Enrique’s Journey

One day, I was having a conversation in my kitchen with Carmen, who came to clean my house twice a month.

I asked her: did she want to have more children? I thought she just had one young son.

Carmen was normally chatty, happy. But when I asked her about having more children, she fell stone silent. Then, she started sobbing.

She told me she had left four children behind in Guatemala. She said she was a single mother—her husband had left her for another woman. Most days, she could only feed her children once, maybe twice. At night, they cried with hunger.

She showed me how she would gently roll them over in bed, and tell them: “Sleep face down, so your stomach doesn’t growl so much.”

She has left her four children with their grandmother in Guatemala and come north to work in Los Angeles, and hasn’t seen them in 12 years.

I stood in my kitchen, stunned, asking myself what kind of desperation does it take for a mother to leave her children, go 2,000 miles away, without knowing when or if she would see them again? I soon learned three things: worldwide, migrants are no longer predominantly men. Today, of the more than 214 million migrants circling the globe, more women migrate than men. Many of these women, like my housecleaner, were leaving children behind. In doing so, they were creating a new class of children—so-called “mobility orphans”.

Save the Children estimates there are tens of millions of these mobility orphans worldwide—a million left behind each year in Sri Lanka alone. And, as would later become the case with my housecleaner, children left behind and in desperation after years of not seeing their mothers often set off on their own to find them, in what for many becomes a modern-day odyssey.

Latin America was the first developing region in 1990 to have as many women migrate as men. In parts of the past decade, three quarters of migrants leaving the Philippines and Indonesia were women.

The United Nations has long focused on the benefits of migration, both for sending and receiving countries. I stood in my kitchen that morning with my housecleaner wondering: what were the benefits? What were the costs?

Those questions launched me on an amazing journey—to Honduras, and on top of freight trains for three months travelling up the migrant routes through Mexico. Women migrants, I learned, came to take care of other people’s children as nannies, but weren’t there to see their own children take their first steps, or hear their first words.

In Latin America, growing family disintegration spurred many single mothers to migrate. In what became the largest wave of migration in United States history since 1990, 51 per cent of those coming were women and children.

Women told me when their children cried at night, they filled a big glass with water, stirred in a teaspoon of sugar or a dollop of tortilla dough, to fill their stomachs with something. To them, leaving was the ultimate act of love; their sacrifice meant their children might eat and perhaps even study past the third grade.

All the women I talked to told the same story: they left their children with one promise: I’ll be back in a year or two—at most. Life in the United States was much harder than advertised. Often, separations stretched into five or ten years—or more. Their children got desperate to be with them again. They told themselves: if my mom can’t come back to me or send for me, I’m going to find her!

Today, there is a small army of children, about 100,000 per year, heading north to the United States unlawfully and alone—without either parent—from Mexico and Central America. The number of unaccompanied children doubled in the past year and is expected to jump again this year.

Children aren’t just coming to be with their mothers; they are fleeing increasing violence fuelled by transnational gangs vying for turf to move drugs north. These battles have given Honduras and El Salvador the highest homicide rates in the world. In El Salvador, 9-year-old boys describe being recruited by gangs as they walk home from elementary school. The warning: join, or we will kill your parents, rape your sister.

I wrote about the millions of mobility orphans through the true story of one boy, Enrique, whose mother leaves him in Honduras when he is five years old to work in the United States. Enrique begs his paternal grandmother, who he is left with, “Cuando vuelve mi mami? When is my mother coming back?” Desperate to be with her, 11 years later he sets off on his own to go find her. All he has is a scrap of paper with her telephone number, and a burning question: Does she still love me?

Virtually penniless, he travels the only way he can, clinging to the tops of freight trains up the length of Mexico. Thousands of children make this journey every year in search of their mothers. The youngest I heard about was a 7-year-old boy. I travelled with a 12-year-old boy going in search of his mother. He was traversing four countries, alone, navigating by little more than the arc of the sun.

From the moment Enrique crossed into Mexico, he was hunted down like an animal by bandits alongside the tracks, gangsters who control the train tops, and corrupt cops. Today, the most feared narco-trafficking cartel in Mexico, the Zetas, controls the train routes; they are kidnapping 22,000 migrants a year for ransom. Their favorite target: children, using the slip of paper they carry with their mother’s telephone number to make demands in exchange for the child’s life. Many children, who must get on and off the trains away from the stations and while they are moving, lose arms and legs to the train, called el tren de la muerte, the train of death.

Enrique is nearly beaten to death by six thugs on top of a freight train. He escapes one of the men who is strangling him by flinging himself off the fast-moving train.

To write Enrique’s story, to show what this journey is like for so many children, I spent two weeks with him in Mexico near the United States border, and then went to Enrique’s house in Honduras. From there, I did the journey, step by step, exactly as Enrique had just weeks before. I travelled for months, 1,600 miles, half of that on the top of seven freight trains. I had many close calls and difficult experiences. A big tree branch almost swept me off a train top. It got the teen behind me, who flew off and down to the churning wheels below. When I returned home to Los Angeles, I had nightmares of gangsters running after me on top of trains.

