Giving Voice to Migrant Teens

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Pulitzer Prize-winning author advocates for migrants, many of whom are unaccompanied minors fleeing poverty and crime in Central America.

As a young teenager in Guatemala, Juan Marcelo’s father beat him and eventually told him he “didn’t want me there anymore,” said the now 19-year-old, whose mother had died when he was young.
 
In 2011, Marcelo left Guate­mala, which has among the highest rates of violent crime in Central America, and like so many other children from the region, made the dangerous trek northward across Mexico and into the United States.
 
“I don’t have a good life” in Guatemala “with my family,” said Marcelo in an interview at a HIAS fundraiser on April 20. “So I have to leave to get an education in the U.S. In Guatemala, I didn’t have a chance for an education.”
 
Marcelo now lives in South Philadelphia with another migrant from Guatemala and attends South Philadelphia High School.
 
But what if Marcelo — and the countless other unaccompanied migrant children who have streamed across the southern border of the United States in recent years, didn’t successfully complete their perilous exodus? What immigration reform is needed to make such a journey safer for children or, better yet, improve the situations in their home countries so they don’t need to leave?
 
Pulitzer-prize winning writer Sonia Nazario provided her ideas at the HIAS program, held at the Westin Hotel in Center City, about how to change the way the United States deals with migrant children.
 
“I believe we can have a full-throated debate about largely the pluses but some minuses of unlawful migrants who come here primarily for a better life,” said Nazario, who won an award in 2003 for a six-part series in the Los Angeles Times about a Honduran teenager who risked his life to come to the United States and join his mother. “I see this as an issue with many shades of gray the longer I study it.”
 
Nazario, who acknowledged in an interview with the Jewish Exponent that she has now become more advocate than journalist, attributes her interest in social justice in part to her Jewish roots. Her mother was born in Poland and fled with her family to Argentina before the start of World War II. Her father’s family left Syria because of Christian persecution, also winding up in Argentina. 
 
“Immigrants are folks who are willing to leave all the things that they dearly know and love to just fling themselves out into the complete unknown, which is an incredibly difficult thing to do,” Nazario, who grew up in Argentina and Kansas, told the gathering of HIAS donors and staff, Central American children and the attorneys and doctors who volunteer to help immigrants in Philadelphia. Her background “shaped my becoming a journalist,” she said in the interview. 
 
Nazario lived in Argentina during the Dirty War led by the military dictatorship during the 1970s and ’80s, witnessed the suppression of free speech, decided she wanted to become a journalist and eventually started traveling throughout Central America, Mexico and into the homes of Central American women in the United States.
 
She found mothers who had left their children behind and sent them money with the hope that they would eventually reunite.
 
Through this work, Nazario found Enrique, the Honduran teen whose struggle to find his mother became the focus of her Los Angeles Times series and the book that followed it, Enrique’s Journey.
 
“We hear about the numbers at our border, but most of them don’t make it through Mexico. They end up defeated in their home country after some horrific experience has happened to them in Mexico,” Nazario said at the program.
 
Over three months, she retraced Enrique’s 1,600-mile trip — including riding atop the trains as children do — and then went back to do a second, similar three-month trip. On the journey, she said, migrants could die falling off the train, be robbed or killed by bandits or corrupt cops, or be stopped by immigration authorities and sent home.
Among the ideas Nazario discussed to ameliorate the situation:
 
• Provide additional U.S. aid and work to improve good governance in Honduras, Guatemala and other Central American countries where there is significant drug trade and high levels of corruption and violence.
 
• Change U.S. policies that, Nazario said, have expedited deportation hearings and sent Central Americans back to their home countries without due process. The federal government should make it easier for children — including providing government-funded attorneys — who are legitimate refugees, as Nazario said most of the children are, to stay in the United States.
 
• Increase the number of refugees allowed to enter the United States each year from 70,000 to pre-Sept. 11 levels of 130,000.
 
In addition to advocating for changes to the immigration system, Nazario discussed some of the root causes underlying the American approach to the issue. She said migrants can take away some jobs from Americans but she also said many of these migrants work jobs — such as in meat-packing facilities — that American’s don’t want.
 
At the end of her talk, she localized the issue.
 
“The need is incredibly dire here in Pennsylvania,” where there are four detention facilities for unaccompanied minors coming into the United States, Nazario said, adding that HIAS provides legal aid to children in these facilities. “We Jews know a thing or two about being persecuted, ostracized, being a voice for those who cannot speak up for themselves, for the most vulnerable.”