Beyond Breaking News: Ways of Seeing Migrants and Their Children

In his icon­ic 1977 essay on migra­tion, A Sev­enth Man: A Book of Images and Words about the Expe­ri­ence of Migrant Work­ers in Europe, John Berg­er wrote:

To try to under­stand the expe­ri­ence of anoth­er it is nec­es­sary to dis­man­tle the world as seen from one’s own place with­in it, and to reassem­ble it as seen from [another’s] … to under­stand a giv­en choice anoth­er makes, one must face in imag­i­na­tion the lack of choic­es which may con­front and deny [anoth­er] … The world has to be dis­man­tled and re-assem­bled in order to be able to grasp, how­ev­er clum­si­ly, the expe­ri­ence of anoth­er. To talk of enter­ing the other’s sub­jec­tiv­i­ty is mis­lead­ing. The sub­jec­tiv­i­ty of anoth­er does not sim­ply con­sti­tute a dif­fer­ent inte­ri­or atti­tude to the same exte­ri­or facts. The con­stel­la­tion of facts, of which [anoth­er per­son] is at the cen­tre, is different.”

Amid the vol­ume of cov­er­age and com­men­tary on the pol­i­tics of immi­gra­tion and the con­se­quences of crack­downs and crim­i­nal­iza­tion, here is a selec­tion of recent work – analy­sis, per­son­al essay, fic­tion, mixed-media – that can spark the moral imag­i­na­tion, as Berger’s work does.

To under­stand the con­stel­la­tion of facts con­cern­ing migra­tion from Cen­tral Amer­i­ca to the Unit­ed States, Stephanie Leutert, an expert on Cen­tral Amer­i­can migra­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas-Austin and the lead writer for the “Beyond the Bor­der” on Law­fare, offers a clear and thor­ough expla­na­tion of “who’s real­ly cross­ing the bor­der and why they’re coming.”

Drew Thomp­son, a doc­tor­al can­di­date in phi­los­o­phy at Loy­ola Uni­ver­si­ty in Chica­go, ana­lyzes the right of asy­lum in human­i­tar­i­an law and sets out two moral objec­tions to the “zero-tol­er­ance” pol­i­cy that has result­ed in fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tion and the crim­i­nal­iza­tion of peo­ple with poten­tial asy­lum claims. Thomp­son draws on Ursu­la LeGuin’s short sto­ry “The Ones Who Walk Away from Ome­las” to help read­ers face in our imag­i­na­tion what many of us can­not see except through media documentation.

Nov­el­ist Edwidge Dan­ti­cat reminds us how easy it is to for­get peo­ple who have been con­cealed from pub­lic view. She writes that we must not for­get migrant chil­dren – the fact that they, like the child in Ome­las, con­tin­ue to exist and to suf­fer – even as the news cycle inevitably moves on. Danticat’s essay, on her own expe­ri­ences as a child who lived apart from her migrant par­ents also helps us to face in our imag­i­na­tion the choic­es, or lack of choic­es, that Cen­tral Amer­i­can par­ents face con­cern­ing how to ensure a future for them­selves and their chil­dren. A recent con­ver­sa­tion with Dan­ti­cat also fea­tures Cristi­na Hen­riquez, whose short sto­ry “Every­thing is Far from Here” imag­ines a woman’s thoughts and expe­ri­ences dur­ing migra­tion. Nov­el­ist Vale­ria Luisel­li uses an arti­fact of the immi­gra­tion sys­tem – the 40 ques­tions that unac­com­pa­nied minors are asked in immi­gra­tion court to deter­mine whether they may qual­i­fy for asy­lum – as the scaf­fold­ing for her 2017 essay “Tell Me How It Ends,” based on her expe­ri­ences as a translator.

The Wait­ing Game, a new pub­lic edu­ca­tion project of the inves­tiga­tive news ser­vice ProP­ub­li­ca and pub­lic radio sta­tion WNYC, uses game tech­nol­o­gy to dis­man­tle the world from the viewer’s per­spec­tive and reassem­ble five worlds of asy­lum-seek­ing. Play­ing this game is an eerie expe­ri­ence if you have the choice to stop play­ing, to return from dan­ger, or lim­bo, to safety.

Nan­cy Berlinger is a research schol­ar at The Hast­ings Cen­ter. She recent­ly com­plet­ed an aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing res­i­den­cy at the Bel­la­gio Cen­ter of the Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion, for a book project on migrants as social cit­i­zens. She codi­rects The Hast­ings Center’s Undoc­u­ment­ed Patients Project, a knowl­edge hub on health care access for unau­tho­rized migrants and mixed sta­tus fam­i­lies in the Unit­ed States that includes a search­able data­base.

This post was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in The Hast­ings Center’s Bioethics Forum.  Please click here to access the orig­i­nal post online.

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