In his iconic 1977 essay on migration, A Seventh Man: A Book of Images and Words about the Experience of Migrant Workers in Europe, John Berger wrote:
“To try to understand the experience of another it is necessary to dismantle the world as seen from one’s own place within it, and to reassemble it as seen from [another’s] . . . to understand a given choice another makes, one must face in imagination the lack of choices which may confront and deny [another] . . . The world has to be dismantled and re-assembled in order to be able to grasp, however clumsily, the experience of another. To talk of entering the other’s subjectivity is misleading. The subjectivity of another does not simply constitute a different interior attitude to the same exterior facts. The constellation of facts, of which [another person] is at the centre, is different.”
Amid the volume of coverage and commentary on the politics of immigration and the consequences of crackdowns and criminalization, here is a selection of recent work – analysis, personal essay, fiction, mixed-media – that can spark the moral imagination, as Berger’s work does.
To understand the constellation of facts concerning migration from Central America to the United States, Stephanie Leutert, an expert on Central American migration at the University of Texas-Austin and the lead writer for the “Beyond the Border” on Lawfare, offers a clear and thorough explanation of “who’s really crossing the border and why they’re coming.”
Drew Thompson, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Loyola University in Chicago, analyzes the right of asylum in humanitarian law and sets out two moral objections to the “zero-tolerance” policy that has resulted in family separation and the criminalization of people with potential asylum claims. Thompson draws on Ursula LeGuin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” to help readers face in our imagination what many of us cannot see except through media documentation.
Novelist Edwidge Danticat reminds us how easy it is to forget people who have been concealed from public view. She writes that we must not forget migrant children – the fact that they, like the child in Omelas, continue to exist and to suffer – even as the news cycle inevitably moves on. Danticat’s essay, on her own experiences as a child who lived apart from her migrant parents also helps us to face in our imagination the choices, or lack of choices, that Central American parents face concerning how to ensure a future for themselves and their children. A recent conversation with Danticat also features Cristina Henriquez, whose short story “Everything is Far from Here” imagines a woman’s thoughts and experiences during migration. Novelist Valeria Luiselli uses an artifact of the immigration system – the 40 questions that unaccompanied minors are asked in immigration court to determine whether they may qualify for asylum – as the scaffolding for her 2017 essay “Tell Me How It Ends,” based on her experiences as a translator.
The Waiting Game, a new public education project of the investigative news service ProPublica and public radio station WNYC, uses game technology to dismantle the world from the viewer’s perspective and reassemble five worlds of asylum-seeking. Playing this game is an eerie experience if you have the choice to stop playing, to return from danger, or limbo, to safety.
Nancy Berlinger is a research scholar at The Hastings Center. She recently completed an academic writing residency at the Bellagio Center of the Rockefeller Foundation, for a book project on migrants as social citizens. She codirects The Hastings Center’s Undocumented Patients Project, a knowledge hub on health care access for unauthorized migrants and mixed status families in the United States that includes a searchable database.