Crossing the Border

Emily Witt

  • Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli
    Fourth Estate, 128 pp, £6.99, October 2017, ISBN 978 0 00 827192 3
  • Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
    Fourth Estate, 385 pp, £16.99, March, ISBN 978 0 00 829002 3

In 2014, tens of thousands of immigrant children arrived at the southern border of the United States, a sharp increase on preceding years. More than three-quarters of them came from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the countries that make up what’s known as the Northern Triangle. Most of them were teenagers, but some were only babies. In total, 68,541 ‘unaccompanied alien children’, as the government classified them, crossed the US’s southwestern border in the 2014 fiscal year. Most of them came with the intention of seeking asylum, which meant they arrived under the protection of the law. After crossing the border, they presented themselves to the US authorities as quickly as they could.

In the summer of 2014, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli was living in New York City. She and her family had just applied for permanent residency in the US. After sending in their green card applications, the family leave for a road trip to the desert southwest. In Oklahoma they first hear the news reports about the children at the border. By the time they’ve driven through Texas and into New Mexico, Luiselli writes in her book Tell Me How It Ends, ‘it becomes more and more difficult to ignore the uncomfortable irony of it: we are travelling in the direction opposite to the children whose stories we are now following so closely.’ On the road the family see signs that ‘indicate their ghostly presence, past or future’. They see flags used by humanitarian aid groups to indicate the presence of water tanks; patrol cars that belong to Customs and Border Patrol; pick-up trucks that look like they could belong to the anti-immigrant vigilantes who harass the asylum seekers at the border. They are themselves stopped by border patrol officials, who look askance at the Mexican writer who claims to be on holiday with her children. ‘We are writing a Western, sir,’ she tells the Border Patrol officers. One of their phones has a tic of playing the Clash’s ‘Straight to Hell’ every time they try to cue up music on the car stereo.

The road trip ends. The family return to New York. Everyone’s green card has arrived except Luiselli’s. There is no way of knowing the reason her application has stalled, or if residency will be granted. While she waits, she can’t work, so she takes leave from her job at a university in Long Island. Her immigration lawyer suggests a way she might spend her time, and in 2015, Luiselli begins doing intake interviews for children who are seeking asylum at the federal immigration court in Manhattan.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions is the summary of what she learned through these experiences. The forty questions refer to the questionnaire Luiselli uses in these interviews. The book was published at its current length in 2017 (a version appeared the year before in Freeman’s) and records events that took place before Donald Trump was elected president, and before the detention of children and families became a daily news story. There is a lot of continuity, however, not only in policy but in national sentiment. As Luiselli learns on her road trip, anti-immigrant hatred, aggressive deterrence policies and mass deportations were happening before Trump was elected, and the xenophobia and racism he has amplified will not end if he loses in 2020.

At the federal court, Luiselli translates the children’s answers from Spanish into English, then gives the information to lawyers, who try to determine if they can build a case for asylum. The first question is: ‘Why did you come to the United States?’ As she writes of her own family’s green card applications, ‘We didn’t have a clear answer. No one ever does.’ Most of the children she interviews say they have come to be reunited with their parents or other relatives who left their home country years before. Others are fleeing abuse or violence at home. ‘It is not even the American Dream that they pursue,’ Luiselli writes, ‘rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born.’ Later she frames it differently: ‘Once you’re here, you’re ready to give everything, or almost everything, to stay and play a part in the great theatre of belonging. In the United States, to stay is an end in itself and not a means: to stay is the founding myth of this society.’

Over time, the stories of the children she interviews form one larger story. The majority of the children are escaping gang violence. Someone begins following them home from school, or leaving threatening messages at home. A relative living and working in the US, usually without documentation, hears of the threats and sends between $3000 and $5000 to a smuggler known as a coyote who guides the children on their journey north. The child travels from his or her home country to Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, then boards the northbound freight trains known as a single entity: La Bestia, ‘the beast’. The children face the physical dangers of sneaking on to moving trains, sexual assault, abduction by gangs and extortion by corrupt officials. Mass graves have been found in Mexico of migrants murdered by gangs for refusing to work or to pay a ransom.

