“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Or the other side of Frontera Norte, the US-Mexican border. “The harvest is always richer in another’s fields,” wrote Ovid in 1 BC. The words still ring, too true, today, for the 272 million migrants in the world.
Once upon a gut sick morning in 1989, Lourdes Pineda left her two children, Enrique and Belky, five and seven, in Honduras to make the journey north to America. The single mother could not feed her children, much less send them to school, with what she was making selling tortillas, plantains, and used clothes door to door.
She promised she would return, fast and rich. In America, it was said, there was money to be made caring for others’ houses and children.
She didn’t return. She couldn’t. She sent money and clothes and toys. She called and cried and made promises she broke. Her son stopped answering the phone.
Enrique was confused, devastated, then angry. Eleven years of drugs, gangs, debt, homelessness, and crime followed. Finally, at sixteen, he decided to make the journey to America himself, to reunite with his mother.
It took eight tries. One hundred and twenty-two days. Twelve thousand miles from Honduras to the United States. His journey was a traumatic series of rides on the top of freight trains, risking his limbs and life jumping on and off, drinking from puddles, sleeping in trees, running from corrupt cops and hiding from thugs and thieves. Not that he had any money, or food. “Just a scrap of paper with her telephone number, and a burning question: Does she still love me?”
Enrique’s question, story, and journey are, sadly, not special.
Sonia Nazario, a journalist, wanted to understand the reality of immigration to America. Since 1990, the demographics had changed: 51% of migrants crossing the border from Latin America were women – single mothers – and, a few years later, their abandoned, broken children.
What made these mothers leave their children?
“Women told me when their children cried at night, they filled a big glass with water, stirred in a teaspoon of sugar or a dollop of tortilla dough, to fill their stomachs with something. […] She would gently roll them over in bed, and tell them: ‘Sleep face down, so your stomach doesn’t growl so much.’”
As of 2016, more than 66% of the population in Honduras lives in poverty. In some areas, one in five people live on less than 1.90 $ a day. The economy is heavily dependent on money sent from migrants.
“To them, leaving was the ultimate act of love; their sacrifice meant their children might eat and perhaps even study past the third grade. […] ‘I’ll be back in a year or two—at most.’”
Then mothers discovered they couldn’t.
“Often, separations stretched into five or ten years—or more.”
The children got desperate.
“‘If my mom can’t come back to me or send for me, I’m going to find her!’”
“Mobility orphans,” Sonia calls them, in the hundreds of thousands.
“Children aren’t just coming to be with their mothers; they are fleeing increasing violence fuelled by transnational gangs vying for turf to move drugs north. These battles have given Honduras and El Salvador the highest homicide rates in the world. In El Salvador, 9-year-old boys describe being recruited by gangs as they walk home from elementary school. The warning: join, or we will kill your parents, rape your sister.”
Sonia had to understand, so she actually went to Honduras and followed Enrique every step of his journey North. She rode the trains, hid from the cops, and the gangs, and thieves, and, finally, snuck across the border. Her chronicles were published by the L.A. Times, then made into a book. Enrique’s Journey brought the truth of immigration into every American home.
Her book is heart and ground-breaking. A too-powerful account of the real cost of the American Dream: of that life, that liberty, those homes with the so-much greener lawns portrayed on TV screens. The money paid to smugglers, the danger-fraught journey, the humiliation and fear of incarceration, deportation, the traumatic fracture of families.
Her intrepid reporting raised awareness and sparked nationwide debate over the true meaning of the treasured American Dream. Who was it for? And at what price? Unfortunately, nineteen years after Enrique found his mother – he is among the rare who do – the reform Nazario sought has not happened. The situation has worsened:
“The United States is spending billions on walls that don’t really keep migrants out […] and on locking up and deporting people, many of whom return. […] For too long, American immigration policy has ensured access to cheap, compliant workers. This has helped spur our economy, but has come at a great cost to taxpayers, as well to the immigrants themselves.”
Sonia suggests a different approach:
“We can prevent this pain, and slow the flow of migrants permanently, only by addressing the “push” factors that propel migrants, especially women, to leave in the first place — and by helping families like Enrique’s avoid the heartache that his mother’s exodus began a quarter-century ago.
We can start by creating opportunities for women [in countries like Honduras]. The United States could increase aid … to improve education for girls, which would lower birthrates. It could finance or promote microloans to help women start job-generating businesses. It could gear trade policies to give clear preferences to goods from [those poorer countries]. And it could work with hometown associations — groups of immigrants in the United States who want to help the towns they came from — to coordinate a percentage of the tens of billions of dollars that immigrants send home to Latin America each year toward investing in job-creating enterprises.
This targeted economic development would cost much less than the billions we currently dole out for immigration enforcement.”
Wouldn’t that be the real dream? A good dinner on a school day. Homework done for the next. A mother singing her child to sleep. In America, or elsewhere.