Undocumented migration is an issue that perennially occupies a large space in public political discourse in the United States. Unfortunately, between buzzwords like “undocumented,” “asylum” and “refugee,” the human element at the core of the problem is often relegated to a talking point instead of being seen as people looking to improve their situation in life. Literature that recenters people and shines a light on the reasons why undocumented migrants from all over the world navigate this country’s broken, for-profit immigration system is crucial. Luckily, there are several recent nonfiction narratives that accomplish this, and that do so while adding to the discussion and examining the diversity, talent and heart of the undocumented migrant community.
“Somewhere We Are Human: Authentic Voices on Migration, Survival, and New Beginnings,” edited by Reyna Grande and Sonia Guiñansaca, is a powerful collection of prose pieces, poems and visual art that celebrates the plurality of migrants present in the United States. A timely and necessary text, this collection of personal narratives expands the discussion around migration by spotlighting members of the LGBTQ community and showing how something as incredibly hard and complex as migration can be made ever more so by something as basic as one’s identity and sexuality.
“Somewhere We Are Human” proves that very different voices telling unique stories can, when presented together, become a very cohesive, very humane manifesto. Featuring artists from Mexico — which is often the only country discussed when undocumented migration comes up — as well as the Dominican Republic, South Asia, El Salvador, Argentina, Chile, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Brazil, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines, the voices in “Somewhere We Are Human” exist in a very real space in which immigration status, creativity and identity coexist and have a huge impact on each other.
The artists self-identify as “queer/trans/migrant,” “AfroIndigenous” or “chronically ill and disabled transfemme Black lesbian immigrant,” and these biographies — these identities and the role they play — underline an important reality: While being an undocumented Migrant is hard, it can be much worse when you have to exist in — and then move to — unwelcoming spaces as someone whose identity is misunderstood, discriminated against or seen as problematic.
Being gay and having your sexuality as the reason for abandoning your country is at the center of Edafe Okporo’s “Asylum: A Memoir & Manifesto.” A memoir about leaving Nigeria to save his life, “Asylum” is a harrowing read in which persecution based on sexual orientation drives everything. Okporo struggled with his sexuality from an early age, and the time he spent immersed in religion and trying to change only made things worse. On the eve of his 26th birthday, after having survived a few attacks for being gay, Okporo woke up to insults being hurled at him right outside his house in Abuja, a town in Nigeria slightly more welcoming than his birthplace, the small town of Warri , where masculinity was celebrated.
Fearing for his life after surviving a brutal attack and being outed to the community at large because he was going to be awarded for his work fighting for better education and health care for the LGBTQ community in Nigeria, Okporo fled to the United States. Instead of welcoming him, the US immigration system locked him up for “five months and fourteen days.”
“Asylum” is a touching, informative, honest chronicle of Okporo’s life in Nigeria — a country that is brutally unaccepting of LGBTQ people — and a story that showcases some of the shortcomings of the US immigration system as seen from the inside.
Lastly, Susan Hartman’s “City of Refugees: The Story of Three Newcomers Who Breathed Life into a Dying American Town” follows three refugees who forged a new life in Utica, NY With a keen eye for detail and a lot of heart, Hartman follows the three for eight years: Sadia, a young Somali Bantu girl with unbelievable energy and an unforgettable personality; Ali, an Iraqi translator; and Mersiha, a Bosnian immigrant with dreams of opening a business. Hartman crafts a nuanced narrative about each creating a new life in a new country while simultaneously holding onto memories of home and not losing their identity.
The beauty of “City of Refugees” is that it tackles all the bad things that happen to these people while also reveling in their dreams and growth. Sadia, for example, grows into a young woman with her humor intact: When Hartman reconnects with her after Hartman has put on 30 pounds, Sadia celebrates the change in Hartman and says she looks “yummy, yummy.”
Taken together, these three books show the ugly side of undocumented migration and the need for humane reform that takes into account the reasons that force so many millions to leave their loved ones and countries behind. The books also shine a light on the dreams of those who abandon everything they know in search of a better future. Each book should be required reading because each focuses on the people, and that’s what should be at the center of any conversation about undocumented migration.
Somewhere We Are Human: Authentic Voices on Migration, Survival, and New Beginnings
Edited by Reyna Grande and Sonia Guiñansaca
(HarperVia; 336 pages; $27.99)
Asylum: A Memoir & Manifesto
By Edafe Okporo
(Simon & Schuster; 224 pages; $26.99)
City of Refugees: The Story of Three Newcomers Who Breathed Life into a Dying American Town
By Susan Hartman
(Beacon Press; 256 pages; $27.95)