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Esther Cepeda: What $3.7 billion could do for Chicago

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Esther Cepeda
July 16, 2014

CHICAGO -- It is hard not to wonder what kind of impact $3.7 billion—the amount President Obama has requested to deal with the child migrant border crisis—might have on the traumatized children of Chicago’s South Side.

 If a humanitarian crisis is, as the Humanitarian Coalition defines it, “an event or series of events which represents a critical threat to the health, safety, security or well-being of a community or other large group of people, usually over a wide area,” Chicago’s neediest neighborhoods certainly fit the bill.

 The violence, the torn-apart families, the instability, the lack of economic opportunity, which, so far, are too great to be addressed by the mandate or capacity of any single agency, have indeed resulted in extensive loss of life, displacements of entire populations, and poor access to basic needs such as food, shelter, security and health care.

 I live far from the southern United States border, so I can neither judge harshly those protesting the wave of immigrants at their doorsteps nor completely disagree with those who see needy children and want to extend a helping hand.

 But one can’t help but look closer to home for some much-needed perspective on how the migrants’ crisis stacks up to our own powerless, terrified families’ day-to-day existence.

 Bloodshed, gang intimidation, drug wars, robbery, rape, murder of children in the streets and widespread dropping out of school because of belief in certain death at a young age are the circumstances the children running to the U.S.-Mexico border are fleeing. And the same ones children and families on Chicago’s South Side face daily.

 I write this after a weekend during which Chicagoans wondered, for the umpteenth time, whether it isn’t time to call in the National Guard to get their city—the 2012 murder capital of the U.S., according to FBI statistics—under control.

 Among the casualties during this mild mid-July weekend were three killed and at least 24 others wounded by gunshots, many of them teens. If we take it back to last Wednesday, a pregnant mother of five was shot in the head while driving her minivan down one of our expressways.

 This is par for the course. Chicago is a city in which toddlers are beaten to death, their tiny bodies sometimes set on fire, with alarming regularity. In certain corners of this town—indeed, often in or very near Obama’s own neighborhood—public school education is a joke, there are no jobs, there are no opportunities and there sure isn’t much hope.

 The same can be said about areas in St. Louis, Detroit, Oakland and in many high-poverty communities populated almost exclusively by Hispanics and African-Americans.

 “Usually when America wants something, it opens up its purse, sends the dollars and gets it,” said Phillip Jackson, the executive director of Chicago’s Black Star Project, an organization working to improve the quality of life in black and Latino communities of Chicago and nationwide by eliminating the racial academic achievement gap. “But America seems to be investing in prisons, seems to be ready to invest in more court systems and deportations, in helping the situations in Central America, and not in the things that will build the fabric of community life here the way they say they want to build the fabric of life in other nations.”

 Jackson made these comments to me only after I pressed him to describe the desperation he sees Chicago’s children facing daily as the Obama administration talks about what $3.7 billion can do on the border.

 He cited a study estimating the costs of gun violence on Chicagoans at about $1 million per gunshot injury from police time to medical and court costs to decreased tourism revenue from bad publicity. Jackson said there were about 3,500 shootings in 2013, most driven by desperation.

 Putting aside the question of whether we should or shouldn’t take in needy children at the border, we might ask ourselves: If President Obama manages to get almost $4 billion to give Central America’s kids succor, might he endeavor to come up with roughly the same amount to help the Hispanic and black children-in-crisis in his own backyard?

Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.



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