"Before the fence, before the checkpoints, before the border guards, there are the documents and the bureaucrats": On immigration and literacy.

Assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison

The United States is a nation of immigrants. But immigrating here—or coming as a refugee—has never been easy. Refugees and immigrants take difficult, dangerous, and expensive journeys.

And they also undertake paperwork. Lots of it. Potential immigrants and asylum seekers must present themselves on paper as people who deserve to be here. There is nothing simple about the mundane bureaucratic mechanisms by which some hopeful residents are let in to the country and others are left out.

Recently, a refugee to the United States who goes by Arnessa tweeted about the process. In addition to filling out forms and submitting everything from birth certificates to utility bills, she and her family had to write their story: “Where you were born, where you are now, what you are doing, everything.”

How that story is written can mean the difference between a welcome mat and a fence.

In my research with both documented and undocumented immigrants in the United States, I listened to experience after experience of people using their literacy, some successfully and some not, to get papers.

Consider this experience of a woman who failed to get papers:

Before coming to the United States illegally, undocumented Brazilian migrant Juliana submitted reams of documents to a distant U.S. consulate. She traveled there on five separate occasions to try to attain papers for herself and her son. She wanted to reunite with her husband, who had been living in the U.S. for more than a decade. She filled out the forms honestly and to the best of her ability. But something was off in her papers that no amount of revision or persistence could fix. She and her son were denied visas without knowing why. After her failures, she booked a flight to Mexico City, hired a coyote (human smuggler), and crossed the border with her son on foot, during which process she feared drowning, starvation, and rape. She remembered most vividly the pain of picking cactus needles from her skin after having run through the desert at night. What might she have written that could have allowed her to book a flight directly to Boston—instead of being locked in a van in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Texas until her husband paid the coyotes the sum they were owed?

And consider this experience of a woman who achieved papers:

Portuguese immigrant Cristina had been in the U.S. for more than 30 years as a legal permanent resident. She arrived as a child, learned English in school, and then left school at 15 to work in a factory to help support her family. She considered the U.S. her home. And so she wanted to upgrade her status from resident to citizen. She paid hundreds of dollars to take the citizenship test, which required English literacy. She took the test three times. Three times she failed, citing her trouble with reading and writing. On the fourth try, she passed. She described her surprising winning attempt in this way: “They asked, ‘What color is your car?’ That’s easy. White. I wrote. ‘White. My car is white.’” She was surprised that on that try, on that sentence, her writing was good enough to become American—if only, in her words, “American by paper.”

For the United States, literacy is a first line technology of enforcement. Before the fence, before the checkpoints, before the border guards, there are the documents and the bureaucrats.

And for immigrants and refugees, literacy is a tool to try to write one’s way into the nation. And so there are also the applicants, or the “aliens” as many official forms call them, sweating as their writing is judged.

This use of literacy to let some in and keep others out is not new. In the earlier part of the twentieth century, the United States used literacy tests to justify race-based exclusion. Sometimes one’s literacy would prove one was white (and therefore allowed to stay) or nonwhite (and therefore excluded). People have also long used their literacy to work the system. In response to late nineteenth-century Asian-exclusion laws, for example, many families invented “paper sons.” Hopeful immigrants would memorize fictional familial histories, the geographic layout of made-up neighborhoods, and complicated webs of pseudonymic relations—all to prove they had the right relations for legal entry. Sometimes their false aliases remained, to the dismay of relatives, on their headstones at death.

In our contemporary system, relying on literacy as a gatekeeper for migrants and refugees continues to be fraught.

If you were an asylum seeker, would you stop to collect utility bills as you fled conflict? What if the stories you and your family members wrote as part of the asylum-seeking process didn’t exactly match up—as they don’t for many of us when we, for example, are swapping old stories around a holiday table, never mind in the confused traumatic aftermath of war? And what if your education was disrupted by political instability and you don’t read or write well? In any of these cases, you might be stuck.

Even when the bureaucratic appetite for literacy is met—the citizens of the United States can write the colors of their cars, refugees’ family stories are corroborated, utility bills are accounted for—even then some refugees and immigrants will not get placement. The system is flawed.

Part of the problem is that we often see writing as a transparent means of communicating. Simply write your story, the government says to Arnessa. Simply write that your car is white, the examiner says to Cristina. But what happens between one party posing the question and the other party putting pen to paper is maddeningly complex. It is shot through with the high-stakes nature of the interaction, histories of unequal educational access, and cross-cultural and cross-linguistic misunderstandings, to name just a few complicating factors.

Another part of the problem is that literacy is profoundly specific. Someone might be literate, in the sense of being able to decode words, but not have the particular bureaucratic writing skills to pass a citizenship test or to fill out a form. Juliana was skilled in religious writing and biblical interpretations, but couldn’t fill out the immigration form well enough to migrate legally. Cristina could read medical prescriptions to administer to the elderly clients for whom she cared in her job, but failed her citizenship test three times. Such failures speak to the way individual literate skills—marked by culture, race, family—may or may not match up with what the U.S. requires to call it a “home.”

Paperwork is ubiquitous. For many of us, it is simply a nuisance. Yet as refugee crises make clear, papers—and the literacy required to attain them—can be a matter of global social justice, indeed of life and death.


Kate Vieira is assistant professor of English in the program in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her book, American by Paper: How Documents Matter in Immigrant Literacy, is forthcoming in March from the University of Minnesota Press.

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