Between 2013 and 2015, more than 100,000 unaccompanied child migrants showed up at or crossed the US-Mexico border, seeking asylum or some other form of legal status. Numerous articles and reports documented these children en masse, pointing out the violence they were fleeing and the violence of the policies that met them. And yet misperceptions still abound: Though classified by the US government as “unaccompanied” because they arrived without their parents, most of the children—they continue to arrive—are not actually traveling alone, but are accompanied by family members or trusted guides. And though the numbers and the media reports may conjure images of small children toddling across the border, an overwhelming majority of these children are teenagers. Even if some Americans have warmed to their plight, images of raucous protesters shouting at the children to go home, as well anti-immigrant rhetoric and draconian policies still spewing from the Trump administration, continue to haunt our national immigration conversation.
Mexico-born author Valeria Luiselli has written a slim and moving book on her time working as an interpreter for child refugees making their cases, in court, to remain in the United States. The book, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, both broadens our understanding of these children and narrows in on our contradictory reception of them. Luiselli, a young and accomplished novelist and essayist whose recent novel, The Story of My Teeth, was nominated for a National Books Critics Circle Award, interrogates the American conscience as she questions these children. In doing so, she guides us towards, as she puts it, “understanding the unthinkable.”
“The children’s stories,” Luiselli writes, “are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order.” Luiselli doesn’t exactly restore order to the broken narrative, but she helps readers bear witness to their painful arcs. I interviewed Luiselli via e-mail about her perspective on how the trials of these children reveals the political underbelly of this country.
John Washington: You differentiate between the idea of an immigration crisis and a refugee crisis, emphasizing that child migrants belong to the latter. In an essay contextualizing the contemporary refugee crisis in the thinking of Hannah Arendt, Lyndsey Stonebridge writes, “When you have a ‘refugee’ cris[i]s what you also have is a political, existential and moral crisis about what a country is and who its citizens are.” What does the situation with child refugees and their treatment by the US government say to you about the nature of this country?
Valeria Luiselli: A refugee crisis forces a country to react according to higher standards—moral, political, and legal. And thus, to look at itself in the mirror, so to speak, and judge whether its institutions, political parties, and citizenry are indeed up to those standards. But I don’t think the case of the US, when it comes to refugee and immigration crises, is too different from other world powers.
As I answer this interview, I’m sitting in a café in a remote town in Sicily, not far from the iconic island of Lampedusa, where thousands of African migrants arrive, seeking refuge from wars, political persecution, and extreme poverty—after sailing across the capricious Mediterranean Sea. We drive down to this town every day, for WiFi, food, water, and other commodities. As we drive down we religiously listen to Rai Radio 3—Italy’s NPR. Every day, the radio broadcasts news about the crisis in Europe. And the discussion, at least on Rai Radio 3, is recently centered on this precise problem: Are they refugees or migrants? The Italian right tends to lean toward the latter definition, arguing that Italy does not have the resources to accommodate more immigrants. The Italian left, or a portion of the left, argues that most people arriving are refugees and should thus be accommodated—following both international and national laws.