Viewpoints: Think about the desperate parents of the border kids

This week, Gov. Jerry Brown was in Mexico and spoke out about the humanitarian crisis involving thousands of immigrant children at our southern border. He rightfully urged compassion for the children who have fled their homes, mostly from Central America, to seek a better life.

As a mother, I try to envision a situation in which I would pack a bag for my 7-year-old, kiss her on the head and send her marching toward a foreign country. It is unfathomable. I struggle to imagine what daily life looks like in a place where a mother could send her young child away, alone. It makes my heart bleed for these kids, and the families left behind to wonder about their children’s fates. The circumstances that lead a parent to make this decision, I do not comprehend, thankfully. But unfortunately many do.

The more we learn about these children, the more it becomes clear that many are not immigrants, they are refugees. Reports are surfacing of children escaping horrendous situations in their home countries. As was the case for many before them, they believe asylum in America is the only hope for a reasonably good life, free from daily violence and suffering.

Lori Baker, a professor of anthropology at Baylor University in Texas, has launched a project to recover and identify dead bodies of immigrants near the U.S.-Mexico border. She had the opportunity to visit facilities housing immigrant children and has spoken to many parents who have sent children on the perilous journey.

“In many cases, their child was threatened by gangs, and now fleeing armed conflict,” she told me. “There is just no safety at home. These kids are walking from Guatemala to Texas to find safety and nobody is really looking out for their well-being along the way.”

Baker said that many parents who have sent their children north point to the seemingly easy points of entry through a porous border and rumors of free services for all who make it across.

According to the Pew Research Center, children 12 and younger are the fastest-growing group of unaccompanied minors at the U.S. border. Last fiscal year, about 445 immigrants died attempting to cross the border. Exact numbers for children who have died crossing are not available, but Baker reports exhuming remains of an infant and a 2-year-old, among others.

This is clearly a very complicated problem and we sorely lack sound national leadership on the issues of immigration and border security. My former boss, President George W. Bush, who embodied the term “compassionate conservative,” understood the need to treat children with care when he signed a law that required special attention be paid to minors caught at the border. The 2008 law, initially aimed at protecting victims of human trafficking, gave new and needed protections to minors entering the country alone and gave them an opportunity for a hearing to determine the best way to care for them and ensure their safety.

With angry protesters yelling at buses full of vulnerable kids in need of shelter, the human factor seems to be missing for some. Whatever your politics, the fact is that parents are so desperate that they are sending their children off alone in the face of unimaginable risk and possible death. Let’s have some compassion.

And, when it comes to desperate children escaping violence, let us not entirely forget our call to care for “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”