Why Do I Write About Illegal Immigrants?
Readers have asked why, in both my novels, key characters are in the U.S. illegally. It happened because our government’s unequal treatment of illegal immigrants from two Caribbean countries fertilized my storytelling imagination.
Some years back I read a rash of newspaper articles about Cubans and Haitians, in roughly equal numbers, trying to slip into America. Cubans were routinely welcomed with a slice of American Pie: work permits and, after a year, permanent residency. Haitians got a different reception. Those interdicted at sea were sent home without preamble. The few who made it ashore were locked in detention camps in Cuba or Miami or prisons in Texas or Louisiana. According to the New York Times, twenty-three thousand Haitians were interdicted by the Coast Guard in one year. Of those, only twenty-eight were allowed to apply for asylum. That gave me pause. Why the different treatment?
Both countries were brutal dictatorships. Haiti’s democratically elected president had been overthrown the year before, and pro-military forces were routinely burning whole neighborhoods. Haitian boat people risked being arrested and tortured the moment they stepped back on their home shore. Moreover, the restrictive U.S. policy regarding Haitians did not extend to people from any other Caribbean country.
What makes Haitians unique? Unlike other Caribbean peoples, they are mostly descended from African slaves. I could not accept that as even a partial determinant of America’s discriminatory policy, but I could not avoid wondering.
Five percent of Haiti’s population, however, is classified as mulatto or European. That got my novelist’s “what if” juices flowing. What if a highly educated Haitian woman of European ancestry ran afoul of the dictatorship and slipped into America? She would be able to blend in, but the government’s draconian policy toward Haitians would shut off avenues of recourse no matter how outrageous the exploitation. In my first novel, The Price of Sanctuary, I did what novelists do: I put such a person in an intolerable situation and watched her work her way out of it.