My Beloved World is a memoir by Sonia Sotomayor, of Supreme Court fame, and although it stops disappointingly early, when she became a judge (and not when she became a Supreme Court justice), it’s still a very inspiring story of a woman born of Puerto Rican immigrants of very modest means, whose father died young of alcoholism, who has had to cope with diabetes from the age of 6, and who nevertheless managed to get into Princeton and Yale law school — paving the way for her career as a judge. There are many stories of her supportive but sometimes troubled family and frank discussions of her love/hate relationship with affirmative action. It’s a wonderful personal story of finding her way, and a reminder of how important it is to provide robust educational opportunities for children born in poor families who have the brains and the drive to move up.
Tag Archives: immigrants
I happen to believe that the United States has become puzzlingly inhospitable to well-educated immigrants in recent years, and yet I found the argument presented in The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent rather disappointing. First, because the author seems to obsess about just one metric: the number of startup companies created by immigrants. Surely there are many other ways that educated immigrants can contribute. Second, because it seems a bit arrogant to ignore the fact that perhaps people would rather stay home, or return home, if conditions there have improved so as to match or approximate those offered by the United States. In other words, perhaps it’s not (only) a failure of the United States to welcome highly educated immigrants; it may be that other countries are catching up economically, which should be considered a success. Finally, the author seems to assume that immigration policy is easy to change, and we all know how recessions seem to focus the mind against an influx of foreigners, however adorned with Ph.Ds they might be.
Too bad: offering an automatic resident permit to advanced-degree recipients, followed by a quick path to citizenship to those qualified and interested seems to be a good recipe to build a community of innovators (and taxpayers!)
The Perfect Gentleman: A Muslim Boy Meets the West is the charming and funny memoir of a Pakistani boy who immigrated to the UK with his family in the early sixties and who recounts everyday life, his chance at a great education with a side of racism, both unthinking and sadly focused, and his struggles to fit in and to reconcile his parents’ expectations with his own desires.
The story seems to lost its energy once the narrator gets to university, but I enjoyed it very much.
How To Get Into the Twin Palms is the story of a young immigrant woman who, unsurprisingly, wants to get into the Twin Palm, a seedy night club that does not quite seem to be worthy of her longing. To accomplish her dreams she buys undergarments (and yes, we are treated to the detailed procedure to do that) and lets herself be used by a smelly, uncouth, and of course married lout. Not much here…
A Small Fortune follows a family of Pakistani immigrant in England whose father finds himself very modestly rich after a divorce and proceeds to make a mess of his family connections both in England and in Pakistan, promising money to some but giving it to others in what seems to be a very bad business deal. Mix in a wayward daughter and a nephew who gets involved with Muslim extremists and you’ve got a story, but not necessarily a very good one, especially the plodding extremist plot or the sordid business extortion — although the more intimate subplots fare better, including the father’s funny, awkward courtship with a divorced professor.
Europe’s Angry Muslims: The Revolt of The Second Generation tries to do two things, one that’s very successful, the other one not so much. The success is in describing the muslim communities in the UK, Germany, and France and highlighting the strong differences between them by showing how the immigrants come from very different countries, how the host countries have different attitudes towards integration, and how the immigrants’ customs and treatment influence what happens to the next generation. It’s fascinating to see how few similarities there are between the muslim communities of these three countries.
The not-so-successful part is when the author attempts to determine why the UK has bred many more islamic terrorists than the other two countries, even though integration is apparently more successful there in many ways. The reality is that there are so few terrorists that the apparently large differences of scale between the UK and continental Europe are purely based on chance (this is the mathematician speaking here). It’s interesting that I have not been lucky finding a good book on this topic.
There’s plenty to like in The Barbarian Nurseries, starting with an interesting plot of an illegal, exploited Mexican housekeeper being left alone with the children of the family without notice. The true affection between her and the boys is also well captured, as is her uncertain relationship with the parents and the friends of the family, as she vacillates between being treated as family or as lowly hired help. The way the press exploits the incident, the mechanism of the legal system, the immigrant community’s response are also described with great success. And I just loved the wild imagination of the younger brother, who transforms the adventure into something the legal system can’t quite cope with.
But the book felt sloppy to me. The plot hinges on the parents unknowingly leaving the children with the housekeeper, but it seems highly improbable that they would not make more of an effort to ascertain that they are not alone. What high-tech manager would neglect to check his voicemail for days on end? And there’s more sloppiness throughout the story that makes the context feel wrong. Hedge funds don’t invest in technology startups. Families don’t explain they are away for a long trip on their home answering machine. Wronged housekeepers don’t drive away in peace. All that makes for a story that I could never quite believe, despite its strengths.
Living “Illegal” sets out to put a human face on illegal immigration in the US, and is successful, to a point, since it tells many stories of real immigrants, most in the Atlanta area, and the sad consequences on themselves and their family on what the authors insist we must call their undocumented (not illegal) status. The authors show very clearly that the current immigration policy doesn’t work, but they then argue essentially that all illegal immigrants (who are not criminals) should be legalized and that others like them should be granted legal immigration status and I don’t think their arguments are valid.
For one thing, there are millions of people who would gladly immigrate into the US, and I don’t think that the country is ready to welcome all of them (it’s great to think of the US as a nation of immigrants, but that was when the country was empty and crying for hands to work). Second, the reason why there are illegal immigrants is that conditions in their countries of origin (mostly Mexico and other central American countries in the examples of the book) are dire, so that it seems preferable to migrate under questionable conditions than to stay. If there’s no effort to address issues in the originating countries I don’t see much hope in fixing the problem permanently. Saying that we must legalize illegal immigrants because it’s the kind thing to do doesn’t make sense. It would be great to see a more nuanced approach that mixes guest worker visas, legal immigrant status for individuals who qualify under education or work achievement, and a rational approach to families where legal and illegal statuses coexist.
I enjoyed My New American Life a lot. Maybe too much, since it’s not the deepest story in the world, but it’s not trying to be either. It centers on an immigrant Albanian nanny — albeit to a motherless high schooler — who is courted by a shady but good-hearted fellow immigrant and who muddles through her green card proceedings and fledgling romantic life while trying to fix her client’s and his son’s lives. What makes the book is the heroine, who soberly and funnily compares American daily life with what she left behind, who makes a mess of her personal decisions despite the mature way she handles everything else, and who is not as goody-two-shoes as she may appear at first glance.
There is ample potential in The Free World: the vast historical landscape of 20th century Europe, a large family of Jewish emigrants from Latvia (still part of the soviet Union), marooned in Rome while waiting for their final destination, which they hope will not be Israel, and the individual choices that led them to emigrate. But I found the novel quite boring, perhaps because rehashed Soviet history is not really my cup of tea, and indeed I much prefered the snatches of more personal drama, in particular the story of Polina, one of the daughters in law, who left an abusive husband and expectations to take care of her parents, and who blossoms in a society that prizes her ability to connect with others. And I’d love to know what happens to her after the novel ends.