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Six Books that Explore the Reality of Undocumented Immigrants in the US

There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Though many know the country as a melting pot, a land where people from all over the world have the opportunity to pursue the American Dream, more often than not, the experiences of immigrants are far from ideal. From personal accounts, oral history, investigative reporting, and narrative fiction, the stories in these books explore the reality of immigration in the U.S. in its full complexity, going far beyond the media headlines and popular public discourse.

What does crossing the border into the U.S. entail? What kinds of risks do border crossers face? What are the circumstances in a person’s country that would motivate someone to leave everything behind? What is the reality of living in the U.S. as an undocumented person? These questions are often shadowed by discourse about public policy and political ideology. As the Trump administration announced that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, an Obama-era policy to protect "Dreamers", or undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children, will be scrapped, these books address these questions and others we may not have known to ask. 

Tell Me How It Ends

Author Valeria Luiselli volunteered as an interpreter for the New York City immigration court where she represented unaccompanied children who had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Following the format of the 40 questions minors are asked when they arrive, this short and piercing book is an honest look at the U.S. immigration policy. It focuses on the aftermath of the policies implemented under the Obama administration after the situation was deemed a state of emergency in 2014. Luiselli, who was born in Mexico City and grew up in South Africa, was going through her own immigration process at the time. She asks challenging questions about the U.S.’s role in creating the circumstances that caused these children to risk their lives in search of a better one in the first place.

Underground America

Underground America is a collection of oral histories from undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Edited and compiled by Peter Orner, it’s the third book in a series published by Voice of Witness, a non-profit dedicated to amplifying unheard voices. Each chapter tells a different person’s story about work, employers, law enforcement and life in the U.S. Diana, for example, talks about working to rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, only to find that she and all the other workers are detained for what she calls, the crime of “working too much.” The hours and hours of transcripts from narrators who came to the U.S. from countries including Mexico, Guatemala, Iran, and South Africa, were compiled by Voices of Witness and then edited into the stories that comprise this book.

Detained and Deported

Journalist Margaret Regan reports on the lives of undocumented immigrants who are detained and deported after they’ve already established a life in the U.S. Regan brings over a decade of reporting experience covering this subject, telling the stories of people whose lives have been uprooted by deportation and are sent back to the violent reality of the country they had fled. Often, they will risk their lives to enter the U.S. again. Regan talks to people detained in for-profit prisons, as well as activists and DREAMERS, people who have received temporary relief from deportation through DACA, a program established in 2012 under the Obama Administration. Regan’s first book, The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona-Mexico Borderlands examines the tragedy of migrant deaths in the desert.   

The Wind Doesn't Need a Passport

Journalist Tyche Hendricks examines the borderland between Mexico and the U.S., not as one of transience, but through the lens of the people who live there and have come to make it their home. Hendricks looks at the borderland as a binational, or a transnational region, engaging with the land through the economic, cultural and psychological reality of the communities that inhabit it and tackling the misconceptions from people who live far away and see the border as an impersonal barrier.

The Land of Open Graves

An estimated 10,000 people have died trying to cross the border from Mexico to the U.S. since 1994, according to the nonprofit Border Angels. Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan Jason de Leon closely examines the causes and conditions of these deaths in the Sonoran Desert. Employing ethnography, archaeology, linguistics, and forensic science, he shows how harsher environmental conditions and increased risk of death have not deterred border crossers from making the crossing, but have only led to more fatalities.

The Book of Unknown Americans

When 15-year-old Maribel suffers a severe injury, her family decides to leave Mexico for the U.S. in search of better treatment. She soon meets Mayor, a teen from Panama and a love and friendship blossoms between them. This novel tells the love story of these two teenagers who have found themselves in Delaware under different circumstances, as well as the impact it has on both of their families. It was listed as one of the New York Times “100 Notable Books of 2014.”


Leeron Hoory is a writer based in New York City with a focus in arts and culture.