While all eyes are on the continuing drama of Syrian and Afghan migrants at the borders of Europe, a representative from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was in Washington on Oct. 21 reminding Congress members that the United States has a similar humanitarian crisis unfolding at its southern border. Though the flow of unaccompanied minors has diminished and headlines about their plight have faded, in Central America violent drug and gang crime remains a plague. The region’s young people, especially vulnerable to aggressive gang recruitment and violence, are seeking an escape through flight to the north.
El Salvador competes with Honduras as one of the most violent countries in the world, with 91 murders per 1,000 persons, primarily because of violence between the two widespread gangs—the Maras and the 18th Street gang. “Children and families are facing life-threatening violence and refugee situations and are falling prey to human smuggling and trafficking to escape,” said Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas. Children and families have been caught in gang crossfire,” the bishop said, adding that 593 children have been killed this year by gangs in El Salvador. In Guatemala, he said, political instability “has led to an inability of the government to protect its population.”
“While the volume of unaccompanied children and families arriving into the United States has decreased from last year,” he said, “the numbers are still high and the protection needs for these children and families are as apparent and important as ever. Nearly 40,000 unaccompanied children have arrived this recently passed fiscal year, with an equal number of young mothers with children.”
Bishop Seitz argued that the United States has a moral obligation to protect these unaccompanied children and families from persecution in Central America. The nation’s bishops believe that the migration of unaccompanied children and families is a “humanitarian and international protection situation” that must be viewed regionally, he said in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
"If we do not respond justly and humanely to this challenge in our own backyard, then we will relinquish our moral leadership and moral influence globally," he said. Bishop Seitz is an advisor to the U.S.C.C.B. Committee on Migration and a member of the board of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network.
“[The U.S. bishops] are pleased,” he said, “that children and families are no longer languishing in over-crowded Border Patrol facilities for weeks at a time but note that there is still much work to be done to ensure that they are treated with dignity and protected in their home countries, neighboring countries, along migration routes, at international borders, at the U.S. border, and in American communities.
“The Catholic Church’s work in assisting asylum seekers and all migrants stems from the belief that every person is created in God’s image,” he told Congress. “In the New Testament, the image of the migrant is grounded in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. In his own life and work, Jesus identified himself with newcomers and with other marginalized persons in a special way: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’” (Mt. 25:35).
But the church’s commitment to the protection of people forced by conflict or poverty into migration is also rooted in Catholic social teaching, he explained. “In modern times, popes over the last 100 years have developed the Church’s teaching on migration,” Bishop Seitz said. “Pope Pius XII reaffirmed the Church’s commitment to caring for pilgrims, aliens, exiles, and migrants of every kind, affirming that all peoples have the right to conditions worthy of human life and, if these conditions are not present, the right to migrate. Pope Francis defended the rights of asylum-seekers early in his papacy, and has spoken out in concern for these children—stating that his thoughts go to 'the tens of thousands of children who migrate alone, unaccompanied, to escape poverty and violence.'”
Bishop Seitz pointed to the human consequences of U.S. policies which are designed to deter migration from the region, including U.S. support for Mexican efforts to intercept Central American children and families in Mexico. They are often returned to their countries of origin despite the danger they may face—a violation of international law on the treatment of refugees. While migrant children and families may not be reaching the U.S. southern border as much any longer, there is growing evidence that the flow out of Central America has not diminished; migrants are simply being detained earlier in their journeys by Mexican immigration officials. The Washington Office on Latin America reports that the Mexican government detained close to 92,000 Central American migrants from October 2014 to April 2015.
"If we export enforcement," Bishop Seitz said, "we also must export protection.”
Bishop Seitz recommended the conversion of U.S. and Mexican interdiction efforts into a regional system which would screen children and families for asylum in Mexico and other states. The U.S. bishops believe that child welfare professionals should be deployed at the border along with staff from the Department of Homeland security to assist in screening and train homeland officers to assess the welfare of children arriving at the border and do the same for Mexican officials working farther from the border.
Bishop Seitz also called for Congress to approve and increase a $1 billion aid package to Central American states proposed by the Obama administration aimed at addressing some of the regional immigration’s “push factors”—crime, unemployment and lack of opportunity. He argued that the United States think beyond enforcement and interdiction and support the efforts of Northern Triangle countries—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—to strengthen their humanitarian and child protection responses, to include developing and improving education and child welfare systems, increasing opportunities for youth development and providing safe spaces and alternatives to gang entry and migration.
He recalled the words of Pope Francis before Congress in September, when he invoked the golden rule in guiding our nation's actions toward those seeking safety in our land.
Quoting the Holy Father, Bishop Seitz repeated to the committee, "'The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.'"
"Mr. Chairman, I pray that time, and history, will conclude that we honored this rule in meeting this humanitarian challenge," Bishop Seitz concluded.