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An ancient pilgrimage route inspires a project of cooperative storytelling which pairs writers with detained immigrants, such as the Mexican horticulturalist in this story.
Refugee Tales, as the subtitle has it, is “a walk in solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers, and detainees.” The principal purpose of the project is to bring attention to the fact that the United Kingdom is the only country in Europe that detains people indefinitely under immigration rules, and to call for that practice to end. The project shares the stories of people who have experienced detention by pairing them with experienced writers.
The project was started five years ago by the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, driven by a shared frustration that—while for twenty years the group’s volunteers had visited people held in indefinite detention—the general public was barely aware that such a practice was being conducted in its name. Not only were the stories of those detained rarely, if ever, reported, but the fact that the UK practiced such detention was itself barely known.
Immigration detention is one of the defining crises of our time.
The intention of the project was to share the stories of people who had been held in detention, and to do so as part of an extended public walk. A route of about eighty miles was developed that went from Dover (within sight of the Immigration Removal Centre that stood on the town’s white cliffs) to Crawley (the nearest town to the detention center at Gatwick Airport), following the ancient pilgrimage path of the North Downs Way. That first walk lasted nine days, the aim being to create, in walking, a kind of spectacle of welcome.
The walk has now taken place five years in a row, and resulted in three published anthologies of stories. In the process, as people who have been detained have worked with people who haven’t, a community has formed. For everybody involved, albeit for different reasons, the walk constitutes a space outside the hostile environment that the post-Brexit government of Boris Johnson shows every sign of continuing.
Much has changed during the period that Refugee Tales has been walking, as right-wing narratives of nation have gained energy in Europe and the United States. One chilling measure of that change, arguably our period’s defining indicator, is the fact that the international use of detention as a political weapon has become increasingly widespread. The examples are numerous and include the Trump regime’s separating of children and families in detention centers and its overturning of the Flores settlement to establish indefinite detention in the United States; the continued offshoring of detention by the Australian government; and the routine detention of political dissidents in Turkey.
This makes it all the more crucial that detention is challenged locally. But what is required also, as Refugee Tales has increasingly argued, is an internationalized understanding of the detention regime as one of the defining crises of our time. To contribute to that developing understanding, the third volume of Refugee Tales includes an account of detention in the United States: “The Pruner’s Tale,” told to Lytton Smith and excerpted here, offers an intimate of incarceration at the U.S.–Canada border. Deeply moving in its account of precarity and belonging, to read “The Pruner’s Tale” in relation to accounts of the UK detention system is, undoubtedly, to register certain differences between the two settings. It is also, however, to register profoundly disturbing similarities. What such cross-national sharing of stories allows us to understand is the degree to which detention increasingly defines global politics. Refugee Tales walks in solidarity with all those who call for such brutal practices to end.
Come October, there will be apples piled in farmers’ markets and kitchens across Upstate New York. There will be pies made with apples the Pruner has husbanded. These past eighteen years, more than half his life—the last eight at the orchard attached to the cider mill—the Pruner has learned the language of apples. Jonagold, Honeycrisp, Cameo. Thinning, spraying, suckers.
He’s expecting to be gone, come summer, back to the Mexico he’s not seen since he was fourteen.
He’s learned to cut back trees based on the varietal more than the season. He’s learned chemicals that protect apples from fungi, learned how not to get sick from the chemicals. He’s learned to tend to the sap when it’s dormant, to cut back the tree at the right time for a kick of sweetness, a blush of color. He’s learned how a day like today, warm enough for short sleeves unless the breeze gets up, means it’s too late to trim.
I love being outside, the Pruner says, being in touch with nature, putting fresh produce on other Americans’ tables.
This might be the last season he does any of this.
He’s expecting to be gone, come summer, though he won’t say so in case saying makes it so. He’s expecting to be gone, come summer, back to the Mexico he’s not seen since he was fourteen. Back where his father was shot seven times. And survived. Survived three more years, survived in pain long enough to need a wheelchair, and medicine, and care.
And what does a family of twelve children, and a mother without a job, do with that? What can they do in a village that’s not even really a village, more some houses near a mountain in Mexico’s southwest?
• • •
The Pruner’s house is out past solar farms, near the white wooden one-room church, opposite a grove of the apple orchard. The hood of an SUV hides him from view at first. He pulls off medical-blue rubber gloves to talk. Fetches a bottle of Windex to clean a bug-spattered glass table two feet in diameter. He asks his daughter to fetch two chairs, which sink into a soil soft with the promise of spring. The soil, the Pruner will say, is why immigrants come here: it’s rich, the area’s rich in agriculture.
He’s been working at fixing the timing belts on the family car. It’s a job that might take a day or so but it’s been two weeks already. Yesterday, he was working from 7:00 to 7:00, trying to get winter pruning done before the warmth; other days, it’s 7:00 to 5:00. He has to set down his tools to remember the journey that brought him here. By the time he’s finished talking, it’s still light, the moon visible in the April sky adding to the evening’s surprising brightness.
