Karla Cornejo Villavicencio was the first undocumented person to ever be a finalist for the National Book Award in 2020, according to the National Book Foundation. Her book The Undocumented Americans, published this year, is a runaway bestseller. It chronicles the lives of undocumented immigrants as well as Villavicencio’s own life in America. She was brought to the United States of America from Ecuador at age four or five by her parents—also undocumented immigrants.
Villavicencio was also, she believes, the first undocumented immigrant to graduate from Harvard University. She did so in 2011. During her senior year there she penned an anonymous essay for the Daily Beast titled: “I am an illegal immigrant at Harvard.” She was also an Emerson Collective Fellow. At just thirty-one years old, she has written for magazines (while being an undocumented immigrant) such as The Atlantic, Vogue, Glamour, The New Republic, The New York Times, and Elle. She has reviewed jazz albums for a New York monthly magazine. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at in the American Studies Program at Yale University.
Very recently, Villavicencio was a DACA recipient and received a green card. She admits she owns and lives in a huge apartment.
But as far as she is concerned, America is not a nice place. It is a “fucking racist country.” Warning: The profanity and expletives in this book are employed with the ease with which traditional writers utilize commas and semicolons as grammatical tools to communicate effectively.
Her advice to kids who suffer is to go to Harvard and “‘Make hella money.’ Kill the salutatorian. Make it look like an accident, and in your valedictory address, remind your school that cops are pigs, and ICE are ZAZI’s.” She invokes them to believe that they are John at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ, and perhaps, his lover.
There are moving stories of undocumented immigrants struggling to make something of their lives in America; however, the book is marred by vitriol and self-righteous moralistic dislike the author holds for the United States of America. She dedicated the book to young immigrants and children of immigrants. She declares to them: “It’s time to fuck some shit up.” This is one of the reasons she hates thinking of migrants as butterflies: She writes: “Butterflies can’t fuck a bitch up.”
She deliberately refrains from giving the reasons why her interviewees left their countries for America because she believes that people should not have to provide a reason why they deserve to emigrate. And (her words): “It’s nobody’s fucking business.” Villavicencio’s sense of entitlement has no limits. All undocumented persons in America have a universal right to be here, and anyone who wants to come not only has a moral right to do so, but America also ought to let them in. People, she writes, simply have a human right to move, to change location if they experience hunger, poverty, violence or lack of opportunity, especially, if that climate is created by the USA—as is the case with most Third World countries from which people migrate, she writes with emphasis. “Ain’t that ‘bout a bitch,” she cinches.
She admits to feeling no qualms about taking money from rich white people because she’s a Van Gogh, crazy and broke—a young Hemingway. She believes most Americans inhabit a White Supremacist country, and she feels compelled to tell everyone there is no such thing as the American Dream while bemoaning the fact that some star immigrant who has done things the “right way” will always preach a different story that Americans will eat up; a symptom of their internalized bootstrap mythology.
Perhaps the most damning indictment of a country that never deported her or her family, but, instead, has permitted her to attend a prestigious Catholic school in lieu of attending public school, paid for by a wealthy billionaire female patron whom she resented (“I would have been fine”) she almost hisses from the pages, is her assessment of the 9/11 tragedy. Villavicencio states that if you were white, 9/11 happened to you personally with blunt, scalding force. Why? Because, she submits, the antithesis of an American is an immigrant. Americans, in her view, are out to annihilate not just immigrants, but all minorities. Of the United States government she writes categorically: “They want us all dead, Latins, black people, they want us dead and sometimes they’ll slip something into our bloodstream to kill us slowly and sometimes they’ll shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot until their bloodlust is satisfied.”
She cannot bring herself to attribute one single good thing about America. She writes: “I have had the good fortune, mere dumb luck, to always have had access to decent health care. New York City provides low cost insurance to minors in low-income families.”
That is not luck. That is the result of non-discriminatory socialist policies of which she is a beneficiary.
But she admits that if you are going to write a book about undocumented immigrants in America, then you cannot be enamored with America because that will disqualify you.
