I first saw Undocumented Americans (2020) by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio on NPR’s Best Books of 2020 List. I found it in one of my favorite subsections of NPR’s list: eye-opening reads. I love finding a book that changes my perspective or teaches me something, and that’s what I was hoping for with this book. I was also impressed that it was a National Book Award Finalist. I was happy to be able to get it from my library.
Villavicencio came to the United States as a child, became a Dreamer, and graduated from Harvard. Shortly after the 2016 election, she decided to report on immigrants around the United States–apparently using her real name for the first time. Although her focus is on the struggle of others, she sometimes falls into her own experiences, including the constant fear of losing her parents as she grew up and the pressure she feels now to be successful and provide for them.
The book begins on Staten island, the most Republican and anti-immigrant borough in New York City. Villavicencio spends some time with migrant workers and day laborers on the island. Many of the migrant workers are older men who are lonely, alone, and depressed. Others are trying to navigate wages with no English. They are all at the mercy of being mistreated and underpaid. After Hurricane Sandy, migrant workers were one of the first on the scene to help with clean up. Many volunteered their time because it was needed, and many suffered ill effects from dealing with the mold and dirty water.
Villavicencio moved on to Manhattan and 9/11. She talked about the many people who were not counted among the dead: the undocumented cleaners and food delivery people that were working that morning and never came home. There were also many undocumented workers who helped clean up after 9/11 and are suffering from the same debilitating diseases and cancers that the first responders suffer from.
The next stop was Miami. Villavicencio explored alternatives to traditional healthcare that is sometimes required for undocumented immigrants without the ability to pay. I found this section especially interesting, but I wished for a little more information on the details. One subject was able to get open heart surgery, but was declined for help with his brain cancer. How does this work? I know emergency rooms take anyone, but there is definitely a limit to what they’ll do and how helpful they can be. I really would like a better understanding of the healthcare system, those who are left out of it, and how we can do better.
After visiting Flint, and seeing how the burden of the water crisis could fall on the undocumented, Villavicencio told the story of a father being deported, leaving his family back in the United States. It seemed unnecessary and brutal. At the same time in New Haven, another man was taking sanctuary in a church in order to avoid being deported. He’d been living in the church for months, unable to work and only seeing his family when they came to visit as they worked on his case.
This short rendering of the main stops of Villavicencio’s book does not do justice to the whole. Although I sometimes wanted more detail, both about her life and the details of her reporting, she brought a proud and angry perspective to the discussion of immigrants. Recommended.
You can find all my reviews on my blog.