2016 Governor’s Lecture

Enrique’s Journey and America’s Immigration Dilemma

by Sonia Nazario



Thank you, thank you, thank you – thank you to all the sponsors of this event – to Humanities Nebraska and Chris Sommerich, and everyone there who works so hard to put this event together – and to Governor Ricketts for that very kind introduction. This is a contentious issue, and I hope by the end we will have resolved everything.

Nebraska is one of seven states that saw an actual increase in undocumented, unlawful immigrants from 2009-2012; and they are about three percent of the population here: it’s gone from about 5,000 to 55,000 since 1990, and seven percent of the population is foreign-born. That’s still about half of what it is nation-wide, and seven percent of the kids k-12 here now are either immigrants, or children of immigrants. This is an issue that’s changing rapidly here – these demographic changes that you’ve seen – and hopefully I will stir the pot, and we’ll get a good discussion going with question and answer.

Sonia Nazario, 2016 Governor’s Lecture, Photo by Dan Flanagan

I am the child of immigrants; and immigrants are folks who are willing to uproot from everything they know and thrust themselves into the complete unknown. Imagine being plucked out of Nebraska and going to Burma or Afghanistan – where you know no one – [it is a] very difficult thing to do. So, as the kid of immigrants, I thought I knew a thing or two about grit, and adversity, and determination because it’s baked into my DNA. My dad’s family fled Christian persecution in the 1920s in Syria to go to Argentina. My mother’s Jewish family fled Poland right before World War II to go to Argentina. People in her family who didn’t leave were largely killed in Auschwitz. And, as adults, both my parents left Argentina – where they had grown up – to come and find opportunity in the United States. This was the first day my father arrived in this country – coming as a biochemist to do early genetic mapping. There was this whole slew of obstacles I faced growing up that toughened – that really fueled that toughness I already had inside of me. As a kid I grew up in Kansas, and honestly I admitted this to the largest gathering of English teachers: I hated studying, I hated reading. What I liked doing was this: riding my horse Blanca barrel racing, jumping, and I loved coming home just reeking of manure because it really pissed off my sister. She was the neatest person I’ve ever met in my life, and my dad favored that sister by a mile. She was the straight-a student, valedictorian, goody-two-shoes, and Sonia was apparently the opposite of all of those things. My Dad will call me; say straight up to my face, say: “Sonia. You are the dumb jock in our family.” So I had a pretty powerful motivator, I was gonna prove him wrong about me. Then my father died suddenly of a heart attack, I was 13 years old, and my mother decided to take us all back to live in Argentina.


Her timing was terrible, it was the beginning of the so-called “Dirty War,” the military was just about to take power, and they would disappear – that’s a euphemism for kill – about 30,000 people in the upcoming few years. When I was 14 years-old, I lived in fear every day the military roamed the streets in unmarked cars plucking people up, never to be seen again, it didn’t take much. You could have a beard, you could be a teacher or professor, you could all be considered “commies,” and certainly they didn’t like anyone who advocated for a more just society. I always walked to my high school with my best friend because if one of us got snatched the other could run and tell our friends – our family members – what had just happened. A 17 year-old, very close, family member of mine was picked-up, tortured for a month, and held in jail in very difficult conditions for almost a year. As the only American in my family, I was lobbying congressional leaders, secretary of state, and Kissinger when I was 14 to try and save her life. They killed one of my best friends, he was 16. They broke every bone in his face. I remember one day I was walking down the streets of Bueno Sides, with my mother, and I saw just down the blocks from where we lived this pool of blood on the sidewalk. And I asked my mom what happened here, and she said that the military killed a couple of journalists who lived in this house. I said why, and she said: “Well, those journalists were trying to tell the truth about what’s going on here.” I quickly understood, staring at that blood, that the military was in-part able to do what they were doing because there was this vacuum of information – people didn’t understand the magnitude of what was happening around them – and I understood that no democracy can flourish, and I fear [this is] what’s happening to our press in this country, without a strong press that’s willing to hold people in power accountable. I saw the power of words. I saw the power of words, of story-telling, that day. I decided, staring at that pool of blood – you should know my nickname since I’ve been three years-old has been the trouble maker, so I’ve long since I was this high liked to stir the pot – so I decided to become a journalist, to become a truth teller.

