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OpinionColumnistsRachel Figueroa-Levin

We can't turn our backs on refugee children

Children participate in a U.S. citizenship ceremony at

Children participate in a U.S. citizenship ceremony at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services district office in Manhattan. (Jan. 29, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

The portrayal of immigrants here illegally usually goes like this: They are lawbreakers who threaten our national security -- or job security -- and if allowed to stay would only destroy our nice American way of life.

But that narrative has been upended by the surge in the number of unaccompanied immigrant children who have crossed the border into the United States in the last several months. The surge -- some 50,000 of them -- is stressing our border patrol to its limits.

These children have made the dangerous crossing without their parents because they are desperately seeking to escape the daily violence and stifling poverty in their home countries -- primarily Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

The influx is expected to grow: U.S. Customs and Border Protection says the number will swell to 90,000 by the fall. We are ill-prepared for that. Immigration detention centers are overcrowded and understaffed, and these children are living in poor conditions.

Many of the kids are victims of crimes both in the countries they left and at the hands of coyotes -- the jackals who require a small fortune to help those wanting to cross into the American side of the Rio Grande. It is easy for some to write them off as "illegal" and ignore them, but how can we turn our backs on children? It's un-American.

It might be easy to say it's a problem only for border states like Arizona, Texas and California -- but that would be unfair. Some "border kids" have made it to three immigration shelters in our area. They are not housed in large cages like those we've seen in the Southwest, but what are we doing to prevent that in border states?

If you're the type to label people as illegal, do you hold the same harsh standard for kids? If you do, do you eat grapes? What about chicken? Eggs? Any food not hand-harvested by some bearded hipster-turned-farmer and sold at expensive greenmarkets? Any food, in other words, immigrants helped produce?

If you don't think these kids should stay here, then start that weird mung bean powder juice cleanse because your food is making you a hypocrite.

It's time we live up to the standard of the green lady in the harbor and let these huddled masses breathe free.


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