MARCH 23, 2021
IN 2018, many Americans reacted with horror as news broke that the Trump administration had been separating immigrant children from their families at the US-Mexico border. Since then, the stories of adults — be they parents, grandparents, aunts, or uncles — desperately trying to reunite with the children under their care have been accumulating in a painful record of one of the United States’s most recent atrocities. While the policy was only said to be implemented from April to June of that year, in practice thousands of families seeking asylum were torn apart by the “zero tolerance” policy for months before and after those dates. Adults, who were criminally charged for crossing the border without visas or other papers, were lied to about how long they would be apart from their loved ones. Some parents were deported without their children. Many of the children — the youngest on record was only four months old — were kept in cages without appropriate care or supervision and left vulnerable to abuse.
Unprecedented as certain aspects of the Trump administration policy was, families such as the one at the heart of Patricia Engel’s new novel, Infinite Country, have been routinely ripped apart by US immigration policies for the better part of a century. In her latest novel, Engel, whose fiction has won an array of literary prizes, revisits her own Colombian parents’ roots in an absorbing story of displacement, detention, and deportation that forcefully examines what unites a family beyond the divisions borders and policies forge. Set over the past two decades, the novel introduces us to Talia, Karina, and Nando, and their Colombian parents Mauro and Elena, a fictional family of five with varying immigration statuses living in Bogotá and New Jersey.
Talia’s journey from a Colombian juvenile detention center to her parents’ native Bogotá in time to catch a flight to the United States serves as the main story line of the book. Although she was born in the US, Talia was sent back to Colombia as an infant to be raised by her grandmother when her father was deported. Her elder sister Karina, on the other hand, was born in Colombia and taken to Texas with her parents as an infant. As an undocumented youth growing up in the US, Karina is too wary of the US government to apply for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that gave many of her peers the appellation “Dreamers.” Their youngest brother Nando also holds a US passport and is the only member of the family who lives in his country of birth. In a particularly poignant passage, Elena, who is herself undocumented, “blame[s] herself for displacing her own children, especially her girls. Karina and Talia, binational, each born in one country and raised in another like repotted flowers, creatures forced to live in the wrong habitat.”
As is the case in many immigrant families, their disparate immigration statuses become central to the shape their trajectory takes. The dangers of being undocumented plague Elena, Mauro, and Karina as they navigate daily life in a country where any misstep or encounter with authorities — including for their own safety — could spell further separation for their family. In each of their cases, the lack of residency papers leaves them vulnerable to many forms of abuse, including rape by an employer who knows their victim cannot report them without risking deportation.
The novel’s accounts of the precarity undocumented immigrants face are some of the most heart-rending pages in the novel. As I read Infinite Country, I could not help but think of my own mother, who, as an undocumented teenager from Mexico, spent the majority of her young adulthood in Illinois dreading deportation. The stories she told me of these years were all imbued with the same tangible terror that is vividly captured in Engel’s novel, as is its long-lasting impact, even as laws and residency statuses change. After all, a citizenship certificate, many immigrants come to learn, does not erase the trauma inflicted before the document was drafted nor does it fundamentally change a person’s relationship to a country that, for however long, denied them basic protections.
Alternating between past and present in its dual locations, Infinite Country sets the family’s personal travails against the backdrop of sociopolitical turmoil in both Colombia and the United States. In Colombia, the decades-long armed conflict between the nation’s government, far-right paramilitary groups, and various guerrilla groups — the most well known being the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC — plays a pivotal role in Elena’s and Mauro’s decisions. The hostilities, which can be traced back to the 1920s and bled into the 2010s, are estimated to have claimed more than 220,000 lives, a fact that we see Elena continually grapple with as she considers returning home to South America in the early 2000s. Each time the thought occurs or is discussed, news of hundreds of her compatriots being killed or disappeared reaches her across borders. The struggles of the working-class Andean protagonists represent the plight of many of those who have fled growing violence in Central and South America in recent decades in the knowledge that while the conflict may not have reached their front doors, it could only be a matter of time before it does. Where other authors may have placed the extreme violence at the center of their work — which, as several critics wrote about Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt, often serves to sensationalize violence rather than question its sources — Engel instead gives a voice to the indirect victims of these terrors who are often mislabeled “economic migrants.”
