Migrants' Worlds

Philip Garrison's brief collection of immigration anecdotes includes compelling, unforgettable stories

Here's yet another book detailing the lives of Mexicans who migrate to "el norte."

Considering SB 1070, more National Guard troops heading to the border, and immigration rhetoric ratcheting up emotion in political races all over the country, will the reading public go for yet another batch of immigrant stories?

I honestly don't know. But I do know that Philip Garrison knows how to tell these stories.

There is the young Mexican from Michoacán, who traveled 3,000 miles in 10 days, because he thought a nice woman who worked for a food bank in Washington state was getting sweet on him, since she gave him her business card. There's the Mexican couple who came together out of loneliness, and soon morphed into something more permanent, marked by the man's silent inclusion of his toothbrush and razor in her crammed medicine cabinet. And there's Garrison himself, who writes of his own family's hillbilly (a favorite word of his) history and migration from the Midwest, all the way up to his current gig at a food bank he started 15 years ago.

The Permit That Never Expires bounces around geographically and historically, making for a sometimes perplexing—but always rewarding—ride. We learn of migrants' worlds, both in Mexico and the United States, as well as Garrison's own past, including an especially comical peyote adventure. Delving into the details of his granddad Ike, Garrison shares his family's colorful and gnarly past, allowing him to raise a connection he reiterates throughout the book.

"Hillbillies and mexicanos demand a story without heroes or villains, with only visionaries and klutzes, and now and then a man or woman so brave your teeth ache," he writes. "In other words, Ike, that avid homesteader, was fueled by the same blend of opportunism and optimism as someone who only yesterday paid $2,000 to cross the border."

No political grandstanding or angry rambling is found here, but from the start, Garrison lets us know his thoughts on "el flujo migratorio—the immigration flow." As he puts it, "El flujo is a huge and shapeless and very sticky phenomenon that defies overall observation, much less prediction. It is human randomness in action. No wonder the scientific meaning of the word flujo is flux."

People who believe illegal immigrants should not be in this country, and people who think anyone who helps them should be thrown in jail, might have a difficult time processing this book—and I think Garrison knows this, to some extent. One of his stories involves helping a friend pick up some of his family members who have just entered the United States. The whole chapter is a delight, but the few pages where Garrison really analyzes himself—and ponders the felony he is committing—are beyond superb.

"After all, I had to choose between two loyalties—to my friend, yes, and to my country—in circumstances that called for a snap judgment. Mine was a reflex reaction, nothing more. Hell yes, I chose to help my friend, and probably would do so again. Though I'm not proud of what I did, I'm not exactly ashamed of it either."

He goes on: "But above all, I have to admit, in retrospect, that the story makes me look disdainful and self-important. I look like a sniffy do-gooder mocking the work of the Border Patrol and immigration reformers alike. For all of which I apologize. I didn't mean what I did as a form of protest, not at all."

This book is far from a form of protest. Garrison does not know how to reform our country's immigration policies or solve Mexico's corruption. But this loose assembly of stories works, because the author isn't a blowhard jabbering on about situations he's never been in, people he's never met or areas he's never visited. His family's history, the friends he has, his current life in Ellensburg, Wash., the time he's spent in Michoacán—this is all stuff he knows.

Garrison believes "most of the people we meet in anecdotes simply vanish." But thanks to his short book, Garrison makes it impossible to forget these people; their stories are just told so damn well.

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