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June 23, 2014 at 11:45 AM

More compassion for refugees and the displaced

The influx of immigrant children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally is indeed a crisis. Nearly 47,000 kids have been caught since October. Returning them to their home countries as some have suggested is one option, but don’t count on them to stay in their native communities for long. When people are desperate to survive, they will risk life and limb for better opportunities again and again.

Detainees sleep and watch television in a holding cell where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center on Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in Nogales, Ariz. CPB provided media tours Wednesday of two locations in Brownsville, Texas, and Nogales, that have been central to processing the more than 47,000 unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally since Oct. 1. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)

Detainees sleep and watch television in a holding cell where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center on Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in Nogales, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)

Many of the kids currently warehoused in Border Patrol facilities likely qualify for refugee or asylum status. As they go through this legal process, President Obama should invest more resources into tracking down their families in the U.S. as quickly as possible. Sending some of them back in haste should not be the first option.

The call by many Republicans to secure the border with fencing and more boots on the ground is misguided and ignores the myriad reasons why people are attempting the dangerous crossing in the first place. The vast majority of the migrant youth flooding the border states come from countries in peril. Most Americans can’t possibly understand what would motivate parents to send their kids away. What would you do if you could not guarantee your child’s future? For some families, sending a son or daughter on the uncertain journey north — with smugglers, by railroad, etc. —  is a risk worth taking as opposed to exposing them to the certainty of widespread violence, gang culture and economic depression.

These children did not come by choice. They are victims of a humanitarian crisis — a problem that Americans cannot ignore because it’s unfolding right here within our borders.

The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates 50 million people worldwide have fled their homes in search of peace and refuge, the highest number recorded since World War II.

Below is a chart that shows where refugees, asylum seekers and displaced individuals came from in 2013, before the recent migration of immigrant youth from Central America:

Source: UNHRC

Source: UNHRC

As The Washington Post reports in a June 20 news story, the union representing Border Patrol agents expressed frustration on Twitter over its members being placed in the role of “Babysitting, Diaper Changing, Burrito Wrapping, Cleaning cells” for the Central American migrants. (The tweet has since been deleted, according to the report.) How sad to see them express shame over showing common decency to children who are alone, scared and far from their families.

 A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer helps out a few boys who are trying to make phone calls as they are joined by hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children that are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center on June 18, 2014, in Nogales, Arizona. Brownsville, Texas, and Nogales, have been central to processing the more than 47,000 unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally since Oct. 1. (Photo by Ross D. Franklin-Pool/Getty Images)

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer helps out a few boys who are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center on June 18, 2014, in Nogales, Arizona.  (Photo by Ross D. Franklin-Pool/Getty Images)

Any story about refugees or displaced people hits a nerve because my parents and sister escaped from Vietnam by boat in 1978, three years after the fall of Saigon. Because he was an officer under the old regime allied with the United States, my dad was sent to a communist re-education camp, then monitored once he was released. They stayed in a makeshift refugee camp in Malaysia for nearly six months before an uncle sponsored our family’s relocation to Olympia, Wash. Shortly after, my aunt paid smugglers to help two of her teenage sons escape the country as well. Since I was born in the U.S., I never truly understood the harrowing nature of their exodus until a journalism teacher in college assigned our class to view this classic 1979 report by the late Ed Bradley of CBS News’ “60 Minutes” about the Vietnamese boat people.

Watch this and tell me whether you would send these people back to where they came from? I view the child-migrants from Central America in a similar way.

In their early years in the U.S., fellow immigrants helped my parents settle into their new surroundings. Church members in Olympia were gracious enough to teach them English. American mentors advised them as they went to school and found work in state government.

We were the beneficiaries of compassion, which seems to be sorely lacking in the national dialogue today about displaced people.

As Seattle Times columnist Sarah Stuteville wrote about in a column last Friday, Seattle is one of the places where migrant children might be sent as they await legal proceedings. If this happens, one can only hope the system that mobilized to help families like mine so many years ago will step up again.

Some of the kids will likely be sent back to their countries anyway. Others will stay and thrive. Last week, The Seattle Times published a powerful guest column by a Vietnamese refugee named Lan Dalat. In 1981, his family languished in a boat for days before being rescued by the USS Ranger. Dalat moved to Lacey, Wash. and eventually became a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. The two cousins I mentioned earlier are both doing well and raising their own families here in Washington. My parents put three kids through college.

 A detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility, on June 18, 2014, in Brownsville, Texas. Brownsville and Nogales, Ariz. have been central to processing the more than 47,000 unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally since Oct. 1. (Photo by Eric Gay-Pool/Getty Images)

Detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility, on June 18, 2014, in Brownsville, Texas.  (Photo by Eric Gay-Pool/Getty Images)

The point is those children sleeping on concrete floors right now along the border may have entered illegally, but they pose no immediate threat to our safety. I look at their faces in news photos and think of my older sister, who was a toddler when she left Vietnam. One of the few photos our family has kept from their time in the refugee camp shows my mother holding her only child at the time tight in her arms. My sister was fortunate to have her parents. These migrant kids have no one.

Let’s find out what brought them here, and help them to forge an appropriate path forward.

Comments | Topics: border patrol, central america, detention

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