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Will America Turn Its Back on Desperate Child Refugees?

As it has too many times in the past, our political and legal system is failing to see the humanity of these children at our borders.

Immigrant Melida Patricio Castro from Honduras shows a birth certificate for her daughter Maria Celeste, 2, to a U.S. Border Patrol agent near the U.S.-Mexico border on July 24, 2014 near Mission, Texas.
National Journal
Shuya Ohno
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Shuya Ohno
July 31, 2014, 6:21 a.m.

I will nev­er for­get the har­row­ing look of fear in the Hilda’s eyes. I met her six years ago in Postville, a rur­al Iowa com­pany town dev­ast­ated by an im­mig­ra­tion raid at a loc­al meat­pack­ing plant.

Hilda told me in her broken Eng­lish how scared she was when the armed fed­er­al agents rushed in, cor­ralled all the work­ers, and led every­one away in shackles. This was not Hilda’s first en­counter with masked men car­ry­ing guns. Hilda’s fam­ily was like many oth­ers work­ing in the plant. They found refuge in a sleepy sec­tion of Iowa after flee­ing their small Guatem­alan moun­tain vil­lage. In Guatem­ala, men with guns — guer­ril­las on one side and gov­ern­ment death squads on the oth­er — were in­dis­crim­in­ately killing people caught in the middle.

Hilda fled the hor­rors of vi­ol­ence in Cent­ral Amer­ica and entered the United States as an un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rant. Once here, Hilda’s lim­ited op­tions in­cluded a job in the meat­pack­ing plant. She reg­u­larly worked 16-hour double-shifts, us­ing what strength she had in her 4-foot, 10-inch frame to cut sides of beef on a band saw. That had been Hilda’s life since she was 13 years old.

She was work­ing when the plant was raided in May 2008. Nearly 400 work­ers, in­clud­ing Hilda, were de­tained. At just 16, she was slated to be de­por­ted. Hilda was afraid that she would nev­er see her moth­er again. She was afraid of the vi­ol­ence that awaited her in Guatem­ala. I wanted to tell her in my broken Span­ish that everything was go­ing to be OK. But I couldn’t. As a civil-rights or­gan­izer I wit­nessed in shame as the judge presided over fed­er­al pro­sec­utors and pub­lic de­fend­ers, as the sys­tem pro­cessed the men, wo­men, and the young boys and girls picked up in Postville with cruelly in­hu­mane ef­fi­ciency. I watched the courts de­port people as fast as they could, tear­ing fam­il­ies and com­munit­ies apart. All I could do was try to make sure Hilda’s story was heard, by the courts and by any­one who cared to listen.

Today, we are see­ing large num­bers of chil­dren, flee­ing ex­treme vi­ol­ence, enter our coun­try and ask for our help. Un­for­tu­nately, the sys­tem is once again fail­ing to re­cog­nize their hu­man­ity. Out­spoken mem­bers of Con­gress, from fresh­men tea-party mem­bers to the more main­stream Re­pub­lic­an House speak­er, take care not to refer to these young­sters as chil­dren. In­stead, they opt for code words: il­leg­als, ali­ens, in­vaders, threats.

They are chil­dren. They are refugees.

Un­for­tu­nately, this is not the first time our law­makers proved not only in­ad­equate, but also in­clined to dis­crim­in­ate against vul­ner­able minor­it­ies. We all know Amer­ic­an demo­cracy began with landed gen­tle­men ex­alt­ing equal­ity while deny­ing the hu­man­ity of nat­ive peoples. These men lived in deep deni­al. There was no liberty or justice for all when the coun­try re­lied on en­slaved Afric­an men, wo­men, and chil­dren for hun­dreds of years. The highest demo­crat­ic ideals that make Amer­ica ex­cep­tion­al have al­ways co­ex­is­ted with the most base and hate­ful ra­cism.

The spit­ting, angry mobs we see today, armed with rifles, shot­guns, and pis­tols in Mur­ri­eta, Cal­if., in Or­acle, Ar­iz., and in Lans­ing, Mich., ra­ging against the ar­rival of scared chil­dren; the an­onym­ous mis­spelled graf­fiti and epi­thets that mar a pro­posed shel­ter for the chil­dren in West­min­ster, Md.; as well as the mes­sage boards of every on­line news­pa­per art­icle, un­mask the ra­bid ra­cism and xeno­pho­bia that con­tin­ues to plague our demo­cracy.

It is not the first time we’ve seen angry mobs of armed white men form­ing posses against buses filled with young people who sought free­dom in our na­tion. It was 50 years ago in Mis­sis­sippi dur­ing Free­dom Sum­mer that buses car­ry­ing young be­liev­ers in a just demo­cracy were met by the rage and ig­nor­ance of white men with guns.

