American Exodus: Encountering Christ in the child martyrs of migration

BREAKING BORDER. Unaccompanied migrant children at a facility in south Texas.

Forced migration is a story of human desperation and survival as old as the written word. It is central to the earliest biblical accounts of the people of God: from the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden to Joseph’s enslavement in Egypt to the exodus of the Israelites. Throughout recorded time, people have been forced to move by powers beyond their control.

Fleeing Herod’s violence, even the Holy Family was forced to uproot itself and seek sanctuary in a foreign land or risk the death of their son. That is why at Christmas, when our thoughts turn to the poor but precious birth that changed the world, we set up mangers and tiny cribs in our homes, eagerly awaiting the coming of the Christ Child. We make room.

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Since his election, Pope Francis, himself the son of immigrants, has reminded us repeatedly of the human cost of forced migration. In May, while addressing new ambassadors to the Holy See, he took the opportunity to say:

We could also consider it to be in a certain sense cynical to proclaim human rights and at the same time ignore or fail to take account of the men and women who, forced to leave their homeland, die in the attempt or are not welcomed by international solidarity.

The pope could well be talking to us, in these United States of America, where our immigration laws are exacerbating a humanitarian crisis. Fleeing certain violence and oppression in their home countries, refugee immigrants from Central America are driven underground and beyond safety, where they are frequently targets of a powerful criminal class.

These immigrants face numerous tragedies during their journey. Organized extortion, systematic rape, disappearances, mass executions, wholesale human trafficking, the commercial sexual exploitation of children and the permanent separation of families have grown common and extreme.

Though adult migration to the United States from Latin America is at a historic low, the number of minors seeking sanctuary at our door has reached crisis levels. Unofficially, workers at child detention centers along the border were told last year to prepare for as many as 100,000 unaccompanied children. The White House now confirms that 90,000 minors are expected this year, with over 100,000 minors expected in 2015.

While the youth migration crisis began dominating national headlines in mid-2014, the Women’s Refugee Commission already was sounding the alarm, documenting the “exodus of children” fleeing Central America. The commission noted a surge, beginning in October 2011, of unaccompanied immigrant children crossing the U.S. border. Most of them came from Guatemala (35 percent), El Salvador (27 percent) and Honduras (25 percent).

When asked why they wanted to leave, children from these countries said they were subject to violent attacks from all sides in the war between drug cartels, youth gangs and the police. The W.R.C. cites “longstanding trends in Central America, including rising crime, systemic state corruption and entrenched economic inequality” as primary reasons for the exodus.

Elizabeth G. Kennedy, an immigration scholar, writes: “Girls as young as nine were gang-raped in all three nations. Most children regularly see murder being committed, some have lost their parents to gang violence, and some no longer attend school because gangs actively recruit from school grounds.”

It is difficult to believe that Central American countries could bear any more violence after the civil wars and turmoil of the 1970s, ’80s and even ’90s, when citizens were tortured and made to disappear by their own governments. Yet today, El Salvador has the highest murder rate of women in the world, and Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico endure raging femicide.

Honduras, the murder capital of the world, saw 920 children murdered in the space of three months in 2012. So it can no longer come as a surprise that today children are fleeing, by themselves, in search of sanctuary.

Making It Through Mexico

Young people from Central America who are apprehended at the U.S. border have traveled over 1,000 miles, often on foot but also by bus, truck and train. To make it that far they must first survive the journey through Mexico.

A delegation from the Catholic Church went on an observation mission with journalists and activists last year to witness the condition of migrants crossing Mexico. They concluded their report with a simple statement: “Mexico is a graveyard for migrants.”

Amnesty International calls migration through Mexico “a major human rights crisis,” reporting that an estimated six out of 10 migrant women and girls are victims of sexual violence. People are robbed on highways, even kidnapped from buses. In one instance, horrific but not unique, young women were forced out of a moving bus by gunmen, stripped and raped in front of the passengers, then driven away in trucks.

In 2009, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission reported 10,000 abductions of migrants in six months, with “almost half of interviewed victims saying that public officials were involved in their kidnapping.” Today, experts in organized crime report that the police and border patrols have been infiltrated by criminal gangs on nearly every level.

Though no one yet knows the number of migrant young people sold into modern-day slavery in Mexico, the Mexico-based Foundation of Social Assistance and Humanitarian Aid estimates that more than half of Central Americans who migrate to the United States experience some form of trafficking.

If you ever wondered who won the “war on drugs,” it was the Zetas. As Mexican drug cartels rose in power in the 1990s, overshadowing even the notorious Colombian cartels, they took control of drug smuggling routes into the United States and trapped Central America between South American suppliers and the U.S. drug market. These cartels now travel in armored tanks and broadcast executions with impunity.

Largely as a result of the government’s war on drugs, Mexico witnessed over 120,000 homicides from 2006 to 2012. During that same period the Mexican government confirms more than 26,000 were “disappeared,” many by their own police and military.

As they did in Argentina after that country’s Dirty War (1976–83), the mothers of the disappeared in Mexico are marching. On Mother’s Day they come to the capital with posters of their missing children, looking for answers. Luz María Durán Mota, whose 17-year-old son was taken away by police in June 2011, said: “It is a daily torture, not knowing where he is. If they are torturing him. If he has eaten anything.”

Journalists also are targeted, and throughout Latin America, religious martyrdom has sharply increased. For the fifth year in a row the region has seen the largest number of Christian pastoral workers killed, including four priests assassinated in Mexico in 2013.

