Necessary Documents, Undocumented Americans

It doesn’t matter if they are innocent parents or 9/11 heroes: undocumented Americans have been villainized and brutalized by the United States.

“Time to climb the mountain,” they told him. Joaquín had never crossed the border before. He faced a trek through the desert that has claimed at least 7,800 lives since 1998, probably many more.1 And Joaquín was not a thin man. When the straps of his backpack broke, he gave up, sat down to take a nap and wait for the vultures. Two young men who were part of the same group—he never learned their names—shouted in his face, dragged him to his feet, and pushed him up the incline, cursing, carrying his bag. Later, Joaquín’s first steady job was in New York, working on a boat in the Hudson. That is where he found himself on the morning of 9/11.

After the first plane struck the north tower, Joaquín’s whole boat crew was taken directly to lower Manhattan. They arrived not long after the second tower fell, when there was already so much dust that Joaquín “couldn’t even see where he was walking.” He spent two weeks ferrying first responders back and forth to Ground Zero—not over the mountain, but across the river. Every night, the dust on boat and crew had to be cleaned with a power washer. When he and all the other undocumented workers on the boat were fired without warning—forced to sign documents they couldn’t understand or photocopy—Joaquín refused to return the ID they had given him allowing him into Lower Manhattan. He wanted it “as a memory that I worked at Ground Zero.”

“If you were white, 9/11 happened to you personally,” writes Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, who tells Joaquín’s story in her new book, The Undocumented Americans. Yet Joaquín was one of a number of undocumented Latinx people Cornejo Villavicencio met among the day laborers of Staten Island who were 9/11 first responders.

Paloma, originally from Colombia, cleaned office buildings in the Financial District. The rubble was “still smoking” when she went back to start cleaning up the toxic dust. Rafael was a firefighter in Mexico before coming to the US. On 9/11, he “showed his Mexican firefighter badge to the first responders, and they geared him up. They didn’t care that he was foreign.” He ran up the North Tower stairs and carried a pregnant woman down 20 flights just before it collapsed. Rafael worked at Ground Zero for months. By the time he died, 10 years later, he needed a respirator to sleep. His best friend, a Colombian named Milton who recounts the story of Rafael’s heroism, tells Cornejo Villavicencio that “he has been chosen by god to be a messenger for the Ground Zero undocumented workers.”

More than a few readers of The Undocumented Americans may be surprised to learn about them. Someone should give a copy to everyone in Staten Island, the only borough of New York City to vote for Trump, and to everyone with a “We will never forget” sticker in their window.

Washington’s and Cornejo Villavicencio’s books offer a glimpse of people who, for many, remain distant, hidden, abstract.

Undocumented laborers were also at the front lines of disaster response and cleanup for hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, Cornejo Villavicencio reminds us, after which they were again exploited and discarded, just as they were nearly left out of the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010.2 And then, beginning in 2017, in the support group for Latinx 9/11 first responders that Cornejo Villavicencio visited, “All anyone can talk about is deportation.”

The once-undocumented Ecuadorian American author understood why. On election night, 2016, she put on a burgundy velvet dress, lipstick, and a faux-fur coat, poured herself a goblet of red wine, and sat down to watch the results. She had not dressed for a celebration, but rather—like the grandes dames of the Titanic whom she was imagining—for a shipwreck. “I understood that night would be my end,” she writes. Before all the results were in, her father, who is still undocumented, called to tell her that “it was the end times.” In fact, it was a beginning. The next morning, she was ready to start writing her book.

The Undocumented Americans was published in March. In April, it was followed by journalist and translator John Washington’s The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the US-Mexican Border and Beyond. Both Washington’s and Cornejo Villavicencio’s books offer a glimpse of people who, for many, remain distant, hidden, abstract. Both books use creative forms of nonfiction to awaken the empathy and anger of readers, and, in a sense, to correct the failure of our imaginations.

This Is the Face of an Undocumented Immigrant. Don’t Look Away,” ran the headline of the New York Times review of Cornejo Villavicencio’s book. But it is not her alone whom readers should contemplate. On June 18—when the Supreme Court decided, on procedural grounds, that the Trump administration could not end the DACA program—the 700,000 or so young immigrants who were temporarily protected from deportation were a faceless mass to many, including to many of their supporters.

So are the 38,000 or so people currently in ICE detention, where the coronavirus pandemic is worsening.3 So are the 60,000 or so who have been sent to “remain in Mexico” under the administration’s absurdly named Migrant Protection Protocols, and the 105,500 who applied for asylum in the US in 2018, and the 66,000 of them who were denied it.4 But if they have seemed faceless, if their anonymity has allowed us to ignore what has been done to them, or even made us complicit, then we must not look away. These two books can help us see them.

Cornejo Villavicencio was brought to the US at the age of four. She was “a so-called DREAMer,” a DACA recipient, and, when she graduated from Harvard, an example of a certain clichéd vision of immigrant success. When she set out to discover what life was like for the day laborers of Staten Island, she was working on her doctorate at Yale. Her parents were still undocumented New Yorkers and she was still a girl from Queens, but she knew more about the Ivy Leagues than about the worker centers of Port Richmond.

