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No Room in the Inn – “Just Like Us” by Helen Thorpe

December 16, 2009

I’ve just read a remarkable book, Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America, by Helen Thorpe.  The book paints the real and complex picture of a contemporary immigrant experience, and in telling us the story of these four remarkable young women, Helen shows just how broken the U.S. system of immigration is today.

Helen stopped by FCNL a couple weeks ago and had lunch with staff.  She told us that Scribner just published the book, and we said it’s just in time for Rep. Gutierrez’s introduction of a comprehensive immigration reform bill on December 15th.

One of the big impediments to real immigration reform on Capitol Hill is the lack of understanding of the problem of immigration policy.  That problem cannot be boiled down to a matter of individuals being “legal” or “illegal.”  (I think naming some human beings “illegal” is both ghastly and dangerous.)  Big economic systems contribute to the problem of the broken U.S. immigration system.  Social and cultural factors impinge on that problem, too.  Helen Thorpe helps us to comprehend the problem by putting a human face on the individuals who are hurt most by that broken system.

Some Senators and Representatives feel they don’t have time to understand the problem of immigration.  Understanding the problem doesn’t seem as important to them as understanding what they think their voters want to hear them say.  They think they have to make a political pitch on immigration that will, at least, not hurt them in their next election, and, they hope, will help them to get elected.

In that sense, the eyes of Congress—as a group—are closed, their ears are deaf, and their hearts are hardened to the plight of the individuals who suffer the immigrant experience in America today.  Helen Thorpe’s narrative in Just Like Us opens our eyes, heals our deaf ears, and softens our hearts, as she helps us to get acquainted with Marisela, Yadira, Elissa, Clara, and their families and friends in Denver.

Although the narrative is 386 pages, the book is a short read, because Helen tells the story in a compelling way.  I’ve been trying to read it as a “chapter book,” one chapter a night, but you can’t stop at just one chapter!  The Washington Post recently put the book on their Holiday Guide: Best Books of 2009 list.

As the Holiday season approaches now, my thoughts return to my formative years growing up in the church and the stories of Jesus’ birth.  One of my earliest questions at age five was: but why was he born in a manger?  So, I’m predisposed to see Just Like Us as a contemporary Christmas book.

I bet no one who reads it will have thought of it as a Christmas book, and Helen might be appalled by my suggestion that it is one.  (Helen, my apologies in advance.)   Of course, I don’t mean that it is like those sappy books about Christmas, nor even a Dickensian story with a happy ending.  I mean that it is a story about people who seem to have no place in society, people like Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  When Jesus was about to be born, his parents faced the hard fact that there was no room in the Inn for them.  By some accounts they were exiled to Egypt for a time.  They were immigrants too.

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