‘A Refugee Crisis Forces a Country to React According to Higher Standards’

‘A Refugee Crisis Forces a Country to React According to Higher Standards’

‘A Refugee Crisis Forces a Country to React According to Higher Standards’

An interview with Valeria Luiselli, the author of Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions.


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.

The strange thing is that, in the US, both Democrats and Republicans have leaned toward conceiving the recent Central American exodus as an immigration crisis, and not a refugee crisis. During the presidential campaign, Democrats tended to project a very generous attitude toward borders, focusing more on protecting human rights than on border protection. But the truth is that, in office, Democrats have been as ruthless and inhumane as their counterparts. It was Obama’s administration—as hard as it is to accept—that financed the mass deportations of thousands of Central Americans from Mexico and executed policies like the priority docket for unaccompanied minors.

What does all this say about the nature of the US? Well, I think of it this way: Native Americans were not considered American citizens until 1924; more than 50 million people in the US speak Spanish, and the US is the second largest Hispanic country in the world, yet no one would say that the US is a Hispanic country; Mexico is, in the minds of way too many people, a kind of barbaric backyard to the south. In short, the US’s resistance to accept its multiracial, multi-lingual nature is at odds with reality. And the fact that the US does not exist in a kind of cultural, historic and geographical vacuum simply has to be faced and dealt with.

JW: You describe the cruelty of the US borders as “a thin crust,” with “a possible life” waiting within. And yet, especially through the story of Manu (the 16-year-old Honduran boy terrorized at his high school—in Hempstead, New York—by the same gangs that were threatening him in Honduras), the book repeatedly complicates the promise, if you don’t have legal status, of what is possible in this country.

Though a nation state may have a lot of identity invested in the presentation of its borders, daily life in America’s cities and countryside presents ongoing difficulties for immigrants. What most impressed you about the struggles of child migrants after they had already arrived to the US?

VL: In order to be eligible for immigration relief, minors have to be enrolled in school in the US. Yet many schools make enrollment difficult if a person is undocumented—even if, by law, they have to accept kids regardless of their immigration status. Representing some of the minors as an interpreter, I’ve made innumerable telephone calls to school principals and admissions counselors, to no avail. The Department of Education is as hard to navigate as Homeland Security.…

But beyond institutional barriers, there is another, more invisible, yet more real one. When a Central American kid arrives in a high school, say, in Long Island, he or she immediately has to face the intricate taxonomy of race and ethnicity so particular to the US. A Central American kid is not white, not black, but also not Latino—at least upon arrival. (A Latino or Hispanic is usually someone that has been here for a while, and may not even speak Spanish, though his or her parents and grandparents do. A Latino does not identify as a “migrant”—and if you ask a high-school Latino student about migration, he or she is most likely to give you the finger and say, “I’m not a migrant!” Newcomer Mexicans are not Chicanos. New Central Americans are not anything at all—except aliens, maybe.)

So something is perhaps very wrong at the bottom of the current discourse on minorities, and minority divides. The concept of a “minority” may be a very elegant and politically correct way to talk, in college classrooms and bien pensant publications, about the disenfranchised—though soon-to-be majority—of the US population, but it has produced an internal rupture in those who receive the label, making daily life much more difficult to decode and navigate, and also creating an identity obstacle that is virtually impossible to overcome.

JW: You write: “Few narratives have made the effort to turn things around and understand the crisis from the point of view of the children involved.” There are many examples of compelling immigrant novels, but few deal directly with the migration experience itself. Am I missing some great works? (I can think of a couple Mexican novels, by Antonio Ortuño or Emiliano Monge, neither of which have yet come out in English). If not, is there a reason we don’t see many contemporary American or Mexican novels treat the journey of migration?

VL: Emiliano Monge’s novel [Las tierras arrasadas (The Scorched Earth)] is masterly. I read it last year, and it left a deep impression in me. And then I read it again, with my students at Hofstra University, and I think they were rather mind-blown.

I have yet to read Ortuño’s—he is also a writer I’ve followed closely and I regard most highly. His La fila india was the first novel in Mexico, that I recall, that dealt specifically with the Central American exodus. Then there is the important work that journalists are doing. An indispensable voice is that of the Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez, whose The Beast and other books are available in English. But in any case, it’s maybe too early to tell where the “great works” are. Some of them may already be here, or soon to come, but we are still too close to the horror to see through it clearly.

JW: Chapters of your novel, The Story of My Teeth, were read aloud to workers at the Jumex juice factory in the outskirts of Mexico City. The workers gave you feedback and told you stories about the neighborhood as you produced the final manuscript. Considering the work you have done as part of the pro-immigrant organization The Door, as well as your history of putting literature more directly into society, do you have any further plans to engage, through your writing or otherwise, with immigrant communities, either in the US or in sending countries? Do you recommend ways for your readers to engage in these communities?

VL: My mother’s family has always engaged in community work. My grandmother Manuela, despite having nine children of her own, worked in a tiny rural school in San Miguel Tzinacapan, in the mountains of Puebla. Her eldest son, my uncle Valerio, who is now 80 years old, read the Spanish version of Tell Me How It Ends and wrote me a deeply moving e-mail from his retirement home in Puebla, saying he felt compelled to do something about the situation and promising he was going to do it. At first, I thought it was just a passing thing. But he has been true to his word, and is mobilizing his entire community (he belongs to a Catholic congregation of educators called the Lasallian Brothers) to create a shelter for undocumented minors in Veracruz, along one of the routes of La Bestia. We’ve been in close contact for the past few months, writing letters to people and putting things together. So, hopefully, a new shelter will open in Veracruz in the next months or the next year. If so, I would of course want to get involved further.

In the meantime, I am just trying to make sure the TIIA (the Teenage Immigrant Integration Association) which my students and I started at Hofstra in 2015, keeps running and growing. One of the objectives this fall is to turn the TIIA into a nationally recognized nonprofit, so we can start doing more serious fundraising, and expanding our work to other colleges. And who knows, maybe the two projects can eventually come together.

JW: You’ve written, in Tell Me How It Ends, as well as in your other books and essays, about your own complex immigration history—born in Mexico City to an Italian family, raised in South Africa, having lived in India, and now residing in New York City. How does your personal story affect your writing about child refugees? How do you see the issue from other perspectives, such as class and race?

VL: My personal story is not really relevant in this discussion. In the book, I write a little bit about the personal circumstances that led me to work as a volunteer in immigration court. But beyond that, the book is centered on much larger issues: the shared historical responsibility of the nations involved in this refugee crisis (the countries—Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—of the Northern Triangle, plus Mexico and the US), the so-called War Against Drugs, the role that nonprofits play within the immigration-court system, or how issues of race and class play into the current discourse around immigrants and asylum seekers. There is no simple way to understand issues like this one.

JW: Do you have any concern that softening Americans’ hearts specifically towards child migrants, or refugees with particularly painful stories, could further engrain the duality of good/bad, or worthy/deportable, migrants?

VL: This is a very important question, and I understand why you are asking it. But I don’t think that empathy for other human beings is a kind of limited, non-renewable resource. On the contrary, empathy is something we learn by coming into contact with other lives, and by which we also learn that no life is more or less expendable than any other.

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