Rebecca Blackwell / AP

Why we should treat Central American children as refugees

Minors arriving at our borders to escape poverty and violence need love, reassurance and compassionate treatment

July 11, 2014 6:00AM ET

President Barack Obama visited Texas this week amid mounting pressure to speed up deportation of unaccompanied minors from Central America arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. The White House is also seeking nearly $4 billion in emergency funding to deal with this humanitarian crisis.

During several trips to Guatemala over the last few years, I saw firsthand the reality of children living in poverty and fear of violence. The situation has only worsened this year, forcing more than 50,000 children to flee their Central American countries. The United Nations refugee agency on July 8 called on regional authorities to treat the migrants, who are fleeing extortion and gang violence, as refugees.

“They are leaving for some reason. Let’s not send them back in a mechanical way, but rather evaluate the reasons they left their country,” Fernando Protti, regional representative for the U.N. refugee agency, told The Associated Press.

Leaders from the U.S., Mexico and Central America met in Nicaragua on July 10 to decide on ways to deal with the situation. The U.S. government should act by recognizing these migrants as international refugees.

Every three months from 2008 to 2009, my husband, who is a physician, and I went on a self-financed medical mission to the Patzun area in Guatemala. We started a clinic and pharmacy at a local convent to support hundreds of patients with treatable medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes and hypertension. We trained a local woman to check on patients with chronic conditions and reviewed cases and medication regimens through weekly Skype calls with the nurse. The widespread poverty, fear of gangs among Guatemalan parents and an increase in street crime were heart-wrenching. Even the nuns at the convent lived behind a locked gate and had guard dogs to protect them, as they feared for their lives.

I can still see the face of little Maria, whom I met during one of my trips to Guatemala. At age 10, Maria gave up school to look after her siblings following her mother’s death while giving birth to a fifth child. Maria stayed home to care for the newborn and her 2-year-old brother while her father went to work in the fields and her two other siblings went to school. 

I remember how easily they buried children in Guatemala. After a funeral for a 2-year-old boy who died of pneumonia in 2010, one villager casually told me, ‘This happens every day. We are used to death.’

In Guatemala, Maria’s story is not unique. Most children her age are left at home, alone or with younger siblings, all day as parents toil the farms to put food on the table. Gang members know this. They often kidnap young children and use them to carry drugs or sell them to smugglers, or to ask for ransom money that their families do not have. During the 18 months we visited Guatemala, the gang violence was just beginning. I cannot imagine what the Guatemalans must be experiencing today when it is reported that in 2013 there was a 20 to 39 percent increase in homicides as compared with 2012.

I also remember how easily they buried children in Guatemala. With no doctors or hospitals, children die from easily preventable diseases. After a funeral for a 2-year-old boy who died of pneumonia in 2010, a Guatemalan villager casually told me, “This happens every day. We are used to death.”

According to a 2012 report by InSight Crime, a research organization that specializes in studying organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, Guatemala has one of the most sophisticated criminal organizations in Central America. Much of that violence is driven by drug cartels, including Mexico’s Zetas, which have moved into the region in recent years.

These transnational criminal gangs actively recruit or kidnap new members to join their ranks from among middle and high school students. It is no wonder, then, that some parents reportedly pay smugglers more than $8,000 to send their children to the U.S. — away from the grinding poverty and gang violence that continue to plague the country. 

Victims of caring families

Many of the unaccompanied minors arriving at our borders are here alone and scared. The U.S. has a moral and humanitarian obligation to provide them with assistance, including physical and psychological assessments.

The Guatemalan families I met during my trips cared about their children but were unable to protect them, as they had to work in the farming fields to provide for them. The media are loaded with arguments on both sides of the issue, with anti-immigration hawks stating that these children should just be sent back. But the children are not criminals and do not deserve to be treated as such. They are victims of caring parents who wanted safety and a better future for their children than what they had.

Now that they are in a strange land, these children need love and some reassurance. Once in the U.S., they are placed in crowded shelters to sleep on floors, sometimes on mats. Many are housed in one big room with no privacy.

As a nurse, I know their development into emotionally healthy adults is in jeopardy. At the peak of their youth, they have no one to tell them they are worthy of being loved. As a result, they may grow up angry and feeling a sense of shame if these traumatic emotions are not addressed. We should treat them as vulnerable children, not trespassers. 

While the Obama administration grapples with solutions to address the surge of children arriving on our shores, nonprofit groups, private citizens and companies need to come together to provide these children with a caring and loving environment. 

Alice Masciarelli has a doctorate in nursing executive leadership from American Sentinel University and is the CEO of a nonprofit health clinic in Denton, Texas. She is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project at Texas Woman’s University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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