To Tell the Story, These Journalists Became Part of the Story

In two recent books about immigrant families seeking asylum in the U.S., the authors’ attempts to help become part of their subjects’ stories.

Martha Pskowski | Longreads | October 2018 | 16 minutes (4,194 words)

 

The attention paid to the U.S.-Mexico border seems to ebb and flow like the tide. News coverage spikes and then recedes, giving the impression that migration itself must be doing the same, when in fact the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has been stable for the last 10 years. In summer 2014, it was the wave of unaccompanied minors arriving from Central America drew our scrutiny. The year 2018, as in so many arenas, brought new horrors, with young children forcibly separated from their parents and the ensuing debacle of reunification.

I spent the first few months of 2014 as a volunteer at a migrant shelter in Ixtepec, Oaxaca. On the side, I was dipping my toes into journalism, pitching to small non-profit websites. On a typically sticky afternoon in Ixtepec, I asked the priest who runs the shelter, Alejandro Solalinde, what changes he had seen so far that year. More children than ever, he said. And more of them coming alone. I wrote about the rising number of unaccompanied minors for the Americas Program that April.

Just a few months later, I watched with a mix of relief and bewilderment as international media flocked to the U.S.-Mexico border to cover the full-blown controversy. Few outlets had bothered to look at what had been apparent in refugee shelters in Southern Mexico for months: minors travelling solo. Only when these adolescents and children arrived on the doorstep of the United States did their situation become a “crisis” meriting media attention and presidential action. But then as now, Central American migrants were compartmentalized, and their stories simplified for easy consumption.

I stayed in touch with some of the young men and women I met in Ixtepec, meeting up in person when possible. In strip malls in Northern Virginia and Van Nuys, California, I have caught up over pupusas with young Salvadorans who made it across the border after passing through Ixtepec. Instead of writing about just a snapshot of individual border crossings, I wanted to fit together the disparate pieces of their shared stories into the bigger picture; leaving home, the dangerous journey through Mexico, and now, adjusting to the United States.

When I needed more substance, and a respite from flash-point news coverage of the border this summer, two books satisfied my desire for depth, context and nuanced empathetic storytelling: Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown by Lauren Hilgers and The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life by Lauren Markham. Both trace the stories of families migrating to the United States and explore the gap between the myths the immigrants had heard before arriving and the reality of the life they experienced in America. Hilgers and Markham unravel the complicated circumstances that led their subjects to come to the United States, and the unexpected barriers they faced once arriving in their respective destinations.

The stories that Markham and Hilgers tell would not have been told unless the authors showed up again and again for their subjects in the families’ hardest moments.

Hilgers shadows Zhuang Liehong and Little Yan, a couple from rural China that she had met in 2012 while working as a journalist in China. Surprisingly, the couple arrives on her doorstep in Brooklyn, New York two years later. Markham, who has reported extensively in Latin America and the border region, meets the Flores brothers, Raúl and Ernesto, when they arrive in Oakland, California from rural El Salvador. She meets them at her job as a counselor at an international high school in Oakland, not as a journalist, which at the time is work she pursues outside of school hours. After working with them at school and helping them secure legal representation, she decides to write their story.

Both journalists took an active role in their subjects’ applications for humanitarian protection in the US and write immersive accounts of the immigration system. The stories that Markham and Hilgers tell would not have been told unless the authors showed up again and again for their subjects in the families’ hardest moments. These two books provide the perspective of longer form narrative written over time, producing crucial understanding and insight that traditional daily news on immigration cannot. Building trust over months and years with their subjects was a prerequisite for respectfully understanding and telling these stories.

Hilgers and Markham carefully weave in their subjects’ histories in China and El Salvador with their current struggles in Queens and Oakland. These stories, like immigrants’ life journeys, have no linear beginning and end, and the reader sees how life back home is forever intertwined with their new lives in the United States. These two books describe the process of trying to fit together the pieces and overcome the rupture of leaving your home for a faraway land.

* * *

China and El Salvador are on opposite ends of the earth. But certain struggles of rural life are shared between these two countries, one huge, the other so small it’s endearingly known as “the little thumb” of Latin America. In two small towns, Wukan Village in Guangdong Province and La Colonia, there were no authorities to turn to when violence or repression threatened like gathering storm clouds. Two families began planning how to escape and reach America.

