Author Nazario discusses dire conditions of modern immigration

JOSHUA BOUCHER | Staff Photographer
Matt Ewalt, associate director of education and youth services, guides the Q-and-A portion of Sonia Nazario’s lecture Tuesday in the Amp.

He’s living with a relative. There’s barely enough money for food and a deep-seated fear of what’s outside his home. Growing up, three of his friends were brutally murdered. His school is run by gangsters. He never knew his father. When he was 5, his mother, desperate to ensure his future, left because her only option was to find work in the U.S. Her last words to him were a promise: “I’ll be back soon.”

That was 11 years ago.

This is the story of Enrique, a child migrant from Central America. His story, however, is not unique. An estimated 48,000 children, like Enrique, risk everything to come to America every year.

Journalist Sonia Nazario has dedicated much of her career to the dire conditions behind modern immigration. She detailed her experience and the stories of children like Enrique during the Tuesday morning lecture in the Amphitheater.

Nazario has covered plight of migrants, particularly children, for more than 30 years. She first told Enrique’s story as a six-part series titled “Enrique’s Journey” for The Los Angeles Times in 2002. It won Nazario a Pulitzer Prize. She turned the articles into a book of the same name, published in 2006. The young readers adaptation was the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Young Readers selection for the week.

Nazario and her family are immigrants, having originally moved from Argentina to Kansas. When Nazario was 13, her father died and her mother relocated the family back to Argentina to be closer to their roots. This was unfortunately timed with the Argentinian Dirty War, where a corrupt military coup resulted in state-sponsored terrorism. She witnessed friends of hers and journalists killed.

“The military would come and ‘disappear’ someone, and we would never see them again,” she said. “We lived in fear of abductions.”

As a proponent of “fly on the wall” journalism, it took Nazario some time to come to terms with her identity as an advocate. It wasn’t until Nazario sat with her Los Angeles housecleaner, Carmen, and heard her story that Nazario learned a startling truth: Carmen had left four kids behind in Guatemala and had not seen them in 12 years.

“What I saw [in Carmen] was the changing face of migration,” she said.

The situation facing Carmen is indicative of the complex reality behind modern migration, Nazario said. Many immigrants would rather not have to leave their countries of origin, but rampant corruption, violence and abuse leaves them with almost no choice.

This is particularly true of the children, she said. After years of no contact with the mothers who left them, children as young as 7 embark on dangerous journeys through Central America and Mexico to reunite with them in the United States. They often have nothing but their own two hands and determination to sustain them.

Nazario said they travel via “freight-hopping” aboard trains. These freight trains are also called “La Bestia,” Spanish for “The Beast.” If they manage to jump aboard the train while it runs at 40 mph (Nazario personally attests from doing it that it is not easy), they face riding the scorching roof without bathrooms or food.

Falling off the train means almost certain death, whether from the impact or from the trains’ wheels. They are victimized by criminals who, when not killing or raping them, force them to pay tolls. If they can’t, they are kidnapped and sometimes held for ransom.

“They are hunted like animals,” she said. “Most don’t make it.”

Enrique himself was caught on the train’s roof by six criminals who, upon finding he had nothing worth stealing, planned to kill him — after first beating him with a wooden club.

“Enrique was thinking in his mind, ‘I’m going to die, and my mom will have no inkling what just happened to me,’ ” she said.

A bump on the track allowed Enrique to break free and throw himself from the train, Nazario said. He survived, clothed only in his underwear and unable to see through his bloodied, swollen eyes. This was only one of Enrique’s eight attempts to travel north.

In keeping with her journalistic ethos, Nazario wanted to put the reader right where Enrique had been. To do so, she retraced his journey step-by-step — not once, but twice. She began her 1,600-mile journey in Honduras, which has the highest murder rate in the world. Sometimes, the only thing that saved her was a letter from the Mexican president legitimizing her work.

She faced threats of rape and death from gangsters. Some days were so hot that her hands would burn as she held fast to the train. Some nights were so cold that many migrants froze to death. When she returned to Los Angeles, she needed six months of therapy to overcome the nightmares from her journey.

“But I knew I had experienced only 1 percent of what these kids go through,” she said. “I could have gotten off and slept in a warm bed. They don’t have any such option.”

