Valeria Luiselli on the Choices People Make in Coming to America
"How do you explain any of this to your own children?"
“Why did you come to the United States?”
That’s the first question on the intake questionnaire for unaccompanied child migrants. The questionnaire is used in the federal immigration court in New York City where I started working as a volunteer interpreter in 2015. My task there is a simple one: I interview children in court, following the intake questionnaire, and then translate their stories from Spanish to English.
But nothing is ever that simple. I hear words, spoken in the mouths of children, threaded in complex narratives. They are delivered with hesitance, sometimes distrust, always with fear. I have to transform them into written words, succinct sentences, and barren terms. The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.
When the intake interview with a child is over, I meet with lawyers to deliver and explain my transcription and occasional notes. The lawyers then analyze the child’s responses, trying to come up with options for a viable defense against a child’s deportation and the “potential relief ” he or she is likely to get. The next step is to find legal representation. Once an attorney has agreed to take on a case, the real legal battle begins. If that battle is won, the child will obtain some form of immigration relief. If it is lost, they will receive a deportation order from a judge.
I watch our own children sleep in the back seat of the car as we cross the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey. I glance back now and then from the copilot’s seat at my ten-year-old stepson, visiting us from Mexico, and my five-year-old daughter. Behind the wheel, my husband concentrates on the road ahead.
It is the summer of 2014. We are waiting for our green cards to be either granted or denied and, in the meantime, we decide to go on a family road trip. We will drive from Harlem, New York, to a town in Cochise County, Arizona, near the US-Mexico border.
According to the slightly offensive parlance of US immigration law, for the three years or so that we had lived in New York we had been “nonresident aliens.” That’s the term used to describe anyone from outside the United States—“alien”—whether or not they are residents. There are “nonresident aliens,” “resident aliens,” and even “removable aliens”—that I know of. We wanted to become “resident aliens,” even though we knew what applying for green cards implied: the lawyers, the expenses, the many vaccinations and medical exams, the months of sustained uncertainty, the rather humiliating intermediate steps, such as having to wait for an “advance parole” document in order to be able to leave the country and be paroled back in, like a criminal, as well as the legal prohibition against traveling abroad, without losing immigration status, before being granted advance parole. Despite all that, we decided to apply.
When we finally sent out our applications, a few weeks before leaving for our road trip, we started feeling strange, somewhat out of place, a little circumspect—as if throwing that envelope in the blue mailbox on our street corner had changed something in us. We joked, some what frivolously, about the possible definitions of our new, now pending, migratory status. Were we “pending aliens,” or “writers seeking status,” or “alien writers,” or maybe “pending Mexicans”? I suppose, deeper down, we were simply asking ourselves, perhaps for the first time, that same question I now ask children at the beginning of each intake interview: “Why did you come to the United States?”
We didn’t have a clear answer. No one ever does. But the deed was done, we had filed our applications, and while we waited for an answer we were not allowed to leave the country. So, when summer arrived, we bought maps, rented a car, packed a few basics, made playlists, and left New York.
The green card application is nothing like the intake questionnaire for undocumented minors. When you apply for a green card you have to answer things like “Do you intend to practice polygamy?” and “Are you a member of the Communist Party?” and “Have you ever knowingly committed a crime of moral turpitude?” And although nothing can or should be taken lightly when you are in the fragile situation of asking for permission to live in a country that is not your own, there is something almost innocent in the green card application’s preoccupations with and visions of the future and its possible threats: polyamorous debauchery, communism, weak morals! The green card questionnaire has a retro kind of candor, like the grainy Cold War films we watched on VHS. The intake questionnaire for undocumented children, on the other hand, reveals a colder, more cynical and brutal reality. It reads as if it were written in high definition, and as you make your way down its 40 questions it’s impossible not to feel that the world has become a much more fucked-up place than anyone could have ever imagined.