We came back to the U.S. not long after that. And I had many other hurdles to becoming that story teller, but I thought I faced those head on, “gogonas,” as we Latinos like to say. My dad’s death plunged my family from middle-class to working poor. Mom never went beyond high school; she got a job as a seamstress, and a minimum wage cook. I got a job at 15 helping bus tables in Kansas City helping her pay the bills – she had four kids to raise. I was a good student at my high school in Kansas City, but I think because I was the only one who looked like this back then, so no counselor suggested: “Sonia, maybe you should go on to college.” Luckily, my boyfriend did. I ended up following him to Williams College, often ranked number one for years in U.S. news as the top liberal arts school in the United States. When I got there, wow, I just felt so overwhelmed. I had gone to a mediocre high school, I had never written a paper longer than three pages, and you could count on my two paws the number of books I had cracked open and actually tried to read to the end. Well, these kids had all gone to the best prep schools in the country – Andover, Exiter. They had been writing papers about Plato, it seemed to me, since they were in diapers. They had names like Muffy, and Buffy, and Chip – who calls these children these names -WASPS. Rich WASPS. And half of them seemed directly descended from the Mayflower. I wasn’t – I got grants, I worked, and I was maybe one of five Latinos on the whole campus, and I was drowning. I thought, “I’m gonna flunk out,” C- trending toward the D range. But at some point that determination kicked in, I told myself, “Sonia, these kids are no smarter they’re just way more prepared. You need to buck up, and find mentors, and work harder to get to where these kids are at.”


I ended up graduating with honors – we thought these glasses were totally hip back then. And going back to give the convocation a few years ago. At 21, as the governor mentioned, I’m told I’m the youngest person to be hired by the Wall Street Journal. I wanted to write stories that mattered, I didn’t want to write about those business stories, I wanted to write about social issues – social justice issues. And people, I think personally you don’t get enough ink in this country – woman, children, the poor, Latinos. I became an expert in what is called “fly-on-the-wall” reporting, I will not sit there all day interviewing people on the phone. What I love doing is throwing myself right in the middle of the action that I’m trying to describe. I hang out in riot zones, and crack houses – often dangerous, tough places. I envision my goal: I want to grab my reader by the throat, and take them on a ride inside these worlds that you might not otherwise see. There’s an immediacy, there’s a power if I can pick you up and drop you right in the middle of the action. So I thought I was the queen of overcoming obstacles, the queen of determination. Until one morning I had a conversation with Carmen.

Sonia Nazario, 2016 Governor’s Lecture, Photo by Dan Flanagan

Carmen cleaned my home twice a month in Los Angeles, where I lived. And she taught me what real determination was. Carmen was normally a chatty, happy, giggly person when she arrived every morning. But I remember that morning I popped the question, “Are you thinking about having any more children?” I thought she just had one young son. And when I asked that, her shoulders started shuddering, and she started sobbing in my kitchen. And she explained to me that she had left four children behind in Guatemala. She said, “Sonia, I’m a single mother. My husband – he went off with another woman. Most days I could feed my children once, and maybe twice, but at night they would always start crying with hunger – and I had nothing left.” She showed me – I still remember in my kitchen that morning – how she would gently coax her kids to roll over in bed at night, and she said, “I would tell them: ‘sleep facing down so that your stomach doesn’t growl so much.’” She had left them with her grandmother in Guatemala. She had come north to work in L.A., and she told me she had not seen them in 12 years. Imagine that with your children. Her daughter, a year old, still breastfeeding when Carmen had walked away.

I remember standing in my kitchen, just being stunned. What level of desperation – I’m not a mother -but I ask, what level of desperation would it take for a mom to go 2,000 miles north? Carmen had no inkling when or if she would ever see these children again. What I was seeing right there in my kitchen, in my home, and what some of you might have seen, was the quiet transformation of the face of someone who was coming to this country in the last 20 or 30 years. I thought [they were] unlawful, undocumented immigrants – mostly men – but today 51% of the 11 million here without permission are women and children. Millions of single mothers have come here from Mexico, Central America – and in L.A. one study showed that four out of every five live-in nannies still have a child left behind in their home countries. There’s a reason people have their hair on fire – one of the reasons recently about this issue is the numbers – part of the largest wave of immigration in our nation’s history. 1990 to 2010, we had 27 million people come here legally and not. A million, numerically, more than at any time in history. Every year, a million folks come here legally, or become permanent residents. Say what you will, that we are the most generous nation on earth in legal migration. And every year, despite our struggling economy, 200,000 people are coming here illegally. And despite the rhetoric that you hear today, that is down more than three quarters from the high we were seeing in 2007 – prior to the recession. One in four kids in our nation’s public schools are immigrants, or the children of immigrants. That will rise to 30 percent in just a few years – fastest growing group of kids in our schools.