He’ll have to go inside for dinner, for his kids’ bedtimes. The timing belts won’t get fixed, not tonight. The car’s going nowhere. With his car out of action, the Pruner has to hope he’s assigned to work in a field to which he can walk. Sometimes, he’s assigned to a site five, ten miles away. He pays someone $20 a day to drive him; he works six days a week, so that quickly adds up to $120.
You have to stay hidden, he explains, the underside of his voice furred with an anger as fine as the hairs on an apple leaf.
Before the traffic stop, before the nights in the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility—which isn’t in the city of Buffalo at all, but in the rural town of Batavia, one more impediment to make it harder to find the detained—before the deportation hearing that was postponed because of the shutdown over whether the president could build the wall, before all this, there was a time he didn’t drive anywhere.
You have to stay hidden, he explains, the underside of his voice furred with an anger as fine as the hairs on an apple leaf. There are eyes on you, if you’re Mexican. Law enforcement. ICE racists. People who don’t like you. He repeats the word hidden often. That is what it means to be undocumented, the Pruner says. You have to keep moving, he says; if you don’t, they might find you. One year, move on.
But you start raising a family, start having children. You find yourself in need, he says, of operating a vehicle. Of going to the doctor. Of taking your babies to daycare. Your child is sick, how are you going to collect him from daycare? Papa, your eldest says, I want to join the soccer team. Papa, why don’t you take us camping, why don’t you take us to a park?
The Pruner was headed to the pharmacy when the officer pulled him over. He didn’t have a license to hand over, because that’s what being undocumented means. Stay hidden. The Pruner hands over a Mexican identification card, as if it’s better to prove he’s documented somewhere, even if that somewhere is a past that once left him so famished he’d felt his spine through his stomach.
We’re going to see some friends, is how the officer puts it. The Pruner’s up against his own car, hands cuffed behind his back. He knows friends means ICE, ICE means detainment, detainment might mean deportation. The moment the officer pulls him over, the Pruner’s become removable. The medicine, for his child’s bronchitis, lost to the day.
In detention, he’s given three minutes’ worth of credit. Three minutes to call his wife and hope she, not his children, answer. Three minutes to tell her he’s in detention, she must find someone who can pay the thousands of dollars so he can get bail, so he can go back to pruning the orchard, back to the apples needed for the pies and sauce and cider and juice and lunchboxes of Upstate New York. Back to waiting for deportation.
What the three minutes—they’re almost up—won’t allow is for him to tell anyone what brought him here at the age of fourteen. Here, at first, was Arizona, maybe New Mexico, somewhere he wasn’t long enough to really recall—somewhere he stumbled to, across the Sonoran Desert, having paid a man to get him there, indenturing himself. Immediately after he was taken to Florida. So you guys can pay, the man said, by working strawberry fields. New Year’s Eve, 2000, the Pruner was in Mexico; New Year’s Day, 2001, in the United States. I had to lie, of course, so they’d give me a job, say I was eighteen.
Three minutes are up, but there’s more to tell. He left school at twelve, or was it ten, left his friends playing soccer so he could work full time at a construction site where he threw out his back lugging hundred-pound bags of cement. Where he watched his old friends from the site and first felt the loneliness that wouldn’t leave him anywhere in Mexico.
Perhaps his journey didn’t begin with the crossing of the border, or his father being shot, or his leaving school; perhaps it began with the loneliness.
Or perhaps his journey began with need, with hunger. One night, the Pruner remembers, his mother didn’t have corn to cook overnight so she’d be able to make tortillas in the morning. There wasn’t ever anything much to go with the tortillas, supposing there were tortillas: beans, if they were lucky; tomato, maybe; more likely, salt. But they weren’t lucky; tonight: there wasn’t corn to make tortillas, and there were seven of them, mother and six children.
She set off first thing in the morning to ask the neighbors for food she’d repay down the line. No one had any, until she came to the neighbors who’d just finished their fill of a dozen or so, piping hot. Her timing all wrong.
We have, they told her, sorry to offer, the tortillas for the pig. You can have those.
The tortillas for the pig: the extra tortillas, the uneaten surplus. Tortillas from a week back, a month, maybe more. His mother accepts them, a bag of twenty or so. She brings them home. Her children are hungry and wondering and they watch her wash tortillas with her rag, wash mold off tortillas fit for a pig, wash, and scrape, and scrape, and wash.
She gets the fire going, and when the tortillas are as scrubbed as they’ll get, she cooks them crunchy, hot enough to singe but not burn. We have a meal, the Pruner says, tortillas with salt.
