The humanitarian crisis on the Mexican border has become a major issue in the public discourse. It has generated a heated political debate that has sometimes obscured the human face of the problem and the actual needs of the unaccompanied minors.
The long-term migration policy questions must be addressed, but for now, the urgent needs of many young people from Central America fleeing to this country must be met. How will we respond?
The border children heading to the United States are primarily from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and are fleeing countries that in many cases resemble failed states. In those countries, a breakdown in public authority and drug-fueled corruption has led to the rise in power of violent street gangs that impose a reign of terror all around them and wage what are essentially small civil wars for control of territory.
At times, the choice for many people is to flee or die on the streets.
A July 9 story in the London Guardian newspaper told the story of “Karla.” Karla arrived at the Texas border with her two very young children, her mother, and three siblings under the age of 15. It had taken the family a month to make the 1,500-mile journey from their home in northern Honduras, traveling by bus through Guatemala and Mexico. They had sold everything they owned to pay a network of smugglers who bribed the way clear through checkpoints along the route.
The Guardian reported: Karla headed north partly because she had heard the United States had begun allowing children to enter legally. This is what the smugglers were saying, and the family knew others who had safely made it across the frontier.
“But the main motive for the journey was fear: Karla wanted to get beyond the reach of her father and his contacts in the street gangs that have turned Honduras into the country with the highest murder rate in the world.”
In powerful testimony to Congress on June 25, Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, speaking on behalf of the U.S. bishops, highlighted the human face of the border children and the need for an appropriate response in each of their cases.
Bishop Seitz testified that a “new paradigm regarding unaccompanied children is upon us — namely, it is clear that unaccompanied children are facing new and increased dangers and insecurity and are fleeing in response. As a result, this phenomenon requires a regional and holistic solution rooted in humanitarian and child welfare principles.”
Bishop Seitz reminded Congress of Pope John Paul II’s exhortation that the dignity and rights of migrants and their families must be respected “even in cases of non-legal immigration.”
A consistent ethic of life
A common response to our bishops’ plea to protect these unaccompanied minors is that the United States “cannot afford” to take everyone in who wishes to come here. Sometimes, the people making these arguments, including some Catholics, consider themselves “pro-life.”
But what if we looked at this issue not as a partisan “immigration/border control” issue but as a “life” issue? Many of us pro-lifers view the loss of one child to abortion as a major tragedy, and rightly so.
We lament that mothers often do not know that there is some support for her, or that there are others who would take the baby, and a tragedy could be avoided. Most pro-lifers would contend that our country and our communities can, indeed, afford these unborn children.
Yet, at our border there are tens of thousands of children looking to be saved from poverty and, in many cases, violence and death. The border children are children of God just like those unborn babies, and their lives are no less valuable or less worth saving.
Can we really not “afford” to review their cases and offer them help, if possible?
The question is not whether we can afford to address this crisis, for we can. The question is whether we as a nation are going to meet this humanitarian test and better prioritize our public spending to safeguard the dignity and life of every human person. Meeting this test would show our commitment to a consistent ethic of life and the interconnected of issues across the life span, from womb to tomb.
According to Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., “the denial of respect or even the diminishment of respect for any one aspect of life [adversely leads] to a denial or diminishment of respect for life in other aspects of life due to the fact that they are all related.”
Living a “consistent ethic of life” does not mean every issue is of equal importance. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who pioneered the term, stated: “I know that some people on the left, if I may use that label, have used the consistent ethic to give the impression that the abortion issue is not all that important anymore, that you should just be against abortion in a general way, but there are more important issues, so don’t hold anybody’s feet to the fire just on abortion. That’s a misuse of the consistent ethic, and I deplore it.”
Protecting the right to life “is the foundation of the house” as the U.S. bishops state in their document “Living the Gospel of Life” (1998). But being pro-life cannot stop with working to end abortion.
The border children cannot afford having Catholics sit on the sideline of this humanitarian crisis. A renewed emphasis on the dignity of the human person should help us overcome our own ideological blind spots and fashion more humane responses to all of the various social challenges of our day.
Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.