Since 2013, more than 100,000 unaccompanied children from Central America have crossed the border from Mexico into the United States, most of them fleeing gang violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, or Honduras. In June 2014, the Obama administration declared the children’s arrival a crisis, and established a fast-track system to sort the children into two categories: those who would be allowed to stay and those who would be deported.
Driven by the news, Valeria Luiselli, a Mexican-born novelist and essayist living in New York, started working as a translator in a federal immigration court responsible for dealing with the children’s cases. Her job was to ask each child forty questions, starting with “Why did you come to the United States?” and translate their answers for lawyers who would then build a case for asylum. Most of the kids she interviewed didn’t have a simple answer to the first question, and nor did Luiselli, who was in the middle of her own immigration proceedings, awaiting the arrival of a green card.
Luiselli’s recent book, Tell Me How It Ends (Coffee House Press, 2017), tells the story of her experience working as a translator. The book is structured around the forty questions on the intake form, questions that to Luiselli are inadequate for fully capturing the children’s journeys. At a moment when immigration policy is in the news more than usual, the book is a searing study of the cruelty and indifference built into the bureaucracy of the U.S. immigration system, and a reminder that such ill treatment didn’t begin with Donald Trump. In May I met Luiselli at Barney Greengrass deli on the Upper West Side to talk about her work.
Natasha Lewis: How did this book come to be?
Valeria Luiselli: When I started working in court, I had actually taken a stance against writing about it—in part because there was nothing to say yet. Well, there was a lot to say but I had no clarity. Everything that was happening was in the news as a headline of horror, but I think there was a lot of murkiness around what exactly was going on and what was going to happen to these children. And I did not understand the legal system at all yet—not that I do now, though I know enough now to be able to explain certain things to people.
Toward the end of 2015, many, many months after my editor John Freeman had first suggested I write about it, I decided to have a go. I had been in court for almost a year and I understood a bit more about how the legal system worked, or at least how immigration law worked with respect to these children’s cases. And as I say in the book, I had lost my job because I had my own immigration problems. So those were all the circumstances that allowed everything to come together.
The deeper reason for writing the book was that I noticed that the language that was being used in the media was not helpful. There was some natural compassion because it’s a story about children, but the words that were being used were the wrong ones: words like “illegal,” like “child migrants.” They were not child migrants—they were refugees. Even when the perspective was compassionate and tried to show support for the children, it did so in a way that was purely heartbreaking. “These poor kids!”
Lewis: Like liberal hand wringing?
Luiselli: Exactly. And there were no stories that encouraged us to look at ourselves for a moment and think about the political responsibility that we have as a society towards these children—because we are involved with the disaster, because we as a country have been complicit with the long-term historical processes, and the short-term ones too, that have eventually brought these kids over here.
So it’s not like “oh poor kids, let’s help them!” It’s the political responsibility of the country to respond to its own mess.
Lewis: You just talked about the murkiness of the media coverage. In the book you write about first finding out about the crisis on the news while you’re on a family road trip. It’s so unclear from the reporting what is happening and why. And even later when you’ve found out a bit more and the coverage is getting better, there’s still this lack of explanation of the causes of the crisis. What do you think is least understood about these children’s journeys?
Luiselli: Well, first of all, the U.S. government’s historical responsibility for the devastation of countries like the ones in the Northern Triangle. Few people know or care to look deeper into the CIA’s involvement in Latin America, for example: all the dictatorships, all the coup d’états, all the civil wars—that’s never talked about. I mean it’s talked about perhaps in a super elite intellectual publication—and of course in academic circles—but it’s not part of the cultural dialogue and discourse. I think it’s important to think about the CIA meddling with international politics, and what that implies in terms of the responsibility this country has toward the citizens of other countries whose lives it has destroyed.
Lewis: Several U.S. presidents appear in the book—George W. Bush and his Trafficking Victim’s Protection policy, and Barack Obama, whose administration’s response to the children’s arrival was, you write, the cruelest possible answer to the crisis. The “priority juvenile docket” was set up, meaning deportation proceedings were sped up, and the children had much less time to find a lawyer and build a case. Some were deported before they could even find a lawyer. Then Trump appears in the postscript, though his presence in a way loomed over the whole book.
