What are we going to do about all those children?

The border crisis is so catastrophic, we overlook a simple factor: We’re talking about the most vulnerable group in this hemisphere.

By Marv Knox

The crisis on our southern border is complicated. Except when it’s not.

Surely you know the story: Since last fall, 52,000 unaccompanied Latin American children have flooded the U.S. border with Mexico, most of them along the lower Rio Grande.

They have flowed out of Honduras (15,000), Guatemala (12,500), Mexico (12,000) and El Salvador (11,500). Most are teenagers, but many are younger than 10 years old. They’re fleeing gang violence, abysmal education systems, staggering unemployment, crushing poverty and sexual abuse.

Imagine you’re a parent of any of those children. How awful must their lives be for you to send them on such a long and dangerous journey? How pathetic must their lives be for you to turn them and all your savings over to a coyote — a smuggler of human beings?

Maybe you can answer. I can’t even begin to comprehend.

Unspeakable conditions turned on the tap of this stream of children. They’re swamping our nation’s ability to receive them. The vast majority aren’t sneaking into the country. They voluntarily surrender after they cross the border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection detains them up to 72 hours. Then, Health and Human Services houses them in shelters while it attempts to reunite them with parents in the United States, places them in foster care or begins deportation proceedings. Officials cannot process them as rapidly as they arrive, so their numbers are escalating.

Since American politics has degenerated to perpetual finger-pointing and name-calling, our government is ill-equipped to respond. Americans know that. A new poll shows 58 percent disapprove of how President Obama is managing the crisis. The same survey reveals 66 percent disapprove of how Republican lawmakers are responding.

So, yes, this humanitarian crisis is complicated.

It involves international relations, public policy, organized crime, federal and state budgets, election-year politics, economics, the judicial system and race relations. Any one of those factors would be sufficient to snarl a solution. Altogether, they comprise a catastrophic mess.

It’s so catastrophic, we tend to overlook a single simplifying factor: We’re talking about children.

Why can’t we start by agreeing nothing like this ever should happen to children? Then, why can’t we work out from there? Treat them with love and respect and nurture, as if they were our very own. Secure their safety, both now and going forward.

You’d think Christians would be leading the way. After all, God created these children in God’s own image. Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). Jesus told us we will be judged by how we treat “the least of these,” and nobody in this hemisphere is more vulnerable than these children.

But we’re hearing Christians, even a preacher who should know better, express more concern for the sanctity of our borders than the safety of children.

The problem is our society — Christians included — has made an idol of our nation. We think more highly of what happens within our borders than we do of what happens to people created in God’s image. We worry more about the economy than the ebola virus ravaging western Africa. We care more about the price of gas than the value of a Middle Eastern human life. We fret more about the next election than we do about the fate of women in India.

We have taken something good — patriotic love for and appreciation of a blessed nation — and have perverted it to think our comfort and exceptionally high standard of living are of more concern to God than the grave travesty and injustice suffered by the world’s most vulnerable.

If a prophet on the order of Amos or Isaiah were alive today, what would he say about America? Perhaps he would say the fear and anguish and rage that keeps so many Americans’ veins bulging and hands wringing is God’s punishment for failing to care for the millions of people who live on the world’s fringe.

Of course, the situation on our southern border can’t continue like this. So what do we do?

First, we care for the children. The government will follow due process — following laws implemented by both parties. But that process could take years. Warehousing those children that long is deplorable. What if America’s Christian churches volunteered to provide foster care in the meantime? How would the future of Central America change if its children were exposed to redemptive gospel in loving homes?

Second, we stop the flow. This means helping improve conditions for children and their families in Central America. We’re lousy at nation-building, and we can’t take over their countries. But we can help those governments restore order. We can support their efforts to make their neighborhoods and communities safe.

Similarly, we block the pipeline that fuels the violence. We must cut off the flow of money from illegal drugs and illegal arms. If the Central American cartels went bankrupt, the lives of people there would improve. And if the United States put anywhere near the emphasis on stopping that illicit trade as many in Congress want to put into closing the borders, the people fleeing violence wouldn’t have reason to leave.

Fourth, we spread the word. Central American parents must know the danger facing their children on a trip north. They also must know the end result is not a panacea. They must know their children are far better off staying home in the first place. And that must be true.

Fifth, we reform immigration. Our system doesn’t work — for immigrants, for their families, for states and communities on the border, for U.S. employers.

Not only can we afford to fix the problem; we can’t afford not to fix it.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.