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Youth Migrants: If I’m Going to Die Here at Home, I Prefer to Die Getting to Safety in the United States

Monsignor Sullivan with Manuel Moran, Director of Caritas Santa Ana, El Salvador
Monsignor Sullivan speaks with Manuel Moran, Director of Caritas Santa Ana, El Salvador

by John-Mark de Palma

5 Min Read. “If I’m going to die here at home, I prefer to die getting to safety in the United States.” Discussing his recent Catholic Charities of New York led mission trip to the Northern Triangle of Central America, Executive Director Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, sat down with Rosanna Scotto and Lori Stokes on Fox 5’s Good Day.  He offers a detailed look into the challenges, contradictions, and transformations witnessed in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras based on his first-hand experiences in the region, while paving the way for hope and stability for the millions who call it home. 

The delegation met with local church leaders, Catholic Charities organizations, and heads of state between April 22-26. Members of the trip included New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The Catholic Charities delegation sought to understand the issues behind the struggles of the people, going beyond the border discussion and visiting the people in their home countries. 

This interview has been edited for clarity. 

Rosanna Scotto:  What did you see and learn on your mission trip to the Northern Triangle? 

Monsignor Sullivan:  We learned first-hand, the faces of the people who are coming here to the United States. What we learned is that they don’t want to come here, but they fear for their lives. The violence and the extortion there is just so pervasive that they would prefer to stay home. Almost everyone we spoke to knew a relative or a neighbor who was killed, extorted, or told to get out or 'we are going to kill you.' So, what we learned is that people are fleeing. They would prefer not to, but they don’t have a choice. 

Lori Stokes:  Does it seem like this is a crisis situation to you? 

Sullivan:   It is a crisis when you have the pervasive problems of violence, extortion, and poverty. Let’s face it, governments appear to be powerless to deal with those things -- so it is a crisis. The crisis is in those three countries and the symptoms are at our Southern border. 

[ Read: Gang Wars Force Thousands to Flee Northern Triangle for US ]  

Scotto: So, what can we do? 

Sullivan: We saw glimmers of hope. I don’t want to pretend that it is a hopeful situation, but there were glimmers of hope. At a youth center [in Honduras] we saw a young woman being trained on a sewing machine so she can get a job that’s there. We walked in and whenever you walk into a classroom, kids get excited. She didn’t. She looked up for about 5 seconds and got back to her training. 

This youth center is training a couple of hundred student a year so that they can get a job. There are things that can be done – not overnight -- but we have to try to make a commitment to try and figure out how we can make a difference going forward. 

[ Read: Catholic Charities Examines Immigration Issues On Easter Week Trip to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala ]  

Stokes: When they come to the United States on this journey, they want to be able to work here. Do they have family here? 

Sullivan: Almost everyone who leaves one of these three countries has, in their pocket, the name of a relative or neighbor whom they are going to [stay with]. For the most part, they have a destination when they come here. They are fleeing for their lives and they see in this relative the possibility of some safety and security. 

Scotto:  That trip to cross into our country is a very dangerous one. 

Sullivan: It is. Let me tell you a tragic motto the youth have: “If I’m going to die here at home, I prefer to die getting to safety in the United States.” 
[ Read: Trapped In The Triangle: PIX11 Live With Catholic Charities In Northern Triangle ] 

Scotto: That’s interesting, because you wonder if they heard the information that it’s not going to be easy to come into this country. You wonder what their mindset is. 

Sullivan: They are refugees fleeing.  You know what the simplest solution to the whole thing is? If people had a safe home and decent job, they wouldn't come. There would be no reason to come. 

Stokes: What do they think about the Unites States? Do they feel like they are not going to be welcomed? Do they feel like they will be challenged? 

Sullivan: I think that is what is overwhelming for them. It is a fact that for centuries the United States has been a place that has figured out how to welcome the Irish, the Italians, the Latinos, and now the Asians. I think that this overwhelms all of the political rhetoric which says you're not welcome, the political rhetoric that is divisive. They know, through neighbors, that it's not easy. But they do know that we are a land of opportunity if you work had and if you follow the path. They see this as a place of opportunity, of safety, and a place where they can make a future for themselves and their families. 

Scotto: What is Catholic Charites doing to help those who do make it here? 

Sullivan: We do a tremendous amount with them. All the people who come here are in a situation where they’re not given a free ride. They are in proceedings to be deported if their claim of fleeing persecution and violence doesn't pan out. We help them to get their documents to make their case that they are actually fleeing violence and persecution. We help them to resettle, we teach them English.  

Stokes: How difficult is that to do? 

Sullivan: Well, it is difficult, but it’s not difficult. We help get them new jobs. We help them learn English, because they want to be productive members of their new home. That's what we’ve been doing for the past 5 to 10 years -- and especially with this surge from Central America. 

It seems hopeless, but the news reported this past weekend that there are now more jobs in Lower Manhattan than there were at the time of the 9/11 attacks. Who would ever have thought that Lower Manhattan was going to be rebuilt? So, it is devastating in Central America, but over time we can deal with those root problems of violence, of poverty, of governments not working -- if we have the perseverance.  

We know that the Monroe Doctrine says that there’s a special relationship among the countries of the Western Hemisphere. Well, let’s update that to the 21st Century in which we see this as problem in those countries with symptoms at our border. Together we can make a difference in people’s lives.  

Watch the entire interview on Good Day below.