How Translating the Stories of Detained Children Explains U.S. Immigrant Crisis

"I wanted this essay to change the language around how we think about immigration," says writer Valeria Luiselli

"Everyone is vulnerable because being an alien here is anguishing," says Valeria Luiselli. Credit: Alfredo Pelcastre

Valeria Luiselli's latest book, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, is unsparing in its portrayal of vulnerability and determination. Its subject matter is shattering: the perils faced by children who travel alone from Central America to the U.S. in search of refuge. Such migration narratives often have the power to speak in ways individual retellings cannot – their comprehensiveness feels incisive because considering desperation and powerlessness at that scale is debilitating. But writing it? Writing it can altogether hollow a person out.

In March of 2015, Luiselli began working as a volunteer interpreter in New York City's federal immigration court. Her job was to ask unaccompanied children who had crossed the border from Mexico into the United States a standardized series of questions. She would then translate their answers from Spanish into English. "The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end," writes Luiselli in Tell Me. Afterwards, she would meet with lawyers who would determine whether a defense could be made against deportation. If an attorney agreed to take a case, they and their young client would hope for the best and brace for the worst. Then it was on to the next child, of which there appeared to be an endless stream.

Luiselli's own story is one of less harrowing perpetual movement. It will surprise few who have read her work – often so mindful of its spaces – to learn she was once a dancer. Born in Mexico City, Luiselli traveled widely from India to South Africa to Spain. She studied political philosophy as an undergrad and embraced migration as an urgent phenomenon. Her 2015 novel, The Story of My Teeth, nabbed the Los Angeles Times Prize for fiction. But it is a line from her 2014 essay collection Sidewalks that rings in my ears before I talk with her on the phone: "Perhaps a person only has two real residences: the childhood home and the grave."

Tell Me... began as an essay for the journal Freeman's after Luiselli had been working in court for a year. "I had finished my PhD and had just started a job after seven years of studying," Luiselli says. "I applied for a teaching job and I was able to get it, so it felt like OK, great, finally I can be a functional adult and responsibly take care of my family." Two months later, she was forced to quit her job because her green card hadn't arrived and her employment permit had expired. "Truth be told, what I was seeing in court every day made it clear that my situation was very privileged. Everyone is vulnerable because being an alien here is anguishing."

"Most children came from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras – the three countries that make up the Northern Triangle – and practically all of them were fleeing gang violence," Luiselli writes. The majority of the children she interviewed arrived on "La Bestia," the beast, which referred to the freight trains that traveled along Mexico toward the United States. Passenger services are nonexistent on La Bestia, which meant migrants had to "ride atop the railcars or in the recesses between them."

Between travel bans and ICE raids, Tell Me arrives at a time when issues of migration have taken center stage in America. "The spectacle of Trump in politics has brought immigration back to the forefront of discussion, which is a paradox of course, that he has done us the favor of bringing this issue to the forefront," Luiselli says with a laugh. "In a way, I think a lot of us are in kind of a state of relief, because for the first time in such a long time, the cultural elite and liberals and the more general population seem to be a lot more concerned."

One of the essential services Tell Me provides readers who are unfamiliar with the Central American crisis is historical grounding. Programa Frontera Sur, a program that was implemented by the Mexican government after a meeting with President Obama in 2014, aimed to reduce the number of Central Americans who made it to the United States at all. Just as the EU eventually sent money to Turkey to keep Syrian refugees from reaching Greece's shores, the United States found a way to make its problem someone else's. In 2015 alone, Mexico managed to deport over 150,000 Central Americans, a number that surpassed even that of the United States. As a result, dangerous alternate routes have emerged over the ocean, mirroring their Mediterranean counterparts.

When I ask Luiselli what those who work in this field are most worried about now, she zooms in on the malleability of American laws intended to protect the most vulnerable, child refugees. I am informed that "the Northern Triangle could easily be blocked from being eligible to obtain forms of immigration relief that children currently have." As Luiselli notes, the Northern Triangle is a known hotbed of gang activity; organizations such as Barrio 18 and MS-13 attempt to recruit youth by threat or coercion, causing them to flee to America. Luiselli explains how there is already precedent for such indifference. "Before George W. Bush left, he made an amendment to the law that protects children worldwide (the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act), and he blocked kids from borders from contiguous nations, so Canada and Mexico, but really Mexico." Luiselli then shares one of her most striking realizations: "I never once had to translate for a Mexican kid, and I always found it strange. Then I learned that Mexican kids don’t make it here because the vast majority of them are deported back under a completely sinister and hypocritical term called 'voluntary return.'"

In Tell Me, Luiselli finds ways to not only humanize her subjects, but to remind the reader of how devastatingly young they are. Sometimes this is accomplished by their inability to wrap their heads around certain concepts. One exchange went as follows:

How did you travel here?

A man brought us.

A coyote?

No, a man.

Where did you cross the border?

I don’t know that.

Texas? Arizona?

Yes! Texas Arizona.

Many of the answers to her questions confirm horrifying statistics. "Eighty percent of the women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the U.S. border are raped on the way," writes Luiselli. "The situation is so common that most of them take contraceptive precautions as they begin the journey north." She spells out the violence that awaits children once they cross into America. "We know, for instance, that civilian vigilantes and owners of private ranches go out to hunt undocumented migrants, either as a matter of conviction or merely for sport."

Among the most important aspects of Luiselli's book is its emphasis on how detrimental the priority juvenile docket was to helping minors in need of immigration relief. Created by the Obama administration, it grouped unaccompanied minors from Central America together and vaulted them to the top of the list of pending cases. Minors who once had a year to find a lawyer to represent them saw their window shrink to 21 days. As Luiselli says, not everyone got even that much time. "The exception is: being Mexican. Mexican children detained by Border Patrol can be deported back immediately."

Getting Americans to understand the causes of migration will be key to addressing our broken system and how it goes beyond the current administration's plans to "build a wall" and restrict citizens from certain predominantly Muslim countries from entering. Words have power. "I wanted this essay to change the language around how we think about immigration," Luiselli confesses. "To eradicate the term 'illegal' from people's normal conversation. To think of children from the Northern Triangle as refugees and not as migrants – not that migrants should received bad treatment, or lesser treatment, but in particular these children cannot be seen as migrants because they come from situations of war and need the kind of protections that refugees are entitled." She says she knew she was writing for a specialized audience, one including writers and radio programmers who had the power to steer public discourse.

Luiselli makes it clear in Tell Me How It Ends that the book's title has no answer. She does not know how the story of unaccompanied child migration concludes. No one does. It is a terminus obscured by hope and political volatility. Instead, Tell Me How It Ends is the start of a suggestion: one country alone can't stop this horror. "The narrative cannot be told in a simple manner and in a way that isolates the different participants,” Luiselli says. "The children's situation is a hemispheric problem in our continent, in which the U.S., Mexico and the Northern Triangle have equal responsibilities and therefore should respond in equal measure." The next move might be theirs, but at least now, some readers will know where to look.