Central American children risk their lives to find their mothers in the United States, and journalist Sonia Nazario risked her life to tell their story.
On Monday, Ezra Stiles College hosted Nazario for a Master’s Tea. Nazario has written for several publications including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2003. At the event, which drew roughly 35 audience members, Nazario talked about her experiences in Central America with immigrant children and mothers, and she discussed her views on the problem of child immigration at large.
Sixty-eight thousand children fled to the United States in fiscal year of 2014, 70 to 90 percent of whom have been forced to represent themselves in court, Nazario said.
“Government attorneys argue against these kids on matters of deportation,” she said. “Instead of behaving in a humane way, we’re stripping children of their rights.”
These children are not coming to the United States for economic reasons, Nazario said. Rather, they are fleeing to the United States to save their lives.
While reporting in Honduras, Nazario said she collected the stories of children who had to choose between committing crimes and being targeted by cartel members. At one school, she said, a 12-year-old boy demanded that a teacher hand over 10-year-olds to distribute crack. When the teacher objected, he pulled out a gun.
Because U.S. President Barack Obama is bent on advertising that the country is at a 40-year low in illegal immigration, Nazario said she believes he is not giving the problem of immigrant children its due attention.
“We can debate whether to let in economic migrants,” she said. “But these children are a no brainer.”
Just as the United States worked to improve conditions in Colombia, Nazario said Congress should focus on improving conditions in Central America to halt the immigration crisis. In Honduras, 95 percent of the education budget goes to teachers — one in four of whom don’t come to work. If these conditions do not change, migrants will continue coming to the United States.
Often Central American mothers will leave their children and migrate to the Untied States in an effort to bring their entire family here, she said. But they often find that the American dream is not a reality.
“The streets are not paved in gold in the United States,” Nazario explained. “Women leave hoping it would be a year or two, but it inevitably ends up being 10.”
After meeting a boy named Enrique in Northern Mexico, Nazario followed him on his journey to find his mother over 10 years ago. She hitchhiked and snuck onto the top of freight trains, risking injury, rape and even death along the way. Despite the danger, Nazario said the perils of her journey were worth the value of the experience.
Nazario said the most important thing for her was to understand and communicate Enrique’s plight, in her book, “Enrique’s Journey,” which she published in 2006.
“I watched his misery play out so I could convey it to readers. I tried to see it through his eyes,” she said.
Students interviewed said they came to hear Nazario speak for a variety of reasons.
Bhavani Ananthabhotla ’18 said she wanted to hear what Nazario had to say because she is interested in public education, while Sarah Heard ’18 said she attended because of her involvement in student activism on campus and her interest in immigrant rights.
Karla Maradiaga ’15, who was born in Honduras, said she appreciated that the event brought attention to issues facing her home country but wished it had happened sooner.
“I’m really glad this issue is being brought to the Yale campus, because there aren’t many students from Honduras here,” she said. “I wish it had happened sooner because the situation in these countries has been bad for years, and I hope to see more of it in the future.”
Ezra Stiles Master Stephen Pitti ’91, who worked with organizations like La Casa and the New Haven Board of Education to organize the event, said Nazario spent the rest of Monday with local policymakers to discuss immigration.
The last Pulitzer Prize for feature writing was awarded in 2013 to The New York Times journalist John Branch.