Every Day We Get More Insistent

Juan Felipe Herrera, the reigning poet laureate of the United States (and the first of Hispanic descent), has made a career of locating, traversing, defying, and blurring borders — including those between Spanish/English, poetry/art/music, blue-collar/intellectual, Mexican/Indian/American. He was born in southern California to Mexican migrant farmers, and thus his very life originated with a literal and ever-precarious border crossing. Those stories continue to animate his politics and his verse.

Herrera’s 2011 “Every day We Get More Illegal” is one such prescient border-crossing poem; it probes the strange human capacity to criminalize (i.e. to make illegitimate) the lives of other humans. While its title provokes, Herrera’s poem isn’t agitprop so much as a constellation of scenic images from the daily experiences of migrant workers. The opening lines pivot from the title’s political urgency, submitting to the cyclical indifference of agrarian calendars — “Yet the peach tree/still rises” — and animal survival, “birds eat it the sparrows fight.”

But the poem swiftly reminds us that, for the immigrant, these seemingly impartial routines of the everyday — background processes that nonetheless govern all organic life — are conflated with another sort of distant power: our nation’s perpetually-shifting legal codes, laws that can both “naturalize” and divest human beings of personhood:

laws pass laws with scientific walls
detention cells husband
with the son
the wife &
the daughter who
married a citizen
they stay behind broken slashed

The syntactical clutter of this stanza’s opening line performs the peculiar and arbitrary pace at which American juridical systems assign and reassign humanness. Their charters have constructed barriers throughout history under “scientific” guises of geography, race, and technological might. If we stumble to parse its grammar, just imagine how actual immigration laws work to obscure the fracturing of actual people’s lives — an everyday practice marked out by Herrera in the stanza’s progressively disintegrating lineation. “Scientific walls,” — coming soon in brick and mortar by pledge of the President-elect — enjambed and transformed into “detention cells,” introduce larger line-by-line gaps. It is the poetic performance of legalized family separation. One by one, father is torn from son, who’s torn from mother; while daughter, with her new American-soil-born clan, is alone permitted to remain. She’s a “permanent resident alien,” her children citizens jus soli; that’sof the soil,” a condition conceived — by certain legal definitions — as belated to American “culture.” The closing line tries to shore together linguistic remnants from the ruins of illegality. But, once more, language is confused. “Behind broken slashed” exist in an awkward succession sans punctuation. The emotional stages that “they,” the “illegal” immigrant family now torn asunder, endure defy easy signification — whether grammatical or psychological. Devastation can be figured only through a volatile syntactical borderland.