The women all told me the same thing: “You know Sonia, I’ve come here, and I’m taking care of someone else’s child. I play with that boy, I take him to the park, I feed him, and I love that boy. But I wasn’t there to see my son take those first steps, or hear my daughter’s first words. I couldn’t be there on Christmas morning with my children.” As I talked to these women across this country, they all had the same story. They said, “Sonia, the only way I could step away from my child that day and leave them was because I gave them a promise. I said, ‘Mijo, I swear I’ll be back in one or two years. No more.’” What they didn’t realize is that life here is a lot tougher than advertised. I think this is when people phone home to Mexico and Central America, and, out of pride, they puff up all the good things: “I make eight bucks an hour, I have a car, no one is my pueblito has a car.” But what they don’t say is, “I’m working two or three jobs, I am stuffed in an apartment or trailer with several families struggling to pay my bills here, I send 100 dollars back home to my children and save 10,000 – it keeps going up – that I have to put in the smugglers hand.” Separations are never one year. They typically, I’ve found, stretch into five, ten years. Even more.

And these kids get desperate, of course, to be with their mothers. So they get this idea: “Well, she’s not coming back, or sending for me. I’m gonna go find my mama.” When I started looking at this phenomenon, now 16 years ago, I discovered a small army of these children coming north every year. Alone, with no parent by their side, entering unlawfully – coming from Mexico and Central America. In 2000 it was 48,000 children. Back then they were coming to work, fleeing abusive families in countries that don’t have functioning child welfare systems. Most coming to reunify, to find that mother, father that had left them behind. And they’re migrating right now, as I speak.


As some of you know, I wrote about this army of children through the true story of one boy, Enrique. This is what he looked like when he was very young, and this is what he looked like right after his kindergarten mugshot – right after his mother left him in Honduras when he was five years-old. She walked away, and came to the United States. She left him with his paternal grandma who he would beg every day, “Is she ever coming back for me?” He told me, when he was 11 and 12 years-old, Christmas morning he would stand right in the door of his grandmother’s wooden shack, and he would put his hands together, and he would pray to God, “Give me one thing for Christmas, please, just bring her back to me. After 11 years, he goes off to find her, and all he – and most children who do this – had on him was this tiny scrap of paper with his Mama’s phone number. I saw these kids on the migrant routes, they would stash that piece of paper in the sole of their shoes, and in the waistbands of their jeans, so when they crossed rivers, or when it rained, hopefully that precious number wouldn’t smudge – and he’s virtually penniless, so he goes the only way he can: through Mexico while clinging to the tops and the sides of these freight trains that go up the length of the country.

Sonia Nazario, 2016 Governor’s Lecture, Photo by Dan Flanagan

I heard of children as young as seven years-old, seven, making this journey alone across four countries. And I myself would travel with this boy, Dennis, at one year-old his mama left him in Honduras. And at 12 he would actually reach her in San Diego, California all by himself with his Tweety Bird t-shirt on. From the moment these kids cross this river, the Suchiate, that divides southern Mexico from Guatemala, they are hunted like animals all the way as they travel north through Mexico. People are trying to rob them, rape them, beat them, or deport them. We heard about all these children arriving at our border in large numbers two years ago, most of them do not make it that far. Something bad happens to them in Mexico, and they end up defeated back in their home countries. Mexico has deported about 200,000 Central Americans last year. And many of them are killed along the way; they are torn apart by the train wheels as they travel north. They face bandits alongside the rails, the authorities stop the train, and so you have to run around to the check points, and that’s where three to five swarms of bandits are waiting to rob, rape and kill you. They face a dozen types of corrupt cops – which I documented in Mexico – this boy is trying to avoid some of them.

