Editorial: Immigrant children deserve our compassion, not jeers and taunts

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There is only one correct way to view the estimated 52,000 unaccompanied minors who have streamed through the United States-Mexico border over the past year and who are now crowding federal detention facilities: children fleeing desperate, dangerous places who need our help.

Instead, they have become political pawns to the anti-immigration forces who are intent on demonizing the children as a way to push their own agenda.

That’s what happened last week when hundreds of protesters showed up at a U.S. Border Patrol facility in Murrieta in Riverside County to block buses filled with detained women and children who were being transported from overcrowded facilities in Texas. The buses were forced to retreat, and instead traveled more than a 100 miles south to San Ysidro.

It was an unflattering picture of America on the eve of its celebration of independence from foreign tyranny. The protesters shouted at the people on the buses through bullhorns, waved U.S. flags and chanted “U.S.A” as if this were a sporting event, not the sad occasion of a bunch of scared women and children being transported between detention facilities.

Fox news called the Murrieta demonstration a “vivid and angry flashpoint for the immigration debate.”

Rep. Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, had a more apt description of the protests: An “angry, hateful mob, screaming at these kids as if they were inhuman or something. It was awful,” Vargas told the Desert Sun newspaper.

Vargas participated in a much different reception for detainees on Wednesday in Imperial County, where he welcomed them with love, a Bible and prayer. A former Catholic seminarian, Vargas talked to some of the detainees who said they had heard about what happened to the buses in Murrieta. Because of that, kids on the buses said they initially “were afraid they would be hit by sticks ” when they arrived.

Sticks? Has our political discourse fallen so far that children believe Americans would hurl things at them?

We can – and will – argue about immigration policy and President Barack Obama’s request for $2 billion to respond to the explosion of immigrants illegally crossing the border.

Republicans blame Democrats for setting up conditions that encourage foreigners without visas to brave the illegal border crossing by rewarding them when they do. Democrats blame Republicans for obstructing many attempts at reasonable immigration reform. Though both are right to a certain extent, it’s a great oversimplification of what’s gone wrong.

It’s a debate worth having – but it shouldn’t hijack response to the immediate crisis. Border detention facilities in Texas are overflowing with children, a large percentage of them from violence-plagued Central America. Some have parents working and living here legally; some will be returned to their native countries. Some may meet the criteria of political asylum, but all must be processed in accordance with our country’s laws.

Simply tossing them back over the fence without examination isn’t an option. These are not terrorists or drug mules or even people sneaking over the border to work.

They are children, for heaven’s sake, many of whom are trying to reunite with their parents. They deserve our compassion, not venomous taunts from flag-waving bullies.