Luiselli: Right, because as a reader, you know the future! But the persona of the essay doesn’t know the future.
Lewis: Right. When exactly were you writing this?
Luiselli: 2015. So Trump was nothing then. He was just a ridiculous millionaire.
Lewis: Obviously since Trump’s election, there’s been a lot more attention to the question of immigration. But as your book shows, the fact that there’s a cruel approach to immigrants or refugees or migrants is not a new thing.
Luiselli: And it’s not a partisan thing either. The Democrats have been as cruel and maybe even crueler in terms of immigration laws.
Bill Clinton started building the wall. It’s his wall! Obama did the amazing DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] executive action. I have no idea why Obama reacted the way he did to the children’s crisis. I believe maybe he didn’t understand the dimensions of it, maybe he was just working on his own little baby—which was the DREAM [Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act] Act, DAPA [Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, which, had it been implemented, would have allowed undocumented parents of U.S. citizens to apply for work permits and not be deported], DACA, and he thought everything else would cloud it and he had to reach a kind of compromise. It’s probably not very useful to speculate. The point is that Obama’s response to this crisis was not one that anyone could call responsible or humane.
Lewis: In the book you talk about your own experience with the immigration system alongside those of the children’s. Could you talk about that, and how your experience differed from but informed your understanding of what the children were going through?
Luiselli: It is a completely different experience of course. But for the average liberal middle-class American reader, even if they’re compassionate, I think it’s difficult for them to empathize with something that seems as distant as the case of a refugee seven-year-old kid who comes from a small town in El Salvador. But many will have a friend who’s in the process of getting a green card, right? So it’s layers and bridges to be able to get to the heart of the matter.
Lewis: Were the children ever interested in what you were doing in the United States?
Luiselli: They would always ask me. I had to explain that I wasn’t the police, I wasn’t a lawyer. I spoke Spanish well, so they knew I wasn’t a gringa, but then I had to reveal that I was Mexican, which is worse than being a gringa for them.
Lewis: Because of the experiences they had in Mexico?
Luiselli: Because Mexico is hell, Mexico is worse than the United States, much worse. Historically Central Americans have always felt discriminated and ignored by Mexico, but recently the number of deaths of Central Americans in Mexico is comparable to a genocide. It’s really hundreds of thousands of disappeared and dead. Children are kidnapped and taken into the narco gangs. Girls are raped. It’s like walking into a circle of hell. There are still very few organizations in Mexico that are trying to counter that.
Lewis: You talk about the women who give out the water on the La Bestia route [La Bestia, or The Beast, is the name for freight trains that run through Mexico, on top of which as many as half a million migrants ride each year].
Luiselli: Yes, Las Patronas. A lot of religious organizations have really been there to help. Alejandro Solalinde is Mexican and he runs migrant shelters in the south in Chiapas. I think his is the first one, though now there are several.
I have an uncle whose name is Valerio. He’s very close to me—he’s an old man, he’s in his eighties—and he belongs to a congregation of Jesuit educators called the Lasallistas. He read the book and he’s pushing his congregation to turn one of the properties that they have in Veracruz into a shelter, which is beautiful. But the treatment that these kids receive in Mexico is something to be really ashamed about. Many times I’ve had to say “I’m Mexican but . . .”
Lewis: Shame comes up a couple of times in the book. The seventh question you have to ask the children is “Did anything happen on your trip to the U.S. that scared you or hurt you?” which brings up the shame about what’s happening in Mexico, and then also there’s also this idea of collective shame—shame as the first step to becoming angry and then doing something. Could you talk a bit about how emotions play into politics for you?
Luiselli: That’s a very good question. I’ve been thinking a lot about shame lately because I was reading a book about the internet and public shaming.
Lewis: Is that the Jon Ronson one?
Luiselli: No, it’s a new one, I don’t know the title. I have to read about 500 books for the National Book Award because I’m a judge. I got into it because I was working on a novel for three years and then this book, so I needed to read about neuroscience and history. I was reading one of those books and it was pretty interesting because it is a growing fear for me to see how so many people I know are so vulnerable to becoming the object of public shaming and bullying if you write an article. Everyone feels so entitled to calling out anything and everyone and making others an object of public shame that it often gets out of hand, right? And it’s really out of hand.