[They would] stop the train, they would rob everyone, rape the girls, then deport them across the southern border. They face gangsters who control the tops of these trains, most of these gangsters – by the way – were raised in the United States in the mid-90s when we toughened laws toward permanent residents who committed certain offenses – DUI, drug offenses – and we have deported 300,000 criminal gangsters to Central America, where they are not well received by the police – if you have tattoos they will shoot you, for example. So, they migrated north. It’s a good business, atop these trains, and I would see ten or 20 of these guys a top every train, and they would go car to car, surround migrants, and say, “Your money, or your life.” Then they would strip you of your clothes, look for any coins, and just because they’re high on crack, or crazy, they would throw migrants down to those churning wheels below. And they also face the train itself, which the migrants call “La Bestia,” or “The Beast.” The Central Americans, they’re crossing Mexico illegally, they have to do this as the train is in movement, and you can take my word for it, I’ve done this, it’s a lot harder than it looks. The rail beds slant at 45 degrees, and, for a lot of the children, the first rung of the ladder would come to their waist, even higher if that train is banking away from them. So I’d watch them try to pull themselves up, and allude those immigration agents, and sometimes there’s 1,500 people on that train, so you’re trying to grab onto one spot. And many of them don’t do it successfully; I spent time in a shelter in southern Mexico that is just for people who have been mutilated by the trains. And it’s hard to describe what it’s like to walk into this place. Its rooms are filled with people who have lost feet like Fausto, legs and toes like this 14 year-old boy, to that freight train.


I think many of us have heard how hard it is to cross into the United States, the United States-Mexico border, but the Central Americans will tell you this is a cake-walk compared to getting through Mexico, especially the southernmost state Chiapas. The kids would tell me going through it, “Now we face the beast.” Enrique faces the worst there, he’s on top of a rounded fuel tanker, pitch dark, six guys creep up the ladder, throw him face down, and they beat his face with a wooden club. They shatter his teeth, strip off his clothes, no money, and so they beat him harder. And one of these thugs starts to strangle Enrique with his own clothes, and he would try to pull it away from his throat, and buffer the blows coming right at his face. He heard one of these gangsters yell to just throw him off the train, and he was thinking in his mind, “I’m gonna die here. And my mama will have no idea what happened to me.” Suddenly, the train jostles, and the noose loosens and he flings himself off while the train is going 45 miles per hour. When he comes to the next day, all they’ve left him are underwear, he is covered in blood, even his eyes are filled with blood, and yet he steals himself to make this journey again, an eighth attempt.

That’s the resiliency you see in migrants. I would tell Enrique’s story by doing this journey myself. I met him when he was all the way up in Nuevo Laredo right across from Laredo, Texas; I spent a couple weeks with him out there. He’s sleeping outside on the muddy banks of the Rio Grande just watching his misery play out so I could convey it to my readers, and he told me everywhere he had been on those eight attempts. So I went back to his grandma’s house in Tegucigalpa in Honduras, and I did this journey step-by-step, exactly as he had done it just a few weeks before. I would travel three months, 1,600 miles, and about half of that on about seven freight trains up the length of Mexico, and either because I’m stupid, stubborn, or a lethal combination of both, I would do it a second time for three more months. I did take many precautions, I got a letter from the president of Mexico, that was good, and it kept me out of jail three times along the way, but not enough precautions it turned out. I interviewed dozens of those kids saying, “Tell me every bad thing that happens on that map so I can avoid all of it.” This is me on top of the train, and none of them mentioned these branches in the south of Mexico, it’s a lush jungle. This is my first train ride, and I’m on top of a rounded fuel tanker, pitch dark, a 100 migrants on top of this thing and me and the ones closest to the locomotive start screaming back a warning, I could not hear what the heck they’re saying – this train is incredibly loud – and I’m holding on for dear life because it pitches violently from side to side. Suddenly, this big branch hit me square in my face, and sent me sprawling back. I almost fell off this train, but I was able to grab onto the rail on the top side of the car, and pull myself back onto the car. And when it finally stopped the next day, there was a boy in the car behind mine that was swiped off by the same branch, his companions told me, and that he was probably dead because as this train moves forward it produces this sucking wind under the wheels so you fall down and it sucks you right into the wheels.

I was having a nightmare every night when I got home to L.A., this gangster, he was running after me on top of that train. He was trying to rape me, and that’s because somebody did try to grab me, and did try to rape me, and I was luckily able to get away from him. I needed about six months of therapy to get away from that nightmare. Finally, it stopped. I felt tense, and filthy, and I had a fear of being robbed or raped many days on that train. In the south, it was so hot I couldn’t touch the train, it burned my hands. And in the north it was so incredibly cold that the children freeze on these trains. And I’d watch them do all kinds of things around me to help them try not to freeze to death. I don’t know if you’ve ever – have you ever been in a situation where you’re like, “I’m at my breaking point, I can’t take another instant of this.” That’s how I felt on this train. But I knew I was going through one percent of what these kids are going through, because I could get off, and buy some tacos, and sleep in a warm motel bed in between train rides. And these kids could do none of that. The hell of the journey in southern Mexico, there’s really no other way to say it; it crushed my faith in human beings.


