07/15/2014 02:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Taking Kids as They Come: Soccer, the Border, and Dealing With Migration


Photograph by Patrick Davison for Los Jets

This week, workouts will begin under the hot sun for the high-school team I coach in Siler City, North Carolina. The team will be composed almost entirely of the sons of immigrants who first came to work in one of the town's two poultry-processing plants. The plants have since gone bankrupt, but newcomers still show up for "Los Jets" workouts. Over the past three seasons, these newcomers have not hailed from Mexico, as they did in previous seasons, but from Central America.

The current desperation of children fleeing violence and economic deprivation due to violence is not new to me. I saw this current crisis slowly begin with boys kicking a soccer ball. This migration of Central Americans is different from the earlier migration of Mexican nationals who were recruited to work cutting chicken. These kids are fleeing for their lives.

For the past 15 years I have been chronicling the impact of the Great Latino Migration to the American South. That story was told in my book, A Home on the Field, which recounts the lives of the boys on the soccer team and their incredible run to a state championship in 2004, making them the first predominantly Latino team to accomplish this in the South. That book has since been turned into a new documentary television series on NUVOtv called Los Jets, produced by superstar Jennifer Lopez, premiering this week. It tells the second chapter of the story: how these "Latinnials" are integrating into our society, and how immigrants have since become settlers.

The first migration was sparked and orchestrated by the insatiable desire for cheap labor by the food-processing industry, which transported workers from the border to towns like Siler City. This new migration from Central America is now being spurred by our insatiable demand for illicit drugs and the violence and destruction that that demand causes in Latin America.

Over the past 15 years, one thing has become very clear to me: As a country we have rarely tackled the causes of migration beyond border enforcement, which has been mildly successful. The current crisis lays bare the failings of this shortsighted policy.

No one is for illegal immigration. No one. Not me. Not anyone I know. Illegal immigration breaks apart families, hurts children, results in deaths, and causes disruption in home countries.

We've tried border enforcement for the past 20 years, and longer if we go back to the Reagan administration. How is that working? We need to augment our tactics and recognize that we are in a relationship with our neighbors, one where migration is a significant factor. Our policies need to reflect that. Our leaders need to recognize that it is in our national interest to do so, because migration will always be a factor. Want to pass a free-trade agreement? Ask how that will impact migration. Want to continue consuming recreational drugs? Consider how that will impact children in Guatemala and Honduras. Need cheap labor to cut chicken and steaks and build your house? Ask whether that will spur another migration. And ask yourself, "Would we better served spending our money on more boots on the ground at the border or on shoes for kids in Honduras?"

There are many questions being thrown around Washington. Yet few if any are asking these questions. Instead, the president is asking for $3.7 billion to address the issue, much of which will directly aid these refugees and their facilities. But he's also asking for a lot of that money to go for more border enforcement. A small portion of that money, $300 million, is to go to efforts in these home countries. Consider the fact that the operational budget for the city of Knoxville is more than this sum. That's fine, but as long as our leaders play a game of containment and refuse to tackle real causes of migration, we will see desperate people, especially our neighbors, come. That's America. The desperate come to America. Always have, always will. We all have a story of desperation and seeking freedom in our family history. All of us. These kids too.

There is a lot of blame going around with this current humanitarian crisis. Three administrations have tried to pass immigration reform. George W. Bush came the closest and left office with regrets that he wasn't able to convince his party members in the House to pass it. Responsibility rests with the lawmakers who have used this issue to play politics and appease their bases while abdicating their responsibilities to solve real problems.

Countries have a right to sovereignty. They have the right to control who become members and who do not. At the same time, countries that claim a right to sovereignty at the front door should have no complaints when they open the back door to invite workers to come and clean their homes, repair their roofs and set their tables. No this current migration is asking us as Americans how we treat the least of these at our doorstep, pleading for help and succor.

As a journalist, the more I learn, the more I am convinced that the answer to this crisis lies beyond just border enforcement. As a coach, I won't turn away any kid wanting to play. I take them as they come. That's how you treat kids.

Los Jets airs Wednesday, July 16, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NUVOtv. See a clip below: