The number of Central American migrants to the U.S. might be down this year, but their problems at home have grown worse, said Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso before the United States Congress on Wednesday. “It is clear that now that the situation is worse and that over the last year violence has increased in communities in the countries of the Northern Triangle — Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras,” Bishop Seitz stated in his Oct. 21 written testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee. He advises the U.S. bishops' conference migration committee, and is on the board of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. The U.S. can and must do more to address this refugee crisis, the bishop insisted. “If we cannot respond justly and humanely to this challenge in our own backyard, then we relinquish our moral leadership and influence globally, where much greater crises are being experienced,” he said. The surge of migrants coming to the U.S. from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras peaked in fiscal year 2014, when more than 67,000 children were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border according to government data. Many of the migrants are women with children, or unaccompanied children The numbers were significantly lower in the first half of 2015, although a rise in unaccompanied child migrants in August surpassed the month’s 2014 totals, according to numbers cited by Bishop Seitz. Many migrants have relied on smugglers to bring them north, suffering horrific abuses along the way. Mothers are also vulnerable, many having suffered physical or emotional trauma and abuse. The root causes of the migration are many, including economic hardship, gang violence, domestic abuse, and death threats from gangs in the home countries. U.S. bishops have insisted that those fleeing violence be treated as refugees and given asylum. “The violence is the difference,” Bishop Seitz said, explaining why the migrants come from those three particular countries, which have some of the highest murder rates in the world. El Salvador benefitted from a gang truce a few years ago, but as that fell apart the murder rate there skyrocketed and is on pace to surpass Honduras, which has the worst in the world. More than 60 percent of the migrants “had legitimate asylum claims” according to a United Nations report, Bishop Seitz said in his testimony. And although the numbers of migrants to the U.S. are down this fiscal year, that does not mean the overall number of migrants is down, he added. The Obama administration claims its efforts to persuade people against migrating have been successful, but the reality is that a “large part” of the drop is due to Mexico, he explained. More migrants are now going to neighboring Central American countries, or tried to enter Mexico but were stopped and turned back by authorities. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the bishop said, Mexico has sent back 70 percent more migrants this fiscal year than the previous year, and six times the number of child migrants. “We have transferred the responsibility of this crisis to others, and in so doing, perhaps we’ve abdicated our own,” the bishop stated. The U.S. must heed the plea of Pope Francis to see the humanity in migrants, he noted. In his Sept. 24 address to a joint meeting of Congress, the Pope said that “on this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities.” “We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal,” he continued. He cautioned Americans not to “discard whatever proves troublesome” but to “remember the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12). The U.S. must also intervene in these Central American countries to address the root causes of migration, Bishop Seitz insisted. Its aid must focus more on protection and migration and less on enforcement. First, Congress should approve President Obama’s request for $1 billion in foreign aid to the region for fiscal year 2016, he said. Legislators should also work to improve the administration’s Central American minors program, which allows child residents of the three countries to apply to enter the U.S. as refugees or on humanitarian parole without having to make the journey north. Currently only 19 of 120 applicants have been approved, Bishop Seitz noted, much less than the U.N.’s figure of 60 percent of migrants having “legitimate asylum claims.” He said there should also be investment in the region’s groups and projects directly helping the migrants like the Youth Builders project of Catholic Relief Services-El Salvador and other organizations, which provides youth threatened by gangs and unemployment with job training and life skills to be leaders in the community. In fact, the bishop noted, some of the best programs are the individual youth programs at every Catholic parish in the region. “They have some incredible youth ministry going on,” he said. “I think there might be some way to connect with these organizations.” The U.S. should make changes to border policy including having a child welfare expert present at processing stations, allowing child migrants a better chance to fully express why they migrated and the abuses they suffered along the way should they be eligible for asylum. “One of Jesus’ first experiences as an infant was to flee for his life from King Herod with his family to Egypt. Indeed, Jesus Himself was a child migrant fleeing violence,” Bishop Seitz stated in his written testimony. “The Holy Family is the archetype of the refugee families we see today, both at our border and around the world.”
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