This year we are on track to see a record number of unaccompanied children—some as young as 3 years old—trying to enter the United States from Latin America, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Sonia Nazario, who spoke at Worcester State University on October 18. By way of illustrating the challenges these children face, she brought many to tears in the standing-room-only auditorium as she recounted “Enrique’s journey,” the subject of her best-selling novel by the same name.
Nazario believes that this year’s small army of unaccompanied minors should be considered refugees rather than migrants because of the life-threatening conditions they are fleeing. Many of them deserve asylum in this country, she said, after their brave solo trek northward. But because of political pressures, most of them will be turned away to face an unimaginably grim future.
“I was blown away by the violence these kids faced,” she said. “They were being kidnapped. They were being beheaded. They were being skinned alive.”
It is to spare themselves such horrors that these children set off alone, with no money, on a perilous trip of 1,600 miles or more, as did the young hero of Nazario’s book, Enrique, a Honduran boy who struggles to find his mother in the United States.
Nazario, a journalist who has worked for the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times among other publications, spoke to a crowd of more than 300, which included WSU students as well as middle and high school students bused in from as far away as Boston.
Nazario’s talk was one of several events planned by the Third World Alliance student organization, Multicultural Affairs Office , and Student Involvement and Leadership Development Office  for the celebration of Latin Heritage Month in October, which support the promotion of inter-racial interaction on campus, one of President Barry M. Maloney’s “points of action” for a more inclusive campus .
“I am beyond excited to see all the schools that came out to support us,” said junior and TWA President Julie Midy. “I feel so grateful to be a part of the Worcester State community on days like this when we shine the light on issues that are important to us and honor those who might otherwise be forgotten.”
Many of the middle and high school students in the audience had read Enrique’s Journey  as part of their social studies curriculum. “So when we had the chance to come and hear Ms. Nazario speak, we felt it was just the perfect opportunity to bring them to both hear from the author and see a campus that they might attending in a couple years,” said Kate Leist, a teacher who chaperoned a group from Brooke Charter School in East Boston.
Enrique’s Journey reflects the trials of many of the youngest Latin American refugees. His mother left him in Honduras in the care of a grandparent when he was 5 years old so she could come to Los Angeles to work because there was no other way to get money for food. It would only be for a year or two, she thought, but the years quickly passed as she struggled to maintain a meager existence in an unfamiliar land while saving enough money to send some back home.
Enrique was devastated by his mother’s departure. “She was just always there by his side and she just disappeared on him, and he would beg his paternal grandma, who he was left with, ‘Is she ever coming back for me?’ ” Nazario said.
“His desperation grew so that, when he was 11 and 12 years old “on Christmas morning he would stand at the door of his grandmother’s wooden shack and he would pray to God for just one Christmas present, ‘Please, just bring her back to me,’ ” she said.
After 11 years of not seeing her, Enrique decided to set off and go find her. “Like most of these children, all that he had on him was this tiny scrap of paper with his momma’s phone number inked on it,” Nazario said.
Virtually penniless, Enrique goes the only way he can up the length of Mexico—by gripping onto the top and the sides of freight trains.
“From the moment these children cross into Mexico, they are hunted like animals all the way as they travel north through Mexico,” Nazario said. “There are people trying to rob them, rape them, beat them, kill them, or deport them.”
As dangerous as the journey is, it is actually safer than staying in many areas of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, where the homicide rates are among the highest in the world, second only to the Syrian war zone. Narcotics gangs terrorize elementary schools, she said, and physical and sexual abuse is rampant under governments that can’t or won’t protect the children.
“They leave because they know they will be killed if they stay,” she said.
The majority of these children can’t afford a lawyer so they come to immigration court completely alone to make their cases.
“I saw a 7-year-old boy. He’s standing in immigration court in LA, and he’s shaking like a leaf standing before that judge with fear. He’s being asked to present a complex asylum case against a government trial attorney arguing to send him back,” Nazario said.
About half of these kids qualify to stay here legally, she said, but without a lawyer, nine out of 10 lose their cases. With a lawyer to explain their story, seven in 10 of them win their cases.
As a way of helping, Nazario serves on the board of Kids in Need of Defense , a nonprofit launched by Microsoft and Angelina Jolie to provide pro bono attorneys to unaccompanied immigrant children such as Enrique.
Nazario completed her Worcester State visit with a luncheon with student leaders, faculty, and administrators.
Written by freelance writer Nancy Sheehan.