My daughter was an alien to her high-octane metropolitan high school when she was 14. My husband and I agonized for weeks about whether she could handle the sharp-edged East Coast kids with her Midwest DNA or if we should pay the hefty tuition at the local Catholic girls’ school.
“This is a happy place,” one of the counselors solemnly advised us on new parents’ night at the public high school. We took it on faith and on our daughter’s first day of high school, I was sure I had shipped her off to a foreign land. She was in the end more resilient for the experience. I am still not sure it was the right decision.
The debate over young migrants pouring into the country puts in stark relief how pampered our lives are in the United States. We worry about our high schoolers and whether they will be one of the cool kids.
Compare this to the desperation that must drive a mother in Honduras to reluctantly hand over her 14-year-old to a smuggler, who in the best scenario plops the teen on the banks of the Rio Grande and points him or her toward the other side where the United States begins.
I hope these challenged families are not reading the U.S. newspapers.
Congress went on vacation this week in a midterm election frenzy without funding any emergency money for increasing numbers of the young migrants. Most of the D.C. media are headed to the beach or the cabin. The immigration story will go silent with the dog days of summer in D.C. We are left to resolve the news stories that contradicted each other about whether this migration will bankrupt individual cities or whether this phenomenon is something short of a crisis.
The New York Times reported on July 26 that 85 percent of the recently arrested 57,000 unaccompanied migrant children are now with a close relative, and half of them are with a parent already living in the United States. This appears to be a problem that is finding its own solution.
County Judge Veronica Escobar of El Paso, Texas, has the most credible voice on what is really happening with these desperate families. She describes how her community and others in Texas cities seamlessly enhanced a program that has helped process and reunite refugees with family members already in the United States or sponsors.
“There can be no doubt that giving safe haven to a child facing violence in a country that cannot protect its most vulnerable citizens is what a civilized country, with the resources we possess, should do,” she recently wrote.
El Paso’s efforts are primarily funded by private donations and volunteers. They still need some help, Escobar points out, to cover the costly extended detention of the undocumented children by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. For each child, the daily bill is $259, she said.
From my research, we appear to have about 10,000 children primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras still floating through our system at $259 a day. While this is heartbreaking, it’s far fewer than the tens of thousands of children allegedly streaming across our borders. Of these 10,000, about a third now has federally funded shelter.
Advocates and the federal government are looking for more space for the remaining 6,000. We have not seen the end of this migration. And while it’s not our responsibility to solve the drug-infested corruption in these Central American countries, I agree with Escobar that we need to do something. The first thing we need to do is to stop inflating the scope of the issue to crisis status and right-size the problem so we can figure out solutions within our means.
As of this writing, it appears that President Barack Obama may find the funds but the Congressional challenges will continue until the November election.
I can’t get the image of that Central American mother seeing her child melt into the horizon just as mine floated through the menacing-looking metal doors of high school. At stake for my child was some bumps along the way that made her stronger. The Central American mother’s child may face a lonely death lost in a desert on his or her migration journey. Or worse, he or she will be trapped in the brutal life as a gang member in hometowns run by merciless drug dealers.
As we get ready in the next few weeks of back-to-school shopping amid worry about whether our Madison children can make the transition to kindergarten, first grade, middle school, high school or even college, we all need to keep in our hearts and minds -- and prayers -- these families facing a much bigger transition either at home or on the banks of the Rio Grande.
Unless our politicians find some courage and some smarts, there’s not much more we can do.
Ellen Foley is a writer living in Madison, and former editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.