By: Roxane Ramos
The humanitarian crisis of thousands of undocumented and unaccompanied children at the border has prompted numerous responses from organizations throughout the country. Here, we print two letters—one from the Jesuit Conference and the other from the Sisters of Mercy. The letters outline the decades-long history of violence in Central America that has led to the atmosphere of danger and threat that exists today. And they provide disturbing facts about the reality of what children are facing in their countries of origin, and the urgent need for a comprehensive and compassionate response from policymakers in Washington.
The recipients of these letters—House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama—are both in positions to provide leadership and push for reform on the issue of immigration, and these letters urge them to do so. Speaker Boehner has refused to bring immigration legislation passed in the Senate to a House vote (Senate Bill 744: Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act), and now Congress has recessed for the August break. President Obama has overseen an era of increased criminalization of illegal immigration, and the number of undocumented migrants deported since he took office now exceeds 2 million (which includes both court-ordered removals and voluntary returns), more than under any previous administration. Please read on.
Letter to House Speaker Boehner from the Jesuit Conference, The Society of Jesus in the United States
July 29, 2014
Speaker John Boehner
1011 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515
Dear Speaker Boehner,
I write to you as President of the Jesuit Conference of the United States, the organization that represents the Society of Jesus in the U.S., and I echo the message of our bishops and our Holy Father. I urge you to remember that amid the complications of policy and politics, we must be steadfast in our commitment to uphold the dignity of the human person and the sacredness of human life when considering policy solutions to address the increasing numbers of children fleeing harm in Central America.
Well before the 1989 assassination of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter by U.S.-trained Salvadoran military forces, the Jesuits in the United States were partnering with Jesuits and colleagues in Central America. Since that time, Jesuits in the U.S. have been committed to ensuring that U.S. policy does not exacerbate difficult realities facing poor, marginalized communities. Over the last several years, our office and Jesuit Refugee Service/USA have tracked with growing alarm the increase in forced displacement and targeted violence—perpetrated by gangs, organized crime and state actors—in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
This is not a new crisis, nor is it primarily at our border. Rather, it has been escalating over the last decade in the Northern Triangle. For example, 90 children are murdered or disappeared in Honduras every month; this is the equivalent of eight children being executed in your Congressional district every thirty days.
The impact of this crisis has fallen most heavily on women and girls. From 2005 to 2012 there was a 346% increase in murders of women and girls in Honduras. Meanwhile El Salvador has the highest rate of homicides against women and girls in the world, and Guatemala ranks third on the same chart. Is it any wonder that young girls are leaving the region in record numbers, with a 140% increase in girls 12 and younger arriving unaccompanied at our border from the Northern Triangle this fiscal year?
The Jesuits of Central America see this reality daily: the elementary school teacher murdered when he tried to prevent gangs from forcibly recruiting his students; the young girl pulled from her home, offered as a birthday present to a gang leader and then raped by 16 men; lay colleagues of Jesuits assassinated and harassed by the police. Further, these three countries have little infrastructure and few services to care for women and girls victimized by violence or sexual exploitation; less than 5% of female homicides end in a conviction. The collapse of civil society is evident in besieged schools, hollowed-out neighborhoods, and tortured, often dismembered bodies of children as young as two displayed in streets and ditches.
In this sobering context, I am reminded of Psalm 82, in which God asks the magistrates of the day “how long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?” God then exhorts these political leaders to “give justice to the weak and fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82: 3-4).
While this message needs to be heard among leaders in the Northern Triangle, it also calls out to be heard by U.S. leaders dealing with this humanitarian crisis. In particular, I ask for your full and dedicated commitment to the following three policy issues:
TVPRA: A change to the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA), which would result in children having a one-shot chance to disclose their persecution to a Customs and Border Protection agent or officer, especially when some of them have been victimized by armed men in uniform, is inhumane and an insult to American values. Mr. Speaker, I am appalled by the suggestion that the U.S. should respond by cutting off access to safety for these children.
Due process: To meet Psalm 82’s standard, I ask you to protect the due process rights of these vulnerable children. Rather than rolling back the TVPRA, we should continue to ensure that traumatized and terrorized children have the time and opportunity they need to feel safe enough to share their experience. To echo the analysis of the National Association of Immigration Judges, this process must proceed at the speed of a child’s trust, not at the speed of political convenience. These children deserve an individualized process, a child welfare expert to evaluate their claim, and a legal advocate to help them navigate our complex judicial system.
Root causes: We cannot simply ignore this aspect of the problem. In order to address this crisis at its source, the United States must listen to people, among them the Jesuits in Central America, who intimately understand how we arrived at this tragic juncture. They, along with many others, have been calling on their governments to address impunity and corruption, improve judicial systems, expand educational access, strengthen—and in some cases build from scratch—child welfare services in the region, and support adequate return and reintegration programs to ensure that children who can safely remain in their home countries are able to do so. Our investments need to go here, not to corrupt or abusive security forces who themselves are often criminal.
I ask you, as a leader, a parent, and a Catholic, to uphold an American tradition of which we are all proud. We must welcome the refugee, the victim of trafficking, the child who has been abused or abandoned. Let us follow in the footsteps of Jesus when he said “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).
Thank you for your consideration.
Very Reverend Thomas H. Smolich, S.J. President, Jesuit Conference USA
Letter to President Obama from the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas
July 4, 2014
President Barack Obama
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear Mr. President:
The Sisters of Mercy have worked tirelessly with your Administration to build support for immigration reform, and as the leadership team for our Institute, we appreciate your willingness to take executive action later this summer. But we are extremely troubled by your Administration’s response to the unprecedented numbers of women and children fleeing violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Over the last four years the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol has skyrocketed by 700% for Guatemalans, 930% for El Salvadorians and 1300% for Hondurans. The vulnerable populations from these Northern Triangle countries are not only seeking refuge in the United States; the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) reports that asylum applications are up 712% since 2008 in Belize, Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico. What we are experiencing is a regional humanitarian crisis. The questions we need to be asking ourselves are: what has contributed to this crisis, how might your Administration’s proposals actually further deepen the crisis, and what sustainable solutions can be put in place to address the root causes driving migration?
