— NOTE: this is the FULL UNEDITED INTERVIEW from FLL Issue #34 —
If we reside in the United States and are not of 100% Native American descent, then we are all immigrants. We all know this and yet immigration has been a very divisive issue throughout our country’s history. We struggle with accepting all things new and different into our already established American culture. Different accents, dress, food and religion have created contrast thus separating immigrants. And yet it is the freedom to be different, to be able to pray and work without persecution.
Journalist Sonia Nazario’s non-fiction book, Enrique’s Journey, allows the reader to witness true experiences of an undocumented immigrant named Enrique. Enrique is looking for his mother who travelled north years ago in search of education, clothes and food her two children. The trials and tribulations of Enrique as he tries to reach his mother were recorded by award-winning Ms. Nazario. Enrique’s Journey has been read in thousands of classrooms (from middle school to college) and provides a platform for honest, real dialogue about immigration and its political, cultural and economic ramifications.
I recruited one of my astute 11th grade students, Zakary Gregg to help me interview the author. His questions are poignant, thoughtful, and direct, much like Ms. Nazarios’s journalism. It is this parallel that makes for an excellent Read.
Fine Living Lancaster: You documented a journey that many immigrants try to make, and with so many making this journey what made you choose Enrique? For some readers, Enrique does not turn out to be a universally likeable character. Do you sometimes think if you had picked another more likeable immigrant to follow more readers would look more favorably upon illegal immigrants?
Sonia Nazario: I was searching for a typical teenager making a lone journey to the U.S. in search of their parents. The average age of a child illegally coming to the U.S. alone was 15 years old at the time, with three out of four being boys. I wanted a 15-year old boy who was riding the top of freight trains to get into the country. When a nun from a Nuevo Laredo church got Enrique on the phone with me, I liked him. He was honest, open and had been through many difficult experiences that many of these children face. For example, he had almost been beaten to death on top of the trains by thugs but was willing to tell his story. I worried he was a little too old as he had begun travelling at 16. When I went to Nuevo Laredo to interview him in person, I discovered that he used drugs and sniffed glue. So, I kept searching for what I thought was a more ideal candidate—younger and more angelic. But every younger child I interviewed (11, 12, and 13-year olds) had been robbed of the paper with their mother’s telephone number and they hadn’t thought to memorize it. Enrique had a number he could call in Honduras to get his mom’s U.S. phone number, therefore he had a chance of continuing his journey to find her. Also, Enrique’s drug use was not uncommon for children whose parents leave them. Some try to fill this void by turning to the drugs. I called my editor and he said, “The best characters in literature aren’t perfect angels. They are deeply flawed. Readers can’t identify with someone who is perfect.” He urged me to go with Enrique, and it turned out to be sage advice. The fact that Enrique isn’t perfect has allowed the story to be embraced and read in places with enormous hostility towards recent migrant arrivals—and given readers there a greater understanding of these migrants.
FLL: How did being a journalist affect some of your decisions during writing?
SN: Reporters often witness subjects in distress or misery. Whether the suffering is due to a civil war, an environmental disaster, poverty or crime, a journalist’s job is to stay on the sidelines and report what he or she sees. Why? If we intervene and help those we write about, we change the story therefore presenting an altered reality to readers. This is dishonest. Most people accept that news reporters shouldn’t get involved with the story they are covering. Yet some people apply a different standard to reporters following individuals, especially vulnerable children, over periods of time. As a narrative writer who chronicles difficult social issues, I believe that it is sometimes necessary to witness misery to be able to tell a story in the most powerful way. My goal is to put readers in the middle of the action, write in the most compelling way and move people to read to the end. Perhaps they will be so moved that they bring about positive change to the problem I describe.
FLL: Were there times where you did have to break the journalist’s code and intervene? If so, what were those situations?
SN: Despite everything I went through (such as almost getting swiped off a moving freight train and having a gangster grab me with clear intentions of doing harm), the hardest part was having many migrants each day ask me for help, either with money or food. Since I was there as a journalist, unless a migrant I encountered was in imminent danger (many of whom I did assist), I told them I couldn’t help them. That was by far the hardest part of this journey.
FLL: You say in the prologue that you had a reoccurring nightmare of someone trying to rape you and that you needed therapy for it. Does this affect you at all today?
SN: I lived in near constant danger of being beaten, raped or robbed. All along the way, I encountered gangsters, bandits, and corrupt police officers. A letter I obtained from the assistant to the president of Mexico, one of many precautions I took, kept me out of jail three times. In southern Mexico, there were gangsters robbing people at knifepoint on a train. Another day, I ended up in a high-speed car chase of bandits. In northern Mexico, I had police officers approach me with their loaded guns drawn on the Rio Grande. I was nearly knocked off a train one night by a tree branch. A teen migrant behind me was swiped off by the same branch and may have been killed falling from the moving train. It took months of therapy after returning to the United States to stop a recurring nightmare where gangsters were running after me on top of a train trying to rape me. When I returned to the U.S. after the 1,600 mile journey, I had a case of post traumatic stress. I needed months of therapy. I thought I had largely recovered, but recently I gave a talk at a large Los Angeles law firm to recruit pro-bono attorneys to represent immigrant children in court. The director of a film, La Jaula de Oro, was presenting a clip of the film to preview it. It is about children coming north through Mexico atop freight trains. Hearing the sound of the screeching train wheels and seeing the images, my heart started racing and I began to sweat. This is not an experience you get over easily.
FLL: What are the most important themes or life lessons that people should receive from Enrique’s Journey?
