Illegal immigration isn’t just a topic of discussion for politicians, it’s a complex issue that affects desperate people. Sonia Nazario, author of Enrique’s Journey, was at Fort Lewis College on Thursday to jump-start the immigration conversation in Durango.
“We’re experiencing the biggest crackdown on immigration in decades,” she said to a full house at the Community Concert Hall. “There are 1,300 pieces of legislation submitted each year at the state and local levels, and each year about 200 of them pass. It’s illegal to rent to undocumented immigrants, to hire them, to issue driver’s licenses ... ”
Her book, which follows a young boy from Honduras seeking the mother who left him behind when she came north to support her family, is just part of the immigration picture. Nazario has spent much of the last two decades writing about the immigration experience from economic, legal, historical and human aspects.
It became more personal when she realized Carmen, the woman who cleans her house, had left four children behind in Guatemala and hadn’t seen them for 12 years. Then she found out it was a common story.
“I, like I think most people, tend to think of undocumented immigrants as overwhelmingly being men, but there are hundreds of thousands of single mothers,” she said, quoting a statistic that of the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the U.S., 51 percent are women and children, and four out of five live-in nannies in Los Angeles have left a child behind in their home countries.
Enrique’s doggedness to find his mother also is a common story. His journey entailed crossing the borders of four countries and hitchhiking and riding on top of freight trains while being essentially penniless. All the while, he and other kids on similar quests are watching out for bandits and corrupt police, going through intense heat in southern Mexico and freezing cold in the north, trying not to be mutilated or killed under train wheels, going without food or water for days at a time and always watching out for border police.
It’s a hazardous odyssey that at least 45,000 kids a year undertake, sometimes multiple times after being stopped somewhere along the way.
To write the book, which started out as a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles for the Los Angeles Times, Nazario retraced that dangerous path.
“At a train stop, I could pull out a credit card and eat a warm meal and sleep in a bed, with a chair under the hotel room doorknob, maybe, but in a bed,” she said. “So I didn’t go through one iota of what these kids go through.”
Nazario undertook the journey not once, but twice.
“I’m not a religious person,” she said, “but when I saw how readers responded to the articles about people who (gave) food or water, who helped the immigrants on the train because of faith, I decided I needed to take the blinders off and spend time with those who helped.”
Her personal highlight was the story of Maria, who claimed to be well over 100 years old. When Nazario met her, Maria would take what little food she had and wrap it in a bundle. Then she would hand it to her 70-year-old daughter to run down the hill when the train was coming to throw it up to the kids.
“These are the poorest Mexicans, who can barely feed their own kids tortillas and beans,” Nazario said. “They do it because they believe it is the Christian thing to do, what Jesus would do.”
Nazario quoted statistics about what the U.S. government has tried, and what has failed, to stop the rush of undocumented immigrants.
“In 1986, 3 million undocumented aliens were legalized, and we went down to zero,” she said. “It was up to 12 million a few years ago, but then went down about a million because of the economy, so we’re at 11 million. I’m not a math major, but I don’t think what we’ve been doing worked all that well.”
She believes the only solution is to help create jobs and industries in the four or five countries that send about 80 percent of the illegal immigrants because most would rather stay home.
“I’ve written about immigration for 20 years, and I didn’t get it,” she said of the desperate economic conditions in those countries. “I’m stunned by their gritty determination to make it through Mexico. People who talk about building 700 miles of wall don’t understand that determination.”