The Water

by Jajah Wu

Private prison company GEO Group advertises its "New Specialized Transport Buses" for immigrant children.  Source .

Private prison company GEO Group advertises its "New Specialized Transport Buses" for immigrant children. Source.

It is difficult to know how to feel about the human rights violations committed by this administration against immigrants. And by that I mean, as an advocate who is, if not seasoned, then weathered, say, I know I can do my best work if I float above the knowledge of what is happening to families and children. “There,” I say, pointing down into the water, “the government forcibly separated 658 children from their parents in two weeks. Look at it.”

658 is a terrible number. It is also academic—that is the nature of numbers. They allow us to float above the water. But say you’d like to get closer to the truth, as I suspect you do, if you are still with me.

Well, imagine reading 658 individual stories of families—broken families, happy families, struggling families. There are birthdays, funerals, accidents, small joys and losses, maybe there are threats from gang members, maybe there aren’t. You, reader, fall in love with the way the baby girl eats beans, smearing them over her face like a culinary Picasso. You, reader, twinge sympathetically as the father eases himself gently down into a chair because of his bad back. You come to the final chapter. It is summer of 2018. Watermelon and parades are being shunted like confetti across America. It is summer of 2018, and by ways both terrible and mundane, the family finds themselves taken in at the US border: this baby still learning to eat beans, this father who has earned himself a bad back in the fields. And in the borderland, strange men and women take the family apart, as efficiently as a farmer separates livestock. The helpless fury of the father mixes with the terror of the child, rising up, up, up one last time into the frigid air of the hieleras* before they can hear each other no more. And the silence afterwards—imagine the silence, where even though they beg “what next? what now?” no one answers.

Read this story 658 times. The characters and circumstances change, the ending does not.

Maybe this gets us closer to the truth, the true true, the sound 658 families drowning. Or maybe not.

Here’s another way.

People don’t believe it when I say I remember my life as a 1 year old. But I do. When I was 1 and some months, my father got the golden ticket: a visa to the United States, for one. He was a PhD student—smart and hardworking and desperate. We were upper class, no doubt. We lived in a lovely, big old house. No gangs were chasing us through Shanghai, China. Even with all this privilege, we lived on rations and my father had no prospects. So he left, planning to stake out a life deemed important enough that the INS might eventually decide it was worth granting my mother and me visas too. When he called home from America, I refused to speak to him.

When I was two, my mother got her visa. I remember the day she left. I remember my aunt luring me out of the house with a trip to the park. She didn’t have to do that; I knew my mother was leaving. I knew she would be gone by the time I came back. I think—although through the haze of the years, I can’t be sure—I preferred not to say goodbye. Years later, long after we were back together, one big, sometimes-happy immigrant family, I would wake up from nightmares, tears running down my face as scared and mindless as rabbits, from some dream scenario where my mother left me, over and over again.

I understand this is self-indulgent, but I am trying to tell you that I am not completely healed from this separation that happened more than three decades ago, this separation that our family agreed to, planned on, as hard as it was.

So, if I push myself a little further, and further still down into the water, to meet the eyes of some little girl who is two, or twelve, or fifteen, recently ripped from mother, in a detention center with strangers who cannot tell her what will happen, to once a week for a few minutes (if she’s lucky) talk to her mother over the muffled phone lines, if I watch her swirled and buffeted by these political tides and machinations, her heart slowly and irrevocably breaking in ways she will continue to discover for years to come (if she’s lucky to have years), I feel dizzy. I feel sick. And I can’t meet the eyes of the other 657 children.

So let us raise ourselves out of the imaginary water and leave them there. We crawl back into our boats, and go back to the work, pushing one frail rope out to a single family, against the current.

*Las hieleras, or iceboxes, are short-term DHS facilities at the border, so named because of the freezing temperatures maintained by the oppressive AC. Some report to see their own breath condense. This is supposedly to keep those detained "healthy". Most immigrants are made to wear shorts and t-shirts in the hieleras. Mylar blankets are prized possessions there.


About the author: After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School in 2010, Jajah Wu worked as a PILI Fellow at the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights before joining Schiff Hardin, LLP, where she practiced in the areas of environmental and general litigation and devoted substantial time to pro bono cases related to child custody and immigration. At the University of Chicago Law School, Jajah Wu has been an instructor at the Young Center's clinical program since 2012 and is the Supervising Attorney for the Young Center's Chicago office.