SN: I always hope to educate people about the biggest issues of our time in a compelling, engaging way. I want to grab them by the throat and take them on a ride, take them inside a world they might not otherwise see and educate them about that world. Ultimately, I hope that if people see something that’s wrong, that’s unjust, they will act in some way—big or small—to address that issue. It’s a lot for a writer to hope for, but I see readers doing this every day. Many have taken to heart my message that the best solution to the immigration issue is to help create jobs in four countries that send 74% of unlawful immigrants to the U.S.; fewer women would then feel forced to leave their children. One reader in Indiana quit her job and went to Honduras to open a café and employ 10 people. A high school in California raised $9,000 selling cookies and used the money to provide a micro-loan to women in Guatemala so they could expand their coffee growing business and hire more workers so fewer women would have to leave for the north.
FLL: Did your teen years in Argentina affect your interest in immigration or national relations?
SN: Yes. I decided to become a journalist after what I experienced living through part of the so-called dirty war in Argentina, where the military took power and “disappeared” up to 30,000 people. Two journalists near my home in Buenos Aires were killed for trying to tell the truth about what was happening. Seeing the blood on the ground where they had died convinced me when I was 14 that I wanted to be a journalist. I understood at an early age that journalists play a critical role in holding people in power accountable and in bringing critical issues to light. I have always focused on writing about social issues, social justice issues and folks who I feel don’t get enough attention: women, children, the poor and Latinos.
FLL: Have you become politically involved in immigration issues because of writing this book and your subsequent accolades you have received for this accomplishment? If yes, could you please explain how?
SN: The first time I became active was in 2008 when I joined the board of KIND (Kids in Need of Defense), a non-profit launched by Microsoft and Angelina Jolie to provide pro-bono attorneys to unaccompanied immigrant children so they can get a fair trial before an immigration judge, whose decision can have life and death consequences. KIND has recruited nearly 9,000 pro bono attorneys to represent these children in court.
Last year, thousands of young migrants were being detained each month at the border and then more than two-thirds faced federal immigration proceedings without legal representation, which made getting permission to stay in the U.S. legally nearly impossible. Children who likely merited protection were being sent back to some of the most dangerous countries on Earth in Central America. I was horrified. I stepped away from my comfort zone of detached journalist and became a social activist. For the rest of the year, I was on the road nonstop speaking about Enrique’s Journey and the immigration issue and recruiting attorneys to represent immigrant children for free.
I oppose measures this Administration and Congress have taken regarding unaccompanied immigrant children. The Administration has pushed to undo the law (Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act Of 2008,) that requires unaccompanied immigrant children to get a full hearing before an immigration judge. When that didn’t work, President Obama ordered immigration courts to ram cases through as quickly as possible. Some judges are giving kids one week to present a fully developed asylum case, something impossible to do in less than year.
Our government provides accused murderers with public counsel if the accused cannot afford one, but immigrants, even immigrant children get nothing. Most can’t afford a lawyer, and 70% are going to court alone (even toddlers!) and expected to argue a complex immigration asylum case. The United Nations has estimated that 6 in 10 of these kids are fleeing violence in their home country and that they would likely merit international protection. But only 10 percent of them are getting that protection when they don’t have an attorney making their case; 70 percent get it if they have a lawyer. For many of these children, these court decisions have life or death consequences.
This treatment of children is not worthy of our court system, of our country.
Our government should provide every one of these children with government-funded attorneys.
Other actions we should take to help these children:
- We should stop paying Mexico tens of million of dollars to intercept and deport these children before they reach our border. Mexican officials deported nearly 20,000 unaccompanied immigrant children back south of their border last year, four times the number a few years ago. They are doing this because the U.S. is asking and paying them to.
- We should increase the number of refugees we allow to pre-9/11 levels — 130,000, from the current 70,000 — to allow more of these children to have a safe harbor here in the U.S.
- We should provide more aid to Central America to help reduce the causes of the violence pushing these children out. Vice President Joe Biden proposed $1 billion in aid to Central America for fiscal 2016, a tripling of current levels. Our government should bring everything we have at our disposal (microloans to women, trade policies that help these countries, give preference to goods from there, policies that promote education for girls, promote democratic governments that reduce corruption) to support this region.
FLL: Have you experienced any aggressive or hateful reactions to your work?
SN: Yes, there have been some. Most journalists will tell you the most hateful emails are about the immigration issue. But they are rare. The emails I get from readers provide the most uplifting part of this job. I get emails every day from students who tell me they were raised racist and anti-immigrant and that my book and class discussions about the book have changed their perspective about these people. They can at least now see a different perspective, or range of perspectives.
FLL: In the future what new story, article, or book, written by you, can we look forward to reading?
SN: I am working on a book for Random House that looks at five big social issues in the United States and women who are taking on those issues. But I have been so busy speaking about the deportations that I haven’t made enough headway on that book!
FLL: Have you met President Obama or anyone in government with the intent of sharing your insights and experiences concerning immigration?
SN: I testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations committee in July. A few months later, I gave a keynote address at the Illinois Legislative Latino Caucus Foundation 12th Annual Conference. Just last week I spoke at the Hispanas Organizing for Political Equality Conference in Los Angeles, and at least two congressional members were in the audience.
FLL: If our readers wanted to pursue additional research on the immigration issue what website, book, etc. would you recommend?
SN: I would recommend my own website, www.enriquesjourney.com. I have a number of articles that I have written for the New York Times and other publications, including my opinion piece that was published in July. I am continually updating the website with articles by other publications about unaccompanied children and immigration in general.