Did you know that the first question unaccompanied child migrants are asked in intake questionnaires is: “Why did you come to the United States?”
Why did you — a minor — come to the United States — a country miles away from your hometown — by yourself?
Last week, I picked up “Tell Me How It Ends,” an essay on undocumented children by Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli that has been lauded as “the first must-read book of the Trump Era.” At a short 108 pages, the book discusses the 40 questions these children — the vast majority of them Latin American — must answer before their cases are judged and they potentially face deportation.
Luiselli, who gathered different stories from these children while working as a translator in a New York City immigration court, is an immigrant herself and began interviewing the children as she awaited her green card. In the book’s introduction, she writes, “Once you stay here long enough, you begin to remember the place where you originally came from the way a backyard might look from a high window in the deep of winter: a skeleton of the world, a track of abandonment, objects dead and obsolete.”
To that, she adds, “And once you’re here, you’re ready to give everything, or almost everything, to stay and play a part in the great theater of belonging.”
Reading this book has been a harrowing experience. Since the election began, the topic of immigration has become a “hot-button issue” — a term I despise — not only in the mainstream media but pretty much throughout all of America. Suddenly everyone has an opinion on immigration, especially on undocumented immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and that is a step forward. This wave of opinions has led to tough but necessary debates that raise awareness.
But I’ve noticed that, whenever this topic is brought up, Americans tend to only discuss the portion of immigration that plays out on their side of the border — here, in the U.S., once immigrants have arrived, once their problems become this country’s problems. Very rarely do I hear people consider the push factors, the reasons why these people left their home countries in the first place.
The “traditional immigrant story,” as I’ve come to call it after three years covering the subject in the U.S., tends to play out as an “alien” vs. “system” story, as an “us” vs. “them” argument, very rarely taking into account the circumstances that led to this confrontation in the first place.
“Why did you come to the United States?”
Americans love to say this is a nation of immigrants — when the immigrant story being told is that of a usually white, male and European character who came here years and years ago to start a new life and provide for his family. But very similar stories suddenly become sour and anger people when the immigrant is a brown person who, despite escaping unspeakable terrors, is only coming here to “steal jobs.”
So let me put you in their shoes. You, yes you, would have probably done the same thing — traveled miles on foot, paid a coyote, crossed the border — had you found yourself making $0.94 an hour harvesting sugar and coffee in gang-stricken El Salvador. You would’ve done the same thing for yourself and your children had you spent months worrying about their lives after seeing your brother/mother/friend get shot as they walked down the street. You would’ve come here begging for help and putting your humanity in jeopardy if your 12-year-old daughter was incessantly harassed by gangs, if your government offered little justice in any of these situations, if you were promised that in America, anybody’s dreams can come true.
The other day, while in conversation, a man casually referred to Central Americans as “the illegals.” I winced, but continued our talk. I regret not telling him that he, perhaps, should use other terms instead, like “undocumented.” I knew that his usage of the word “illegal” came not from insult but from ignorance — ignorance built upon years of having the media, politicians and regular folks tell him that honest, hard-working brown immigrants are bad people breaking the law, leaving out the part about how they did this to survive.
Next time, however, I’m going to suggest he picks up Luiselli’s book and ask him to consider what he’d do if he were a 13-year-old boy, running for his life in the desert, trying to find a safe place to call home.
Mariana Alfaro is a Medill senior. She can be contacted at [email protected] If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected] The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.