Last night I re-read William Finnegan’s deportation story in the April 29 issue of the New Yorker. It’s is among the best magazine stories I’ve ever read (and, unfortunately, it’s still gated.) Finnegan recounts the horrifying several-months oddessy of Mark Lyttle, a bi-polar American citizen from North Carolina who was arrested, hoovered up by the immigration bureaucracy, sent to a squalid detention jail in Georgia, and dropped at the Mexican border with three dollars in his pocket. When he tried to walk back across to the United States he was threatened with a federal jail sentence, and he eventually ended up in Honduras and Guatemala.
The first several thousand words of the story are lean, fast-paced narrative. I don’t know what it’s like to write a piece like this but I imagine it’s thrilling. Any article that can sustain four or five thousand words of narrative without a break for context is by definition unusual, and I wonder how quickly Finnegan knew, when he heard Lyttle’s tale, how the article would unfold. (I also wonder if he was looking for an immigration story when he first spoke with Jacqueline Stevens, the professor who is writing a book about Lyttle, or if he simply heard about Lyttle and decided to write about him.)
When the context is finally delivered, it comes after an almost perfect transition. Lyttle, at the end of a journey that Finnegan describes as “a grim picaresque of the Guantanamo era,” makes his way to the U.S. embassy in Guatemala City, where an official named Maria Alvarado gets in touch with his brother Tommy:
Tommy wired money for a plane ticket, clean clothes, and a hotel room. He also faxed a copy of Mark’s birth certificate and Social Security card to Alvarado, who issued Mark a passport. A few days later, he was on a plane back to the United States.
What is it with ICE? Jacqueline Stevens, a professor of political science at Northwestern, studies unjust deportations and detentions.
Both times I read the article I was so taken with the effectiveness of this transition that I had to stop reading. Lyttle’s odyssey isn’t actually over, but by this point I was desperate for the context. What in god’s name is wrong with ICE? Just as the question is about to burst, Finnegan poses it and prepares to deliver a definitive answer. (“Jacqueline Stevens…studies unjust deportation and detentions.”) To use a trite food analogy, in trend stories and policy stories, the narrative opener is often a bite of dessert served before a big salad, meant to trick the reader into staying with something unsexy but important. Very rarely is a writer so deft that the salad bits are not so much tolerated by devoured, and the dessert bits not so much unhealthy but enriching.
In that sense Finnegan’s article is very much a policy story. The Obama administration wants immigration reform, and it has massively expanded the deportation machine, he notes, to preempt Republican claims of softness on illegal immigrants. This massive expansion, which seems inexplicably monstrous, inevitably sweeps up American citizens, too, and this is the specific horror that results. If yesterday’s vote in the Senate was any measure, and comprehensive immigration reform survives the House, the strategy will have worked. The deportation machine is still monstrous, but explicable.
After I finished Finnegan’s story, on a New Yorker immigration binge, I picked up Ryan Lizza’s profile of the gang of eight, the four Republican and four Democratic Senators who crafted that legislation. It’s a very good article, and very important legislation, but I’ve already forgotten what the point was.