The boy who’ll become the Pruner knows if he can’t make enough to feed himself and the rest, he needs to get going. He tries heading up to the mountain, where the town will let him have a plot of land to grow what he can. For months, he’ll head there with his donkey and the dog he raised—the dog he found at three weeks old, the only dog that survived of the litter, the dog he nursed to life with masa and water, the dog he gives half his own food. He’ll tend the land until two in the afternoon. From two to four, he’ll gather firewood. At four, he’ll head back down the mountain, so thin and so hungry he feels his stomach against his spine.
Three minutes passed a long time back. There’s so much more to the Pruner’s tale. Given another three minutes, he’d tell of the orange his aunt offered his mother, how his mother accepted it but didn’t eat it, how she brought it home to her children. One piece for you. One for you. A piece for you. One piece for you. A piece for you. And here, in Upstate New York, the Pruner rubs his hands together like a mother all out of orange pieces, like a mother whose hands are sticky with juice.
He’s happy, he says, he helped put his siblings through school, working here so they didn’t have to do what he’d done there. The construction site, the mountain farm, any more meals of spoiled tortillas.
• • •
His oldest has reached seventh grade, one grade past when he left school to work construction to feed his siblings.
This tale could—should—have been another tale. The Astronaut’s Tale. That’s what he wished to be, as a boy, before his father got shot and there were mouths to feed and he left school. The Biologist’s Tale. The Chemist’s Tale.
I was so, so interested in elements, gravity, in life—studying molecules and cells, all the living creatures. . . . I have that in me, he says. He’s leaning forward, the most animated he’s been: I had a big, big wish to learn, to continue in school.
He knows what he’d contribute if he could stay. In his eyes as he looks out to the orchard across the road, there’s a repair shop. There’s a restaurant, he says, serving authentic food from the region where he grew up, and his daughter will run it. A farm, too, he’d like that. He’d like to keep on growing. The soil is rich.
He doesn’t want to go back; there’s nothing there for him, nothing to contribute. His oldest has reached seventh grade, one grade past when he left school to work construction to feed his siblings. There’s nothing more he can teach her, he says, with that easy smile. She’s in the junior honors society and she just got an award for literature. He’s made sure she knows all the math he knows, long division, all that, what he can teach her about writing and reading. She’s on her own now, he’s told her, and he’s wishing he’ll get to be right there beside her.
He wishes, too, his mother could come meet his children. His mother hasn’t met them, not any of them. She didn’t, he says, hold his oldest in her arms as a baby, and now that child, she’s almost a woman, almost grown up. He wishes there was a way his mother could be here.
Being undocumented, being removable: it means not being able to take journeys, it means this might be the last season he gets to do any of this, the schoolwork, the pruning.
Despite it all, he loves it here in Upstate New York, where there’s a town called Sweden and one called Somerset and another Bergen and one called Greece, and the wines tastes like German wines and have German names, and where the winds blow in across the border of the Great Lakes a Canadian cold, northern snow.
Maybe my wife will tell my bosses one day, he says, He’s not here, he’s been sent back to Mexico. The Pruner pauses long enough for it to feel like the tale’s told out. I love the United States. I got here when I was a child. I know I’m Mexican because I was born in Mexico. But I feel United States is my home. New York has become my home. I’m feeling myself as New York. I’m feeling myself as United States.
What are the words for when someone loves a place, and tends its crops, and raises a family, and finds a church, and prays, and prunes, and is told he’s removable, that this land whose soil he’s come to know can’t be his soil?
• • •
What are the words for when someone loves a place, and tends its crops, and raises a family, and is told he’s removable?
Instead of the land giving rise to a language, instead of a vocabulary of apples, and pruning, and husbandry, human journeys get told and concealed in administrative terms. In words that have the force of speech acts, making things happen whether we want them or not. Leave to remain. Removable. Inadmissible.
There was a time, not long ago, the Pruner remembers, when he was highly valuable. A lawyer for the government said so. It was after the traffic stop, and before the election, and at his deportation hearing a lawyer who likely knew little of dormant sap and winter pruning made the case that the Pruner was providing labor that mattered to Upstate New York, mattered to the United States, that this type of person was worth having here. His deportation was administratively closed: neither endorsed nor refuted. Having detained him, the government was allowing him to return to a life of staying hidden.
What changed was the will of the people, the President’s mandate. Under the new administration, the Pruner was once again removable. That is how language, which is to say bureaucracy, speaks people, and not the other way around.
You are not free, here, says the Pruner, if you are undocumented. We have a saying in Mexico, how the bird in a cage, even one made of gold, cannot fly and so is not free. You have to be able to move, he says. You have to be free.
Come fall, there’ll be apples on tables, and the Pruner will have been part of that journey, but he might well no longer be here. He’s removable, the administration says. He’s undocumented, which means you stay hidden until you can’t stay hidden. When you can’t stay hidden you get deported, and who knows what happens to your family, your car with its broken timing belts, the orchard you’ve pruned the best part of a decade, the apples you’d planned you’d be picking.
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