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A call for compassion [Commentary]

Growing up in rural Harford County — a red county in a blue state — I quickly became exposed to the many fears that conservative voters have concerning illegal immigration. The Mexicans, I was told as a child (because apparently everyone who illegally crosses the U.S. border is Mexican), were coming to take American jobs. They were coming to deal drugs and spread crime. They were coming to live off of our social welfare programs, all the while avoiding the payment of taxes and not even bothering to learn English.

However, after reports surfaced of the 47,000 children who have illegally entered the United States since last October, such conservative stereotypes do not seem to capture the reality of who immigrants are and why they often choose to risk their lives just to come to this country. Did these children come here to take American jobs? Are they drug dealers, too? Have they heard Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan talk about how easy the poor have it in the United States? As political satirist John Oliver recently remarked on his new HBO show, it is time we prevent such "undocumented opinions" from entering the borders of our immigration dialogue with a sturdy "fence, if you will, of facts."

Some conservatives say that President Barack Obama is not doing enough to enforce immigration laws, which is why these child immigrants were able to come here in the first place. But the truth is, no president has ever been more strident in enforcing existing immigration laws. Drones and Blackhawk helicopters now patrol the border, prosecutions for "illegal entry" have risen by 130 percent since 2007, and the administration has deported approximately 400,000 people per year. So why is illegal immigration on the rise despite these efforts — the strongest efforts to combat immigration in the history of the United States?

The next explanation many people go to is that immigrants come here for the economic opportunity that the United States provides. There certainly is some truth to this statement. A 2012 World Bank study found that 30 percent of urban youth in Central America are neither in school nor employed, so it makes sense that some would seek a better life in this country. But the economic explanation for immigration has existed for years. It doesn't fully explain why 47,000 children, a record number, were compelled to risk their lives to enter the United States in the past few months.

The sad truth is that it is probably most accurate to see these recent immigrants not as people who want to take jobs from our citizens or as criminals, but rather as refugees. In El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — what is known as the Northern Triangle of Central America — violence and transnational organized crime rates have dramatically increased, creating what is now a virtual civil war in these countries.

Currently, Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world. According to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), murders of women and girls have increased 346 percent since 2005, while murders of men and boys have increased 292 percent. Children are now being forcibly recruited into gangs, and the mutilated bodies of children as young as two years old have been discovered in gang-controlled neighborhoods in the cities of San Pedro Sula and Limon. Unfortunately, governments have done little to prevent all of this violence.

Given these conditions, is it any wonder that the majority of the 47,000 child immigrants are from these countries? And to put things in perspective, they aren't just immigrating to the United States. WOLA reports that between Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Belize, there has been a 435 percent increase in the number of asylum applications from the Northern Triangle.

We cannot expect countries like Jordan and Lebanon to keep their borders open to the tremendous numbers of refugees escaping the civil war in Syria if we are unwilling to do the same. Immigrants fleeing from war zones in the Northern Triangle deserve our utmost compassion and a chance to obtain refugee status, no matter whether they are children or adults.

Sadly, this is not what these immigrants are currently receiving from this country. Instead of giving them refugee status, we drop them off at bus stops in Phoenix, Arizona, or we send them back to the violent countries from whence they came.

Instead of seeing them as victims, we talk about them as criminals.

Scott Novak is studying international relations and philosophy at Rollins College and is co-founder of The Independent, a student-run magazine. His email is rnovak@rollins.edu. Twitter: @supernova057.

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

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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