Editorial: Sanctuary for Immigrants in Vermont

A Washington Post blogger wondered recently whether Vermont might be the solution to the crisis resulting from the wave of undocumented and unaccompanied children flowing over the Mexican border from Central America. Why? Because the state’s two U.S. senators, Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, have been leading advocates for immigration reform; the state has an estimated 1,500 undocumented immigrants who provide critical labor for the state’s dairy farms; and because Vermont has a track record of welcoming legal immigrants — about 6,300 refugees have been resettled in the state over the past 25 years.

Although we hold Vermont in high regard, it might not be quite up to the task of solving the problem by itself. But, as Gov. Peter Shumlin suggested last week, it certainly could help alleviate the situation by temporarily housing some of the 60,000 children who are fleeing their violent homelands of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Shumlin was responding favorably to an informal White House inquiry and asked the mayor of Burlington to identify facilities in the state where some the children could be housed while awaiting immigration hearings to determine whether they qualify to stay in the United States.

Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts is ready to do his part. He has already offered to temporarily shelter up to 1,000 of the youngsters and identified two possible locations — one on Cape Cod and the other in Western Massachusetts. It’s interesting to note, though, that despite the Bay State’s reputation for liberalism, Patrick’s initiative has created a furor among local officials and the public in the areas that might be called upon to play host. Moreover, a Boston Globe poll found only 50 percent supported Patrick’s plan , with 43 percent opposed — even though the shelter would be managed, paid for and staffed entirely by the federal government; house children 3 to 17, who would be given vaccinations and health screenings and who would be schooled at the facility; and would remain open for four months.

Even so, the ambivalent opinion in Massachusetts stands in sharp contrast with attitudes in much of the rest of the country, where the idea of temporarily sheltering the children has drawn ugly pushback from politicians and the public. Religious leaders across the faith spectrum have been an honorable exception. “The anger directed toward vulnerable children is deplorable and disgusting,” the Rev. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, told The New York Times. “The first thing is to make sure we understand these are not issues, these are persons. These children are made in the image of God, and we ought to respond to them with compassion, not with fear.”

Indeed, the moral imperative could hardly be clearer. Many of these children have crossed the border to escape horrific violence in their home countries, and under a 2008 law designed to protect children from sex trafficking, children from these countries who enter the United States unaccompanied cannot be deported without receiving a court hearing and legal representation. The numbers are overwhelming the resources in states near the U.S.-Mexico border, and shelter is needed elsewhere. In short, this is a humanitarian crisis, and it’s on our national doorstep.

In its proud tradition of being part of the problem instead of part of the solution, Congress is probably not going to help. Legislation proposed by President Obama to allocate nearly $4 billion to address the situation is bogged down in partisan wrangling over whether funding should be accompanied by changes to the human trafficking law. And we are reasonably sure that no crisis will be allowed to stand in the way of members leaving Washington shortly for their five-week summer recess.

So we hope Vermonters will support their governor in offering help to these vulnerable children and that New Hampshire will also extend a hand. It is in their best traditions of humanitarian concern to do so.