In 1950 Gian Carlo Menotti was inspired to write The Consul by the real-life tragedy of a woman who killed herself on Ellis Island when she was refused entry to the United States. Although the opera grew out of a specific historic situation, when the large number of people seeking to emigrate from Eastern Bloc countries was larger than the West was prepared to welcome, the underlying situation hasn’t changed; for many of today’s immigrants, the stakes are just as high.

Last month, the Seattle Opera interviewed Michelle Muri and Robert Gibbs from the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project to discuss this opera and the issues it dramatizes so powerfully. We would like to share that interview with you.

Seattle Opera (SO): Why is this Cold War-era work relevant today?

Robert: It illustrates an issue that continues to this day: people at risk, generally because of human rights abuses, struggling to find a safe place to live.

Michelle: Immigration issues are really human rights issues. Generally, people don’t come to this country because they wanted to leave their entire lives and everything they knew behind. In many cases, they’re escaping from something horrifying, or fighting for their lives.

SO: This opera explores the human impact of immigration-bureaucracy on a family. Do you regularly see that in your work?

Robert & Michelle: Absolutely.

Michelle: It’s hard to put a face on deportation, especially we you read a statistic such as “2 million people were deported over the last five years.” What that means is, families are being ripped apart. You’re suddenly missing your father one day, your brother, and you’ll never see him again. A mother drops her kid off at school, but on the way out she’s pulled over and sent to a detention center and ends up getting deported.

Robert: Most immigrant families are mixed families. Say a guy is here on a student visa, marries a U.S. citizen and they have two kids; well, if he overstays his visa he’ll be deported, but Mom and the kids stay here—they’re U.S. citizens. What are they supposed to do, go with Dad to some country where they don’t speak the language?

SO: I wonder whether that’s even more complicated now, in Washington, with same-sex marriage, where a marriage might not be recognized back in the other country.

Robert: You can apply for asylum based on same-sex marriage. If you say, “I will be persecuted back in Uzbekistan, or wherever, because I am gay and have a same-sex partner,” you would have the potential of seeking asylum. But for that you’d have had to enter the U.S. legally, of course.

SO: Can you clarify exactly what’s happening, legally, when Magda Sorel, our central character in The Consul, goes to the consulate hoping to get a visa? Is she seeking asylum from the government that’s persecuting her?

Robert: No, technically, she would be seeking refugee status. You apply for refugee status from abroad, from a consulate. For asylum, you apply from within the U.S. But it’s difficult to get refugee status because there’s a quota, and the allocations are very political. Sometimes, those who can’t get refugee status try to get a visitor visa, come here, and then seek asylum.

SO: In the opera, the consulate is full of filing cabinets and papers—“Papers! Papers! Papers!” the central character sings, when she is really losing it. Has immigration bureaucracy changed much for the digital age?

Robert: Yes and no. Nowadays, all sorts of governmental and private sector records are accessible. When you seek to cross the border into the U.S., the officer who’s interviewing you can see all this stuff on the screen, collected from all sorts of data streams. The same kind of information is available to the consulates, when they’re deciding who gets a visa.

And yet, if you go to Ellis Island National Monument, one of the things on display is an immigration court from a hundred years ago. As someone who goes to immigration courts today, the one on Ellis Island feels just the same: there are judges and lawyers, immigrants who have to negotiate all this bureaucracy, even a sign that reads: “Immigrants provided representation by Hebrew Immigration Services,” or “Church World Services,” or other nonprofit organizations that offered immigrants legal services.

SO: And today…that’s Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. You guys.

Michelle: Yes. Organizations such as NWIRP exist because there’s no access to a public defender in this type of law.

Robert: Well, it’s just starting, now, in a limited way, under the Obama administration. Thanks to the work of NWIRP and partners, if you’re mentally incompetent, then the court will appoint counsel for you. But anybody else either has to pay for a lawyer, or get a foundation- or donor-funded non-profit to come and represent them.

SO: What are the most important issues connected with immigration currently under debate?

Robert: One of the big questions is the scope of the deportations going on now. The administration has deported two million people in the last few years. That’s a very high number. Even though they’re making efforts to try to target their deportations at people who have serious criminal records, inevitably they’re sweeping up people who have spouses or kids here. And because of the gridlock in Congress, no new legislation has been created setting out a way for the millions of people who are already here to acquire legal status. The President can provide some limited, temporary protection, but we really need Congress to step up to the plate and do something about it.

