Ellis Island was the border for children traveling alone in generations past. Today, it’s our southern edges, where thousands of Central American children have turned themselves in to immigration agents.
What’s happening at the U.S.-Mexico border is not a new phenomenon. Not by a long shot. Records of Ellis Island are filled with the stories of young children who arrived on our shores without parents. Those children were just as desperate. Often just as unwelcomed and feared. And yes, they would have been illegally present by today’s standards.
It’s a story that repeats through history. Only their countries change.
Wendy Medina calls such “unaccompanied children” Mom and Dad. The Park University student’s father fled El Salvador as a teenager alone. Her mother left Mexico as a young girl.
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Medina was an organizer of a gathering Sunday in Washington Square Park. More than 70 people met to press for humane treatment of the Central American children, that their rights be respected. Stressing a Christian response, Sister Therese Bangert told the group, “Just give the refugees a place to stand and they will do the rest.”
Medina is part of Progressive Youth Organization, a new group of young people bringing attention to issues that resonate with their generation. She asks, “What circumstances would have been so horrible to make these children make the decision to leave?”
For her father, she knows the story. El Salvador was in a civil war then. Her father and other relatives would hide under mattresses when guerrilla soldiers burst into the family home. He feared the soldiers, who had a reputation of forcing teenage boys to join them.
Her mother left Mexico because of poverty. She tells stories of how sickly she was as a 14-year-old, thin from lack of nutrition. The others in the group she crossed the border with would constantly mutter in Spanish, “the little girl isn’t going to make it.”
But she did. Medina’s parents met in California and later were able to legalize their status, their daughter said.
Medina acknowledges that immigration is a federal issue. But like other protesters at the rally, she asks for Congress to lead with compassion.
“Congress shouldn’t be making it so difficult to welcome these children,” she said. “I wouldn’t have the opportunities that I have now if my parents hadn’t made the sacrifice to make that dangerous trip.”