The Undocumented Americans

Basically everyone, like actually everyone, read this book and said it was one of the best of the year last year (2020). I have never seen a more universally read and recognized book, especially nonfiction. And in a wonderful (and “finally”) turn, it was also recognized on a more “official” level than just the reader/bookstagram reviewer level, as a finalist for the National Book Award (for nonfiction); the first time, I believe, an undocumented person’s work has been nominated for that prize. So even though I’m a bit slower than the masses on getting to it, it was worth that wait. In fact, it was everything I has been promised/expected, and, honestly, even more.

The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

“‘How many years have you spent in this country? How often do you have nightmares?’ / ‘Every night, they say.’”

So, I took pages of notes while reading this, but to be honest, I have been putting off bringing all that together into a review because I am so intimidated by this book. It was such a unique writing style, mixing interviews and journalism with personal anecdotes/memoir. And I loved it. But I have nothing to compare it to or anything to say other than, “holy sh*t it’s the perfect mix of hard-hitting and emotional writing for the stories Villavicencio is telling.” And beyond that, I just…I learned yet again how much I really don’t know. Like, after years in public health and working to address education gaps from a trauma-informed and inclusive perspective, among other personal knowledge pursuits in the realm of social justice, I really thought I had a solid baseline. And I mean, I’m maybe not wrong. But also, the thing about constantly working on learning is that you continue to learn how much more there is to learn. And Villavicencio teaches that lesson so hard here. Needfully so. Like, bearing in mind the myriad content warnings that come attached to this piece of nonfiction, I truly believe this is a book that all documented residents of the US (and especially white Americans), need to read. Because the entire reality of being undocumented is something that is so foreign for anyone who has never had to worry about that. Of course. But it is foreign in a way that cannot be conceptualized without real effort to do so. And the perspectives shared in this short and unbelievably impactful book are, honestly, priceless in the way they guide the reader through that. So, yea. I once again confront my privilege and have no words in the face of it.

And, now that I have made this review up until now entirely about me, which is the opposite of every lesson I’ve ever read from people of color, I want to just give Villavicencio my thanks, for her courage and effort in sharing this world with the people who need to be taught about it. And I guess I’ll just list out a few of my notes here, so you can get a feel for my reading experience. But it’s less of a “review” and more a list of why it was so amazing and a (partial) list of things I learned.

  • Villavicencio freaking brings it in her introduction. If you are a reader who usually skips those, don’t skip this one. And get ready for be fired up.
  • The Ground Zero chapter. Like, I had no freaking idea about any of it and I shouldn’t be surprised, but OMG. The fallout we don’t talk about for undocumented immigrants who either died in the attack or suffered mental/physical health issues from helping with the cleanup afterwards: from the lack of recognition for their losses (because they weren’t in “official” enough paperwork to be proven that they were there or their employers were too scared to come forwards) to not being included in the memorial to not getting compensation and healthcare… Oh this one hurt to read because of how much it’s lauded as a time that the country all came together in the face of tragedy, but thinking of those who suffer(ed) invisibly twists the heart to shreds.
  • The Miami chapter. Discussing “alternative medicine” use for immigrants not as an affectation but as an “only choice,” because access to medical services isn’t an option. What perspective.
  • What an informative collection as far as realities of undocumented life that have become routine (finding work – cleaning/day labor, medicine/botánicas, etc.) but never “comfortable” (constant fear of ICE and deportation). It’s really eye opening because this country just pretends like this entire permanent sub-culture doesn’t exist, making it even harder to live within those boundaries, instead of doing anything real to address it and make it easier/lawful to navigate. The country creates its own cycle of “when there are no other options, you do what you have to” and then does nothing but criticize the consequences that only it can do anything to avoid in the first place…
  • The comparisons of Los Desaparecidos in many South American countries and what ICE does is icily terrifying and if even that doesn’t make you want to abolish ICE…then you’re the problem.
  • The Cleveland chapter. The conversation on deportation is thrown into even sharper relief when considering Covid and the undocumented community (overall income methods, health safety privileges/options, children and school). Also, the look at church sanctuary, which seems like a “good news” piece when shared by media but like, why is its necessity in the first place not being examined more? Also, for me, it feels so counterintuitive to the separation of church and state the country was founded on: like why are church buildings “with reason” sacrosanct but homes “with no cause at all” are not?!
  • So, the IRS can make it possible for undocumented people to pay taxes legally but the country can’t get them documentation? This I did know, but it literally never makes any more sense, no matter how many times I hear/read about it. The only world for that is bullshit.
  • OOOOOOF. The effect of all of this on undocumented children/children of undocumented people is beyond imagining and should be far beyond what any child is forced to experience. The weaving through of the stories the author collects with her own experiences on this front is striking and really emotional.  

