Equity & Diversity Opinion

Coming to America

By Helen Thorpe — October 21, 2010 2 min read
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When I was a year old, my parents and I immigrated to America. With legal entry visas and professional degrees, my mother and father arrived speaking English. In many ways, our immigrant experience was nothing like that of the majority of people who arrive in this country today. Nevertheless, I grew up carrying a green card. That experience made me curious to know what life was like for children who live in the United States without legal status. My decision to write the book, Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age, emerged from that question.

Helen Thorpe

I understood that having legal status and a green card was something that I inherited. And so it was easy for me to understand that children who arrive without legal status inherit a different fate in this country. They do not have equal opportunities in our society because of the actions of their parents and the laws they encounter—a situation that is not of their own making.

At the beginning of this project, I tried to find one undocumented student. But instead, I stumbled across four close friends, who were divided by their immigration status: Two of the girls had legal status, and two did not. They were very charismatic young women—bright, personable, and funny—the kind of students who charmed their teachers. However, watching the four girls interact illuminated their differences. At every key juncture, life was harder for the two girls without legal status. They faced greater obstacles and experienced terrible jealousy of their two friends with legal status.

Eventually, I realized that telling the story of the relationships among these four girls would be a compelling way to convey the subjective experience of immigration in America today. Millions of newcomers have made this country their home in recent years, often without legal documentation. Many native-born Americans don’t know much at all about the lives of these immigrants, although teachers often do.

Teacher Book Club

Join author Helen Thorpe as she and other educators have an online discussion of her book Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age, running Monday, Oct. 25-Friday, Oct. 29. Visit the Teacher Book Club for more information and to sign up for book club updates.

I wanted to describe their experience as honestly as possible. I wanted to convey who their parents were, why they chose to come to this country, how they may have attempted but failed to gain legal status, and how they were able to work here anyway. And I wanted to convey who the students were, and how their legal status or lack of it profoundly affected their ability to pursue their dreams.

I followed the students and their families over five years, and gained a wealth of detail about their lives because of their openness and willingness to share their experiences. In recounting their story, my goals are journalistic. I am not trying to make a policy argument, or write an editorial. I am trying to describe a particular slice of reality. I wanted to allow readers the room to make up their own minds, once they had all the facts that I could supply. I wanted to give readers enough information for them to know and care about just a few of the individuals who are caught up in our current immigration laws, which I hope will bring more thoughtful discussion to the ongoing policy debates.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 27, 2010 edition of Education Week


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