“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free” are Emma Lazarus’ famous words inscribed on the tablet at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. The words have greeted immigrants from around the world for more than 100 years, and America’s shores have beckoned those “huddled masses” since the nation’s inception, but the reality of those arriving immigrants has never been without difficulty or controversy.
Though a majority of American citizens are immigrants or descendants of immigrants themselves, the topic of immigration increasingly nettles some people in this country, and it has been hotly debated in the halls of Congress and at the state level.
To most, the subject of immigration is abstract, filled with numbers and statistics, policies and contentious sound bites. To really understand the intricacies of the immigration debate in the modern world, one would do well to look at the individual lives impacted by decisions made in far-off courthouses and legislative halls. A good place to start is to look to Helen Thorpe’s very readable and thought-provoking book, “Just Like Us.”
Thorpe is no stranger to the topsy-turvy world of politics, being Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s wife, but she is also a talented journalist who clearly goes all out to truly study her subjects. It is a scarce opportunity to see the impact immigration has on people over time, as rarely is one individual’s case studied so assiduously. “Just Like Us” follows the trajectory of four young Mexican women, two legal immigrants, two illegal, all longtime friends, as they make the difficult transition from high school to college and beyond.
The reader is introduced to the four girls as they experience a classic coming-of-age moment — senior prom in Denver. To the untrained eye, this benchmark in their lives looks normal and predictable, with dress choices and hours of prep in front of a mirror, but their participation in this, and many later rights of passage, is shown by Thorpe to be anything but ordinary.
In an account that reads like a novel, Thorpe develops the stories of these girls at a slow boil, reflecting the pace at which she grew acquainted with their lives over many years. In no ways reflecting the stereotypical immigrant image, all four girls are high academic achievers with lofty goals and ambitions for college, careers and productive lives as contributors to American society. Thorpe deftly navigates their entwined lives and the lives of their family members, some illegal, some not, and convincingly demonstrates that the topic of immigration is complex, to say the least.
Woven into the daily struggles of the girls is the unique perspective Thorpe gives to the political climate in which the girls are living. The Minutemen, the rise and fall of Tom Tancredo, Barack Obama’s historic election, the DREAM Act — all are braided into the narrative as parts of the landscape in which their lives unfold.
Thorpe leaves one with a sense that the girls are cogs in the vast wheel of politics in this country, where individuals with far less at stake manage the controls. But, she also manages to instill some hope that a fair and just solution is feasible, as long as there exists a part of the equation as smart, motivated and invested as these four young Latinas, whose presence in this country makes it all the richer.