the american immigrant society
The best assignments made the hair on my arms stand up when I heard about them. If they moved me, they might move others — to read to the end, to act on what they read. I looked for stories that made me mad, sad, disgusted, hopeful. I looked for stories with universal themes — revenge, redemption, greed.
I won the Pulitzer Prize for a series called “Enrique’s Journey” in the Los Angeles Times. At home in Mexico and Central America millions of single mothers were too poor to feed their children enough or to see them study past the third grade. Millions of them moved to the United States, leaving their children behind out of love. They found jobs and sent money home. But the children yearned to be with their mothers and set out on their own to find them.
An army of children, about 48,000 a year, was passing through Mexico and entering the United States unlawfully. Without money, many came the only way they could: grasping the tops of freight trains that traveled up the length of Mexico. They faced gangsters prowling the train tops, bandits alongside the rails, corrupt cops, all trying to rob, rape or even kill them. Many died or lost limbs. The youngest boy I heard of traveled alone across four countries. He was seven.
I wrote about these children through the story of one boy, Enrique, whose mother left him in Honduras when he was just five. Eleven years later, he set off to find her. I found Enrique in northern Mexico, spent two weeks with him, and then took the journey he had made. I traveled three months and 1,600 miles, half the time atop freight trains. What I witnessed changed me. Children who had lost arms or legs were trying to reach the United States and find opportunities I took for granted.
As a reporter, I had often circled back to immigration as a topic. I have migration in my blood. My father, born in Argentina, had parents who had fled persecution in Syria. Before World War II my Jewish mother left Poland, where she was born, for Argentina. Relatives who didn’t leave were gassed in Auschwitz. Of the four children my family, only I was born in the United States.
There were few immigrants in Kansas when I was child. I straddled two worlds, identifying with the outsiders. My parents, who spoke English with heavy accents, sat with friends in the front yard of our home sipping mate, a green tea they passed around Argentine-style in a gourd that everyone drank from. They roasted whole goats in the yard. Most people in Kansas didn’t do these things.
In journalism, I often tried to put readers in someone else’s shoes. I did this through immersion reporting, being a fly on the wall. I loved watching action unfold and describing it in detail. Being in the middle of the action, I could put reader there, too.
“Enrique’s Journey,” a six-part newspaper series that I expanded into a book, takes readers inside the life of an immigrant family and explores its choices and their consequences. More than 80 universities picked it as the book for all incoming freshman to read and discuss.
When students write me, they often begin: I was FORCED to read your book. Then their tone softens. They say they knew no immigrants growing up, but were taught to hate them. This story of one boy’s journey to be with his mother changes their perspective. They often say: You know the immigration issue. How can we fix this mess?
These readers prodded my inner rabble-rouser into action, and the Pulitzer Prize gave me a platform. I have spoken about immigration before the U.N. General Assembly and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I tell them the standard solutions from left or right — border enforcement, guest-worker programs, pathways to legalization — have failed. Any true solution must come from addressing the exodus at its source: Central America.
I became involved in other ways. In immigration courts in LA, I saw that children as young as 7 had to argue their own asylum cases. Most had no attorneys when they faced government lawyers and losing a case meant being returned to a violent country. I joined the board of a nonprofit called Kids in Need of Defense, which has recruited nearly 11,000 lawyers nationwide for children in asylum proceedings.
I became a voice — one of many — for immigrant children who come to this country alone. It gave me legitimacy and a chance to act on what I had found through my reporting.
Nazario talks about reaching out to immigrants in her daily life after penning 'Enrique's Journey' in this interview with María Hinojosa on One-on-One.
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Anyone who lives in a big Eastern seaboard city like Boston or New York has experienced irritation at getting into a taxi and finding the driver talking into his cellphone. The typical scene is that he barely interrupts his conversation to ask your destination before resuming a stream of Russian, Arabic, Hindi, or some other language you don’t understand. Many riders experience irritation at this, and bans on using cellphones while driving have been passed.
But these little encounters are a kind of global interface — you and the cabbie are where two worlds meet. If you can afford to ride in a taxi, you are likely to have reaped the rewards of the Land of opportunity, while the driver is just getting a seat at the table. On the phone he’s reaching out to his old world. He could be talking to his wife about how the kids are doing in school. If you have a dark imagination, however, he could be talking to a disgruntled cousin in Iraq whose anger is boiling over about America. One sees the occasional news story about foreign-born taxi drivers arrested for recruiting or contributing money to terrorists.
The most cherished myth about American immigration is the melting pot, but the situation is currently more like a boiling pot. Ellis Island has always stood for the former, more optimistic image. But the spectacle of mass immigration has always been bittersweet. In his 1917 silent short movie, The Immigrant, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp is on a boat pulling into New York Harbor — on YouTube you can view the scene titled “Arrival in the Land of Liberty.”
Chaplin, nattily dressed in his formal coat and bowler hat, is slumped on deck with a tight gaggle of immigrants. They jump to their feet to see the Statue of Liberty pass by, then they are immediately roped off by uniformed authorities. Meekly they submit as one by one they are allowed through a rope barrier. The Little Tramp isn’t quick enough, however, and his first greeting in the new land is a kick in the pants from a police guard.
