As the 2016 U.S. presidential election hovers ever closer on the horizon, it seems like conversations about immigration policy only get increasingly impassioned, didactic, and — to be honest — more than a tad absurd. Which is why now is a great time to get back to reality, by reading some nonfiction books about immigration. Especially books that will remind us all of the personal stories behind all the politics.
I was in high school the first time I crossed the U.S./Mexico border, and in college when I traversed its unforgivable terrain again — the first time as a traveler, and the second time as an activist. Where my first journey included viewing ascending pyramids and diving into crystal-clear rivers bordered by mangroves, the second involved accompanying other activists who left gallons of fresh water in the desert along known immigrant routes and observing the infamous “rape trees” — where bras and underwear hung from the branches, indicating a female immigrant had been assaulted there. It’s almost impossible to reconcile the fact that the first country I visited and the second are the same; and yet, they are. And these are the two versions of Mexico we so often forget when we’re busy raising our voices about taller walls and militarized borders — both the beautiful Mexico, and the Mexico of a devastating reality that so many people who call it home have been forced, by circumstance, to leave it behind.
This story — one of a beloved homeland abandoned for an unfamiliar, and possibly unwelcoming foreign land — is a story that is true for all immigrants, not just those facing the construction of a $5-10 billion wall in their backyard, (depending on how this next election cycle plays out.) And — no matter which side of the political spectrum you happen to fall on — theirs are some of the stories we should be taking with us into the voting booths next November.
Here are 12 nonfiction books about immigration that will not only open eyes, but open hearts, too.
1. The Devil's Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea
In May of 2001, a group of 26 men and teenage boys attempted to walk across the Mexican border and through the desert into Arizona. Over half of them — those who later became known as the Yuma 14 — died of dehydration, heat, and sun exposure. They carried little: many wore their favorite belt buckles, a few carried small hand mirrors, one brought four allergy pills, another a handwritten letter. They walked for many reasons: some to earn the money to build their family a house, others to reunite with family already living in the United States, one in order to earn enough money to buy his aging mother new furniture, another because he was expecting his first daughter. Named after the unforgiving landscape through which they walked, The Devil’s Highway tells their story — one that is not unique, and is too often forgotten.
2. Toward A Better Life: America's New Immigrants in Their Own Words from Ellis Island to the Present by Peter Morton Coan
Covering 120 years of immigration history in America, Toward A Better Life: America's New Immigrants in Their Own Words from Ellis Island to the Present is a collection of oral history — immigrants and their relatives telling the true stories of their lives, in their own words. From interviews with well-known figures, like musicians Emilio and Gloria Estefan, to interviews with the relatives of Ellis Island’s first immigrant, Annie Moore, this book offers an expansive view of the immigrant experience of the last century, and explores the politics of immigration on a personal level.
3. The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands by Margaret Regan
Another book that comes directly from the front lines of the U.S./Mexico border, The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands begins with the story of 14-year-old Josseline, a girl from El Salvador who became sick during her journey across the desert, and was left alone to die while the rest of her group continued walking. From there, journalist Margaret Regan begins to tell other stories — those of migrants stranded on the border of Mexico, unable to afford the price of crossing nor the cost of returning home; of border patrol agents working in the Arizona desert; of American activists who traverse the border, leaving water, offering what help they can, and more.
4. It's Easier To Reach Heaven Than The End Of The Street: A Jerusalem Memoir by Emma Williams
In 2000, Emma Williams, her husband, and their three (soon to be four) children relocated to Israel — he to work for the United Nations and she to work in public health. Although not permanent migrants to Israel (they lived there three years) Williams spent those years crossing enough borders and checkpoints to last a lifetime. Moving back and forth between Israeli and Palestinian communities, literally every day, Williams learned first-hand the horrors and seeming-hopelessness of living among groups of people at near-constant war with one another.
5. The Lost Boys of Sudan: An American Story of the Refugee Experience by Mark Bixler
Focusing on the day-to-day stories of four Sudanese refugees living in Atlanta, Georgia, The Lost Boys of Sudan tells a story of civil war, immigration, and the refugee experience. Fleeing one of the longest civil wars the continent of Africa has ever known, Jacob Magot, Peter Anyang, Daniel Khoch, and Marko Ayii were just a few of the 3800 refugees the United States proposed to accept from Sudan in early 2000. Unfamiliar with American essentials as basic as a flipping a light switch or riding the subway, these “Lost Boys” act as amazing examples of the strength, resiliency, and hope of so many of America’s immigrants — and as a reminder that most immigrants arrive in the United States simply because they can no longer survive the homelands they love.
