The author of The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom spent a year in a Denver classroom that is the first stop for teenaged immigrants, in this case mostly refugees, until they can speak enough English to move to a more advanced class, and eventually to the mainstream. She describes the wonderful teacher and his lessons, and meets with some students and their parents outside school to learn more about their background and struggles.
The best parts of the book, you won’t be surprised to hear, are the descriptions of the classroom and the interactions between the students, shy and reticent at first, and then friendly and tightly bound to each other. Unfortunately the author seems to desperately want to inject her own beliefs and judgment into the mix, which makes for grating commentary (for instance on why one sister wears the hijab and the other does not) and sometimes outright embarrassing behavior (when she travels to a refugee camp in Africa and shows pictures of one students to his cousin, who is understandably miffed at the luck that did not visit him). So awkward, but interesting.
The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life stars twin brothers who, threatened by gangs in their native El Salvador, flee to the US and settle in Oakland with their older brother, who is undocumented. Because they are minors, they are able to benefit from some protection from the law, and a helpful school community, but they face violence, family heartbreak, and the memories of their difficult voyage.
And they also waste money, fail to clean their room or go to school, and engage in other teenage behaviors (although they seem to work exceptionally hard at their jobs). The story shows how difficult it is to craft policies for refugees, and even more to put them into play. And it would be even better if it stuck to the actual story of the twins, without the political commentary.
The Leavers tells the interleaved stories of a Chinese-American boy who is apparently abandoned by this mother, then adopted by a white couple, and of his mother, who was brutally deported in a raid of the beauty salon where she worked, undocumented.
Parts of the story are wonderful, capturing everyday moments in the boy’s life as he struggles in school, devours junk food with his cousin, or spies on his adoptive parents, and showing his distress as he is brutally yanked from one world to another. But some parts, especially dialog, seem lifted from a cheap self-help book — and the overall logic of the story is somewhat flawed. If you can get past the stilted bits, it’s an interesting look at both adoption and immigration.
Refuge stars an Iranian family who is split up by exile to the US, leaving the daughter-narrator to alternatively miss and bemoan her father, whom she only sees very occasionally when he can get a visa to meet her and her brother in various cities around the world. The complicated relationship of the addict-father with the rest of the family is the best part of the book. Alas, it is surrounded by many meandering stories about the daughter’s geographical moves, her marital issues, and the refugees she is helping on the side, none of which seems to get anywhere.
The Other One Percent: Indians in America presents a detailed analysis of people of Indian origin who either immigrated to the US or who are the descendants of immigrants — and who constitute just 1% of the population, doubling its percentage in the past 20 years thanks to a massive influx linked to hiring of skilled engineers in the high-tech industry. The authors highlight the striking differences in education, origin, and socio-economic level between the older and newer immigrants and especially investigates the remarkable number of entrepreneurs among the more recent immigrants. Fascinating, whether you live in one of the clusters of Indian immigration (like Silicon Valley) or not.
The dreamers in Behold The Dreamers are two undocumented immigrants from Cameroon trying to make it in New York City. They soon find themselves working for a rich trader’s family and they can see their American Dream within reach. But the 2008 recession is looming, which will deprive the trader of his lucrative job and expose his personal troubles while the immigration courts grind towards expulsion. The complicated relationship between the rich employers and their poor employees is captured perfectly, with the employers utterly unaware of the financial hardships of their chauffeur and housekeeper, and blithely assuming a relationship of equals while the employees carefully weigh each interaction to keep the jobs they desperately need. And there are no stock characters here: each can display kindness as well as hate, and has deep secrets.
The Wangs Vs. The World attempts to be a madcap road trip of a freshly bankrupted family from its no-longer home in Los Angeles to upstate New York, where the older daughter lives in a house that may be the only asset that escaped repossession. The five members of the family are appropriately different to generate all kinds of adventures, but I found it very difficult to find the tediously spoiled younger daughter, the romantically confused, hipster older daughter, the financially ambitious stepmother, the stereotypical entrepreneur-father, or even the sweet, sentimental son.