First published in 2016, Valeria Luiselli wrote this long essay before the Trump administration came into oﬃce and further muddled already insuﬃcient immigration policies. Structured around the forty questions she asked undocumented children from Central America during her volunteer work helping connect these children with legal help to navigate the Citizenship and Immigration Services, her interest in volunteering had a fairly personal motivation. Luiselli is herself an immigrant from Mexico, and throughout the piece she includes the perspectives of someone who came here “the right way,” while showing how still tenuous that status can be — as when the green card she’s been granted doesn’t show up in the mail for months, leaving her unable to work and uncertain about her future.
The essay examines a system that theoretically is designed to establish a clear path for people seeking asylum. But in the case of children, it’s very diﬃcult, even with a Spanish-speaking interpreter to help build their case, for their stories to be fully heard and considered. It’s gut-wrenching seeing how the system is set up to accept the least amount of people possible, especially in the face of the extreme violence these families are ﬂeeing. As Luiselli writes, “It is not even the American Dream that they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born.” The prevailing philosophy is that other countries’ violence is not our problem to ﬁx, but she puts that notion into clear perspective:
The attitude in the United States toward child migrants is not always blatantly negative, but generally speaking, it is based on a kind of misunderstanding or voluntary ignorance. Debate around the matter has persistently and cynically overlooked the causes of the exodus. When causes are discussed, the general consensus and underlying assumption seem to be that the origins are circumscribed to “sending” countries and their many local problems. 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 that problem.
The belief that the migration of all those children is “their” (the southern barbarians) problem is often so deeply ingrained that “we” (the northern civilization) feel exempt from oﬀering any solution. The devastation of the social fabric in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and other countries is other thought of as a Central American “gang violence” problem that must be kept on the far side of the border. There is little said, for example, of arms being traﬃcked from the United States into Mexico or Central America, legally or not; little mention of the fact that the consumption of drugs in the United States is what fundamentally fuels drag traﬃcking in the continent.