I loved the clear fury in Villavicencio’s words. It suffuses the whole work with a righteous and deserved anger. And it is perfectly juxtaposed with the care and gentleness she shows when sharing the stories of the immigrants she interviews. It’s a beautiful ode and elegy to the contradictions of humanity, of allowing people to be whole. And I love her focus on and highlight of the fact that people are still good even if “unremarkable,” that they are worthy of living fully even if they’re not “heroic.” Villavicencio breaks boundaries and stereotypes with her words, she exposes worlds within worlds that have sprung up out of necessity, invisible in all ways (even those that might help) due to fear of what new horrors exposure could bring. And, she gives voice to a truly silent population that is everywhere, experiencing all the same things (9/11, Flint water crisis, lack of access to healthcare…everything) as the rest of the population but in a completely individual and unaddressed way. What an absolutely incredible work of nonfiction.

A selection of the many passages I marked while reading:

“This book is a work of creative nonfiction, rooted in careful reporting, translated as poetry, shared by chosen family, and sometimes hard to read. Maybe you won’t like it. I didn’t write it for you to like it.”

“This book will give you permission to let go. This book will give you permission to be free. This book will move you to be punk, when you need to be punk; y hermanxs, it’s time to fuck some shit up.”

“Historically, legislators and immigration advocates have parted the sea of the undocumented with a splintered staff – working brown men and women on one side and academically achieving young brown people on the other, one a parasitic blight, the other heroic dreamers.”

“The fact that The New York Times described them as “idling” infuriates me. […] Workers [day laborers] absorb exceptional emotional and physical stress every day and, because they are undocumented, they’re on their own, with no workplace protections, no regulations, and no collective bargaining.”

“I think every immigrant in this country knows that you can eat English and digest it so well that you shit it out, and to some people, you will still not speak English.”

“In times of crisis, day laborers are often the first responders.”

“The workers think there are people along the chain of command who are watching out for them, but melanin and accents are ineffective binding substances.”

“As an undocumented person, I felt like a hologram. Nothing felt secure. I never felt safe. I didn’t allow myself to feel joy because I was so scared to attach myself to anything I’d have to let go of. Being deportable means you have to be ready to go at any moment, ready to go with nothing but the clothes on your body. I’ve learned to develop no relationship to anything, not to photos, not to people, not to jewelry or clothing or ticket stubs or stuffed animals from childhood. Sometimes to prove my ability to let go, I’ll write something long and delete it, or go on my phone and delete all the photos I have of happy memories. I’ve never loved a material object.”

“People were scared. And scared people are vulnerable.”

“What promises can you make to a child about the world of possibility ahead of them when the state has poisoned their bloodstreams and bones such that their behavioral self-control and language comprehension are impaired? How many graves has the government of Michigan set aside for the casualties of the water crisis that will end in a gunshot in fifteen years’ time? We all know how cops respond to kids of color with intellectual disabilities or mental illness.”

“When you’re undocumented, you’re the last to know.”

“What I saw in Flint was a microcosm of the way the government treats the undocumented everywhere, making the conditions in this country as deadly and toxic and inhumane as possible so that we will self-deport. What I saw in Flint was what I had seen everywhere else, what I had felt in my own poisoned blood and bones. Being killed softly, silently, with impunity.”

“Stories in the news often end at the deportation, at the airport scene. But each deportation means a shattered family, a marriage ending, a custody battle, children who overnight go from being raised by two parents to one parent with a single income, children who become orphans in foster care.”

“And the higher moral law here is that people have the human right to move, to change location, if they experience hunger, poverty, violence, or lack of opportunity, especially if that climate in their home countries is created by the United States, as is the case with most third world countries from which people migrate. Ain’t that ‘bout a bitch?”

“The twisted inversion that many children of immigrants know is that, at some point, your parents become your children, and your own personal American dream becomes making sure they age and die with dignity in a country that has never wanted them. […] This country takes their youth, their dreams, their labor, and spits them out with nothing to show for it.”

“For my family, poverty is like walking in a hurricane. I buy my parents umbrella after umbrella; each provides some relief, then breaks – cheap fixes, all of them.”

“It [physical and mental health issues in immigrants brought on by conditions the country puts immigrants in] is a public health crisis and it’s hard to know how to talk about it without feeding into the right-wing propaganda machine that already paints immigrants as charges to the healthcare system and carriers of disease. The trick to doing it is asking Americans to pity us while reassuring them with a myth as old as the country’s justifications for slavery […] the myth that people of color are long-suffering marvels, built to do harder work, built to last longer and handle more […] We can only tell them we’re sick if we remind them that sick or not, we are able to still be high-functioning machines.”

2 thoughts on “The Undocumented Americans

  1. I don’t know that I’ve seen this one actually, so thank you for sharing. It sounds like a phenomenal book, but I’m sure it’s going to break my heart over and over learning about things I didn’t realize had happened. These type of nonfiction books are very important though.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely. It is so important. And I’ve read/seen nothing like it before. One thing I loved is that is covers events and issues we all already know about, like 9/11 and Flint/water crisis and lack of healthcare access, etc. but does it from the perspective of undocumented immigrants whose experiences in living through it all has not been visible, if you will. SO impactful.


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