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This Christian nation: the immigrant children


Maybe I'm naive, but I was shocked last month by the reaction to news that Monroe County might get a shelter for immigrant children.

In late June, when the media reported that the federal government was looking at locations in the Rochester and Buffalo areas, Congressman Chris Collins lashed out. It's "unacceptable," he said, that "the federal government is trying to force the hard-working taxpayers of New York to foot the bill to house undocumented immigrants."

The children we're talking about are from Central America, and they're fleeing terrible economic conditions or often terrifying violence.

Reports by the United Nations and other human rights agencies say that many of them are victims of gang violence and persecution, family abuse, forced labor, and human trafficking.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees office estimates that 58 percent of the children have experienced harm or face the threat of harm in their countries and could need international protection.

In Guatemala, says a report by Human Rights Watch, "Powerful criminal organizations engage in widespread acts of violence and extortion." And, says the report, "The exploitation of children in sexual tourism, pornography, and organized crime is a widespread problem."

A New York Times report earlier this month documented violence and torture of children in Honduras, largely due to rampant gang violence. And in El Salvador, the Times said, street gang violence has led to a murder rate of more than eight people a day.

Some of the children fleeing across the Mexico-US border have relatives living in the United States. Some do not, and are coming here – on their own volition or at the insistence of family members – seeking refuge and a better, more secure life.

Some of them die before they get to the border, victims of violence or the intense heat and lack of water and food along the way.

And when they get here, they are met with American hostility: protests, verbal abuse, and humiliation. US Immigrant rights groups say that some of the children have been abused – physically and verbally – by US Border Patrol employees.

Some of these children will have to go back to their home country. Others could be granted protected status and could be permitted to stay – legally. Although some public officials are pushing for quick deportation, all of these children have the right to due process to determine their status. But they need shelter while they wait.

New York City has sheltered more than 3000 of them, the New York Times reported last week, and officials there expect 7000 more. Immigrant-rights groups and city officials are working together to get help for them. Syracuse also wants to help; Mayor Stephanie Miner and the Syracuse Catholic Diocese have written President Obama saying they welcome a shelter there.

But in Greater Rochester? When federal officials were studying two Monroe County sites, there were immediate protests, including Chris Collins's little rant, and little sign of welcome. No Syracuse-type invitation, no statement of support, no pledge to find an acceptable shelter facility and provide food and clothing and medical care.

"That's disturbing to me," long-time immigrant-rights activist John Ghertner told me late last week. "And what bothers me even more than the lack of a community statement is that we've got two senators in New York State who are not up for election and would probably have to commit murder to lose an election" and so far, neither has said a word. Not that Ghertner and I can determine.

Early this week, a ray of hope broke through locally: The owners of the former Blossom Nursing Home on Monroe Avenue have contacted city officials about sheltering up to 172 of the children at that site. Mayor Lovely Warren and her senior staff are studying that inquiry, to assess the facility and the children's needs and to talk with area neighborhood groups, service providers, and faith groups.

In a press release on Tuesday, Warren said that if the children are to be housed in Rochester, "it is imperative we ensure that the environment is a safe one for them, where they can receive not only the legal support, but the spiritual and emotional support that they will need in order to make the transition back home or to another place of safety."

Obviously the children can't be placed just anywhere. Federal officials have been studying such things as vacant retail stores that could be adapted as temporary shelters. In Syracuse, federal officials are considering housing the children at a site owned by the Sisters of St. Francis. In Monroe County, federal officials determined that the buildings they first studied weren't suitable.

This county doesn't lack for empty and under-utilized buildings, though. Rather than protests and political rants from the anti-immigrant forces and a deafening silence from the rest of us, I hope we'll follow the example of Rochester's mayor. If the Blossom South property isn't suitable, we can find another.

In her statement on Tuesday, Warren said what other politicians and community leaders ought to be saying: "As a community we have a moral obligation to show compassion to these young people."

The plight of the immigrant children is "a humanitarian crisis," John Ghertner told me last week. "We have an obligation to support a population in need." After the devastating hurricane, Americans responded with aid – and shelter. "We took in thousands of people," Ghertner said. "There was no question at all about taking them in. We have an obligation as Americans to protect the lives of people."

Ghertner reminds us that Greater Rochester was an exceptionally welcoming community during and after the Vietnam War, providing homes and aid for numerous refugees. Nor can we ignore the role this country plays: through our demand for drugs and our history of supporting brutal Central American governments.

Now, Americans are slamming the door on children, many of whom have fled trauma and violence and face more if we turn them away.

We ought to be ashamed of ourselves.