Approximately 1.7 million children live in the United States illegally, and have been separated from one or both parents at some point in their lives. One in four children in the U.S. public school system are immigrants or children of immigrants.
Today, children leaving Central America for the U.S. face a tougher journey than ever before. Chiapas is overrun with gangs ever since El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala pushed many of their gangsters north into Mexico. As a result, rampant violence in Chiapas has inspired the community to rise up and demand the death penalty for gangsters, although this has not helped the migrants. To deter the gangsters and the migrants, more police officers have been stationed in Chiapas; as a result, migrants take even greater risks in getting on and off the trains. The number of migrants being brought to the hospitals in Tapachula has doubled. In 2003, the La Arrocera checkpoint became too dangerous even for la migra. The train stop was moved to Los Toros in Chiapas, where police have reinforced their efforts to catch migrants, even using ladders to get to the tops of the trains.
In Nuevo Laredo, near the Rio Grande, a battle rages among the Mexican drug cartel who want control of the border. El Tiríndaro was found dead by the river, having been tortured and executed. Violence in the area has significantly escalated. In 2005, a newly elected police chief was gunned down because he advocated bringing law and order back to the city.
Sympathetic Mexicans have reported seeing more pregnant women and parents with young children aboard the freight trains than they had seen previously. Some of the children are babies. The number of Central American migrants detained and deported from Mexico each year has doubled since 2004. Divorce and separation is on the rise throughout all of Latin America, which promises to produce more single mothers, who in desperation will seek employment in the United States. The growing number of women and children entering the U.S. poses several questions: Is an increase in immigration good for the migrants? Is it good for the countries they left behind? Is it good for the United States? Nazario addresses each of these questions.
For migrants, the benefits far outweigh the risk. They are able to send much needed funds back to their families, thereby offering them a better life. Enrique says that although he feels the sting of racism in the U.S., he also enjoys its comforts. He has his own truck, and makes a decent living. Lourdes loves indoor plumbing and the safety her neighborhood provides. Both Enrique and Lourdes do acknowledge the drawbacks. They can be deported at anytime, and are paid lower wages then native born citizens.
Perhaps the largest downside of immigation is its impact on the nation’s school system. Children who are reunited with their parent(s) in the United States become resentful, depressed, and rebellious in the classroom. Nearly half of all Central American children who arrive in the United States after the age of ten do not graduate from high school.
The countries that immigrants leave behind sometimes benefit. Immigrants send large sums of money back to their families, who in turn put that money back into the local economy, bringing about $30 billion a year to Latin America. Immigrants who return home bring new skills, education, and less tolerance for corruption. The telephone and internet systems in Central America have also improved because families want to communicate with their relatives in the U.S. A major negative impact, however, is the growing number of parentless children who end up in gangs. Government ads encourage parents to stay at home with children, and seek local jobs instead of emigrating to the United States.
Each year, approximately a million people enter the U.S. legally, while up to 700,000 enter illegally. Overall, immigration is higher than at any time in recent history. Experts say that the U.S. economy relies on the immigrants to provide a cheap labor which lowers the overall cost of American living. An opposing opinion suggests that immigrants tend to use more government assistance than native born citizens. They are poorer, and their generally large families require more to welfare, foot stamps, and Medicaid. Further, because they are either paid less or paid 'under the table,' their tax burden is lower than that of natives.
The influx of immigrants has impacted many public services, including schools, hospitals, and jails. Classrooms are overcrowded. Hospital emergency rooms have been forced to close because they are unable to meet the demands of a growing population that is unable to pay for care. The Los Angeles County jails have even released prisoners due to overcrowding. In 2001, the total cost of arresting, prosecuting, and jailing illegal immigrants amounted to $125 million. Immigrants amassed over $26.3 billion in government services in 2002, but paid only $16 billion in taxes.
In the 1980s, the RAND Corporation, a Santa Monica think tank, concluded that immigration influxes were beneficial. By 1997, they reserved their opinion. Some experts argue that it does not make sense to allow so many immigrants from underdeveloped nations to enter the United States, legally or otherwise. The U.S. needs to compete in a global market in industries that require high levels of education, and the average immigrant from Mexico has only completed a total of five to seven years of school. Poverty rates are doubling as the U.S. population continues to exponentially increase.
