Put Out into the Deep

Understanding Immigrant Children

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

The influx of unaccompanied minors at the southern border of the U.S. has grabbed national headlines in recent weeks and turned much of our attention to our Nation’s capital and our foreign policy. Last week, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in the National Migration Conference, where organizers brought together migration workers from around the U.S. who not only provide legal services but also resettlement services to immigrants and refugees. It was truly inspiring to see close to 1,000 attendees, showing that the Church around our country is truly dedicated to the service of the strangers in our midst.

The situation at the border – the “border crisis” as it has become known – was the major topic of discussion during the conference. This movement of unaccompanied minors has always been part of the migration and refugee flow, but in the past several months, attention has been brought to this particularly vulnerable group. One factor, which is not well publicized, is that nearly 85 percent of those coming are destined to be reunited with either parents or close relatives who are awaiting their arrival.

Our broken immigration system does not allow for an orderly flow of family reunification. This issue must be addressed in any future reform of our immigration system. It is true that it is not only economic hardship that causes many to flee. In other cases, many escape from Central America and Mexico due to violence from gang activity supported by the drug cartels.

I cannot help but remember the story from my own family about my “unaccompanied minor” grandfather who spoke about his arrival in the U.S. He left his family at the age of 15 in 1913 and traveled alone to the U.S. He always was very proud that he traveled the first 20 miles barefoot to save the new pair of shoes that his father, a shoemaker, made for him so that he could keep them new for as long as possible.

Once he arrived in Compobasso, he took the train to Naples to board a ship to come to the U.S., with only an affidavit from a fellow townsperson who guaranteed he would not become a public charge. That was the simple law of that time in our history. There was an unlimited and open immigration to the U.S. before 1922, when some draconian changes were made to the law to stop the flow of immigrants, especially from Southern and Eastern Europe.

At age 15, my grandfather came to Newark, N.J., and began to work in a factory that manufactured Kewpie Dolls, a doll that was very popular during that time. She had a porcelain face and was attached to a rag doll body, which many times were given as carnival prizes. He often mentioned his first winter when he had no money to buy a coat and he stuffed newspapers under his jacket to keep warm. The hardships of our immigrant forbearers, unfortunately, are unknown to many people today. If we knew their stories, I think that many people would have a different understanding of the present plight of regular and irregular migrants today.

Our world today, unfortunately, is not very kind to children. The kidnapping of 200 young girls in Africa and the deaths of many children, as well as the recent tragedy in Israel of the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli boys, as well as the brutal murder of the Palestinian boy in retribution, only highlights the horrible crimes against children in our day. The untold deaths of children in Syria in a conflict that never seems to end, as well as the recent invasion of Iraq, all take their toll, especially on women and children.

As always, in any migration movement, a person puts out into the deep and uncharted waters. We need to pray that we come to a wise resolution of the current migratory flows, especially when children are involved. Please join me in praying that our national lawmakers and all those involved in assisting, especially unaccompanied minors to the U.S., will have the wisdom to deal justly with these latest refugees from violence and economic desperation.

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