Reflections from the Bishops’ Task Force to Mexico & Central America: Investigating the Plight of Unaccompanied Migrant Children
“Migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity. They are children, women and men who leave or are forced to leave their homes for various reasons, who share a legitimate desire for knowing and having, but above all for being more.”
In November, I took part in a trip to southern Mexico and Central America to examine the issue of the significant increase in unaccompanied migrant children coming to the U.S. From October 2011 through September 2012, more than 24,000 children were apprehended by DHS Customs and Border Protection, and those numbers are expected to grow this year. We spent long days going from place to place to meet with children, parents and grandparents, government officials (U.S. and local), and NGOs.
I saw unimaginable heartbreak, the conditions that would cause someone to leave his or her home to travel for days or even weeks by bus, on top of trains, and on foot to seek refuge in the United States. I heard firsthand accounts of loss, abuse, and violence – people saying good-bye to loved ones about to make the long journey, not knowing what awaits them on the way, young women who decided to start taking oral contraceptives before they depart because rape along the way was an almost certainty.
The needs are so great, and the obstacles to exercise the right not to migrate – economic insecurity, gang violence, gut-wrenching poverty – are so great that they are overwhelming when we try to think what we can do to address these issues and ensure these children what they deserve – lives that are fully lived, fully human, and fully in communion. What are we to do?
But I also saw the triumph of the human spirit and the inspiring work of the Church and people from all faiths and backgrounds in action, reaching out to accompany, in the fullest sense of the word, the young migrants on their journey. It strikes me as no coincidence that we concluded our trip as Advent begins. Advent is a time to prepare ourselves for one of the central mysteries of our faith: that God sent his son to the world, in a form not unlike these children. He was born in poverty, a refugee, and he ministered to the most vulnerable and despised among him.
So, what are we to do? The same thing.
As Blessed Mother Teresa says, we are called not to be successful, but to be faithful. We are to continue the good work that Jesus began through our own small acts with great love. What I can do, and what CLINIC’s network does, is ensure that those children who make it the United States have access to quality legal services, so that they may fully exercise their rights in recognition of their God-given dignity, and continue to work for justice for the most vulnerable among us.
*Jeanne M. Atkinson is the Executive Director of CLINIC. From November 16-23, she participated in a delegation led by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to southern Mexico and Central America  to explore the issue of unaccompanied migrant children.