Luis and I were both 17 years old when I met him two years ago. He seemed much older as he described his dangerous journey alone through the desert from El Salvador to the United States. His face was solemn, his words sparse and his eyes dark and emotionless. When he described fleeing El Salvador to escape daily abuse from his alcoholic father, however, he broke down into tears. It was then that I realized he was just a kid like me.
In 2014, almost 70,000 unaccompanied minors, mostly from Central America, entered the United States. Although the massive influx has since diminished, the children continue to come in large numbers. Our nation’s immigration laws provide certain protections and, in some cases, pathways to citizenship for unaccompanied minors. But while the law is willing to make some exceptions for children, very often the American public is not. We sometimes label a vulnerable group of children as unwanted burdens or dangerous intruders—just as we do, unfortunately, many adult immigrants.
While volunteering for Catholic Charities of Baltimore Immigration Legal Services, where I helped to represent unaccompanied minors, I learned that seeing the clients as children was a crucial first step toward understanding the reasons they came and the ways they can be supported here in the United States. I also realized how my own Catholic faith fortifies this perspective and provides a spiritual context for my work.
The U.S. Immigration System
Some politicians have claimed that the influx of immigrant kids was incited by a portion of the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which mandates that minors from countries that do not border the United States, like El Salvador, must be held in the protection of the Office of Refugee Resettlement and, if possible, transferred to live with relatives rather than be immediately sent back to their countries of origin. One elected official insisted that policies like these “entice” minors from Central America to enter the country, as if they are seeking to take advantage of the law. Many ordinary Americans are also reluctant to see their government use its resources on foreigners who, in their eyes, are simply coming to claim a slice of American prosperity.
If people who share these views would sit with these children and hear their stories, they would likely change their minds. When Luis came to the United States, he knew nothing of our nation’s immigration laws, let alone a portion of the T.V.P.R.A. that happened to apply to him. He did not come to get a better education or to get a good job. He fled his home when his father’s abuse escalated to the point where the pain of staying outweighed the fear of leaving.
The young people I work with at the immigration law center share similar stories. They are applicants for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, a section of immigration law that provides relief from deportation and a pathway to citizenship for children who were abused, abandoned or neglected by one or both parents in their countries of origin. For them, the gang violence we hear about in the news is only part of the problem. Many, like Luis, flee their households because of serious abuse. Others grow up in debilitating poverty or lack support systems entirely.
Children from Central America bravely make the journey to the United States knowing and fearing the dangers that they will face. Luis was inches away from falling off “La Bestia,” the train that runs through Mexico to the U.S. border. Antonio was held at gunpoint for three days. Marta was raped. While providing humanitarian aid on the border this summer, I got a brief glimpse into what many unaccompanied minors experience. It was enough for me to realize that confronting the dangers of the desert at such a young age requires a combination of strength and desperation.
The Pursuit of Safety
A document from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops confirmed for me the observations I made in my time volunteering. The document explains that many people leave their countries of origin “because they are desperate and the opportunity for a safe and secure life does not exist in their own land.” I discovered that this is especially true for unaccompanied minors. When we think of unaccompanied minors as immigrants simply looking for a better life, we are inclined toward exclusivity. We might argue that while we would like to give all people the opportunity to live in the United States, it is not possible in these times of economic uncertainty. But when we come to understand that most unaccompanied minors are traumatized children in need of help, we might be more willing to welcome them.
I find that Catholic social teaching, especially as Pope Francis expresses it today, reinforces this compassionate perspective on migration. When I see how my church has bravely responded to recent migration trends, I feel encouraged to work even harder on behalf of these children.
In a joint pastoral letter, bishops from the United States and Mexico call for a more humane immigration policy, citing as biblical support Mt 25:35–40, in which Jesus says he is present in the foreign-born “stranger,” the hungry and the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned and the ill. While the Bishops apply this passage to all migrants, I realized that it is especially relevant to unaccompanied minors, who represent all the suffering groups whom Jesus commands us to serve. They come in desperate need of food and water after a long journey. Their extreme vulnerability reflects nakedness. They are held in detention facilities at the border. And they are ill, suffering from varying degrees of physical and emotional trauma. Jesus also reminds us that when we welcome a child, we welcome Christ (Mt 18:5).
Luis and I became good friends while I helped with his case. I sat alongside him when he testified before the Maryland General Assembly in support of a bill that would raise the maximum age of eligibility for cases like his to 21 from 18 to match federal law. Luis and his older brother did not understand all of the legal or political arguments behind the proposed bill. All they knew was that their 20-year-old sister was still back in El Salvador suffering, and they just wanted her to be safe. Their father’s abuse had gotten even worse since Luis had fled. He threatened to kill the sister with a machete. After Luis bravely told his story in well-practiced English, he and his brother began to cry. Both young men were victims of abuse, and both had fled to the United States as scared and lonely kids, searching for someone to welcome them.