The children then find a way to cross the border, and seek the authorities as soon as they can: at least, this is what happened in 2014. ‘My mom always told me I was born under a lucky star,’ one boy tells Luiselli, after relating how he’d waved down a border patrol vehicle on his second day walking through the desert. Detained children are sent to temporary facilities run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement known as hieleras, or ‘iceboxes’, for the intensity of their air conditioning. From there, according to a law enacted under George W. Bush, they are supposed to pass into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. While in shelters run by churches or charities, the children attempt to contact family members living in the US who can offer themselves as legal guardians and sponsors; often these will be their parents. The relatives are sometimes themselves risking deportation by giving their contact information to the authorities. The children Luiselli meets have gone through this process. They are now living with their sponsors, and trying to have their cases heard in court. After their hearings they will either be deported or granted protected status.

The most notorious gangs the children are fleeing are the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and the Barrio 18. Luiselli writes that both gangs were actually formed in the United States, in Los Angeles, in the 1980s. MS-13 was started by El Salvadoreans in exile from the violent military governments backed by the Carter and Reagan administrations. A wave of deportations in the 1990s returned some of the gang members to El Salvador, creating what Luiselli calls ‘a transnational army’. The history that led to the wave of children arriving at the border is an ‘absurd, circular nightmare’. She bristles at a question-and-answer style article in the New York Times, which gives the questions in the voice of someone with obtuse nationalist views. It seems to her ‘like something from an openly racist 19th-century magazine or a reactionary anti-immigration serial’.

She is especially bothered by the idea that the problems are particular to what the New York Times described as ‘poor and violent towns’ in the Northern Triangle. ‘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,’ she writes. The trafficking of arms from the United States is rarely discussed as a cause of the violence people are fleeing; the drug war, she argues, is also hemispheric: it ‘begins in the Great Lakes of the northern United States and ends in the mountains of Celaque in southern Honduras’. Consumers and producers of prohibited drugs bear responsibility in each country along the route, as do the dysfunctional laws that push the trade into a violent underground. The migrant children, she writes, are more accurately described as refugees of a hemispheric war.

The children’s problems follow them to the United States. Luiselli tells the story of Manu, the first child she interviewed, and with whom she remains in touch. He is granted protected status and settles with an aunt in Long Island. He enrols in the local high school, where members of the same gang that threatened him in Honduras knock his teeth out. But he finds a way to make a life, finding support at the local church. Luiselli’s own green card eventually comes through. The students she teaches organise an immigrant support group, and even after Trump’s election she has hope: ‘If we all manage to pull through in these next years, it’ll be thanks to young people who are willing to give their minds and hearts and bodies to make changes.’

This year, Luiselli published another book drawn from these experiences; this one, Lost Children Archive, is a novel. Many details are the same: a scene at the beginning of two sweaty children in the back of a car as it inches across the George Washington Bridge; the mother in New York who sends for the two daughters she left with their grandmother in a small town near Oaxaca, who travel with their mother’s phone number embroidered into their dresses and instructions never to change their clothes. Other details are familiar but slightly changed. Instead of the Clash, this time the car stereo’s tic is to play the first line of the audio book of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: ‘When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night, he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.’

The first half of the book is narrated by a Luiselli-like figure, an unnamed, 33-year-old former ‘hardcore political journalist’ turned audio documentary maker. The second half is narrated, less successfully, by the woman’s ten-year-old stepson. The family is a blended one: the girl is hers, the boy her husband’s, but now they are all one family. ‘I am a biological mother to one, a stepmother to the other, and a de facto mother in general to both of them.’ The characters don’t have names. Interspersed with this story are excerpts from a fictional book the adult narrator has brought along to read on the trip. It is called Lost Children Elegies and is written by an imaginary writer called Ella Camposanto. Each elegy depicts a scene in the journey of the migrant children – out-takes from what could have been a realist novel, presented instead as disembodied scenes.