The only thing that kept Nazario from unrelenting cynicism was the actions of a few families who lived near the railway. They were poor and destitute, but they offered small packages of food, bottles of tap water and prayers to the many travelers.

“I was so moved by this spectacle,” she said. “They only made a dollar a day, but all of these people along the tracks told me the same thing: ‘I’m giving because it’s the Christian thing to do. It’s the right thing to do.’ I have never seen people live their faith the way I did [on my journey].”

All of this horror begs the question: why would anyone undertake such a brutal passage? Because, Nazario said, it’s actually safer than staying home. Fifty-eight percent of migrants left countries like Honduras to escape violence, which astounded her.

Nazario was highly critical of the U.S.’s immigration policies, a three-tiered effort that has done nothing to solve the problem, she said.

First, walls and border security are ineffective and expensive. The U.S. has spent $18 billion a year on the border, yet a University of California, San Diego, study showed 97 percent of immigrants who want to cross the border eventually get through.

Second, guest-worker programs only serve to keep immigrants here. And third, a path to citizenship can exacerbate the problem when green-card recipients bring their families illegally.

“I do not believe all immigration is good,” she said. “We should have a full debate. But, after 30 years of coverage, I see more and more shades of gray. Migrant workers do the jobs we don’t want to. Virtually all economists say they drive our $16 trillion economy. At the same time, they are our most socially disadvantaged.”

While the United Nations has said these migrant children merit international protection, Nazario said the Obama administration has worked hard to deport them. With the support of U.S. money, Mexico has cracked down on child migrants, deporting approximately 107,000 back to Central America.

The president’s administration is also responsible for forcing these children in front of immigration judges — often without a lawyer. Nazario recounted scenes in which children urinated themselves and broke down in tears under the intense pressure of trying to communicate their trauma. Only 10 percent are granted asylum through the court system. However, when provided a lawyer to help them, the number increases to 70 percent.

Nazario said deporting these children back to countries such as Honduras and Guatemala condemns them to an almost-certain death.

“Our current [immigration situation] makes a mockery of our legal system,” she said.

Nazario encouraged the audience to push for immigration reform, a different approach to drugs and drug abuse, and refugee status for innumerable disenfranchised women and children.

The problem must be fought before it reaches the U.S. border, she said. In this vein, she proposed microloans to allow small businesses to open in these countries, education and trade reform, and a redistribution of wealth.

Calling on classic American competitiveness, she said Germany allows three times the refugees in than the U.S. does.

“It seems ridiculous to say, but if a child is knocking at our door, in danger, we should open the door,” she said. “It’s time for us to rise to the level of humanity. … Together, we are capable of amazing things with a shared purpose. If we all extend a hand in a small way, we can make a difference.”


Q: You identified yourself as an advocate with some discomfort as a journalist. I know that, earlier in your career, you were known for your strong position regarding whether and when a reporter can intervene in a story, and I wonder whether that position has — and how it has — evolved throughout your career?

A: Unfortunately, as a reporter, I was never really taught anything beyond “don’t help people you are writing about.” I never went to an ethics and journalism course. Now, my stories are case studies and about five of those textbooks, which I am not sure is a good thing. Every profession has ethical rules for good reason, and in journalism, we are not to help people that we write about because we are not supposed to change the story, alter that reality and then present an altered reality to our readers. That is considered dishonest. We are also not supposed to pay people that we write about unless you are The National Enquirer, if you are a legitimate news source. Because if you pay people for information, they can try and give you what they think you want to hear, and it can corrupt that information. I think at first I held very strongly to that sense that it’s very black and white. I was writing a story about hunger among school children in California and witnessed children whose parents would split one hot dog between three children for dinner, and I would not show up with a box of groceries while I was reporting that story because I felt that unless that person was in imminent danger, if they were simply miserable, then my job was to report that misery as profoundly and deeply and as moving as possible, put you there so that you can see it and the public can do something about those stories. I have seen that effect time and time again with that story about school children not getting federally funded breakfast programs in schools. When I wrote about what those kids were going through, California overnight went from a third of schools feeding breakfast to two thirds of schools feeding breakfast. I have seen that if I am able to watch that misery unfold, I can write the most powerful piece and that can move people to do something. I think reporting Enrique’s journey, I really thought more deeply though, having been through a lot of criticism from readers about “Why don’t you help people? Aren’t you a human being as well as a journalist?” I really tried to think through all the worst-case scenarios of what could happen on this journey to immigrants and whether I would intervene or not because bad things happen very quickly and you don’t have time to figure out should I do something or not. I really try to think through what are the terrible things that could happen and how would I behave. And with Enrique’s journey, I did intervene to help several children, who I did feel were in imminent danger. There was a girl, Karen, who was 15, who had just been raped by a river in Oaxaca. She was in a jail cell while I was interviewing her, and the guys who had raped her were across the hallway yelling over, “When we all get deported back to Mexico, our homies control that town. We are going to finish you off.” I made sure she was not deported to that town because I felt she was in imminent danger. I think in my old age I have loosened up a little and I have moved that line a bit, in terms of who I deem to be in imminent danger.

