“Our immigration system is broken,” Barack Obama said in November 2014. “And everybody knows it.” His administration would henceforth, he announced, focus its enforcement efforts on “felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.” When the Trump administration triggered a series of raids to round up undocumented immigrants two years and some months later, the “not families” promise was gone.
For topicality, Lisa Ko’s novel The Leavers, about an undocumented mother who suddenly disappears and the young American-born son she leaves behind, could hardly be better timed. The political resonance of The Leavers is no coincidence; Ko got the idea for her affecting debut from a 2009 New York Times article about an undocumented immigrant from Fuzhou, China, who spent a year and a half in detention (much of it solitary) after being arrested at a Greyhound station in Florida on her way to a new job. That woman’s story inspired the character of Polly Guo, the mother in Ko’s book; her son, also mentioned in the article, yielded Deming, Polly’s 11-year-old.
These days, it’s difficult to imagine a real-life Deming who is not, by age 11, excruciatingly aware of the perils of having his sole parent be a poor immigrant of ambiguous legal status. But Ko has made the notable choice to render Deming almost totally ignorant of those perils. When Polly fails to come home from work one day, he’s told she’s “visiting friends,” and though he knows “she had no friends to visit,” the possibility of her absence being immigration-related never occurs to him. He worries vaguely that “she’s in danger,” but envisions a scenario in which “she’d been the victim of a crime, like on CSI, and maybe she was dead” rather than wondering if perhaps she’s being punished for a crime instead. Knowing Polly had fantasized about taking a job in Florida, Deming concludes that “she’d left for Florida and left him, too.”