Like many Jewish parents, I send my son off to camp each morning with plenty of water, an extra bathing suit and a reminder to put on sunscreen throughout the day. “Ask for help from your counselors to make sure you’re covered,” I say as he gets on the bus.
This daily routine is what went through my head the first time I saw a photograph of a boy my son’s age having just made the long and dangerous journey through Central America to the United States. I struggled to comprehend a 7-year-old on this perilous journey by himself (or worse, with unscrupulous adults). I imagined the dire circumstances that would lead a parent (or grandparent or aunt) to put his or her child at risk of violence, trafficking and rape.
The painful truth is that these parents are desperate to get their children to a safer place, and the dangerous journey is the better option than staying where violence and crime pervade everyday life. Through my work at a refugee organization, every day, I am struck by the realities encountered by these families. Violence and persecution around the world cause people from Congo, Sudan, Syria and many other countries to leave their homelands – often with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and little idea of what their future holds – and flee to safer countries. It’s a terrible choice that no one should have to make, and yet hundreds of thousands make it every year.
And now, for the first time in history, there is a large influx of unaccompanied children arriving at a U.S. border, requiring an immediate and effective humanitarian response.
There is no question that the long-term solution is to increase safety and opportunity for children in Central America. But, in the meantime, their basic needs for safety, shelter and food must be met.
Just as important, their well-being must be at the heart of every policy decision U.S. officials make. Under both international and domestic law, children who have asylum claims cannot be returned to harm. Furthermore, they should not be expected to represent themselves in court to make their asylum claims. We do not allow children to face complex legal procedures alone under any other circumstances. Why allow it in these cases?
Adding to the challenge, we must find a way to care for these children without undermining our country’s commitment to the refugees and asylum seekers who have already been promised safe harbor in the United States. Funds designated to help resettle the 70,000 refugees the U.S. has committed to welcoming this year should not be “reprogrammed” by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Last week, 20 national Jewish organizations – including the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly – joined HIAS’ call and urged the administration and Congress “not to pit the interests of resettled refugees directly against those of migrant children.”
To ensure that both the arriving children from Central America and resettled refugees receive the critical services they need, we support President Obama’s request for an additional $3.7 billion in emergency funding. We urge Congress to approve this request quickly and not to eliminate children’s access to due process and legal counsel.
Our Jewish values call us to protect life and to love the stranger. It is one of the rare instances in which we are given the reason; we are told throughout the Torah, love the stranger because you were slaves in Egypt. It is not only our values, but also our history. We know from too many generations of experience what it means to be persecuted and to flee to a new land to rebuild our lives in safety.
The Jewish community should speak out on this issue and call on the U.S. government to meet the needs of these children while maintaining our country’s commitment to refugees.
We must ensure that anyone who reaches our border is afforded safety and dealt with fairly. At a minimum, as their claims for refuge are sorted out, their basic human needs should be met with care. We would want nothing less for our own children.
Rabbi Jennie Rosenn is the vice president of community engagement at HIAS, the international Jewish organization that protects refugees.