Resentment and welcome are the two themes of historical immigration. No matter when your family arrived here — I came in 1971, a newly minted M.D. from India responding to the Vietnam War doctor shortage — there was always a simmering antagonism toward immigrants. I felt it from the established doctors in the emergency room in the hospital where I first worked in Plainfield, New Jersey. They assumed that I must have had an inferior education in India (in fact, the All-India Medical Institute in New Delhi boasted professors who came from the U.S. to insure a high level of quality graduates).
Being snubbed by American-born colleagues eventually led to my first appearance I print when the Boston Globe published my letter complaining of rank prejudice against Indian physicians. But opportunity is an undeniable factor in most immigrant stories, mine being no exception. Wave after wave of foreigners has withstood nativist pushback, whether it was the anti-Irish sentiment of the 19th century, the antisemitism that followed, giving way to the Red Scare, the McCarthy era, or the current furor over illegal immigrants.
No matter how far you go back, the melting pot ideal was always murky. New immigrants typically found a foothold in tight communities of the foreign born, and assimilation was a rocky road, as witness the vicious fighting between Irish and Italian gangs for political power in Boston a century or more ago.
The important thing throughout this turbulent history wasn’t that the melting pot merged myth and reality but that ideals mattered. Most Americans had no idea that powerful mixed feelings existed in the old country, too. As a recent observer astutely put it, “America is the most hated country in the world and the country everyone wants to come to.” When people grimly talk about the erosion of traditional norms, immigration policy could be Exhibit A. The world is witnessing a greater refugee crisis than at any previous period, we are told. A humane policy toward stateless people, whether they come from a war-devastated Syria or famine-devastated Senegal, should be upper most. Instead, some nativist faction is always seeking political power to deny entry.
It would be hypocritical for me to decry the current uproar over illegal immigration when this country, for all its contentiousness, gave me a chance to fulfill my dreams. Statistics show that upward mobility in the U.S. is declining. A 2012 report from the independent Economic Policy Institute states, “While faith in the American Dream is deep, evidence suggests that the United States lacks policies to ensure the opportunities that the dream envisions. According to the data, there is considerably more mobility in most other developed economies.” Comparing the earnings of fathers and sons, not just immigrants but across the whole society, the U.S. ranked fifth behind Slovenia, Chile, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
As income inequality widens a cross the developed world, there a growing desire for the haves to shut out the have nots, a distressing trend. Terrorist fears are grossly exaggerating the pressure to keep foreigners out, while on the other side of the gate refugees have no alternative but to leave countries where normal daily life cannot be sustained.
Strange as it may sound, I am grateful to the boiling pot and the melting pot both. Without the Vietnam War crisis, I would likely have been denied entry into this country, and without the Indian medical community to support me psychologically, my clashes with prejudice in the medical profession would have been harsher. The story of immigration has always been one of times in turmoil and populations in ferment. Those factors never change unless you are among the privileged few who enter this country based on a needed skill (as I did).
Right now the nativist movement seems to be in the ascendant, and balancing merit-based immigration (the model successfully used in Canada) and humanitarian concerns poses serious problems. The fact that the foreign-born amount to 13% of the population doesn’t look like pluralism taken to the breaking point, but the figure swells when you count second-generation immigrants, and one sees more immigrants on the streets of big cities than in rural areas.
I was a born rabble-rouser. My nickname at three years old was La Granuja, Spanish for the troublemaker. In my first drawing, I held two glasses full of whiskey. When I finished one, I’d drink the other, I told my mother. That contrarian streak drew me to journalism.
When I was 13, my father died suddenly of a heart attack in Kansas, where I grew up. My mother moved our family back to Argentina, where both my parents were from. Her timing was terrible. It was the beginning of the so-called dirty war. The Argentine military was about to take power and “disappear” — a euphemism for “kill” — 30,000 people. Some of those murdered were friends, including a 16-year-old who had all the bones in his face broken.
While walking in our Buenos Aires neighborhood with my mother one morning, I saw a pool of blood on the sidewalk. “What happened?” I asked. She said the military had killed two journalists. “Why?” I asked. She said the journalists were trying to expose the truth. Though just 14, I knew instantly I wanted to write stories, to be a truth-teller. I had seen what happened in a society where information was suppressed and people didn’t understand what was going on.
Because of the terror I lived through as a teenager, I often saw issues in simple strokes, as black or white, good or evil. But I soon learned most issues have shades of gray. The more you know, the murkier things get. I also learned that journalists must keep their opinions in check. Once, in my early 20s and working at The Wall Street Journal, I drove up in my Mazda for a dinner with the chairman of Dow Jones & Co., the newspaper’s owner. The car’s bumper sticker read, “US out of El Salvador!” My bureau chief almost ripped my head off, and rightfully so. The most powerful storytelling doesn’t pull the reader by the nose.
My mother had just arrived in Cleveland when I was born. She had met my father under very unusual circumstances, but their desire to migrate to the US was a very usual route for educated Turks trying to improve their lots in the 1960’s. But let’s not rush the story.
