Reading: Just Like Us by Helen Thorpe

About a decade ago my father predicted, in an entirely non-judgmental way, that by the year 2025 the USA would become a bilingual country, and that soon those unable to speak both English and Spanish will find themselves at a severe disadvantage. This demographic transformation began decades ago and shows no signs of slowing. In cities like Los Angeles and Miami bilingualism has been a functional reality for a long while already; the most enormous shift of the last decade has been the spread of the Hispanic immigrant presence from big city enclaves and the labor-intensive segments of the agricultural sector into every corner of the United States, from villages in Oregon to cities in Maine and horse farms in Kentucky. I view this vast hidden and spreading underclass of Mayan and Incan and Olmec descendants as just the latest of the many waves of immigrants to arrive, struggle, be exploited and dismissed, then ultimately integrate and finally be recognized for helping "to make this nation great." However, the reactionary forces today aligned against them suggest that the Ellis Island paradigm has been definitively abandoned. The country is too full, argue our governors and congressional leaders, some only one or two generations removed from Napolitan gardeners, Polish masons and Irish canal-diggers. The Mexicans, Salvadorans and Ecuadorians are not like our parents were, they say, they don't want to learn English, they don't want to integrate.

Current policy amounts to little more than a war on immigration, particularly the illegal kind. What we have now is an expensive disincentive program based on the notion that if we make it sufficiently difficult to cross the border, live, and work here, by building real as well as administrative fences, people will stop coming. At its most extreme this means that as a nation we now seem to be comfortable provoking aspirant immigrants to more and more dangerous crossings, in the asphyxiating bowels of automobiles, locked in shipping containers, or on foot across the most parched and forbidding corners of the desert, where many routinely die of thirst and exposure. But, like the war on drugs, this war on immigration is doomed to fail, and for some of the same reasons. Like cocaine users, we create the demand. Our comfortable cost of living is subsidized at every level by illegal immigrant labor, kept conveniently inexpensive by its very illegality. The undocumented underpaid have little recourse to collective bargaining and impose less of the costs of taxation and compliance with labor law on employers. Any urge to agitate for better pay or an improved situation is overshadowed by the threat of discovery and deportation. In order for our tomatoes and our remodeling projects and our lawn-mowing to cost us so little (so much less than they do in Europe, for instance) requires both the presence of the illegal immigrant and his lack of status. Furthermore, it is in our interest that wages stay low in the home countries, so that the tee-shirts, bananas, and auto-parts we import from down south will remain almost risibly affordable. It may be a Marxist platitude, but NAFTA removed barriers to the free flow of capital at the same time we were clamping down harder and harder on the free flow of labor. Given institutionalized inequalities like those that see garment manufacturers in Central American free trade zones paying their assembly workers as little as twenty cents an hour, labor will continue to take matters into its own hands, or feet.

We need them desperately. Without this army of Tyson chicken parts packers, Le Cirque pot-scrubbers, country club fairway manicurists and warehouse pallet-loaders, many of America's last remnant industries would grind to a halt. But many of us seem to feel we don't want any more of them, and we don't want to legalize the ones who are already here, and our culture is being eroded, and the other day I went into a grocery store and, goddammit, the whole place, from customers to clerks, was full of latinos gabbling away at one another in Spanish. Let's send them all back.

The raging national debate over immigration, and the public policy to match it, is as self-contradictory and bi-polar as that last paragraph.

In Just Like Us, Helen Thorpe has written a deft and compelling investigation of the current, messy, state of affairs. Her account of the trajectories of four inseparable Latina high-school students, two legal and two illegal, quickly leads us into a zone completely alien to that of the typical complacent Anglo citizen. It is a world in which every time a person gets into a car they need to worry what might happen if they should be stopped; one where inter-state travel is forbidding and dangerous, and international travel out of the question; one in which talented students, the country's future engineers, doctors and inventors--the exact same people who are meant to be innovating us right out of our current crisis and into a sustainable green economy--are stopped dead in their educational tracks for want of a social security card. Imagine a life in which any of the countless situations in which we are asked to show identification, from entering large office buildings, to renting apartments and buying used cars, is freighted with anxiety. No wonder the Spanish-speaking immigrant community turns inward and looks to its own for goods, services, and culture. Since I've never met a Latino laborer, legal or illegal, who didn't intuitively grasp that learning to speak better English would immediately translate into higher wages and better opportunities, it seems clear that right-wing complaints about the failure to integrate ignore the perpetual fear and justifiable paranoia that go along with being undocumented in post 9/11 America. I was reminded more than once of my own harrowing bus journeys in third-world countries, of arbitrary roadblocks where a request for papers might easily degrade into unpleasantness. I had thought such things only happened in countries I visited, not the one where I live. Just Like Us exposes a parallel United States many of us willfully ignore.