Despite what I had been through, I understood I had experienced just a fraction of the danger children go through on this journey. The journey also helped me understand what drives these women and mobility orphans out of their homelands. In Honduras, help wanted ads told women that if they were 28 years or older to not bother applying. The children of mothers who stayed in Honduras in Enrique’s neighbourhood often ended up working as scavengers in this horrific dump. The journey helped me see a kind of determination I could never have imagined—determination no wall will stop. Enrique tries eight times to get through Mexico—braving 122 days and 12,000 miles.

I saw migrants inflicted with horrible cruelty, and also amazing acts of kindness. In South-Central Mexico, when people in tiny towns along the tracks heard the whistle of the train, I watched them rush out of their homes with bundles of food in their arms. They would wave, smile and shout out to migrants perched on top of the trains. They threw bread, tortillas, whatever fruit was in season—bananas, pineapples, or oranges. If they didn’t have even that, they lined up next to the tracks, and sent out a prayer to the migrants atop the train.

These were the poorest Mexicans, who could barely feed their own children. They gave, they said, because it was the right thing to do, the Christian thing to do, what Jesus would do standing in their shoes.

Migration, the movement of people, is one of the biggest social and economic issues of our time. I come at this issue with migration in my blood—my grandparents fled Syria and Poland for Argentina; my parents migrated from Argentina to the United States—and as someone who has written about the issue for nearly three decades. From my perspective in the United States, I see it as an issue with many shades of gray, with winners and losers.

The influx of migrants since 1990, the largest in United States history, has indisputably helped; migrants have done jobs Americans clearly don’t want to do and helped spur the nation’s $13 trillion economy. Migrants, per one study, have cut by 5 per cent the cost of all goods and services everyone in the United States buys.

But there have been clear consequences. Take the 1 in 14 Americans, mostly African-American and Latino, who don’t have a high school degree and are among the most disadvantaged in our society. They have seen their wages depressed because of competition from migrants.

Migrant women and children have also been hurt. Certainly, mothers who migrate are able to send money home and, as a result, their children are able to eat well and study. But after years apart, most of these children resent and even walk up to the line of hating their mothers for leaving them. They feel abandoned. They tell their mothers that even a dog doesn’t leave its litter. Many mothers lose what’s most precious to them—the love of their children. Resentful children disproportionately join gangs or get pregnant with an older man, searching for the love they dreamed of having when they finally reunite with their mothers.

Studies show mobility orphans have higher levels of depression, lower academic levels, and greater physical and emotional problems. Drug abuse is more common. Enrique turned to glue sniffing in Honduras to fill the void of his mother’s absence, an addiction he has found hard to overcome.

In October 2013, as the United Nations holds a second High-level Dialogue on International Migration and Development, it will once again focus on how to improve the lives of all migrants, especially mobility orphans.

The migrants I met in Central America and along the train tracks in Mexico stressed that if they could stay at home with all they love—their family, culture, language, and especially their children—they wouldn’t leave. Women said they felt forced to leave, and told me that if they could feed their children, clothe them and send them to school, they would have stayed.

This exodus, they said, must be tackled at its source, in terms of helping to create more jobs in developing countries. For the United States, that means working on the lack of opportunity for women in just four countries that send three-quarters of the women who come to the United States without permission. We must bring every thing to this task: more microloans to help women start businesses, trade policies that give preference to goods from these countries and help promoting education for girls. We must promote more democratic governments that redistribute wealth, the opposite of what the United States has historically done in the region. We must take billions spent on useless things like walls and put that money into targeted economic development.

Readers of Enrique’s Journey, perhaps the most widely read book about immigrants in the United States today, have taken this approach to heart. The story of one boy has caused them to organize to build schools, water systems, and homes for single mothers in Central America. One California high school raised $9,000 to provide a microloan to help coffee-growing women in Olopa, Guatemala expand their business, so that more mothers could stay at home with their children.

Today, the United States Congress is debating the same old approach to regulating migration: amped up border enforcement, guest worker programmes, and pathways to citizenship—all approaches that have done little to help people stay at home. These approaches sealed in migrants who would prefer to circulate back home, brought people as temporary workers who never left, and caused the number of unlawful migrants to grow anew. Too often, we get the migration policy that the strongest prison, agricultural, high tech and business lobbies push for.

There is still little to no discussion of immigration as an international development issue, even though presidential commissions have advocated this as the only long-term solution to unlawful migration since the 1970s. Instead, the focus has been on open trade, the elusive promise of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, to lift all boats through development. And, countries have furiously built walls.

What if, instead, each developed country took on the task of job creation for women in the handful of countries that send them immigrants? Imagine if the United Nations worked to coordinate a small percentage of the $406 billion in yearly remittances that flow from migrants in developed to developing countries to produce projects that create jobs.

Migrants shouldn’t have to rely on food throwers—the kindness of strangers—for help. The United Nations, governments in developed countries, and non-governmental organizations must become their champion in changing the direction of what must be done.