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U.S. must invest in programs to help Central American youth

Archbishop Wenski's column for June 2017 edition of the Florida Catholic

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From June 14-16, leaders from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and the United States are meeting here in Miami to discuss the Alliance for Prosperity, a plan designed to help create security and prosperity in a region with violence rates as high as active war zones.

This violence has forced thousands of parents to send their children “north” to the U.S. Like the “Pedro Pan” children of the 1960s, many of these children have arrived here as “unaccompanied minors.” Last Christmas, I celebrated Mass for about 1,000 of these children who were at the time being detained at the former Homestead Air Force Base. From their demeanor at Mass they knew their prayers and participated devotedly I could see that these children were not abandoned “street kids.” But they suffered extreme threats from gangs: “join [our gang] or die.” In one recent case I heard, a 17-year-old from El Salvador fled to the United States after receiving this threat. Upon arrival, he learned that the gang killed his 15-year-old brother instead.

For too long, parents in Central America have felt that the only chance at life for their children is to have them flee to the U.S. or Costa Rica. The Catholic Church continues to advocate on behalf of these unaccompanied minors and our charities are partners with governmental and non-governmental agencies in providing for their social, legal and educational needs. But investments by the United States government and other stakeholders are critical if we wish to provide safety and opportunity to these at-risk youths and their families before they are forced to migrate.

Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the international relief and development agency of the Catholic Church in the U.S., has helped many of them by helping provide safety and opportunity for them in their home countries. CRS partners with local organizations and governments, and of course, families, to give youth hope. Aided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food for Education program which would be eliminated in the Administration’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget request we have helped to improve literacy in one province in Honduras by 22 percent in three years. By giving marginalized children an opportunity for quality education, we decrease the likelihood that they fall prey to violent gangs.

For those youth, already on the streets or in other vulnerable situations, CRS is scaling up programs that build their skills to so they can find jobs and break away from the control of the gangs. Working with key government officials and employers, 80 percent of the youth transition back to school or to work. Our plan is to reach 50,000 youth by 2020. A critical part of the financial support for this Youthbuild program is from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs, funding for which is also eliminated in the Administration’s budget.

I urge Congress to maintain funding for these and other programs that address the needs of at-risk youth in Central America. And I urge the Department of State to take seriously the critical role played by civil society organizations, such as the Church, to help poor and marginalized children and youth of the region and their families if it truly intends to ameliorate the violence in the region. The fact that civil society organizations are watching this conference from the sidelines suggests that it does not. That’s unfortunate, because these on-the-ground organizations are addressing the root causes of violence in Central America daily. But they need our support: rather than cutting assistance to this region, the U.S. must invest in it to enable youth and their families to thrive in their home communities so they don’t have to migrate.

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