Sonia Nazario, 2016 Governor’s Lecture, Photo by Dan Flanagan

But then, suddenly, there were these people who appeared out of nowhere that restored it. In the south central state of Veracruz in Mexico, where there’s a curve in the tracks like this, or for some reason the train has to slow down – when people in those little “pueblitos” hear that whistle of the train I would see ten or 30 people run out of their huts with little bundles of food in their arms. And they’d all start waving, and smiling, and yelling out to these migrants. They threw bread, tortillas, and whatever fruit was in season. Enrique got oranges; I was pummeled by large branches of bananas, and rolls of crackers falling on top of me. If they had no food, well, then they gave tap water, like this woman, and if they didn’t have that I’d watch them: they’d come out and line up on the tracks and put their hands together, and they’d say a prayer for these migrants as they passed by. I was so moved by that lady because the people who live by the tracks in any country, they’re the poorest Mexicans. She makes a dollar a day, can barely feed her children, but was giving a little of what she had to strangers from other countries. All of these people told me the same thing: “Sonia, I’m doing this because it’s the Christian thing to do, it’s the right thing to do. I may not have read the 92 references to the stranger in the Old Testament, but I know this is what Jesus would do if he were here in my shoes.”

People like Maria gave. As a cynical, investigative reporter I honestly did not know what to make of this chick. My first question to her was, “How old are you?”, and she said, “I’m 132 years old.” She said during the Mexican Revolution, 1910, she would eat the bark of the plantain tree in her front yard, she knew hunger. Her hands were gnarled with age, but she forced them to make little bags with tortillas, beans, whatever she had in that hut. And when she heard that whistle, she would hand these to her 70 year-old daughter, and Soledad would go racing down that rocky slope. You see the train tracks, and heave these bags up to the waiting hands… I’ll always remember what Maria told me that day: “If I have one tortilla, I will give half away. I know God will bring me more.” I met Francisca, dirt poor, and yet four times a day she gave food. She has managed to squish three beds into her one-room hut, and every night, she and her two children sleep on one and a half beds. Every night, she allows three migrants-strangers to her that morning – to sleep on the other one and a half beds. I’ve never seen people live their faith like I saw in Mexico.


Enrique makes eight attempts, 122 days, 12,000 miles. That’s a typical journey for these kids. Children have long gone on this modern day Odyssey, but for years I thought it was enough to educate people, really, about this latest wrinkle in our long running immigration saga. Besides, I’d always hued to these journalistic rules: you don’t complain you leave your baggage and preconceived notions, and you report the truth as fairly as possible. But two years ago, this felt incredibly inadequate to me. I got angry as I saw the U.S. response to this: a surge of children at our border. Alas, you can see we apprehended nearly 69,000 unaccompanied children at our border in 2014. That was a tenfold increase from the norms we were seeing years before. The journey in recent years had gotten much more dangerous than when I had done it. The Zetas, the most bloodthirsty narcos-cartel in Mexico has allied with those gangs to control those train tops. They are kidnapping, and by the way, I’ll explain in a moment why that dipped in 2015, and how it looks like the numbers will exceed the 2014 numbers this year… The Zetas are kidnapping 18,000 Central Americans a year in Mexico. These are the faces of the disappeared. And they prefer to snatch kids off those trains, because they use that scrap of paper with Mama’s phone number to demand three to five thousand dollars in ransom from parents here in Nebraska. And if you don’t pay they will cut up that kid with a knife to show all the parents that they must pay.

Surveys show 60% of girls being raped on this journey now. Mexican morgues are receiving 4,000 unidentified bodies every single year, many are presumed to be immigrants. So, I ask myself, why would any child make this journey today? For God’s sake, why would any parent allow them to make this journey today? The answer is that this journey, today, is actually less dangerous than leaving your kid in a country like Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala. These are places that have a kill rate that is second only to Syria in the world today. The U.N. interviewed migrant children back in 2014, and they found that 6 in 10 of these kids now are saying that the primary driver for coming was not to find their mama, but that it was to escape these threats. They had been threatened once, three times, this violence. And that, by the way, that 6 in 10 was up from 1 in 10 in 2006, so a decade before. The U.N. said that these kids likely merit international protection by your and my government – the U.S. government. The Pulitzer, which we’re celebrating today, has given me really an incredible platform, it’s opened doors, and for me the greatest gift is that it puts me before people who will actually listen to what I have to say.

