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Translating the Language of the Border

To work against the deportation machine is also to work with it
A border wall extends from land into the ocean.

Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration by Alejandra Oliva. Astra House, 304 pages. 2023.

There are parts of the Rio Grande so shallow you could walk across them without even getting your knees wet. Other parts of the river are so deep, their currents so strong, that people get swept away. Rivers are like this: sometimes calm, sometimes treacherous, always in flux. The Rio Grande is a life-giving entity; its waters are diverted to irrigate farms whose crops feed people across the country. But those same waters are weaponized against those who, shut out of opportunities to legally migrate to the United States, attempt desperately to swim to the other side.

The fact that there are two names for the river underscores its dual nature. In El Paso, Laredo, Eagle Pass, and Brownsville, it’s the Rio Grande. But just across the border, in Ciudad Juárez, Nuevo Laredo, Piedras Negras, and Matamoros, it’s the Rio Bravo. “‘Bravo,’ when applied to a body of water, means white caps, waves, danger,” Alejandra Oliva writes in her debut memoir Rivermouth. “It is the same word you use to describe an angry bull, or someone courageous, or like a bull, so angry, they’re brave.” One must be brave to cross the angry river, the dangerous body of water that separates Mexico and the United States. But we don’t have to worry about such things; to us, it’s just big.

Oliva spent the second week of January 2019 crossing the border on foot from the United States to Mexico and back again. Every day, she’d walk across the pedestrian bridge from San Diego to Tijuana, “down a maze of concrete ramps that look like a diagram of Dante’s hell, past a security guard with an AK-47 strapped to his front and his head bowed over his phone.” Here there is no river but a wall. On one side is Southern California; on the other, a sprawling plaza called El Chaparral that became an open-air migrant camp under the Trump administration after Customs and Border Protection began limiting the number of people who could claim asylum at ports of entry each day, causing major bottlenecks in Mexican border cities like Tijuana.

This practice was called “metering.” As a result of it, people who had traveled to northern Mexico—the entry point into the United States—from elsewhere in the country, from Guatemala and El Salvador and Honduras and Haiti, from South America and Africa and Asia, found themselves waiting indefinitely, unable to ask for asylum and unwilling to return to the places they had fled. New people arrived every day and were given a number, which was added to an ever-growing list. Once or twice a day, a worker from Grupos Beta, the humanitarian arm of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute, would read a series of numbers off the list. The people whose names corresponded to those numbers were the lucky ones who could cross the threshold into the United States to ask for asylum—if they happened to be present when the number was called, that is. Everyone else had to wait for their own number to come up, as if at a deli counter or the DMV, for weeks or months on end.

Oliva’s trip to the border, and her entry into the immigration advocacy world two years prior, was a response to the successive humanitarian crises that Trump’s policies spawned. Two years before going to Tijuana, she had started volunteering as an asylum interpreter in New York City. Sitting in a cramped church basement just off Washington Square Park, Oliva and a team of others would help people fill out their Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal, a form known as the I-589. Oliva translated its questions—Have you, your family, close friends, or colleagues ever experienced mistreatment or threats from anyone? Are you afraid of being subjected to torture in your home country or any other country to which you may be returned?—into Spanish, and her interlocutors’ answers back into English, recording them in the first person. “Their ‘I’ becomes my own, their injuries and experiences enter a language that, for all I am trying to render faithfully as theirs, is in reality only mine,” she writes. “I aim to become invisible because then this asylum seeker is speaking directly to you, and you have no choice but to listen.”

Asylum seekers would, of course, be worse off if no one was helping them, but to work on behalf of immigrants is to work within a system designed to remove them from the country.

