The Children Crossing Our Border Just Want a Better Life—Let’s Treat Them as Our Own

We deal with Latin America in lots of ways. So why shouldn’t we take some responsibility for—and show compassion toward—kids who want to come here?

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Young children join immigration-reform protesters while marching in front of the White House on July 7, 2014, in Washington, D.C.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

I’m not sure if people of color in a country like ours can afford to be in the position of looking down on children—undocumented or otherwise—for trying to flee violence in their home countries. And although I can appreciate a different point of view, I see the issue of children from Central America making a dangerous journey in the hope of immigrating to the United States differently from The Root’s Keli Goff, who argues that if President Barack Obama goes out of his way to provide humanitarian relief to these children, he’s “helping children who are not his responsibility at the expense of children who are.”

In my view, children are children, no matter where they come from. And whatever we might think of the broader implications of an unexpected influx of children crossing our border looking for a better life, our first instinct ought to be to remember that they’re children and to try to help them.

The president’s options for doing that might be limited, but I think the right thing to do is to think of these kids as our kids, too. And for those who can’t see why the humanitarian crisis of children crossing our border from Central America demands a solution in human terms, I suggest a history lesson.

Even a cursory reading of Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, by Eduardo Galeano, or No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border, by Justin Akers Chacón and Mike Davis, will give you a good sense of where America stands in its responsibility for disparate conditions of the countries from which the children emigrate—and the violence that they’re fleeing.

While some may contend that America has a great record on humanitarian efforts, much of the “assistance” offered to Latin America has come at a high price, often coupled with an exchange in resources and political positioning that favors the United States. And when we look at what’s going on now, we can’t overlook the fact that throughout a lot of our history, our government has meddled in the affairs of these respective countries to spread capitalism and globalism. Put bluntly, this country’s wealth often came at the expense of the rest of the Americas’ wealth, a tradition of exploitation shared by people of many colors.

The Monroe Doctrine, in particular, helped spread U.S. influence across Central and South America in a time when most of those countries had just attained independence, and we continue to see ripples of this in our current dealings with Colombia, Chile and Mexico. In that light, why would America only be paternalistic in other dealings with Latin America, but not extend that to taking some ownership and showing some compassion and empathy for children who, for their own reasons, actually believe in and want to invest in the American system of doing things?

Perhaps the common thread between the way we should view children abroad and the way we view children in our own country is that not only do they occupy similar circumstances financially, but in either case, our government serves our children poorly—providing only the most limited resources for creating pathways for true success. Instead of treating different groups as “flavors of the month,” we would do well to see beyond the 24-7 news cycles and look at what we’re accepting and negating when we show a lack of compassion for another.

Chicago is the best example. At Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s whim, the Chicago Public Schools administration has shut down 50 schools, at the same time creating, in theory, “safe pathways” for small children to go through dangerous neighborhoods. They do this instead of providing fully funded pre-K and investing in community centers. It reflects a preference for shortcuts, divesting public schools to benefit charter companies and turning a blind eye to neighborhood decay.

If we say, “They need to know that this country has laws,” in response to children crossing the border, then we’ve presumed that our country’s laws are just. People of color in this country have generally known this to be untrue as well. If we say, “We shouldn’t spend any more money on them than we have to,” it shows how little we know about where our money actually goes.

Chances are already slim that we’ll see meaningful immigration reform in the Obama era. And if the best that either a Republican or Democrat can say about our current immigration policy as a talking point is that President Barack Obama is fully complying with current law, that’s a pretty weak response.

In this crisis, it’s time to look out for these children and time to stop wasting time asking, effectively, “Whose children matter most?”

They all do because they’re all ours.

José Luis Vilson is a New York City-based educator, writer, activist, father and the author of This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education. Follow him on Twitter.

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