Unaccompanied Children

by LeDayne McLeese Polaski / 15 September 2016 / No Comments

From Joyce Deaton, Caldwell Presbyterian Churchsanctuary3

In saying yes to the mystery of God, we are also seeking some direction for living our lives. I don’t know about you, but with this affirmation I have found, inconveniently, that when life presents me with a situation of injustice, I can no longer just sit there. I have to act–or answer a disturbing question: If I don’t do something about this injustice, then what good is my so-called “faith”? Do you ever struggle with this? One particular situation is plaguing me now. Let me tell you about it.

Since January, you may have seen headlines covering raids in the U.S. in which the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has been rounding up high school students, mothers and young children from Central America. They’re sent to faraway detention centers, where they wait to be deported back to the life-threatening violence they fled.

What’s behind those headlines? Why did these people come to the U.S.? How many of them live in Charlotte? What happens to them when they are sent back to their home countries?

Since 2013, 118,929 children–alone or with a parent–have come to the U.S. fleeing the deadly threats of gang violence, drug cartels and sex trafficking in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, which consistently rank among the most violent countries in the world.

Many are still coming. In their home countries, they are recruited by gangs and tortured or killed if they don’t join. Young children are forced to become drug mules, unwillingly setting the course of their lives as victims of crime, violence and trafficking. To escape, they face more violence at the hands of drug dealers and gangs during a grueling journey through Mexico. When they enter the U.S., they are held in detention facilities until they can be placed with a parent or sponsor in this country. They’re also entered into immigration removal proceedings and given a court date when they have to appear and explain why they should be allowed to stay.

sanctuary1More than 1,200 of these children have come to Charlotte. Their situation is complex: Though they are refugees fleeing for their lives, the U.S. government considers them undocumented immigrants and seeks to deport them as quickly as possible after their court appearances. In spite of the heroic efforts of devoted attorneys working for free, many of these children are not able to find or afford an attorney, so must represent themselves in complicated court proceedings in a language they don’t understand, unable to put forth what might be a lawful claim for asylum. Some are as young as two or three.

Not surprisingly, two-thirds of those without attorneys in North Carolina are deported. Because deportation often means certain death, some do not leave, hoping to appeal their cases or live quietly under the radar with family members. Now, however, they are in danger.

Since January, ICE has conducted stepped-up raids in the Southeast targeting these unaccompanied children and their families. Two Charlotte boys, Pedro Salmeron and Yefri Sorto-Hernandez, are among six teenagers in North Carolina arrested and detained—two at their school bus stops. A young mother, Maritza Alejandrina Alcantara Argueta, was arrested and detained as she left home one morning with her three-year-old daughter, Genesis, to take her seven-year-old son, Elkin, to his elementary school in East Charlotte.

What happens when they are deported?

sanctuary2 In the strife-torn countries to which these families return, the fate of deported immigrants is often unrecorded, so exact figures are hard to come by. However, a San Diego State University study in 2015, tracking individuals recently deported to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, found that at least 83 people had been killed since 2014.

What does our faith compel us to do?

How do we as people of faith respond to the knowledge that thousands of innocent people, most of them children fleeing for their lives, are being forcibly returned to near-certain death in the violent countries from which they escape?

Should we at least offer them welcome, friendship and support while they are here?

Should we do what we can to help them get a fair hearing in immigration court?

Should we work to change the policies of our government that result in this treatment of vulnerable children and families who have nowhere else to turn?

What’s happening nationwide?

Across the country, 350 communities of faith have decided their teachings compel them to welcome strangers and to help their brothers and sisters in danger. As part of the nationwide New Sanctuary Movement, they’ve pledged to support these children and families by offering the gift of “accompaniment,” partnering with families, welcoming them into the fellowship of their congregations, and walking with them through the legal, practical, social and emotional challenges they face.

They believe that by so doing, their congregations gain even more than the family they help: real friendship, an opportunity to live out their faith, a deeper understanding of the issues immigrants face, and the simple joy of hospitality.

Joyce Deaton

Joyce Deaton

What do you think?

A small, multi-faith coalition is coming together to talk about what communities of faith might feel called to do here in Charlotte. If this opportunity to express your faith speaks to you, contact us at 704 576-8696 or deaton1@att.net.

About the author:

LeDayne McLeese Polaski