In the Immigration Debate, the Children Suffer Most

By Julie Clawson 11-11-2010

090507-mother-childIt's hard to ignore the children. As voiceless as children are in our world, when we hear stories of injustice being inflicted on children, it is hard not to be moved. There is something about hearing the stories of six-year-old girls being kidnapped and forced to be sex slaves, or young boys trafficked to work in cocoa fields, that pushes us beyond the confines of our political opinions to offer help to the hurting. Politics can often obscure human rights issues as it did in our country with the early labor movement. It took revealing the horrors of child labor to get those opposed to reform to enter the conversation. For even when we can ignore or even support injustice against adults, most decent human beings innately know that it is wrong to harm a child (or fail to stop the harming of a child). We hear stories of such and the mama-bear instinct kicks in -- a child's life is too precious for us to allow it to be terrorized.

From the Bible passages that remind us that true religion is to care for orphans and widows, to Jesus' command to welcome the little children, there is a strong biblical mandate for caring for the least of these. While loving our neighbor (no matter our politics) should be at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus, it often takes hearing the stories of the children who suffer and need our care to mobilize the majority of people to extend mercy and justice. That is why I am grateful for Melissa Del Bosque's fantastic article this week in The Texas Observer, "Children of the Exodus: What becomes of kids who are deported without their families?" The article tackles the polarizing topic of immigration, but does so through telling the often tragic and heartbreaking stories of the children caught in the political mire.

She situates her story in a Mexican immigration office where children who have been apprehended and deported by U.S. Border patrol have been delivered. These are kids who are desperate to join their parents in the United States after the death of their caretaker grandparents, or whose mothers have died of exposure in the harsh desert crossing, or kids who have been kidnapped by drug cartels and have been used as drug smugglers. Their stories are complex -- as complex as the tales of adult immigrants -- but they strike us more poignantly because they are children. And these children are suffering.

On paper, the officials say that all children who are deported back to Mexico can only be claimed by a relative with proof of relation. Yet documents are often forged and there is little-to-no follow up of the children once they are released into the hands of "a relative." Officials who desired to remain anonymous out of fear reveal that often (with the police's knowledge and aid) the children end up in the hands of the drug cartels to be trafficked or used for smuggling drugs. But beyond that well-known "secret," even the government admits that not all the children are claimed and are left to fend for themselves. As the article states, "In 2008, a Mexican congressional committee reported 90,000 children had been sent back by U.S. authorities to border cities .... At least 13,500 were never claimed." For when parents live in the U.S. or die in the crossing there is no family to come claim these children. But when the governments of either country don't want to be bothered with these kids, there are vultures waiting to snatch up the weak and innocent.

What these children experience -- injustice, trafficking, kidnapping, separation from family -- has to be part of the story that gets told as part of the immigration debate. We can argue the legality of the immigrant's decision, or, from our place of plenty, question what parent would ever leave a child to go try to make a better life for that child until we are blue in the face; meanwhile, the children suffer. If our debate doesn't make room for caring for these children, then we truly have lost our way as a nation.

I appreciated how the author called for immigration reform at the end of the article with the needs of these children in mind. She first suggests ways that both the U.S. and Mexico could actually follow the laws already in place to protect children by doing things like setting up a simple database to monitor these kids and not let them slip through the cracks. She also called for U.S. immigration reform that helps reunite families not punish them for trying to do whatever they can to help each other. And finally, most importantly, she asserted that until the underlying problems like poverty are dealt with, these children will continue to be caught in the middle facing this pain. For when people are pawns in lofty government economic programs, they will continue to be pushed to seek out a better life in order for their family to survive. Justice is needed here on all levels. And maybe with the telling of the stories of these children, even the hardest of hearts will be opened to loving the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner sojourning in our land.

portrait-julie-clawsonJulie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at and

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