Translating Trauma for an Immigration System Designed Not To See It

Alejandra Oliva chronicles the journeys of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border in "Rivermouth"

Stories are built on journeys. The best characters start in one place and end in another. They face obstacles, experience setbacks. Sometimes they lose hope. But, in the end, they reach somewhere new. This is the hero’s journey. As Octavia Butler put it, God is change, and watching people navigate change—and move forward despite it—is at the heart of all storytelling. 

Alejandra Oliva’s new book, Rivermouth, tells the story of multiple journeys, of asylum seekers fleeing political instability in the Global South (made possible by Northern imperialism) only to find cruelty and bureaucratic violence at the U.S border, of her family flowing, like the Rio Grande, between Texas and Mexico, and finding paradise in unexpected places. At its core, Rivermouth is about accompaniment. Oliva grabs her readers firmly by the hand and marches them through the byzantine (often impossible) process of seeking asylum. As we walk with her, she chronicles the societal costs of an immigration system that separates and imprisons families, narrates everything from biblical epics to small moments of care among border communities in Tijuana, and considers how something so fundamentally human—the pursuit of life and protection—became a crime. 

nia t. evans: Rivermouth as a title of a story about migration works on so many levels. Can you unpack its meaning for me? How did you come to see rivers as a central theme of the book? 

Alejandra Oliva: Rivermouth alludes to a few things. A huge part of the US-Mexico land border is made up of the Rio Grande. My grandmother was born in Brownsville, Texas, which is right at the mouth of the Rio Grande, where the land meets the Gulf of Mexico. But there’s also this idea of the “river mouth,” a place where the fresh water of the river meets the salty water of the ocean. It’s its own ecosystem, a place that’s not quite the river and not quite the ocean. That feels a lot like border cultures and languages. There’s also this idea that a river doesn’t have a singular source. Sometimes a river is a navigation path; sometimes it’s a barrier or a border that you have to cross. It all depends on who you are and where you’re trying to go. That all felt like the right metaphor to be thinking about while writing this book.

nte: This book is about the migration of language as much as it is about people. Can you talk a bit about your experience of translating for asylum seekers at the border. What is lost, gained, and revealed through those kinds of translations? And what principles and allegiances do you hold as a translator?

Sometimes a river is a navigation path; sometimes it’s a barrier or a border that you have to cross. It all depends on who you are and where you’re trying to go.

AO: What is lost is agency. Stories of violence and harm are deeply personal. Violence often strips people of agency. Telling your story, choosing how and whether to talk about it, can be a way of reclaiming power. But when we ask people to disclose these stories for asylum, we are essentially removing that agency from them. We’re saying, “you need to prove that these terrible things have happened to you, that you have suffered very specific forms of violence. And we need you to tell that story in as much detail as you can, regardless of how it impacts you.” As a translator, you can try to make this process as easy as possible. You can find a private, quiet environment. You can give them as much time as they need. But, in the end, you’re still saying “if you want to stay here, I need this story, and you have very little agency in whether you want to share it or not.” And that’s incredibly violent in and of itself. 

In the context of asylum work, my allegiance is to the form, to filling it out as correctly as possible. I want to make the process as comfortable as possible, but with the goal of filling out the form as well as I can. You kind of feel the government or whatever forces created this forum and do not care about people’s recovery or healing pressing down on you. You can feel yourself become the instrument of that. It’s painful and difficult sometimes, and you’re doing it to enter people into this system that is deeply violent and dehumanizing. And so, as the interpreter, you’re sometimes stuck in the middle of wanting to do as much justice to this person as possible, but also trying to move them forward and through this system. 

nte: You write “asylum seekers and immigrants in detention centers are political prisoners. They are held against their wills for a political belief manifested into action: that they deserve life.” Can you talk about how you came to that realization? 

