“Why Did You Come to the United States?” Central American Children Try to Convince Courts They Need Protection

A new book by Mexican author Valeria Luiselli depicts the ways the U.S. failed in responding to the crisis of children arriving from Central America.

A portrait of Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli. Photo: Alfredo Pelcastre/Coffee House Press

In 2014, the Mexican author Valeria Luiselli, waiting for her green card application to be resolved, took her family on a road trip through the American southwest. As she and her husband and young children drove to Roswell, New Mexico, they joked about their own status as “resident aliens” and informed Border Patrol officers at checkpoints that they are “just writers and just on vacation. … We are writing a Western, sir.”

As they drove, the family followed the news of tens of thousands of Central American children crossing the border just hours south of them, most of them alone. They listened to radio reports describing the children being warehoused, overcrowded and underfed, in detention centers known as as hieleras, or iceboxes, for ICE, but mostly for their frigid temperatures. They saw photos of protesters in Arizona with signs saying “return to sender” and “illegal is a crime.” They overheard patrons at a diner trading rumors about a millionaire offering his private plane to personally deport the children.


Luiselli’s new Book “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay In Forty Questions,” is about the author’s experience working with children in immigration court.

Photo: Coffee House Press

Ultimately, between April 2014 and August 2015, more than 102,000 unaccompanied children were detained at the border, and their fates haunted Luiselli to such an extent that on her return to New York, she started volunteering as an interpreter for children facing deportation in federal immigration court. She has written a new book about her experience, “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay In Forty Questions,” and it couldn’t be more timely.

President Trump’s capricious and xenophobic actions on immigration have elevated the issue to national attention and sparked protest, but Luiselli’s book is a reminder that not all of this started with the 45th president. Luiselli’s book is a slim, readable primer on what ought to be considered one of the most unsettling episodes of Obama’s presidency, capably explaining how his administration did exactly the opposite of what was needed in response to the arrival of the children.

It’s also a potent meditation on questions the Trump administration has brought to the fore: Who is, and most determinedly, who isn’t, a citizen? Who should enjoy the freedom to travel, not to carry documents everywhere, to go to school, to go to the doctor, to make mistakes, to be happy, to be unhappy? What indignities should no one have to suffer, regardless of legal status? What do people deserve, as citizens or non-citizens?

The book opens with the first question Luiselli has to ask each kid she helped in immigration court — “Why did you come to the United States?” — and the book returns again and again to that question throughout. The answer is never simple.

“The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order,” she writes. “They are delivered with hesitance, sometimes distrust, and always fear.” She gathers their statements and turns them over to lawyers who will see if there is a chance of stopping their deportation.

Through the deceptively straightforward questions on the intake form — “What countries did you pass through?”, “Did anything happen on your trip that scared or hurt you?”, “Did you stay in touch with your parents?”— Luiselli unravels the children’s ordeals and the system’s failings. The questionnaire reveals “a colder, more cynical and brutal reality… as you make your way down its forty questions it’s impossible not to feel that the world has become a much more fucked-up place than anyone could have imagined.”

Central American immigrants get on the so-called La Bestia (The Beast) cargo train, in an attempt to reach the Mexico-US border, in Arriaga, Chiapas state, Mexico on July 16, 2014.  AFP PHOTO/ELIZABETH RUIZ        (Photo credit should read ELIZABETH RUIZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Central American immigrants board the cargo train known as La Bestia (The Beast), in an attempt to reach the Mexico-US border, in Chiapas, Mexico on July 16, 2014.

Photo: Elizabeth Ruiz/AFP/Getty Images

Most of the children she met were from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador. In the beginning, most of the kids had come on “La Bestia,” the notorious freight train through Mexico. In response to the crisis, the Obama administration upped support for immigration enforcement in Mexico, pushing the responsibility south to Mexico’s border with Guatemala, where apprehensions and deportations of Central Americans shot up, along with claims of abuse. “Following the old tradition of Latin America-U.S.-governmental relations, the Mexican government is getting paid to do the dirty work,” Luiselli writes. Cracking down on La Bestia forced people off the perilous train and onto equally perilous other routes through remote mountain regions. By one estimate, 80 percent of women and girls crossing through Mexico are raped, and many migrants simply vanish.

Given conditions in their home countries — and Luiselli notes that U.S. involvement in El Salvador’s civil war and mass deportations of gang members from American cities in the 1980s played a decisive factor in generating violence in the region — many of these Central Americans would have legitimate claims to asylum or other special status as a juvenile. Yet Luiselli finds herself in the middle of a bureaucratic emergency because of the Obama administration’s decision to fast-track juvenile cases in response to the crisis. The priority juvenile docket, as it was known, meant children had just 21 days to find a lawyer, and the accelerated proceedings made it much harder to build a defense against deportation. “Being moved to the top of the list, in this context, was the least desirable thing,” she explains. Due to the fast track, the system was entirely overloaded. It was, in Luiselli’s words, “the government’s coldest, cruelest, possible answer to the arrival of refugee children.”

There’s an agonizing undercurrent of arbitrariness in the legal immigration system, which purports to decide who is deserving of relief. Many stories don’t fit the requisite categories. Some cases are truly horrific, but just as heart wrenching are those where a child is unable to show sufficient harm to be given an immigration benefit. Two tiny Guatemalan girls can hardly hope to provide enough information about their lives to “align with what the law considers reason enough for the right to protection.”

Luiselli also argues that U.S. and Latin American governments have to “acknowledge their shared accountability in the roots and causes of the children’s exodus,” to call the children what they are, refugees from a war, and to stop pretending that responsibility is bounded by nationality. She acknowledges the enduring power of national identity — as a Mexican, she can include wry asides on the United States’ usurpation of western territory, and she is ashamed at Mexico’s treatment of migrants — but this book is written from a transnational perspective, and all the more lucid for it.

The writer Jan Clausen recently argued in Jacobin that writers defending the legacy of the United States as a “nation of immigrants” — something that’s been rolled out a lot since Trump took office — denies a complex history of violence and racism. Circulating tropes of the model immigrant, the economic success story, the grateful refugee, while perhaps a necessary counteroffensive to Trump’s “bad hombres” campaign, creates the idea that only certain kinds of immigrants are worthy of inclusion. A book like Luiselli’s challenges such assumptions.

The last section of “Tell Me How It Ends” recounts the story of Manu, a teenager from Honduras who was harassed and threatened by gangs and took La Bestia through Mexico to eventually reach relatives in Hempstead, Long Island. Over the months that Luiselli got more deeply involved in his case, Manu was less than a model student, less than grateful for the chance to be placed in a school that was itself infiltrated by the gangs he fled, to get to a town he calls a little less ugly than Tegucigalpa. At one point, Luiselli quotes a line from an “Immigrant’s Prayer” heard on La Bestia: “to arrive is never to arrive.” Manu hasn’t arrived, fully. By the end of the book, he’s learning some English and has found a church he likes. He hasn’t applied for a green card and his lawyers thought it best to keep him anonymous.

It’s not exactly a happy ending. Nothing is ever that simple.

Top photo: A portrait of Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli.

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