At the same time, we’re not putting enough pressure on our politicians. In Mexico they are killing journalists, six this year [the number is now at least nine], there are femicides every single day and there seems to be a huge gap between the rage and the shame and actual accountability. Here, in the United States, it’s easier to turn shame, self-shame, shame as a society, and anger, political anger, rage, into a platform for accountability. There is a web of institutions here, like the ACLU, that allows for the sense of shame to be turned into political agency and action. And I think that’s what happened to me while I was writing this book. I was manufacturing that shame into a book but at the same time working on a new and very exciting small organization, the TIIA [Teenage Immigrant Integration Association], that’s minute and gets lost. My students at Hofstra have been doing the same in the aftermath of Trump’s election.
Lewis: What do you teach?
Luiselli: I teach literature and I guess you would call it cultural studies. More and more I teach whatever I want to teach. More and more I teach activism and literature together—there’s not a proper name for that.
But all my energy lately has gone into the TIIA. Basically it’s a group of students that are very organized and willing to do something. The one-on-one model is very much like the model that other organizations follow—organizations like the Young Center [for Immigrant Children’s Rights], which I greatly admire—where there’s one kid paired with one teenager.
In our case it’s one teenager paired with one college student and they meet at least once a week to do an English intensive, which is really what the kids most want right now because they’re in the process of learning. Then there are more political students at Hofstra and they like to introduce their politics in their conversations with kids I guess in the hopes that those teenagers will become perhaps more political as well and more active in their communities and I think that’s wonderful. And then we have soccer games.
Apart from that I’m basically a kind of call center, so I get calls from random kids in Long Island. Today I got two text messages from a girl who’s been coming to us for a while saying “Hey I’ve got two girlfriends who want to join the TIIA,” so I get out this messy Excel sheet where I pair teenagers with Hofstra students and then they start coming.
Lewis: Tell Me How It Ends feels to me like your most overtly political book so far, and the most angry. Do you think you’ll continue to write in this way? How do you see this book fitting in with your other work and also with your forthcoming novel?
Luiselli: I don’t know what I’m going to do next, luckily. In terms of its relationship with my other work, I know that it’s in a similar universe of deeper questions that are always the same but mutate.
I’ve always written about displacement, always written about translation, always written about exiles and exoduses—just in different forms. Sidewalks is a book that has a much more literary take on the subject. I was coming of age intellectually and fascinated by the essayists that had written about the subject. It’s a book by a very young, enthusiastic reader kind of assimilating and trying to put together the puzzle of all these voices. But all those voices are discussing exile and extranjeros—not strangers, foreigners.
I realized not that long ago, after I’d finished Tell Me How It Ends, that my undergraduate thesis was a very angry critique against John Rawls’s theory of justice from the viewpoint of illegal migration. When I say illegal migration I don’t say it irresponsibly. I mean there’s a difference between calling someone an illegal and talking about illegal immigration as a phenomenon, right? I was twenty-two when I wrote that.
Lewis: What’s your new novel about?
Luiselli: It is in part about child migrants. It’s not only about that but one of the threads is a story about seven children traveling aboard a train. It’s never called La Bestia and it’s not necessarily circumscribed to a specific geographical region. But of course it comes out from hearing the stories of children in court. It’s also the story of a family driving across the USA. They’re a foreign family but not necessarily Hispanic.
And in terms of the future I really don’t know. My only project is to remain very awake. To remain connected to what’s happening around me, connected and awake enough that I am able to channel it and essay on it and think about it, calmly, patiently, all while trying to not listen to all the noise. And right now I think I’m back to square one. I finished this book and I finished the novel that I spent three years working on. So right now I’m in that strange limbo where I’m just opening a new journal and writing.
Valeria Luiselli was born in Mexico City in 1983 and grew up in South Africa. A novelist and essayist, her work has been translated into many languages and has appeared in publications including the New York Times, the New Yorker, Granta, and McSweeney’s. You can read an excerpt from her most recent novel, The Story of My Teeth, in Dissent.
Natasha Lewis is a senior editor at Dissent.