What is unfortunately never examined even in passing is the American government’s role in the Colombian conflict that led to the family being uprooted from their homeland. The US government’s anticommunist scourge was, after all, at the root of the military attacks against armed leftist groups forming in Colombia during the Cold War. American funding has also poured into the South American country for more than half a century to support its counterinsurgency and counter-narcotic efforts, essentially fueling the bloody, destabilizing conflict and the resulting mass displacement with US taxpayer money. Whatever the political motivations behind US foreign policy in Latin America, as others — such as Valeria Luiselli in her book of essays Tell Me How It Ends — have noted, it is a significant driver in emigration from the region.
The poet Warsan Shire writes in her poem “Home” that “[n]o one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark […] you have to understand, / that no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land.” For Elena, the United States initially represents an asylum from the troubled waters of her native Colombia, but “sharks” begin to rear their heads in the US before long. When the protagonists watch the news reports of the 9/11 attacks from Texas, they feel the dramatic shift in the “newly injured” nation as immigrants such as themselves are increasingly treated as criminal suspects. More than a decade later, the characters witness peace negotiations with guerrilla groups promise an end to decades of conflict in Colombia, at the same time they begin to recognize a familiar, alarming picture taking shape amid growing divisions in the US. In phone calls to Elena, Mauro expresses his alarm that “the news abroad show[s] a United States scorching with civilian massacres as bad or worse than Colombia’s ghastliest days of warfare, where ordinary American citizens were more heavily armed than any guerrilla or paramilitary fighter ever was.” News of the lead contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, as well as reports of widespread police brutality and mass shootings, among other troubles, reach the father of three, prompting him to wonder aloud, “How could people still think of gringolandia as some promised land knowing those things happened there?”
After years of living in a country that has harmed her and her loved ones in numerous, unexpected ways, Elena concludes, “every nation in the Americas had a hidden history of internal violence. It just wore different masks, carried different weapons, and justified itself with different stories.” Despite the two characters’ desire to safeguard their family from Colombia’s turmoil, Elena realizes she can no longer “guarantee to Mauro or to anyone that [the US] was safer than any other, or even that it offered more advantages or opportunity.” Time has divested their American Dream — the one that so many immigrants are drawn to — of the promises they were led to believe were firmly at its core.
The original injury at the source of all this suffering, Elena and Mauro often both see, is not attacks by terrorists or guerrilla groups; it is the European colonization of indigenous peoples that set the stage for endless cycles of violence that no American nation seems able to fully eradicate or overcome. Throughout the novel, Engel conscientiously pays tribute to the indigenous heritage that is often erased from American narratives, weaving in Andean myths, such as those belonging to the Muisca. These legends, rooted in the natural world, provide the characters with ancient perspectives on their ongoing struggles and offer them comfort and meaning as modern cruelties take their toll.
While the entire novel is carefully constructed, near the end of Infinite Country several narrative decisions leave something to be desired. The surprise revelation of the narrator’s identity comes late in the story, leaving little room for Karina’s and Nando’s voices to be fully developed. Engel’s first novel, Vida, powerfully illustrated some of the complex identity issues that the Latin American diaspora faces in the United States. In her latest book, however, the author misses the opportunity to provide a fuller account of the different family experiences as the stories of the characters’ growing up in Colombia, especially Talia, overshadow those of the two children raised in the US. At the very end, Engel also spells out the narrator’s motivation for recording the family’s history and withholding certain details, but after the more nuanced prose and plot found throughout, these first-person passages read as needlessly expository.
Despite the ending’s narrative deficiencies, the bittersweet denouement — one that few families even reach — serves as a powerful reminder that these travails not only rarely have a “happy ending,” but that the cycles of generational trauma created by forced family separation are difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. Last year the group Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) actually gave this form of trauma, as inflicted most recently by the Trump administration, another name: torture. With Joe Biden’s election, the inhospitable political climate Engel depicts in the final pages of Infinite Country is finally beginning to shift. For example, a federal judge ordered DACA be reinstated in the waning days of the Trump administration. In his first days in office, President Biden announced plans to create a task force dedicated to the reunification of families separated by his predecessor’s administration. And yet, moving forward, a change in the White House still leaves open many questions regarding how the US government will treat immigrants in detention, those who are arriving every day at the border seeking asylum, and even those who now hold US passports. While the Obama administration, for which the new US president served as vice president, was responsible for DACA, it’s worth recalling that Barack Obama was known as the Deporter-in-Chief because his administration deported more people than all of the 20th-century administrations combined. It is perhaps as a new opportunity to transform immigration policy presents itself that novels such as Infinite Country, which depict how family separation in its various forms has been a shameful, bipartisan legacy, will serve to remind us that, in this country, there is infinitely more work to be done.