I was perplexed. I was on a bus in downtown Bogotá, Colombia when I wondered where were all the children? I had seen one holding his father’s hand a block back, but as the bus drove on beside the sidewalks crowded with shoppers, I didn’t see any more children.
We went a block, another block and another. I saw what must have been hundreds of adults, but no kids.
I had traveled widely in Colombia 35 years before and children had been everywhere. Rich kids with sharp outfits and poor kids in their rags. Everywhere I had gone, I had been accosted by children — selling mamoncillos (a delicious green tropical fruit) or lottery tickets or wanting to wash your windshield. Now, none.
I asked my Colombian friends what was going on. “Oh that is easy,” one answered. “It is too expensive to have children.” Another said, “We all live in the city and our apartments are too small. Big families are a thing of the past.”
But they were relatively rich, I thought, what about the poor? Where are the street children that had been so common in the past? My friends looked at each other. They didn’t know. After a period of silence, one said, “Maybe the army is shooting them?”
I knew that couldn’t be the reason. I personally know officers in the Colombian military. They may have had their faults, but they don’t shoot children. Later, a friend suggested that I look at the numbers in the American CIA Factbook (available on the Internet). He said, “Look at the total fertility rate (the average total number of children per women in a society) in Latin American countries. You’ll be surprised.”
I checked the Factbook — I was surprised. Mexico had a total fertility rate of 2.2 and Brazil (Brazil!) had a rate of 1.7. These were European numbers. France has a rate of 2.1 and the United States and Sweden have rates of 1.9. The children weren’t being shot, they never existed. Even the two poorest Central American Countries — Honduras and Guatemala — have rapidly declining birth rates (although trailing the richer countries like Mexico, Brazil and Colombia).
This discovery has led me to realize that we are not being invaded by an army of Latin Americans. That army doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist in the streets of Bogotá and it doesn’t exist in the streets of Los Angeles.
These demographics are reflected on the border in Arizona, where arrests of illegal immigrants have dropped 90 percent in the last 20 years — pacing the drop in birth rates. This dramatic demographic shift will hopefully give us time to develop a more humane immigration policy and the space for us to treat our neighbors with consideration and compassion.