“Day laborers weren’t real to me,” she writes. So, she spent a year and a half standing with them on street corners, sitting with them in Dunkin’ Donuts, going to their Christmas party and their soccer games, talking with them on the phone late at night after work. She met Joaquín, Julián, and others who had helped clean up the city after hurricanes and disasters. But her story of undocumented Americans is not confined to New York.

In another chapter, Cornejo Villavicencio travels to Miami to report on alternative healers, pharmacies that sell drugs without prescriptions, and botanicas (folk-medicine shops). She asks how people who are not allowed to purchase health insurance can survive in a for-profit health-care system. Imagine, instead of chemotherapy, having to treat cancer with herbs and prayers.

She goes to Flint to visit the undocumented people who were the last to learn about the city’s water crisis. These are people who couldn’t read the English-language flyers announcing toxic lead levels, who didn’t open the door when canvassers came to alert their neighborhood. Ivy was pregnant. She broke out in hives and rashes, had fevers and vomiting spells. The doctors kept telling her to drink more water. Her baby was born blind and had terrifying seizures.


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“They want us dead, Latinxs, black people,” Cornejo Villavicencio writes. “They want us dead, and sometimes they’ll slip something into our bloodstreams to kill us slowly and sometimes they’ll shoot and shoot and shoot.” She profiles two undocumented people who, facing imminent deportation, have taken sanctuary in churches. But what touches you is not their stories so much as how the author gets drawn into their stories, how she tries to help, how she sees herself in their children. Threatened with the sort of family separation that is everyday business for ICE, these children are already disintegrating, scarred by trauma before Cornejo Villavicencio’s eyes.

“I am not a journalist,” she writes. “Journalists are not allowed to get involved the way I have gotten involved.” But anger and a desire to help are what make her writing so eloquent. Cornejo Villavicencio can’t help being “involved.” The Undocumented Americans is personal. The book includes many long narratives about her family, her parents’ history, their jobs, as well as the dangers, exploitation, and precarious futures they face.

Passages of memoir blend into reportage, and Cornejo Villavicencio writes with humor and personality about her own struggles. Her book is part journalism—when you contact or meet someone to write about them, the result is usually some kind of journalism—part memoir, part impassioned defense of lives in peril, part battle cry against a rising tide of xenophobia.

She even includes passages of fiction. Ubaldo Cruz Martínez was a homeless, alcoholic day laborer who drowned in a Staten Island basement during Hurricane Sandy, but that is not his story. To narrate his final hours—to “reclaim our dead”—Cornejo Villavicencio must invent. Ignoring or breaking the norms of journalism, dispensing with disingenuous attempts at objectivity, getting involved with her subjects, translating their dialogues creatively “as poetry,” even fictionalizing—this makes Cornejo Villavicencio’s book more convincing, not less. It reveals the range of her powers, demonstrates that she can see and feel and act and imagine where others can’t.

Cornejo Villavicencio is hardly the first to try to tell urgent, true stories about people whose complexity and dignity have been lost amid dire headlines and statistics. When Henry Mayhew described the London poor in 1849, it seemed to him that his genteel readers knew more about the distant tribes of the earth.5 When James Agee and Walker Evans set out to document the living conditions of white Alabama sharecroppers in the 1930s, they found what seemed like an unimagined existence.6 More recently, inspired journalists like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Katherine Boo have written novelistic works of nonfiction about people overlooked in the heart of the metropolis. Literary journalists, or, if you prefer, writers of creative nonfiction, have always asked readers to imagine the people who seem voiceless or invisible. They have always tried to “humanize” the headlines, telling “human-interest” stories about the people in them.

Like Cornejo Villavicencio, John Washington gets involved. He volunteers with No More Deaths in Arizona, with a sanctuary coalition in New York, and with other immigrant aid organizations. He has also written The Dispossessed, in which he mixes reportage with the legal and political history of asylum, with bits of moral philosophy, and with widely drawn literary quotation.

At the heart of his book is the story of Arnovis, a man who, threatened by local street gangs, fled his small village on the coast of El Salvador three times. On Arnovis’s final attempt to reach asylum in the US, immigration authorities separated him from his six-year-old daughter and coerced him into signing a voluntary deportation agreement. He was sent back to El Salvador without his daughter and told she was “somewhere in Florida or New York.” They remained separated for 23 days.

A number of US publications reported the story. Arnovis “became one of the primary faces of the family separation crisis” that followed the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy of 2018. But Washington turns Arnovis’s years of flight and refoulement into a parable for the thousands of Central Americans who flee violence each year only to have their asylum claims denied. “There is no better argument for the need for asylum than, when you are not granted it, you are killed,” he writes. Arnovis survives, though there have been many cases of deportees being murdered once they reach their home countries.7

With the pandemic as pretext, the U.S. is no longer allowing new asylum claims.

