Human trafficking has skyrocketed around the world over the past year. In Central America, violence perpetrated by organized gangs continues to spike. The homicide rates in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are still among the highest in the world.
For vulnerable children and families in these and other unstable regions of the world, the pandemic has made the search for survival and safety even more challenging.
These are just some of the reasons why children and families become refugees. In the past two weeks, children and families who waited months at the border in makeshift refugee camps have been legally allowed to enter the U.S. to apply for asylum. At the same time, more children and families continue to seek safety in the U.S., resulting in a large influx at the border.
Unstable governments, unsafe communities and a broken U.S. immigration system are creating another humanitarian crisis for children, similar to surges in 2014, 2016 and 2019. As Americans, we can and must respond with compassion and practical solutions.
This isn’t a political issue; it’s a moral one. We must take care of these children arriving at our border and safely reunite them with their families.
All children – no matter where they are from or what they have been through – deserve to be treated with dignity and care. The children arriving alone in large numbers at the U.S.-Mexico border have endured poverty, violence and trauma in their home communities or along the dangerous trek to our border in ways that most Americans cannot comprehend.
Unfortunately, shelters run by nonprofit organizations and funded by the U.S. government are at capacity. As a result, last weekend more than 4,000 children were detained in short-term Customs and Border Protection (CBP) holding facilities, most of which were built to detain adult men. They are no place a vulnerable child should ever be.
The law is clear – children must not remain in a CBP holding center for more than 72 hours. Yet, as of Sunday, more than 3,000 kids were in these centers beyond the legal limit because there was nowhere else for them to go.
At Bethany Christian Services, we have provided protection, care and support for refugee children since 1975. We connect unaccompanied children with temporary families who can keep them safe, love them and help them be kids again while their families are found. All of this can be done with proper processing and pandemic-era precautions in place. That’s why having safe, stable foster homes as an option for unaccompanied children is so important.
In recent months, we’ve especially seen growing numbers of teenagers and sibling groups at the border – far more children than we have foster families for. There is an urgent need for more foster families, especially those willing to take multiple children or teenage children. If more of us offered our homes, protection and love as foster parents, fewer kids would be in cages and more siblings would stay together.
One foster family who has cared for several teenage unaccompanied children with support from Bethany, see the effect of their love firsthand. “We are one of their first experiences of America,” they told our staff. “These kids are having some of their formative memories of their childhoods with us. Our goal is to make them feel so valued and loved, because at the end of the day, they’re still just kids. We walk by their bedrooms and see that they’re still sleeping with stuffed animals and missing their families.”
Another foster mother for teens told us, “It’s hard to hear what happens in the shelters and how little information is given to the kids. They tell me how scared they were and how grateful they are to be in a family. It’s a blessing to be able to show them a different side of Americans.”
America can have both border security and a fair immigration system. These are not mutually exclusive. Even so, our country should be a place of refuge, and Christians must be the champions of a compassionate approach.
Our faith inspires us to spread God’s love and to be the hands and feet of Jesus in providing that refuge. James, the brother of Jesus, tells us that how we care for “widows and orphans” in distress is a test of our faith (1:26–27). As Christians, this teaching compels us to be part of a solution that best mirror Christ’s love for us. Welcoming the stranger, loving our neighbor and demonstrating God’s love and compassion for children are prominent themes throughout the Bible. In Leviticus 19:34, Moses reminded the people of Israel, “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Because of the media attention in recent years around kids being detained in cages, many Americans are unaware that they can be part of the solution. Like the foster parents I mentioned earlier, Christians can make a difference by providing a temporary foster home for children escaping violence and seeking safety in the U.S.
As Bethany’s president and CEO, I have seen the unmatched power of a foster family firsthand. While foster families provide temporary care and security, Bethany helps find family members and reunites children with trusted guardians in the U.S.
There is no greater commandment in the Bible than to love God and to love your neighbor. This is why we need followers of Jesus to join together – now more than ever, despite any differences we might have – and care for children who need our help.
Chris Palusky is the President and CEO of Bethany Christian Services.