American flags and “Return to Sender” posters festooned the recent anti-immigrant demonstrations in the small Southern California town of Murrieta. The mostly white protesters practically frothed at the mouth at the idea of bus loads of brown children and women being processed at a facility in their midst.
The numbers of unaccompanied children coming to the U.S. primarily from Central American countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have increased significantly, with 50,000 having crossed into the States since October, some as young as 6 years old.
The fact that children are at the heart of this immigration crisis has not deterred activists like those in Murrieta whose nativist ideology seems to have inspired a similar action in Vassar, Mich., against the possibility of a local facility being used to house Central American children. In Vassar, some protesters even carried rifles and guns alongside their flags and their “Don’t Tread on Me” signs. Another small town named Oracle in Arizona also erupted in anti-immigrant hysteria over the prospect of migrant children being placed at a local school.
Most alarming is the armed white militia group called Operation Secure Our Border, whose leader has called on recruits to make their way to the southern border in preparation for a “military style operation.” As if that weren’t enough, the South Carolina chapter of the KKK is using bags of candy to lure recruits for its anti-immigrant program.
The sentiments represented by these groups are a desperate attempt by largely white conservative Americans who feel threatened by demographic changes to reclaim a land that never really belonged to them in the first place.
Regardless, it is already too late. The U.S. is a changed nation. In California and New Mexico, Latinos are now a plurality of the population. Even Murrieta has a population of Latinos that numbers at a whopping 26 percent. Reflecting that diversity, supporters of immigrant rights mounted their own protest in Murrieta in greater numbers than the anti-immigrant marchers, chanting the anthem, “No Human Being Is Illegal.”
While the flag-waving nativists reek of racism and garner disproportionate media attention, a larger pro-immigrant movement is embracing the droves of traumatized children as its own. In Los Angeles, a nexus of immigrants from all over the world, a small but raucous group gathered July 7 in front of the downtown Federal Building to show support for Central American migrant children. In a testament to how the very fabric of the U.S. has already been transformed by years of migration, I met with several adults who had come to the United States from Central American countries as children. While circumstances are different today, the dangers of poverty and violence remain just as strong, if not more so compared with 10 or 20 years ago.
Alex Sanchez, a well-known activist and founder of the community organization Homies Unidos, told me how his own story mirrors that of many children coming to the U.S. today. His parents immigrated to the U.S., leaving him and his brother behind. Years later, his parents sent for the two boys, putting them on a stressful and dangerous journey. Sanchez reflected, “I came here as a child of 7 years old with my little brother who was 5 — just the two of us, with these people that we didn’t know. We didn’t know who they were exchanging us with [even though] they said they were our parents.” He added, “It was a scary, traumatic event that we went through.”
Each time I attempt to imagine my own 6-year-old son going through what Sanchez and his brother, and what thousands of children ranging from babies to teens, might have gone through crossing the border, I choke back tears.
Sanchez explained, “We were the forgotten children of our country when our parents left us. And then we became the forgotten children here in Los Angeles when we arrived. And there was no integration of us into this new culture.” Like many migrant children, Sanchez turned to gangs as a result of “being forgotten.” Eventually, after serving time in prison and being deported, he redeemed himself by inspiring a generation of young people to use nonviolent means of problem solving and self-expression, saving countless others from falling into the trap he did as a youth.
Thirty-seven-year-old Fannie Garcia, who was also at the downtown L.A. protest, held a sign that read, “Former undocumented child, now student at UCLA.” Originally from Honduras, Garcia explained that “my family was extremely poor and they also suffered a lot of violence — physical and sexual violence.” She was 10 years old when she and her mother, after living for years as undocumented immigrants in Mexico, made it to the U.S. through treacherous conditions. They crossed the border over the beach in the dead of night, wading through water by foot from Tijuana to San Diego, accompanied by smugglers and desperately avoiding Border Patrol helicopters overhead.