Two-thirds of Americas believe that the government should reduce the immigration levels and strengthen U.S. immigration policies which currently favor big businesses that employ legal and illegal immigrants at low wages. Attempts to strengthen the Border Patrol since 1993 have been mostly unsuccessful. More immigrants are using smugglers, or are entering the U.S. legally through the use of a temporary visa, and then staying illegally in the country. Experts suggest that the number of Central American immigrants entering the U.S. will decrease if and when the economies of Latin America rebound. Implementing more U.S. trade policies to aid Latin American economies could provide more jobs, and hence less incentive to emigrate. As one Honduran woman offers, “What would it take to keep people from leaving? There would have to be jobs. Jobs that pay okay. That’s all” (260).
The dangers of going north from Central America have significantly increased, and yet the number of migrants attempting the journey has doubled. The American Dream clearly lives on for these impoverished people. What has also changed is the type and age of people who risk the journey - as Nazario indicates, migrants are now seen traveling with children and even infants. This startling imagery speaks volumes. When Lourdes set out for the U.S., she paralleled her contemporaries who sought to provide a better life for their children by fulfilling the need for cheap domestic labor. Similarly, Enrique was one of many children who followed their mothers with no idea what to expect once they reached the United States.
Rumors, misinformation, even lies fuel the idea that jobs are plentiful in the U.S. Grupo Beta and other migrant rights groups try to educate migrants on not only the journey's dangers, but also on the divide between reality and expectation. Yet these efforts seem futile when paired next to the promise that migrants can realize the American Dream "over there." Hope remains the most powerful force.
Unfortunately, the streets of the United States are not paved with gold, and once the migrants cross the border and are rechristened as immigrants, they confront a whole new set of issues and hardships. Enrique and Lourdes are very open in admitting the presence of racism in the States. Mirian, Enrique’s aunt, says she is paid less than her fellow employees who are native born citizens. Lourdes enjoys the comforts of the U.S., but recognizes the constant threat of deportation which looms over all illegal immigrants. She prays for papers that will grant her citizenship so that she might one day bring Belky to the United States.
Immigration is the primary theme of the book, and manifests on several different levels. It can be seen: on a personal level through Enrique’s story; on a reflective level through Nazario's narration; and on a broader level through the collective impressions offered of migrants and citizens of both the U.S. and Central America. Especially in this Afterword, Nazario explores the various opinions that U.S. citizen hold on immigration. Nazario calls the U.S. immigration policies “schizophrenic” because they seem harsh but rarely deliver such harshness. She concludes that immigrants will continue to come so long as there are jobs here, and no jobs in their own countries.
There are many lessons to learn from Enrique’s Journey about the broader issue of immigration, but the most important concerns the disintegration of family. As Nazario concludes, neither the children who are left behind nor those who follow their mothers ever fully recover from their ordeal. Their issues of abandonment, their anger, and their resentment influence their daily lives. Enrique turned to alcohol and drugs. Others turn to gangs and pregnancies. The mothers who left their children feel as if their sacrifices should be honored, and are confused when this does not happen. Nazario concludes Enrique’s Journey with two parallel images. One is of young Jasmìn as she waves goodbye to her mother who is leaving for the United States. The other is of Belky as she returns to Honduras to raise her child. Although Nazario makes no personal judgments, and never breaks the narration of the text within the confines of the chapters, she uses the image of Belky boarding the plane to Honduras as a way to gently communicate to the reader that family must come first. As the advertisements from the government of Honduras state, it is time to stay home, to maintain the family.
Family, the most enduring theme throughout Enrique’s Journey, perfectly concludes the story as Enrique is again reunited with his mother and now begins a new life with Marìa Isabel in the United States. Although they repeat Lourdes’ “mistake” in leaving their child behind, we can only hope that the young couple will one day be reunited with their daughter either in the United States or back in Honduras. Our protagonist has reached his goal, but his struggles are not through.