The narrator is making a ‘sound documentary about the children’s crisis at the border’ – a proxy, perhaps, for Tell Me How It Ends. Luiselli injects all the doubts about the politics of representation that she left out of her nonfiction account into the novel. ‘Political concern: How can a radio documentary be useful in helping more undocumented children find asylum?’ the narrator wonders, as she sits in a diner, watching her children draw with crayons:

Aesthetic problem: On the other hand, why should a sound piece, or any other form of storytelling, for that matter, be a means to a specific end? I should know, by now, that instrumentalism, applied to any art form, is a way of guaranteeing really shitty results: light pedagogic material, moralistic young-adult novels, boring art in general. Professional hesitance: But then again, isn’t art for art’s sake so often an absolutely ridiculous display of intellectual arrogance? Ethical concern: And why would I even think that I can or should make art with someone else’s suffering? Pragmatic concern: Shouldn’t I simply document, like the serious journalist I was when I first started working in radio and sound production? Realistic concern: Maybe it is better to keep the children’s stories as far away from the media as possible, anyway, because the more attention a potentially controversial issue receives in the media, the more susceptible it is to becoming politicised, and in these times, a politicised issue is no longer a matter that urgently calls for committed debate in the public arena but rather a bargaining chip that parties use frivolously in order to move their own agendas forward. Constant concerns: Cultural appropriation, pissing all over someone else’s toilet seat, who am I to tell this story, micromanaging identity politics, heavy-handedness, am I too angry, am I mentally colonised by Western-Saxon-white categories, what’s the correct use of personal pronouns, go light on the adjectives, and oh, who gives a fuck how very whimsical phrasal verbs are?

Sometimes, in the face of a totalitarian system of thought, and in the absence of a fully articulated alternative world order, conveying unease is the best a narrator can do. Or is it? What Luiselli seems determined to avoid is the presumptuousness of a novel of sentimental realism – the lineage of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Dave Eggers’s What Is the What. The most politically correct and credible approach, she decides, is a palimpsest: Lost Children’s Archive includes quotes, lists of books, Polaroid photographs and hand-drawn maps. Heart of Darkness is among the books cited; also On The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and The Road; Marcel Schwob’s novella The Children’s Crusade; Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

‘References to sources,’ Luiselli writes in an author’s note, ‘are not meant as side notes, or ornaments that decorate the story, but function as intralinear markers that point to the many voices in the conversation that the book sustains with the past.’ Since there cannot be a literal conversation, one is left instead with an unsynthesised polyphony, reminders of other books about lost children, road trips and journeys to the dark heart of imperialism. The elegies are lyrical descriptions of the journey aboard La Bestia that end with the children climbing over a border wall to meet gunfire. A worst-case version of the future, perhaps. Luiselli has tried two rhetorical modes to discuss the children at the border: in Tell Me How It Ends, the confident posture of nonfiction; in Lost Children Archive, the self-conscious narrator who mistrusts the possibility of representation. In both books, not only can Luiselli not tell us how it ends, but she resists telling us what to think. And yet her fictional narrator does have a goal for her own storytelling: ‘Helping more undocumented children find asylum.’ I found myself, seeking the information she withholds, looking up the immigration proposals of the 2020 Democratic candidates for president.

Lost Children Archive is also a domestic novel about the end of a relationship. The narrator and her husband, another audio documentary maker, are passively accepting the end of their marriage. Over the course of the long journey across the country, the narrator tries to summarise what happened, from falling in love ‘completely, irrationally, predictably and headfirst’, then moving in together, getting married, filing joint taxes, until one day in the grocery store she imagines no longer having to listen to her husband’s complaints and opinions. (They met on a sound project that attempted to document every language spoken in New York City – a gentle reminder of the multicultural ideal.)