The process by which a child is asked questions during the intake interview is called screening, a term that is as cynical as it is appropriate: the child a reel of footage, the translator-interpreter an obsolete apparatus used to channel that footage, the legal system a screen, itself too worn out, too filthy and tattered to allow any clarity, any attention to detail. Stories often become generalized, distorted, appear out of focus.
Before the formal screening begins, the person conducting it has to fill in basic biographical information: the child’s name, age, and country of birth, the name of a sponsor in the United States, the people with whom he or she is living at the time, and a contact number and address. All these details have to be written down at the very top of the questionnaire.
A few spaces down, right before the first formal interview question, a line floats across the page like an uncomfortable silence:
Where is the child’s mother? father?
The interviewer has to write down whatever information the child can or will give to fill in those blanks—those two empty spaces that look a bit like badly stitched wounds. Too often, the spaces remain blank: all the children come without their fathers and mothers. And many of them do not even know where their parents are.
We are driving across Oklahoma in early July when we first hear about the wave of children arriving, alone and undocumented, at the border. On our long west-bound drives we begin to follow the story on the radio. It’s a sad story that hits so close to home and yet seems completely unimaginable, almost unreal: tens of thou sands of children from Mexico and Central America have been detained at the border. Nothing is clear in the initial coverage of the situation—which soon becomes known, more widely, as an immigration crisis, though others will advocate for the more accurate term “refugee crisis.”
Questions, speculations, and opinions flash-flood the news during the days that follow. Who are these children? What will happen to them? Where are the parents? Where will they go next? And why, why did they come to the United States?
“It is not even the American Dream that they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born.”
“Why did you come to the United States?” I ask children in immigration court.
Their answers vary, but they often point to a single pull factor: reunification with a parent or another close relative who migrated to the US years earlier. Other times, the answers point to push factors—the unthinkable circumstances the children are fleeing: extreme violence, persecution and coercion by gangs, mental and physical abuse, forced labor, neglect, abandonment. It is not even the American Dream that they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born.
Then comes question number two in the intake questionnaire: “When did you enter the United States?” Most children don’t know the exact date. They smile and say “last year” or “a few months ago” or simply “I don’t know.” They’ve fled their towns and cities; they’ve walked and swum and hidden and run and mounted freight trains and trucks. They’ve turned themselves in to Border Patrol officers. They’ve come all this way looking for—for what, exactly? The questionnaire doesn’t make these other inquiries. But it does ask for precise details: “When did you enter the United States?”
As we drive deeper into the country, following the enormous map I take from the glove box and study from time to time, the summer heat becomes drier, the light thinner and whiter, the roads more solitary. We start hunting down any available information about the undocumented children and the situation at the border. We collect local newspapers, which pile on the floor of our car, in front of my copilot seat. We do constant, quick online searches and tune in to the radio every time we can catch a signal.
More questions, speculations, and opinions flood media coverage of the crisis: some sources elaborate lucid and complex conjectures on the origin and possible causes of the sudden surge of arrivals of unaccompanied minors, others denounce the inhumane conditions and systematic maltreatment the children must endure in detention facilities near the border, and a few others endorse the spontaneous civilian protests against them. A caption in a web publication explains an unsettling photograph of men and women waving flags, banners, and rifles in the air: “Protesters, some exercising their open-carry rights, assemble outside of the Wolverine Center in Vassar [Michigan] that would house illegal juveniles to show their dismay for the situation.”
In another photograph that we find on the web, an elderly couple holds signs saying “Illegal Is a Crime” and “Return to Senders.” They are sitting on beach chairs, wearing sunglasses. A caption explains, “Thelma and Don Christie (C) of Tucson demonstrate against the arrival of undocumented immigrants in Oracle, Arizona. July 15, 2014.” I zoom in on their faces and wonder. What passed through the minds of Thelma and Don Christie when they prepared their protest signs? Did they pencil in “protest against illegal immigrants” on their calendars, right next to “mass” and just before “bingo”? What were they thinking when they put their beach chairs inside their trunk? And what did they talk about as they drove the 40 miles or so north, toward the protest in Oracle?
In varying degrees, some papers and webpages announce the arrival of undocumented children like a biblical plague. Beware the locusts! They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen—these menacing, coffee-colored boys and girls, with their obsidian hair and slant eyes. They will fall from the skies, on our cars, on our green lawns, on our heads, on our schools, on our Sundays. They will make a racket, they will bring their chaos, their sickness, their dirt, their brown ness. They will cloud the pretty views, they will fill the future with bad omens, they will fill our tongues with barbarisms. And if they are allowed to stay here they will—eventually—reproduce!
We 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? We read the papers, lis ten to the radio, see photographs, and wonder.
In a diner near Roswell, New Mexico, we overhear a conversation between a waitress and a customer. As she refills his coffee, she tells him that hundreds of migrant kids will be put on private planes—rumored to have been funded by a patriotic millionaire—and deported that same day back to Honduras, or Mexico, or some where. The planes full of “alien” children will leave from an airport not far from the famous UFO museum, the one our children have been set on visiting. The term “alien,” which only a few weeks ago made us laugh and speculate, which had been passing around the car as an inside family joke, is suddenly shown to us under a bleaker light. It’s strange how concepts can erode so easily, how words we once used lightly can alchemize abruptly into something toxic.
The next day, driving out of Roswell, we look for news on what happened with those deportees. We find no details of the exact circumstances under which they were deported, or how many there were, and if it’s true that a local millionaire financed their removal. We do, however, come across these lines in a Reuters report that read like the beginning of a cruel, absurdist story by Mikhail Bulgakov or Daniil Kharms: “Looking happy, the deported children exited the airport on an overcast and sweltering afternoon. One by one, they filed into a bus, playing with balloons they had been given.” We dwell for a while on the adjective “happy” and the strangely meticulous description of the local weather in San Pedro Sula, Honduras: “an overcast and sweltering afternoon.” But what we really cannot stop reproducing, somewhere in the dark back of our minds, is uncanny the image of the children holding those balloons.
In our long daily drives, to fill in the empty hours, we sometimes tell our children stories about the old American Southwest, back when it used to be part of Mexico. I tell them about Saint Patrick’s Battalion, the group of Irish Catholic soldiers who joined the US Army as cannon fodder during the Mexican-American War, but later changed sides to fight along with the Mexicans. I tell them about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed after that war, in which Mexico lost half its territory to the United States. Their father tells them about President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, approved by Congress in 1830, and explains how it brutally exiled Native Americans to reservations. He tells them about Geronimo, Cochise, Mangas Coloradas, and the other Chiricahua Apaches: the last inhabitants of a continent to surrender to the white-eyes, after years of battle against both the US Bluecoats and the Mexican Army. Those last Chiricahua resisted for many more years after the Indian Removal Act was passed. They finally surrendered in 1886 and were “removed” to the San Carlos Reservation—in southern Arizona, toward which we are now driving. It’s curious, or perhaps just sinister, that the word “removal” is still used to refer to the deportation of “illegal” immigrants—those bronzed barbarians who threaten the white peace and superior values of the “Land of the Free.”
When we run out of stories to tell our children, we fall silent and look out at the unbroken line of the high way, perhaps trying to put together the many pieces of the story—the unimaginable story—unfolding just out side the small and protected world of our rented car. Though all of it resists a rational explanation, we talk it over and consider its many angles. We try to answer our own children’s questions about the situation as best we can. But we don’t do very well. How do you explain any of this to your own children?
The third and fourth questions on the intake questionnaire are ones that our children, too, ask many times, though in their own words: “With whom did you travel to this country?” and “Did you travel with anyone you knew?” All children travel with a paid coyote. Some of them travel also with siblings, cousins, and friends.
Sometimes, when our children fall asleep again, I look back at them, or hear them breathe, and wonder if they would survive in the hands of coyotes and what would happen to them if they were deposited at the US border, left either on their own or in the custody of Border Patrol officers. Were they to find themselves alone, crossing borders and countries, would my own children survive?