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Children Flee For Their Lives, Says Journalist Covering Border Crisis


Now let's get a view on the thousands of Central America children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, a different view from that of U.S. officials who considered them migrants who mostly need to be sent home.


Sonia Nazario says many are actually refugees. She testifies before a Senate committee today. Nazario wrote "Enrique's Journey" that's an acclaimed 2006 book about a kid from Honduras who reached the U.S. This year she returned to Enrique's Honduran hometown and she wrote of what she found in the New York Times.

SONIA NAZARIO: These children 10 years ago were largely economic migrants. They were coming to better their lives and to reunite with the mother or father who had left them behind. Now these children are fleeing for their lives because the narco-cartels really have, in the last few years, gained this grip on Honduras. They control a lot of neighborhoods now and the foot soldiers that they are recruiting in their fight to control turf are these children and a lot of these children have been threatened multiple times. And I saw this with one boy, Christian, an 11-year-old boy who I interviewed, you know, he was pressured to use marijuana and crack or we're going to beat you up. And he knew what was coming because many of his friends had been severely beaten by these delinquents who report to the cartels. He had seen three people that he knew killed this year. He told me, you know, I have to get out or they're going to kill me if I don't sign up to work for them. And there was a 12-year-old who had shown up at the school and said, I want these three 10-year-olds to distribute crack with me today. And a teacher had balked and said, no you can't take them out of this school today. And this 12-year-old had put a pistol to the teacher's head and said, yes, you'll release them. So what I saw was enormous control over these - the even the elementary schools - that these children face.

INSKEEP: As you attempt to establish that people are coming here because they're fleeing violence, aren't people also migrating from areas that are less violent in Latin America?

NAZARIO: Yes. And think that we should distinguish between economic migrants, people who are coming here to better their lives, and refugees. That's a person who is fleeing for their very life. And that's why, you know, I will advocate to the Senate that I think we need to set up refugee centers and hold these children for 60 to 90 days in these refugee centers and bring immigration judges into these centers to adjudicate these cases. And if they qualify as a refugee, I believe that Americans will allow us to let these children in as refugees. I believe Americans are incredibly compassionate towards vulnerable children who face life and death circumstances and we don't want to be sending children back to their deaths.

INSKEEP: Although, if you're talking about refugee camps in the United States you're raising what, to some people, will be a troubling prospect. Are you willing to say, well, it just might be years - the kids would be in refugee camps, they'd grow up in these refugee camps.

NAZARIO: I think we can process these kids quickly in these refugee camps if we put the resources in terms of immigration judges coming to these camps so that they could quickly process these children. One of the problems is that there haven't been enough immigration judges and so there is this huge backlog and it does take years for these children's cases to be processed. And a lot of children ultimately don't show up to their court hearings. But if you hold children in refugee camps you are forcing them to go through that court process while they're there.

INSKEEP: And beyond the process it seems like you have a different point of view from both the Obama administration and many Republican and other lawmakers in Congress. An administration official on this program the other day effectively said, I'm paraphrasing here, listen, a lot of these kids - this is a humanitarian crisis - but a lot of these kids are not our problem, they need to go back. That's the law. Your bottom line, I think, is that a lot of the kids should be allowed to stay, ultimately.

NAZARIO: You know, the U.N. recently did a study interviewing 400 of these children and they found that 6 in 10 of these kids did qualify for international protection. I'm not saying this, the U.N. is saying this based on a study. These children are not only fleeing to the U.S. There has been a 700 percent increase in recent years of these children seeking asylum in neighboring Central American countries. So it's clear to me that these children are fleeing for their lives and we need to treat them in a humane and practical way and let in those who are fleeing for their lives and deport children who are not fleeing for their lives.

INSKEEP: Sonia Nazario, thanks for coming by.

NAZARIO: Thank you.

INSKEEP: She testifies before a Senate Committee today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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