Zhuang is Patriot Number One. Or so he calls himself in 2009 when he launches a protest movement in Wukan Village against unjust land expropriation. Authorities begin arresting his co-conspirators and by 2013 he fears corrupt officials would target him next. It was time, it was necessary, to leave.

“The moment he [Zhuang] decided to leave Wukan Village, he thought of the United States,” writes Hilgers. “It had an allure no other country could match. It was a country of justice and freedom, a place with values that paralleled his own. He had to whisper it when he said it: America. He had heard its asylum policies were favorable, and he understood it to be a wealthy country that took care of its citizens. Work would be easy to find there. People would be friendly…”

In 2014, Zhuang and his wife Little Yan leave China under the cover of a tour group visiting the United States. Their true destination: New York City. After the final stop, in Las Vegas, they alert the tour leaders that they will be extending their stay in the States.

Journalist Lauren Hilgers had met Zhuang in 2012 when she reported on the protests in Wukan, planning to write a magazine article. Shortly after meeting him, Hilgers returned to the States after living in Shanghai for six years, moving to Brooklyn with her husband. She stayed in touch with Zhuang.

“As Zhuang and Little Yan’s tour group made its way to the West Coast, I received a few more phone calls and messages from Zhuang, all initially telegraphic: ‘We’re in San Francisco!’ ‘We’re in Los Angeles!’ As they traveled from Los Angeles to San Diego, his messages became more pointed.

‘Can you help us find a place to stay in New York?’ he asked in a Skype message. ‘You are the only person we know in the city.’

“By the time Zhuang’s intent became clear, I had laid no groundwork, gained no helpful knowledge. I had spent six years in China, and was doing my best, nearly two years into my life back in New York, not to cling to my experience as an expatriate,” she writes.

Zhuang and Little Yan arrive in Brooklyn, and Hilgers finds herself in the middle of their apartment search, and later their pursuit of asylum.

Wilber and Esperanza Flores raised five children on their farm in La Colonia. (Both La Colonia and Flores are fictional names Markham uses to protect her subjects’ identity.) After the hard years of the Civil War, the twins, Raúl and Ernesto, were born in 1996. Money was tight as the children grew; the twins schemed to trade corn for a bike. When the twins’ older brother Wilber Jr. finished high school, his father decided to send him north.

“’The North’ was often a starry-eyed euphemism for the United States,’’ writes Markham, “where work and money and opportunity, despite messages sent back home to the contrary, were abundant.”

As the twins entered adolescence, a new kind of violence slowly closed in on La Colonia. Townspeople were joining the maras, gangs that began in Los Angeles and later arrived in El Salvador with deportees. Reports came in from around the country of brutal murders. The North started to sound even more appealing.

“[The twins] imagined the places where people they knew had ended up — Arizona, Texas, California. Ernesto idealized El Norte just as his older brother had: a place with jobs, more stuff, opportunity. In El Norte, the way he figured it, he could have a bike in a matter of weeks. Wilber wrote home every now and again about how hard it was to make money, but Ernesto never quite believed it. He imagined his brother with nice clothes, a fancy car, flashy Nikes.”

Ernesto decides to go north, and Wilber Sr. puts down a parcel of his land as collateral to pay the coyote. Around the same time, an uncle caught up in the gangs begins to threaten the Flores family, especially Ernesto. In the end, both twins head north. After a dangerous journey through Guatemala and Mexico, they are detained in Texas. They’re 17 years old, unaccompanied minors, and are released with orders to show up in court in San Francisco.

Arriving in Oakland, they move in with Wilber Jr. and start school at Oakland International High School. When the brothers miss their court date, they meet Lauren Markham, the school counselor. After speaking with them briefly, she determines, “They needed a lawyer, and fast.”

Unbeknownst to the twins or to Markham, this chance encounter would lead Markham into continuing efforts to help the brothers, and to her writing The Far Away Brothers.

* * *

Once the protagonists are in Oakland and New York, new bureaucratic hurdles present themselves at every turn. At times the disconnect between the America they had imagined and the America they live in is gaping.

“So much of immigrant life in the United States is based on myth and legend: a country that drives people to move across oceans, and they then send rose-tinted stories back home,” writes Hilgers.

