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“I Want You to Live In My House”: How U.S. Kids Are Welcoming the Central American Child Refugees

Ashamed of the public rejection of children seeking refuge in the United States? Here’s what you can do about it.
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"You matter."
"We are working hard to make sure you are able to stay in this country."
"Come and live in California!"

It's not exactly the incendiary rhetoric we've grown accustomed to in the last few weeks, as American leaders clash over the question of what to do with tens of thousands of child refugees fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

The messages above—along with more than 1,800 others—have flooded the website TheyAreChildren.com since it was launched last week by the California Endowment and partner organizations. The aim is to bypass severe political condemnation from those who are calling for the immediate, no-questions-asked deportation of the children (see Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks' proposal of buying them all one-way tickets for a $27 million bargain).

Instead, letter-writers are sending kids messages of encouragement, compassion, and solidarity. Hundreds of notes submitted by ordinary people—many of them children and members of faith communities—will be translated and delivered through service providers to children in detention facilities "to make sure these children know that thousands of people are praying for them and extending support and compassion," said Anne Stuhldreher, the project's coordinator.

Plenty of Americans expressed shame when their compatriots blockaded buses full of children in Murrieta, Calif., earlier this month. In an attempt to ward off the kids' arrival, protesters surrounded vehicles full of women and children, ranting, "Go home!" and "We don't want you!" reported Raul A. Reyes in the Huffington Post.

"As far as we know, the children are aware of the broader public conversation, seeing both welcoming and hostile signs while riding on buses," Stuhldreher said. "The need for compassion and support became even clearer after that small, extreme minority expressed hostility toward these kids in need."

Across the country, people are already challenging the hostility—most recently, in faith communities. In what the New York Times this week called "the backlash to the backlash," religious groups—including evangelicals, Catholics, Unitarian Universalists, and Jewish communities—have pushed back against what many consider heartless reactions to a humanitarian crisis.

In Chicago, for example, Cardinal Francis E. George has offered shelter. And last week, surrounded by representatives of faith communities, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick announced his state's willingness to accept the children and linked it to Christian values. He likened the situation to the 1939 rejection of Jewish children fleeing Nazi Germany—more than a quarter of whom died in concentration camps when they were sent back to Europe.

"We have rescued Irish children from famine, Russian and Ukrainian children from religious persecution, Cambodian children from genocide, Haitian children from earthquakes, Sudanese children from civil war, and children from New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina," Gov. Patrick said. "The point is that this good nation is great when we open our doors and our hearts to needy children—and diminished when we don't."

Meanwhile, in California, Stuhldreher said the letter-writing campaign has also found strong resonance with families. "I think when parents hear about this they think about their own kids," she said.

At this week's National Council of La Raza convention held in Los Angeles, participants were invited to sit down and write letters in person. Stuhldreher said many parents asked their children, "Remember the children from Central America I was telling you about?" They would discuss the issue before the children started writing, she said.

"Generous acts from average citizens don't routinely generate headlines," White House press secretary Josh Earnest told the Times yesterday. "But they accurately reflect the values of the vast majority of Americans."

Kids are Americans, too. And in this case, we might look to them for some guidance.

To submit a letter, visit TheyAreChildren. Check out some of our favorite messages below.

 

"Do not be afraid! Before your arrival there were thousands who went through this same way! And we lived! Idaho wants you! God Bless, Vero L. Garza"

"Be strong! Oklahoma City sends you lots of hugs! Welcome! Love Marisa Velasco"


Christa Hillstrom Mug NewChrista Hillstrom wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Christa is web managing editor of YES!

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