Enrique's Journey. This photograph by 2004 Casey Medal winner Donald Barletti of the Los Angeles Times is on display in JCCF's office.
Would you hand your child over to a complete stranger – an opportunistic entrepreneur – who promises to shepherd your precious beloved across a desert, a river, hopping trains, dodging authorities, all the while facing the possibility of rape, abduction, theft, injury, illness, dehydration?
I won’t even let my 11-year-old daughter walk the half-mile from my house to the public library because she’d have to pass by a Greyhound Station, overgrown lots and alleys, many mentally ill homeless people, and, most dangerous of all: texting drivers.
Who can imagine what dire circumstances would lead a parent or guardian to conclude that sending a child out on a thousand mile trek on his own is safer or saner than keeping them close to home?
The treacherous journey to el norte is a desperate escape and a cry for freedom. It’s the voice of a child saying, “My life matters” and “I deserve better.” It is a gun to a boy’s head and a choice to kill or be killed or run for his life. It is a girl who longs to see and be with her mother, the woman cleans your office or takes care of your babies. In a world where capital, goods, information, drugs and weapons seem to cross nearly every border with abandon, we continue to draw the line at people. Some people.
This Tegucigalpa Express is no Underground Railroad; yet we in the U.S. are faced with a choice: Do we provide sanctuary or return children to the very places they have fled, often for fear of their lives. Can a child welfare model be applied to a whole region? Is there another choice?
This humanitarian crisis demands interrogation. It’s been only 30 years since a Cold War mentality fueled U.S. policy in Central America, sponsoring dirty wars that resulted in an exodus to the U.S.
War has a very long tail. The U.S. is continuing to reap what it has sown. Weeds always win the battle in unattended gardens.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Perhaps that garment is the bright-colored cloth worn by indigenous peoples of Central America. Perhaps it the T-shirt you are wearing that was produced for pennies in a maquiladora. The future of our country is inextricably linked to the future of others in our hemisphere. And the conversation we are having about income inequality here at home is only a whiff of the whole breath of addressing the enduring inequalities that plague all humanity.
We can ask ourselves if U.S. policy would be different if the children were white-skinned and blond-haired and blue-eyed. Surely, the perception that some children are not children is rooted in racism. That dynamic is at play in our own juvenile justice system and school disciplinary practices, and in dehumanizing terms like “aliens,” “anchor babies” or “crack babies.” To me, “unaccompanied minors” are teens hanging out at the mall or latch-key kids left home alone. The children streaming over our borders are child refugees. Children hoping that Uncle Sam es un tio bueno, a good uncle.
As we hear their stories, see their images in the news, and debate their fate, remember each one is an individual – somebody’s child – the child of a father who probably hasn’t slept in weeks or a mother whose prayers are answered when at last she sees her son alive.