The asylum seekers for whom Oliva interpreted were later asked the same difficult questions in court, by an immigration judge, and probably asked even more questions by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorney. By that point, Oliva would be out of the picture, back in the basement or at the border, asking a new person to recount some of the worst moments of their life so she could help make it legible to the United States government. She is cognizant of being only a passing presence in their lives, one of the many people they’d encounter on their quest to obtain asylum. “When I take up the weight of someone else’s story by translating it, the thing I carry is a ghost, and the teller is no lighter for my carrying the story alongside them,” Oliva writes. “By helping families come to the United States, the only things I’m guaranteeing are their need to learn another language, not because of the richness or textures that bilingualism brings, but because it’s nearly impossible to survive in a capitalist America without it.” There is no guarantee that any of the people Oliva meets in Tijuana or translates for in New York will win their cases; it’s possible, even likely, that they go through the entire traumatizing process only to be ordered deported months or years down the line.

For Oliva, undertaking this work is humbling in more ways than one. “In the middle of translating something,” she writes, “I feel like I’m waist-deep in some river, meanings flash by me on opposite banks, and it’s my job to arrange and orchestrate them. Translators often speak of translation loss—those places where some cleverness in the original is rendered flatly in the new language, where a shade of meaning becomes so subtle as to be imperceptible.” One such instance involves a woman who tells Oliva she was run out of her hometown for being a “tortillera.” The word has two meanings, the most obvious of which is tortilla maker. Though Spanish is Oliva’s first language, she’s unfamiliar with the word’s second definition. “You don’t know what tortillera means, do you?” the woman asks in Spanish. “It means I’m a lesbian. I like women.”

The stories in Rivermouth compound, they blur together: families extorted by cartels, young men killed by gangs, women harassed or raped by members of both, police unable or unwilling to do anything about it. Halfway through the book, after presenting the reader with detailed portraits of asylum seekers, Oliva notes that they are composites. “I’ll give you pastiche, narratives in asymptote to reality, but never the real thing,” she writes. “The allegiances I keep are instead to myself and to the people I’ve met, to the hours spent together in church basements and at the border, to their right, however wan it feels, to keep their stories between them and the U.S. government, and me.”

Regardless of where her loyalties lie, Oliva acknowledges that the act of interpreting for asylum seekers makes her an unwitting agent of the state. “I like to think that I’m working against the powers that be,” she writes, “but the reality is that I’m filling out the form, I’m making people findable, searchable, cross-indexable . . . I translate towards power—towards the English-speaker used to being met on their own language, towards a government that has proven time and time again to be uncaring at best and malicious at worst.” In doing so, she gestures to a broader problem: immigration activists are almost always in a reactive posture, forced to work within the limits imposed by the federal government. Even so, they’re regarded with suspicion. CBP has been known to keep internal lists of journalists, lawyers, and activists who are supposed to be stopped for additional questioning when they cross the border. Some prominent activists have been repeatedly arrested by ICE.

Asylum seekers would, of course, be worse off if no one was helping them, but to work on behalf of immigrants is to work within a system designed to remove them from the country. Individual immigration agents and the administrations they serve also have the power to not arrest people or remove them from the country, to exercise their discretion. Yet for more than thirty years, increasingly punitive policies have prevailed: more enforcement at the border, more arrests, more deportations. Rarely has the pendulum swung the other way. Even individual triumphs—asylum cases granted, deportations avoided—serve to justify the exclusion and removal of others. These limited victories uphold the illusion that there is a logical process in place, and that those who go about things the right way will benefit. Never mind that certain immigration judges have zero-percent grant rates for asylum and that ICE has arrested and deported multiple U.S. citizens.

When Oliva traveled to Tijuana in January 2019, she was ostensibly there to educate people about what would happen when they finally made it to the United States, giving lectures about the asylum process and informing people of their rights. She was an intermediary, the conduit through which the jargon of the immigration bureaucracy was translated into conversational Spanish. But her real role in Tijuana, she writes, was “to accompany people as they prepare to cross the border . . . My job is to play with kids, to hand out tamales and styrofoam cups of coffee,” to bring a touch of softness to an otherwise dehumanizing process, to ease migrants’ anxieties about what awaited them on the other side.

