Every day, children arrive at the border with their families in pursuit of dreams and a better life. Too many of them have died in that pursuit and US border policy is to blame.
On Wednesday, news broke that in September a ten-year-old girl had died in the custody of the federal agency that manages the care of unaccompanied migrant children. She was the first of a pattern of child migrant deaths at the US border or shortly after being released from the custody of border guards.
The news of the ten-year-old’s death came days after the nation learned of Carlos Hernandez Vasquez, a 16-year-old boy from Guatemala who died in a US Border Patrol facility in Weslaco, Texas Sunday. Another four children died in the custody of US border guards or soon after at the hospital: seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin, 8-year-old Felipe Alonzo Gomez, 16-year-old Juan de León Gutiérrez, and two-year-old Wilmer Ramírez Vásquez. Another child, a ten-month-old baby whose name is unknown, died while crossing the border when the raft the baby was carried in capsized.
Each one of these deaths is a terrible tragedy. We join every parent, every child, every person everywhere in mourning this tragic loss of life. Every child, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, or where they live, deserves to pursue their dreams.
This pattern of death is a national tragedy. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus noted on Tuesdaythat prior to the Trump Administration, border guards had not had a child die in their custody for over a decade. Officials from the Office of Refugee Resettlement stated that the agency had not had a child die in its custody since 2010. These deaths are a result of a rapid acceleration of a decades-old trend of myopic and harmful border enforcement that disregards the wellbeing of newcomers and border residents alike.
Even if we never met them, border residents know Jakelin, Felipe, Juan, Wilmer, and Carlos. We help them every day at the shelters and bus stations. We play soccer and color pictures with Jakelin. We help Carlos read his family’s bus ticket itinerary and use the vending machines. We hear Felipe’s story in the stories of the refugees we volunteer alongside in shelter kitchens as we prepare warm meals together.
With warm meals and warm welcomes, border communities are demonstrating what it looks like to respond to humanitarian need with care, concern, and love. If our border policies followed the example set by border communities, responding to refugees in a truly humanitarian way, we would not have to mourn the loss of precious life.
If we truly believe that all people have the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then that is true regardless of where you were born, the color of your skin, or how you got here. Every day, people cross borders in pursuit of these rights. Most parents would do anything to give their children a safer, freer, and more prosperous future. In pursuit of that future, Jakelin, Felipe, Juan, Wilmer, Carlos and their parents should have been able to come on a plane and with a visa.
The fundamental human experience of moving in pursuit of rights should be celebrated and protected. Yet our border policies criminalize it and put lives at risk. Our president callously doubles down on the harmful enforcement policies that have brought about these deaths. Just last week the administration unveiled a new plan that recycles old failed enforcement policies like walls and immigration detention.
Border communities know there is a better way. We have long demanded border policies that protect and uphold our rights. This month, the Southern Border Communities Coalition unveiled a New Border Vision, a framework for positive and compassionate action that moves us from the harmful enforcement of the last few decades to responsive and responsible border governance for the 21st century. Only by advancing a new border vision can we win policies that expand public safety, protect human rights, and welcome residents and newcomers in a manner consistent with our national values and global best practices.
How we treat people at the border defines who we are as a country. We can all play a role in welcoming newcomers and defending the rights of newcomer and resident alike. If you are in the Rio Grande Valley, visit rgvrapidresponse.com to learn how to volunteer. If you are outside the border region or would rather donate to the humanitarian response, visit toimmigrantswithlove.com.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows Catarina Perez (center), grandmother of Felipe Gomez Alonzo, an eight-year-old boy detained alongside his father for entering the U.S. without documentation. Gomez Alonzo fell ill and died in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Perez reacts while praying at an altar in memory of Gomez Alonzo at the family’s home in the village of Yalambojoch, Guatemala December 27, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/Luis Echeverria)