Merit-Based Immigration Reform: The Fictional Character Edition

Merit-Based Immigration Reform: The Fictional Character Edition

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A recent online test by Time magazine has been flying around the internet — it uses rules outlined in President Trump’s proposed immigration reform to determine if you, the test-taker, would be approved for a visa under Trump's RAISE Act. The minimum score is 30 points, and the desirable qualities toward those points include youth, higher education, and deep pockets. Isn’t that all of us? Not so. (This writer scored a 28.)

Even the 2016 Nobel Laureate in literature, Svetlana Alexievich — honored “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time” — is apparently not good enough for this country under Trump's plan. Unless, of course, the Belarusian writer who spends most of her time collecting oral histories about what life was like pre- and post-Soviet Union has $1.35 million to invest. Then this administration would be willing to overlook her dabbling in the dark, low-yielding arts of the humanities.

Apparently, it doesn't matter if you've dedicated your life to “trying to understand why suffering cannot be converted to freedom” if you also cannot convert that thought into currency.

But enough about real people. What about 2017’s fictional recent arrivals? How would they fare in this test? I looked at three debut novels published this year that feature fictional immigrant newcomers, and took the liberty to fill out the test for them to see how they'd do.



Things that Happened Before the Earthquake by Chiara Barzini

Applicant: Eugenia’s family
Origin: Rome, Italy
Score: 15
Status: Ineligible

An Italian patriarch forces his family to move to L.A. just as the Rodney King riots are subsiding in order to fulfill his dream of making an Italian-Hollywood horror film. However, in the tradition of the manic and hilarious prose of Gary Shteyngart, the glamour and glitz of America remains firmly out of reach. For Eugenia, the eldest daughter, this miss is harshly felt. There are no pools, no fancy cars, no evanescent sunlight. Instead, she is stationed in a bizarre neighborhood marooned by a long highway, where her only friends are a thrift store owner missing part of an ear and the young dubious producer helping her father, Ettero, with the film. Often praying to the Virgin Mary to ease her troubles, she pleads at some point for the Mother of God to provide a solution for her feeling out of place, pointing out, “It’s easier to be a Virgin who gives birth than to be an Italian who lives on Victory and Sepulveda. Amen.”

Immigration Test Notes: As entertaining as they may seem, this Italian family failed to achieve eligibility to apply for a visa in part for the ambiguous job offer that brings them to the U.S. — Ettero is billed as a journalist, though he is a filmmaker. Not that the suspicious offer of the job disqualifies them, rather, it is the salary, which I guesstimate to be less than $77,900, and is therefore worth exactly zero points.


The Leavers by Lisa Ko

Score: 8
Applicant: Peilan
Origin: China
Status: Ineligible

This touching and sensitive novel, which won the PEN/Bellwether Prize, is the story of a boy whose mother is undocumented and one day does not return from work. A white family adopts the boy, Deming, but he is never able to put from his mind his mother’s disappearance. Lisa Ko is a subtle, intelligent writer, drawing up the complications of assimilation in simple terms. When Deming’s mother, Peilan, arrives to America, she becomes Polly. “So it was Polly, not Peilan, who was doing thirteen-hour shifts in a garment factory, the same work Peilan had done in China except for eight times more money, and it was Polly who paid too much rent for a sleeping bag on the floor.” For his part, Deming is renamed Daniel by his adoptive parents: “Daniel had lay dormant in Deming until adolescence, and now Deming was a hairball tumor jammed deep in Daniel’s gut.” A beautiful, daring debut.

Immigration Test Notes: Peilan, who comes into the U.S. as undocumented, does not speak good English, does not get very many points for schooling, and also, she did not recently win an Olympic medal.


The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Score 28
Applicant: Selin’s Parents
Origin: Turkey
Status: Ineligible

In the times when e-mail is a new shiny thing, Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, tries to survive her first year at Harvard. This cunning, engrossing novel is filled with delightful conundrums that made me many times put the book down so that I could consider — for example, what is the structural equivalency between a tissue box and a book? Batuman writes, “Both consisted of slips of white paper in a cardboard case; yet — and this was ironic — there was very little functional equivalence, especially if the book wasn’t yours.” This is also a story of freshman love, and all freshman things that eventually also fade and are lost in the transition of growing up.

Immigration Test Notes: Selin’s parents are educated, and though they warrant a check in the box marking a foreign master’s degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (worth a whopping 8 points), in the end it was not enough. Probably because their lack of a Nobel prize. Sad!

'The Leavers' and 'The Idiot' are available wherever books are sold. Catch Chiara Barzini, author of 'Things that Happened Before the Earthquake,' at Green Apple Books on the Park (1231 9th Ave., San Francisco) on Thursday, Aug. 17, at 7:30pm.

The Spine is a biweekly book column. Catch us back here in two weeks.