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July 17, 2014 at 6:04 AM

Are immigrant children on the border refugees?

Much has been written over the past few days on the question of whether those immigrant children illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are refugees.

Pro-Immigration activists stage a protest along with anti-immigration activists on Mt. Lemmon Road in anticipation of buses carrying illegal immigrants on Jully 15, 2014 in Oracle, Arizona. About 300 protesters lined the road waiting for a busload of illegal immigrants who are to be housed at a facility in Oracle. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

Pro-immigration protesters line a road in Oracle, Arizona on July 15 as they await a busload of immigrants to pass through. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

Many of them are because they come from Central American countries such as Honduras and Guatemala, which have some of the highest murder rates in the world. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so.”

This week, The Seattle Times reported that Joint Base Lewis-McChord is being considered as a possible host site for migrant children awaiting legal hearings. Already, neighbors and surrounding city leaders are sounding the alarm about potential problems. According to a Thursday blog post by the news side, U.S. Rep. Denny Heck is trying to ease fears as federal officials guarantee that any kids sent here would be separated from the general population.

Fear of the unknown should not prevent the Western Washington community from providing safe haven, at least for now. There are laws in place to determine which of these children are legitimate refugees, and which might be considered for deportation. Why rush the process and place their lives at risk?

Back in March, the UNHCR issued a report calling on the global community to protect Central American youth from rampant violence in their home communities. The agency based its findings on interviews with 400 kids.

Here are two chilling anecdotes excerpted from the UNHCR’s press release:

A 17-year-old boy who fled Honduras told the UNHCR interviewers, “My grandmother is the one who told me to leave. She said: ‘If you don’t join, the gang will shoot you. If you do, the rival gang will shoot you, or the cops. But if you leave, no one will shoot you.’”

A 14-year-old girl from El Salvador cited in the report, stated: “There are problems in my country. The biggest problem is the gangs. They go into the school and take girls out and kill them . . . I used to see reports on the TV every day about girls being buried in their uniforms with their backpacks and notebooks. I had to go very far to go to school, and I had to walk by myself. There was nowhere else I could go where it would be safer. I lived in a village, and it was even worse in cities.”

A New York Times guest column by author Sonia Nazario offers even more harrowing first-hand stories that illustrate why escaping to the U.S. for many of these children is not a choice, but a tool of survival.

By sending these children away [from the U.S.], “you are handing them a death sentence,” says José Arnulfo Ochoa Ochoa, an expert in Honduras with World Vision International, a Christian humanitarian aid group. This abrogates international conventions we have signed and undermines our credibility as a humane country. It would be a disgrace if this wealthy nation turned its back on the 52,000 children who have arrived since October, many of them legitimate refugees.

Americans citizens have extended a helping hand to refugees before, dating back to the resettlement of 400,000 displaced Europeans following World War II.  (I alluded to my own Vietnamese family’s refugee roots in a previous Opinion Northwest post.) Let’s not extol this country’s history of compassion, then forget what that means when more than 50,000 desperate and innocent children show up at our border.

Comments | Topics: border, immigrant children, refugee

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