Q: What happens to the children who win their cases to stay here legally? Do they have family members to stay with? Are they placed in homes? Do churches assist?

A: Ninety percent of the kids coming unaccompanied, without a parent … the majority now are actually coming with a smuggler, and they have either been separated from a smuggler or the smuggler has abandoned them at the border. When I first reported Enrique’s journey, only about half of the kids were coming with a smuggler. Now, it’s about 85 percent because the journey has gotten so much more dangerous. But when they cross into the United States — and if they aren’t apprehended — they go onto whatever city they are going on to or relative that they know here. If they are apprehended by border patrol, they are put in one of these detention facilities for kids, and usually only for a few weeks now, while they determine “Does that child have a relative they can be released to?” Ninety percent have someone that they know, a mother, father, aunt, brother that they are released to, and they are ordered to go to immigration court in that city they are released to if they are allowed to stay in the United States legally or not. Some kids who don’t have an attorney, this is controversial, do not show up to immigration court. If I were a 7-year-old without an attorney, I probably wouldn’t show up to immigration court either if the outcome was my being deported. I think the real question now, on the front burner, is when kids do go through their immigration proceeding and are ordered deported, will the U.S. government send Immigration officials to that child’s home, drag them out of their homes and put them on a plane and deport them back to their country of origin? That’s really is the burning question now. Will the Obama administration be willing to do that? If a photographer with the New York Times is there, taking a photo of that child being separated from their parent and flying back to countries that are very dangerous, will that happen or not? And that’s what we will be looking for in the coming months.

Q: Where are the fathers?

A: Good question. It’s a question I asked a lot in Central America. I think there are a lot of problems with responsible fatherhood in places like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. In Honduras, land became highly concentrated into these big farms. It’s the original Banana Republic, and men would roam Honduras for the crop. And they would roam in more than one way in terms of their allegiance to their partner when they travel and left their wives behind in the city they were from. I think they are the same problems that we see with the poor in this country, with men who abandon families because of the shame of not being able to support those children and women. I think there are parallels. I think there is a strong legacy from the Spanish influence of selling your seeds, and that proves your worth, if you are able to have children by many different women, unfortunately. I think there are lot reasons why we see this in Honduras. There are some people starting to trying to change this. I also saw in Enrique’s neighborhood, women who would have a child with a man hoping that he would stay with them. He often would not. Then you see mothers have children by various husbands or fathers. It’s the same problems that we see among the poor, especially in the United States.

Q: We have received several questions regarding the U.S. drug policy and the war on drugs. Would ending the war on drugs improve the situation in Central America and of migrants? What is the next step?

A: I am not an expert in this, but I have talked to people who are, who believe that the approach that we have taken from the last many decades has been a complete failure. Our approach has been too criminalized. Drug use throws as many non-violent drug offenders in jail as possible. We have seen Eric Holder, former attorney general, and others really try to start reversing that trend in recent years and the numbers of those folks declining in our prisons. But, I believe we need to see this much more as a public health problem, and we need a lot more drug treatment in this country and we need more drug courts that deviate these cases to drug treatment. And I think, perhaps, we should consider decriminalizing drugs. This has been done in places like Portugal where, for the first five years, they saw increased problems with people being let out and not getting enough treatment and an increase in certain kinds of thefts and other crimes. But after five years, they saw improvements in drug use and in those crimes. I was speaking in Amsterdam last spring, and in Amsterdam, if you want marijuana, you go to a coffee shop. If you want coffee, you go to a café. And so, by having people go to a coffee shop to buy their marijuana, they have separated their casual marijuana user from that street corner drug pusher, who is going to try to get that person to step up to harder drugs like crack and methamphetamines. By decoupling those, they have managed to see a decline in those harder drugs, so I think we should look to other places that have done things differently because the way we have been doing things has produced the highest use of illegal drugs of any nation on earth and obviously we have spend billions and billions to lock people up. And I think it is money that could be spend much more productively in other ways.

