Activists Call for Moratorium on Retaliation Against Refugee Children

Photo by Doug Yarrow

Photo by Doug Yarrow

Story by Pete Shaw

Since last October over 57,000 unaccompanied children have been detained while crossing the Mexico-US border. About 75% of them are fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, countries where US foreign policy elements such as so-called free trade agreements and the drug war have often resulted in corrupt and brutal governments that have had a devastating impact on the people of those countries.

Much of the violence is being inflicted by gangs–often acting as de facto governments when civil government has broken down–and other forms of organized crimes centered around the drug trade, as well as those still seeking to settle old scores from the various civil wars that the US helped fund in the 1980s. That children are fleeing this violence is not surprising, and it is not new. However, the number of refugee children over the past ten months is.

Over 50 people gathered at Terry Schrunk Plaza on Saturday August 9 demanding an end to retaliation against refugee children within and without US borders. The horror the Israeli military is inflicting upon the children of Gaza in its most recent assault which has resulted in nearly 450 child deaths, lent the rally took an even greater sense of urgency than has existed at similarly themed rallies demanding President Obama stop breaking apart families through deportations.

“This is a very important international event to stop the deportation of children,” said German Tojil Sosa who emceed the event. “The children of indigenous and non-indigenous origin–we want to make our own voices heard so that all the different groups of kids that come here running away from poverty are welcome as human beings with rights and live with dignity.”

During the rally Julio Osorio’s testimony was read. Osorio is a 15-year-old Guatemalan Mayan who came to the US to support his parents and other relatives mired in poverty. He began his journey to the US in May with only his grandfather’s phone number in his pocket. It was a grueling and dangerous trip through Mexico, a but he made it through. At the US border, Osorio was detained and taken to a shelter in Texas where he remained for two months, meeting many children from Central America. He was freed on bail, but his fate is in the hands of an immigration judge.

“I don’t want to go back because I would die of hunger,” Osorio said. “That’s why I want President Obama and the politicians in Washington, DC not to deport me.”

The United Nations has urged the US to treat Julio and these other children not as people without documentation, but as refugees. As a signatory to the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, the US is supposed to work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). According to the UNHCR report Children on the Run“once an individual is found to be a refugee, protection under the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol must be granted. The foremost protection is the guarantee against return to danger or non-refoulement — the cornerstone of international refugee protection — and the ability to remain lawfully in the country of asylum.

Photo by Doug Yarrow

Photo by Doug Yarrow

Interviews with 404 children from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico found “the many compelling narratives demonstrate unequivocally that many of these displaced children faced grave danger and hardship in their countries of origin.”

But the US response to the crisis has been to try to remove these children and send them back to their home countries, even though many of them would face reprisal, including death, upon their return. Instead of responding humanely — not to mention consistently with international norms the US has often called upon other countries to follow–both the Congress and President Obama have expressed support for changing the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. Signed by President George W. Bush after unanimously passing both houses of Congress, the law says that unaccompanied minors who are not from Canada or Mexico cannot be sent back home. Instead, they must be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) within 72 hours so they can be cared for humanely and given safe housing. HHS is also supposed to find legal representation for the children so they can be guided through the application for asylum and advised of their legal rights if their cases are being decided before an immigration judge.

Obama wants Congress to amend that law so border patrol agents could circumvent the courts and decide for themselves whether and how quickly to deport these children back to their home countries.  That approach would violate these children’s due process, and in promoting such a solution, Obama is echoing the harshly punitive immigration reform bill that came out of the House of Representatives on August 1, and the one from the Senate in June 2013.

Ricardo Varela, an Oregon Dream Activist, noted that Obama was also putting pressure on Mexico to close its border with Guatemala. “The US government is asking other countries to do their dirty work,” he said, “to stop these kids from getting away from violence and other abuses.”

“We are called to make sure we welcome all children, all people, and all families in this land, and we work to fight injustice anywhere,” said Cecil Prescod of the Ainsworth United Church of Christ.

Taking Prescod’s “anywhere,” Maxine Fookson of the Palestine Solidarity Network also spoke at the rally. urging people to recognize that the fight for justice at the US border was the same fight for justice going on in Gaza. “Really, truly, the dots are close and very easy to connect,” Fookson said. “Very close and easy to see.”

In this case, Israel’s genocidal attack on the Palestinian people, has a close connection with the US, since according to the Congressional Research Service the US gave Israel $3.1 million in military aid in fiscal year 2014. In other words, Israeli pilots are flying US planes and helicopters and firing US missiles in their assault on the people of Gaza. Additionally, Israel received about $500 million in aid toward developing other military programs.  US taxpayers are funding the slaughter that has resulted in over 1,900 deaths.

The connection between the US and Israeli militaries is also apparent at the border between Mexico and the US. According to the Jerusalem Post, the US Department of Homeland Security awarded Israeli company Elbit a $145 million contract “to construct a series of surveillance towers on Arizona’s border with Mexico.” Those towers will be equipped with radar and cameras that reportedly can detect people up to five miles away, day or night.

The partnership between the US and Israel is dependent upon and thrives on the suffering and the bloodshed of the victims it creates. Resistance is clearly growing–both toward how the US treats immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and South America, and Israel’s genocidal policy regarding Palestinians. If this resistance continues, a tipping point may not be far off.

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