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.
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 45thpresident. 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.