In March 2015, Valeria Luiselli began volunteering as an interpreter for unaccompanied children appearing before the New York City immigration court. A Mexican writer and novelist, Luiselli’s only previous experience with the U.S. immigration system involved her own green card application (then still pending). She was captivated by the news stories she heard about tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors fleeing Central America and entering the United States in the spring and summer of 2014, and wanted to get involved any way she could. Later, Luiselli wrote about her experience in an essay published in English in literary anthology Freeman’s. Luiselli then rewrote the essay in Spanish and expanded it into a short book in 2016; that book was then published in English as Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions earlier this year. The book effectively weaves in facts and statistics about this humanitarian crisis with Luiselli’s frank reactions to the heartbreaking stories she heard from these children day after day, framed by the forty-question screening questionnaire she was required to complete for each child.
As I read Luiselli’s evocative prose, her response to the harrowing stories she heard struck me as perfectly natural. As an immigration attorney who has represented unaccompanied children in removal proceedings for almost a decade, I found myself nodding in recognition at Luiselli’s observations about the disconnect required to “leave the brutal and exceptional reality of the stories we heard and translated that day” to return to the “business-as-usual reality” of one’s everyday life. As Luisellli says, “no one is ever prepared” to repeatedly hear teenagers and young children talk about the familial abuse they’ve suffered in their home countries, the appalling gang violence they’ve witnessed or even endured themselves, and the treacherous journeys to the United States, even though the responses can become “predictable” after a while.
Luiselli also perceptively describes what she calls “the warped world of immigration,” when a “correct” answer to one of the intake questions, an answer that will make the child’s legal case stronger, is almost always one that signifies unimaginable horror in the child’s actual life. Every day, I am put in the unenviable position of telling children who, for example, were effectively cared for by loving family members before coming to the U.S. and have never had any direct contact with gang members, that they are unlikely to qualify for any type of legal status. Yet when a child has been cruelly beaten by a family member, or raped by gang members, or has seen one (or, better yet, more than one!) member of his or her family killed — these are things that will make the child more likely to qualify for legal relief and able to stay in the United States legally, things which I am supposed to “want” to hear from my clients. Seeing Luiselli, someone from outside the system and without legal training, recognize this absurdity was refreshing, if still demoralizing.
But I was heartened to see that Luiselli also appreciated the courage and resilience of children who flee to another country, on their own, with no real idea of what lies on the other side of the border. She describes children’s “instinct for survival” and writes that “[c]hildren chase after life, even if that chase might end up killing them.” She describes one woman whose nephew and daughters resisted coming to the U.S. until the gang violence surrounding them became too dangerous to bear any longer – “Up until then, letting the children travel alone with a coyote had been unimaginable… Suddenly the idea of allowing them to stay … became even more unimaginable.” Luiselli understands what those misguided individuals who protested against buses of unaccompanied children in 2014 failed to grasp – that no one, but especially no child, risks everything in this way unless the risk of not doing so is greater. (Luiselli also does not hold back in her opinion of the protests and media descriptions of children arriving “like a biblical plague” to take over the U.S.— she and her family “wonder if the reactions would be different were all these children of a lighter color: of better, purer breeds and nationalities. Would they be treated more like people? More like children?”)
Throughout the book, Luiselli also voices her understandable frustrations with the governments involved in the western hemisphere’s refugee crisis. She first criticizes the lack of an effective, humane response by the U.S. government to the children seen as flooding over its southern border. She describes how children consistently complained about “hieleras” or “iceboxes,” holding cells where the children are first detained along the border, and which are notoriously kept at frigid temperatures. She also highlights the children’s allegations of mistreatment by border officials, which have led to formal complaints and lawsuits over the years.
Luiselli also criticizes the Obama administration’s initial decision (since retracted) to fast-track unaccompanied minors’ cases in immigration court and the lack of legal assistance provided to these children, calling this the “quieter, more bureaucratic, legal emergency created by the federal government.” She also points out the unequal treatment of Mexican (and, at least hypothetically, Canadian) children apprehended at the border under a 2008 law. I couldn’t help but think how appalled she would likely be if she knew of Congress’s repeated (though, thankfully, thus far unsuccessful) attempts to roll back the protections provided to children of other countries so that they’re all treated like Mexican children. Similarly, when she writes about the guilt many children feel about potentially exposing their undocumented family members to the U.S. government when they come forward to claim their children, I immediately thought of how much worse that guilt may have become over the past few months, with the Trump administration’s threats to initiate civil or criminal enforcement against parents who pay for “smugglers” or “traffickers” for unaccompanied minors.
Luiselli then denounces the unwillingness of any of the region’s governments to accept any sort of responsibility for this refugee crisis. She provides a brief history of how the gangs currently terrorizing Central America began to take root there only after being created in 1980s Los Angeles and then being deported from the U.S. amid 1990s-era immigration reforms – though there is no acknowledgment of this history to be found in any formal U.S. government accounts. Luiselli writes:
The attitude in the United States toward child migrants is not always blatantly negative, but generally speaking, it is based on a kind of misunderstanding or voluntary ignorance. Debate around the matter has persistently and cynically overlooked the causes of the exodus. When causes are discussed, the general consensus and underlying assumption seem to be that the origins are circumscribed to “sending” countries and their many local problems. 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 as 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.
Luiselli seeks to hold her native country’s government to task for its role as well. She describes the dangers that many Central American migrants face when traveling through Mexico — gangs and criminals who rob, physically or sexually abuse, and even kill migrants on their northward journey, all without much punishment from the Mexican government. But she also explains the policies implemented by Mexico’s Ministry of the Interior in recent years (with encouragement and funding from the U.S. government, of course). Under its Programa Frontera Sur, Mexico claims to be protecting the “safety and rights” of migrants. In reality, the program has made migrants even more vulnerable and has raised grave due process concerns. Luiselli calls Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto “the continent’s new deporter-in-chief” and reports that “since 2014, he has deported more Central Americans each year than the United States, more than 150,000 in 2015.” She notes that although “Mexicans are eager and tireless critics of U.S. immigration policies,” they “are far too lax and self-indulgent when it comes to evaluating our own country’s immigration policies, especially where Central Americans are concerned.” She repeats her call for all governments and citizens in the region to accept the parts they have played in this crisis, as the only way to begin to solve it.
Overall, I found Tell Me How It Ends to be a fantastic read. I highly recommend it to anyone looking to learn more about the issue of unaccompanied minors in the Americas — though sadly, I fear that those who would most benefit from Luiselli’s insights and message are those least likely to pick up this slim but important book.