His name’s Esteban.
I can’t tell his story, because it’s not mine to tell – but he entered the United States illegally.
He came through Mexico, from Central America. He didn’t come to take someone’s job, to get on welfare, to get free health care or even to get a free education. He came here as a child, escaping what amounted to slavery.
The story of what he survived just to get here – including being kidnapped and held for ransom by a drug cartel – will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
There’s no one to send him back to. There’s no “home” for him in his homeland.
After his case was investigated and he was granted legal status by the U.S. government, he was able to get into a foster program and attend school. He played soccer, made lots of friends, got a cellphone. He’s funny, smart – a wonderful kid. He tells that harrowing story with a smile on his face.
Since last October, what had been a trickle of kids like Esteban has turned into a tsunami. More than 50,000 unaccompanied children have made their way through Mexico to the U.S. border and turned themselves in, overloading the system and overwhelming humanitarian volunteers.
Someone’s telling these kids that if they can just get here, they can stay. Some of them die trying.
“The numbers are just astonishing, how many came last year versus how many are coming this year,” Congressman Mac Thornberry said this week as he dropped by the Messenger office for a visit. “It’s just a huge change.”
And a huge crisis.
Immigration authorities are starting to spread the children around – much like the New Orleans residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Some of the kids are in Oklahoma, at Fort Sill. Dallas’ mayor said his city can house up to 2,000 in abandoned schools, and Fort Worth and other cities are also getting involved.
Each unaccompanied child represents a legal dilemma. There are laws, procedures that must be followed to find out if there’s someone to send them back to, or if deportation would put their lives in danger.
It will take time to sort through 50,000 kids. In the meantime, they have to be somewhere.
But when buses carrying about 140 children drove up to the immigration center in Murrieta, Calif., crowds showed up and blocked the roads. They carried signs that said things like “Go home!” and chanted “USA! USA!”
The buses turned around and drove the children to San Diego. But shouting won’t make this problem go away.
Many Americans just don’t understand. I guess they’ve never had to seek refuge.
A refugee is someone who can’t go home, because home isn’t there anymore, or because just trying to go home would mean certain death. War, starvation and genocide turn people into refugees. It’s not their choice. They’re fleeing for their lives.
Many countries in this world host refugee camps because of the sheer numbers of people crossing their borders. Most of these camps are crowded, dehumanizing and violent places where people struggle just to eat, to survive, to maintain some semblance of a life as they wait for their cases to be decided.
One man, who lived in such a camp for years, said they are “horrible” places.
“Imagine your town,” he told me. “They come and destroy it, and kill half the people, and the other half go live in this camp.
“These were teachers, shopkeepers, farmers – and now, you would think they were quite mad.”
Humanity creates these messes, and it takes humanity to deal with them. That involves opening your hearts, taking care of people who cannot care for themselves. Many nations around the world, with far fewer resources than this one, are doing just that.
None of those nations is made up of immigrants to the extent this one is.
And as far as I know, none of them has an enormous statue standing at the entrance to its largest city’s harbor, inscribed with these words:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free – the wretched refuse of your teeming shores.
“Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
These children have faces. Instead of carrying signs and shouting, let’s meet them with smiles and open hearts, help them all we can and show the love of God to them – whether they’re here for a short time or whether, like Esteban, they get to stay and become part of the fabric of this country.
Otherwise, let’s take that statue down.
Bob Buckel is editorial director of the Messenger.