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December 4, 2014 at 11:15 AM

An unexpected activist for children in the immigration reform debate

Sonia Nazario never expected anyone to call her an immigration activist. Journalists often avoid taking sides in the issues they cover.

She won a Pulitzer Prize covering immigration and social issues for the Los Angeles Times and published Enrique’s Journey, a book about a young boy who travels on top of trains from Honduras to reach his mother in the United States.

Nazario thought she’d be done talking about child migrants by now — the first edition of her book came out in 2006.

Sonia Nazario. (Courtesy of Sonia Nazario)

Sonia Nazario. (Courtesy of Sonia Nazario)

In the past year, however, Nazario testified before Congress, delivered more than 60 speeches, wrote opinion pieces for the New York Times, and even appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart to advocate for the rights of children coming to the United States from Central America. She also serves on the board of Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit founded by Microsoft and Angelina Jolie to recruit pro bono attorneys to represent unaccompanied children.

“I’ve covered unaccompanied minors for 15 years. I felt like I had to be a voice for these kids,” she told me while visiting Seattle Wednesday to speak at the Global Washington conference, a daylong event focused on international development and policy.

A surge of young migrants detained at the U.S. southern border during the past year brought the issue, which has been going for decades, to the forefront. Thousands of children arrived without their parents, many deported without representation or proper legal proceedings.

In the case of Enrique, the lead character in Nazario’s book, the young boy was what she calls an economic migrant, coming to the United States to reunite with his mother and have a better life. Many of the children fleeing in recent years are trying to escape violence and death from street gangs and drug traffickers.

“These kids are refugees,” Nazario said. “Why are we not treating them like refugees?”

Read more about the refugee question here. That topic has partly faded out of view for now and the hot immigration story du jour involves President Obama’s recent executive action to provide protections for up to 5 million people who entered the country without authorization.

Like many observers, Nazario and I find ourselves frustrated with the way the debate over immigration in America is reduced to black or white, right or wrong.

“We need to have a completely different conversation that focuses on what is pushing people out of these countries,” she said. “Until you deal what’s pushing people out, they will continue to come in large numbers.”

With about three-quarters of immigrants living in the United States unlawfully coming from Mexico and Central America, it is very important to look past how people crossed the border and instead why they crossed.

Much of the violence in Central America and Mexico connects directly to illegal drug trade fueled by demand in the United States. That is just one factor driving migrants north. There are many others.

“One thing will move the conversation forward,” Nazario said. “Latinos will go from 17 percent of the population today to 30 percent by 2050. Demographics are destiny.”

Comments | Topics: comprehensive immigration reform, Sonia Nazario, unaccompanied minors


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