By Eddie P Gomez
Eddie P. Gomez: I’ve spent some time with your book recently. It’s incredibly bold. Illegal immigration is certainly a topic of conversation that we are engaging this political season.
José Orduña: Yes, It’s a conversation that seems to come up of cyclically. It comes up and goes away. I think the most reliable indicator of when the conversation of illegal immigration is going to come up again is the economy.
EG: Do you mean that during times of prosperity the border seems to be open?
JO: Yes. When times are good the politicians don’t seem to have a problem with illegal immigration. If you look at the history of immigration from Latin American and even other places, it’s a cycle that happens again and again. Whenever the economy is up and the United States needs labor, there isn’t a peep about illegal immigration except from the most hardline groups which don’t really have a voice in the media and don’t influence the national discourse. However, when there are not a lot of jobs and we are experiencing economic distress for whatever reasons, anti-immigration sentiment finds it voice as this story becomes a story again.
If you look at the last hundred years, whenever there has been a recession, extremist politicians like Pete Wilson come out from the shadows, you know? [Wilson was the former governor of California who was a prominent supporter of Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative that was passed into law but later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and whose opponents claimed it unfairly targeted Latinos.]
EG: Is that why some of these fringe groups have gained legitimacy with the American public, because we are still coming out of one of the biggest economic downturns since the Great Depression?
JO: I think this recent downturn has produced a real clear example of scapegoating immigrants. If you look at the reason for the down turn, it had nothing to do with immigration. It was triggered by the housing bubble collapse and job shortages created by the deindustrialization of urban centers across the U.S. Most of the jobs have been lost because manufacturing has gone overseas or because of technology, yet the same old story about the negative impacts of illegal immigration persists. But it doesn’t have any factual basis.
EG: How did your project get started?
JO: During my first days in graduate school, I started going through the process of Naturalization. When it came time to start thinking about my thesis, it was just one of those moments when you’re looking for your glasses and they are right on top your head. I was wracking my head concerning a thesis topic when I sat down with my thesis advisor and he said: “What do you mean that you don’t have a topic? It’s right here in front of you.” He was right. So, there we were. My experience turned into the subject of my thesis.
EG: Let’s talk about the research in your book. It’s a lot. Could you describe the blending of the memoir and the well-researched essay? Was this purposeful and did it have to do with the direction you feel creative nonfiction is heading?
JO: That’s a great question. I’ll say that the MFA program is geared toward thinking about the essay as a fine art, so for a lot of people that means a certain thing. What’s meant by that is something which is still confusing for me. But, I do know that the way that I write essays is different than a lot of the ways other people write essays.
What motivated me to write this book was that it was something that was happening in my life. I not only wanted to understand it but to respond to it and that involved a lot of research. I wanted to respond to this thing that was happening in my life but was also happening in the broader context of U.S. politics. The way I know how to respond to an issue like illegal immigration is to examine it and analyze it. I respond in a way that combines things that are squarely considered art like the essay and by doing a lot of research. I had to read broadly in terms of history, sociology, and various other disciplines in order to get a better understanding of how big an issue immigration really is.
For example, there is a chapter called disappearing acts that deals with black sites, places where people are disappearing, so I searched out the characteristics of black sites and their relevance to illegal immigration in the U.S, which led me to research that involved the Pinochet regime in Chile. So, the intensive research and the particular form of the book was the result of what I was writing about combined with what I felt was necessary in order to write about those things.
EG: Your book provides many digressions in the narrative ranging from Mantegna the Italian painter to the social theorist Michel Foucault to a reflection on Herbert Hoover’s childhood home. Those turns were a way to engage a larger audience in the political conversation on illegal immigration that we are having as a country right now?
JO: In order to understand a broad phenomenon like illegal immigration, we have to understand that it is a whole matrix of issues that are grounded in matters of public health, constitutional law, and issues of imagining and defining a democracy. There are also personal issues and interpersonal relationships to consider. It’s such a complex multi-faceted topic that is all contained in one word-immigration. The variety of subjects that the issue grows from signals its complexity.
EG: What do you want Americans uninformed about the legal histories of Mexican and Latin American immigration policy to take away from your book?
JO: That’s a tricky question because I don’t know if those kinds of people will even pick up my book or how they would respond to it openly. If my primary goal was to inform people about the history of immigration, I think it would have been a very different kind of book.
I thought a lot about who is realistically going to read my book and what I was trying to do in writing this book. I think the result is the tone of the book which is as some people describe it: angry. I wouldn’t say that it’s exclusively angry, but that there is an urgency with which I wrote it that comes across as forceful. I think that the tone and some of the ways I deal with the subject matter is automatically going to turn some people off.
Some people have said that the tone of the book is a turn off and most of that is out of my control, but knowing information about who is buying what kinds of books helped me to imagine a reader and make decisions about how I wanted to write the book. I didn’t want to write the book based on trying to convince as a primary mode because I think the way to do that is to write a book that is more of a historical text. I’m not a trained historian. If my intent was to convince people that immigrants are not the problem, I would have taken a much more neutral tone.
Ultimately, I wrote the book in a way that satisfied something inside of myself artistically but also intellectually. I think readers who pick up the book may have strong feelings about it, but I also hope that the most concrete thing this book accomplishes is that it motivates people who are on the fence regarding illegal immigration to do some research and care more deeply, but I’m not sure. I don’t know if this book has the capability to do that. It’s something I still think about.
