Journalist Sonia Nazario brought the topic of immigration to the campus conversation during a September 16 visit to Samford University.
Dialogue was based on her award-winning book, Enrique’s Journey, in which Nazario highlights the plight of children who risk life and limb to travel alone in pursuit of their mothers who had left home in search of a better life in the U.S. The book grew out of a Pulitzer-Prize winning feature story Nazario wrote in 2003.
“My hope was to humanize the immigrant. Sometimes it is easier to demonize them than to understand them,” Nazario said of her decision to chronicle the journey of one teen who traveled atop freight trains from Honduras to the U.S. in search of his mother.
Nazario’s lecture was part of the Cordell Hull Speakers Forum sponsored by Samford’s Cumberland School of Law. Prior to her talk, the Forum teamed with Alabama Appleseed advocacy organization to sponsor a panel discussion on immigration.
When Nazario first met Enrique in Mexico near the Laredo, Texas, border, she learned that his mother had left their home when he was age five. Eleven years later, with few belongings besides his mother’s U.S. phone number, Enrique became one of thousands of children who make similar journeys each year.
“It is an incredible journey. Many don’t make it,” said Nazario, telling how bandits and gangsters climb atop the trains, rob, and often rape the young travelers. In Mexico, policies agencies may deport Central American children back to their home country. The children often lose arms and legs from falling off the train and other accidents. “If the bandits and cops don’t get you, the train might,” she said.
Nazario, who has written about social issues for several decades, most recently for The Los Angeles Times, recreated Enrique’s experience by taking the three-month journey twice, but with a major difference. When the train would stop, she would go to a hotel for a clean bed and hot meal, something that Enrique went months without. “Once, he went two days without water,” she said.
“I could not fathom what these kids would do to reach the U.S.,” said Nazario. But for Enrique, “nothing would keep him from reaching his mom.”
Enrique’s mother, Nazario said, is typical of many female immigrants who intend to stay in the U.S. for a year or two, make some money, and return home to their families. Once they find the situation not as bright as promised, many must extend their stay to five or even 10 years.
The mothers send money back home, but after years apart, the children feel abandoned by their moms. “In the end, the mom’s lose what’s most important to them: the love of their children,” said Nazario, who first learned of the practice when a worker in her Los Angeles home tearfully shared that she had left four children behind in Guatemala.
The kitchen conversation, she said, opened her eyes to the fact that more than half of the 11 million people who are in the U.S. without permission are women and children.
“I’ve written about migrants for 20 years, but didn’t realize the incredible desperation that’s driving these people north,” she said, citing a 42 percent unemployment rate in Honduras.
Most immigrants would rather stay in their home countries, she said. “The women say that if they could feed, dress and educate their kids, they would not cause them to risk their lives on trains to follow them.”
In the U.S., they typically do hard work for minimum wage, often taking tasks that Americans will not do.
Studies show, said Nazario, that immigrants add to the economy and make some goods and services cheaper. Also because immigrants may work cheaper, some businesses haven’t had to close in the current economy, she noted. There are winners and losers, such as the many Americans who don’t have jobs in such fields as construction and roofing, which may hire undocumented workers. A reality, she said, is that many immigrants are poor and pay less taxes, but use government services such as education.
The whole topic of immigration is complex, agreed speakers at the panel discussion.
Immigration law is “complicated and convoluted,” and the immigration system is broken, said panelist Klari Tedrow, a Birmingham immigration attorney and adjunct professor at Cumberland. “We need reform from top to bottom,” she said, noting that there are waiting lines as long as 10 years for immigrants to come to the U.S. legally.
Panel members also included victim witness specialist Jacqueline Vickers of the U.S Attorney’s office, Leslie Hillhouse of Catholic Social Services’ multicultural resource center, and Shay Farley, legal director of Alabama Appleseed.
Moderator Zayne Smith, immigration policy fellow with Alabama Appleseed, encouraged the audience of law and undergraduate students to educate themselves about immigration issues and get involved when possible.
“Everybody needs to be sensitive to others’ rights. Just because a person speaks with an accent or has dark skin doesn’t mean they’re illegal or criminals,” said Smith.
Tedrow noted the U.S. is not the only country with immigration issues. “There is no country we can look to as a good example,” she said. “As long as we have separate nations with borders, there will be problems.”