Q: You stated the U.S. should send money to Central American governments to change the way those governments operate. The U.S. has often supported dictators and supported regime change. So far, our record is poor at best. What would you propose be better than that?

A: I would concur that our record is poor. That would be generous. I do think we have a lot of culpability for what’s happening in these countries in Central America. You can start with the fact that, in places like Honduras or El Salvador, there are typically 13 families that control the wealth of those countries, supported by the military, supported by our governments because they made it good, those families, those regimes for our businesses to go in and make lots of money. In 1954 in Guatemala, when they elected a government that was not going to be good for our business interest, we send in the CIA to change that government. We have also supported regimes that did not want to redistribute the wealth as a part of our Cold War politics. The wars in Central America, in El Salvador, in Guatemala, they killed 100,000 people. Having devastated the economies of those countries really resulted in the first wave of migrants coming from those places to the United States. We have deported 300,000 criminal gangsters to Central America since 1996 when we toughened laws towards permanent residence who had committed certain crimes, and those gangsters went to El Salvador and Honduras and Guatemala. MS 13 18 Street, gangs that started in Los Angeles, where I live and the really ramped up the gang violence in those places. Then there is our drug use, which is really violence engendered by the narco cartels as they try to control this turf to move these drugs north. First it was in Columbia, then in Mexico and now in Central America. So I think many of the things that we have done has generated a lot of this violence in Central America. In the past, unfortunately, our foreign aid has been low. When I was in Enrique’s neighborhood, I was living in his aunt’s home, for a week last summer, when I went to report. The USA ID office had shut down and it was now being run by a group, helping youngsters get out of gangs that were being funded by the Dutch and the French. The French, of all people, were putting more money into this than the United States of America. The French are showing us up, this is disgraceful. I think it’s a matter of how much we funded and who we funded. We funded the military, we funded police departments that have engaged in extrajudicial killings, and what I like about the one billion purpose now is that we are looking to fund civic institutions and we are looking to fund police units that will go out and investigate homicides that are trained. I think that these are very weak governments that cannot stand up against the huge money of the narco cartels. They actually make more money in Honduras than the whole GDP of Honduras, the narco cartels right now. You have very weak governments, and we need to strengthen these governments and institutions like the police, the courts, and we need to cleanse them quite honestly. You need to give polygraphs to all these cops, and you need to see if a cop owns five houses. Perhaps they shouldn’t be working for the police department — maybe they are making some money on the side. I have seen groups, a nonprofit I worked with called “The Association for More Just Society,” worked with the Honduran government to try to reduce corruption and violence. They went after the teachers union for example. In the last five years, that teachers union was so corrupt in Honduras that they agreed to vote for a president if they tripled their salaries. He won, tripled their salaries. Honduras spends more on education than any government in Central America and had the worst education attainment. The teachers were on strike half of the year, they don’t show up to teach. One in four teachers never showed up to teach, and they brought transparency to the hiring process where before you got hired, if you had sex with the right person or you paid several thousand dollars, they brought transparency and worked with the non-corrupt elements in the government to change how people are hired and to track who is teaching and who isn’t teaching. And today, all but 1 percent of the teachers are in the classrooms, they strike one day a year as opposed to a 100. And Honduras has gone from dead last 15th at testing to 10th in three years, something that the UNESCO says is a leap they have never seen. I think change is possible if it is done strategically, if there are benchmarks and if we hold people responsible to progress.

Q: What happened to Enrique?

A: Oh no. I am not supposed to give away the ending. Let’s put it this way, it has a complicated ending. I will leave it at that. There are many updates on my website, one recently that describes what’s happened to him. The revised version of the book gives an update of what’s happened to him. His story, the reason I revised it is because his story continues to track what many migrants are facing in recent years in the United States, so that will give you a clue.