AO: This is true of wherever people are coming to the States to seek asylum from, but I’m going to talk about it in the Central American context, because that’s what people are most familiar with. In Central America, gangs are incredibly prevalent and violent. They’re not controlled by governments in any meaningful way. Many of the people I have talked to left because their families were facing active threats. Children recruited by gangs; women threatened by sexual violence. And with each story they were essentially saying “I deserve a life where my family and I can live without the threat of violence.” That is a political belief. It’s a personal and individual desire for safety but it’s also a political belief that I should have the right to live in a society where I don’t have violence hanging over my head. 

You see this in other movements too, abolitionist movements in particular, the assertion that we deserve to live. When people migrate, they do so to make that desire real. They see the United States, for better or worse, as a place where active, pervasive violence will not be hanging over their heads in the same way. They see it as a country where the rule of law is followed. And when they come here, they come here following the laws of this country because you do have a right to claim asylum. They come here and exert that right. But instead of saying, yes you have that right, let’s move you through the system, and find a way to make this work, we put people in jail. We submit them to medical neglect and horrifying conditions. 

nte: This is a memoir of “language, faith, and migration.” When most people think about faith within the context of migration, they think of Christ as a refugee. But you write about the Israelites escaping Egypt, the Tower of Babel, the Book of Job, and so much more. Can you talk about the role of divinity, faith, and religion in Rivermouth?

We take these people who have fought incredibly hard for all these values we claim to value as a nation, like freedom and safety, and we put them in jail.

AO: So much of the Bible is people moving from one place to another. You have the Israelites traveling through the desert to get to the promised land, Christ as a refugee, traveling for 40 days and 40 nights. The Bible is full of migration, of different peoples coming together dealing with conflict and translation. A lot of translation theory, which is intimately connected to questions of migration and language, is biblical theory. The very first translators of the Bible were asking “if this text is the word of God, if I translate it, is it still the word of God? How do we preserve that? What is the fairest or best way to preserve this as we move it from one language to another?” In the Reformation, you have all these people trying to translate biblical texts into modern languages, like English, German, Spanish, and French, being treated like heretics because the this was supposed to be language that was inaccessible. It was meant for educated people. And this idea, that some things should be reserved for select groups of people, like say U.S. citizenship or being able to understand this country’s immigration system, is still with us. There is so much elite knowledge that is hoarded for select groups of people, even as it shapes people’s daily lives. 

I also think today’s immigrant rights movement is rooted in religiosity and spirituality. You have the sanctuary movement, which uses churches as a place where people who may have deportation orders can stay safe. I spent some time working with the New Sanctuary Coalition, a New York-based immigrant justice organization based out of Judson Memorial Church. There are groups like Never Again Action, a Jewish group that has done some interesting actions around immigration detention and highlighted its similarities to concentration camps during World War II. This isn’t just rhetoric; it’s a moral foundation a lot of people are oriented around.

nia t. evans: You tell horrifying stories about the conditions within ICE detention centers. Just earlier today, border officials confirmed that an 8-year-old girl died in their custody. What is happening in these prisons? And what are the consequences of allowing this mass incarceration to continue?  

AO: In that story you can see pervasive anti-Blackness, anti-immigrant sentiment, and Customs and Border Protection not recognizing immigrants as people on a fundamental level. It’s the same tone as that horrific audio clip of Border Patrol agents talking to children who had been separated from their parents, saying “oh we’ve got a real orchestra here.” Of course, these children are crying, they were just separated from their parents after a long and difficult journey. We take these people who have fought incredibly hard for all these values we claim to value as a nation, like freedom and safety, and we put them in jail. We disbelieve and mistrust them. What else is that but political prisonership? 

It’s also important to note there are two types of detention. One of them is called hieleras or ice boxes, and those are run not actually by ICE but by Customs and Border Protection. And those are supposed to be places where you stay for a maximum of 72 hours. It’s supposed to be a quick, short-term stay, but in many cases it’s not. These places aren’t set up for long term stays and they are rife with human rights abuses, like what happened to that young girl. There’s also the wider immigration detention system, which is not just for people who have recently crossed the border. It’s for anyone who has been picked up by ICE. There’s usually a mix of people, some have just arrived, some have been picked up by ICE randomly or as a result of contact with the criminal legal system. So, if you get caught shoplifting or in possession of drugs, anything big or small, you go through the criminal legal system. You may end up serving time. And as soon as you finish serving time, ICE will usually be there to pick you up and take you to immigration detention. You essentially serve two sentences, the second of which is sometimes longer than the first. 

