“Citizen Illegal” Rejects Generalizations of Immigrant Experience


The current immigration system in the United States is a hopelessly broken contradiction. We demonize immigrants and yet rely on and exploit their labor to sustain our economy. Our highest court upholds policy that uses the arbitrary justification of borders to dictate who is banned from entering our country.

It is within this context that Citizen Illegal — a stunning debut by poet José Olivarez — exists. As its title suggests, the collection of poems focuses significantly on immigration, borders, home, and movement, particularly in a Mexican and Mexican-American context.

Olivarez’ work is so powerful, however, because of its personal anecdotes and its commentary on how our national contradictions complicate and muddle everyday life for immigrants and their children.

The titular poem, and the one with which the book opens, shows how systemic contradiction becomes personal.

Olivarez writes, “take a Mexican woman (illegal) and a Mexican man (illegal). / if they have a baby and the baby looks white enough to pass (citizen). / if the baby grows up singing Selena songs to his reflection (illegal). … if the baby (illegal) (citizen) grows up to speak broken Spanish (illegal) / and perfect English (citizen).”

Olivarez continues to discuss this imposed internal struggle throughout the book, considering it at different points in his life.

“fun fact: when you have to try to blend in / you can never blend in,” writes Olivarez in “River Oaks Mall.” “my dad gives me a penny / to throw into a fountain that makes dreams / come true. all my dreams except one. / my family trying so hard to be American / it was transparent.”

“River Oaks Mall” is one of the first poems in Citizen Illegal. Olivarez returns to its setting toward the end of the collection — but this time, things are different.

“later, we run back / to the pawn shop to ask for a refund, / but México is hip now,” he writes. “the pawn shop / is a shrine to Selena. they charge Mexicans triple to get in.”

While the commodification and economic exploitation of marginalized and oppressed populations is nothing new in American life, its ugly and harmful impacts are too often ignored. Not so in Citizen Illegal. Olivarez forces his audience to confront them head-on by pushing us to consider the experience of Mexican teens wandering around a mall, grappling with a country that simultaneously rejects them and profits off of their existence.

However, not all of Citizen Illegal’s personal narratives are focused so explicitly on immigration. Olivarez also writes about his relationships with family members, particularly his father. Discussions of death recur frequently as well. “Mexican American Obituary,” for example, discusses the role of Mexican Americans in the face of the ongoing epidemic of police killing Black Americans.

Olivarez’ nuanced narratives, and others like them, are vital. To understand the national context of immigration, it is critical to know how people are impacted, how lives are turned upside down, and how families are menaced. This comprehension is lost when we continue to reduce immigrants to that singular identity, instead of addressing the vast diversity of the American immigrant experience.

It is one thing to discuss the closing of borders and its impact on the economy; it is entirely another to read Olivarez’ “My Parents Fold Like Luggage” and begin to think about how it must feel to be folded into the trunk of a car, hoping against hope that God will intervene and prompt the border agent to let the vehicle pass without inspection.

In some ways, even those who seek justice for immigrants engage in the contradiction of valuing the systemic above the personal. We see this in arguments for immigrant inclusion that center around economics instead of humanity. We see this in liberals calling for the creation of a more benevolent Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, instead of advocating for the complete elimination of an agency whose sole purpose is to terrorize and separate.

Olivarez’ fiercely personal work reminds us that half-baked platitudes and contradictions are insufficient.

Citizen Illegal also arrives at a particularly vital moment for Oberlin students and Ohio residents in grappling with how these issues impact our communities and the people we love.

This summer, ICE raided a gardening company in Sandusky, Ohio. More than 100 people were arrested by more than 200 ICE officers in certainly the most significant immigration raid to be carried out in Ohio under the Trump administration.

That raid, in all of its tragedy and chaos, revealed a fundamental contradiction that exists in Ohio, and perhaps especially in Oberlin, when it comes to immigration and the legalized oppression of Brown people — immigrants or not, documented or not — right here in our own backyards.

In many ways, Ohio can feel removed from the ongoing national crisis around immigration. We aren’t a border state, and while our state politics do revolve significantly around labor and economic recovery, these things are often imagined in the context of rural white communities — people who are not, to say the least, at risk of being seized and locked up by ICE.

However, as the events of this summer remind us, this narrative is false. ICE’s reign of terror impacts people in every state. As I read Citizen Illegal just about two months after that Sandusky raid, I was reminded of this contradiction in our own community, and how fiercely it must be combated in order to achieve full safety and equity.

It is for this reason and many others that I view Citizen Illegal as one of the most powerful and important books to read in our present context — in Oberlin, in Ohio, and in the greater United States. Olivarez’ work is strong and vulnerable, sad and funny. It is a true work of art that leaves the reader in a state of deep thought and reflection on this country’s approach to immigration, the power of community, and the importance of rejecting a monolithic, generalized cultural narrative.