In the summer of 2014, Mexican novelist and essayist Valeria Luiselli was waiting for her green card to be either accepted or denied. In the meantime, she began following a greater immigration crisis. Between October 2013 and June 2014, 80,000 unaccompanied children had been detained at the U.S.-Mexico border. Later, it became known that more than 102,000 children arrived between April 2014 and August 2015, hoping to join family already living in the United States.
These child migrants journey primarily from the Northern Triangle countries — Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala — facing sexual violence, abduction, forced labor, or even death at the hands of drug cartels on the way. Traveling with “coyotes” paid to take them to the border, they ride on the top of La Bestia, a system of freight trains that travels through Mexico. At the border, they are left in the desert or on the side of the road, hoping to be picked up by immigration authorities, detained, and then sent to their families around the country. Because these children want to become documented residents, turning themselves over to immigration officials is their best hope at receiving Special Juvenile Immigration Status (SIJ) or asylum, but only if they can find a pro bono lawyer to represent their case.
Tell Me How It Ends is Luiselli’s account of volunteering as a Spanish-English interpreter in the New York court system. Faced with this surge of child migrants, the Obama administration created a priority juvenile docket to accelerate their processing, leaving children with just 21 days to find a lawyer and build a case before being deported. Nonprofits such as the Door responded to this crisis by screening children: those with strong cases were matched with lawyers, though many more were deported before they ever made it to court, again facing mental and physical abuse, coercion from gangs, and the extreme violence they were hoping to leave behind.
I first came to Luiselli’s work through her novel The Story of My Teeth, the ballad of an eccentric auctioneer who sells, among others, the teeth of Marilyn Monroe. Her work is engrossing, vibrant, and strange, and Tell Me How It Ends is no exception. Yet the children’s stories recounted here are not fiction, and she can’t tell you how — or where — they end. We talked on the phone about her experience as an interpreter and the advocacy work she and her students are doing now.
Monika Zaleska: In Tell Me How It Ends, you describe your role as the “fragile and slippery bridge between the children and the court system.” The children you talk to are sometimes very young but are usually not allowed to have their sponsor or guardian speak for them. Sometimes, they don’t know the answers to the questions you pose, or their answers are fragmentary or incomplete: they don’t know how long they’ve been traveling, or where they crossed the border. I was thinking about this tension in the book between the desire to create an immigration narrative and the idea that it’s almost impossible.
VL: The ethical dilemma is knowing that you’re not getting the answers that you need to convince a pro bono lawyer to take on a case. If a case has no chance of getting won, it’s a waste of time for the lawyer. The temptation is to tilt the questions in a certain way, or bias the questions so that the kid might give you enough information to help them. But you can’t, one has to remain ethical and principled and hope that if you’ve asked enough questions enough times that the kid actually will say something. As far as I understand, most of the kids that have applied for SIJ or asylum with lawyers have gotten what they fought for.