It is an issue that blurs the lines on so many levels; a subject that inspires emotion and disagreement. Despite on-going conversation, very little has been said that has moved either side in the debate over what to do with the estimated 57,000 mostly young people now stranded and warehoused along our southern border.
They have come from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras fleeing a future offering little hope. Many are preschoolers and the older among them are still too young to legally make adult decisions.
Coming here – a dangerous proposition by any account – may have been their only choice, made by parents with few options. Remaining here – also a choice to be made by others – does not look good.
“It is a humanitarian crisis,” says Marshall Gourley, the former priest at Denver’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, a congregation that included Mexican and Central American immigrants. Gourley calls the border crisis a clash “between Christianity and culture,” one where people simply want to hold on to what they have and the idea of sharing is not debatable.
A large portion of these young people are now being housed in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, in places not equipped to handle their numbers. Makeshift shelters, including gymnasiums and community centers, are now home for them. Local and state resources are being taxed and the federal government has stepped in to ease the burden. But it cannot continue this way for much longer.
Gov. Rick Perry, who has been critical of the government for the influx of young people and blamed the president for inattention to border security, has ordered 1,000 Texas National Guard members to mobilize along the border. It is a move that may be more symbolic than substantive. It will certainly be expensive, adding an estimated $12 million dollars a month to the already substantial costs placed on this situation.
The president has asked Congress for an emergency appropriation of $3.7 billion to deal with the matter. But Republicans say he will not get it unless he agrees to their terms. And right now at the top of their terms is immediate deportation.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock say they are willing to bring some of these children here but also say they need a $4 million dollar grant to pay for the undertaking. Any children brought here would be temporarily housed at the Family Crisis Center near 10th and Federal.
But critics of this wave of immigrants have not been as willing as symbolized by a demonstration in Murrieta, Calif. There, a school bus carrying these new arrivals was blockaded by angry protesters opposed to any new immigration. In Congress, the cries have been quieter but no less emotional.
Iowa Congressman Steve King, a frequent critic of Mexican immigrants, says this new wave of immigrants was encouraged by the president’s promise of amnesty. Texas’ Louie Gohmert has likened them to Nazi soldiers who invaded France in World War II. Georgia Congressman Phil Gingrey, also a medical doctor, has warned that the U.S. should be prepared for outbreaks of swine flu, tuberculosis and the almost always deadly Ebola virus, if these mostly young children are allowed in.
“Many of these kids come here without proof of their medical histories,” says Dr. Elisa Melendez, Denver’s Clinica Tepeyac medical director, “but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been seen by a doctor or had basic inoculations.” Melendez’ clinic sees and treats immigrant children almost daily. “To say these children are carriers is not appropriate.”
A small number of recent arrivals has already been sent back to their home countries. But it will be neither quick nor easy to process those who remain. A 2008 law, overwhelmingly supported by Republicans and signed by President Bush, aimed at protecting children fleeing their countries rather than becoming pawns in the game of sex trafficking, has made wholesale deportation impossible.
But Republican Sen. John Cornyn and Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, both from Texas, have introduced legislation that would amend the 2008 law to make it easier to deport Central American minors. The president has given signals that he would be amenable to changes but most in his party – and especially the Hispanic Caucus – are staunchly opposed to any changes.
Reasons for this wave of Central American immigrants are many. Rape, sexual abuse and gender-based violence are daily occurrences in the countries that make up the new border immigration influx. There is also rampant gang violence, drugs and corruption, all so poorly managed and so overwhelming that it has become part of daily life. Then there is the trip to ‘El Norte.’
For many, the trip north begins on the train that wends its way from Guatemala through Mexico. It is grimly referred to as ‘The Beast,’ and for good reason. It is not a passenger train but one that simply provides passage.
It makes few stops along the 1,400-mile journey and many have died just trying to board the speeding train. As it gains speed, people cling to it like ivy, hanging from its ladders or simply hoping its momentum will not fling them into oblivion. When it does stop, corrupt Mexican authorities, bandits or both are ready to exploit the travelers. Unwanted, forced sex and robbery are common. Periodically the fare also includes death.
Now, decades removed from his own life-changing experience, former Denver Mayor and expatriate Cuban Bill Vidal sees an America reacting differently than when he was the young immigrant/refugee.
In the late fifties and early sixties, Vidal’s parents and so many like them made the decision to send him and his brother to the U.S. when communism took hold in Cuba. They were part of ‘Operation Peter Pan,’ an American undertaking that placed young children in America until their parents could join them at an undetermined time. Unaccustomed to the culture and unable to speak the language, the Vidals’ new world ended up being an orphanage in Pueblo.
“What happened,” asks Vidal. Recent images of adults heaping hate and rage on these new immigrants have haunted him. “Cuban children were welcomed, their parents were lauded for being willing to make such an amazing sacrifice,” he says. “Now, the children are scorned and their parents demonized.”
Vidal, who has dedicated his life to public service in his adopted state, says the attacks on children who cannot even read the signs telling them to ‘go home’ are heartbreaking. “We were sent to orphanages and foster homes. But at the end of the day, we were taken care of and not sent back.” It was a time, he says, when “the U.S. was a beacon of light.”
While pro- and anti-immigrant forces fight over keeping or deporting this new wave, strange alliances have been born.
Congressman Cuellar, a south Texas Democrat whose Laredo district is home to thousands of immigrants has joined with Republicans and wants to change the laws and deport this new influx. But syndicated columnist and conservative Republican George Will recently shocked his party brethren and siding with Democrats by saying just the opposite.
“My view is that we have to say to the children, ‘Welcome to America. You’re going to go to school and get a job and become Americans,’” On Fox News Sunday Will rocked his party’s rank-and-file. “The idea that we can’t assimilate these eight-year-old criminals with their teddy bears is preposterous.”
A federal solution to this impasse is not likely. Congress is set to adjourn for its five-week summer vacation. And there are no plans to reconvene until September when the 2014 election and not immigration policy will be the top priority.