WASHINGTON (CNS) — From the head of the U.S. agency in charge of the welfare of more than 50,000 Central American children who have been apprehended at the Mexican border, to the Honduran cardinal who heads the international Catholic relief agency, Caritas, the message was clear, those minors are as much refugees as the people fleeing upheaval in Syria or South Sudan.
“How are these children different from refugees from Sudan” or other war-torn countries, asked Eskinder Negash, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, known as ORR, in the Department of Health and Human Services. “Regardless of whether they have family here, they are refugees,” he said July 8.
By virtue of his position, Negash personally is legally responsible for the welfare of approximately 50,000 minors in ORR custody as arrangements are sought for them to be placed with relatives or in foster care while deportation is pursued.
(See a video on immigrant advocates’ news conference on the border crisis.)
Speakers at the 2014 National Migration Conference and in interviews with Catholic News Service said broad discussions about migration issues worldwide inevitably led to the recent surge of children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador across the U.S. border.
From an average of 6,000 or 7,000 such minors a year as recently as a few years ago, by mid-June, Homeland Security had apprehended more than 52,000 such children in this fiscal year. That has created a crisis for the Border Patrol, which first encounters them, and for ORR, which must find places to safely care for them.
Negash drew gasps from the audience when he explained that his responsibility for ORR’s charges includes personally approving health care decisions, such as how to treat an 11-year-old girl who’s pregnant, or another pregnant teen, who was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer.
The unaccompanied minors and other refugees for whom his office is responsible come with myriad horrible stories, he said.
“There is rape, human trafficking, a lot of abuse and a lot of them are sick.”
“I’m not telling you this to depress you more, but so you’ll talk about it more,” Negash said.
Describing the situation in his own country, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and president of Caritas Internationalis, the church’s global relief agency, said the children who leave Honduras “flee gangs who want to induct them into a life where they will surely die a violent death at a young age.”
Speaking at the opening plenary session July 7, Cardinal Rodriguez, who also serves as one of Pope Francis’ key advisers as head of his Council of Cardinals, said: “It is like someone has torn open an artery in Honduras and other Central American countries. Fear, grinding poverty and no future mean we are losing our lifeblood — our young people. If this continues to happen, the hearts of our nations will stop beating.”
He added that parents feel they have little choice but to send their children away to save their lives. “The children and young people of these countries need to escape the violence in the hope of finding a safe place, an education, a home, a job — even though on the migrant journey they risk violence and abuse, being trafficked and sometimes death.”
During the plenary a short time earlier, Negash had pleaded with the 800 or so participants of the conference to “please use the same language you do when you are talking about other crises,” in referring to the children being apprehended at the border.
“Is Honduras a failed state?” he asked. “Do we have organized gangs terrorizing by threatening to kill people?”
Organized gangs and drug cartels that kill with impunity are just as much a threat to a country’s stability as the terrorist networks operating elsewhere, he said.
“You don’t have to call them Al-Shabaab,” he said, referring to the East African terrorist network based in Somalia.
In an interview with CNS and the National Catholic Reporter, Cardinal Rodriguez didn’t quite describe his country as a failed state, but acknowledged that “the drug cartels have chosen our country as their battlefield.” He told of children being pressured to join drug networks or criminal gangs under threat of being killed, and of “kids killing people. Sometimes $500 is enough to take a life.”
He said some recent steps taken by the Honduran government give him some hope that law enforcement and military leaders are coming to terms with what it will take to regain control of their country. Among them are a recent declaration that any airplanes suspected of carrying drugs through Honduran air space will be shot down and the recent extradition to the United States of two Honduran drug cartel leaders. Both seem to have had some effect on the drug cartels, he said.
Other speakers at the July 8 plenary described a world awash with refugees and increasingly stretched resources to assist them.
Shelly Pitterman, regional representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, ticked off statistics: 51 million people worldwide last year in refugee situations, yet a 25-year low number of displaced people were able to repatriate to their home countries.
The refugee resettlement program in the United States “is the engine of the global program,” he said, noting that the majority of refugees are resettled through networks run by the Catholic Church. But worldwide, resources are stretched too thinly.
He also said that although most of the children being sent away from their home countries on their own are coming to the United States, it’s not the only place they go. The number going to other Central American countries has risen seven-fold, he said.
Anne Richard, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration in the State Department, said the way to combat the need for people to flee their countries is to push for peace.
“The only real solution to this massive, malignant crisisis for the fighting to stop,” she said.
The conference opened with a Mass at St. Patrick Church nearby. The principal celebrant, Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, urged Catholics to recognize the human beings behind “the data, statistics and policy responses.”
“Clearly we belong to our own natural families, but we also belong to God’s family, with an obligation to care for one another,” he said. “We need to look at one another precisely as brothers and sisters, children of a loving God who invites us to a new relationship to one another.”
Along with panel discussions and workshops, the conference also included a live video feed from the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.
Located in the Turkana District of northwestern Kenya, the camp has housing, counseling and education programs for more than 160,000 refugees, provided through humanitarian organizations including Jesuit Refugee Service.
During the feed, Red, a refugee who has lived in the camp for more than 22 years, explained how he became inspired to “give what he has been given” by becoming a teacher and working with the young children in the camp.
“When I came to this camp, I didn’t know anything,” Red said. “It was only after I arrived here that I received an education and learned more than I ever believed possible. These teachers are no longer around, but I pay them back for everything they have given by providing young children with the education I have received. I believe that is what we are fighting for — to shape the lives of others in the same way my life has been shaped.”
Julia Willis contributed to this story.