Tomás González Castillo, a Franciscan friar, and Ruben Figueroa, who run La 72, a migrant shelter between Guatemala and Mexico, face constant death threats. Their crime: interfering with market forces by offering migrants a brief respite from the extortion and violence they are sure to experience crossing Mexico. Mr. Figueroa says migrant abuse has reached “epic proportions.”

“By its nature, migration is a humanitarian tragedy,” said Mr. Figueroa, “but when there are governments that are complicit with organized crime, it becomes a holocaust.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been investigating child migration through Mexico for some time. In their report “The Changing Face of the Unaccompanied Alien Child” (2012), they document that 85 percent of children interviewed in U.S. detention suffered “some type of traumatic experience” such as “kidnapping or sexual or physical assault, during their journey to the United States.”

At the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services of Texas, which provides free legal aid to detained young people, children spoke of being held hostage for months in Mexico. Criminals often use whatever phone number the child took with them on their journey for extortion. The farther away the child’s country of origin, the more money is demanded. Some young people were passed from one extortionist to the next “like cash machines.”

One intake interview done by D.M.R.S. involved a pair of siblings from El Salvador, who were taken hostage in Mexico. A 9-year-old boy witnessed the rape of his 15-year-old sister by their captor. He managed to escape during one such incident and recruited a band of street kids to help him. They overtook the man, and the siblings escaped, making it to the U.S. border and detention.

Children who make it to U.S. custody are the fortunate ones. Though detention offers these traumatized young people a brief respite and sanctuary, victimization and sexual abuse still occur in detention. Although it is illegal to detain children with adults, minors were being held in adult detention even before the 2011 surge of unaccompanied young people. The Women’s Refugee Commission, in a report presented to the United Nations last March, concluded that migrant children taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol regularly face “excessive force” and treatment that is “inhumane and degrading.”

Market for Migration

In Mexico, those who profit most from the migration market are the criminal cartels and coyotes (smugglers). Here in the United States, the clear winners are private prisons and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or I.C.E.—now the second-largest federal agency, with an annual budget of $5.614 billion in 2013.

With roughly 400,000 detentions and deportations annually, there are now more immigrants detained in the U.S. in any given year than the entire population detained in the U.S. Japanese internment camps of the 1940s.

The prison industry charges $164 per immigrant detainee per day, and detains about half of all undocumented immigrants caught by I.C.E. for an average of five months. The Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, the two largest private prison companies, had a combined revenue of $3.3 billion in 2012. Instead of posting bail or wearing an ankle monitor—a practice allowed for even violent criminals at a cost of 30 cents to $14 per detainee per day—immigrants are detained at a total cost to U.S. taxpayers of $5 million per day.

This does not factor in the cost of foster care for the children left behind.

In 2011 the United States formally detained 6,854 unaccompanied young people in child detention facilities overseen by the Office for Refugee Resettlement. By 2013, the United States had detained 24,668 young people. Since October of last year, over 57,500 minors have already been detained.

President Obama has acknowledged this humanitarian crisis and called on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to organize a response. Makeshift shelters are being set up to accommodate the surge of children. With so many passing through detention, their processing time can be as short as 35 days; still, as a result of political pressures, the White House is trying to expedite their deportation.

These children could be granted Temporary Protected Status until suitable guardians are found; instead they are being sped through expensive court proceedings in front of immigration judges and, when possible, with attorney representation and translators.

In 2012, 40 percent of unaccompanied children taken into custody were found eligible for asylum or other forms of legal relief; if the child cannot be reunited with a qualifying family member in the United States, asylum often leads to a child being put into foster care.

The remaining 60 percent were repatriated to their country and the conditions they had managed to escape—possibly to begin the trip again, and again risk being abused or disappeared.

Our Hearts and Homes

As this exodus of traumatized young people reaches our shore, we as a nation and as individuals must decide how to respond.

Some of those who make it to our border have a relative or friend in the United States who could look after them. Others have no one left in the world. All of them have as little as 30 days to navigate immigration laws and find someone to take them in or vouch for them.

In his remarks on World Refugee Day in June 2013, Pope Francis said:

We cannot be insensitive to these families or towards our refugee brothers and sisters. We are called to help them, opening ourselves to understanding and hospitality. May there be no lack of persons and institutions around the world to assist them. In their faces is etched the face of Christ!

Prophetically, the U.S.C.C.B. and Catholic Charities, among other religious and nonprofit organizations, have led the way in protecting these lost children and provide information on how to sponsor an immigrant child. Families and individuals who foster a child receive annual stipends to cover the cost of their care. Shelters that can take them in receive compensation. Individuals can also become guardians, agreeing to mentor a child so the young people can try to qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status and not be automatically deported.

Imagine the life that might again be breathed into religious orders and seminaries if each community opened its doors to a few of these many lost children. Imagine if these young people were kept safe and taught daily by the words and examples of holy people.

Imagine if people of all faiths came together to make room.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Rick Sherman
4 years 1 month ago
Imagine if the 'leaders' of the people of all faiths had the spiritual depth to competently address the underlying issues which drive the rampant drug usage in the US. That would do more to solve the violence and refugee problems in Central America than bigger doors and bigger band-aids. What if we all preached and practiced, 'Live Simply That Others May Simply Live'? Such a radical concept would likely ruffle the folks who are feeding our endowments and force all the sophisticated people to get a job on a family farm.
John Walton
4 years 1 month ago
The Church (big-C) and the likes of Cardinal Maradiaga are enablers of feudalism, economic inequality and oppression of the poor. Immigrants follow opportunity, not the flawed 19th C economic orthodoxy of Italian socialists.

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