The body polit­ic con­tin­ues to ex­per­i­ence grow­ing pains. With the elec­tion of our first black pres­id­ent came a back­lash that was to be ex­pec­ted. The ra­cist ties and roots of the anti-im­mig­rant spe­cial in­terest groups that drive the dem­agoguery of nat­iv­ist politi­cians and the activ­it­ies of the angry mobs has long been un­covered and doc­u­mented. Still, the ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans want a fair, more wel­com­ing so­ci­ety. The an­ger of these men with guns, however, is real — and born out of fear of the in­ev­it­ably chan­ging demo­graph­ics.

In Iowa, where more than nine of 10 res­id­ents are white, I wit­nessed the Amer­ic­an im­mig­ra­tion and leg­al sys­tem fail to func­tion ad­equately, hampered by struc­tur­al and in­sti­tu­tion­al ra­cism. After the meat­pack­ing plant raid, a tem­por­ary fed­er­al court set up at a fair grounds known as the Cattle Con­gress pro­cessed eight people at a time. They stood, shackled to­geth­er and cower­ing be­fore a judge who sat high above them. Fed­er­al agents armed with auto­mat­ic weapons snickered while the court trans­lat­ors con­veyed to the frightened work­ers that they had waived all their rights to ap­peal, and would next go to a trail­er for sen­ten­cing.

If the judge had bothered to look up to see these men, wo­men, and chil­dren as in­di­vidu­als, if he had asked any of them for a single verbal re­sponse, he may have learned that many were in­di­gen­ous K’iche‘ people, who didn’t un­der­stand the Span­ish that was be­ing thrown at them. He may have real­ized that these huddled masses could not have un­der­stood what rights they were guar­an­teed by our Con­sti­tu­tion, or what it meant to waive them. And, in some cases he might have heard de­tails that could sup­port a le­git­im­ate claim for asylum or oth­er forms of leg­al res­id­ence in the United States.

Hilda, like all the oth­er wo­men, was roun­ded up, ar­res­ted, and pro­cessed. But be­cause she was only 16 years old, she was shackled, not with the oth­er wo­men in the make-shift jails, but with her own elec­tron­ic mon­it­or­ing device. She was not forced in­to de­ten­tion at the Cattle Con­gress. Still, like all the oth­er wo­men, she stood in front of a judge for a hear­ing and faced de­port­a­tion. It was her testi­mony about the ab­uses she suffered at the meat­pack­ing plant, the fact that she had worked there since she was just 13, along with in­form­a­tion from oth­er wit­nesses, that led the gov­ern­ment to in­dict and con­vict Ag­ri­pro­cessors, the plant’s own­ers and man­agers, of crimes.

Even though Hilda her­self had giv­en up hope of liv­ing in safety in the U.S., de­term­ined ad­voc­ates even­tu­ally won her case for per­man­ent res­id­ence two years later through a pro­vi­sion in the Vi­ol­ence Against Wo­men’s Act that pro­tects vic­tims of ab­use who testi­fy in suc­cess­ful pro­sec­u­tions.

In May of 2008, all I could really do in that dusty north­east corner of Iowa was bear wit­ness as the blunt force of the im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem, it­self a mani­fest­a­tion of the fail­ures or our po­lar­ized polit­ics, ripped apart hun­dreds of fam­il­ies. I saw what had been a sleepy little rur­al town in the heart­land of Amer­ica trans­formed.

But I also saw Amer­ic­an fam­il­ies — white men, wo­men, and chil­dren from Postville and sur­round­ing towns — who came to St. Brid­get’s, a little church where im­mig­rant chil­dren and fam­il­ies were tak­ing refuge, in the af­ter­math of the raid. The loc­al farm­ers, con­struc­tion work­ers, small-busi­ness own­ers, truck­ers, house­wives, stu­dents, and chil­dren — all white and nat­ive-born Amer­ic­ans — came to­geth­er at St. Brid­get’s as if to help at a barn-rais­ing. They brought home-cooked meals, di­apers, and blankets, and offered as­sist­ance, pray­ers, and love.

What they de­livered was not only hope, but a liv­ing ex­ample of who many of us are and want to be as Amer­ic­ans.

Shuya Ohno is the Right to Vote dir­ect­or at Ad­vance­ment Pro­ject, a na­tion­al civil-rights and ra­cial-justice or­gan­iz­a­tion.


Are you part of the demo­graph­ic that is the Next Amer­ica? Are you a cata­lyst who fosters change for the next gen­er­a­tion? Or do you know someone who is? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes first-per­son per­spect­ives from act­iv­ists, thought lead­ers, and people rep­res­ent­at­ive of a di­verse na­tion. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­ And please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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