Two Questions for Sonia Nazario

April 12, 2014   •   By Daniel A. Olivas

IN 2002, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES published Sonia Nazario’s investigative series on a Honduran boy’s harrowing struggle to find his mother in the United States. Collectively titled “Enrique’s Journey,” the series earned Nazario numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists Guillermo Martinez-Marquez Award for Overall Excellence. In 2006, Random House published an adapted version of Nazario’s articles under the same name. As undocumented immigration continues to roil our political discourse, Enrique’s Journey has been reissued in two revised and updated editions: one for adults, and one for younger readers for use in the classroom.

— Daniel Olivas


While embarking on what some call “immersion reporting,” you attempted to avoid the journalistic trap of becoming part of the story. Will you share instances when you simply could not avoid insinuating yourself into — thereby shaping — the narrative?

My presence, of course, often changed what I was witnessing. When I spent three months, off and on, riding on top of freight trains through Mexico to report Enrique’s Journey, the authorities knew I was on board. My rides seemed to be the only ones where the police didn’t stop the train and rob every migrant they could catch. But I worked to minimize how much my presence altered the story, and I largely declined to help people I was writing about.

There was one exception to the hands-off rule — whenever a subject was facing imminent danger. Then I helped that person (several migrants in Mexico), but didn’t use anything that happened after that in my writing, because I had changed it; or if I did mention it, I was up front with readers about what I had done.

By the time Enrique, living in Florida, was jailed in 2011 and put in deportation proceedings, he had become perhaps the most read about undocumented immigrant in the United States. My book had also made him famous in Honduras. His family in Tegucigalpa was getting extortion and death threats from gangs that control their neighborhood.

The gangs prefer to kidnap and extort famous people, and Enrique’s sister in Honduras was sure Enrique would be kidnapped and killed if he were deported. I found Enrique the best pro bono attorney I could. He remained jailed for 14 months, fighting his deportation as he first applied for asylum (denied) and then for a visa (approved). And I became a part of the story much more than ever before.

If you could have a private meeting with our president, the Senate majority leader, and the speaker of the House, what three things would you recommend to help stem the suffering you document in Enrique’s Journey?

Immigration reform always proposes the same three fixes — greater border enforcement, guest-worker programs, and pathways to citizenship — that have done nothing to permanently stem the flow. We have built walls that don’t work — one study showed 97 percent who try to enter eventually get through — and have locked up and deported many people who simply return. We have sealed in migrants who would prefer to circulate back home, attracted temporary workers who never left, and legalized migrants who then brought relatives to the United States illegally.

The only approach that will work is to address the “push” factors causing so many migrants, especially women, to leave their homelands. We must create opportunities in the four countries sending three-fourths of all migrants who come to the United States illegally: Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

So, first I would emphasize that we need a foreign policy that increases aid to improve education for girls, because this lowers birthrates. We must finance or promote microloans that help women start job-generating businesses. We should gear trade policies to giving clear preferences to goods from these four countries. We can work with hometown associations — groups of immigrants who want to help their hometown — to coordinate a percentage of the 10s of billions of dollars immigrants are sending back to Latin America every year. This would all be more effective than the $18 billion the US is spending a year on immigration enforcement.

Second, we must find a way to reduce drug use in the US, the largest consumer of illegal drugs in the world, because fighting for turf to move drugs north is what fuels so much violence in Central America. Some 80 percent of all cocaine from Latin America consumed in the US goes through Honduras. Gangs, increasingly dominated by the Zetas Mexican narco-trafficking cartel, dominate large swaths of Honduras, and fighting over turf has resulted in the highest homicide rate in the world. Gangsters go to elementary schools and tell boys: join us (moving drugs, extorting people, killing) or we will kill your parents or rape your sister.

Third, the US government must pressure the Mexican government to protect migrants, including children, as they travel through Mexico. Human rights groups estimate 18,000 Central Americans are being kidnapped each year as they go through Mexico on their way to the US. Many are killed. Police are often in collusion with the kidnappers. The United States must push Mexico to penalize gangs and the authorities involved.


Daniel Olivas, a second generation Angeleno, is the author of six books including, most recently, the award winning novel, The Book of Want.