The best books about undocumented immigrants

15 authors have picked their favorite books about undocumented immigrants and why they recommend each book.

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No Friend but the Mountains

By Behrouz Boochani,

Book cover of No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison

Cummings and his friend William Slater Brown were imprisoned in a detention center for foreign ‘undesirables,’ and to this day we are guilty of locking people up because they are stateless or nationals of another country. Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains, translated by Omid Tofighian, recounts his imprisonment along with fellow refugees on Manus Island. It is a visceral and vivid account, and it speaks in an unrefusable voice. I think it is an act of true human generosity that someone who has suffered so much at our collective hands would still choose to reach out and tell his own story; simply choosing to speak is an act of great hope and belief.


Who am I?

I am a biographer, and my biography of E.E. Cummings centers on his unjust imprisonment in France during the Great War in dangerously brutal conditions—cold, underfed, and subject to the sadism of the prison guards. It is hard to imagine anything more imperative than writing about injustice. But perhaps for that very reason, it is difficult to write without the consciousness of a deep inadequacy to the task. I feel therefore an enormous gratitude towards those writers, five of whom I have chosen here, whose honesty and courage in writing about injustice serves as an inspiration and a beacon. 


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The Beauty of Living: E. E. Cummings in the Great War

By J. Alison Rosenblitt,

Book cover of The Beauty of Living: E. E. Cummings in the Great War

What is my book about?

The Beauty of Living is a slice-of-life biography of the poet E.E. Cummings. It tells the story of his childhood and his difficult relationship with his father – a socially progressive Unitarian minister whose moral rectitude contained elements of domestic tyranny. It follows Cummings through his rebellious years at Harvard, in a circle of aspiring writers and their shared world of a re-imagined Classical paganism. And it takes us through Cummings’s experiences as a volunteer ambulance driver during the Great War, including the story of his first real love – a Parisian named Marie Louise Lallemand, a sex worker during the war – and the events surrounding his unjust imprisonment and release from a French detention center.

Dear America

By Jose Antonio Vargas,

Book cover of Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen

Vargas’s memoir begins, “I do not know where I will be when you read this book.”  An undocumented immigrant (and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist) who was brought to the United States from the Philippines as a child, Vargas only learned that he was in the country illegally when he applied for a driver’s license at age 16.  In 2011, after two decades in the shadows, Vargas publicly revealed his legal status. His anxious, tireless quest for a driver’s license, like his quest to belong in the only country he knows as home, raises urgent questions about the power of documents and borders to define people’s life chances. I’ve taught this beautifully written book several times and it never fails to move my students – and me.


Who am I?

I’m an American intellectual historian and professor at Vanderbilt University. I’ve long been fascinated by the history and politics of data: the question of how publicly available knowledge shapes societies as well as individual selves. It’s led me to research the effects of popular polls and statistics on mid-century U.S. culture and to write about how ever-advancing techniques for “knowing” citizens shaped modern privacy sensibilities. My current obsession is with official identity documents—how they infiltrate people’s lives in ways that are at once bureaucratic and curiously intimate. The books I’ve selected lay bare the promise and the peril of documentation in wonderfully vivid detail.


I wrote...

The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America

By Sarah E. Igo,

Book cover of The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America

What is my book about?

Every day, we make decisions about what to share and when, how much to expose, and to whom. Securing the boundary between one’s private affairs and public identity has become an urgent task of modern life. The Known Citizen tracks the quest for privacy in the United States over the last century and a half, revealing enduring debates over how Americans would―and, importantly, should―be known.  

Beginning with “instantaneous photography” in the late nineteenth century and culminating in our present dilemmas over social media and big data, the book uncovers the surprising ways that arguments over what should be kept out of the public eye have shaped U.S. politics and society.  It offers the first wide-angle view of privacy as it has been lived and imagined by modern Americans—with powerful lessons for our own times, when corporations, government agencies, and data miners are tracking our every move.

The Ethics of Immigration

By Joseph H. Carens,

Book cover of The Ethics of Immigration

This is the single best book on the political philosophy of immigration. Canadian political philosopher Joseph Carens makes a wide-ranging philosophical defense of  “open borders” migration rights – not just from the standpoint of some one particular political theory, but from that of many. Whether you are a free-market libertarian, an egalitarian liberal, or a moderate, Carens has a case to make to you. He also has compelling responses to a variety of objections. A key strength of the book is that Carens defends his seemingly radical conclusion based on relatively uncontroversial premises of liberty and equality that are widely accepted by supporters of liberal democracy around the world.


