Black Holes on the Blue Ridge
The summer before the presidential election I was working with eleven and twelve year old campers in North Carolina. One of my favourite campers was an undocumented immigrant. I think her parents were from Mexico, but she never said. She was almost thirteen and the rest of the campers couldn’t quite keep up with her advanced wit, so she saved her intellect for the counselors, and treated other campers like kids she was tasked with babysitting. She helped them with their craft projects and gave them piggyback rides and comforted them when they were homesick.
Around grown-ups, she was blisteringly quick, frank to the point of being a little mean. I went on a three-day backpacking trip with her — the “short hike”, where the least outdoorsy and most entertainingly volatile kids often end up — and she took to quizzing me and my co-counselor, a kind and goofy 19-year-old guy who kids called “Shaggy” because of his resemblance to the Scooby Doo character, about our “celebrity crushes”. I answered Malcolm X, my standard response for these types of inquiries. My co-counselor said Nicki Minaj. This camper and a couple of the more world-wise kids on the trip started cackling riotously. “Wow,” she said. “I didn’t think you’d like butts.”
Later, my co-counselor had a tough time starting a fire while I was out finding the campsite’s water source. When I got back, I built the fire back up to start making supper. “Hey Shaggy,” said the camper, totally deadpan, “How come Phoebe can light a fire a but you can’t?”
We were camping on the side of an incredibly beautiful bald along the Tennessee border and before bed we all took our toothbrushes to a nearby rock structure to admire the moonlit view of the little town below and the dark folds of mountains beyond. It was a cuttingly clear night and we didn’t need flashlights. My camper carried her toothbrush and another girl’s and stayed at the bottom of the rock structure to make sure all her little ducklings made it up okay before she climbed up herself. I remember standing next to her in silence for just a moment. She was breathing hard from laughing and running and climbing, wearing a too-big fleece she’d borrowed from camp, ponytail a complete mess, toothbrush jutting out of her mouth at an odd angle, nearly forgotten, and I sensed that she, like me, was trying to lock every detail of the view into her mind so she could remember it forever. Of course, moments like that always fade with time.
We all tried not to talk about the election that summer but it came up anyway. A little joking and a little not, my camper would talk about her plans to “hide” from Donald Trump — in the trunks we kept dress-up clothes in, in a counselor’s tent so she could stay at camp forever. Other kids who were undocumented would say similar things to me that summer. It scared me, and it scared the other kids, even the ones from relatively privileged backgrounds who couldn’t imagine this kind of threat to their family being real.
“I won’t let him send me away,” my camper would say. And, because I cared about her and didn’t want her to be scared, I’d say, “don’t worry, we’re going to keep you safe.”
I wish I’d never said that. As an individual, there’s little I can do to help my camper now and it was cruel of me to make such a promise to her. I am probably one in a long line of white people who has failed this girl merely by trying to treat her like a normal child who has nothing to fear from the United States government.
At the time I told my camper I would protect her, I trusted that either Trump would not get elected or that the slow machine of Congress would mediate the amount of damage he as an individual could do to immigration policy. I didn’t know about the private prisons where underage, undocumented immigrants are kept, without trial or representation, for months, sometimes years, waiting to be deported. I didn’t know that in reality, when parents are deported, their American-born children aren’t looked after: they may simply arrive home from school to empty houses. The repeal of DACA is just one in a long line of horrible, inhumane ways that young immigrants have been treated as little more than livestock by the United States government for decades. And consider this: the parents of these children have weighed their options and decided that a life full of this sort of fear and uncertainty is better than whatever situation they are facing in their home country. An eight-year-old Honduran kid living in Charlotte, NC could have their entire family dissolved overnight by the whims of a distant billionaire congressperson trying to prove tough-guy cred to their conservative constituents. Nothing is certain, nothing is forever. It must be a terrifying world for a child to live in.
Growing up, I had nightmares about black holes swallowing my family and flinging me alone into space. When I woke up, I would remember that the black holes were millions of lightyears away and would never touch me and I would feel better. For immigrant children, the black holes are blocks away. They go to school, watch TV, eat supper, go to sleep, while beside them, the black holes wait.
That so many children who grew up under these circumstances have grown up into well-adjusted adults who serve their communities, that so many of them faithfully lined up at Navy Pier in 2012 to do whatever was necessary to be a part of an America that should by rights all ready be theirs, is a testament to their incredible strength. Our country does not deserve them, but I hope it will aspire to. In the meantime, I will aspire to keep my promise to my camper, but I worry that I’ve all ready failed her.
Further Reading & Listening: