Karla Cornejo Villavicencio should be an American success story: Born into a poor immigrant family, she eventually got a degree from Harvard and is now a doctoral candidate at Yale. She is also undocumented, having come to the U.S. when she was 4 years old.
She rejects being called a “Dreamer” because, she says, it perpetuates the division this country has of good and bad immigrants. In “The Undocumented Americans,” she sets out to portray the undocumented people at the heart of American life: the ones who worked on the cleanup after Hurricane Sandy before government cleanup workers arrived and are now being targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement; the “second responders” who did the cleanup after 9/11, mostly without protective equipment, and are now suffering cancer and undiagnosed illnesses from the chemicals they were exposed to; the underground trade in pharmaceuticals that has grown up because undocumented immigrants generally don’t have access to health insurance — and more.
Cornejo Villavicencio’s style is not standard journalism. She sees her parents, her siblings and her community in the people she’s interviewing. Her own history has left her emotionally fragile.
“As an undocumented person, I felt like a hologram. Nothing felt secure. ... Being deportable means you have to be ready to go at any moment, ready to go with nothing but the clothes on your body. ... I’ve learned to develop no relationship to anything. ... Sometimes to prove my ability to let go, I’ll write something long and delete it, or go on my phone and delete all the photos I have of happy memories. I’ve never loved a material object,” she writes.
Her immersive writing challenges readers not to experience the conditions as an outsider. She insists we enter into an emotional relationship. She wants us to understand that the way undocumented people are treated in this country — legally and politically — damages and destroys them; it has damaged her, and that damage is evident in her anger and her fragility.
In Flint, Michigan, where the decision of a state-appointed manager exposed thousands of people to lead-contaminated water, undocumented families were even more at risk than their neighbors. “Flyers announcing toxic levels of lead ... were published entirely in English, and when canvassers went door-to-door to tell residents to stop drinking tap water, undocumented people did not open their doors out of fear that the people knocking were immigration authorities. ... Some undocumented Flint residents learned of the lead in their water only when family members from Mexico called them on the phone. ... They had seen reports of the poisoned water on Univision,” Cornejo Villavicencio explains.
They were also unable to take advantage of water distribution from the National Guard, which required ID.
In Ohio and Indiana, she gets to know children deprived of their fathers, some because the father has been deported, others because their fathers have taken sanctuary in churches. She takes us beyond the political struggle to the effects on young children — some of them citizens, some not — trying to understand what is happening to their parents.
She writes about the bleak future faced by aging immigrants and the difficult choices their children have to make to keep them alive and living in dignity once they are too old to work at the physically demanding jobs they’ve done all their lives. They’ll get no Social Security, no Medicare, no pensions. She writes about her own internal struggle with an increasing sense of guilt over her relatively privileged life, caused by a combination of good grades and good fortune in finding “patrons” to support her through school. Her privilege, of course, is built on sand, since she also could be deported, and she contends with a life-long history of depression caused in part by the struggles she had growing up.
Cornejo Villavicencio rejects not only the conservative narrative about immigrants, but also the liberal one that justifies their presence because they are noble and hardworking, though the ones she portrays certainly are that. Her point is that people who come here should not have to justify their right to dignified treatment any more than people who are born here should, and she recognizes that being able to live with dignity is something that racism and classism destroys.
“As an undocumented immigrant, everything we do is technically against the law. We’re illegal. Many of us are indigenous in part or whole and do not believe borders should exist at all. ... [T]he higher moral law here is that people have a human right to move, to change location, if they experience hunger, poverty, violence, or lack of opportunity, especially if that climate in their home countries is created by the United States, as is the case with most third world countries from which people migrate,” she writes.
“The Undocumented Americans” is an in-your-face assault on complacency about the immigration crisis and the way that it has been handled by Democrats as well as Republicans. Cornejo Villavicencio doesn’t offer solutions, which might be considered a weakness of the book. At the same time, it’s clear that there will be no solution until American citizens as a whole change their attitudes about our country’s support for the corporate exploitation of the world and exclusion of the people who try to come here as a result.
Mike Wold is descended from European and North African immigrants to Mexico, French Louisiana and the United States.
Read more of the Nov. 11-17, 2020 issue.