Thirteen hundred children crossed the U.S. border recently to be reunited with their families in Louisiana, hoping to find safety but landing in the midst of a political power struggle. To some, these “unaccompanied minors” seem to represent President Barack Obama annexing Grand Isle the way Putin took Crimea. To others, the Obama administration appears callous, leaving the children in limbo by postponing previously promised action until after the elections.
At the end of a long, hazardous flight for survival, the U.S. border represented hope for thousands of children.
We neither should call out the National Guard, as Texas did, nor grant the children unfettered access to our country. We can and should welcome them. They are not here illegally. In fact, they are here under authority of U.S. law, yet have become pawns in political conflict rather than helped to access the process enacted to protect them in 2008 after sailing through Congress in 24 hours.
The 2008 law recognized that vile things frequently happen to children crossing borders and offers each an opportunity to prove whether their lives would be endangered returning to their home country. That’s a wise policy of a compassionate nation. But then political skirmishing took the field. President Obama granted special status to children who arrived prior to 2008, and some in Congress accused him of acting outside the Constitution. These children are now caught in the middle of our immigration war.
The children will not bankrupt us, nor should their presence surprise us. Their numbers have been growing for years, and warnings were sent to Congress that failure to act would create a costly crisis.
The matter suddenly dominates headlines because of political conflict. In our country, votes are ammunition, and both sides need enemies — and victims. With the Hispanic vote gaining power, able to determine elections, children from Central America have been drawn into the crossfire despite a readily apparent and peaceful resolution.
No doubt because of horrendous conditions in their homelands, unaccompanied children have doubled every year since 2012. That is reality. What should we do? Be afraid? Manipulate their desperation in an attempt to capture votes — Hispanic or otherwise?
The solution is simple, and it’s neither Democrat nor Republican. Support the law. It works. More children voluntarily return to their homeland when we support the legal process established in 2008 by providing representation, whether an attorney or a paralegal.
Yet unlike criminal court, immigration courts do not provide public counsel despite the possibility of harmful consequences — even for children. Then our worst fears arise. An analysis of a Syracuse University databank shows that in Louisiana, 80 percent of children lacking representation fail to appear in court and disappear as undocumented, compared with 4 percent for those having representation. Voluntary departures are 21/2 times more likely for children with representation.
Currently in Louisiana, one of every five pending cases has representation; for a projected 3,000 cases, two-thirds would remain undocumented compared with 100 if all had counsel.
While future outcomes might be different than past, providing legal guidance means those whose safety depends on staying are protected, and those without strong cases return home voluntarily. For U.S. citizens sincerely concerned about illegal immigration, providing representation effectively resolves our concerns, albeit with less drama than introducing more uncertainty into the tenuous lives of disenfranchised children or deploying the National Guard.
In some parts of the world — the Gaza Strip, for example — factions physically place children into the midst of shooting wars. In ours, we pull other people’s children into our voting war. Shame on us.
David C. Aguillard is executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, which oversees refugee resettlement in Louisiana and has launched the Louisiana Esperanza Project (www.LouisianaEsperanza.org) to help Central American children legally released by federal authorities to sponsors in Louisiana.