We’ve got to try something new and different, even if it takes awhile. The results are bound to be more effective and less costly than what we’ve been doing for the past three decades.
That’s what author/journalist Sonia Nazario told an audience at Mott Community College in Flint on Tuesday.
“Immigration is a wedge issue. It’s not meant to be resolved. It’s meant to be used by either side politically to motivate their bases. No one wants to resolve this issue,” said Nazario, who won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for her best-selling book Enrique’s Journey, her story of a Honduran boy’s struggle to find his mother in the U.S.
“Concertina wire is not going to work on people who are running for their lives. Walls don’t work — ask the Chinese. They built the biggest wall in history, and it didn’t keep the Mongols out,” argued Nazario. “The guest worker program hasn’t worked. The legalization system we have, including those with temporary visas who overstay, is broken. While asylum seekers are awaiting a decision from immigration authorities, put an ankle monitor on them. If they don’t win their claims, deport them after one or two years. But rounding up and deporting people who have lived here for 20 years? No!”
Nazario contended that “If we took in all the kids from Central America who come to this country alone each year, it wouldn’t even fill up one of the football stadiums at all these colleges I speak at. Let’s not freak out about this, people. As a nation, we can afford that amount of compassion. 100,000 a year is not an unmanageable number. 1.6 million is. We can’t take in everyone in the world, and we need to be a nation of laws. I’ve lived in a country with no laws, Argentina, and we don’t want that. Democrats need to come up with a plan that includes a sensible, practical rule of law, and Republicans need a plan that includes a heart.”
“What we need is a real strategy in Central America. Foreign aid — a Marshall Plan, if you will — to help those governments down there to reduce corruption and violence at its source. Spending money in Honduras and El Salvador would be a lot cheaper than what we’re doing now,” she contended.
The MCC event was the latest in Michigan’s longest-running prestige lecture program, the Ballenger Eminent Persons Lecture Series, now in its 65th year. The Ballenger series has included national and international leaders such as scientists Werner von Braun and Jared Diamond, journalists Alistair Cooke and Peter Jennings, writers Alex Haley and William F. Buckley, musicians Harry Belafonte and Patti Smith, film director Spike Lee, actor Tony Shaloub, entrepreneur Daymond John, and political leaders Lech Walesa and Sir Harold Wilson, to name only a few.
Besides her Pulitzer, Nazario has won the George Polk Award for International Reporting, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, and an award for “Overall Excellence” from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She began her career at The Wall Street Journal, where she was the youngest female reporter ever hired by the newspaper, and later segued to The Los Angeles Times, where she has been a journalist for more than two decades. She also writes opinion pieces for The New York Times. She has become a favorite among educators for her coverage of social justice issues such as hunger and drug addiction as well as immigration.
“There are not many opinion pieces like the ones I write,” Nazario told the MCC crowd. “Mine are heavily researched. I don’t start with a premise. My opinion is formed by what my research yields.”
Nazario is on the board of Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit launched by Microsoft and actress Angelina Jolie to provide pro-bono attorneys to unaccompanied immigrant children.
“I’m helping a non-profit that works with the American Bar Association in eight cities to recruit top attorneys from the biggest, most prestigious law firms,” Nazario noted. “We have recruited 40,000 lawyers to take one case apiece for free. These are gold-plated law firms that can spend money, and do, on investigators to help them win their cases, which they do at a rate of about 97%. I used to hate lawyers, but now I don’t anymore. And we need to take immigration courts away from the Justice Department, which has become terribly politicized.”
“Some of the fear and loathing of immigrants by the native population in this country is irrational, yes, but some of it is rational,” Nazario added. “There are winners and losers, and there is some work that gringos are willing to do, but the immigrants will work for a third less and they are getting those jobs. We got a great deal in this country for a long time when the immigrants coming were men, but now we’re getting all the women and children and everybody’s hair is on fire. You have to be honest with people about the pluses and minuses of the situation, and then they’ll be willing to listen to the other side of the story.”
Nazario, who grew up in Argentina and Kansas, is a graduate of Williams College. She also has a master’s degree in Latin American Studies from the University of California. She has been awarded two honorary doctorates by Mount St. Mary’s College and Whittier College.