Author: U.S. needs smarter approach to immigration

Key is to preserve migrants' local economies, she says

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More on Sonia Nazario's book "Enrique's Journey."

The White House last week pulled the plug on an ineffective, high-tech “virtual fence” on the U.S.-Mexico border and, poof! — there went nearly $1 billion spent in another misguided attempt to stem illegal immigration.

Add previous missteps with the Mexican guest worker, or bracero, program that expired in the 1960s and the Reagan-era “pathway to citizenship” amnesty law of 1986, and it’s three strikes for a secure U.S. border.

More on Sonia Nazario’s book “Enrique’s Journey.”

So says Pulitzer Prize-winning author Sonia Nazario, who spoke about causes, dilemmas and potential solutions regarding immigration during a special visit to Washington State University Vancouver on Wednesday.

“Tell your political leaders ‘I ain’t buying this again’ — the same three things that haven’t worked,” is among Nazario’s takeaway messages.

Instead, America should target strategic trade investment and some smart foreign aid, such as micro-loans, and encourage consumers to buy free-trade and direct-trade goods, she said — three strategies to help keep the poor masses of Mexico and Central America from wanting to migrate north.

“It wouldn’t take a huge shift” of policy or resources, Nazario said.

A prime example: She’s toured Honduran clothing factories that employ hundreds of women at living wages, such as one that manufactures medical scrubs sought by American buyers. But that plant stands to lose its business because a Chinese competitor can undercut its unit price by mere pennies.

That’s where an inexpensive tweak in trade rules or allotments could keep the Honduras factory in the supply loop and its workers on native soil, she said.

Compare that to more than $2 billion spent in recent years on 700 miles of steel-and-concrete border fence along Texas and Arizona, Nazario said. “Targeted economic development in Mexico would be more effective than that fence will be, ever.”

Meanwhile, high corn subsidies here allow U.S. food giants to flood Mexico with cheaper corn than poor native farmers can grow, pushing an estimated 1 million of them out of a living.

Nazario addressed a crowd in the Firstenburg Student Commons, the featured guest in WSUV’s Public Affairs Lecture Series. She earlier fielded media questions.

One critical truth lies at the heart of a successful approach to migration, Nazario said: Most Latin American immigrants would rather stay at home, if given the chance.

Immigration has torn apart families and disrupted communities in both Americas, leading to chronic social problems, she said: Studies show immigrants have swiped about 8 percent of jobs from low-skilled Americans in construction, meatpacking and some agricultural trades. While many do pay taxes, they also incur high medical and education costs, she said.

Nazario, 50, a second-generation American with family roots in Argentina, knows her subject. She joined the Los Angeles Times in 1993 to write about immigration and social issues, earning her bona fides by traveling the front lines many times.

She earned her 2003 Pulitzer from the Times’ newspaper series, “Enrique’s Journey,” that evolved into a hardcover book of the same name. It has become required reading in dozens of colleges and high schools and a shared “community read” in many cities or towns.

In two years of reporting, Nazario reconstructed — and braved herself — the harrowing journey from Honduras to the United States taken by a teen left behind by his mother at age 5.

The money his mother sent from the U.S. buoyed Enrique’s life and let him stay in school. But, after 11 years apart and struggling still, he chooses to undertake a grueling, illegal trek the length of Mexico risked by thousands each year.

He must cling to the roof or side of a series of seven freight trains, including boxcars on the notorious El Tren de Muerte, “the train of death.”

He and others, many of them children, dodge fatal accidents, bandits who rob and kill, thugs who control the rolling chaos and corrupt police who steal and deport the unlucky ones.

Enrique cobbles his smarts, heart and strangers’ help to complete his odyssey. His reunion with his mother is not a triumphant one — there is no sugarcoating in Nazario’s tale — but a searing glimpse of hard choices and desperation faced by Central Americans, which continues to impact the U.S.

The impact has eased, with America’s economic slide. Border apprehensions have dipped from about 1.6 million per year to 500,000 lately, she said.

That, and partisan stalemate, will likely stall most reforms. “We’ve never seen immigration laws change when there’s a recession,” Nazario said.

She predicts only a brief lull. “Most people see (crossing attempts) as something that will go right back up.” she said.