Valeria Luiselli volunteered with frightened Central American children seeking asylum in the United States. She sat with them and coaxed them to trust her with their stories. Many of the unaccompanied minors, some of whom were younger than 5 years old, were sent by relatives to join other relatives who have settled here.
The children often traveled from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras by way of freight trains that cross through Mexico, collectively known as “La Bestia” (the Beast). They rode atop of the railcars or in the spaces between them. “Thousands have died or been gravely injured aboard La Bestia, either because of the frequent derailments of the old freight trains or because people fall off during the night,” Luiselli notes.
In her new book about her volunteer experience, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, she describes her role as interpreter, which involved not only translating their answers from Spanish to English, but also taking the pieces of information that the children offered to her—out of sequence, told out of fear—and reassembling these bits into a story that could be evaluated by an immigration attorney who may take their case for asylum status.
Luiselli makes a point that will make some uncomfortable, because it implicates all of us in the decision not to allow these children asylum in the United States. The U.S. government has made conscious decisions to silence these children’s voices, and when officials do not push back against those decisions, they are complicit.
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Officials allow them to talk, to tell their stories, but they are not listening to what the majority of them are saying. And only those whose stories check certain boxes will trigger the aid of an attorney. Those who are granted attorneys are the ones who usually get to stay; without a lawyer, the kids are sent back. This broken system, I would argue, is the same one that doesn’t believe a woman who seeks a restraining order against an abusive husband, or a college student who bravely reports her rape, only to be told she’s lying or that if she continues to demand justice, she will “ruin” the life of her rapist.
This is what Rebecca Solnit refers to in The Mother of All Questions as the imposition of “silence” onto the powerless. “Quiet” is the space of solitude and hush where we can hear ourselves think, can hear our own voices, we can write our stories, and most important, people will hear us.
But the silence of the busloads of children that we send back over the border because their stories are not compelling enough is the silence of survivors who are told that the violation and pain they suffered is not significant enough. We cannot continue to silence these children.
Luiselli’s book is an extended essay in which she weaves the story of her work with the migrant children, structured along the timeline provided by the 40 questions she asked them, with her own story of immigration. She and her husband and children are Mexican immigrants who came to the United States on Luiselli and her husband’s work visas. During the writing of this book, both had applied for permanent status, and the other story that Luiselli constructs throughout is about the process of applying to make the United States a permanent home, of the waiting period during which she was not allowed to leave the country for over three years.
Because they can’t leave the country, the family opts for a vacation in New Mexico, where Luiselli can also observe the border and take notes for her book. During that trip, she and her husband are stopped again and again, and forced to show their papers to Border Patrol officers. Officers also subject Luiselli to roadside interrogations about her writing project.
Her ability to translate for these children is augmented by her own desire to say the right things that will allow her to stay permanently.
The experience that Luiselli and the migrant children whom she interviewed were involved in is officially called a “screening” for asylum status. One part of the screening has already occurred back at the U.S.-Mexico border. Any child migrant who is crossing the border from Mexico, unless they are a victim of trafficking, can be immediately deported. The only children Luiselli saw were those who made the trip on the back of La Bestia.
Luiselli sees screening as an especially cynical term, since the point of it is to exclude as many children from access to asylum status as possible.
While reading about how Luiselli shaped the children’s descriptions of their experiences, I was reminded of the sense of shaded reality experienced by the inhabitants in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” It’s like the children are trying to project their stories onto the wall of the cave, so that its dwellers—U.S. citizens, in this case—can understand the children’s experiences of life outside the cave. But, because the system is stacked up against them—they speak in the voices of children, in a foreign language, and in a form that may not fit the narrative that will sway authorities to let them stay—all they can do is throw shadows up onto the wall.
As an interpreter, Luiselli tried to give meaning to those shadows, to the children’s attempts to describe their lives and why they came alone into the United States. As Luiselli writes, “I find myself not knowing where translation ends and interpretation starts.”
However, Luiselli was tied to asking the 40 questions on the screening questionnaire. She could not push the children to construct their stories in the most compelling ways. Despite their apparent suffering, if they didn’t have enough “battle wounds to show,” they likely would not get to stay, and Luiselli could not add in those details.