The clash between the embracing support system of insular immigrant life and a yearning for access to the opportunities outside it is central to the identity crisis faced by Yadira and Marisela, the undocumented duo who are the heroines of the book. Illegal most of their young lives, they are desperate to assimilate and to integrate, if those ideas include having the same possibilities as the fellow college students from whom they must hide their status. Both of them are strivers who ultimately succeed in attending college in their hometown of Denver, albeit as "international students" (an irony indeed) able to pay out-of-state rates only thanks to scholarship support from various sympathizers. They are, in other words, the elite of their particular underclass, fluent in English and willing to explore every avenue and lead that might help them advance. We realize that these are not representative illegal migrants. The fate of those many others in the same situation who might find the obstacles overwhelming is left implicit. While Yadira and Marisela ultimately graduate, this does nothing to change their situation; they consider going on to law school, but Thorpe suggests that, particularly for Yadira, this is simply a way of putting off the unpleasantness of facing the job market without any documents.

Thorpe spent countless hours hanging out with the girls, their associates and their families over five years, a dedicated, long-term journalistic commitment all the more remarkable because she had to sneak out of the side door of the Mayor of Denver's residence every time she wanted to visit the barrio. That may be an exaggeration, but even after writing this book Thorpe remains married to John Hickenlooper, Denver's popular liberal mayor. Despite his popularity he is far from immune to the political mudslinging that spatters the topic of immigration. He may even be particularly vulnerable to it, given that before going into politics he was a restauranteur. His restaurant company, now in a blind trust, apparently owns most of the eateries and venues in which illegal Denverites (once) wash(ed) dishes and legal ones pass their free time. Thorpe struggles to keep her home life of charity galas and formal receptions separate from her inner-city journalistic endeavors, until mid-way through the project. When an off-duty police officer moonlighting as a bouncer at a Latino disco is murdered by an illegal alien once employed in one of the mayor's restaurants, her worlds collide. I cringed to imagine the pillow talk that must have ensued in the mayoral mansion, although Thorpe swears in her acknowledgments that her husband never wavered in his support for her work, striking out only one word in the finished manuscript. If true it would have been as unsporting of her not to comply as it is rude of me to wonder what the word was.

In the context of blogging, the notion of offering "full disclosure" has a ring of pretension to it, but even though we haven't spent much time in the same social circles in the last fifteen years I will nonetheless mention that Ms. Thorpe is a very old friend of mine. When I knew her well there was no doubt as to her liberal political persuasion; nothing in this book suggests that she has altered course. But Helen is the farthest thing imaginable from a knee-jerker, and in search of journalistic balance she spends far more time than I would have hanging out with the sorts of people who want to build a razor-wire fence between Brownsville and San Diego. There are moments when she almost seems to warm to Congressman Tom Tancredo as he drives her around his old neighborhood, cracking mafioso jokes and telling fuzzy stories about North Denver's version of the San Gennaro festival. Meanwhile, he was plotting the closest thing our most recent elections saw to a single-issue presidential campaign. If it did nothing else, Tancredo's short-lived bid for the Republican nomination forced most of the rest of the candidates further to the right on the immigration issue. And even while the Democrats wrinkled up their noses in disgust they were sticking them in the air to gauge which way the wind was blowing.

With official national joblessness hovering somewhere around the ten percent mark you don't have to be an unemployed rocket scientist to figure out that anti-immigrant populism has a bright future. This is one of the grim lessons of Just Like Us, a book that ought to have a happy ending but instead concludes with its protagonists in much the same place they were at its beginning; after five years of senatorial hand-wringing and congressional pussy-footing, Yadira and Marisela haven't come any closer to being welcomed as productive, legal members of our society, despite their hard-won college degrees. The only really good news I have is to tell you what a pleasure it was to read their stories. Like a well-crafted Hollywood blockbuster, this book anticipates, nay, demands a part dos, and I'm eagerly awaiting the sequel, which I hope will be written in Spanish. Or at least available in a bilingual edition.


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Anonymous said...

Terrific review of what sounds like a terrific book, coupled with a perspicacious perspective on a
topic most of us pretend not to see ... at work in our own back yards.

John V. Fleming said...

The genre of the book review is somewhat peculiar in the demands of tact and restraint imposed upon the reviewer. Most reviews amount to little more than essays on the subjet of "What I Would Have Said If I Had Written This Book, and Why That Would Have Been Better." It is always easier to write an engaging review of a bad book than of a good one, since the reviewer feels less constraints about supplanting the author. You have done something more difficult in writing an illuminating review of what is obviously a terrific book, and done so in a fashion that keeps the focus on the book rather than the reviewer. It is impossible not to want to read Ms. Thorpe's book after reading this review. I suppose the fact that your own mother is an immigrant, as well as your wide experience traveling in many parts of the world, has given you a special alertness to issues of immigration. Most of us were shocked when a congressman interrupted President Obama's speech to call him a liar. Although the circumstances were such as to make the interruption grotesque and boorish at a mind-boggling level, the charge itself--that politicians lie--is so far as I am concerned right up there with the opinion that bears have hair and that the Pope is Catholic. What was particularly shocking to me was that the outburst was occasioned by the fear that in certain circumstances an illegal alien might get necessary medical attention in the United States of America--despite the fact that the President was assuring us that he would NOT. This suggests to me that our country faces a fundamental moral crisis of which the health-care crisis, the ecological crisis, and no doubt several crises yet to be diagnosed, are mere symptoms.