Susan Kuklin is the author and photographer of the new young adult book We Are Here To Stay: Voices of Undocumented Young Adults. Her many other books include No Choirboy and Beyond Magenta. She lives in New York City.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book about undocumented young adults?
A: In 2014, my good friend Maryellen Fullerton, who is a lawyer and scholar specializing in refugee and asylum law, said, “It’s time you did a book about immigration.”
I thought, Whaaat? It would be crazy to take on such a complex subject. Besides, what’s the big deal about immigration? Other than Native Americans, we are all immigrants. Was I wrong or was I wrong?
Maryellen persisted. She sent me lots of material on various aspects of immigration law. The one that stuck out was the controversy surrounding undocumented young adults, the DREAMers, who came to this country illegally as very young children and raised as Americans.
Many of them did not even know that they were undocumented until it became time to get a Social Security number, travel abroad, or go off to college.
Soon after, Maryellen’s daughter, Eleanor Roberts, stopped by my apartment with her college BFF who happened to be a DREAMer. Y (sorry I can’t use her full name), Eleanor, my husband, and I talked long into the night about many of the issues she faced. I fell completely in love.
Y’s commentary sounded remarkably familiar. As the granddaughter of immigrants, I had heard many stories about my grandparents’ arrival in America, knowing no English, having no money, knowing they would never see their parents or homeland again. Yes, it was time to do a book about immigration.
Q: You note that you had to make some changes in the book once Trump repealed DACA. What are some of the ways in which the book needed to be changed?
A: After Trump repealed DACA, the publisher and I worried that publishing the book in the normal manner with pictures, names, etc. could be risky for the contributors. We stopped the press and held back the book for more than a year.
In time, and with the contributors’ involvement and veto power, we agreed that their experiences were too important to leave in a drawer. We decided to publish the book with the following statement: Due to the uncertainty of the status of the DACA program at the time of publication, the photographs, names and other identifiers of the participants in this book are being withheld.
Q: How did you find the young adults you ended up interviewing, and were they initially willing to participate?
A: Y became the first contributor. She told me about her sister and brother, twins S and D, who also agreed to participate. This family make up the first two chapters. Maryellen and ACLU lawyers introduced me to various grassroots organizations, who in turn asked their clients if they wanted to participate in this project. Everyone in the book are volunteers.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I hope the book opens up an honest, fair, and reasonable conversation about immigration, including who the immigrants are, why they are immigrating, and what they do once they are in the U.S. And I hope it will give some insight into how laws affect its people.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Ah, thanks for asking. I’m sticking with immigration – this time about the experiences of refugees. The book features five refugees and their families who have been resettled in the Midwest, in Nebraska. They are from Afghanistan, Myanmar, South Sudan, Northern Iraq, and Burundi. Can’t wait for you to meet them.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The one addition to this blog would be that the book is based on a series of recorded interviews that were transcribed and rewritten as first-person narratives. I wrote in the first person as a way to bring about a greater intimacy between the subject and the readers. The finished narratives were approved by each participant for accuracy, authenticity, and voice.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb