There is only one way to look at the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors who have been streaming over the southern border in recent weeks, and who are now clogging up American detention centers.

They are children fleeing desperate situations, and need our help.

Unless we are native Americans, most of our ancestors came from somewhere else, meeting with varying degrees of welcome. Perhaps our ancestors arrived in chains. Perhaps they came as indentured servants, hoping for a fresh start in a new world. Perhaps they came fleeing situations every bit as desperate as the ones these children are fleeing — famine, war, or persecution. Perhaps they came with a silver spoon and a governor’s promise of 200 acres of land … somebody else’s land.

However they arrived, in 2014, we, the descendants of those travelers, are settled here. We have no idea what it’s like to worry that our children are going to be slaughtered by government or opposition death squads. We don’t know about kids being forced into drug wars. We have no idea how young girls are treated if their brothers are on the other side of a cause.

That’s a cause for celebration. Our children are mostly safe from the sort of mayhem that the children from south of the border are coming here to get away from.

That’s why the ugly images of Americans with mostly pale faces ringing a bus filled with dozens of frightened children, waving flags, screaming at them to go home while alternating chants of U-S-A were so painful to watch.

When the buses finally arrived at an alternate location, the children on the buses said that they had been afraid they would be beaten with sticks.

Sticks?

Small children, some as young as five, thought they were about to be beaten with sticks.

We certainly hope the so-called “American patriots” who screamed such ugly things at them and terrified them are proud of themselves. Well done. Sadly, such creatures are a poor reflection on all of us.

As citizens, we have every right to debate our immigration policies. We should sit down in the cold light of morning and look at our needs as a nation, whether it is for more farm laborers or additional young people in aging states or more doctors for rural areas, and decide on a sensible plan for how many immigrants we should accept, and where they should be required to go, and what they should be asked to do for a living. That’s a debate worth having, if we can only get Congress to do it.

But there’s a world of difference between discussing immigration reform and formulating new public policy, and what happened to those terrified kids last week.

What we have now are 50,000 children in detention facilities. Children who came here because their lives were in danger where they came from. We can’t simply toss them back over the border and tell them to go home. Some of these kids are no more than toddlers.

We also can’t keep them in jails. Foster parents must be found for them … probably everywhere in the country … while plans are made for them to be returned to their country of origin safely or to be reunified with family members in the United States, or to be granted asylum and allowed to grow up in their foster homes.

Whatever the final decision is for immigration reform, these children need care and support now.