Children and teens have been streaming north, largely on their own. They ride on trains, float on inner tubes, walk for miles and then turn themselves in to U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. More than 52,000 since last fall, twice as many as the previous year. At this rate, they will number 90,000 by year’s end.
Last week, protesters along the border in California turned back three buses full of young people trying to reach the United States.
Last month, a small town in Virginia objected to the federal government’s plan to house 500 of the kids on the campus of a closed college while they await hearings and likely deportation. The deal would have allowed the college enough cash flow to mow the grass, keep a security staff and pay its water and sewer bill, a big share of the town budget in Lawrenceville, Virginia, NPR reported. Still, the town didn’t like it, and the plan was stopped.
I found myself thinking, “What if West Virginia took those kids instead?”
There’s the humanitarian reason, of course.
Many of these young refugees are fleeing violence — threat of conscription in gangs, becoming victims of sex traders. They may be looking for family already in the United States, or just taking their chances on the unknown, because it has to be better than conditions in countries they left, such as Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico.
By the thousands, they are doing the most natural, wholesome thing a kid can do in dire circumstances — go find decent, trustworthy adults. Lo, they end up in the United States, the nation of immigrants.
But a selfish reason lurks in my mind, too. In a state where some regions some years see more deaths than births, where outmigration has closed schools and whittled public and private resources for several generations now, doesn’t the prospect of an influx of energetic young people appeal?
Of course, many of the young people will end up being sent back. But some of them may meet conditions to stay. What if, in the meantime, they found warm beds and good food and helpful teachers and mentors in the beautiful hills of West Virginia? What lifelong fondness might be formed? What sense of home? What communities might be built and enriched?
President Obama’s many critics say he should do more to keep kids from setting out for the border in the first place. The Obama administration is already doing that. They have begun holding deportation hearings in reverse order — last ones into the country, first ones out. The process can take years (thanks to too few resources, but that is another story). By holding prompt hearings and deporting kids who left their home countries just a month ago, they hope word gets back to people that it is not all milk and honey up here, and you can’t stay.
But one still has to hold those hearings, because Americans passed and President George W. Bush signed a law requiring a hearing before deporting children. Children are especially vulnerable and could be fleeing violence or some other abuse. Americans, it seems, don’t wish to be people who condemn children, even foreign strangers’ children, to such a fate.
So, what if Gov. Tomblin called U.S. Customs and Border Control and said, “We’ve got plenty of creeks to play in, plenty of empty or underused buildings, plenty of skilled, compassionate but underemployed people. Come on. We’ll bill you.”
I don’t pretend to know all the requirements and obstacles to housing 500, or even 100, refugee children safely, kindly and legally. But I bet between the state and feds, people could figure it out.
It would certainly be the proper and compassionate response from people as fortunate as we are. And in five or 10 years, when those children who are allowed to stay are young adults, it would be interesting to see how many stay. The history of this country teaches us to expect first-generation immigrants to be entrepreneurial and hardworking — exactly the kind of citizens every town professes to want.
Dawn Miller, the Gazette’s editorial page editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.