Writer Sonia Nazario on child refugees, perilous journeys and the drug war

File: Patrolling the border near Naco, Ariz.
This Oct. 2, 2012 file photo shows U.S. Border Patrol agents patrolling the border fence near Naco, Ariz.
Ross D. Franklin | AP

Sonia Nazario has reported on the perilous journey that immigrants — often just children — take from Central America into the U.S., and the way the justice processes them when they are here.

In the Twin Cities this week to receive an award from the Advocates for Human Rights, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer joined Kerri Miller for a conversation about the politics and the policy of reforming the U.S. immigration system.

Interview highlights:

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War on drugs

"Our policy for 30 to 40 years has been to lock up non-violent drug users. Just recently, a study came out saying our that the number of drug users was actually ticking up for the first time in 24 years despite the billions and billions we've spent on the war on drugs."

"We need to consider decriminalization as Portugal has done successfully and seen drug use go down."

Making pot legal in Amsterdam "decoupled the casual marijuana user from the street corner pusher of drugs. So more of those marijuana users do not step up to using meth and cocaine. They've seen use of those more hardcore drugs decline."

On illegal drug use in the U.S.: "We need to see this as a public health problem."

On immigrants "taking our jobs"

"We have seen people that are pushed out of jobs." However, Nazario adds, "there are clearly many jobs that Americans don't want to do." She pointed to the example of working on the kill floor in a meat packing plant.

She said she has interviewed Los Angeles mechanics who've been undercut by workers who entered the country illegally and are willing to fix a car "for a third of the cost."

Overall, Nazario says immigration is an economic boon for the U.S.

Rising rates of smuggling children as migration from Mexico slows

While the flow of illegal immigration has slowed significantly, the number of immigrant children has increased tenfold.

She also said family planning over the last 30 years in Mexico has dropped the average family size from seven children to two children. Mexico's economy has also improved in recent years.

"We paid Mexico $80 million to intercept [children at their southern border] to send them back to Latin American countries. Mexico has become the 'Deporter-in-Chief' for the U.S."