Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

The process by which a child is asked questions during the intake interview is called screening, a term that is as cynical as it is appropriate: the child a reel of footage, the translator-interpreter an obsolete apparatus used to channel that footage, the legal system a screen, itself too worn out, too filthy and tattered to allow any clarity, any attention to detail. Stories often become generalized, distorted, appear out of focus.
— Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends

This book is one of those must reads. If I had a required reading list, this would be near the top. What's especially great is no one can have any excuses - in 100 short pages, Valeria Luiselli tells you everything you need to know about the completely insane conditions orphan refugees have to face when the enter the United States via Mexico from Central American countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions personally investigates, through Luiselli's time working as a translator for these cases in New York, the circumstances of so many children and teenagers as the enter into the U.S. legal system after presenting themselves to border control.

Tens of thousands of teenagers cross through Mexico to the U.S. in recent years, escaping gangs and violence to reach safety, either alone or with family members who have already immigrated. They travel with coyotes and jump onto La Bestia - the cargo trains that go from Central America to the U.S., often facing rape, abductions and other risks along the way. Once across the border, they give themselves up to border control, being placed in the 'icebox', or holding zone, until a guardian can be contacted. 

In varying degrees, some papers and webpages announce the arrival of undocumented children like a biblical plague. Beware the locusts!... We wonder if the reactions would be different were all these children of a lighter color: of better, purer breeds and nationalities. Would they be treated more like people? More like children?
— Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends

By law, these children are able to have a trial to claim asylum or refuge but, unlike Americans, they are not guaranteed a lawyer. If they are lucky, the can find someone willing to take their case pro bono. This is where the questionnaire kicks in - 40 questions and responses that are translated from Spanish into English to help the lawyer build a solid enough case to gain that child protection and a right to remain in the U.S. 

For children of that age, telling a story - in a second language, translated to a third - a round and convincing story that successfully inserts them into legal proceedings working up to their defense, is practically impossible.
— Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends

Luiselli, as a volunteer translator in 2015 and 2016, writes about her experience hearing so many of these children's stories, and the research she does around them. A critically important point - she reminds Americans of our contribution to the circumstances from which these children flee. In the 1980s in Los Angeles, gangs sprang up like MS-13 and Barrio 18. Many members were deported back to their home countries in Central America and, according to Luiselli, these gangs thus 'metastasized', growing across nations. The violence these children are fleeing began in the U.S.

No one suggests that the causes are deeply embedded in our shared hemispheric history and are therefore not some distant problem in a foreign country no one can locate on a map, but in fact a transnational problem that includes the United States - not as a distant observer or passive victim that must now deal with thousands of unwanted children arriving at the southern border, but rather as an active historical participant in the circumstances that generated the problem.
— Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends

Unfortunately, for the children who do make the journey to arrive in the U.S., this means that they may also face the same violence here. One phrase that captures this tragic irony is 'de guatemala de guatapeor', or from guate-bad to guata-worse. America, land of the free, is so flawed, the backlash spread so far we don't even know it as ours when it comes back toward us. Luiselli's book is a reminder of our ownership, and a look in the mirror revealing our own ugly terrain.