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Friday, March 10, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"Enrique's Journey": Broken families, broken borders

The Dallas Morning News

"Enrique's Journey: The Story of a Boy's Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with his Mother"
by Sonia Nazario
Random House, 292 pp., $26.95

Some Americans who strongly oppose the rising tide of illegal immigration base their stance on a simple fact: It's a crime.

They have a point.

But some people also contend that you won't be able to stop the crime until you understand its origins. It's a subject that reaches beyond issues of guest workers or national economies — this is a mass migration of women and children.

"Enrique's Journey" by Sonia Nazario, a compelling new book derived from her Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times series, shows just how complicated such understanding can be. And how unlikely it is we will be able to seriously dent illegal immigration in the near future.

"Enrique's Journey" traces the harrowing odyssey of a Honduran boy who was left behind by his mother at age 5 and who, several years later, sets off on a treacherous trip to reunite with her in North Carolina via Dallas.

Like many other children, some as young as 7, he braves bandits, gangs and rapists as he crouches atop trains and tries to make it through Central America and Mexico in his quest to reach the U.S. border.

Retracing Enrique's route, Nazario makes clear that his story isn't all that unusual. About 700,000 immigrants enter the United States illegally each year. But in the past few decades, the demographics have started to change. With the rise of divorce and disintegration of the family in Latin America, many more single mothers are coming here to earn a living. Initially, they intend to return to their homeland in a couple of years with a financial stake. In the meantime, they send money home to help relatives take care of the kids.

But in many cases, the mothers never make it back home. And the children, lonely and increasingly desperate, set off with little money and even fewer chances of actually getting here.

Although Nazario didn't accompany Enrique on his journey, she tells the story from his perspective, having interviewed him and hundreds of others, as well as having taken the same trip herself, several times.

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Along the way, she finds villains and heroes. She sees the horrors of migrants falling off trains and having their arms or legs cut off on the rails. She talks with Mexicans who deeply resent — and actively oppose — the Central American tide. She interviews police chiefs who acknowledge that some officers beat and steal from children. And she finds Catholic priests who help kids such as Enrique when no one else will.

But it gets even more complicated once Enrique and other migrants reach Nuevo Laredo and try to enter Texas. It's almost impossible to cross the river and avoid border agents without paying substantial amounts of money to smugglers. The migrants are an illegal commodity, like drugs, so it's no surprise that this trade is run mostly by gangs.

Murder is common. Bloated bodies routinely turn up in the river or the desert as gangs battle for control of the smuggling. Even those who make it here have no guarantees. Children often find their mothers, only to face years of anger at having been abandoned in the first place. And mothers, who have worked long hours to send back money, resent the children's ingratitude.

Nazario doesn't pull any punches in "Enrique's Journey," which is sure to startle any complacent reader. She also knows that stories such as Enrique's will continue for many years to come.

"One Honduran teenager I met in southern Mexico had been deported to Guatemala twenty-seven times," she writes. "He said he wouldn't give up until he reached his mother in the United States. I began to believe that no number of border guards will deter children like Enrique, who are willing to endure so much to reach the United States. It is a powerful stream, one that can only be addressed at its source."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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