Child migrants: Does US have a moral obligation to them?

The child migrant crisis at the border is reviving questions about America's humanitarian obligation to vulnerable children. Some recall how the US failed to respond to Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler's Germany.

Eduardo Verdugo/AP
Migrants travel to the Mexican shore, across the Suchiate River that separates Tecun Uman, Guatemala, and Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, on a makeshift raft on July 11, 2014. Scores of Central Americans pay a modest fee to cross the river on these improvised rafts in a bid to get to the US.

From US politicians to the pope, many people are looking at the child migrant crisis on America’s southern border through a moral lens – with some comparing the plight of these children with Jews trying to escape Hitler's Germany

“My inclination is to remember what happened when a ship full of Jewish children tried to come to the United States in 1939 and the United States turned them away, and many of them went to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps," said Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D), when a reporter this week asked how he viewed the border crisis. "I think we are a bigger-hearted people than that as Americans.”

Similar comments could be heard on the Senate floor Wednesday by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont.

An apt comparison? Not in the eyes of Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, a global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees. Comparing the surge of Central American minors from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to Jews fleeing the Holocaust “distracts from this crisis, rather than underscoring its humanitarian nature,” says Mr. Hetfield, who also characterizes the comparison as “inappropriate” and “very dangerous.” 

The only thing the two groups have in common are children fleeing for their lives and families being split, he says. The Central Americans are being persecuted not by a government for their religion, race, nationality, political opinion, or for belonging to a certain social group, but by forces their governments are unable to control. This distinction makes their asylum claims very complicated to determine under the UN Refugee Convention that grew out of the Holocaust. The United States signed the 1967 protocol to the convention in 1968. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph has been changed to clarify the possible sources of persecution endured by fleeing Central Americans.]

Holocaust comparisons aside, moral questions continue to swirl around the US response to the crisis on the border: What is America’s humanitarian obligation to these vulnerable children as they arrive in the United States and reside here as their cases await immigration hearings? And what is the country’s obligation in considering their return to their violent and poverty-stricken home countries?

These questions stack up against other moral considerations, such as preserving the United States as a nation of laws, or maintaining social and economic stability by limiting the intake of the world's "tired," "poor," and "huddled masses." The difficult moral choices are reflected in America's refugee history.

"In the past, we were humanitarian, but we also were fighting a cold war with communism, so we didn't treat all humans equally," says Alan Wolfe, director of the Boise Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. Cuban refugees, for instance, trumped Hondurans. Asylum decisions were "based on who's a friend and who isn't."

Today, the federal government is scrambling to find homes and appropriate shelter for the thousands of unaccompanied minors who have been turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Hence Governor Patrick’s admonition that Americans remember their big-heartedness, which blossoms during natural disasters but can break down amid more controversial circumstances, such as migrants sweeping up from the south.

So far this year, more than 51,000 such children have been handed over to HHS, and about 43,000 have been released to family or sponsors. More minors are arriving every day, though the pace is slowing. Half of President Obama’s $3.7 billion request to Congress for emergency spending on the child migrant crisis is for HHS to better house and care for minors and adults traveling with them.

Some states and cities are refusing to take the children. In Murrieta, Calif., this month, protesters blocked buses of children being taken to a federal processing center. Meanwhile, New York City officials are forming a task force to help them.

Meanwhile, religious leaders are also weighing in on the question of moral obligation.

“This humanitarian emergency requires, as a first urgent measure, these children be welcomed and protected,” Pope Francis said in a July 15 message. He warned against racism and defensive or indifferent attitudes – signs of a “throw-away" culture – and he encouraged “a culture of encounter.”

In its post-World War II history, the United States has been selective in whom it accepts as asylum-seekers, says Kathleen Newland, director of refugee policy programs at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. “We’re prepared to be very generous on our own terms, but there’s a very strong preference to choose who we will admit, rather than being chosen.”

America has strong reactions to "unauthorized" boat arrivals or people crossing the southern border without permission, she says. The US reacted decisively against boat people from Haiti trying to reach its shores, with Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all issuing orders for the Coast Guard to turn them back. Part of the reasoning was that accepting any was seen as sending a message to others to attempt a perilous journey.

Yet the US resettled some 700,000 Indochinese, mostly Vietnamese, after the Vietnam War. This was partly because of a moral obligation from the war, and partly because these refugees had already fled Vietnam and were in refugee camps in Thailand and Indonesia, so the US had some control over those it admitted.

During the cold war, Washington favored asylum-seekers from communist countries – using refugee policy as a foreign policy tool. But its approach became more humanitarian after Congress passed the Refugee Act in 1980, says Ms. Newland. Now the US relies heavily on the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to identify people in need of resettlement.

In the child migrant crisis, the Obama administration is at odds with the UNHCR. The White House says most of the Central American children won't qualify to stay in the US, while the UNHCR, in a survey of children at the border, concludes that 60 percent of them have some kind of claim to stay on as refugees.

The federal government won’t know whether the thousands of children from Central America qualify to remain in the US until they are screened – and with the spike of cases, that process is likely to take years.

That's one reason members of Congress are reconsidering a 2008 law on child trafficking that has had the unintended consequence of slowing the whole process.

Should America stick with the law it has, in which unaccompanied children from countries that don’t border the US gain entry and have the opportunity to bring their cases to immigration judges? Their initial reception triggers a legal timeline that can take more than year, due to a backlog in the courts. Nearly half of the children never show up, remaining in the US illegally.

Or, should Congress change the law, so that all unaccompanied children are immediately offered the chance to return to their countries voluntarily, and those who stay must plead their cases within a week of being turned over to HHS?

Democrats acknowledge that the backlog needs to be cleared, and some of the president's emergency request money would pay for 40 additional immigration judges. 

But they are also concerned that a change to the law – put forward this week by Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) of Texas and his Lone State State Republican colleague in the Senate, John Cornyn – would eviscerate due process for vulnerable children from these violent countries.

"It is contrary to everything we stand for as a people to try to summarily send children back to death ... in a place where drug gangs are the greatest threat to stability, rule of law, and democratic institutions in this hemisphere," Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said at a meeting of the National Governors Association last week.

That’s a moral argument based on an obligation to prevent the possible deaths of children if they are returned to violent countries. And these countries are hugely violent, having some of the highest murder and poverty rates in the world, according to Michael Schifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, who testified this week at a Senate hearing on the root causes of the crisis. Horror stories abound of the abuse and deaths of children in these countries.

But many Republicans see a different set of moral issues: the breakdown of rule of law when it comes to immigration enforcement, the impact on Americans struggling to find work, and the need to make hard choices about whom to take in.

For them, the cause of this surge in child migrants, which began in 2012, has little to do with violence back home.

“When you ask the people who are coming here, when they are intercepted by the border patrol, 90 percent think there is a free pass” to enter the US, said Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, at the hearing.

It’s an impression left by the backlog of cases, Mr. Obama's 2012 executive order to defer deportation for certain children of illegal immigrants, and lax border enforcement, Republicans say. It’s relayed by so-called coyotes, who charge thousands of dollars to bring children north, only to exploit and abuse them on the dangerous journey.

“I’m for comprehensive immigration reform,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina told the Monitor. “What I’m not for is being taken advantage of. I’m not going to support any effort to use the moral argument to justify what I think is an outrageous breach of our hospitality and law by criminal gangs and indifferent governments.”

Senator Graham says he wants to “take care of the children.” But, he concludes, “They need to go back to their homes, because I can show you a world where children are more at risk than they are in Honduras, and El Salvador, and Guatemala.”

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