Aquiles Ernesto Martínez
Recent statistics from the Department of Homeland Security demonstrate that our nation is pushing the lives of many children to the verge of total disaster. It is estimated that, out of the 2.2 millions deportations in the last 10 years, 108,000 are parents who left their kids behind. Today, more than 5.5 millions of children born in the U.S. live with unauthorized parents or families of mixed migratory status.
What happens to these kids usually goes unnoticed or doesn’t draw the attention it deserves. However, based on a plethora of testimonials and many case studies, we know that government-led raids cause unintended psychological damage, economic instability, and behavioral problems among the left-behind kids. The list of hardships is troubling: separation anxiety; siblings left in charge of broken families; and children handed over to day cares, churches, or friends. A large group of these kids struggle with insomnia and nightmares, lack of concentration at school or miss classes, constant fear, aggressive behavior, not having enough money to eat or pay for housing, guilt, loneliness, etc.
This reality shows that the rights of these children have been violated. With the 1924 Geneva Declaration as a precedent, the United Nations, through its 1948, 1959, and 1989 declarations, have stated that all persons under 18 years of age, because of their intrinsic dignity and social vulnerability, have inalienable rights we must safeguard. Children have the right to freely express their opinions about the situations that affect their wellbeing and be heard. They are entitled to receive special care and the best assistance possible so they can grow in an environment of love, security, happiness, understanding, and guidance. They also have the right to receive an education and equal treatment. Under no circumstance must any child be discriminated against on the basis of race, creed, color, gender, language, caste, birth, physical limitation, or any other condition, much less on the basis of their legal status or what their parents have done. And yet, these kids have carried a heavy load while their outcries have gone to deaf ears or have resulted in weak initiatives to change their helpless situation. Their stories bear the marks of a society that does not always walk the talk. Are they born free and equal in dignity and rights? Or should lower standards be applied to them because of the illegal status of their parents? Is our neglect justifiable?
Because we live in a world of inner-connections, all of us are responsible for what has happened to these children. The business men, politicians, and militaries of the countries from which the undocumented immigrants exited, in their corruption, love of money, and race for more control, have created the conditions of poverty and violence that have forced parents to look for a better life for their loved ones in the US. These leaders have also allowed their citizens to leave their countries without any controls. Immigrants, in turn, have strung their children along with them to a clandestine life of uncertainty and risks in a strange land. Once here, more children are born, without their parents fully measuring the consequences of a potential “parentless situation.” Are the children even consulted in the decision-making process? Romanticizing the plight of these parents or justifying their actions as the only option they had to survive does not make the issue of “abandoned children” go away or make it less harmful. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in cooperation with the local Police, who hide themselves behind the statement “we are just doing our job!,” exacerbate the crises families experience. Locking immigrants up and sending them back home results in parentless homes and, therefore, in a series of problems affecting children. Consequently, while ICE agents do what, by law, is their job, and undocumented parents do what is in “the best interests” of their families, children still find themselves stranded between “the illegal behavior” of their parents and “the legal behavior” of those who seek their deportation. In either case, children are forced to live in an unhealthy, social limbo for which they are not responsible. Who is sanctioned for this? When will these innocent creatures be delivered from such a predicament?
The Federal Government and the American people are not innocent either. The first one, doing very little to fix a broken immigration system, has purposely ignored the issue and played the usual “politics.” In our indifference and selfishness, we have also shown that we do not really care. After all, “these children are not ours, and they are not really Americans (not even the ones born here)” - so our conscience tries to excuse our indolence. While community organizers speak for the voiceless and might pat themselves on the back because of a few successes, most churches stay in the sidelines or speak up only when their own interests are affected. In either case, these boys and girls are victimized by our sin of apathy.
As the issue of illegal immigration is retaken this year as promised by Obama, we need to remember that the wellbeing of these children must be our first priority regardless of their migratory status or the status and behavior of those who brought them to live within our borders. And while we figure out what to do with them and their families as part of a comprehensive legislative package, the Obama administration must stop the raids and put a moratorium on deportations ipso facto. Not only are these actions very costly and ineffective, but they help destroy families and damage their most vulnerable members. Our President has the power to do so, even when this might not be popular among his critics. Didn’t an executive order authorize the Guantánamo Bay prison to be closed in a year despite opposition from right-wingers? A couple of years ago, Democrats argued that they could not do anything on the issue of immigration because Republicans controlled congress. But now that the Democrats are the majority, what is the excuse? It is time to show leadership and some integrity on the matter. These children cannot wait any longer. Our moral conscience calls for action and a Presidential executive order is only the first step for people who understand what it means to grow up in a home where one or both parents are “the greatest absentees.”
Again, children should never be ignored or penalized for anything that adults do, including our lack of commitment to love, justice, and effectiveness. Only when we protect and enrich the lives of all our children, will they be on a safe path to becoming contributing members to this country. We owe God’s little ones the very best we can offer for “the kingdom of heavens belongs to such of these.”
Dr. Aquiles Ernesto Martínez is a Professor of Religion at Reinhardt College, Waleska, GA, and an Elder in the United Methodist Church.
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