Pulling children into the crossfire

Lions and Lambs: Reflections on Catholic Social TeachingAugust 29, 2014

By David C. Aguillard, Executive Director, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge

The seemingly sudden arrival of tens of thousands children along our southwestern border poses both a political and moral challenge to our nation. It reveals stresses in our social fabric, divisions in our political system, and opposing views of a moral response. On the one hand, some argue that we are a nation of laws; therefore anyone seeking to unlawfully enter our country undermines the foundation of civil society. On the other hand, some point out that we are a nation of immigrants, built on the values of freedom and equality; therefore, we should welcome anyone–especially children–drawn to our nation to safely enjoy our freedoms.

Are these two perspectives irreconcilable? Is the choice really lawlessness vs. cruelty? Is one position more compatible with Christian values but also a recipe for anarchy? Or can the Gospel values expressed through Catholic Social Teaching offer a resolution that is politically possible, morally justifiable and consistent with Christ’s reminder that our response to the least among us is the same as our response to Him: “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” 

The following two-part essay will explore this matter by first looking at it purely through a political lens, i.e., the competition for power. It will do this by asking readers to step outside of a single perspective and look at the dynamics of political conflict through a comparison of ours with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Although seemingly very different, there are striking commonalities that can shed light on our national political conflicts. 

The second part will then take this preceding analysis and explore it through the lens of Christian values and in particular Catholic spirituality and social teaching. In doing so, it will point out a common solution that rises above partisan battles to both follow our nation’s laws and respond to Christ’s invitation that we welcome the stranger. A pro-life church can only be pro-child, and a pro-child position is indeed rational, lawful and constitutionally sound. Such a position is non-partisan and wise public policy in the interest of our common good, and it requires faithful application of the message of Jesus–which was then and still is today a radical approach to understanding and responding to the complexities of social relationships. 

First, let’s look at the nature of politics through a comparison that may be uncomfortable for some, but nevertheless illustrative. 

Lessons from Hamas

On the Gaza Strip, Hamas fights its political battles with its own children. In our country, we are using other peoples’ children. Both drag populationsalmost exclusively the weak and vulnerableinto the line of fire, which is the result of deliberate choices to manipulate populations for partisan gain. Consider these facts:

Hamas was in decline, deprived of support from the Muslim Brotherhood through former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and at odds with its former Arabic sponsors. At stake is control of the Palestinian national destiny.

With the approach of the 2014 Mid-term elections, Americans’ faith in their political parties is in decline. At stake is control of the most powerful legislative body on the planet.

Hamas seemingly thrives on warfare. Our current political process depends on conflict. Both systems create enemies and defend victims … even if none exist. Key to understanding the reasons behind political actions is the answer to the question: Who benefits? Hamas benefited in its recent conflict through renewed legitimacy. Our political parties benefit when dragging Hispanic children into their struggle by re-energizing voters. How did this happen to us? Through the interplay of the common good, partisan politics, and our nation’s changing demographic mix, i.e., the emerging importance of the Hispanic vote … even here in Baton Rouge.

A Manufactured “¡Crisis!”

Contrary to the sudden appearance of headlines such as “¡Crisis on the Border!” the arrival of children along our border had been predicted and years in the making. Although not an inevitable partisan battle, it certainly has become one as politicians maneuver to divide voters rather than resolve the situation … even when the solution is known. In fact the solution is proscribed by our country’s laws, laws we currently seem unable to follow; unable because some are unwilling. That the solution remains unobtainable is the result of subsequent political manipulations after the law was enacted.

The law was passed six years ago in textbook, civics-class fashion.

  1. Dec.9,2008: A California congressman introduces the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Re-authorization Act, which extensively re-wrote the original to strengthen protections for children.
  2. Dec.10: The Act passes the House without objection, then the Senate by Unanimous Consent; both houses on the same day, both with bipartisan support. (Compare then to the gridlock in Washington in the final days prior to this August recess.)
  3. Dec.23: Just 14 days after introduction, The Act becomes Public Law No. 110-457 when President George W. Bush signs it, supported by an estimate from the Congressional Budget Office that the Act “will decrease budget deficits by $2 million over the 2009-2018 period.”

The law requires:

  • Unaccompanied children to be screened within 48 hours of apprehension and transferred “to the Secretary of Health and Human Services not later than 72 hours after determining that such a child is” unaccompanied. If no screening takes place, the “child shall immediately be transferred.”
  • The children “shall be promptly placed in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child.” 
  • The children should receive the protection of our country’s legal system. Prior to making a decision regarding deportation, each case is to be evaluated to determine if any harm will come to the child if returned to his or her homeland.

Congress rationally and wisely pursued a common good after recognizing that immigrant children are particularly vulnerable and frequently victimized when fleeing to our country. Washington, in this instance, did the right thing: enacted laws to protect them, described processes to assure their safety, and even outlined penalties. “Whoever obstructs or attempts to obstruct, or in any way interferes with or prevents the enforcement of” sections of the law “shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”(Should those elected officials who refuse to fund the law be prosecuted?) 

According to our own standardsour own laws constitutionally, democratically and legitimately enactedwe are failing the children along our border. Why?

Three developments helped create the current situation:

  1. The emergence of Hispanics as swing voters, able to determine election outcomes.
  2. The Obama Administration’s “amnesty program” in 2012, under which the U.S. stopped deporting immigrant children who had arrived prior to 2007.
  3. HHS’s subsequent warning that an increasingly unmanageable number of unaccompanied children are arriving at the border. 

