(CNN) — As America grapples with a crisis of children on its southern border, another image from another time seems inescapable: that ship full of Jewish refugees off our shores as World War II approached.
You might have seen the story portrayed in the Holocaust Museum in Washington. It unfolded in 1939 as Jewish families fleeing from Germany took passage to Cuba on a German liner, the St. Louis. While underway, Cuba decided to deny them entry so they turned toward America, desperately hoping the United States would show them compassion.
But the U.S. political climate had turned hostile toward the growing number of European Jewish immigrants. On June 6, 1939, their ship hovered off the coast of Miami Beach — only to learn that the U.S. government refused them entry.
Seventy-five years later, we are faced with a new group of desperate people hovering in our midst — this time children from Central America escaping escalating levels of violence few of us can fathom. While certainly no Nazi Germany, the growing humanitarian crisis in their home countries is glaring as rising murder rates for youths are a driving force behind the mass exodus.
How will we respond this time?
As has been widely reported, the number of unaccompanied immigrant children arriving from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras has increased tenfold since 2011. It’s no surprise that the current system — designed for no more than 8,000 children — has collapsed under the stress of 40,000 unaccompanied minors since in October. By year’s end, our government says, as many as 90,000 may be apprehended — a tripling of last year’s border arrest figures.
But just as with the Jewish refugees on the St. Louis, this influx is not primarily a story of immigrants traveling to America to seek opportunity and prosperity. This is a story of three countries so plagued by gang violence, chaos and poverty that a family would rather pay a “coyote” 18 months of income to take their 14-year-old daughter on a life-threatening 45-day, 2,000-mile journey than have her risk her life at home.
This is a story of three countries with levels of violence comparable to a war zone. Honduras suffers from the highest murder rate in the world, and El Salvador and Guatemala are in the top five. In fact, a civilian is twice as likely to be killed in these three countries as in Iraq during the height of the war.
It is also the story of three broken states where the police are infiltrated by street gangs (some copied on U.S. models) and governments — corrupt from top to bottom — are helpless in their fight against organized crime.
And it’s the kids who are most at risk in this story. Boys are recruited into gangs sometimes before they hit their teenage years. Girls are forced into nonconsensual relationships with gang members where they are raped, abused and sometimes “disposed” of afterward. And any defiance invites violent retaliation and, often, death.
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