Mike Zeleny (Associate Vice Chancellor UNL) and Sonia Nazario, 2016 Governor’s Lecture, Photo by Dan Flanagan

I’ve testified before the Senate, the U.N. General Assembly, they have many of these people who have asked me, “Well, how do you solve this issue?” And you’re urging other people to get involved on this issue. So I joined the board of several non-profits that are helping these children, and I use the best weapon that I know how to use – my pen – to defend these children. I wrote about how in the past decade U.S. taxpayers – that’s you and me – we spent about eight billion dollars over a decade to disrupt the flow of cocaine from Latin America to the U.S. Those red-lines are drug flights, and the top map is the U.S. We are, by the way, the largest consumer of illegal drugs on earth, the United States. What did the narcos do in response to that pressure by the United States? They simply turned left, and started landing four out of five flights in Honduras, a country which, until a year ago, had the number one homicide rate in the world of countries not at war – four times the rate that we were seeing in Mexico, by the way.


When I went back to Honduras in 2014 to report this piece for the New York Times, I went to Enrique’s neighborhood, I lived in his house, and I was just blown away by the violence these kids face. They were being kidnapped, beheaded, skinned alive in his neighborhood. Gangs, and the narcos-cartels that they are now often reporting to, were forcibly recruiting children, like child soldiers are recruited in Sudan, to work as look outs, to collect extortion money from businesses, to sell drugs, and, yes, to even kill people. I talked to kids like Gredis, this boy’s 11 years old, he’s in the 6th grade, and he said, “I know what will happen to me if I continue to say no the narcos that control my elementary school. They’re pushing me to use crack as I come out every day, get me hooked, they want me working for them.” His father had been killed, and he knew three children his age in six months that had been killed for saying no. The kids leaving now are getting younger, half the kids caught in Mexico are 11 and younger. And more of them are girls, people didn’t used to send their girls, it was too dangerous. Milagro in Enrique’s neighborhood explained to me why the numbers are going up for girls. She was told that she’s pretty, but the head gangster in the neighborhood said, “You’re gonna be my girlfriend, or I’m gonna kill you, exterminate your whole family in that neighborhood.” And as Milagro told me that day, “It’s better to leave than to have them kill me right here.” These migrants today are refugees, it’s a term that’s used for Syrians, but not unfortunately too many Central Americans. That’s someone who’s fleeing persecution, fleeing for their life, they don’t have a government who can or will protect them.


Well Congress and President Obama rejected this view, instead of welcoming refugees, and, by the way, we as a country have signed protocols saying we will welcome refugees, and we demand many other governments do this, the governments around Syria have taken in millions of refugees, yet we push to send all of these kids back. President Obama ordered the immigration courts to put these kid’s cases at the front of the immigration court dockets, and ran them through so quickly in these so-called rocket dockets that some judges gave children one week to show up with a fully developed asylum claim, something any lawyer can tell you takes a year minimum to do effectively. And we inflict one more trauma on these kids when they get here: our judicial system. If you are accused of a murder in this country, and you can’t afford a lawyer, a public defender will be assigned to you. But not if you’re an immigrant, not even if you’re a child. A majority of these kids cannot afford a lawyer. And so they stand in court completely alone, no advocate by their side.

I watched a seven year-old boy in L.A. immigrant court, he’s shaking like a leaf in fear, he’s being asked to present a complex asylum case against a government attorney. Three year-olds who only speak Spanish expected to fill out dozens of pages in English get expert witnesses, and dozens of reports from police departments several countries away. Toddlers stand alone before these judges: they pee in their pants, they clutch teddy bears, and anything they can say to that judge can send them hurtling back to that terror they just fled. To me, this is not due process; it’s a sham that is unworthy of our judicial system. Half of these kids do qualify to stay here legally, but without a lawyer; nine out of ten of them lose, with someone to articulate their story seven in ten win. And finally, our government paid Mexico, this is a story I wrote last year for The New York Times, we paid, for the last two years, Mexico tens of millions of dollars to keep these kids from arriving at our border. Mexico launched a ferocious crackdown which we paid for, they are tasering children off of moving freight trains. Children are now walking the length of Mexico because it’s impossible to ride on top of those trains. Mexico deported 29,000 children last year, nearly four times what they were doing two years before. Just as many are fleeing Central America now. They are simply being turned back by Mexico, the supposed champion of immigrants to our south. What are the consequences? Well, it’s that a 14 year old-boy, Gredis, who was sent back by Mexico, he had been threatened by gangsters when he left, and within 48 hours of being returned Gredis had several bullets in his head by the same people who had threatened him.


