Catholic leaders have raised concerns that Latin American migrants are increasingly in danger of human rights violations, particularly the growing number of minors trying to make the trip from Central America to the United States alone. In a statement released on June 4, Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, auxiliary bishop of Seattle and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, called on the Obama administration and Congress to protect the unaccompanied children from Mexico and Central America crossing the border and to respond to the root causes of poverty and increasing violence as a long-term solution to the issue. He described President Obama’s announcement on June 3 of a new interagency task force to coordinate a response to the influx of solitary children streaming into the United States as “a good first step.”
The Obama administration estimates that around 60,000 undocumented and unaccompanied minors will enter the United States this year and projects the number will grow to nearly 130,000 next year. As recently as 2011, the number was only around 6,000. In a memo that describes the problem as an “urgent humanitarian situation,” Obama empowered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate relief for the children, including housing, care, medical treatment and transportation.
“These children are extremely vulnerable to human traffickers and unscrupulous smugglers and must be protected,” said Bishop Elizondo. “Over the long term, the increasing violence from gangs and organized crime in their home countries must be addressed and controlled so they can be secure in their homes.”
In separate meetings in May in Central America, bishops, church workers and Catholic organizations from Latin America and the United States arrived at the same conclusions. “Our biggest concern, among others, has been the violation of human rights during migration, the trafficking of persons, the issue of public policy and exploitation of various groups involved,” the Department of Justice and Solidarity of the Latin American bishops’ council said in a statement following a meeting in Panama on May 16.
On May 22, Central American and U.S. bishops concluded a meeting in El Salvador in which they highlighted the growing trend of young people making perilous migrations to the United States to rejoin family members. The meetings come amid heightening calls for the U.S. Congress to pass a stalled immigration reform bill. The Senate has already passed a comprehensive immigration reform package, but the House of Representatives has failed to vote on similar legislation.
“As pastors, we see the human consequences of this broken system each day in our parishes and social service programs, as families are separated, migrant workers are exploited, and our fellow human beings risk everything to find a better life for themselves and the ones they love,” Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement released on June 5.
Church workers contend that poor social and economic conditions continue to force residents to flee their native countries. The situation is particularly acute in Central America, where Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador perennially rank among countries with the world’s highest homicide rates.
“The forces that are driving them, the predominant push factors, are violence added with poverty and lack of opportunity,” said Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy and public affairs for the U.S.C.C.B. Office of Migration and Refugee Services. Appleby, who attended the meeting in El Salvador, said, “One woman at a repatriation center, told us, ‘I’d rather my child die on the way to the United States than at my doorstep.’”