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Suffer the little children [Editorial]

A proposal earlier this week to provide temporary shelter at a Baltimore City office building for child migrants from Central America who arrive in this country without a parent or guardian appears to have been shelved for the moment, after Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake raised concerns over the facility's appropriateness. Metro West is an empty office building with no infrastructure for residential use. It's not an appropriate residence for potentially hundreds of children.

But whether or not the children, some of whom are as young as 5, eventually end up elsewhere in the city or in Maryland doesn't change the facts that they are entering the country in increasing numbers and that the U.S. is morally obliged to deal with them humanely.

The vast majority of children who cross the border illegally unaccompanied by a parent or guardian are fleeing crushing poverty, gang violence or civil war at home. That is what has sparked the humanitarian crisis unfolding along the nation's southern border, as families anxious to protect their children spend everything they have to hire shady human traffickers, criminal gangs and drug smugglers to spirit youngsters north. Many of these young people hope to join relatives already living in this country or to find work so they can send money back to their families at home.

But most of those who make the perilous trek from places like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are soon picked up by Department of Homeland Security agents and held in crowded detention centers along the border until a legal decision is made to return them to their home country or find a long-term placement for them in the U.S. Yet so great is the most recent influx of child migrants entering the country that space in those facilities is rapidly running out. That's why the department recently began looking for other places to shelter the children until their court cases are heard.

In fiscal year 2003-2011, for example, the Department of Homeland Security estimated that between 7,000 and 8,800 unaccompanied child migrants crossed the border into this county. A year later that number had nearly doubled to 14,000, and last year DHS reported that 60,000 unaccompanied child migrants entered the country. That number is expected to more than double this year, when 127,000 child migrants are expected to cross the border illegally.

Clearly, this is not a statistical blip or one-time aberration. Rather, it's a long-term trend that likely will only intensify in coming years. One has to have some sympathy for children and adolescents who are so threatened by the circumstances around them that they feel compelled to risk their lives in order to escape intolerable conditions at home. By the same token one can also empathize with the terrible dilemma faced by their parents, who are so desperate to secure a future for their children that they are willing to entrust them to the hands of the worst sort of people if only it will give them a better shot at life.

Whatever stopgap measures are taken to alleviate the plight of the thousands of unaccompanied child migrants entering the country each year, it's obvious the situation won't really improve until the root causes of extreme violence and poverty in the countries these children are coming from are addressed. Ms. Mikulski put additional funding for sheltering the refuges into the Senate appropriations bill her committee marked up this week, and she is urging the General Services Administration to look at other facilities in Maryland that have existing dormitory-style accommodations, such as the National Labor College and a location at Aberdeen Proving Ground that were both considered possible residences for AmeriCorps volunteers. Meanwhile the State Department is working to help governments in Central America do more to address the conditions that force young people to flee their homes in the first place.

Unfortunately, the issue has become embroiled in the U.S. domestic debate over immigration reform, which has complicated all these matters. The upset victory of a previously unknown tea party candidate, Dave Brat, over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia's GOP primary Tuesday is reverberating throughout Washington this week because of the signal it sent to lawmakers about the risk any Republican who shows even the smallest inclination to compromise on the issue faces from angry conservative voters. That means Congress will likely be hamstrung over passage of an immigration bill this year, and possibly until after the 2016 elections.

Congress' inaction won't keep increasing numbers of Central American child migrants from continuing to illegally cross our southern border, however, but by the same token neither will it relieve us of the obligation of caring for those who arrive here with dignity and respect.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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