The Smallest Voices First

"Migracion en Tenosique" / Flickr User Repositorio Peninsula (Photo by Marilyn Alvarado Leyva), Flickr Creative Commons

“Migracion en Tenosique” / Flickr User Repositorio Peninsula (Photo by Marilyn Alvarado Leyva), Flickr Creative Commons

I have to admit, when I first hear ‘unaccompanied minor,’ my mind goes straight to ‘running away from home.’ This is certainly an indicator of my privileged childhood in suburban Michigan and Wisconsin, when the only ‘unaccompanied minors’ were unaccompanied by rebellious choice, the stuff of angsty teen movies, running away from home to make a point to domineering and/or baffled parents. One morning, an open window, an empty bed, no note. Everyone wonders, WHY?!

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Unaccompanied minors are in the news a lot these days, but they’re not my rebellious middle-school classmates. The children and adolescents, found in books such as Enrique’s Journey or recent New York Times and PBS articles, maybe Javier, Isabel, Edwin or Susanna, and can be met by the hundreds in detention centers on the southern US border or along a perilous thousands-mile Mexican transmigration. Together, we can callously lump them into a ‘growing trend of unaccompanied child migrants’ from Central America, especially, who come north to the United States following hope, fleeing violence, and longing for opportunity. But headlines and numbers aside, how much do we really know? How much do I know?

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The more I spend time among migrant communities, the lessI realize I know. As a retreat leader in Milwaukee, a visitor in El Paso, a chaplain in Minnesota or a social work student in Mexico City, I’ve learned that I’ll never totally understand the depth and the diversity of the stories that compel migrants north. I’ll never know all there is to know  about Mexican, Salvadoran, or Honduran culture, and I’ll never totally get the Spanish language that I claim to speak. I’ve also learned that these are not, however, a place to stop, but a place to start: The less I can admit what I don’t know, the more I can grow in the desire to learn more – to learn by meeting, accompanying, listening, and advocating. Care plus curiosity (despite initial ignorance) can still equal solidarity.

The United States government is speaking up, but with more pronouncement than policy. Immigration politics can often address arising problems like a parent who addresses the child who knows he/she won’t get a word in edgewise. Joe Biden can go to Guatemala and tell parents not to send their children north, but Vice President, with all due respect, is it that simple? We know that children are historically the most vulnerable members of society, so when they’re making such journeys in such numbers, shouldn’t we ask ‘Why?’ before – or while – we make up our political minds? Not just in Washington but in Michigan and Wisconsin?

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Most Spanish-language learners say that they understand Spanish better than they speak it; I’m in the unfortunate and opposite boat, I can still say more than I can understand. I am afraid that immigration politics is prone to the same unfortunate thing. But as a concerned citizen, the voice I do have cannot be silent; advocacy begins by speaking up, by asking “Why?” —

If child migrants come north for economic opportunity, why isn’t there that same kind of economic opportunity south?

If most of these minors are irregular migrants, forging north through a gang-controlled, train-riding, and smuggler-taking gauntlet of danger, why are there not safer or more legal avenues available?

If child migrants flee north for safety, why is their home country so violent?

…Is the United States an innocent recipient country, contently able to play political board games with our borders, or are our past economic and political interventions implicated in these Whys?

These are provocative and polarizing questions, no doubt. But their responses offer true points of contact for deeper and more sensitive politics around international immigration, particularly around the immigration of minors.

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The Busker, Child Portrait, Mexico City / Flickr User Geraint Rowland, Flickr Creative Commons

The Busker, Child Portrait, Mexico City / Flickr User Geraint Rowland, Flickr Creative Commons

Yes, there is a ‘disturbing trend,’ a ‘humanitarian crisis’ at hand, but what discussions – in Congress or in the classroom, at the detention center or at the dining room table – can emerge when we read a little bit more, ask a little bit more, listen a little bit more, when we stretch our imagination towards empathy, when we look south and not just north, to story and not just stats, to names and not just photographed faces? Numbers make for good headlines and reports, but can stories make for change?

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There is a difference between ‘addressing’ and ‘discussing.’ Addressing, we know it all. Discussing, we just may learn that we have more responsibility than we thought. As North Americans, politicians and citizens alike, can we learn to listen first and speak second, so that the smallest voices are heard? So that their voices awake not just pity, but responsibility?

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Cover Image: “Familia” by Flickr user Daniel Lobo, Flickr Creative Commons; image available here.

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