Let me just say to be very clear, I’m not an open borders gal – far from it. I don’t think all migration is good. I believe there are winners, and there are losers as a result of this unprecedented influx that we’ve seen in recent decades. There are huge benefits to people coming here, and this influx. Migrants simply do jobs Americans do not want to do. I don’t know if you’ve spent time on the kill floor of some of these meat packing plants, but there are a lot of Americans who do not want to do that job for $9 an hour. And, in fact, we’ve already seen this squeezing of migrants in the United States – we’ve seen nearly a ten percent drop in production of fruits and vegetables because there aren’t enough Americans who want to do those jobs. Virtually every economist will tell you that they’re good for our economy, they drive our $16 trillion economy. Five percent of everything, all of you buy, is cheaper because of immigrant labor. Cheaper food, clothing, child care services, many things. And I think they provide many businesses from shutting down altogether, or outsourcing other jobs, if those meat packing plants had to pay $20 an hour could we afford meat at that price, or would those plants shut down, and all the economic activity around them.

Mike Zeleny (Associate Vice Chancellor UNL) and Sonia Nazario, 2016 Governor’s Lecture, Photo by Dan Flanagan

But there are losers too. And unfortunately they are the most socially disadvantaged in this country. One in 14 Americans who don’t have a high school degree, who are being forced to compete in certain industries with these immigrants. They’ve seen up to a seven percent drop in wages over 20 years because of that competition. Mostly, African Americans, and previous waves of Latino immigrants. One in seven construction workers, and one in four roofers, you all had your roofs redone after the big storm, are undocumented. I would argue that Americans will do those jobs if they are paid a living wage for doing so. And the other group that has been harmed are migrants themselves. It’s true if you come here as a mom you are gonna send money back. Your kid is going to eat and study – and that’s huge. But it’s equally true that if you leave your child for ten years I’ll guarantee it, I’ve talked to hundreds of them, they will resent and walk up to the line of hating you for doing that, they feel abandoned. I remember a boy in an L.A. high school saying to his mother’s face that even a dog doesn’t leave its litter. And I think what’s so sad, after all of their sacrifice; these mothers lose the most important thing: their children’s love.


So what should we do on this issue? I think we have to get past the same three, tired approaches that have been offered by the left and the right. I say a pox on both of them, the same three elements that are honestly still a part of comprehensive immigration reform, to instead stem this exodus at its source, keep more migrants at home, where honestly most of them would rather live right now. There are three things that we are trying over, and over again that do not work to permanently stem the flow. We have tried border enforcement on steroids, we are spending, let’s see, we’ve fired a lot of border control agents, and did you know President Obama has deported two and a half million people, eighteen billion dollars a year in tax payer money, and yet 97 percent of folks who are trying to get past that wall are able to do so if they try repeatedly, half of the Mexicans used to go home within a year – now fewer than a quarter go home within a year, they want to go home and see their families. Now fewer go home because it’s getting tougher to get in, smuggling rates are going up, so they stay. And knowing that they will stay they bring their friends and family members more readily.

We tried guestworker programs, well guestworkers are supposed to come and go home after a period of time, the biggest guestworker program that ended in 1964, more than half did not go home, and that created the foundation of the wave of foundation that followed from Mexico, and we tried legalization, this would be very good for migrants, we tried this in 1986 last time. Three million people, it went down from one million, they came out of the shadows, but then they invited their friends and family, “Come on up!”, and now we’re at 11 million. I suck at math, but I’ll tell you that did not work out as our politicians swore that it would, and still are swearing that it will. Instead, I think we need our government to have a strong foreign policy aimed at reducing violence, corruption, spurring economic development and good governance in the four countries that are sending most of the people here illegally. I think we need to bring every tool we have, microloans to women in these countries to start businesses, trade policies; I know Adam Smith would roll in his grave, but let’s give preference to coffee and clothing from these countries if it will slow the flow.

