Can stories help us understand the realities of migration?

In her new novel, Valeria Luiselli explores the possibilities and limits of writing about the border crisis.


In June 2014, I drove from New York to a small town in the mountains of western Colorado, repeating a journey so familiar it felt almost cliché: leaving a claustrophobic city life for the openness and freedom of the West. That summer, while working as an intern for High Country News, I explored as much of my new backyard as I could, climbing mountains, jumping in cold rivers, sleeping under skies tinseled with stars.

Then came another kind of road trip. A little over a year after I moved to Colorado, I drove to the Adelanto Detention Center on the edge of California’s Mojave Desert, for a story about the booming business of immigrant detention centers across the West. This shadowy system — much of it run for profit — locks up tens of thousands of people in prison-like facilities while their immigration cases are processed.

The Adelanto Detention Center is run by the GEO Group, a company worth billions of dollars. Press access was restricted, so I went in with a group of volunteers who regularly visit the facility and spent several hours interviewing women detainees. It is hard to describe how unsettling that place felt; people were deprived of their liberty and held there, not because they have committed a crime, but simply because they were deemed unfit to be in this country — even people seeking asylum, who were waiting to see a judge.

A migrant child looks out the window of a bus as protesters try to block a bus carrying migrant children out of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Detention Center in McAllen, Texas.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Driving home, beneath the Mojave’s voluminous sky, I felt my belief in a wide-open West diminishing, replaced by stories of confinement, expulsion and fear.

After Donald Trump got elected, I watched immigration coverage explode. It reached a fever pitch last summer with the news that, as part of a new “zero-tolerance” policy, the government had separated thousands of migrant children from their parents, detaining many of them in desert tent camps along the border.

At the time, I was writing about the uncertainty faced by an immigrant family in rural Colorado. The father was undocumented and the mother had temporary legal status through DACA, the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects people brought to the country as children without documentation. In the midst of working, paying the bills and raising children, the parents worried about what would happen to their three kids, all U.S. citizens, if they both got deported — the sort of slow-moving crisis that rarely makes headlines. During the months I spent visiting them, taking in glimpses of their daily life, I often struggled with how to tell their story, which did not fit into the victim narratives common in immigration coverage. Like most families, they struggled sometimes, but they had also succeeded in so many ways — jobs, a house, kids enrolled in soccer and summer camp. And yet, as they sometimes told me, without a trace of self-pity, they felt like they didn’t belong. Their kids’ future was here, they said, but theirs might not be.

I wondered whether I was the right person to tell their story: This family had roots in the West in a way that I — a Canadian who had lived in Colorado less than four years — did not. And yet I was the one with the privilege of choice, the freedom to move, and the right to build a life in the U.S. and to live without fear that I might lose everything. How could I, as a beneficiary of that system, write about those who were on the opposite side?

Valeria Luiselli uses a road trip she took with her family to the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona as the backdrop for her novel.

THESE QUESTIONS ALSO PREOCCUPY writer Valeria Luiselli, who took a road trip from New York to southern Arizona in the summer of 2014, when tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America were arriving at the southern border to claim asylum. Later, back in New York, Luiselli volunteered as a translator for these undocumented children — some as young as toddlers — in immigration court, an experience she wrote about in her 2017 book-length essay, Tell me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions.

Like me, Luiselli was writing about immigration as an immigrant herself, from a position of privilege. Born in Mexico, her father’s work as a diplomat took the family to Costa Rica, South Korea and South Africa. Later she attended boarding school in India before moving back to Mexico and then to the U.S. for graduate school. Luiselli was in the middle of her own green card application process even as she was writing about children who faced a far tougher road ahead through the U.S. immigration system.

Luiselli’s work as an interpreter soon taught her that bending children’s descriptions of their experiences into a coherent narrative is often impossible. And yet this is what journalism, and the asylum process itself, demands. In her latest book, Lost Children Archive, Luiselli turns to fiction, using the narrator’s self-doubt to reveal her own uncertainties about storytelling.

What emerges is a novel that feels as much a meditation on the process of storytelling as it is a story itself: An unnamed woman drives with her husband and their two children, both from previous marriages, from New York City to the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona so the parents can collect sounds for their respective audio documentary projects. The father is researching Geronimo and Chiricahua Apache warriors, while the mother is trying to figure out how to tell the story of the thousands of Central American children arriving at the southern border.

Part road trip novel, part political and artistic treatise, Luiselli’s writing is as playful as it pensive, with family jokes often lightening the increasingly sober reality around them. Through conversations and observations, the narrator grapples with the mythmaking that defines family, identity and a nation.

One such conversation occurs near the beginning of the novel, as the mother tries to explain the news about the children arriving at the border to her own children.

What does refugee mean, Mama?”

I suppose I could tell the girl: A child refugee is someone who waits. But instead, I tell her that a refugee is someone who has to find a new home.”

With this explanation, simplified for a child, we see the narrator grappling with the way language and perception shape our understanding of events. Later, Luiselli applies this lesson to other stories, unraveling many of the myths that America holds dear. The family’s journey to the Southwest is not the “Great American Road Trip” of quaint diners and open roads and national parks. Instead, it is haunted by the history of Chiricahua Apaches who were forcibly removed from their homeland —by stories of “genocide, exodus, war, and blood.”

By deconstructing these myths, Luiselli confronts us with a different version of America and of the West. Traveling through New Mexico, the family sees planes filled with deported “alien” children take off not far from the Roswell UFO museum. For undocumented children, New Mexico is no more “The Land of Enchantment” than Adelanto, California, was the “City of Unlimited Possibilities” for the men and women held in its detention center, despite what the sign entering town proclaims. This, too, is America; the so-called American Dream is as much a story about extinction and “removal” — about who gets to belong and whose story gets told — as it is about hope.

In the second half of the novel, the 10-year-old stepchild becomes the narrator, recounting how he and his sister decide to run away into the Arizona desert and become “lost children” themselves. By writing from the perspective of a child traveling alone through an unknown place, Luiselli forces readers to consider the essential question: “What if it was my child?”

This shifting perspective is at the heart of Luiselli’s narrative as she attempts to understand what it might be like for children and their parents to be separated, lost in the desert — and what so many families seeking asylum are now undergoing as a result of the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown.

Readers eventually find out what happens to the narrator’s children, but the novel’s central enigma remains: How do we tell the stories of the thousands of children who are still being separated from their families, or who died while crossing the desert? By the end, the stories of these lost children remain conspicuously absent.

LAST SUMMER, after news of the government’s family separation policy broke, I called a woman whom I had met outside the Adelanto Detention Facility a year and a half before. She was there with her sister-in-law to pick up her brother, who had been detained for six months after he and his family fled from cartel-related violence in Mexico.

I learned that they had a lawyer and that they were living in California while their asylum cases were processed. Both parents had jobs and the kids were in school. The family’s fate was still uncertain, but it gave me some relief to know that despite the chaos and cruelty of America’s immigration system, this one family had found a bit of refuge.

It was the kind of feel-good story that journalists love, but that I knew did not reflect the larger reality when it comes to the Borderlands’ lost children, because too many have simply disappeared. They disappear while crossing the border in remote stretches of the Sonoran Desert; they disappear at the hands of smugglers; they disappear into detention; and after deportation. As Luiselli reminds us, they never get a chance to tell their stories.

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for High Country News. She writes from Carbondale, Colorado. 

Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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