazquez came to Houston. He was kind enough to visit my campus and to meet with my administration and students. In those two years, the tide of Central American migrants coming through Arriaga had already started to overflow. They were younger and younger, and more and more were coming alone.

In those two years since I had seen him, he had changed into a different man, really, a man consumed with this tidal wave of children. He had tried and tried to turn them around, to discourage them, to get them to go back home. They had no idea what they would have to go through, he told them, just to get to the U.S. border, let alone get across it. And we’re talking about what happens to adults, who have some ability to protect themselves. You are just children!

He said he almost always failed. They already knew what it would be like, or thought they did. Still, they would not turn around. More kept coming. He wanted us to help.

Fast-forward three more years to the present. The situation is worse, much worse. Catholic shelters and other relief facilities all along the migrant trail are being overwhelmed with the flood of Central American mi-grants. The rapes and robberies and kidnappings on the way to the U.S. border continue, but now, when you finally get there, organized criminals control the means of getting across from the Mexican side. You have to pay them to cross, and the price, albeit not always in money, is always very high.

Yet more and more keep coming. We have reached a tipping point in Central America, a gate that cannot be closed, a flood that cannot be stopped without going upstream and really seeing what is throwing all these children into such a deadly river. What kind of conditions would send a child out on their own in such a manner?  What horror must families and communities have experienced to allow this to happen?

This is a “breaking story,” and we at Casa Juan Diego are ready as always to help in the humanitarian aspects of this crisis as best we can. When babies are floating in the river, the first step is rescue. For those who want to study the issue in more depth, though, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently sent a delegation to Central America to find out what is going on “upstream.” They found a perfect storm, which you can read about on-line by searching for Mission to Central America: The Flight of Unaccompanied Children to the United States. We will take a look at the Bishop’s report later in Part Two of this series, but for now, it is a very good place for the reader to start.


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXV, No. 3, June-August 2014.