Who am I?

Ilya Somin is a Professor of Law at George Mason University. He is the author of Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom, Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter, and The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London, and the Limits of Eminent Domain. Somin has also published articles in a variety of popular press outlets, including The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, CNN, The Atlantic, and USA Today. He is a regular contributor to the popular Volokh Conspiracy law and politics blog, affiliated with Reason.


I wrote...

Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom

By Ilya Somin,

Book cover of Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom

What is my book about?

Ballot box voting is often considered the essence of political freedom. But it has two major shortcomings: individual voters have little chance of making a difference, and they face strong incentives to remain ignorant about the issues at stake. Foot voting avoids both pitfalls.

Free to Move explains how broadening opportunities for foot voting can liberate millions of people around the world. People can vote with their feet through international migration, choosing where to live within a federal system, and making choices in the private sector. Ilya Somin addresses numerous objections to expanded migration rights, including claims that governments have a right to exclude, and that migration must be restricted to forestall harmful side effects, such as overburdening the welfare state and weakening political institutions.

Signs Preceding the End of the World

By Yuri Herrera, Lisa Dillman (translator),

Book cover of Signs Preceding the End of the World

Translated from Spanish and 128 pages in length, Herrera’s short novel is a beautiful evocation of one woman's journey from Latin America to the US. Evoked with the brushstrokes of a fairy tale and suffused with a luminous surreality, the book has stuck with me. This is Herrera’s first novel to be published in English, and it has made quite a splash, giving me hope that more will soon follow.


Who am I?

My writing career has been in middle grade and YA, but as a reader I’m always trying to branch out. When I was a kid, literature opened the door to the whole world, and as an adult, I’m still exploring. When I read work in translation I can feel the literary connection to other writers and thinkers and simultaneously appreciate the differences that arise through geographic and cultural heritage. I hope my selections here might help readers like myself who enjoy reaching out to new voices and places.


I wrote...

The Wikkeling

By Steven Arntson,

Book cover of The Wikkeling

What is my book about?

In the futuristic city of The Addition, children are raised safely and efficiently. Their diets are standardized. Their schoolwork is synchronized. Even their sleep is quantized and analyzed. Yes, it’s all figured out . . . but the results aren’t quite as advertised. At least, not for Henrietta Gad-Fly, who lives in a rundown old house, gets bad headaches, and is on the verge of being expelled from school for poor grades. Henrietta is fortunate in one regard, though—she’s got really great friends in her schoolmates Gary and Rose. Friendship can help a person even in the weirdest situations. For instance, let’s say you find a hidden attic above your bedroom in which a mortally wounded magical cat has taken refuge . . .

The Sun Is Also a Star

By Nicola Yoon,

Book cover of The Sun Is Also a Star

This is a book I have been recommending to teenagers and adults alike.

This is no ordinary romantic tale of girl meets boy; it is a very much contemporary take on the notion. Two very different protagonists, from two very different backgrounds are brought together in the immigrant ‘melting pot’ of New York City. In what could be seen as a modern-day Romeo and Juliet, the characters are much more self-aware than in Shakespeare’s original and thankfully this leads to a more enlightened outcome, for them, and the people they meet on their journey.

Using deceptively simple short chapters which chart the course of one day, it cleverly deals with so many of life's big issues (including migration) primarily through the two teenage narrators.


Who am I?

Stories of migration journeys and their knock-on impact through the generations are part of my family history. Like Jacques, the key protagonist in Austerlitz, I too wasn’t told the whole story of my family’s past. Stumbling on stories of colonialism, migration, and racism as an adult has opened up an understanding of a very different world to that of my childhood. The books I have recommended are all excellent examples of migration stories and through the use of beautiful prose pack a punch in a ‘velvet glove’.


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Boundless Sky

By Amanda Addison, Manuela Adreani (illustrator),

Book cover of Boundless Sky

What is my book about?

This is the story of a bird so small that fits in your hand, flying halfway around the world looking for a place to nest. This is the story of a young girl from northern Africa fleeing halfway around the world looking for a place of peace. This is the story of Bird. This is the story of Leila. This is the story of a chance encounter and a long journey home.