6. Americans in Waiting: The Lost Story of Immigration and Citizenship in the United States by Hiroshi Motomura
With the American political landscape what it is today, it’s easy to forget the history of American immigration and citizenship. But, as Hiroshi Motomura details in his well-researched book, Americans in Waiting: The Lost Story of Immigration and Citizenship in the United States , immigration was simply the first of several steps to legal citizenship — and all immigrants were assumed to be future citizens. Nineteenth century immigrants were even entitled to things like land ownership and voting rights. In the twentieth century, that all changed, and we’ve since all-but-forgotten the legacy of our nation of immigrants. This book encourages readers to remember.
7. The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca by Tahir Shah
Inspired by his time spent in Morocco as a child, writer Tahir Shah dreamed of creating a home for his family there. Dar Khalifa — a ruined mansion by the Casablanca coast — finally gave him the opportunity. But the idyllic setting he imagined for his family turned out to come with its own share of trouble: culture shock, Islamic ghosts (djinns), and renovation staff that have their own unique understanding of a job well done are only the beginning. Although the Shah family ultimately decided not to make Dar Khalifa their forever-home, their story speaks to the experience of unfamiliarity, adjustment, and great risk that all migrants share.
8. Coyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of America's Illegal Aliens by Ted Conover
Experiential journalist Ted Conover has done a lot of things to get a story. He’s taken a job as a prison guard, he’s lived on trains with American self-proclaimed hobos, and — in what I consider his most important work of experiential journalism (although they’re all worth the read) — he traverses the U.S./Mexico border with migrant farm workers, and spends a season picking fruit with them around the country. The result is this first-hand look at not only the journey your favorite fruits and vegetables take to get to your table, but also the dangerous journey that the people who harvest those fruits and vegetables take in order to get them to your table. Published in 1987, certain elements of this book may be out-of-date, but it’s message about the spirit of America’s migrants it timeless.
9. Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut by Salma Abdelnour
At nine-years-old Salma Abdelnour fled the violence of Lebanon with her family, and immigrated to the United States. But as she grew up and started a career in New York City, she sensed her home, and heart, still remained in her native Beirut. In Jasmine and Fire , Abdelnour returns to the country of her birth, and tries to rebuild her life there. Immersing herself in the culture of her childhood, she finds herself still torn between two lands — still an immigrant, even in her homeland — and has to decide where to ultimately find home.
10. Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat
When Edwidge Danticat’s parents left Haiti for the United States when the writer was only four, she was put in the care of her uncle Joseph until she was able to join her parents in the U.S. at age 12. As the situation in Haiti becomes more dangerous, Danticat is caught between building her new life in America and fearing for her remaining family back home. Then her uncle Joseph makes his way to Miami — where, in a story that made headlines around the world, he was detained by U.S. Customs, held by the Department of Homeland Security, imprisoned, and died. A story of how ugly and inhumane the politics of immigration can become in the United States, Brother, I’m Dying will open your eyes and break your heart.
11. The Wind Doesn't Need a Passport: Stories from the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands by Tyche Hendricks
Another book that takes readers directly into the heart of the tension that permeates the U.S./Mexico border, The Wind Doesn't Need a Passport: Stories from the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands is a collection of narratives compiled by journalist Tyche Hendricks, based on her experiences traversing the U.S./Mexico border on foot, in cars, and via horseback. Focusing on the U.S. and Mexican citizens who live on either side of the border — rather than those who cross over it — Hendricks offers readers a completely different borderland story than those that are usually told in the headlines: average Americans and Mexicans whose day-to-day lives have been profoundly affected by their proximity to such a contested and politicized region. This book provides a unique perspective on the immigration debate.
12. To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America by Tara Bahrampour
With utterly mesmerizing prose, To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America traces the stories of three generations of an Iranian and Iranian-American family as they make lives for themselves in Iran, America, and Iran again. Born to an Iranian father and an American mother, Tara Bahrampour grew up in both the United States and Iran, and observed the drastic generational disparities between her Iranian grandfather (a feudal lord with two wives,) and her father (an American-educated freelance architect married to — just one — American woman.) This book speaks to the immigrant experience of being at home nowhere and everywhere, at the same time.