North from Honduras, with nothing but hope

A harrowing account of the dangerous road some migrants must take

Review Immigration

March 05, 2006|By STEVE WEINBERG | STEVE WEINBERG,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Enrique's Journey: The Story Of A Boy's Dangerous Odyssey To Reunite With His Mother

Sonia Nazario

Random House / 293 pages / $26.95

The flood of illegal immigrants into the United States is old news. Sonia Nazario provides a freshness to that old news by joining names and faces to the controversy. In an astounding, disturbing book, the Los Angeles Times reporter risks her life by following the path of a Honduran teenager to the United States in search of the mother who left their Central American village a decade earlier.

The Honduran teenager is named Enrique. His mother is Lourdes. Nazario chose them for her narrative, from hundreds of thousands of potential candidates, by visiting shelters and churches in Nuevo Laredo, on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The saga of Enrique and Lourdes is repeated again and again, with only slightly varying outcomes: unimaginable poverty at home throughout Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and other lands south of the U.S. border. The departure of a mother or a father or both on a perilous journey to the United States, a sojourn that often ends in death, serious injury or deportation.

For those illegal immigrants who arrive alive in the United States, earnings reduce the pain of poverty back home. But with that income comes the psychological pain of separation, the guilt of parents and the torment of children struggling to understand their abandonment.

Countless children, like Enrique, feel compelled to leave home, risking their lives to find mother or father somewhere in the United States. When Nazario met Enrique, he was 17. Before reaching Nuevo Laredo he had failed at least half a dozen times to reach the U.S. border, suffering physical injuries, robberies and starvation. But he didn't surrender the desire to reunite with his mother. Enrique had no idea whether she would welcome him, no idea whether he could find her in North Carolina, which was the extent of his knowledge about the location of her home away from Honduras.

The book grew out of Nazario's Pulitzer Prize-winning series that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 2002. The series and the book describe Enrique's journey of thousands of miles from Honduras to North Carolina, a journey accomplished by hopping moving freight trains and riding on top of rail cars. Day after day, immigrant train hoppers are killed as they fall or as gangsters murder them for the small amounts of cash they carry. Those who are not killed often are maimed, raped or otherwise degraded.

Knowing those dangers, Nazario temporarily surrendered her comfortable life in Los Angeles to re-create Enrique's journey as faithfully as possible, including riding on these trains of death.

I have worked as an investigative journalist for 35 years. During that time, I directed the organization of investigative journalists, with about 5,000 members. I am unaware of any journalist who has voluntarily placed herself in greater peril to nail down a story than did Nazario.

Her saga, then, is an important element of the book. But, except for the prologue, Nazario rarely discusses her own perils, which pale in comparison with those faced by the refugees from poverty.

After finishing the book, it is difficult to know whether to feel optimistic or pessimistic. The optimist argument: Enrique does not die. Along the route, he receives kindnesses from fellow migrants, from residents of Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico who hand him small amounts of cash and food. He finds his mother in North Carolina.

The pessimist argument: The poverty in so many countries is so relentless that it defies solution. Governments cannot or will not institute reforms to alleviate the situation. Families are destroyed as a result. Bandits and other opportunists rob, rape and kill the migrants at every turn. The immigrants who reach the United States are regularly treated as criminals or as foreign trash, instead of as needy human beings who risked everything to reunite with loved ones.

At the end the narrative of Enrique and Lourdes, Nazario devotes an afterword to "Women, Children and the Immigration Debate." She includes blueprints for reform. Only an unbalanced optimist would hold out hope that the reforms will become reality.

Steve Weinberg is former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, based in Columbia, Mo.

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