LOS ANGELES -- Last Monday, a chartered flight took 38 mothers and children, who had been held in a detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, to San Pedro Sula in Honduras. That's a tough town of drug dealers, violence and children soldiers, sometimes called "The Murder Capital of the World."
The deported Hondurans are among the flood of women and children, including 57,000 unaccompanied children, from Central America who have been entering the United States illegally. They are all classified as "illegal immigrants," meaning they are seeking family and better lives in our country. If they were called "refugees," that is people fleeing violence or war, they would be kept in refugee camps, like more than 16 million unfortunates in 125 countries around the world, from Pakistan with 1.6 million to Madagascar with just nine. If internally displaced persons, such as Syrians on the run from war and Palestinians in camps in the Occupied West Bank, are included, that number of displaced people rises to more than 50 million.
Most of them are, of course, from and in developing countries where civil war has become endemic. The largest number of refugees, according to the United Nations, for 32 years in a row are from Afghanistan. Some are in Western countries as well; both the United States and Germany house about 200,000 refugees -- and deliver substantial amounts of food, medicine and money to camps in other countries.
Most are under the supervision of the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which has 8,600 staffers, most of them in the camps. There are also substantial numbers of paid workers in the camps, including doctors and teachers, from aid organizations from many countries. Still, life in the camps is horrible at best, hopeless at worst.
What is happening now in the United States is a hysteria attack driven by coverage of "mass" border crossings, a fear of the unknown triggering protests in some towns and cities afraid of the immigrants. That is because we do not recognize them as refugees; we consider them economic migrants, who really have no rights at all under American or international law. That is likely to continue as Republicans attack the Obama administration for being "soft" on illegals. That despite the fact that the number entering the country now is quite small compared the number coming during the administration of President George W. Bush.
We should be ashamed of ourselves. We have made this mistake before, particularly in the late 1930s when we turned away Jewish migrants or refugees from Nazi Germany, letting some be returned to death camps.
The most intelligent comment from a politician in recent weeks was made by the mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, who said his city, like a few others, New York among them, was willing to house the women and children who risked their lives getting here, while they went through the hearing and trials of immigration authorities.
"Before you get partisan, before you tell me where you are on immigration -- these are children," Garcetti said. "As a father, who are we as Americans if we don't step forward first and say, these kids who are isolated, alone ... let's get them someplace safe and secure. ... (The first step should not be) to shove them away."
For me, his words echoed something said more than 50 years ago by another politician, John F. Kennedy, when Alabama officials tried to block the admission of black students to the state's public university:
"This is not a sectional issue," said Kennedy on national television. "Nor is this a partisan issue. ... This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. ... We are confronted primarily with a moral issue."
And the issue of these children is a moral issue. It is a question of what kind of people we are.
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