My father grew up in a poor village in central Anatolia, the son of a farmer in a worldwide Depression that hit Turkey harder than the US. He was educated 100% on scholarships, starting in middle and high school in Konya, which is the Nashville of Turkey. The whirling dervishes dance in their mosques in a very conservative community. He won a competition to enter medical school with a grant which precious few achieved, and spent the Second World War learning medicine from brilliant Jewish physicians who were fleeing Europe. He graduated first in his medical school class and won a funded position at Western Reserve Hospital, located seemingly a galaxy away in Ohio. His family took him to the airport and his mother, who had never seen an airplane, nevertheless insisted on meeting the captain. He kindly obliged and was handed a bagged lunch to serve my father and told to keep his flying mechanical bird low to the ground and avoid high speeds. Ironically immigrants instinctively know that this is bad advice. To leave their homelands and thrive in our land of opportunity, they learn to take risks as they soar to the heavens.
My mother comes from a wealthy family so would have her dresses hand made. Their trusted seamstress was my aunt Ayse who let slip (knowing her, on purpose) that her brother was in the States making his name as a young surgical resident. But he was coming home for the holidays and perhaps a meeting could be arranged. Despite their reservations, my mother’s parents permitted the meeting because, as I have been reminded throughout my life, my mother is stubborn, tenacious, determined and dogged. This part of the story is always vague in my parent’s usually sharp minds, but they appear to have met and married faster than Amazon prime delivers my socks. I was born a year later and witnessed their absorption in the American melting pot.
They started with little and often remind me that they would collect cans on the shoreline for the deposit money. Despite these modest beginnings, my father rapidly progressed thru a training facilitated by other recent immigrants who felt ex-patriot camaraderie. Their names sounded like a UN roll call, and their customs merged into ours for social events. Pig roasts with Philippine physicians at picnics with Turkish baklava, elevated by U.S. music. But the real recipe for success was the kindness of Americans who respected the bravery needed to leave one’s homeland and respected this nation’s need to attract the brightest minds on the planet. Mr. Slobody ran the local car dealership and held a welcome back party when my father returned with his new bride. Mrs. Slobody advised my mother on c=aring for her first child, since she was 5000 miles away from her mother. I grew up hearing these names uttered with great reverence and even called their children a few years ago to personally thank them for creating a new family for my parents upon their arrival.
Many speak of the melting pot of America. I think we are even better than that metaphor. Our nation has always reinvented itself by making immigrants part of the family. You don’t always like your family. In fact many joke that we fight so much with our families because if we were not related, we would not be friends. But family ties are thick and weave us into a quilt of community. They force us to deal with uncomfortable realities, while comforting us that tomorrow brings hope because family members never abandon each other. My parents appreciated this tug to join the American family and shared these values with all the kids they raised, students they mentored, and other immigrants they met. These ideals are in our DNA, which as the blue print of life, is supposed to be passed along and is my defense for frequently regaling my kids with the stories above.
It’s ironic that these rural areas are the seedbed of such fierce anti-immigrant feelings. It does little good to point out that robotics has taken away more blue-collar factory jobs than the foreign-born, that even illegal immigrants probably bring more to the economy than they take away, or that many of the biggest Silicon Valley tech firms were founded by children of immigrants, including Steve Jobs of Apple, whose biological father came from Homs, Syria, one of the cities now destroyed in the Syrian civil war.
What matters more than facts is perception. It takes only a handful of people speaking Arabic in the doctor’s waiting room to fuel the kind of resentment that led to the Brexit vote. The United Kingdom has only 9% of the foreign-born, the European Union only 8.6%, which implies that there is plenty of room for immigrants to arrive and begin their rise toward assimilation. But one inflamed incident like the 2005 protest over Danish newspaper cartoons satirizing the prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper can override reason and economic statistics.
I can’t foresee how this tug of war will end, but I know it will continue as it always has. Both sides, the aspiring foreign-born and the American-born, are defending their self-interest as they see it, using a combination of reason and irrationality, sympathy and prejudice, fact and fiction. What I hope for is enlightened self-interest instead of the naked kind. The taxis driver on his cellphone does me a service by getting me to my destination for a reasonable price, which is kept reasonable by his low salary. One day he or his children will hopefully move upward — millions have — and I will move on in my established life. I owe something to him as he owes something to me. That’s all that enlightened self-interest means.
As an Ellis Island medalist, I never lose sight of these swirling cross-currents, as I also take responsibility to stand up for the ideals that gave me a fresh start 47 years ago. America made me who I am in large part, and I must do what I can to make America what it hopes to be when our better angels are heeded.
Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, is a world-renowned pioneer inintegrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism. Chopra is the author of more than 85 books translated into over 43 languages, including Brotherhood: Dharma, Destiny, and the American Dream and Home: Where Everyone Is Welcome: Poems & Songs Inspired by American Immigrants. His latest book, The Healing Self, releases on January 30, 2018. For more information, visit www.deepakchopra.com
By SONIA NAZARIO
Reprinted from Pulitzer.org with the permission of the Pulitzer Prizes.
Sonia Nazario atop the train carrying migrant children whose stories she told in 'Enrique's Journey.'