Some of the questions asked about whether the children were hurt on their journey to the United States. Luiselli listened to the horror stories that the children told, knowing that what they endured on the crossing could not be used to influence a judge into letting them stay.
Still, she felt that it was her duty to hear their stories. In several nightmarish pages, Luiselli goes through the statistics regarding what we know happens to those who make this journey. A fraction of these facts are: 80 percent of the girls and women who cross Mexico to get to the U.S. border are raped on the way, and in a six-month period in 2010, there were 11,333 abductions. Since 2006, 120,000 migrants have disappeared, never to be seen again. These stories can make Luiselli feel shame that these horrors are happening to children and many people in the United States don’t seem to care, but the stories alone cannot make a judge grant a child asylum.
One thing these young people have to do is present evidence that being sent back to where they have come from will place them in immediate, compelling danger. As she documents, the ways that status can be achieved can turn children who are temporary refugees into permanent exiles. If they are forced to testify that the danger they face is at home from a relative, the court acts like Solomon’s knife and severs the child’s entire relationship with their family in order to grant them asylum or Special Immigrant Juveniles status. If they demonstrate that the danger is from a situation in their country, either due to a temporary political situation or because of danger on the street, the children may be granted asylum status, meaning they can never return to their homeland again, even if things get better in the future.
This is compounded by the fact that “no one, from producers to consumers [of drugs],” acknowledges that they are implicated in the violence facing Central Americans. For instance, the demand for illicit drugs in the United States has an impact on these children’s lives in Central America. The drug gangs that terrorize and recruit children often are fighting to be part of the supply chain that makes sure there are drugs at, say, parties in Los Angeles or New York.
The countries that these children are coming from—many of them are from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, known collectively as the Northern Triangle—are three of the most dangerous countries in the world. And the United States has directly contributed to the conditions in the Northern Triangle.
“No one suggests that the causes are deeply embedded in our shared hemispheric history and are therefore not some distant problem in a foreign country that no one can locate on a map, but in fact a transnational problem that includes the United States—not as a distant observer or passive victim that must now deal with thousands of unwanted children arriving at the southern border, but rather as an active historical participant in the circumstances that generated the problem,” she writes.
In Honduras, the murder rate is 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people. (To put that into some kind of perspective—Chicago, which Donald Trump has repeatedly singled out for its high murder rate—has a rate of 27.9 per 100,000.) In studies by the UN High Commission for Refugees, 48 percent of the children interviewed at the border reported being personally touched by violence.
Or, as Luiselli records, as she listens to the children’s stories and tries to determine if they fit within recognizable categories for assistance:
One boys says, The gang followed me after school and I ran, with my eyes closed as I ran. So I write all that down, and then, in the margin, make a note: Persecution? He says more: And they followed me to school and later they followed me home with a gun. So I write that down, too, and then make a note: Death threats? Then he says, They kicked my door open and shot my little brother. So I write that down, too, but I’m not sure what note to make in the margin: Home country poses life-threatening danger? Not in child’s best interest to return? What words are the most precise ones? All too often I find myself not wanting to write anymore, wanting to just sit there, quietly listening, wishing that the story I’m hearing had a better ending. I listen, hoping that the bullet shot at this little boy’s little brother had missed. But it didn’t. The little brother was killed, and the boy fled. And now he is being screened, by me. Later, his screening, like many others, is filed and sent away to a lawyer: a snapshot of a life that will wait in the dark until maybe someone finds it and decides to make it a case.
When we turn child migrants away, saying that their suffering is not our problem—and when we say that violence doesn’t meet our definition of the sort of political violence that we privilege when determining who is allowed in—that is pure hypocrisy on our part. To claim that the chaos these children are attempting to escape was not in some part created by us and is therefore not our responsibility is, in my mind, the same level of complicity as supplying an abuser with a gun and then claiming his murder of his partner had nothing to do with the system allowing that homicide to happen.
We cannot continue to silence these children. They deserve the quiet of being able to develop as full human beings, safe from the constant anxiety and fear provoked by various iterations of violence.