Help for the Weary Traveler

Tolu Olubunmi | September 10, 2014

Originally published by The Huffington Post here on September 10 at 1:26 p.m. 

Click here to learn more about CWS’s work with unaccompanied children.

Last night, in the midst of mounting frustration over the foot dragging on immigration reform and executive action, I attended a fundraiser organized by Church World Service (CWS) and National Justice For Our Neighbors (NJFON). The event was to raise money to support the incredibly important work of NJFON which is needed now more than ever. In the interest of full disclosure, I am on the Advisory Board of NJFON.

NJFON is a network of legal clinics based in United Methodist churches around the country. The network has 15 locally funded and managed sites that operate over 40 church-based immigration legal clinics serving more than 4,000 low-income clients a year. The organization has a volunteer-based model, with staff attorneys at each site working with volunteers to serve immigrants so that families can unite, women can escape domestic violence, and eligible individuals can attain work authorization.

With the humanitarian crisis raging at the U.S.-Mexico border, a significant portion of NJFON’s work has been directed to offering some dignity and hope to unaccompanied minors fleeing dangerous situations in El-Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Many of these children making the 1,500+ mile journey – risking their lives in an attempt to save it – are female and under the age of 13. These desperate yet incredibly brave children after finally making it safely inside our borders – those who manage to survive the scorching desert, rape, hunger, kidnapping, and murder – are then faced with navigating an immigration system so badly broken that even skilled immigration attorneys sometimes have difficulty making heads or tails of it. And clearly from the many bastardizing of the realities of the process by some policy makers, they do not know how the laws they put in place work either.

Once these children finally make it here, they face far too often insurmountable challenges in U.S. immigration court. Unlike criminal defendants, immigrants are not entitled to court-appointed attorneys, regardless of age or lack of resources. Immigrant children, some as young as 2 years old must stand alone against government lawyers. Basically, a child in a new land, who may barely speak the language is being forced to face an imposing figure in a black robe asking why he should be allowed to remain in the U.S. and not be returned to possibly die in the country he just fled. This is absurd.

Organizations like NJFON, CWS, ACLU, AILA and others are tireless in their efforts to protect these vulnerable children and provide much needed legal representation to them. But, in addition to what these organizations and many communities around the nation are able to offer, we need Congress and the President to act swiftly in the best interest of these refugee children.

The countless organizations and every day Americans that are fighting daily to protect what is left of these children’s childhood are not unaware of how Washington politics works. But in truth, politics is a cynical and insufficient reason to suffer little children. As Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California put it, “how we as a nation treat these refugee children fleeing for their lives will speak volumes about what we truly value.”

I recognize why we can be ruled by polls instead of the truth already burned into our gut. I recognize the need to do the political calculus before making a move that calls to our better angels. It almost makes sense, because in its purest form it is about living to fight another day, however, when that albeit temporary retreat from battle guarantees that some will not survive to see the fight continue and the battle won, where do you draw the line? How many is too many too sacrifice in the hopes of saving others?