Earlier, in “Five Good Books,” I wrote about a few books for kids and adults talking about refugees, immigration, and asylum. Today I’ve got a sixth to add, in the adult-and-teen category: Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions.
Less than 150 pages long, this book is lean enough to fit in the pocket of my rain jacket and powerful enough to halt a rhinoceros mid-charge. The author was born in Mexico and now lives in New York, where she interprets for juvenile asylum-seekers and migrants; her essay includes a brief, frank discussion of the legal distinction between those two categories and who benefits from it (heads up: it’s certainly not the kids). These young people, ranging in age from small children to older teenagers, made the exceptionally dangerous journey from Central America through Mexico to the U.S. border, where almost all of them immediately took the terrifying step of turning themselves over to American immigration authorities. Detention and a hearing are often their only way to demonstrate that they have legitimate reasons to be afraid for their lives in the countries they came from, and thus legitimate reasons to be in the United States.
It’s not enough that they’re kids, and that they would never have made the frequently fatal trip without a very good reason, and that many of them are sponsored by relatives here.* No, they still have to put together a case for why they shouldn’t be forcibly returned to the places they fled from. And, thanks to the decision to fast-track juvenile immigration cases, they only have 21 days to do it.
That’s where Luiselli and her colleagues come in. The massive overload of juvenile immigration cases has been seriously exacerbated by the fast-track policy, and someone has to get these kids’ stories on paper so that they can be assigned the appropriate lawyers who handle the appropriate kinds of cases. (These cases, by the way, are civil, not criminal. That’s one of the reasons that the term “illegal immigrant” isn’t very useful; it’s generally much more accurate to describe someone as “undocumented,” which just means they haven’t been granted papers that prove their right to stay in the country. Many people, like some of the kids Luiselli interviews, arrive in the U.S. without documents but have perfectly legitimate claims to asylum or cases to make for long-term residency.)
Luiselli writes with straightforward candor about her experiences interpreting for these kids: the alarming bureaucracy they’re navigating, the hell they went through to get here, what they find and don’t find in their new communities. She also weaves in strands about her own family’s wait for their green cards and about a group of students she teaches in a Spanish Conversation class. Through it all runs the thread of her five-year-old daughter’s repeated requests when Luiselli talks about her work: “Tell me how it ends.”
Look, I don’t know how much of this book will be new to you. You might already be familiar with the reasons that people migrate from Central America, including gang warfare and state violence, and with the detention centers called hieleras, iceboxes/ICEboxes, where kids are warehoused without adequate food or clothing. You might already know the ins and outs of where public school fits into the immigration equation–no public school, if you’re wondering, can legally turn a student away simply because they lack a particular immigration document, though many do–and what it means for a relative to sponsor a child.
If you don’t already know this system inside and out, though–and for all that I’ve read about it, I definitely don’t know it that well–or if you’re looking for a lucid, concise, and evenhanded walk through this complex arrangement of organizations and regulations that is an intrinsic part of our country, I highly, highly recommend Tell Me How It Ends. There’s no grandstanding or political opining here. There are questions, and there are answers, and there’s the frank understanding that the answers that we want aren’t often the answers we’re going to get.
My coworkers and I are evenly divided on whether this book is a depressing one. Many of them found it depressing; I’m one of the ones who found it hopeful. “Tell me how it ends” is a child’s request to their mother, an impossible one to fulfill, but it’s also a request we all have for each other: please, please, tell me we have a way forward here. Luiselli doesn’t have an answer for that, but she does provide options and resources, and the essay is of course a resource of its own. Clear, well-considered accounts like this one are vital to building better systems for the future. Only by saying what is can we say what we need to do next, even if we never do get to see all the way to the ending.
*For more on the subject of the migrant journey through Mexico, see The Beast by Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez. That one’s definitely for adults and older teens specifically, while Tell Me How It Ends is something that, though written for an adult audience, I can recommend for thirteen and up.