CENTRAL AMERICA NEEDS OUR ATTENTION NOW

Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON -- In that long ago and mostly forgotten year of 1212, the strangest of strange events was staged in the south of Europe. Inspired by charismatic speakers, some 30,000 young European Christian children walked across France to the Mediterannean Sea, their aim to travel to Jerusalem and take it from the Muslims.

But the glorious religious victory was not to be. From what we know about the "Children's Crusade," most were taken to Tunisia and to other Arab countries, where they were sold as slaves and never heard from again.

The last few weeks on America's southern border with Mexico have seen a strange repetition of a children's crusade, as thousands of children and youths from Central America have suddenly appeared, traveling on foot, by bus, riding on the tops of trains and directed by "coyotes," people-smugglers who must rank among the worst human beings on the face of the Earth.

At first the Border Patrol, who are professional and appropriate about physically arresting illegal aliens when they attempt to cross into the United States, were astonished -- these new young "illegals" didn't want to fight, sneak or burrow their way through; they wanted to be arrested, with the idea that this would take them to court or to their relatives and -- bingo! -- a green card or American citizenship.

The extraordinary numbers trying to cross began along the Texas, Arizona and New Mexico borders last October, but it was only this winter and spring that the numbers became so enormous -- the estimate is anywhere from 65,000 to 85,000 -- that Washington realized it had a major international crisis on its hands.

These children were not, of course, being taken prisoner by the Tunisians (who have enough trouble of their own these days); but there was something of the same ruses, the same dirty subterfuges, the same mafia-like mentality to this influx of children who do not even speak English on our border. If any of you think that 4-year-olds, or 9-year-olds, or even 14-year-olds without parents or adults can walk peacefully by themselves from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras through Mexico (a huge land of menacing kidnappers, coyotes and drug cartels), I have a White House I'd like to sell you.

This bleak panorama is another example of Americans being "taken" by immigration problems they refuse to control.

One has to feel deep sympathy with these children, if one is to be human. But one cannot afford to be sentimental. The responsibility for them lies with their parents, their families, their churches, their communities, and their countries. Can one really imagine sending a 4-year-old boy or girl a thousand miles north, perhaps with a coyote who will charge at least $9,000 to take the kid -- paid in advance? Or imagine letting the child go alone, or with a bunch of friends? It is at moments like this that I absolutely refute that we are in the 21st century.

And what, in moral philosophy, is our responsibility? Ethicists tell us unequivocally that our responsibility is first to our family -- and then to the institutions of society delineated above. Yes, of course, we fight AIDS in Africa, and we give nets to fight malaria. It's not nearly enough, but there are places where we help women with birth control and health issues. But all of that is different from tens of thousands of kids walking across the border and asking to be arrested for other purposes.

Tell me, please, if you're in favor of such an open border and such kindliness toward foreign children, how many do you want to adopt? Foster? Pay for schooling? Pay for English lessons?

Once they're here, across the border and literally stateless, with family and friends now really behind them, they will be our responsibility, and we have not shown the slightest talent for that human responsibility.

But there is something we owe Central America, although most citizens of all the countries involved may not remember all the details.

There was something called the Monroe Doctrine, espoused in the early 19th century and claiming that the hemisphere was ours -- Europeans, stay out! Actually, the Monroe Doctrine could have been important and productive, had it been used in the right way. But aside from FDR's "Good Neighbor Policy" and JFK's too-brief Alliance for Progress, our policies, especially toward Central America, were callous toward development and toward any political candidates who were not loudly anti-communist.

Over and over, the CIA overthrew the best political figures in Central America, always leaving in power the clenched fist of the military. In El Salvador, during the terrible civil war there in the 1960s and '70s, we backed the most despicable groups of killers. When I was in the mountains in Guatemala in 1966 to report on the guerrillas there, there were 3,000 Guatemalan soldiers surrounding us, led by an American general connected with the CIA. Without our constant meddling, Central America would be a different place today.

If I had my way, I would forget about the hopeless lands of the Tigris and Euphrates and move my attention to the arc of Central America. Make treaties to bring certain numbers of American troops (maybe U.N. forces, too) in to do away with the gangs and their drug factories. Really establish schools. Perhaps put the three countries under a U.N. mandate. Of course, that would mean our giving up those wonderful places such as Fallujah, Mosul and Aleppo -- but, well, everybody has to sacrifice to make the world a better place.

(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)

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