Never has the promise of the Statue of Liberty seemed more hollow than this summer, as mobs scream invective at frightened children fleeing their home countries to what they hoped would be safe haven in the United States. The contrast between the poem at the Statue of Liberty and the continuing Republican blockage of immigration reform, coupled with the angry hostility toward the waves of Central American child refugees could not be more stark.
Emma Lazarus was the descendant of Sephardic Jews who left Portugal during the colonial era. A well-respected writer born in 1849, she advocated for Ashkenazic Jews fleeing Russian pogroms in the 19th century. Her best-known sonnet, engraved on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty since 1903, ends with these lines:
“”Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Mauricio, a 17-year-old from Honduras is one of those poor:
If they really do want to know how hard life is down there, they should go see it. There are kids who don’t make it past five [years old] because they die of hunger. Their parents can’t work because there are no jobs. Just give us a chance. Let us better ourselves so we can be something better than what we are today. Children on the Run report
Mauricio told his story to investigators who put together the 120-page Children on the Run report for the U.N. High Commission on Refugees. Like the other children in the report, he fled his home because conditions were intolerable.
The children, and adults, fleeing Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are seeking asylum not only in the United States, but also in Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama and Mexico — together, these five countries report a 432 percent increase in applications for asylum from 2009 to 2013.
Kevin, Honduras, age 17
My grandmother is the one who told me to leave. She said: “If you don’t join, the gang will shoot you. If you do, the rival gang or the cops will shoot you. But if you leave, no one will shoot you.” Children on the Run report
More than 400 children from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico told their individual stories to the investigators, who concluded that “the large majority of children interviewed from all four of these countries … may well be in need of international protection.” Dangers that the children fled include violence from “organized armed criminal actors, including drug cartels and gangs or by State actors,” family violence and abuse, “recruitment into and exploitation by the criminal industry of human smuggling.”
Mario, El Salvador, age 17
The more they saw me refusing to join, the more they started threatening me and telling me they would kill me if I didn’t. They beat me up five times for refusing to help them. The pain from the beatings was so bad, I couldn’t even stand up. They killed a friend of mine in March because he didn’t want to join, and his body wasn’t found until May. I went to the police twice to report the threats. They told me that they would do something; but when I saw that they weren’t doing anything to help, I knew I had to leave. I even brought a copy of the police report I made; but U.S. immigration took it from me and threw it away. They said that it wasn’t going to help me in this country. Children on the Run report
Gang violence affects girls as well. A 12-year-old girl from Honduras told investigators:
In the village where I lived there were a ton of gang members. All they did was bad things, kidnapping people. My mother and grandmother were afraid that something would happen to me. That’s why my mother sent me here. They rape girls and get them pregnant. The gang got five girls pregnant, and there were other girls who disappeared and their families never heard from them again. Children on the Run report
In addition to these reasons, all of which point to possible eligibility for asylum, children reported coming to the United States to escape poverty and starvation and to be reunited with family members in the United States. Some, like Maritza, cited multiple reasons:
Maritza, El Salvador, age 15
I am here because the gang threatened me. One of them “liked” me. Another gang member told my uncle that he should get me out of there because the guy who liked me was going to do me harm. In El Salvador they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags. My uncle told me it wasn’t safe for me to stay there. They told him that on April 3, and I left on April 7. They said if I was still there on April 8, they would grab me, and I didn’t know what would happen. I also wanted to come because I was excited about seeing my mother. But I was also sad about leaving my grandmother. My mother’s plan was always for the four of us – her, my two sisters and me – to be together. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to come. I decided for sure only when the gang threatened me. Children on the Run report
The promise of the Statue of Liberty is false — it’s not 1883 any longer, and today no U.S. law offers entrance to the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. U.S. law and international law, however, still require that refugees be protected. For both Mexican and Central American children fleeing violence, that’s a promise we need to keep.