We have sisters in 12 countries, including Guatemala and Honduras. Through our service in these countries, we have witnessed the extreme violence and poverty that women and children face in their communities. The Northern Triangle countries have some of the highest homicide rates, with Honduras now ranking number one in the world. It must be recognized that in the Northern Triangle, a parent’s decision to keep a child at home is more dangerous than risking the journey to another country.
The causes of this massive exodus are rooted in U.S. economic and foreign policies in Central America that clearly are not effective in responding to the underlying issues. In order to resolve this humanitarian crisis, Mr. President, your Administration must develop a new approach to the region while ensuring that the immediate needs of these refugees are fully met.
After 20 years of the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) and 10 years of the Central American Free Trade Act (CAFTA), the evidence is clear that neo-liberal economic policies devastate weaker economies as workers are displaced, thus forcing many to migrate outside their countries to find work. In Mexico, due to NAFTA nearly 1.4 million corn farms went under as their markets were flooded with U.S. subsidized corn. Consequently, an estimated 600,000 undocumented immigrants risked the journey to the United States. Since CAFTA was enacted in 2006, migration from Central America experienced a similar upsurge. During the first year of CAFTA in El Salvador, 11,457 workers were displaced from their jobs and migration to the United States from El Salvador jumped from 507 per day to 740 per day. Currently, Mr. President, your Administration is withholding developmental aid to El Salvador due to a provision within CAFTA, thus advancing the interest of giant seed corporations, like Monsanto, over the food security needs of the El Salvadorian people. The U.S. needs a new approach to trade, one that values people, culture, and the right of countries’ sovereignty over corporate interest.
In terms of U.S. foreign policy, it would be disastrous, particularly in Honduras and Guatemala, to send more money to a militarized “war on drugs” or to security forces that are corrupt and have substantial allegations of human rights violations. The U.S. State Department cites significant human rights violations in Guatemala and Honduras that include both military and police units committing unlawful killing, kidnappings, assault, rape, extortion and corruption. Since 2008, your Administration has invested hundreds of millions into the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), with 64% of the funds for enforcement and counter-narcotics, and the situation in the region has only gotten worse. We reject the notion that additional resources for “community policing and law enforcement,” as stated in your letter to Congress, will strengthen citizen security in the region.
The escalation of violence and the stranglehold of narco-traffickers are largely bi-products of a failing economy and corrupt governments. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Honduras. In June of 2009, the Honduran military, which receives substantial training and support from the U.S., overthrew the democratically elected President because of his anti-poverty initiatives. After a brief suspension of aid, Mr. President, your Administration renewed funding and support for the post-coup Honduran government. The government your Administration currently supports in Honduras is implicated in killings and threats to human rights defenders, labor leaders, journalists, indigenous and peasant leaders who are defending the rights to their land. Impunity reigns and increasingly military police are being deployed throughout the country. Since the coup in 2009, the political instability in Honduras led to the homicide rate increasing from 60 to 93 per 100,000, making the country the most dangerous place to live outside of a war zone. In some cities, such as San Pedro Sula, the homicide rate is 180 per 100,000, 11 times the homicide rate of your home city of Chicago. Mr. President, your Administration holds some responsibility for the current state of Honduras. Rather than send more money for security forces involved in CARSI, these funds should be suspended until impunity is seriously addressed. Also in order to prevent a similar catastrophe, your Administration should immediately end the training of Latin American militaries at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). The Cold War is over and we need to stop training and equipping foreign militaries that carry out coups and repress democratic freedoms in their countries.
It will take time for a new foreign policy approach in Central America to alleviate the root causes of this tragedy. Meanwhile, the U.S. needs to come to terms with the fact that more women and children will likely come to our borders. Mr. President, your Administration must uphold the high human rights standard that the U.S. demands of other countries. We are outraged by the announcement to renew the policy of family detention and efforts to expedite deportations of a vulnerable population back to life- threatening situations. A policy of deterrence will not dissuade people seeking refuge from untenable living situations but instead perpetuates their suffering once in the United States. As little as 5 years ago, the inexplicable treatment of families in the T. Don Hutto detention facilities was a national embarrassment. Thankfully, Mr. President, your Administration closed the facility, ending its legacy of inhumane treatment of women and children. There is no guarantee that this renewed effort to incarcerate mothers with their children will not have the same outcome, including children living in locked cells with only an open-air toilet accessible and guards’ threats of separating mothers from their children as a disciplinary tactic.
Instead of family detention, we call on you to strengthen alternatives to detention programs, which are more cost effective and humane. We are thankful for the collaboration between FEMA and ORR and the faith-based agencies. The Sisters of Mercy and many of our faith partners are working under the guidance of these groups to mobilize our communities to provide housing facilities and services.
The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas’ desire for another approach resonates with the teachings of Pope Francis. When addressing a plenary on the Pastoral Care of Migrants, the Pope asked “leaders and legislators and the entire international community above all to confront the reality of those who have been displaced by force, with effective projects and new approaches in order to protect their dignity, to improve the quality of their life and to face the challenges that are emerging from modern forms of persecution, oppression and slavery.” Our Sisters and co-workers will continue to respond to the needs of women and children in the Northern Triangle and the refugees that seek safe haven in the United States. We look forward to working with your Administration to find a new approach that will uphold the human dignity of this vulnerable population.
Institute Leadership Team of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas