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Thursday, December 31, 2020

December 31, 2020: Year in Review: Migration and Refugees

[I thought about skipping my annual year in review series—who really wants to have any more 2020 vision?!—but as I wrote this past weekend’s post, I realized that the year featured significant developments on a handful of central world issues. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy those, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and takeaways, on these and any other 2020 hindsights (and 2021 foresights)!]

On a short story that helps cut to the heart of an ongoing horror.

It was almost impossible, in the final months of 2020, to pay attention to all of the important news stories that broke; not that that was in any way a new problem, but I nonetheless felt that constant struggle for focus to be amplified as we all tried simply to navigate the conclusions of the Fall semester, of the multi-month crisis of democracy following the 2020 presidential election, of the end of a very, very long year. So it’s fair to say that a couple of late 2020 stories about the ongoing human rights abuses of migrant and refugee families and children at the US/Mexico border—a story about how the federal government had purposefully made it much harder to reunite separated families (illegal actions that reek of Stephen Miller’s xenophobic touch), and a related one about just how much children remain separated from their parents long after that policy was supposed to have ended—largely flew under the radar for far too many of us (this AmericanStudier very much included).

The frustrating absence of such stories from much of our collective consciousness isn’t simply about information overload, however. Precisely because the government has kept these individuals and families so isolated and separated, so hidden from even those tasked with helping them (much less our society as a whole), it can be quite difficult (speaking for myself, at least) to get to the human heart of what is happening to these people, of the intimate realities of the detention process and centers, of all that has been done and is still being done to these fellow humans and Americans (for that they are, despite our government’s and system’s most xenophobic and destructive attempts to define them otherwise). There certainly has been excellent investigative journalism despite those imposed limits—I would point for example to this stunning late August piece from Carmen Molina Acosta, an editorial intern with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) who clearly has a very bright future in journalism, on the horrors of COVID in the detention centers—but there we’re back to the information overload challenge.

Such journalistic pieces are still entirely worth reading and sharing, to be clear. But I also believe that cultural works have a role in play in cutting through the noise and helping us understand and empathize with the human experiences of these migrants and refugees. As part of my two online Short Story sections this Fall, I taught one stunning such cultural work: Cristina Henriquez’s “Everything Is Far from Here” (2017). Henriquez’s short story stays solely and fully within the perspective of her main character, a refugee woman and mother experiencing individual versions of detention and separation from her young son; readers get only the briefest glimpses of the broader social and political contexts for those experiences, both in the US and in her Latin American country of origin. But that’s precisely the vital strength of short stories—using literary elements like narration and perspective, descriptions and imagery, dialogue and free indirect discourse (the intimate representation of a character’s inner thoughts, a really powerful literary concept and effect despite the overly theoretical name) to locate readers within such an experience and world. If I could ask all Americans to read one text about the ongoing border horrors, I think I’d go with this simple, brutal, vital short story.

Last 2020 vision tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other 2020 reflections you’d share?

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