What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (part II of II)

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I'll continue now with the second part of my review of What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, by Dave Eggers.  The first part was here, in case you missed it. 

The book illuminates a rather serious problem for migrants and migrant advocates.  Migrants often come to the U.S. or other wealthy countries with unreasonable expectations.  I remember from elementary school the song from An American Tail: "There are noooo cats in Ame-ri-ca, and the streets are filled with chee-eese."  The intrepid mice quickly find both these assumptions to be false.  Likewise, many Lost Boys seem to have believed their problems would be over once they made it to the U.S.  They were wrong:  

Abraham has been luckier than other lost boys, many of whom have had difficulty adjusting to life in America.

All hoped they would get a high school and university education in the US and one day return to Sudan.

But getting an education has turned out to be the lost boys biggest problem. Because neither the boys nor the re-settlement agencies knew their correct ages, caseworkers simply guessed.

The lucky ones were those judged to be below the age of 18.

They were allowed to complete their secondary educations at high school and go onto junior colleges free of charge.

The unlucky ones, those judged to be above 18, were too old for high school and so had to go to work. As they had no qualifications they were forced to take menial, low-paying jobs.

This is what happened to Santino Majok Chuor who arrived in Houston, Texas aged 21 in 2001.

"I did not manage to go to school," he says sadly, "because I could not find the time."

Too old to attend high school, he works loading trucks for minimum wage.

Santino tried working in the day and studying at night but found it impossible.

With much of his salary sent each month to his disabled brother and his brother's three children in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya and other family and friends demanding money, Santino can barely afford the apartment he shares with another lost boy in a tough section of Houston.

He does not waste his money on movies or going to clubs, he says. For fun he watches educational programmes on television.

"There's no way out," Santino says, "unless you get education."

Valentino Deng was at first skeptical that Americans had any reason to complain given the opportunities that surrounded them. 

In Atlanta, when we saw people out of work, homeless people or young men drinking on corners or in cars, we said, "Go to work!  You have hands, now work!"  But that was before we started looking for jobs ourselves, and certainly before we realized that working at Best Buy would not in any way facilitate our goals of college or beyond.

When we landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport, we were promised enough money to cover our rent and groceries for three months.  I was flown to Atlanta, handed a temporary green card and a Medicaid card, and through the International Rescue Committee provided with enough money to pay my rent for exactly three months. 

What is the What, p. 19 (Vintage Books, 2006 paperback)

You might say, what could be better than Deng's setup?  It must be like getting Charlie Bucket's golden ticket--being handed a green card at the border and enough cash to cover you for a transitional period until you get on your feet.  Many undocumented migrants would jump at that opportunity. 

But the golden ticket only worked out for Charlie--not for the other kids who went into the chocolate factory.  Likewise, under the current restrictive legal regime and our bifurcated economic system, only a fortunate few of the low-income migrants to the U.S. find long-term success here.  Even refugees given a relative leg up like the Lost Boys soon found themselves confronting the reality of Two Americas, and they were not included in the America that has health insurance, a living wage, protection by law enforcement, or reasonable educational opportunities. 

My $8.50 an hour at Best Buy was not enough.  I took a second job that first fall, this one at a holiday-themed store that opened in November and closed just after January began.  I arranged ceramic Santas on shelves, I sprayed synthetic frost on miniature wreaths, I swept the floor seven times a day.  Still, between the two jobs, neither of them full-time, I was taking home less than $200 a week after taxes.  I knew men in Kakuma who were doing better than that, relatively speaking, selling sneakers made of rope and rubber tires.

What is the What, p. 19.

Deng was assaulted and robbed by thieves who broke into his home and held him hostage there.  The Atlanta police ignored the whole affair.  A low-income African refugee was apparently not on their list of people who deserve the benefits of protection by law enforcement.  The bromide that "everyone gets emergency treatment at the hospital" also proved to be hollow.  

Deng's experience and those of other Lost Boys illustrate a central conundrum in the migrant experience.  Migration can improve people's lives, and too often, migrants must either leave their homes or die.  But many times migrants find themselves jumping from the frying pan into the fire, from an intolerable situation to a dire situation.  From bare poverty in San Luis Potosi to life as a fugitive indentured servant in the fields of Florida.  From the rifles of ethnic militias and the bombs of Khartoum to a gray and hopeless future of long nights in the stockrooms of the big box stores of exurban America. 

As some may know, I work as an immigration attorney at a non-profit legal services organization.  My wife asked me recently, "Do you have any clients you think would be better off just going back home?"  I steadfastly denied that I had any.  As a lawyer, I'm supposed to zealously advocate for the interests of my clients, and in the oppositional framework of a legal case where defeat can mean detention and deportation, it is necessary to pick sides and fight.  Thinking back now about her question, I'm not so sure.  Many of the men whose stories are told in The Devil's Highway would certainly have been better off not taking the bus up to the Arizona border. 

Deng's experiences in the U.S. described in What is the What can also lead Americans to reevaluate a romanticized view of migration represented by the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.  The hardworking, impoverished immigrant who comes to the U.S. to live out the American Dream is a rather one-dimensional figure not always found in real life.  As Mae Ngai wrote:

Generalizations reproduce stereotypes and efface the complexity and diversity of immigrant experience.  As Bonnie Honig (2001) has argued, xenophilia is the flip side of xenophobia.  In both cases citizens use "immigrants" as a screen onto which they project their own aspirations or frustrations about American democracy.  Casting immigrants as bearers of the work ethic, family values, and consensual citizenship renews the tired citizen's faith--liberal capitalism.  But when the immigrants disappoint or when conditions change, they become easy scapegoats. 

As Honig suggests, this kind of immigration discourse is an exercise in nationalism.  In an important sense, "Are immigrants good or bad for us?" is the wrong question.  It takes as its premise that immigrants are not part of "us."  The idea falsely posits that non-citizens are not part of American society and leaves them out of the discussion. 

"No Human Being Is Illegal," Women's Studies Quarterly 34: 3 & 4 (Fall/Winter 2006).

Migration is no panacea, and it never will be as long as such grim disparities in wealth, power, and access to justice exist around the world.  But while I'm not convinced that in all cases, migration is a net benefit to the migrant, the decision about where to live and work should be a choice open to everyone the way it is essentially open to many U.S. citizens because of their wealth and power vis-a-vis the rest of the world.  Freedom of movement can help empower the powerless and break down divisions between people separated by accident of birth.  And by seeing in migrants first a common humanity and not simply the country listed on a passport, those fortunate enough not to have to migrate stand to gain a deeper understanding of both their neighbors and themselves. 

Next up: The Devil's Highway, by Luis Alberto Urrea.

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I recently read two remarkable books, and I’d like to talk about them both, in separate posts.  The first is What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, the story of one of Sudan’s Lost Boys as... Read More


kyledeb said:

This is excellent, yave,

I feel like we're in the same place in so many respects. One of the programs I've advocated for for so long, is that instead of spending money building a wall, the U.S. should do a public awareness campaign in states of emigration highlighting the poor conditions that most migrant live in in the U.S.

I mean I think very few people know that every day 200 Guatemalans leave and only 40 make it. If we're advocating on behalf of the 40 that make it in the horrible conditions they live in in the U.S. what's happening to the other 160? We can't even imagine.

Keep up the good work, this is great. I saw a documentary on the Lost Boys and they certainly are not having a good time in the U.S.

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This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on March 1, 2008 5:05 PM.

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