"Beneath the surface, one can find many opportunities for a deep conversation about belonging, welcoming, and freedom from oppression and danger.- Youth Book Review Services,

"A beautiful exploration of friendship, the parallel migrations of Bird and Leila, and the welcome they receive in their new home." - Library Girl and Book Boy

The Pickup

By Nadine Gordimer,

Book cover of The Pickup

South African writer Nadine Gordimer, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991, commands enormous power with her words. While they have a deceptively poetic lilting beauty, they also deal incisively with epic issues. The Pickup is one of my favourites, an ultimately lifting tale about a white woman and an illegal Arab immigrant, which portrays the power of love and understanding to cross great divides in class and wealth and outlook.

Who am I?

I am a journalist, travel writer, and author based in Australia, writing about all sorts of people and on topics that I find personally inspiring and thrilling, and which are guaranteed to raise the spirits of readers. I was born in England but travelled the world for 10 years before ending up in Australia in 1989. I also lecture in travel writing at Boston University’s Sydney campus.


I wrote...

Healing Lives

By Sue Williams,

Book cover of Healing Lives

What is my book about?

It’s about a heartwarming friendship between two women from opposite ends of the earth, and with stunningly different backgrounds, which has ended up changing the lives of tens of thousands of the poorest women on earth. 

Australian doctor Catherine Hamlin went over to Ethiopia in 1959 and was horrified to discover that so many young women were suffering life-threatening fistula injuries after undergoing difficult childbirths. One of them was a young peasant girl, Mamitu Gashe. Catherine saved her life, and they became like family to each other. Today, even though Mamitu can still neither read, nor write, nor speak English, she has become one of the top fistula surgeons in the world. It’s a story that touched my heart.

The Line Becomes a River

By Francisco Cantú,

Book cover of The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border

Melding his time as a Border Patrol agent with memories of exploring the Mexico-U.S. border region as a child with his mother, Cantú provides a dynamic mash-up of a book: one part insider account from within the agency, detailing his encounters with violent criminals as well as desperate migrants, and one part personal meditation on the border region, searching for meaning and understanding when it comes to the landscape and complicated histories of the U.S. southern border region. 


Who am I?

For over a decade I’ve been writing about the lines that define us. Whether it’s the work we do or the communities we live in, we all create “borders” in our everyday lives. I’ve interviewed thousands of people from all walks of life to gain a better understanding of the lines we use to carve out our identities and our place in this world, whether it’s on the individual level, within a small community, or on a national scale. My work is always getting at how these lines of separation function, practically speaking, particularly in an increasingly globalized, interconnected world. 


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14 Miles: Building the Border Wall

By D.W. Gibson,

Book cover of 14 Miles: Building the Border Wall

What is my book about?

In August of 2019, Donald Trump finished building his border wall—at least a portion of it. In San Diego, the Army Corps of engineers completed two years of construction on a 14-mile steel beamed barrier that extends eighteen feet high and costs a staggering $147 million. As one border patrol agent told reporters visiting the site, “It was funded and approved and it was built under his administration. It is Trump’s wall.” 14 Miles is a definitive account of all the dramatic construction, showing readers what it feels like to stand on both sides of the border looking up at the imposing and controversial barrier.

14 Miles explains not only how the wall has reshaped our landscape and countless lives but also how its shadow looms over our identity as a nation.

Impossible Subjects

By Mae M. Ngai,

Book cover of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America

This is easily the best account of the complex, racialized history of U.S. immigration law, politics, and policy. One of the arguments in it that impressed me most is that the category “illegal aliens”the “impossible subjects” of the title—barely existed in the pre-World War I years, when almost no European immigrants were turned away from the U.S. (Asians were another story). Ngai also brilliantly analyzes two landmark laws: the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which dramatically restricted immigration through nationality-based quotas limiting arrivals from Eastern and Southern Europe; and the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, which eliminated the quotas and opened the door to a massive new immigrant influx. This is a densely written book, not an easy read, but no other text has taught me more about this topic.


Who am I?

I first got seriously interested in immigration when I moved to L.A. in the late 1980s. I had been a sociologist of labor for over a decade already, and now found myself in a city whose working class was overwhelmingly foreign-born. I was amazed to discover that L.A.’s immigrant workers, even the undocumented, were actively organizing into unions and community-based organizations. Trying to understand how this came about, my fascination with the larger dynamics of migration grew, and immigrant labor became central to my research agenda.


I wrote...

Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat

By Ruth Milkman,

Book cover of Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat

What is my book about?

