On Perfect Immigrants and Imperfect Stories

by Julianne Hing

I am a storyteller by trade, and a new one still learning my way around. Earlier this week I happened on this report about Marcos Gerardo Manzano Jr., a 26-year-old California Border Patrol agent who was charged with giving shelter to an undocumented immigrant, and a twice-deported one at that—his 46-year-old father Marcos Gerardo Manzano Sr.

Manzano Jr. reportedly lied to federal investigators who came around asking about his father's whereabouts after someone in the neighborhood said they'd seen him in town. When FBI agents raided the Manzanos' San Ysidro home they didn't find the father, but they did find another undocumented immigrant hiding out.

I read that report and felt so sad—I imagined the younger Manzano's impossible choices, his emotional burden sitting on his chest making it hard to breathe as he tried to sleep at night. To abide by the law he was paid by the government to uphold or to turn in his own father for deportation again?

I decided immediately that I wanted to share the Manzanos' story with you, TNC's audience. It would be the perfect entry point to discuss the real human drama behind immigration policies and the way that they've have failed our country. Policing the border has become much more difficult in recent years since the new border walls and increased border enforcement have forced migrants away from traditional urban crossing points to treacherous, remote regions. Increased border security has also led to the professionalization of criminal networks who want to push drugs through the border. Now families coming to the U.S. in search of a better life and the small number of crossing drug smugglers alike—though immigration policy makes little distinction between the two—pass through increasingly dangerous choke points. In 2010 a record 378 people died trying to cross the border, and there was still one month in the year left to tally. This even though migration into the country is actually down.

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A few days ago a 17-year-old Mexican boy named Ramses Barron Torres was killed by a Border Patrol officer along the Arizona-Mexico border for allegedly throwing rocks. Two weeks before that a Border Patrol agent named Brian Terry was killed, reportedly by bandits who hang out in the remote desert to prey on migrants. An AP report last year found that since 2008 Border Patrol officers had been committing suicide at higher rates than other law enforcement officers, who already commit suicide more than the general population. I've found that these reports are a useful litmus test—whether people interpret them as a natural consequence of harsh border policing or as proof that we need more of it seems to be reflective of people's attitudes about immigrants in the country generally.

And then I saw this update on the Manzanos this morning. Investigators who raided the Manzano home also found drug paraphernalia and 61 grams of meth in a small room where the other man was hiding. The elder Manzano may have been dealing, and now there was proof of something. How would I talk about the Manzanos now? I nearly scrapped the whole thing.

I am always searching for people's stories that can show the real life impacts of our country's harsh immigration policies with the hope that one of them will break open a hard-hearted reader's moral conscience. This country deported Hector Lopez, a 20-year-old kid from Oregon who coached Little League and was a student body president in high school. He had no idea he was undocumented until ICE agents followed him to his car one morning and arrested him. This country wanted to deport Shirley Tan, a mom in the San Francisco suburb of Pacifica with two twin boys and a partner named Jay Mercado. Mercado couldn't petition for Tan because they're a same-sex couple and immigration laws don't recognize queer families. This country deported Calvin James for decades-old drug charges he'd already done jail time for and wanted to put behind him. He has a family, a partner named Kathy and a son named Josh. They all used to live together in Brooklyn, and he'd lived in New York since he was 12. None of that mattered.

I remember the first time I heard about James' criminal convictions. I wondered how my colleague and I would address them honestly and still shape a portrait of his family that was moving and true.

I admit I'm often stumped. What do people want? Facts and figures have done little to convince the country of immigrants' humanity and contributions. Families are being torn apart, people are dying while they languish in immigration detention, the suffering is everywhere. Can people be moved?

It's not difficult to find folks who've been churned through the immigration system. The public discourse around immigration has moved so far to the right that there are only really two acceptable public identities for immigrants to have—the good, deserving, law-abiding, and hard-working immigrant or the criminal, suspect immigrant. One deserves our pity, the other ought to be thrown out of the country. All are forced to earn and deserve their place in society.

Since Obama's been in office his administration has deported a record number of people every year. Last year it was 393,000. The stated intent is to remove hardened criminals and a relatively small number of those who'd been convicted of homicide and other violent crimes have been kicked out of the country, but the majority of those deported last year didn't have any criminal record. When they did, most had been found guilty of traffic violations or petty crimes.

I realize how deeply I too have become trapped by the discourse when I get disappointed in people's stories and how difficult their real life struggles will make my job as a storyteller. Looking for that perfect sympathetic story is a stupid pursuit. We need an immigration system that's equipped to recognize immigrants as people, because that's what immigrants are, complex and messy human beings. And those are the people whose stories I'll keep trying to tell.