From today’s lecturer: U.S. must adopt humane immigration policy

Guest Column by Sonia Nazario

In recent weeks, Donald Trump has re-ignited a conversation that never fully abates about immigrants who come to the United States unlawfully.

I discovered doing research for my book Enrique’s Journey that immigrants from Central America and elsewhere often come to the U.S. out of sheer desperation. I chronicled the story of one boy, Enrique, whose mother had first come to the U.S. from Honduras not because she was a criminal, but because she wanted her children to be able to eat. My story of Enrique, who sets off to find his mother in the U.S. after not seeing her for 11 years, put a human face on immigrants. It has reminded readers that the U.S. must have as humane a policy as possible in recognition of what compels so many to journey to our borders.

At the same time, I have realized that immigration is a complex issue. Migration has produced winners and losers, here and in sending countries. Americans have benefited by receiving people who are motivated to work hard in their new homeland. But there are also costs born by our society — and for immigrants themselves.

It tears their families apart.

I saw the harm caused by migration after asking my housecleaner, Carmen, if she wanted to have more children. Carmen stood in my kitchen and started sobbing.

She told me she had left four children behind in Guatemala. She was a single mother. Her husband had left her for another woman. Many nights, her children asked her for food. She didn’t have it. She showed me how she would gently coax them to roll over in bed at night. She would tell them: “Sleep face down, so your stomach doesn’t growl so much.”

She hadn’t seen her children in 12 years.

I was stunned that a mother would leave her children, but I learned millions of single mothers from Mexico and Central America had migrated and left children behind. Many children, after not seeing their mothers for 10 years, embarked on a modern-day odyssey through Mexico on top of freight trains to try and reach mothers in the U.S.

The move to the U.S. would help Carmen send money to Guatemala so her children could eat and go to school, but the consequences of the long separation were brutal. Her children ended up feeling abandoned and deeply resented her. Carmen told me if she could have fed and educated her kids she would never have left Guatemala.

We must recognize that most migrants from Latin America feel forced to leave their homelands. And we should stop pretending that the three immigration policies employed in recent decades will solve the problem.

The U.S. has spent billions on walls that don’t really keep migrants out [a University of California, San Diego, study showed 97 percent of migrants who want to cross into the U.S. eventually get through]. Spending $18 billion a year on border enforcement has sealed in many migrants who would otherwise circulate back home. Second, guest worker programs attract people who are supposed to come temporarily but never go home. Third, legalization is problematic because those who get green cards bring relatives illegally, causing the problem to grow.

Instead, the U.S. must focus on the exodus at its source. This is more imperative than ever because, today, migrants like Carmen don’t just leave for a better life. They leave because they often fear for their lives as three Central American countries — Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — have become among the most violent places in the world. Indeed, the numbers of women and children leaving central America keeps growing. (Although many are being caught in Mexico, which is being paid by the U.S. to interdict them. They are being returned to their home countries despite evidence some are being killed upon their return.)

In recent years, U.S. taxpayers spent billions to disrupt the flow of cocaine from Latin America to the U.S., the largest consumer of illegal drugs in the world. Smugglers simply re-routed drug flights from the Caribbean to Honduras.

When I returned to Honduras last year I was astounded at the violence children faced daily — kids are kidnapped, beheaded, skinned alive. Gangs and the narco cartels they often report to forcibly recruit children to serve as foot soldiers to move drugs north.

Many women and children now fleeing Central America are fleeing for their lives.

They are refugees.

Change, of course, starts with the U.S. addressing rampant drug use, which caused the cartels to move into Central America in the first place. If not, aren’t we just moving the problem from Colombia to Mexico to Honduras?

We must also help countries like Honduras by increasing aid, especially to improve education for girls, which lowers birth rates. We can finance microloans to help women start businesses. We can gear trade policies to give preferences to the four countries — Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — that send three quarters of the migrants coming to the U.S. unlawfully.

Congress is now debating a proposed $1 billion in aid to Central America for Fiscal Year 2016 — a tripling of current levels.

Change is possible even in violent, lawless, corrupt places like Honduras. I’ve seen it. Honduran nonprofits have worked with elements in the government to begin to make reforms in education, health care, even in investigating and prosecuting homicides. The result: It’s likely Honduras will no longer have the dubious distinction of having the highest homicide rate in the world next year.

Honduras must help. Big companies must stop routinely evading taxes. The country’s elite families must do more. Tax funds can bolster weak government institutions; police and the judicial system must be professionalized and cleansed of corruption.

U.S. aid must come with accountability and benchmarks showing results.

We need to stop mindlessly blaming immigrants and stop pursuing simplistic policies that call for building more walls and fences. We can have policies that are both humane and smart. Such an approach is hard and methodical, but unlike the invective spewed by Trump, it might actually bring positive change.

Sonia Nazario is the author of Enrique’s Journey. In 2003, her six-part series of the same name in the Los Angeles Times won her a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. Visit enriquesjourney.com.