Last week bishops from five nations asked Catholics — that means you and me — as well as politicians and the rest of society to take a hard look at the issue of children crossing our southern border without their parents.
The important point to remember is that we are talking about children. They are children whose hometowns and countries have grown so dangerous, so violent, that their parents have decided to send them to the U.S. for safety.
Imagine that for a moment. Imagine parting with your children because you believe that for them to stay with you is more dangerous than setting them out on a journey into the unknown, into a country where they may or may not have relatives to take care of them. Sometimes, of course, parents are persuaded by unscrupulous men who, for money, promise a safe trip. These “coyotes” as they are called, will often simply dump the children at the border, or see them across the fence or the river into the U.S. and that’s it. You’re on your own, kid.
Yet parents resort to these tactics, to this desperate measure, hoping above all else that their children — remember we are talking about children — might find a better future.
In the past six months or so, perhaps as many as 50,000 children have crossed the border illegally and without their parents. And what have they found?
Beleaguered Border Patrol agents who organize the children for deportation back home, sometimes warehousing them in squalid conditions. The children have also, in some cases, found angry people — allegedly Americans — who stop their buses and hold often-misspelled signs. They spew venom and vitriol.
Last week a television network news show had pictures of a woman in full rage, telling the bus filled with children and mothers to “take their diseases back to Mexico.”
It was not a pretty sight. It certainly didn’t reflect the words on the Statue of Liberty:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
But there are several rays of hope, several reasons that what is happening along the border could make Catholics proud.
Amidst all the news coverage, you might not have been made aware of a wonderful effort underway to help the children — an effort being led by several Catholic parishes in the area and by Catholic Charities USA.
Last week, David Dutschke of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Louisville, was thoughtful enough to send the rest of the archdiocesan staff an update on Catholic efforts along the border. And what’s being done should make us all proud.
According to the Disaster Response office of Catholic Charities USA — and make no mistake, what’s happening on the border is a disaster, a crisis — at McAllen, Texas, alone, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials are housing 1,400 unaccompanied children, and some mothers with children in 10 detention cells.
Kim Burgo, senior director of disaster response operations for Catholic Charities USA — and the person who prepared the report — said the 10 detention cells house as many as 100 children each, while “another 400 are kept on the floor in a garage facility and in some hallways. The conditions are very poor.”
Meanwhile in Washington, several politicians have said the children and their mothers, who by the way are awaiting deportation back to their home nations, are being treated well. This assessment, of course, is being offered by men who haven’t visited the scenes; haven’t any first-hand knowledge of the ever-changing situation.
Burgo’s report said some detention cells “have variant temperature controls — some are very cold while others are very hot with little air circulation.
“There are no cots,” she reported. “Unaccompanied children and mothers with children are sleeping on concrete floors. Many mothers are pregnant; some are at full term.”
Customs agents told Catholic Charities USA representatives that every person being detained was receiving a shower, meals and medical care. But Burgo said “this was not something we saw or heard.”
“Instead, crying children and mothers with small children indicated they had been locked in the cells for as long as nine days,” she wrote.
But here is the cause for a bit of pride: Burgo reported that Catholic Charities is working with the government to locate vacant facilities “within the U.S. Catholic
Church structure that may be transformed into facilities for use by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, thus allowing additional beds to house” the children and mothers.
The agency also is collaborating with other Catholic organizations to identify and work toward “key solutions to the crisis,” she said. Those helping to find solutions include the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Catholic Relief Services, the Catholic Health Association, the Leadership Counsel of Women Religious and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
This is a complicated issue and political rhetoric in Washington isn’t helping. But Catholics are, or at least they are trying. And that should make us all proud, and make us all want to help.