But Arnovis’s story makes you angry. He and his six-year-old daughter suffer a terrifying ordeal to reach the US, only to face deliberate, belligerent cruelty from ICE officers. Cruelty, Washington shows, is the basis of US immigration strategy. It has been for decades. And yet, even increasingly sadistic policies have never deterred migrants from attempting the journey. The “deterrence paradigm” reached its nadir in 2018 with the separation of parents from children, though that statement misleadingly suggests that children are not still being held in cages. In fact, a change of leadership in the Office of Refugee Resettlement in March has led to migrant children once again being held in border control custody for long periods.8

Meanwhile, asylum has been effectively discontinued. With the pandemic as pretext, the US is no longer allowing new asylum claims.9 Pending claims, which could already drag on for years, have all been postponed, and asylum seekers are being forced to wait in squalid and dangerous conditions in Northern Mexico.10

No matter. People like Arnovis will keep trying. Washington narrates Arnovis’s three failed attempts to reach asylum in the US and also follows in his footsteps, visiting the same border crossings, riding the same bus routes, getting ferried over the same rivers.

Into these narratives, Washington inserts many literary references: for example, Odysseus asking, “What is this country I have come to now?” These references read like brief asides, as if literary context might help readers to better see Arnovis. But what, besides a name wonderfully resonant with vowels, does he really have in common with Odysseus? Piracy in the Aegean three thousand years ago might have planted the ancient seeds for today’s asylum laws—Washington discusses the long history of asylum at length—but comparing Arnovis’s story with ancient literature risks distorting it. For journalists who attempt to “humanize,” there is always a danger of, as Washington puts it, “mythologiz[ing].” Migrant stories are often “extraordinary and hard to fully grasp without direct experience,” Washington writes.


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But literary journalism exists for exactly that purpose: so that readers without direct experience might begin to imagine all those unimagined existences, hear the voices of the voiceless, see the people in the shadows. The point has always been to document the undocumented and the dispossessed. Whether such stories actually help resolve their subjects’ predicaments is another question, though there is no doubt that narratives can sway the course of human lives. Asylum applicants win safety through their stories. The tale of fear and danger Arnovis told to US immigration authorities failed to convince them. But later, when some journalists wrote about him in English for US publications, his daughter was quickly returned to him.

Whether or not books like this can change the lives of their subjects, we must have them. We must have a record, a document of what has been done in our names.

How else will we—that is, those of us who live at a remove from undocumented Americans—remember what Joaquín, Paloma, and the other Ground Zero undocumented workers have never forgotten, or learn to see the faces of the undocumented and the dispossessed? How else will we understand Bertha, the 63-year-old grandmother in ICE detention who saved her 14-year-old granddaughter from the gangs of Honduras—the same gangs that murdered her grandson and promised to murder her, too?

Bertha spent 20 months in ICE detention, reading the Bible, memorizing Psalms, playing monopoly as her health deteriorated, only to have her asylum claim denied. She told Washington, “I hope, I hope that God forgives the United States.”


This article was commissioned by Geraldo Cadavaicon

  1. US Customs and Border Protection, “United States Border Patrol: Southwest Border Sectors: Southwest Border Deaths by Fiscal Year” (accessed June 23, 2020).
  2. Office of Congressman José E. Serrano, “Undocumented Will be Covered by Zadroga 9/11 Health Bill,” December 23, 2010.
  3. See Seth Freed Wessler, “Fear, Illness and Death in ICE Detention: How a Protest Grew on the Inside,” New York Times Magazine, June 4, 2020.
  4. See Miriam Jordan, “Appeals Court Allows ‘Remain in Mexico’ Policy to Continue Blocking Migrants at the Border,” New York Times, March 4, 2020. And Nadwa Mossaad, “Refugees and Asylees: 2018,” Department of Homeland Security, October 2019.
  5. Henry Mayhew, London Labor and the London Poor (vol. 1 of 4), Project Gutenberg, November 19, 2017.
  6. James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: The American Classic, in Words and Photographs, of Three Tenant Families in the Deep South, Mariner Books, August 14, 2001.
  7. Sarah Stillman, “When Deportation Is a Death Sentence,” New Yorker, January 8, 2018.
  8. Dan Diamond, “Stephen Miller’s Hard-Line Policies on Refugee Families Make a Comeback at HHS,” Politico, April 16, 2020.
  9. Nina Lakhani, “US using coronavirus pandemic to unlawfully expel asylum seekers, says UN,” Guardian, April 17, 2020. See also, “Trump Administration Expands Public Health Pretext to Block Asylum-Seekers,” Human Rights First, Press Release, July 8, 2020.
  10. For more on asylum claims, see Jasmine Aguilera, “Many Asylum Seekers in Mexico Can’t Get US Court Hearings Until 2021. A Coronavirus Outbreak Could ‘Devastate’ Them,” Time, May 19, 2020. See the Delivered to Danger website, by Human Rights First, for more information on the situation of asylum applicants in the MPP program.
Featured-image photograph by Max Sulik / Unsplash