She writes almost grudgingly of members of the National Guard helping undocumented workers acquire cases of water in places that required them to have an ID when Michigan law prohibited it.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio has penned a diatribe against the United States that has bestowed more fiscal resources, accolades, and privilege and unauthorized legal protection on her than it has on many of its own citizens. This woman does not write with the voice of a marginalized outsider. Her publisher is Random House. She’s had literary agents and television crews pursuing her since her Harvard days. Here is her response to agents pursuing her for representation while she was an undocumented immigrant-senior at Harvard: “I fucking packed up my dorm. I was angry. I was twenty-one. I wasn’t fucking Barbara Streisand.”
So much for gratitude.
She speaks with more authority and a sense of nonchalant belonging than most working-class or middle-class Americans I know personally. She speaks as one entitled to be here. And she speaks with the sort of rancid resentment when the law is applied against those who are residing here illegally. When the state of New York axed drivers’ license for undocumented immigrants, she reports feeling crazy watching the “white supremacist state slowly kill and break my family apart.”
Villavicencio admits that she is crazy, and that she is “just a sad bitch.” She writes of her battles with borderline personality disorder, depression, suicidal ideation and anxiety—among other ailments. But mental illness is no excuse to tarnish what could have been a moving look at the lives of undocumented immigrants who, despite being here illegally are still, many of them, hardworking individuals who pay taxes and feel deeply patriotic about America. That they have broken the law is another issue. Mental illness is not an excuse to write a diatribe and indict a nation on charges for which it ought not be charged. She accuses the United States of America of taking the youth, dreams and labor of undocumented immigrant, spitting them out and leaving them with nothing to show for it. One wants to ask at this juncture: How many undocumented persons were kidnapped by US Government agents and brought to America and forced to work against their wills?
The onus of responsibility is on America, she believes, to prove that the state does not have the right to determine by virtue of being a sovereign and autonomous nation, who is and who is not permitted to reside within its borders. With no philosophical grounding she, along with several advocates of open borders, believe that immigration is not a privilege but, rather, a universal human right without bothering to establish the basis of that right.
One can wade though the sloppy writing, the home-girl-keeping-it-real-urban lingo employed that seems more befitting of a sophomoric teenager trying to appear cool and hip, than from an alleged accomplished writer who is still waiting for the world to tell her who she is rather than the other way around. This book is filled with amorphous anger and visceral ambition, but with little reasoned convictions. One can gloss over the profanity as the result of a paucity of imagination or, perhaps, just the stridency of a woman railing in anger at a system that has both come to her aid, and delivered the American Dream to her. All these are mere inconvenient infelicities that, by themselves, pose no real philosophical dangers to how we approach the immigration debate.
I leave readers, however, with the most incontrovertible danger that, if left unchallenged, will morally disarm opponents of illegal immigration and give the upper hand to those who increasingly believe that undocumented immigrants have a de jure right to locate themselves anywhere in the world. The unexamined premise behind the entire Argument From Entitlement that undergirds claims of unrestricted rights of documented immigrants to live in any foreign nation is the belief that needs and suffering are both a necessary and sufficient condition for establishing a legitimate claim on the efforts of others. Any response one gives to aid the suffering of others is a benevolent service one provides for another based on one’s choices that stem from either one’s values, or the simple compassion one holds in one’s heart in relation to the plight of others. One is not fulfilling a rights claim another is exercising against one by simply presenting a need or suffering another has not created and is, therefore, not responsible for. So, let us be clear: a foreign country that responds to the hunger, poverty, domestic violence, political violence, economic hardships, and even tyranny by governments against citizens of another country, is providing a relief service to the oppressed. It is not fulfilling an inalienable right to those pressing such rights claims. And that position stands no matter the baseless assertions of the United Nations.
Jason D. Hill is professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago, and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. His areas of specialization include ethics, social and political philosophy, American foreign policy and American politics. He is the author of several books, including “We Have Overcome: An Immigrant’s Letter to the American People” (Bombardier Books/Post Hill Press). Follow him on Twitter @JasonDhill6.