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How we treat vulnerable children on the border shows the world America’s values

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file photo shows a group of immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally are stopped in Granjeno, Texas. The influx at the border is largely families with children or by minors traveling alone. (Eric Gay/AP)

By Eusebio Elizondo August 1 at 8:07 PM

Eusebio Elizondo is the auxiliary bishop of Seattle and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration.

The debate that came to a head in Washington this week on the unaccompanied children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border can be boiled down to one clear choice: Protect them and give them due process or change the law and send them back to possible death. While some may disagree with this characterization, the truth is inescapable, as are the life-and-death consequences facing this most vulnerable population.

Disturbingly, on Friday the House of Representatives was steering toward the latter course.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Subjecting these children to removal without the due process of a formal immigration hearing would no doubt mean that the vast majority would be returned to the gangs and drug cartels that threaten them in Central America. Mexican children, for example, are regularly returned to Mexico this way, after only a short interview with a Border Patrol agent to determine whether an asylum claim is valid, despite the fact that the United Nations found that more than 60 percent of them have a claim to protection under international law.

Sadly, Congress and the Obama administration are twisted in knots over a situation that many nations around the world handle as a matter of course. The difference is that other nations receive millions of refugees, not just thousands. Lebanon, for example — a country of 4.5 million — has received more than 1 million Syrian refugees in the past two years. Can we not do right by a much smaller population?

The real issue here is who we are as Americans. As a leader in human rights protection around the world, we often instruct other nations to receive refugees or protect human rights. Yet when child refugees appear on our own border, we struggle to respond in a humane way. Calls for deploying the National Guard and more border enforcement, for example, suggest that these children and families threaten our national security when they are the ones running from terror. Instead of sending an army to the border, we should be sending an army of child welfare and mental health experts.

To be fair, our elected officials are right to have concerns about the long-term effects of the current policy. Where should we draw the line? But some of these children would qualify for asylum as a targeted group under U.S. domestic and international refugee law, and many others would have a legitimate claim to admission on other grounds; sending them back without due process cannot be our answer.

There is a better approach. In the near term, we need to dedicate sufficient resources to the current system so that immigration hearings can be held within two to three months, not the two to three years they can now take. Providing lawyers to these children would help to ensure that they show up at their hearings and that a fair decision is rendered.

More important, over the long term, we must make a serious attempt to attack the root causes of this flight. Anti-violence initiatives, humane reintegration programs and investments in youth are required. Moreover, the U.S. and the Central American governments should devise a strategy for giving children and families the protection they need in their home countries, not one to interdict them when they flee an impossible situation. The version of the supplemental immigration bill bogged down in the Senate would help achieve these short- and long-term policy goals and should be advanced.

In the end, we need to ask ourselves some tough questions and determine how our nation — the largest economy in the world and the most powerful — can reset our policies toward Central America, our own back yard.

We provide the market and the weapons that make the drug cartels and gangs stronger. Our trade policies have devastated low-skilled industries in these countries, particularly agriculture. And the lack of accountability and transparency in many Central American governments can be traced to our support for military dictatorships in the region during the Cold War. In many ways, this is a crisis of our own making.

In the meantime, we cannot allow vulnerable children and families, many of whom are facing horrors that most Americans cannot imagine, to be the victims of forces far beyond their control. When Congress returns in September, let us hope that it agrees and adopts a humane approach to addressing this crisis. The world is watching and will take note of what we do. Our moral authority is at stake. If we sacrifice these children for political expediency, we may end up sacrificing our soul.

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