Sending My Son to Central America: A Mom's Reflections on Unaccompanied Children

Last month, I put my teenage son, unaccompanied, on a plane to Central America. We stood in line together as he checked in and obtained his boarding pass. As he waved good-bye and headed through security, I watched with a heavy heart.

He was only going alone as far as Miami. There, he met other high school volunteers who were part of the same program. Arriving in Costa Rica, they were welcomed by the program leaders. His host family ensures that he is well fed, healthy and incorporated into the community. The program staff in both Costa Rica and the US are on call 24/7 and prepared for any emergencies. His health insurance will evacuate him to the U.S. if needed.

Every day while he is away, I listen to stories of unaccompanied children coming in the other direction -- from Central America to the U.S. Almost 63,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended by the border patrol since last October; we don't know how many others crossed without their notice. Initially the news stories were about the surge of children crossing the border; now they focus on what happens to the children once they are in the U.S. Many of these children are dispersed around the U.S, often with friends and family, while the legal system processes their cases. Local communities have to decide whether to respond to the new arrivals with compassion or hatred and fear.

I try to imagine the courage and desperation that it must take for parents to send their children on this perilous journey. The travel itself is dangerous, by bus, train and on foot. And many do not find welcoming faces once they arrive.

Parents throughout history have sent their children, unaccompanied, through dangerous situations, with the hope that they would reach safety. Over 800,000 children were sent, without their parents, out of British cities to protect them from the bombing during World War II. Unknown numbers of Jewish parents sent their children unaccompanied out of Germany and Eastern Europe. Not all of these children were welcomed in their new locations, but we admire the parents who desperately sent their children to find safety.

Not all of the current wave of unaccompanied children are sent by parents. Some come alone to the U.S. to meet parents who are already here; others come to escape from the violence that killed their parents. The current crisis continues a long tradition of children travelling alone to the U.S.; Annie Moore, a 14-year-old girl traveling unaccompanied from Ireland, is honored as the first person to come through Ellis Island.

The plight of unaccompanied minors, in transition across borders, has given rise to many proposed solutions -- from tighter border controls to programs for repatriating those who have arrived. It's not my goal in this essay to weigh in on this debate. To be sure, our immigration policy needs to be substantially reformed. But policy changes in the United States will not by themselves solve the underlying problems.

Many people, parents and children, are facing extreme levels of violence in Central America and will take great risks with the hope of reaching safety. Others seek to come to the U.S. in pursuit of the same economic dream that brought my family here. But no parent sends a child across the world without a tightening of the chest, an ache in the heart, and prayers that they will be safe. A compassionate policy will not halt this flow of children, but it would recognize the dreams that all parents have for their children's safety and survival.

As I look forward to my son's return home, I think about those other parents. Those who are hoping that their children have arrived and are now safe on this side of the border. I hope that we are able to find ways to treat these children with compassion and welcome them.

And I continue to contemplate, what would it take for me to put my son on a train or a bus, unaccompanied, to cross a dangerous border? I hope that I will never have to find out.