If you are in immigration detention because of a criminal legal issue, you can’t get bonded out, which is crazy. Those places can be private detention centers like the one I visited in Mississippi, a big jail you would see in Orange is the New Black. Huge dorms, very regimented. Local and county jails also have contracts with the federal government to house ICE detainees as well. And they have the same problems you’d see at any prison: horrific mistreatment, medical neglect, a lack of privacy, dehumanization. There’s also not adequate care taken to ensure staff speak the same common languages as the people detained there, so you have a general lack of communication between staff and people. Theoretically, there’s a person from ICE who comes in once a week and listens to complaints, but as with any bureaucracy that process can get messed up. Immigration detention is unique in that they have family detention centers. Sometimes one parent and their children. Sometimes one parent will be sent to regular detention and the other will be put in family detention with their children. Whole families are put into prison together. 

nte: Shifting to a lighter or maybe more complicated note, what was your experience of diving into your family’s history for this book? Did anything surprise you? 

AO: I knew a fair amount of our story going in. My great-grandparents felt really alive to me, even though my great-grandfather passed away before I was born, and my great-grandmother passed away when I was probably four or so. My grandmother talks about them all the time. They’re still very vivid people. We still visit the hotel my grandmother grew up at in the mountains in Mexico. In a very magical place, even now. So, there were things I knew, but looking at our story through the lens of immigration was complicated and interesting. 

I started looking further back, particularly in my great-grandfather’s history. His last name was Pue, which is a Welsh name. You can trace it back to colonial Maryland, which is where things start getting ugly. I found out that some of my family were slaveowners. It wasn’t a part of history I thought my family would be a part of. But you’re on, 20 generations deep, and suddenly there’s a manifest of their holdings and it includes people. It was shocking. There was some genealogy research that didn’t make it into the book that was surprising to me and made me realized my family’s history goes deep into the roots of this country and Mexican history. It’s complicated and messy.

nte: You recently wrote about the Biden administration’s new asylum laws and the end of Title 42. What are asylum seekers up against now? What? What do you want your readers to know about current policy and how it’s evolved or not evolved? 

AO: It’s bad. I’m not an attorney but I’ve worked with many attorneys over the last couple of years. I know how to read these documents and understand what these policies mean for individual people. And I can still barely wrap my arms around this new policy. There are basically two tracks right now. One is for asylum seekers. If you arrive at the U.S. border to seek asylum, you need to have already requested and been denied asylum from any country you passed through in order to apply for asylum successfully in the United States. For a lot of people that means Mexico, a country whose asylum system is as bogged down or more than ours. So, you’re looking at 5-10 years in Mexico trying to adjudicate that process before even having a chance at our border. 

Or you can, before leaving your home country, secure yourself a passport, a plane ticket, and a financial sponsor and be awarded something called “parole.” I’m unclear on how or whether parole can lead to a work permit or being able to apply for asylum, but the bar to access parole is purposefully unattainable. This is a program that was rolled out and piloted on Ukrainian refugees who came over last year during the onset of the war with Ukraine and Russia. The difference is that there is a settled and established Ukrainian community here in the United States. There are very few, relatively speaking, Venezuelans living in the United States in a settled way with strong connections to people back home. People who could afford to buy plane tickets and be financial sponsors. The program is not only financially difficult to enter; it’s also logistically and relationally difficult to navigate. It’s also important to note that the Trump administration already tried to do this, and a judge struck it down as illegal. There’s this rehash of rules that have already been tried by an administration by an administration that said they were better than on these issues. These have already been shown to be bad and illegal policies. And all of this was passed not by Congress but by memos and executive orders. They ignored public comments on the federal register begging them not to do this. It feels like there’s no real way to register your displeasure on a policymaking level, which feels infuriating and undemocratic. 

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