This summer, the news has been filled with images of Central American children at our border seeking safety, fleeing increasing and unimaginable violence and unrest within their home countries. More than 50,000 unaccompanied children have made the dangerous journey this year. I fear we have lost the reality that these are real children and families seeking safety from extreme violence.
This situation is causing a strong reaction here in the United States, and much of that reaction has not been pretty. Angry protestors have blocked buses, yelling at scared children being brought to detention centers. City meetings where the temporary housing of children was being considered have been picketed. Elected officials have been posturing, seeking to use this humanitarian crisis for political gain.
In attempts to try to deal with the situation and expedite the removal of these children from the U.S., the House voted just before its August recess to weaken protections for children fleeing violence, among other measures. The bill, which the Senate is unlikely to consider, would change the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a law just reauthorized in 2013.
This law includes provisions requiring unaccompanied minors from Central America to be transferred to Health and Human Services custody temporarily while awaiting a court hearing to determine whether they will be deported or if they are eligible to stay lawfully in the U.S. Lawmakers felt it was a good idea last year. But now they are changing their tune.
It would be a travesty if we remove protections for child victims of human trafficking and those with legitimate asylum claims. Moreover, the House bill stands as the one immigration-related law that chamber has passed this year, as Congress has largely ignored reforming our current, unenforceable immigration system — which has also contributed to the surge of unaccompanied children.
The best response in this situation is one of compassion, not anger or fear.
For Christians, it is exceedingly clear that we are called to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger. Those are exactly who are showing up on our borders. We need to heed the commandments of scripture that teach hospitality towards the stranger. In the New Testament, the Greek word for hospitality (philoxenia) is a combination of philo, which means love, and xenos, which means stranger. Hospitality literally means “love of stranger.”
I have been encouraged by reports of Christians demonstrating such love. Most of the relief work and temporary housing options for the children has been arranged by the faith communities here in the U.S. Similar to how the church has begun to wake up to its responsibility towards the foster care crisis, we should increasingly turn our attention and resources toward these children at our border.
What an incredible opportunity we have to shape our whole continent, taking care of children who need our help and showing hospitality to the stranger, regardless of their background or home country.
Inscribed on the Statue of Liberty are lines from a poem dedicated to the tired, the poor and the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” who are coming to an America they see as a beacon of hope for a better life.
The legitimacy of what we believe, both as Christians and as Americans, is shown in how we actually live and treat others. The rest of the world wants to know if what we believe really does affect our actions. Now is the time to demonstrate the best of our ideals and show true compassion to the children on our border.