This short and powerful nonfiction piece by Valeria Luiselli is such a poignantly constructed insight into the immigration crisis/debate in America now. Luiselli relates her experiences working as a volunteer interviewing thousands of children from Central America who have been smuggled into the United States and are seeking residency/citizenship. She asks them questions from an intake questionnaire created by immigration lawyers that will play a large part in determining if the children will be granted status to remain or face deportation. Going through the questions one at a time she explains the way the immigration system is designed to keep as many people out as possible without accounting for these children’s vulnerable situation or America’s role in the creation of this crisis. At the same time, she relates her personal experiences as a Mexican immigrant whose own ability to work was restricted because of a delay with her visa. It’s an achingly personal book that makes a strong political statement. It skilfully asserts something that shouldn’t need to be stated, but which we need to be reminded of in a political climate that overwhelmingly seeks to vilify immigrants: that these are children who have suffered through hell and that by treating them as criminals we are only adding to their trauma.
Luiselli’s justified anger and frustration about the situation these children find themselves in is palpable throughout the book. As a volunteer whose main job is to translate the children’s answers and who can do nothing to assist or change the outcome of their cases she feels that “It was like watching a child crossing a busy avenue, about to be run down by any of the many speeding cars and trucks”. It’s striking how government policies don’t seem to recognize the human faces that Luiselli meets, but implements decisions based on strategic ways of restricting vulnerable children’s ability to fairly state their case and strip them of their humanity. In fact, it was shocking to learn how the Obama administration worked with the Mexican president to implement immigration policies in Mexico to more effectively prevent immigrants from other Central American countries from getting to the US in the first place. Given the current president’s stance on immigration from Central America it’s terrifying to think how even greater walls are being created to keep out children who face continuous abuse, slavery or death in their own communities.
People in the US are made to feel that these problems belong to the Central American countries, but the issues of drug wars, arms trade and gang violence are intimately tied with US history and its policies. Luiselli reminds us how “No one suggests that the causes are deeply embedded in our shared hemispheric history and are therefore not some distant problem in a foreign country that no one can locate on a map, but in fact a transnational problem that includes the United States – not a distant observer or passive victim that must now deal with thousands of unwanted children arriving at the southern border, but rather as an active historical participant in the circumstances that generated that problem.”
Threaded throughout this book is the request from Luiselli’s daughter to know how the stories of these immigrant children end. Of course, all of their stories are just beginning so in response she says “Sometimes I make up an ending, a happy one. But most of the time I just say: I don’t know how it ends yet.” I greatly admire the clear-sighted observations found in this book and its tremendous heart.