Little Yan is underwhelmed by Flushing, Queens, her new home:

“Little Yan had expected New York to be luxurious. She had seen movies. She had watched episodes of Friends and absorbed the fabulous large apartments and big windows. New York had to be the wealthiest city in the world, she thought. And then on her first day in the city, she had taken the subway to Flushing. The neighborhood had looked worn out, as if it needed a break from the daily traffic. Little Yan had lived in big cities before and on their outskirts. Flushing did not measure up to them — it was like a third-tier city in China.”

Asylum looks less like an international standard of protection and more like an antiquated rubric, steeped in political motivations.

The struggles that Zhuang, Little Yan and the Flores brothers face are remarkably similar. Expenses add up to an extent they had never anticipated. The Flores brothers worry that they will never pay off the debt they acquired to come north. Little Yan enrolls in business classes to escape the low-wage work available to her in nail salons and restaurants (which Hilgers has also written about).

The challenges in understanding spoken and especially written English are shared. For example, Markham describes reading, translating, and explaining a letter addressed to the Flores brothers. Although it bears good news, they were convinced otherwise. Deciphering email and letters written in English is also a chronic problem for Zhuang, who avidly signs up for mailing lists, identification cards and bank accounts, as if to affirm his status as a United States resident.

Supportive communities that share language and culture are the counterweight against overwhelming conditions. Wilber Jr. helps his younger brothers find work in restaurants with other Latinos. At school they get to know other Central American teenagers, and students from around the world.

Zhuang and Little Yan befriend their Chinese neighbors. Little Yan gets to know Karen, a college-educated Chinese immigrant, at her business classes. Friends who have been in the United States longer explain the ins and outs of renting apartments and seeking work.

“The confusion of navigating life in the United States was easier to bear with company,” writes Hilgers.

Both families make mistakes, and sometimes squander opportunities. The authors include the rougher edges of the families’ stories and portray their subjects as vivid, real people with both strengths and weaknesses.

Hilgers describes Little Yan’s frustration that her husband didn’t seek a job quickly enough. And while the Flores brothers put in long hours at school during the day and restaurant work at night, their juvenile mistakes — skipping class to spend time with girls or blowing money on sneakers that they should send home to their parents — remind the reader that they are hard-working, but also impulsive teenage boys.

Their story reminded me of young men I’d met in Ixtepec, who were enjoying their first taste of independence from their families as they journeyed north. One Salvadoran, the same age as the Flores brothers, slipped out of the shelter one afternoon and returned with a fresh tattoo on his ankle, which back home in El Salvador could have attracted unwanted attention from gangs.

Both families arrive in the United States before Trump’s rise to the presidency. However, the foreshadowing of his anti-immigration stance during his campaign and actions during his first year in office add subtext to the stories and tension and threat to the families’ experience.

Hilgers describes how Chinese immigrants in Flushing depend on applications like WeChat for political news, unable to read in English or listen to the presidential debates. Pro-Trump stories proliferate on WeChat, though Little Yan assures Hilgers that her friends all support Clinton. The new president’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and the Muslim ban discourage Green Card holders from traveling home; their hard-earned progress in the United States seems on shaky ground.

The Flores family, both in El Salvador and Oakland, view Trump’s campaign with concern. Wilber Jr., the twins’ older brother, is undocumented, and worries that he could be deported. Their sister Maricela is considering going north before the election. Markham tries to reassure Raúl that Trump has a longshot at winning:

“I told him he was always thinking the worst would happen.

‘Maybe so, but I know he’s going to win.’ He shook his head. ‘People love him. And then all the Latinos are going home.’

Like Maricela, he couldn’t be dissuaded. As much as this country had been good to him, he was — and always would be, he felt — an outsider.

‘I swear to you — Trump will win.’”

* * *

By allowing the subjects to speak for themselves, flaws and all, the inequities and injustices of the United States immigration system are revealed in an immediate, personal way. Deep, longitudinal reporting like Markham’s and Hilgers’ can reach and inform disparate readers. The authors connect readers to the issues through these well-documented individual stories.

This sort of writing can help crack open the stalled and polarized conversation on immigration. The reasons behind choices like crossing the border without papers or over-staying a tourist visa are better understood in thorough narrative context, as are the consequences of our immigration system and policies.

