The Novel That Could Change How Republicans Think About Immigration


"Our border is not open to illegal migration," Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson stressed earlier this month on Meet the Press. Johnson added that the Obama administration, in light of Congress' inaction, will be taking executive action to reform the current immigration system. Also this month, protesters in Murrieta, Calif., blocked busloads of undocumented immigrants from entering a federal processing facility. Another guest on Meet the Press, Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, called for what many conservatives agree is the right response on immigration: "Deport" the undocumented, he said.

Labrador's call embodies the black-and-white attitude towards immigration held by many right-wing politicians. As a country, we lob the pro and con arguments back and forth endlessly, but perhaps the definitive answer can be found in art. Those who envision all undocumented immigrants as potential criminals ripe for deportation ought to pick up Cristina Henríquez's The Book of the Unknown Americans, a book that subtly but irrevocably shifts how the reader understands the narrative of unknown and undocumented immigrants.

Henríquez's novel, published earlier this summer, describes the lives of immigrants living in Delaware: the reasons they were drawn to the United States, what they left behind and what their lives are like now. At the core of the novel is the Rivera family, just arrived from Mexico and hoping to seek care and a better life for their brain-damaged daughter. Henríquez weaves in the first-person narratives of a broad array of other unknown Americans: a Guatemelan man who works at a movie theater to fund his kids' college education, a Puerto Rican dancer whose Broadway dreams brought her to the states and a priest who become a drug dealer. The powerful backstories and histories that Henríquez delivers are loaded with emotional weight and eye-opening context, and have the potential to change the way readers — and policy-makers among them — understand the lives of documented and undocumented immigrants.

Henríquez has made it clear that the book, despite its timeliness and relevance, is not meant to be a political treatise of any kind. "It's about the human faces, the human stories, the human lives behind what for many people has become only an issue," she told the Los Angeles Review of Books. But the reality is that fictional narratives like these hold real value for political issues. These human faces and human stories are exactly what are at stake in discussions about border control and "processing" undocumented migrants. Henríquez fleshes out what we may see as stereotypes and predictable immigrant stories with real passion, humor and high stakes.

Lest the power of fiction in the political sphere be doubted, remember Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. By personalizing the slave experience and bringing to light the subhuman ways slaves were treated, the 1852 novel heightened the tensions between Northerners and Southerners that erupted in the Civil War. Reportedly, Lincoln called Stowe "the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war." After reading Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle, a riled-up Teddy Roosevelt launched his own investigation of food preparation and handling conditions. The public outcry in response to Sinclair's scarily accurate descriptions of unsanitary food preparation brought about the signing of the Meat Inspection Act and other regulatory laws.

Henríquez's novel is poised to have a similar impact on how people understand the immigrant experience. Calling the truth fiction is sometimes the best way, after all, to open people's eyes.