Haunted by Child Refugees: Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends

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In Tell Me How It Ends, Valeria Luiselli challenges and revises the immigration narrative with an insider look at how US courts treat unaccompanied minors. Volunteering as a court translator, Luiselli asked children facing deportation forty questions knowing their answers and her translation could determine their fate in court: deportation or political asylum. Questions 1 and 2: Why did you come to the United States? With whom did you travel to this country? Those who are granted asylum pay a heavy price for refuge in the US and have the battle wounds to show it. Question 7: Did anything happen on your trip to the US that scared you or hurt you? Those more fortunate, who did not endure as much hardship, have difficulty finding a lawyer willing to take their case to court. As translator, Luiselli’s task is not as easy as it sounds, for their replies are “always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond repair of a narrative order.” Perhaps this lack of narrative order is why she uses those same forty questions as a loose spine of this extended essay. But as an author she is not bound by the all-too-neat boxes of a questionnaire, nor is she bound to strictly translate what the children say. And she takes full advantage, leaping between migrant stories, her personal experiences applying for a green card, and a sweeping overview of US immigration policy and relations with Central American governments. The stories she hears are gut wrenching, especially coming from a ten year old. And yet, it’s almost as if Luiselli is more haunted by the stories of those who never make it to court—because they can’t find a lawyer or they don’t survive the journey—for they will never see the light of justice. But remember, these aren’t ghosts; these are children who have braved a perilous journey to escape the violent nightmares back home.

Luiselli masterfully blends journalism, auto/biography, and political history into a compelling and cohesive narrative—something her clients don’t necessarily get in court. This blending of narrative modes, while popular among contemporary essayists like Maggie Nelson and Claudia Rankine, more strongly aligns with Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, a history of the Great Migration told through the lives of three individuals and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Like Wilkerson, Luiselli uses the personal to get political but smartly sidesteps identity politics to focus on policy instead, thus enabling a broader coalition around immigration in general. Writing clear-eyed, she guides the reader through court proceedings and critiques the language of the law and media (“the word ‘illegal’ prevails over ‘undocumented’ and the term ‘immigrant’ over ‘refugee.’”), without losing sight of her subject: undocumented children. She does this simply by asking, “Would my children survive?” Some may write this off as alarmist, playing on fears or liberal guilt, but it is not at all outlandish after looking at the statistics: “eighty percent of women and girls… are raped on the way,” 11,333 immigrants were abducted in a period of six months, and “some sources estimate that, since 2006, around 120,000 migrants have disappeared.”

The current uptick in immigration can be traced back to US foreign policy. To give just one example, during the Salvadorian Civil War (1979-92), the military-led government “relentlessly massacred left-wing opposition groups” using US military resources and forced one-fifth of the population to flee the country. Many settled in the US as political refugees until anti-immigration policies from the 1990s deported Central Americans en masse, including members of the MS13 gang. These policies made MS13 “a kind of transnational army, with more than seventy thousand members,” and the new face of violence in Central America, which in turn lead to the flood of unaccompanied minors in 2014. In response, Obama created a “priority juvenile docket” to accelerate deportation proceedings. Before Obama’s policy, children had twelve months to find a lawyer; now they had just twenty-one days. Expediting these cases swamped the courts and overwhelmed legal aid to the point of basically denying undocumented minors their right to due process. (There are a number of nonprofits you can donate to and volunteer with if you want to help: Legal Aid Society, The Door, Catholic Charities, Central American Legal Assistance, and Make the Road New York to name a few). As Judge Dana Leigh Marks, head of the National Association of Immigration Judges, told the Houston Chronicle, “Children’s cases are particularly complex… because anyone younger than fourteen cannot represent themselves in court, and unlike the criminal justice system, attorney aren’t provided in immigration proceedings.”

Luiselli urges us to rethink how we talk about immigration and how we create policy. However far-fetched it might be, a comprehensive solution to the current crisis in coordination with Mexico and Central America will never happen unless we first change our perspective on immigration. The media, official political discourse, and many Americans treat the Central American immigration crisis, not to mention the current Syrian refugee crisis, as an “institutional hindrance, a problem that Homeland Security is ‘suffering’ from.” In a chilling New York Times piece on a “border-crossers’ morgue” in Texas the lead author of a Binational Migration Institute report on migrant deaths told the Times: “If this were any other context, if these were deaths as a result of a mass flood or an earthquake or a major plane crash, people would be talking about this as being a mass disaster.” By presenting an insider perspective on the plight of undocumented minors, Luiselli spotlights what nationalist attitudes ignore in an attempt to “turn things around and understand the crisis from the point of view of the children.”

In some twisted way, Tell Me How It Ends provides much needed relief from the obsessive coverage of the “white working class” (WWC). Since the rise of Donald Trump, there has been an explosion of writing on the “white working class,” all racing to enlighten the public about it’s “other half.” Intent on showing how the WWC is misunderstood, journalists have mined coal country for harrowing portraits of folks who, like many Americans, have been made vulnerable by a changing work economy and frustrated by establishment politics. And it worked. The public ate it up, myself included, to the point of indulgence, which makes Tell Me How It Ends all the more urgent.

This shift in perspective toward and close attention to the WWC is precisely what Luiselli hopes for but with undocumented minors. Luiselli wants their stories to “haunt” her readers into action, “Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable.” Many refugees will never experience justice. For those already deported, for those who disappeared on the way, for those unidentified bodies at a morgue in Texas; for all those who didn’t make it, the only justice is to share their story and listen respectfully.

Connor Goodwin can't stop. Other writing has appeared in Entropy, HTMLGIANT, Minor Literature[s], and elsewhere. Follow @condorgoodwing. More from this author →