Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Protect the Refugees – It’s the Law

By Sister Mary Ann Walsh

There were the Peter Pan children from Cuba. Between December 1960 and October 1962, more than 14,000 Cuban youth fled Cuba for the United States. They traveled alone, sent by their parents to avoid having them become pawns in the Marxist-Leninist revolution that turned Cuba into a one-party socialist state. A few went on to lives of fame and one, Felipe J. Estévez, became bishop of St. Augustine, Florida.

There were the boat people from Vietnam, who escaped their post-Vietnam War nation via rickety watercraft. Many died in the journey and some sank their own boats when reluctant would-be host countries tried to tow them back to the open seas. As I watched pictures of them reaching places like Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and other Asian southeastern coastal nations, I thought if they could survive that journey, they have a lot to offer any country. In response to an international humanitarian crisis, the U.S. accepted about 823,000 of these estimated 1.5 million refugees. On August 6, Viet Luong, who was resettled in the United States at age 10, will be promoted from colonel to brigadier general. He becomes the U.S. Army’s first general who was a refugee from Vietnam.

Now there are the child refugees from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, sent by families to a new world to escape the daily gang violence and threat of death at the hands of drug dealers. What they will become and contribute to the United States remains to be seen.

And despite anti-immigration protesters who claim to demonstrate in the streets for the sake of order, this latest influx of people to our shores has the law on their side. Both U.S. law and international law protect them. Under both, a refugee is someone from outside his or her own country with a well-founded fear of persecution in that country based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

The 1951 Geneva Convention, the main international instrument of refugee law, defines who a refugee is and what legal protections and other assistance they should receive. In 1980, Congress created the United States Refugee Act to provide permanent and orderly procedures for admitting refugees and to address lasting solutions such as resettlement of the refugees within the United States for humanitarian reasons. Among such refugees certainly could be poor people targeted or forcibly recruited to be drug mules or girlfriends of gang members.

Under U.S. law, protection of unaccompanied alien children, the legal term for unaccompanied migrant children, was codified in the 2002 Homeland Security Act. The Homeland Security Act makes the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) responsible for the care and placement of unaccompanied alien children. The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 established standards for care and placement of such children, including the call for transfer of unaccompanied children within 72 hours from Customs and Border Protection to HHS care. Then while in HHS care, these children are placed in immigration proceedings and assessments are made about whether they can reunify with family while they await their immigration proceeding.

All of which is to say these refugee children have international and U.S. rights, and protesters may want to get out of the way or join the other citizens providing welcome to people in need. It will feel great to be on the right side of history.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh is Director of Media Relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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