Revelations about life inside camps for Central American refugees, combined with Donald Trump's recent remarks about four congresswomen of color, have revived conversations about asylum and U.S. immigration. If you're feeling a bit overwhelmed by the news cycle, don't worry, because I've got 15 books about asylum and immigration, written by people whose lives and families have been affected by them.
The terms "immigrant," "refugee," and "asylum-seeker" may seem interchangeable at times, but there are a few key differences you should know about. Immigrants are people who come to the U.S. from other countries. Refugees and asylum-seekers are immigrants who come to the U.S. in flight from persecution in their homelands. Refugee status must be approved before a person enters the U.S., but a person must be in the country already, or at a port of entry, in order to apply for asylum.
The Trump administration is currently poised to enact a "third-country rule," which would render most of the Central American immigrants currently held in U.S. detention ineligible for asylum — and prevent them from establishing themselves as documented U.S. residents and citizens. Once a person is denied asylum in the U.S., they generally cannot be granted the status at a later date. When re-applying, an asylum-seeker who has been denied asylum previously must "describe any change(s) in conditions in [their] country or [their] own personal circumstances since the date of denial." Whether asylum-seekers who are currently separated from their families in U.S. detention would be able to meet this requirement to the Trump administration's satisfaction remains to be seen.
'Patsy' by Nicole Dennis-Benn
The title character of Nicole Dennis-Benn's second novel travels from her Jamaican hometown to New York City, impressed by her old friend's letters, which describe a life of abundance. Patsy soon realizes that life as an undocumented immigrant isn't at all what her friend describes. Meanwhile, back in Jamaica, her young daughter grows up trying to understand her mother's decision to leave her behind.
'The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You' by Dina Nayeri
This first work of nonfiction by Dina Nayeri, the Iranian-born author of A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea and Refuge, explores the complexities of immigration and immigrant life in contemporary America. In The Ungrateful Refugee, Nayeri weaves her own story together with those of others at various stages of the process, from their initial border crossing to their final resettlement.
'How the García Girls Lost Their Accents' by Julia Alvarez
When their father's opposition to Rafael Trujillo forces them to flee the Dominican Republic, four sisters — Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofía — must wrestle with questions of identity, acceptance, and belonging as they start life anew in the 1960s U.S.
'We Built the Wall: How the U.S. Keeps Out Asylum Seekers from Mexico, Central America and Beyond' by Eileen Truax
Journalist Eileen Truax centers on asylum lawyer Carlos Spector for this exposé on immigration at the southern U.S. border. Peeling back the curtain on a world in which "98 percent of refugees from Mexico are still denied asylum," We Built the Wall is an eye-opening look at the conditions asylum-seekers face in this country.
'The House of the Spirits' by Isabel Allende
On of the UNHCR's "Prominent Refugees," Isabel Allende was forced to flee Chile when her uncle, then the country's president, was overthrown by the incoming Pinochet regime. Allende drew on her experience growing up in Chile for The House of the Spirits, which centers on a clairvoyant woman living in an unnamed country that closely resembles the author's homeland.
'Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions' by Valeria Luiselli
The 40 questions that guide Valeria Luiselli's book-length essay are mandatory inquiries made of Latin American children seeking refuge in the U.S. Their answers determine whether or not they will be allowed to remain in the country. Based on Luiselli's time working as a translator and interviewer for undocumented children, Tell Me How It Ends is a gut-wrenching and necessary read.
'Something In Between' by Melissa de la Cruz
From Alex and Eliza author Melissa de la Cruz comes this poignant coming-of-age story about a Filipino-American girl who learns, with a full ride to college in reach, that her family is undocumented. Confronted with the fact that she cannot go to college, much less receive a scholarship, due to her family's immigration status.
'Someone Like Me: How One Undocumented Girl Fought for Her American Dream' by Julissa Arce
Former Goldman Sachs V.P. Julissa Arce tells her own Cinderella story in Someone Like Me, which focuses on the 15 years she spent as an undocumented Mexican American immigrant, during which time she climbed the ranks of Wall Street to achieve her American dream.
'Dreaming in Cuban' by Cristina García
A work of magical realism by Here in Berlin author Cristina García, whose family fled Cuba soon after Fidel Castro came to power, Dreaming in Cuban is a work of magical realism that centers on the del Pino family. Following Celia del Pino, as well as her children and grandchildren, this novel examines the lives of those living in Cuba and in exile.
'The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After' by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil
Refugees of the Rwandan genocide, Clemantine Wamariya and her older sister, Claire, came to the U.S. in 2000, unsure of whether the rest of their family had made it out alive. Living in Chicago, 21-year-old Claire raised her own child, while Clemantine was adopted into a wealthy family, and struggled to reconcile the trauma of war with the comforts of her new home.
'The Book of Unknown Americans' by Cristina Henríquez
Cristina Henríquez's The Book of Unknown Americans centers on two immigrant families living in Delaware, tracing the friendship between their two children. The Riveras, Arturo and Alma, have brought their daughter, Maribel, to the U.S., in the wake of a traumatic brain injury, in search of a specialized education. There, they meet the Toros, Rafael and Celia, whose son, Mayor, befriends Maribel, to the chagrin of those who believe he is taking advantage of her.
'The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life' by Lauren Markham
Fleeing gang violence in El Salvador, the identical Flores twins, 17-year-old Ernesto and Raul, cross the Rio Grande and into the U.S., where they come to live with their older brother in California. While awaiting their immigration hearing, the brothers must attend school, while working to pay off the coyotes who helped them cross the border.
'Breath, Eyes, Memory' by Edwidge Danticat
In this coming-of-age novel, a young Haitian girl reconnects with the mother who left her behind to travel to the U.S. In doing so, Sophie learns a disturbing truth about their intertwined lives, and soon finds herself retreating back to Haiti and the aunt who raised her.
'In the Country We Love: My Family Divided' by Diane Guerrero and Michelle Burford
Orange Is the New Black actress Diane Guerrero tells the story of her family's experience with the U.S. immigration system, which came to a head when Guerrero, at age 14, was separated from her family in Boston after her parents and brother were deported to Colombia.
'Under the Feet of Jesus' by Helena María Viramontes
Undocumented farm workers take center stage in Helena María Viramontes' Under the Feet of Jesus. The author's 1995 debut follows Estrella, whose mother and siblings work picking crops, as she falls in love with another migrant worker, Alejo.