SO: Is it very difficult for a person to get here in the first place?

Robert: Post-9/11, the consulates are understandably nervous about letting somebody in who might do harm to this country and its people. They have a whole list of “grounds for inadmissibility,” and they screen applicants accordingly. But the statute provides an ambiguous statement about anybody who’s provided any “material support” to terrorism. But that could mean, if a terrorist said, “I want a sandwich,” and you give him a sandwich because he’s got a gun pointed at you—that’s material support, right there! The administration has tried to dial that back, but that’s been slow in coming and it remains to be seen how that plays out in the implementation. Consulates have a huge amount of discretion in their decision-making; they only have a couple minutes to make a decision, to evaluate your statement that you’re only entering the U.S. to go to school for a year and then you promise to go back to Ukraine.

Michelle: There are also barriers in terms of how people arrive here physically. At Northwest Immigrant Rights Project we have a powerful story about a man named Muktar, from Somalia.

When Muktar was in his early teens, he watched while rebel groups killed his three brothers, an uncle, and his father. But he was able to escape to Kenya where he lived for a period of time but was later threatened with deportation back to Somalia. He ended up connecting with 40 other young men. From Somalia they somehow made it to South Africa. They got on a plane to Cuba; made it from Cuba to Brazil; from Brazil all the way through South America to Central America, then all the way up through Mexico. People lost their lives, they lost limbs on the trains; but Muktar made it to the border of Texas, hoping to enter the United States. And there the U.S. detained him and put him in deportation proceedings. He was flown to Tacoma, where there’s a large immigration detention center with extra beds. And there he stayed, for six months, seeking help, fighting to stay in the United States. That’s where he found our organization, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. He was able to interpret for a lot of his friends, and many of them were granted asylum, but not everybody. The situations that we see today are in many ways just as dramatic as the situation in the opera.

SO: Are there other fictional works (movies, novels, operas, etc.) you’d recommend that concern immigration?

Michelle: My favorite is Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat. She’s a Haitian writer, and here she tells a story—literary nonfiction—about her uncle, a pastor from Haiti who ended up in a detention center in Florida, where he died because they would not allow him access to his medication.

SO: I’ve often seen movies at Seattle International Film Festival, contemporary stories about people trying to immigrate—legally, like the story in the opera, or illegally.

Robert: Yes, because of the strictures of immigration laws, smugglers can make a living helping people get across. That’s a huge business today. That’s one of the untold stories. By not pursuing comprehensive reform, because of the lack of a legal mechanism for people to emigrate here, there’s big business for smugglers. On the Mexican border, it ends up being more business for drug traffickers. “Hey, we can smuggle drugs, we can smuggle people.” They have to know the right people on the border, what days they’re working, when their shift change is. We’re empowering that group of people by not having a legitimate mechanism that works.

SO: Interesting…when I watch The Consul, I sometimes wish Magda, the central character, weren’t so careful about following the rules…I think the audience would understand if at some point she decided to take the law into her own hands!

Robert: Many waves of immigration to the U.S. didn’t proceed entirely legally. There was a whole tradition, for instance, with Chinese immigrants posing as sons of people who had already entered the U.S.. They weren’t really their sons, their documents were phony; but there was an amnesty decades later: “OK, we’ll wipe the books and give everybody legal status,” because that way they aren’t constantly looking over their shoulder, or reluctant to develop a commitment to living in a new society.

SO: Michelle, you already started to answer this question, when you said, “It’s hard to put a human face on 2 million people being deported.” This opera makes a powerful plea against human beings getting reduced to numbers. But what’s the alternative? What would you say to The Consul’s poor Secretary, whose life, it turns out, is constant torture because of all the people she feels powerless to help?

Michelle: At Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, when we are interacting with the public we often hear from people who say some version of: “I totally disagree with you! Deport everybody! Except for my neighbor. My neighbors are the nicest people you’ll ever meet…is there any way you can help them?” This is the problem. We must get to know our neighbors. We must know each other. That’s the only way we can really have the empathy necessary to deal effectively with issues like immigration.

Robert: It’s useful for people to remember our entire history of immigration. Step back from the current situation and say: “Wait a minute, how did my ancestors get here? Should they have been able to come?”

Opera Santa Barbara sends our thanks to Jonathan Dean from Seattle Opera, Michelle Muri, Development Director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, and Robert Gibbs, Founder of NWIRP and Attorney with Gibbs Houston Pauw, for offering their perspectives on this complicated topic.