Review by Sarah Evans
On her first day working with undocumented children in New York’s immigration court, Valeria Luiselli sits at a mahogany table with Manu, a 16-year-old boy who recently fled Honduras alone for the United States. Manu shrugs often as Luiselli asks him the 40 questions on the intake questionnaire, queries he must answer to help lawyers determine whether he might be deemed eligible for “potential relief” or deported by a judge.
“I’m no policewoman,” Luiselli, a native of Mexico, tries to reassure him. “I’m no official anyone, I’m not even a lawyer. I’m also not a gringa, you know? In fact, I can’t help you at all. But I can’t hurt you, either.”
“So why are you here then?” he asks.
“I’m just here to translate for you,” she tells him.
Luiselli may have started as “just a translator,” but the heartbreaking nature of the stories she heard during her volunteer gig in 2015 drove her to take on a much deeper role: chronicler of the children’s lives, so that they are not ignored or forgotten.
Luckily, the children have a capable narrator, as Luiselli demonstrates in her brief yet remarkable book Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (Coffee House Press, April 2017). Through poetic and often haunting prose, Luiselli ultimately raises even more thorny questions about an already complicated issue.
The facts: Between April 2014 and August 2015, more than 102,000 unaccompanied children were detained at the U.S.-Mexico border, so many that the U.S. government declared it a crisis. And they are still coming. Most of the children come from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, and Luiselli notes that nearly all are fleeing gang violence.
The children typically make the journey with a coyote, someone paid to smuggle them across the border. They cross Mexico with that coyote, often riding on “La Bestia,” or “the beast,” their name for the freight trains that as many as half a million Central American migrants ride annually, sitting dangerously atop the railcars because there are no passenger services.
Along the way, the children must avoid corrupt policemen and soldiers and drug gangs seeking to enslave or murder them. If they do make it to the U.S. border, they typically turn themselves in to Border Patrol, because being formally detained is much safer than attempting to cross the desert beyond the border alone. Border Patrol then places them in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center, commonly known as the “icebox.”
While detained, these children start looking for their parents or other relatives in the U.S. who might sponsor them. But even if they make it to their sponsor, they still have to appear in court to defend themselves against deportation, a defense they can make only if they are lucky enough to find a lawyer willing to take on their case pro-bono.
Which is where the intake questionnaire comes into play. The children’s answers to seemingly basic questions about their situations could potentially provide valid reasons why the U.S. government might allow them to stay. But even the first question — “Why did you come to the United States?” — often doesn’t have a straightforward answer.
The children’s answers, Luiselli writes, often reveal “the unthinkable circumstances” they are fleeing: “extreme violence, persecution and coercion by gangs, mental and physical abuse, forced labor, neglect, abandonment. 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.”
Manu, for example — the teenager Luiselli spoke with on her first day — had never met his father, and rarely saw his mother. Raised by his grandmother, who had died six months earlier, Manu ultimately got caught between two violent gangs, one trying to recruit him, the other “going after him.” After the gang members shot and killed Manu’s friend, he reported it to the police — carrying a copy of the report in his pocket all the way to America — but they never did anything about it.
“Tell me how it ends,” is what Luiselli’s daughter often pleaded when her mother shared these children’s stories at home. But Luiselli could not, and the lack of closure for these children haunted her. “The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order,” she writes. “The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.”
Still, Luiselli manages to convey their plight with beautiful images that cut deep with their perceptiveness and intimacy, while deftly weaving in her own family’s story of applying for and waiting to receive green cards. “Once you stay here long enough,” she writes late in the book, “you begin to remember the place where you originally came from the way a backyard might look from a high window in the deep of winter: a skeleton of the world, a tract of abandonment, objects dead and obsolete.”
Luiselli only hints at a potential way to address the crisis, but her purpose in this book is less to come up with solutions and more to shine a blinding light on the horrific nature of the lives — and often deaths — of those caught in the middle of a never-ending debate.
Luiselli’s call to action couldn’t be more timely.