July 25, 2014 — The Society of Jesus in the United States, along with over 300 other faith-based organizations, delivered a letter to President Barack Obama and members of Congress yesterday urging protection, care and legal counsel for the thousands of Central American children who have fled escalating violence, conflict and exploitation in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The letter was sent as Congress considers rolling back critical legal protections for children.
On the same day the letter was delivered, Fr. Thomas H. Smolich, SJ, president of the Jesuit Conference, the organization that represents Jesuits in the U.S., along with other members of the Conference staff, met with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, several other Democratic congressional representatives and a number of political and community leaders from the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas. Their wide-ranging conversation included a discussion on how the U.S. should respond to the humanitarian situation in Central America and the arrival of children and families fleeing harm in Central America. The meeting was organized by Congressman Filemon Vela, who represents the Brownsville area of southern Texas.
Shaina Aber, Policy Director for the National Advocacy Office at the Jesuit Conference, said the Conference has been working on human rights issues and tracking issues of migration and violence in Central America, particularly in Honduras, for the past three years. They began to notice the migrants arriving at shelters run by the Jesuits in Mexico were getting younger. “They weren’t looking for economic opportunity but for safer lives outside of gang-ridden neighborhoods,” Aber said.
“The rhetoric we’ve been hearing recently from Congress and the administration has been disturbing,” said Aber. “They are talking about cutting down on protections the children are currently due under the law … at a time when we think Congress should be looking at what the driving factors are that are leading kids to have to flee their communities. They should be looking for ways in which we can protect these children in the tradition we have welcomed and protected other refugees in the past.”
The Jesuit Conference and Jesuit Refugee Service were two of the organizations that led the efforts in drafting the letter, which was signed by 40 national faith organizations and 269 regional and local groups from 42 states.
The letter articulates policy recommendations for Congress and the administration and calls for strengthening the humanitarian response in the U.S.; legal counsel for all unaccompanied children; no rollbacks to the provisions of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 relating to unaccompanied children; cost-effective community-based alternatives to detention; and addressing the violence and corruption that has driven so many youth to flee.
The letter stated, “Forcibly and hurriedly returning people in need of international protection back to the dangerous situations they fled without adequate due process would undermine our obligations under international law and our position as a global humanitarian leader and would be a moral disgrace.”
The faith groups urged that the U.S. government must also address the root causes of the crisis faced by children in Central America. Aber said that the violence from organized crime has destabilized the security of the entire region. “Honduras is No. 1 in the world in terms of its homicide rate, El Salvador is No. 3 and Guatemala is No. 8, so it is literally one of the most violent regions in the world. And children in particular are the target of violence because gangs seek to recruit children.”
To read the full text of the letter, click here.