Let’s look at these, starting with the third:

HHS had predicted and worried about the current surge. Through 2011, about 7,500 unaccompanied children arrived each year. After the amnesty program, the numbers escalated, doubling annually: 14,000 in 2012, 23,500 in 2013 and an (under)estimated number in 2014 of 26,000. That estimate is now 90,000. One year ago with the estimate of 26,000, HHS’s budget narrative warned against inaction, noting “the long lead times needed” to accommodate the children under the law and warning of “significantly higher” costs if action is delayed. 

HHS, in requesting increased funding also lamented past shortfalls that cut other programs such as medical and employment services, and stated there is a desperate need to “streamline current procedures and implement some new procedures.” (A telling detail of this budget request is that unaccompanied children are funded as a subgroup of our nation’s refugee population, i.e. we had recognized that children should not be locked up in detention centers same as undocumented immigrant adults.)

So there it is: Evidence that HHS had notified both the administration and congress that unprecedented numbers of children would continue to arrive at our border. How can political leaders be notified and aware of the surge that has developed over several years, then claim surprise by a so-called sudden “crisis?” Why are they unwilling to respond as wisely today as in 2008? Why is this “crisis” being allowed to happen now?

As demographers like to say: “Demographics is destiny.” 

Our Political Process

While Hamas fights its political battles with rockets, we fight ours with votes. And, as an analysis by the Pew Research Center shows, the Hispanic vote is ascendantthe fastest growing voting bloc in our nation, likely to double over the next several years. By 2030, Hispanics will make up 40% of all new voters in the nation, compared to about 22% each for Blacks and Whites, and about 15% for Asians.

This trend is true in Louisiana and Baton Rouge as well. Recent census data shows that while white and black populations have remained relatively steady in Louisiana, the Hispanic population has grown by 80%. In East Baton Rouge, it has grown by about 120%, compared to a decline of -9% for whites and an increase of 20% for blacks. 

But populations alone don’t matter. Populations, or people in themselves, are irrelevant in politics: Palestinians simply living on the Gaza strip are not as useful to Hamas as Palestinians dodging Israeli bombs. Politically disengaged Hispanics living in our midst aren't as useful to our political parties as Hispanics turning out to vote. People don’t matter, only voters. But potential voters don’t win elections, only actual votes. So perhaps more important than sheer numbers,is that Hispanics are a political force that “punches below its weight,” states the Pew study. Hispanic votes are disproportionately low compared to the total number of voters. 

Compared to a generation ago, our population is more diverse, our demographics and the electorate more fractured. Therefore every single vote counts more than ever in political competition. No one voting bloc determines an outcome. Recall the statement by a Republican strategist that 2012 would be the “last time anyone tries” to win the White House by relying on the white vote. Parties compete to assemble winning coalitions, searching for common themes that will attract across traditional demographic boundaries. Immigration is one such issue, especially a focus on immigrant children that is likely to resonate with Hispanics, other ethnic populations, and women voters regardless of ethnicity.

Proxy Wars, Proxy Votes

The Hamas-Israeli conflict is considered a proxy war for competing Muslim factions in the Middle East. Hamas substitutes for Muslim extremists, Israel for Arab monarchies threatened by the extremists. Residents of the Gaza Strip are drawn into someone else’s battle. Similarly, competition within and between political factions in the U.S. is taking place by manipulating the lives of Central American children. 

One side offers unaccompanied childrenproxy in the battle for votessanctuary as an alternative to possible death in their home countries. The other side blocks that political maneuver in order to win its own votes. One side portrays itself as saviors of Hispanic children; the other as champions for Americans.

This may seem like an unfair distortion of two political positions. Certainly we are substantively different and have a higher ethic than Muslim extremists. Yes, but there are also consistent similarities in political struggles worldwide. The key to understanding the point of political struggle is to answer the question: Who benefits? Arguably the people of the Gaza strip, whom Hamas claims to be protecting, are not entering the gates of Utopia. And the uncertainty and horror encountered by Central American children trekking across a continent hardly seems a good prospect. 

Who then benefits? Rarely the weak. Almost exclusively it’s the groups competing to retain power and influence. One can portray itself as virtuous and the other as horrible. After all, if there’s no sharp distinguishing difference, why vote for one over the other? 

These days, politics in America thrives on creating division. Turn on the radio, the use of militaristic language is readily apparent. Political strategists are paid to find gaps in the electorate, then drive wedges into those gaps that will exploit opponents weaknesses and mobilize a voting base. 

Looking at the unaccompanied child issue from the cold calculus of vote-counting, offering amnesty and asylum to unaccompanied children can be seen as a political offensive to separate and capture the Hispanic vote and voters sympathetic to their cause. The opposing side maneuvers to surround and overwhelmefforts that are hampered if it is divided internally.

And just as children are trapped on the Gaza strip, their lives threatened by two warring parties, tens of thousands of children from Central America were drawn into our battle by our decision-makers who were warned of the consequences: the border “surge,” which in turn created greater uncertainty in the tenuous futures of Central American children.

How then, can a moral actor, enlivened by Biblical values, enter the fray without taking sides in the power struggle? Is peace obtainable for two seemingly irreconcilable perspectives? The second part of this essay will suggest “Yes;” through a reasoned application of Gospel values, based on the example of Christ, informed by Catholic Social Teaching, and drawing on spiritual principles such as indifference and detachment. Challenging as it may be, we are invited to desire neither Republican nor Democrat, neither Obama nor Boehner, neither immigration nor deportation … but only that which helps build the Kingdom of God.

Download a pdf. ©Catholic Charities Diocese of Baton Rouge 2014


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