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HAGER: Turning our backs as we build the wall is not the answer

• Jan 24, 2019 at 3:00 PM

A dear friend of mine is a prominent leader in our community. She is kind and smart and funny and brave. And she walked to the United States from El Salvador when she was 8 years old with her younger brother and a coyote (a paid guide).

She doesn’t remember much from the trip other than endless fields and endless walking. Her mother was granted amnesty under the Reagan administration, and she has vivid memories of bodies in the street outside her school, she remembers an older brother having to leave college because the guerrillas would come in to the colleges to recruit and the kids who said no were killed.

This woman did not have the luxury of remaining in El Salvador, separated from her mother, while she filed an asylum claim. She did not have the surety of safety that our children have.

Last summer, our current administration ended the separation of parents and their biological children at our border, but a policy like the one in the president’s proposal to end the government shutdown means that parents and children would be separated. Instead of a child coming to our border to seek asylum being able (usually) to go to their parent residing in the states while their claim is processed, these children would be forced to remain in a dangerous situation without even the benefit of a parent.

The president’s proposal seeks to sharply curb the asylum claims of children from Central America by making those children wait in often very dangerous situations. The president stated that his proposal includes “critical measures to protect migrant children from exploitation and abuse.”

If the president had any interest in protecting migrant children from exploitation and abuse, he would close the camps on our southern border where claims of rape and sexual assault on minor children by paid staff have been made. If the president cared about what happens to these children, he would see that Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have all been rocked by civil war, growing gang warfare, poverty and desperation. He would recognize how the U.S. has been complicit in and contributed to the current situations in those countries.

To tell the children to remain in an untenable situation while the U.S. attempts to sort out an asylum claim doesn’t even make sense.

We are not in a position to sort out the asylum claims we have. Immigration courts are backlogged and now completely shuttered due to the more than month-old shutdown. People are waiting for years to have their cases move forward. Asking children to wait, many times without a parent, for their asylum to claim to maybe/someday be heard in the U.S., waiting to possibly/probably never hear back on that case — what the proposal sounds like to me is leaving these children where they are so that we don’t have to make room for them, so that we don’t have to sort out the total mess of our immigration system. It sounds like building our wall and being safe inside it while young girls are raped and young men killed or forced into violence in a place where there isn’t enough food. What the proposal sounds like is us throwing up our collective hands and saying that we just don’t want to do this anymore because its hard and we can’t seem to figure it out; and maybe we won’t be able to see through the wall at all, so maybe the problem will just go away if we don’t think about it, if we just can’t see it anymore.

We can’t stem the tide of humanity coming to us for succor with a wall. We can’t make the children go away simply by unseeing them. The wall does nothing more than attempt to place a barrier between us and them, but they are still there, that’s the rub; we can’t get out of our moral imperative to help.

The proposal from the president also changes protections offered under DACA and TPS, changing who is eligible into a narrower field, creating or raising fees. And, of course, it still contains the $5.7 billion for a wall that blinkers us and only allows us to see our own prosperous corner of the world.

The government must reopen, hundreds of thousands of families are held hostage right now, forced to work without pay or furloughed and not able to collect unemployment benefits. I wonder if it is possible to agree to the president’s proposal and immediately move to block or stay all of it. I wonder what would happen if enough of us finally stood up and raised our voices, if we demanded to be heard. I, too, feel the same incredible sense of inertia as America seems to lurch closer to disaster, and I don’t know what to do, either.

But I do know a woman who was once one of the children this wall and these policies would leave out. I know what coming to America has meant for her life. I know that she believes in the dream of America even on the days when I find it incredibly hard. And I know that her story is not unique, that there are tens of thousands of children who believe in us, too, who dream of safety and opportunity. Turning our backs on them as we build the wall is not the answer.

— By Alicia Hager, Tribune community columnist

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