Describing Zhuang and Little Yan’s asylum application, Hilgers sheds light on working class East Asian immigrants, a population often left out of discussions of immigration:

“Nationwide, more Chinese people apply for and attain asylum every year than any other group,” she writes. “Every year Chinese asylees outnumber those from the next three nations (Guatemala, El Salvador and, Egypt) combined… …Asylum cases from China are so successful, in large part, because of the specific types of persecution Chinese citizens face… …In Flushing, three types of asylum cases dominate. They center on China’s limited religious freedom, its one-child policy, and its intolerance for political dissent. Immigrants who have converted to Christianity tell stories of unsanctioned churches raided by officials. Women asylees might face forcible abortions if they try to have a second child. And then, like Zhuang, some dissidents are not free to express their political beliefs.”


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The flip-side of this apparent liberalness for Chinese applicants is the formulaic nature of their applications. Hilgers explains how some Chinese churches in Flushing hand out attendance slips, so that asylum applicants can prove they would be persecuted for religious practice in secular China. Others attend China Democratic Party meetings in New York to bolster their claims to asylum officials. But instead of portraying Chinese applicants as immoral or conspiratorial, the details show how the immigration bureaucracy lacks options for people who do not fit the narrow requirements of asylum law. (Under the Trump administration, authorities are reviewing the cases of many Chinese asylees to detect fraud and potentially strip their asylum status.) Writing for VQR, Justine van der Leun says, “people who exist in between categories — needing help but not qualifying for asylum — are left in limbo and are eventually forced to disappear or are caught and deported.”

An important supporting character in Patriot Number One is Tang Yuanjun, a Chinese democracy activist who had been caught up in the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. He is a community leader from an older generation of immigrants. Tang was dismayed in his early days in Queens to see asylum applicants attending China Democratic Party meetings to bolster their claims rather than out of political conviction. But he eventually sees part of his role as a Chinese democracy advocate in Flushing as educating Chinese asylum applicants who had not been politically involved in China.

“Some came to their first Democracy Party meeting having no clue about what had happened to the students at Tiananmen Square,” writes Hilgers. “It had been wiped from China’s history books. It was not, Tang realized, the dissidents in exile who needed to learn about democracy. It was the regular immigrants, people who might not understand that many activists were still jailed, who might not know the real hardships of China in the twentieth century.”

Increasingly, and controversially, journalists are acknowledging and even embracing the concept that true ‘objectivity’ is both unachievable and undesirable.

Meanwhile, the Flores brothers who faced direct, violent threats in El Salvador have a slim chance at receiving asylum.

“Now El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were all, due to the curse of pervasive gang activity, among the murder centers of the world,” writes Markham. “The trouble was it was difficult for someone from the Northern Triangle to prove that he feared persecution based on one of the five grounds for protection — that is, that he was, due to a socially recognized (or visible, as the law put it) aspect of his identity, at a heightened risk from the violence besieging them all… …The complex stew of motivations that propelled kids like them to emigrate — poverty, a quest for opportunity, a desire to reunite with family, and a well-founded fear of violence — was difficult to distill. It was easy enough for a court to deem that what brought a kid north was more pull than push, even when that was not, in fact, the case.” (Since Jeff Sessions’ edict that gang violence is no longer a valid asylum claim, their chance of obtaining asylum would be even slimmer now.)

Through the personal stories of their subjects, Markham and Hilgers document an immigration system that even when it works for some people, some of the time, is cumbersome and imprecise. Asylum looks less like an international standard of protection and more like an antiquated rubric, steeped in political motivations. Immigrants coming to America are not waltzing through the federal bureaucracy to receive permanent residency; nor are they one-dimensional personifications of the problems ailing their countries.

Amanda Ripley wrote for the Solutions Journalism Network on Medium on the importance of introducing complexity to tired narratives. This can be the key to getting past deadlocks: “The lesson for journalists (or anyone) working amidst intractable conflict: complicate the narrative. First, complexity leads to a fuller, more accurate story. Secondly, it boosts the odds that your work will matter  —  particularly if it is about a polarizing issue. When people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information. They listen, in other words.”

