Emotions run hot over 'border children'

Monday, July 21, 2014
A youngster looks out a small window in a door in a holding room at the Brownsville, Texas holding station. / Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

More than 52,000 children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have been caught flowing across the border alone since last October - more than double the number of a year ago - fleeing from poverty and violence in their hone countries.

The situation is "an urgent humanitarian crisis," according to President Obama, and lawmakers are calling for hearings on the situation. Some call for immediate deportation, others say the county has a moral responsibility to care for the refugee children.

In Iowa, the faith community, like everyone else, is struggling to come to grips with the crisis.

Chuck Valenti-Hein, of Lakeside Presbyterian Church and Our Place multicultural center, said that people's natural response is to want an immediate fix - but the crisis is "an amazingly complex situation that has been building up for decades if not longer."

"How can we solve in a day problems that go back for years and decades inside the countries these children are coming from?" he told the Pilot-Tribune.

As head of a local church that was a leader is resettling southeast Asian refugees a generation earlier, simply discarding the illegal immigrant children is not a viable solution.

"This is an absolute humanitarian emergency to find ways to respond to these children. As Americans and as human beings we have a mandate to protect the innocent. We have to make sure they have the basics - food, shelter and care that they need."

However, treating the symptoms does not solve the root problems.

"The issues that need to be dealt with are the broader issues. What conditions are causing this extraordinary situation in which parents are trusting coyotes who are going to take their children north to take their chances?" Valenti-Hein says.

In his mind, drugs are a root issue in the violence that is tearing apart Central America.

"Unfortunately, the drug market exists because there continues to be a demand for those drugs in North America. That means we in a way are responsible, our own problem in our own country has had a real hand in doing this to the children. We need to take a very close look at ourselves, here," the local pastor said. "Kids are not the ones who are supposed to be prosecuted."

While U.S. policy has been to prosecute the victims of drug abuse, it has done little to cut down the market for drugs, he said.

In Storm Lake, an exceptionally ethnically diverse community for Iowa, will there be an impact to the influx of illegal alien children?

"I've heard the possibility that some will be coming to the Omaha region, mainly because there are populations of people from those parts of the world," Vanenti-Hein said.

"Right now, officials trying to respond to this don't have a lot of options, because they don't know where the parents of these children are. They are going to be desperately looking for any relatives who may be in the United States, as somewhere to place the children temporarily. If they can document a relative in Storm Lake, yes, they are going to be headed this way. I would not be at all surprised if in the course of the next couple of months we see some of these children come in as nieces or nephews of our residents, but I don't know of any concerted effort to relocate them here. We really won't know until we see what children show up at the doors of the schools when classes begin in the fall."

The pastor said he would be interested to see how places like Storm Lake might prepare as communities are called upon to relocate some of the children. They are not orphans, and it may be difficult to get children into adoptive situations if their parents cannot be located.

That means that the burden would fall on the foster care network, which locally and across Iowa is already struggling to meet the needs of native-U.S. children with no place else to go.

"It would require a huge number of foster placements to go that route. There would need to be the right kind of facilities, and the right kind of programs to provide the services that will be needed for large numbers of children who are alone."

Can the country absorb so many homeless children? Valenti-Hein feels it can.

"It would be a huge challenge - 50, 60, 90,000 children. But we have managed to accommodate people many times when there have been crises in various parts of the world. Look at Storm Lake and what it did for the Tai Dam people. That is a story of how assimilation can work."

At St. Mary's Catholic parish in Storm Lake, also known for its efforts to accommodate newcomers and Spanish speakers, Fr. J. David Esquiliano is equally concerned by the complexity of the border situation.

"It's not just the children, but an issue of responsibility in immigration to this country in general. From a religious perspective, the Bible talks about how we need to care for everyone."

The country and communities have typically dealt with families coming in from troubled regions, and not children thrust alone into a new culture, he reflects.

"Above all else, these are children of God," he says. "The church does not recognize borders or politics. St. Paul said that our citizenship is in heaven."


The United Citizens of America planned a rally in Council Bluffs Saturday to call for tighter border security and to protest against any form of potential amnesty. Western Iowa Congressman Steve King was expected to speak at the event.

Of late, King has been calling for the National Guard to be deployed to seal the southern border. He blames President Obama for the entire situation.

"Even thought this President has the power to close the border, I know that he never will. In fact he refuses to do so. The American people must understand that this surge in illegals coming across our border is a presidential-caused crisis. This President's lawless actions such as DACA have caused this nightmare," King said in a statament.