Educate girls, they put off having kids till they’re older, have fewer kids, the one thing that has reduced migration from Mexico, people are leaving this country and coming back to Mexico, thirty years they have promoted family planning, gone from seven kids to two, that’s done more than that stupid wall ever will accomplish. I would spend money on these things than the two and a half billion dollars we spent on that fence. If it’s spent right, then that money actually works. The governor was referring to this story that I did a month ago in the New York Times. We doubled last December foreign aid to Central America and we’re spending 100 million dollars a year on violence prevention programs in Honduras.

I went to the most dangerous neighborhood in the former murder capital of the world, and in that hot spot prevention, they’re using outreach centers for kids to get mentoring for those kids, family counseling for children who are likely to go into gangs, they’re sending teams to investigate homicides in that neighborhood. So, 95 percent of the people who kill someone don’t get away with it as they do nationwide in Honduras. They’ve managed through these programs to reduce homicide 62 percent in two years. They have cut the number of kids fleeing this neighborhood by half. That’s a smart investment, spend millions there to prevent spending billions of dollars once those children arrive at our border.

I think, also, we must push for a radically different, and actually effective, approach to our drug problem in this country. If not, you’re just going to move that violence around, from Colombia to Mexico to Honduras, some of you are thinking of retiring in Costa Rica, they’re moving there to homicide level is going up in Costa Rica. If there’s one thing Democrats and Republicans can actually agree on in this country is that our war on drugs has been a failure, you can’t lock people up and fix this problem, we need more drug treatment, and drug prevention, and God forbid, I’ve come to this recently because I used to resist this idea, let’s legalize small quantities of everything; Portugal did that for five years, and it was a mess, crime went up, drug use went up, but today fifteen years later drug use as these prevention programs have kicked in, drug use has been cut in half in Portugal.

Mike Zeleny (Associate Vice Chancellor UNL) and Sonia Nazario, 2016 Governor’s Lecture, Photo by Dan Flanagan

I think we can learn from these countries. Meanwhile I think we can lobby to increase the number of refugees from 85,000 to at least 1,230,000 in this country that we took pre 9-11, to give more children a safe harbor in this country from these problems that are pushing them out of their countries. Germany, many of your descendants came from Germany, that dinky country in Europe took over a million refugees last year the stoic Germans stood at the train stations handing out toys and candy and hugs, I mean hugs, I’m married to a German American, this is extraordinary, to children arriving from Syria and Afghanistan and other countries, instead we had in Marietta, California, people were hurtling epithets and bottles at border patrol buses full of women and children arriving from Central America.


Let me end by saying I often get asked, “Sonia, what part of the illegal do you not understand?” Well, I believe in the current climate, we must remind ourselves, and all Americans, it is legal to present yourself at our border, and ask for safety, for asylum, it seems ridiculous for me to actually have to say this out loud, but if a child is in danger, and they’re knocking at our door, I believe we should open that door. When called upon, we should do the right thing for children who are in danger. We are on track now to have the highest number of unaccompanied minors ever this year arriving at our border. There are moments in our history that I think are a test to all of us, are we going to rise to the level of humanity that’s required of us. I have seen students and readers rally, and do amazing things after reading my book, this is my fourth trip to Nebraska, I have seen many readers engage and do something after reading this. They’ve gone to my how to help section of my web site, you know they don’t throw food at trains, but they work with a local family through Nebraska Appleseed or some other group to help them, they help migrant shelter in Mexico, build schools and water systems, and they launch microloan programs in Central America.

I will keep telling these children’s stories and being a voice for those whose voices are often not heard through this entire political clamor. My hope is that everyone who is here tonight, who has a tortilla, will consider giving half of it away, or at least extending a hand in some sort of way. You know, if a girl like me who couldn’t even write a paper when I got to college, could win, of all things, the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing, if these food throwers could give some of the little they have, if Enrique could make it to his mother’s arms, honestly, anything is possible. If we fight with the determination that I saw on these train tops, we can get these kids a measure of the justice that honestly they deserve in some of these countries, and we can focus on a new, third way towards tackling this immigration dilemma we have, to slowly and surely change the way things are in Central America. So women, like my house cleaner, are never forced to walk away from their babies again.



Omaha’s Todd Simon to receive 2017 Sower Award

Humanities Nebraska announced that Todd Simon, a prominent Omaha business and civi