Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli Reframes The US's Broken Immigration System
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In 2015, writer Valeria Luiselli volunteered as a translator and interpreter in the federal immigration court in New York City, representing unaccompanied children from Central America. The children, who range from age six to their teens, are usually sent by family members. Many hope to relocate with relatives once in the U.S. But before this, they are asked 40 questions, the answers to which will determine whether or not they will be granted some form of relief in the U.S.
Luiselli begins and ends her new, concise book, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, with the first question of the intake form: “Why did you come to the United States?” It’s a question that reverberates throughout the book; one she asks others countless times, and cannot help but ask herself, too. Luiselli, who was born in Mexico City and grew up in South Africa, had been going through her own green card process when she began volunteering.
Underneath this seemingly direct question lies the cruel paradox of the United States as both the promise of freedom and a system built to systematically break it. Even longing for the “land of the free” implies a certain stability that is absent in these children’s stories. “It is not even the American Dream that they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare to which they were born,” Luiselli writes.
The majority of the children she interviews come from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and they are often fleeing persecution and coercion by gangs, abuse, and forced labor. The children are sent across the Mexico-Guatemala border with a smuggler and reach the U.S.-Mexico by riding on top of a train known as “La Bestia” (the Beast). When they cross the border into the U.S., many turn themselves in to the Border Patrol hoping for some form of relief.
In 2014, the influx of unaccompanied children arriving in the US from Central America was declared an immigration crisis, and the Obama administration created a priority juvenile docket, reducing the time period to find representation from one year to 21 days. The accelerated deportation proceedings made it much more difficult for non-profit organizations providing legal representation to build a defense case for the children, resulting in increased deportations.
As Luiselli tells these children’s stories, she continually challenges the hyphen between translator-interpreter. Translating the stories becomes morally complex, a task demanding more from her than simply one of a Spanish translator. The answers to questions like “Did anything happen on your trip that scared or hurt you?” fill her with rage and shame, but often lead to details that can form a child’s case against deportation.
Language, and the political weight it carries, is at the heart of this book. The terms used to describe these minors, such as “alien” and “illegal”, are intrinsically criminalizing. “Official accounts in the United States — what circulates in the newspaper or on the radio, the message from Washington, and public opinion in general — almost always locate the dividing line between “civilization” and “barbarity” just below the Rio Grande,” she writes.
These words cast the immigration crisis as foreign, another country’s mess the U.S. has to deal with. One of the core arguments in this book challenges this concept by showing how the U.S. played an active role in creating this crisis. The gangs the children are fleeing in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras were established in the 1980s in Los Angeles, when thousands of people fled the civil war in El Salvador, which the U.S. helped support by providing aid to anti-leftist forces.
The words “alien” and “illegal” become the foundation of the nation’s political belief, and ultimately policy. Even the words “immigrant” or “migrant” are not entirely accurate descriptions of these children’s situation. Luiselli ends with the claim that they are refugees fleeing war, yet by the time she reaches this conclusion, the stories have made this point themselves.
There is a glimpse of hope amid a broken system in the last chapter, when a group of Luiselli’s students from Hofstra University in Long Island establish a political association called the Teenage Immigration Integration Association, organizing soccer games and one-on-one English tutoring to offer Central American refugees some support.
The book’s title comes from Luiselli’s daughter, who asks her to tell her how the stories of these children end. Just like the 40 questions, Luiselli does not have an answer for her daughter, nor is she certain about her own reasons for coming to the U.S. She ends with the notion that, “in the United States, to stay is an end in itself and not a means.” She remembers the response of a girl she translated for who simply said she came, “Because I wanted to arrive.”
The subject of the book might feel particularly relevant in the face of President Donald Trump’s increased deportations, and frequent attacks on immigrants and sanctuary cities. But it also shows that while the immigration system may have reentered the public spotlight with Trump’s election, it had been broken long before.