EG: In terms of the character Octavio, an undocumented friend of yours from Chicago, there are some differences between the two of you since you enjoy the privileges of speaking English and being a legal permanent resident. Would you say that he accurately gives a voice to illegal immigrants whose story we never hear?
JO: Octavio is one person and one of the things people and discourses do is they flatten multitudes of experiences into one representational experience. Octavio’s experiences exist in relation to a lot of other people’s experiences. His life can inform a reader and certainly represent a kind of political subject because of some of the things that he does, that he has to go through. Some of the things that he can’t do are also representative of what happens to undocumented people in this country, but ultimately, how he feels about things, how he copes with things, and how he engages with the experience is a very individual thing.
In that regard, one of the difficulties of being a minority writer is that you are read as a representative of that particular minority group. There is a part of me that wants to engage with that sort of representation of a politicized experience, but there is also a part of me that wants to resist that, if we are talking about a one for one thing where one individual represents an entire group. I think you can glean a lot of information from one individual’s experiences, but it’s important to realize that the variety of experiences that undocumented people have can be very different.
Having myself alongside of Octavio and examining our differences was my attempt to show that there exist very big differences in the experiences of immigrants. Hopefully the idea of representation in the book comes across as very complex.
EG: Towards the end of the book you went from the process of going through Naturalization to volunteering for several organizations that help immigrants crossing the border like Frontera de Cristo and No More Deaths, is that you being an activist?
JO: I guess that’s activism. When I set out to volunteer for these groups, I wasn’t thinking that I wanted to do research for this book. My activism started when I was growing up in Chicago during my twenties. I became very politically active because in Chicago there is a big community of organizing and resisting.
One of the very first protests I ever went to involved very large scale protests by Native Americans. When I went to those events I was a permanent resident, which affected the way I became involved in direct action. As a permanent resident you are subject to a long list of deportable offenses and an arrest can have negative consequences on becoming a citizen. You can even be deported, depending on the charge. I existed under that long list of deportable offenses, so I felt very curtailed in the ways that I could engage in direct action or protests. When I became a citizen, those things stopped holding me back.
Being a citizen means that you should be able to engage politically in a meaningful and forceful way without fear of repercussion. One of the most insidious things about existing in a status of illegal alien or permanent resident is that you are subject to all of these laws, but you don’t have an active role in creating legislation. Participating in lawmaking, I’ve come to learn, is the bedrock of democracy. I was suddenly able to participate with organizations along the border that provide emergency medical attention and water to people who are passing through parts of the desert which are extremely deadly and into which immigration policy has funneled them.
Another thing that they do which is just as important is to document abuse and generate data. No more deaths just released an incredible report about disappearances in the desert of southern Arizona.
EG: The last scene in your book takes place in a courtroom where illegal immigrants who have been caught in the desert are taken before a judge and subjected to a process called streamlining. Do you consider the experience a highlight of investigating immigration policy while simultaneously participating in democracy?
JO: Operation Streamline is something that most people don’t know about and which is opposite of the discourse that Democrats put out there. President Obama was a liberal Democrat and Latino communities had hope around his presidency because he was somehow one of them because he wasn’t white. Democrats under Obama wanted to show that they were compassionate regarding illegal immigration, but somehow they deported a record number of people.
Operation Streamline is just such a travesty of due process, a complete farce of the law. It is a great example of how unfairly the law can be applied. Operation Streamline, to me, is clear evidence of the law being applied in a completely punitive way. It flies in the face of anything humane. Ending the book in the courtroom was a way to engage the consequences of restrictive immigration policy.
EG: The timing of your book is compelling. Now that donald Trump is in office, are we going into the unknown in terms of immigration?
JO: I think it’s going to be particularly bad. If we had the type of immigration policies which were carried out under Obama, who was supposed to be at least moderately liberal, I can only imagine what is going to happen under Donald Trump. Most of the apparatus of deportation has been bolstered and intensified. The end result is a greater efficiency in terms of deporting people, and this has been achieved under the Obama administration.
EG: What does that mean going forward, in your opinion?
JO: That apparatus will be handed over to Donald Trump, who is a gigantic question mark in terms of how horrendous he is going to be. If we look back through history, we can have something like the Repatriation Act happen again where there exists a combination of official and unofficial means of getting rid of people, since you have a president who is anti-immigrant in terms of policy and a president who is surrounding himself with demonstrably racist people, which has legitimized a lot of people’s racism.
If we look back at the Repatriation Act, a lot of the people who were expelled from California and other parts of the country during that period of time were not expelled by INS. They were terrorized by their racist neighbors. I think that is something that could possibly happen again.
EG: Jose, thank you for tackling such a complex issue. Can you talk about what you are working on currently?
JO: I have a series of essays that resulted from questions opened up during the writing of this book. They deal with an avant-garde performance that I witnessed in Ciudad Juarez called Safari en Juarez and some of the issues that the performance addressed in regard to the city’s poorest colonias.
I am also working on some video essays that have to do with some of the ideas which were at the heart of the book, particularly displacement, dispossession, and disenfranchisement. Those three words sum up the modes of our current policies and how policy engages with people and can be witnessed in things like the closing of schools, mental hospitals, and health clinics. There are so many resources are being taken away from the community. Those are some of the things I’m focusing on.
Eddie P. Gomez is a Master of Fine Arts candidate in creative nonfiction at California State University, Fresno. He serves as web editor of The Normal School literary magazine.
Photo credit: matthias-uhlig.photography via Foter.com / CC BY