The Rising Tide of Children at Our Borders

Central American migrants ride a freight train during their journey toward the U.S.-Mexico border in Ixtepec, Mexico, Saturda
Central American migrants ride a freight train during their journey toward the U.S.-Mexico border in Ixtepec, Mexico, Saturday, July 12, 2014. The number of unaccompanied minors detained on the U.S. border has more than tripled since 2011. Children are also widely believed to be crossing with their parents in rising numbers. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

My mother came to this country as a child refugee, without her parents, in an effort to flee the Holocaust. Thankfully, she was taken in and raised for three years in an orphanage on the Lower East Side of New York City. Over the past few weeks I have been thinking of her and struggling with the current humanitarian crisis of unaccompanied minor children crossing U.S. borders.

David Gergen recently compared the plight of unaccompanied migrant children to that of the passengers on the SS St. Louis in 1939. Gergen reminds us of a painful moment in our nation's history, when the U.S. turned away hundreds of passengers -- Jews, seeking asylum. Accompanying Gergen's essay is a black-and-white photograph of people on board the ship after they left U.S. shores and landed in Belgium. While many of the passengers eventually found refuge, about one-third of them were killed on their return. The SS St. Louis was known as the voyage of the damned.

As I scanned the photo, I gasped when the face of my grandfather smiled back at me. He had been on the SS St. Louis and used to recount the story of his journey to me and my brother. He was one of the lucky ones who survived, but to protect his children from danger he had to entrust them (my mother and uncle) to the care of a friend who delivered them to New York by ship.

Like my mother and uncle, the unaccompanied children who arrive at our borders are seeking protection from circumstances they had no role in creating. Though she was traumatized, my mother's migration was safe and supervised.

In contrast, the children coming from Central America face a treacherous and unsupervised journey. They risk death, abuse, injury, kidnapping and human trafficking. And yet they keep coming. So desperate are they to be safe and have opportunities apart from violence, poverty and crime. These are children who simply want to be safe. To go to school, get a job and build a life. A life they simply cannot envision in their countries of origin.

The United States is faced with a very difficult situation as it rightly does not want to incentivize other children to endanger their lives. However, among the children who are currently in the care of the U.S. government, there are undoubtedly children who meet U.S. criteria making them eligible for protection.

Whether here in the U.S. or at the crossroads of Lebanon and Syria, every child coming across a border has a story to tell that should be heard and considered before a decision is made about their future. My grandfather did not have that privilege; if he had it might have spared him unspeakable suffering.

The governments of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and the United States must work together on immediate and long-term solutions for these children. They are, after all, children.