Writers Cristina Henriquez and Edwidge Danticat talk with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about the urgent issue of keeping immigrant families together and resisting their mass incarceration and detention. Henriquez, author of The Book of Unknown Americans, talks about the tragic real-life inspiration for her short story “Everything Is Far from Here” and the differences between Obama-era immigration policy and the policy of the current administration. Danticat, a National Book Award Finalist and author of The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story and Breath, Eyes, Memory, discusses the treatment of Haitian immigrants, the impossible choices immigrants face while pursuing better lives for their families, and what might lie ahead for detained children after the news coverage fades.
The World in Half, The Book of Unknown Americans, and “Everything Is Far from Here” by Cristina Henriquez · “Cristina Henriquez on Immigration, Detention, and Missing Names” by Cressida Leyshon · “The Trump administration changed its story on family separation no fewer than 14 times before ending the policy” by J.M. Rieger · “The History of The Flores Settlement and Its Effects on Immigration” from NPR · The Immigration Act of 1990 · Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town by Mirta Ojito · The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea · Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli · Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central America by Thomas Bruneau, Lucia Dammert, and Elizabeth Skinner · When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson · Breath, Eyes, Memory, Krik? Krak!, The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story, The Dew Breaker, Claire of the Sea and Light, and Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat · “NYC Hospitals Are Treating Children Separated from Parents at Border for Mental Illness” by Elliot Hannon · The Guantánamo Public Memory Project · Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran · “White Extinction Anxiety” by Charles M. Blow
VIDEO FROM LIT HUB: Ethan Hawke reads Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead at 92Y Ethan Hawke reads Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead at 92Y 00:00 / 08:18
From the Episode, Part 1 Cristina Henriquez on Family Detention Centers
V.V. Ganeshananthan: [“Everything Is Far from Here”] is such a searing story, and I remember when it first came out. It prompted a huge amount of discussion and emotional reaction online, and now what you wrote about has basically happened en masse. I’m sure it was happening en masse before, but it became part of public discourse in a way that makes it really interesting and painful to revisit the story now for me as a reader. What is it like for you?
Cristina Henriquez: I mean it’s terrible in the sense that I wish it wasn’t a story. I wish there hadn’t been things like this happening in the world to prompt me to write a story like that. But there were. And when I wrote that story, which I did a year before it was eventually published (so about two years ago now), I didn’t write it because I had some kind of premonition about how things were going to go in the country. I was writing it in response to the past, to the things that had happened in 2014, or at least they had come to a hilt in about 2014. And to the conditions, even back then, of family detention centers.
I remember researching it, looking at pictures of people under these flimsy foil blankets, for example, like it says in the excerpt I read. And the rows and rows of bunk beds where women were crammed altogether. It was just heartbreaking. There were hunger strikes that I read about where people were protesting the conditions. There was this problem, as I hear there is now, of people having medical complaints, things that need actual attention, and the guards were frequently telling them just to drink water. You know, “Go away, drink some water. That will make it better.” But the water tasted like chlorine, from what I read, so it was basically undrinkable. Reading all of this was just maddening. And then, unlike now, there was hardly any media coverage of it. So subsequently, because most people didn’t even know this was happening, there was kind of not a lot of outrage or as much as I thought there should be.
Whitney Terrell: Why is that? Why do you think, particularly at the time? You’re reacting to events during the Obama administration, and we have talked on other episodes, particularly episode nine of this podcast, about the fact that the Democrats are not blameless in what’s happening in terms of immigration policy. Do you think it’s simply that people are more willing? Are people, meaning people on the left, more willing to get upset about immigration policy when they can clearly blame republicans for it?
CH: I think that’s part of it, although I will say I think there are some very clear differences between what Obama was doing and what Trump is doing now. Those things are similar in the sense that there were family detention centers under Obama. But Obama was partly responding to a crisis in the sense that there were all these unaccompanied minors that were coming to the United States and he had to figure out what to do with them in a very short period of time. Trump on the other hand, as many people have pointed out, especially recently, that immigration from Mexico is basically at like a net zero. So, there’s not really a crisis except for one that’s basically manufactured. Essentially, Trump just wants to do something because he wants to do something, which I think is a little bit of a different situation.
Also, then, obviously, the policy of separating families is a huge difference between how people were treated when they were apprehended at the border. I think partly because of those differences it’s people more outraged, but I do think it also feels like it’s part of something, some bigger agenda with Trump. And that is making people feel, rightly, more frightened about what’s happening.
WT: I think it’s helpful for you to outline that difference between the primary crisis during the Obama administration, as I understand it, was unaccompanied minors who were arriving at the border, which is different than having people arrive, particularly asylum seekers, with children and then separating the parents and children. That was not happening during that period of time under Obama. Is that correct to say?
CH: Right. That’s correct. And now when Trump was separating these families, when the kids got separated, then they could be classified as unaccompanied minors, which is also like a weird thing that I think probably made him feel more like he was on par with what Obama was doing. So, why is everyone so outraged? [Trump wonders]. I don’t think he gets it at all.
From the Episode, Part 2 Edwidge Danticat on Detained Children
V.V. Ganeshananthan: As you mentioned already, your circumstances were not exactly the same as the children who were in this situation. You were living with your aunt and uncle—you weren’t in a repurposed Wal-Mart with a mural of Donald Trump on the wall—but when you read about what’s been happening, how do you imagine what it feels like to be these children? And if you could talk to them, what would you say to the children who are going through this?
Edwidge Danticat: I have spoken to children like this before, not in these same circumstances, but when we had the mass influx of children in 2014, I think, from Central America. So, I have many friends who are immigration lawyers, and you are so right when you said that these children are facing the system on their own. Unless they have volunteers, they’re not entitled to legal representation, so a child might be facing a judge all alone.
I have friends who volunteered at some of these detention centers with children, so I would go and talk to them. I would sometimes sit in on Know Your Rights presentations, which sometimes you have to do presentations for a child with a cartoon because they don’t understand the complexity of what they’re facing. What I have said to them and what I would say to these children is: Hang on. It’s really hard to fully know how this will affect them. And based on the level of trauma they’ve experienced and the level of trauma some will continue to experience, we don’t know how this will affect them, but all you can say is, “Hang on,” and, “You’re not alone.”
I hope that that remains true, that once we stop seeing these images of children in cages on concrete floors on those blankets, once we stop hearing the voices of children crying, we will still care because people have a tendency to move on rather quickly. I think that’s the power of literature, is that it lingers, as you said. That there will be veteran writers, there will be citizen writers, there will be people who will continue. Journalists who will continue to follow this. I hope, I hope that we’re not going to say, “Oh, it’s all fine now,” while these children are living in the same conditions, the same things are happening—except out of sight.
VVG: I’m trying to imagine 20 years from now: what will these kids’ lives be like?
Whitney Terrell: Maybe we’ll have an incredibly powerful political leader.
ED: Yes, hopefully rise out of that. And storytellers and people who want to make change. But I want to also bring into this group of children, this other group of children we’re going to have who will be separated from their parents. The Trump administration has revoked temporary protected status for, so far, maybe six out of the ten countries that have received it, including Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador, some of the places these children are fleeing the violence from. There are about 330,000 people who could be deported starting next summer. And some of these people are parents who have US citizen children. They’re the DACA people who are in limbo, about 800,000, and some of them are parents. They might have to choose now between whether they leave their children here, because they don’t want to take them back to very dangerous situations, or leave them as wards of the state or leave them with relatives. Those families are also going to be affected by the separations. So, this is a huge problem that we might still be sorting out twenty years from now.
This transcript has been edited and condensed by FnF. Transcriptions by Erin Saxon.