Children fleeing violence need a compassionate response

FILE This June 18, 2014, file photo, detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection,  processing facility in Brownsville,Texas. Immigration courts backlogged by years of staffing shortages and tougher enforcement face an even more daunting challenge since tens of thousands of Central Americans began arriving on the U.S. border fleeing violence back home. For years, children from Central America traveling alone and immigrants who prove they have a credible fear of returning home have been entitled to a hearing before an immigration judge. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, Pool, File)

Child detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection, processing facility in Brownsville,Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, Pool, File)

Over the last decade, escalating violence in much of Central America has reached unimaginable levels.  As the drug trade has grown, local gangs have taken more-brutal steps to assert control of cities and neighborhoods, ruling the streets in many areas with murder, rape, and intimidation.

As a result, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador now have among the highest murder rates in the world.

This is no way for a child to grow up, and many families have made the heartbreaking choice to risk everything to send their child away from the violence.  These children are making harrowing trips to seek asylum in the United States and other Central American countries with no guidance and little, if any money, just to have a chance to live a life away from the terror they are facing in their communities.

This situation requires a humanitarian response that is consistent with our country’s values and one that ensures the legal protections that are available to victims of violence remain intact.  The rest of the world is looking to us to act in a humane and responsible way for these children.

Eleven-year-old Cristian Omar Reyes from Honduras, which has the world’s highest homicide rate, had his father murdered by gang members in March and has watched several friends killed on the street for refusing to comply with gangs. He recently told a reporter from The New York Times he has to get out of Honduras “no matter what.”

Another 11-year-old boy from Honduras named Nodwin, spoke to PBS Newshour about the horrors a young person can face: ‘“Big people force the children to sell bad things, and if they don’t do it, they rape them or they kill them.” Nodwin once witnessed a boy his own age gang-raped in a neighborhood park after the child refused to join a local drug gang.’”

Read more: Arizona Republic “Pipeline of children: A border crisis”

Not every immigrant child who comes to the United States qualifies to receive asylum, but there is a system in place to identify the ones that do.  The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act requires that each child seeking asylum from a country other than Mexico to be placed with either a family member or sponsor in the U.S. until they have a hearing that determines whether they qualify for asylum. If a child qualifies for asylum, they are given legal status to remain in the U.S.

It is essential this process be followed to ensure the safety of these children.

America is not a country that sends children into areas where they stand a high likelihood of being harmed or killed. The United States has a legal and moral responsibility to protect these children and must serve as a model in treating these children with compassion.

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