In her family, the narrator has created a perfect little world. Early in their relationship, the couple move into an apartment together, where they sit around in their underwear and eat pizza. They fix two postcards to the wall, of Malcolm X and Emiliano Zapata. When the kids go to sleep, they drink a bottle of wine and smoke a joint. Their children say cute things and barely ever whine. They are grave and earnest, listening to their parents’ oral histories of the Apaches and getting concerned about the stories they hear on the news. While they drive, the family listen to Kendrick Lamar, Laurie Anderson and David Bowie. The couple seem like cool parents who will raise charming and precocious children; their break-up just adds to their refusal to adhere to convention. One day, in a bookshop, the narrator finds herself staring at the photograph of a male author on a book jacket:

I don’t like to admit it, but faces like this one remind me abstractly of a face I once loved, a face of a man I was maybe not loved by in return, but with whom I at least had a beautiful daughter before he disappeared. This face perhaps also reminds me of future men whom I could love and might be loved by but won’t have enough lives to try. Past men are the same as possible future men, in any case. Men whose rooms are spartan, whose T-shirts are self-consciously threadbare around the neck, whose handwritten notes are full of small, crooked letters, like battalions of ants trying to line up into meaning, because they never learned good penmanship. Men whose conversation is not always intelligent but is alive. Men who arrive like a natural disaster, then leave. Men who produce a vacuum toward which I somehow tend to gravitate.

I loved the stepmother’s voice so much that when the stepson took over it came as a disappointment. The boy repeats many of the observations she has already made, some of which are hard to imagine being expressed by a ten-year-old. (He says things like: ‘The audiobooks were either boring or too adult for us,’ and ‘I understood, even though Pa and Ma thought I didn’t, that it was our last trip together as a family.’) This part of the book is addressed to his little sister, a five-year-old. The point is the difference between the children navigating a harrowing migration (their experiences imagined in the interspersed elegies), and these ones, who decide to run away, victims of their sweet, clueless imaginations. The narrative switch recalls the mid-book swerve of Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky, except that now the place where a subject loses his identity and plunges into horror – Heart of Darkness, once again – is not the jungles and deserts of the colonised other but red-state America. To lend these scenes a sense of accelerated dissolution, Luiselli opts for stream-of-consciousness writing, abandoning by the end the use of full stops.

In the time I’ve been reading and thinking about Luiselli’s books, which is to say over the past few months, the deliberate infliction of human suffering by the US government on asylum seekers at the border has worsened. The US is now returning asylum seekers, including families, to Mexico while they wait for their hearings, abdicating responsibility for their safety and shelter while their cases are reviewed. Trump has received approval from the Supreme Court to allocate money budgeted for the military to build his wall, circumventing the need for approval by Congress. He has signed an agreement with Guatemala that asylum seekers who pass through it must seek asylum there before they can make an attempt in the United States. Rather than give prospective immigrants fair and timely hearings – the kind of work that Luiselli did and that the law mandates – the Trump administration is actively trying to foment crisis by making the process of seeking asylum as onerous and dysfunctional as possible, as well as by generating chaos at the border. Even if deterrence is his goal, he’s failing at it.

As we now understand, a significant portion of the US population supports a politics of white nationalism. Writing against this reality is hard. No one seems to have found a register that reaches the other side. Americans thought we had some consensus about certain shared values. When it turned out that we didn’t, suddenly everything had to be argued for, even something as simple as a commitment not to harm people who would like to live in the United States, and never to harm children.

At a Trump rally I attended last year, his supporters over and over named immigration as their primary concern. In my work as a reporter, I generally try to articulate the reasoning behind positions I disagree with, to see what I might be able to understand. The anti-immigrant stance of Trump supporters defied my capacity for understanding. I can list the arguments I’ve heard, each of them rooted in factual inaccuracies about the law and American history (if ‘they’ don’t want to end up crowded into an ICE cell with no soap and rotting food, ‘they’ should stay at home; if ‘they’ have problems in their country, ‘they’ should have a revolution, ‘like we did against the British’; ‘I’m not anti-immigrant, I’m against people breaking the law’; ‘My grandparents were immigrants, but they came here legally’; ‘We can’t take care of the whole world’ etc). The phrasing varies, but the arguments share a premise: life is deeply unfair, and by birthright some people will have material comforts and physical safety and some will suffer, and this inequality should be upheld with state-sanctioned paramilitary force. If this is what you believe, photographs of corpses or stories of injustice will only confirm your self-centred nihilism. In Tell Me How It Ends, Luiselli confronts a young man wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat the day after the 2016 presidential election. She stutters ‘a way-too-emotional sentence about empathy and social responsibility’. He laughs in her face.