Migrants stranded in Tijuana were both eager and terrified to get to the United States. They had heard about Border Patrol’s frigid holding cells, which they called hieleras—iceboxes. Oliva recalls a woman who planned on changing into warm leggings before crossing, a man who had a panic attack because he was afraid of being locked up. To help calm him, a volunteer pointed at the sun and told him to remember its warmth. “Every time you’re cold in the hielera, you can imagine the sun warming you,” she said to him in Spanish. Oliva eventually lost touch with most of the people she met in Tijuana, but it’s not hard to imagine the first few steps of their journey to the United States. The process begins with a preliminary screening in which immigration officials determine whether someone has a “credible fear” of being persecuted or tortured in their home country. Passing the test doesn’t mean you get granted asylum, but failing it usually means you don’t get to move on to the next step.

Citing Chicana scholar Gloria Anzaldúa, Oliva writes that borders function as sites of creation. They are places where new languages are formed, “un nuevo lenguaje que corresponde a un modo de vivir”—a new language that corresponds with a way of life. This quotation is left untranslated, as are many of the conversations Oliva has with migrants at the border and, later in the book, with asylum seekers in New York. Oliva warns readers—specifically monolingual English speakers—about these untranslated sections of Spanish early on. “That doesn’t mean this book isn’t for you—it is—but it does mean I’m trusting you to figure it out, the same way so many immigrants do with English.”

Bureaucratic language is used to make the unconscionable seem rational and inevitable.

More than eight hundred different languages are spoken in New York City alone, but it’s possible to get by in America without learning a word of Spanish or Mandarin or Tagalog or Arabic. Though the United States has no official language, people born and raised in English-speaking American households aren’t often required to engage with languages other than their own, nor are they required to learn the specific language of immigration law. The U.S.-Mexico border and the vast bureaucracy that sustains it have given rise to a new vocabulary: credible fear interview, entry without inspection, withholding of removal, and so forth.

One of the subtlest cruelties of the immigration system is the way it uses language to obfuscate the violence it creates. The 1994 policy that funnels migrants into the desert and toward their deaths, implemented under the Clinton administration, is called “prevention through deterrence.” The process of quickly deporting border crossings without a hearing is called “expedited removal.” Biden’s new draconian limits on asylum were published in the federal register under the title “Circumvention of Lawful Pathways.” Bureaucratic language is used to make the unconscionable seem rational and inevitable. Meanwhile, the immigration system also attempts to keep the victims of this violence out of sight: in detention centers or, more recently, in Mexico, where Americans can’t see the harms being perpetrated in defense of a border.

Most of the events recounted in Rivermouth took place during the Trump administration, and Oliva notes that Trump’s particular brand of xenophobia was what first activated her and many other volunteers. But four years after Oliva first traveled to Tijuana, some of Trump’s most restrictive policies have been revived—this time, by a Democrat. Metering is back; instead of a haphazard list administered by a Mexican immigration official, it’s now being done through a smartphone app. Asylum is more limited than ever, and migrant encampments are now commonplace along the U.S.-Mexico border. Under Biden, the Department of Justice is arguing against settlements for families separated at the border in 2018. A child recently died in CBP custody after her parents’ pleas for medical attention went ignored. Migrants who have made it to New York, a so-called sanctuary city, are sleeping in vacant office buildings because parents protested the city’s original plan to house them in school gyms.

Every day, it becomes harder to be hopeful. But still, there are people who try to help in whatever way they can. There are volunteers who meet in church basements and help people fill out their asylum applications, people who distribute clothing and toiletries to recently arrived migrants. And there are small, fleeting moments of joy too. In January 2022, I met a man around my age who had spent more than half a year living in a migrant shelter in Mexico, with his wife, daughter, and one-year-old son, waiting for a pandemic-related border closure to end. He made it to the United States last fall, and recently called to let me know his first asylum hearing is coming up. A family friend had recently taken them out for a lake day; he sent me pictures of his two children splashing in the water and playing on a boat. His daughter is in elementary school and is quickly learning English. None of us know what will happen next, but right now, they’re here.