"This crisis is devastating our communities and putting the burden on American taxpayers. Right now there is an incentive for illegals to continue to pour across our border, and the only way to discourage them is to seal our border and send them back"

ALI-PAC terms the situation an "Invasion of the Illegals." The group planned to collect donations to use to buy online ads for its opinions.


The Pilot-Tribune conducted an informal poll on our Facebook page, asking,"Does the U.S. have a humanitarian responsibility to the children, or should they be immediately deported?"

Of those expressing a choice, the opinion was sharply split. Some 46 percent were in favor of deporting the children, and 33 percent felt that a humanitarian response is in order.

"We can't even fix our own country and are already in major debt with the Chinese, why do we always have to need to be the super hero that has to fly in to save the day? We need to fix our own mess first," responded reader Nick Serianni. "Where are our allies of the UN? Why are no other countries stepping up to help?"

Anthony Cole responds, "If it is allowed it will reap terrible consequences as more and more will come... Maybe we should just straighten out their corrupt government and put new people in power like we do everywhere else in history."

On the other side of the issue, Anne Green responded, "We claim to be a Christian nation, yet there is many who are treating this crisis with no compassion. These children are fleeing unspeakable violence fueled by the drug trade (which this country is largely responsible for), they should be treated as the refugees they are. The president is asking us to rise up and be the humanitarian nation we once were, that IS the true Christian response."

"I thought that the U.S was built on immigrants coming to this country... just because the 'white people' set a bunch of laws saying how you can come to the U.S. does not make you any more legal than those crossing that border at this very moment," remarked Ismelia Velencia.


The faith community in Iowa seems to be stressing the humanitarian nature of the border crisis. Several statements on the situation have been received by the Pilot-Tribune.

A statement jointly issued by all four Catholic bishops in Iowa, has this to say:

"We appreciate government officials for responding as best they can to this crisis and ask them to make sure that legal services are available to unaccompanied children. Children without family in the U.S. are at risk of being sent back to an unsafe situation. The best interests of these children should be a priority.

"In a recent statement for World Refugee Day, Pope Francis said "Jesus was a refugee" and called upon Catholics and others to "alleviate their suffering in a concrete way." We are responding the best we can through our Catholic Charities organizations and ask the government to do the same."

"Regardless of your politics, the Bible calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves. These children fleeing violence are our neighbors and the Bible commands us to love them," said Harold Heie, founder of OurIowaNeighbors.org in Orange City.

"These children traveled a long and traumatic journey risking everything to come to an America where they can be safe and free from the violence and extreme poverty in their homeland. My heart breaks to hear their stories and I want to make sure they feel welcome here and that they are safe and have basic needs met. Just as former Gov. Robert Ray welcomed Southeast Asians to Iowa nearly 40 years ago, it's in our state's tradition to open our hearts and homeland to foreigners escaping horrible conditions," Heie said in the statement provided to the Pilot-Tribune.

"Iowa has benefitted from these newcomers and we will benefit from today's newcomers," said Alicia Claypool, former chairperson at Iowa Civil Rights Commission.

"We who accompany daily the Hispanic women and children are witnesses to the remarkable devotion that the Spanish speaking parents have for their children and their intense desire to provide for their offspring a healthier and more fulfilling life than they themselves were able to experience. These parents are protective of their children and would not allow them to leave their homes unless there seemed to be no alternative. It is unthinkable that the unaccompanied Central American children would be deported without any consideration for the poverty, violence, and oppression to which they would be forced to return. Is the state of Iowa not capable of providing these refugee children some shelter and protection?" said Sister Carmen Hernandez, director of La Luz Hispana.

"This is our opportunity in Iowa to 'welcome the stranger!' May we do so with integrity, justice and compassion!" said Sister Mary McCauley, of Crossing Borders Dubuque.

"Put aside the moral obligation we may have to care for the more than 52,000 immigrant children who have managed to cross our Southern border. Put aside the reasons for which they may be here. We are indeed a nation of laws and we are at our BEST as a nation when we uphold the laws that protect the most vulnerable who are here, even if they just arrived. The fact is, these young migrants, thanks to a 2008 law signed by President Bush, are guaranteed due process and it is our duty to provide that. It may even turn out that the family reunification that will result in many instances will strengthen our communities," said Jennifer Horner of the Southwest Iowa Latino Resource Center.

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