The reasons the Flores brothers fled to the US are not the straight-forward arguments of gang violence that the media often portrays. Markham weaves a nuanced portrait of familial disputes, incipient organized crime, and failing crops during a climate-linked drought. Easy to convey in an 800-word article on undocumented migrants? No. More accurate? Yes.

“Tidy narratives succumb to this urge to simplify, gently warping reality until one side looks good and the other looks evil,” writes Ripley. “Complexity counters this craving, restoring the cracks and inconsistencies that had been air-brushed out of the picture. It’s less comforting, yes. But it’s also more interesting  —  and true.”

* * *

Increasingly, and controversially, journalists are acknowledging and even embracing the concept that true “objectivity” is both unachievable and undesirable. Both Hilgers and Markham thoughtfully explain how and why they chose to write about people they knew in the broader contexts of work and friendship. When Markham decided to embark on this book project, she writes, “I agonized over the ethical question… …I finally came to the conclusion that if I could trust myself to tell their story respectfully and carefully, and if the twins accepted and encouraged the idea, it was appropriate for me to write this book.”

Danielle Tcholakian addresses the issue of journalists’ accountability to their subjects in a recent Longreads essay on journalism and activism. Tcholakian had interviewed Melissa Falkowski, a journalism teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

“Humanity and empathy can sometimes feel like weaknesses in journalism, but I believe — and Melissa agreed, when we spoke last week — that they are absolutely strengths,” she writes. “The best journalism moves people, makes people feel things. The best journalists are able to get people to open up to them, to trust them. You can’t do that without humanity and empathy.”

Both families had endured great suffering before reaching the United States. While Zhuang is boastful and outgoing, it took trust to reveal his vulnerable moments as a recent immigrant. Meanwhile, the more reticent Flores brothers struggle to talk about the violence they faced in El Salvador and Mexico. Getting the details right, especially when the authors were reconstructing events in the past, required diligence and patience.

“The Flores family endured question after question from me, and often repeated questioning, so I could be sure I fully understood their accounts,” writes Markham.

I have experienced this in my own work in Mexico. Sometimes, migrants would tell me one story, and then as we talked over time, another story emerged. This was understandable. In Southern Mexico where I carry out interviews, coyotes and gang members often seek information about men and women on the migrant trail, to then threaten their family members. This doesn’t mean immigrants are unreliable sources, this means that as journalists we must work harder to earn their trust and prevent negative consequences of our work.

Trust and empathy lead to acts of kindness. In my own work, refusing to help when I have the language skills and education to do so feels negligent. Both Markham and Hilgers found that pro bono legal support is hard to come by, and they advocated for lawyers to represent Zhuang, Little Yan and the Flores brothers.

Hilgers’ and Markham’s books resemble participant observation more than advocacy journalism. But unlike academics who pass through formal ethical review of their research proposals, journalists and editors may set their own boundaries and standards. This provides both opportunity, and responsibility. But if a journalist truthfully explains her professional role to her source, and her relationship to her source to her readers, helping with tasks as simple as translating subway signs and as complicated as securing a pro bono lawyer doesn’t necessarily hinder the quality of the reporting.

* * *

There is no tidy denouement in The Far Away Brothers or Patriot Number One. Life goes on for the Flores brothers, and for Zhuang and Little Yan, as they attempt to close the rupture caused by leaving their home countries for the United States.

Hilgers writes, “According to Tang Yuanjun [the democracy activist], most immigrants, Chinese and otherwise, come to the end of their lives telling two stories: one set in their country of origin, and one set in the United States. Nearly one story always dominates.” Some individuals portrayed in these books embrace their new identities in America, while others cling more tightly to their home country. There is no universal immigrant story. Even the couple Zhuang and Little Yan have significantly different experiences from one another.

Hilgers goes on to describe the lavish holiday gatherings that Tang organizes in Flushing with fellow Chinese dissidents, a scene which neatly sums up the contrasting and yet interlocking immigrant experiences of exile and community, the need to escape and the need to belong:

“These moments pulled Tang and his friends back, grounding them in Flushing with the consolation that, exiles though they might be, they were not alone.”

* * *

Martha Pskowski is a journalist based in Mexico City. She reports on politics, immigration and environmental issues. 

Editor: Dana Snitzky