This book challenges the immigrant threat narrative that blames foreign-born newcomers, especially the undocumented, for the deteriorating living standards of American workers. It argues that low-wage immigration is a consequence rather than a cause of growing economic precarity and skyrocketing inequality, drawing on case studies of key industries. Starting in the late 1970s, employer attacks on labor unions, along with neoliberal policies like deregulation, degraded many good-paying jobs held by non-college-educated U.S.-born workers. As a result, workers increasingly abandoned those now-undesirable jobs, which in turn led employers to hire immigrants to replace them. The justifiable anger of American workers at the reversal of fortune they have suffered in recent decades, I argue, should be directed at the employers and political elites whose actions degraded their former jobs, not at immigrants.

Patsy

By Nicole Dennis-Benn,

Book cover of Patsy

If you have not yet read Patsy, just read it. I won’t regale you with tales of its critical and commercial success, as you may already have heard about it. What I will say is that this is a book that will stick with you. Its portrait of longing, of love, of motherhood, and of childhood is so attentive to the thought of its central two characters—a mother and child—that they will feel so real to you that you will think of them when you encounter their facsimiles in your own life. 


Who am I?

As a Jamaican migrant, I often read Jamaican fiction to feel recognized, but I struggle with the word “best,” so consider this an exceedingly tentative ranking. I read each of these texts to learn about what it means to be a part of the Jamaican diaspora and to write a Jamaican novel, and each one elicited in me something that I often did not know about myself. Their attention to gender, to migration, to family, and more are as enlightening as they are captivating. And if that is not enough, then come for the plots, all of which are gripping, and the prose, all of which delights.


I wrote...

All the Water I've Seen Is Running

By Elias Rodriques,

Book cover of All the Water I've Seen Is Running

What is my book about?

Along the Intracoastal waterways of North Florida, Daniel and Aubrey navigated adolescence with the electric intensity that radiates from young people defined by otherness: Aubrey, a self-identified "Southern cracker" and Daniel, the mixed-race son of Jamaican immigrants. When the news of Aubrey’s death reaches Daniel in New York, years after they’d lost contact, he is left to grapple with the legacy of his precious and imperfect love for her. 

Buoyed by his teenage track-team buddies―Twig, a long-distance runner; Desmond, a sprinter; Egypt, Des’s girlfriend; and Jess, a chef―Daniel begins a frantic search for meaning in Aubrey’s death. Sensitive to the complexities of class, race, and sexuality both in the American South and in Jamaica, All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running is a novel of uncommon tenderness, grief, and joy.

The Devil's Highway

By Luis Alberto Urrea,

Book cover of The Devil's Highway: A True Story

In May 2001, a group of men attempted to cross the Mexican border into the desert of southern Arizona, through the deadliest region of the continent, the "Devil's Highway." Three years later, Luis Alberto Urrea wrote about what happened to them. The result was a national bestseller, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a "book of the year" in multiple newspapers, and a work proclaimed as a modern American classic. What resonates with many readers, including myself is the struggle that people will go through to enter the U.S., sacrificing just about everything a person has, including possibly losing one’s life their lives to start anew. It is chilling at times, and an eye-opening read.


Who am I?

Every time I see a wonderful episode of life, I want to capture it in writing or tell a compelling story about it. Too often, we let the good memories go, and remember the difficult ones. So, I keep writing books that have a real—yet positive outlook that can ignite a smile out of someone—or a hearty laugh. In 2020, I published Profiles in Kindness—an award-winning CIPA/Reader's Choice Award for motivation & inspirational leadership. In 2018, I first released the CIPA Award-winning Something Happened Today, addressing seeing the goodness in everyday life even in the face of difficulties. 


I wrote...

Start Late, Finish Happy: Random Encounters - Unexpected Joy

By Paul E. Kotz,

Book cover of Start Late, Finish Happy: Random Encounters - Unexpected Joy

What is my book about?

Stories of inspiration, making mistakes, finding happiness as well as bringing to light anecdotes of deliberate and unexpected kindness are found within! Many times these random encounters have untapped joy. It is about everyday life, vulnerability, and our reactions. Ravi Zacharias stated, "None of us escapes life without some ecstasy and heartache." When you see a baby jumping for joy, splashing water during a bath, or smiling from a hug you just gave them, we rarely question their excitement and enjoy the moment of their ebullient happiness.

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