A journalist joins the immigrant trains to gain perspective on a divisive issue
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While chatting with her Guatemalan house cleaner one day, journalist Sonia Nazario casually asked the immigrant mother of four if she planned to have more children. The house cleaner broke down and began crying. She explained to Nazario, a Los Angeles Times reporter, that she hadn't seen her kids in 12 years, having migrated to the United States so she could make money to send home to them.
Nazario realized her house cleaner's plight was a common one among Central American women, whose families are so often abandoned by the fathers that the women must do whatever is necessary to ensure that their kids have enough to eat. "Most Americans don't understand that kind of desperation," Nazario explained to a crowd at San Francisco Public Library's Koret Auditorium on Nov. 28.
She felt bewildered that someone could come to work in the US while leaving her children behind to live in squalid conditions in Central America. At first, Nazario said, she even felt a bit judgmental. But her house cleaner's story inspired Nazario to learn more about the level of desperation so many immigrants and their families live with.
Touched by the women's sacrifices and curious to learn more about the struggles of immigrants undocumented immigrants in particular Nazario embarked on an epic journey that led to her writing a newspaper series about a Honduran boy named Enrique who braved numerous obstacles so he could reunite with his mother in the US.
The series won Nazario a prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and became the blueprint for her book Enrique's Journey (Random House, 2006), which is currently being developed as an HBO special. Nazario's work offers a complex and insightful perspective on an immigration issue that has often been oversimplified by pandering presidential campaigns.
Tens of thousands of Latin American youths travel from their home countries toward the US each year on top of trains. The perilous, Odyssey-like trip takes weeks to complete, and migrants rarely reach their goal on their first try. Enrique, for instance, attempted the journey eight times. Other immigrants try dozens of times.
Nazario, wanting to understand the struggles of undocumented immigrants as intimately as possible, replicated Enrique's journey by boarding the top of a train in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and riding through the heart of Mexico in a three-month excursion. Having received permission from Mexican officials and with the resources to spend the occasional night in a hotel, she didn't rough it to the extent that migrants adults and children alike have to.
But that's doesn't mean it was easy. On returning to the US, Nazario began having nightmares about being raped by bandits during the journey and ended up in therapy to deal with the trauma.
The US-Mexico border, she noted, is far from the most daunting leg of the journey for these immigrants: the hardest part is the lush southern Mexican state of Chiapas, which migrants call "the Beast." The region is home to Mexican immigration authorities, corrupt cops who are out to shake down and deport travelers, and ruthless gangsters who control the tops of many of the trains. Mexico deports roughly 200,000 illegal immigrants each year, mostly from Central America.
Enrique still wears the scars of a beating he sustained at the hands of bandits. Torrid heat, all the more unbearable to those riding atop trains made of metal, exhausts and wears down the travelers in an unforgivable fashion.
They call the trains los trens de la muerte, or the trains of death, due to the regularity of death and maiming that occurs when immigrants fall off. Nazario, during her trip, was once hit in the face with a branch and nearly tumbled off the train top, an experience she describes as "harrowing."
The ubiquity of bandits and harmful forces along the railroads is not without a yang to its yin. The enormous compassion of the people of Veracruz, an impoverished region in the south of Mexico, made an indelible impact on Nazario. When trains pass by villages, crowds of supportive villagers throw food and water to the migrants. When townsfolk have no material possessions to share with the immigrants, they offer them their prayers.
Nazario has not only studied the physical dangers experienced by undocumented immigrants during their northbound trips but also analyzed the psychological toll taken by splitting up families. Enrique and many children like him have often wondered of their absent mothers, "Does she really love me?" Enrique, whose mother left him when he was five and was apart from him for 11 years, would stare out his window every Christmas during his mother's absence, hoping for her return.
Hundreds of thousands of Latin American children have trouble adjusting socially without parental guidance. Given that many fathers in Latin America's third world enclaves "stray in more ways than one," as Nazario said, many mothers come to the US to find work. Sometimes children like Enrique grow up resenting, even hating, their mothers. Most mothers, Nazario learned, only intend to be away for a year or two, but when they discover that the quality of life and opportunities in America aren't quite as golden as advertised, their stays become extended indefinitely.
Nazario learned through countless interviews that many children left behind can't fully comprehend why their mothers left, and they say they'd rather remain penniless than apart.
The immigration debate is hotly contested in the US, particularly in the wake of the May Day protests and the George W. Bush administration's failure to pass a comprehensive immigration reform package. Rather than bombard listeners and readers with ideological pleas to mend America's broken immigration system, Nazario mixed her humanizing account of the immigrants' hardships with relevant facts. Dedicated journalist that she is, she parroted neither the La Raza talking points nor Pat Buchanan's.
Around 100,000 children like Enrique cross the US border annually in search of their parents. And while the US permits about one million immigrants to enter the country legally each year, they are joined by an additional 850,000 people who enter illegally. Business interests seeking "cheap and compliant" labor lobby on behalf of the influx of undocumented workers, Nazario explained.
Undocumented immigrants undoubtedly do many jobs that Americans won't, Nazario noted, most prominently agricultural and domestic work.
That said, the large number of undocumented immigrants does undercut wages for some Americans and denies citizens and legal immigrants jobs in fields like construction.
"The women I talked to said it wouldn't take radical changes to keep them in Honduras," Nazario told her audience. The US, she argued, must play a more proactive role in helping Latin American nations develop their economies. For instance, many products the US imports from China could just as easily be manufactured in countries like Honduras, which would dramatically reduce the number of illegal immigrants from Central America and keep more families together.
In an e-mail to the Guardian, Nazario said that if the US is serious about reducing the flow of undocumented immigrants through its borders, it should not only supply foreign aid to nations in need but also provide "micro-loans through NGO's to women to create jobs in these countries. They then pay back the loan, which can go to another woman to start a business, and create jobs."
A quarter of El Salvador's citizens, she added, live outside the country, mostly in the US. Were it not for El Salvador's dismal economy, most of those people would choose to remain in their native land.
Renee Saucedo, the community empowerment coordinator for La Raza Centro Legal in San Francisco, an immigrant rights organization, told us that "using enforcement and punitive policies are never going to be effective.... Many of the reasons people are forced to uproot their families are because of global free trade agreements." Saucedo said the only effective way to deal with the issue of illegal immigration is to develop policies that serve the poor majority, not the economic elite.
Nazario believes, based on her conversations with countless immigrants, that the US government's decision to build a fence along the border with Mexico is wasteful and will not accomplish its goals. "People this determined will find their way over a wall, under a wall, around a wall." *