12 Favorite Immigrant Books

Table Of Contents

Before the pandemic, I attended my daughter’s school dance. It was in the basement of the church next to the school, and it was a K-5 dance, which means all the parents were in attendance.

The dance was also a potluck dinner- a chance for parents to show off their culinary skills. As we went through the line I saw pizza and tamales and macaroni and cheese- and then I saw the crown jewel of the potluck.

The Ethiopian immigrant women had gone all out in their preparation of a literal feast of food- injera and spicy stews that looked and smelled divine.

As I served myself the food, the women looked on approvingly. One young woman came to me and said “You are the only person who served themselves our food in the traditional Ethopian way. How did you know what to do?”

(Generally food is served with the injera bread on the bottom and the stew on top as Ethiopians generally forgo untensils when eating.)

I smiled and said “I’ve read about Ethiopian food and have always wanted to try it.” As the young women translated my response for her family their eyes lit up- they hadn’t met a white woman who knew about their culture. They were so happy to feel seen in that moment, and I basked in the glow of human connection.

Disclosure- This post was sponsored by MomsRising- a non-profit dedicated to supporting immigrant rights in the United States. You can find more about them here: https://www.momsrising.org/

The Power Of Immigrant Stories

Now- I don’t want in any way for this post to be misconstrued as white woman who reads and therefore knows everything about other cultures. I share the anecdote above to illustrate the absolute importance of and power in connecting with people who don’t look like ourselves as a way to bring people together rather than drive them apart.

We are living in a very difficult time- a world pandemic has gone on for months- and there is no sign of an end. COVID has taken a toll on everyone in different ways- from essential workers who labor tirelessly to keep people safe, to those who have lost their jobs and their loved ones. It’s a really difficult time.

Add in an election that- apart from being polarizing- has emboldened many to speak out against foreign-born immigrants, making many in our community feel unsafe or have feelings of mistrust towards others.

Add these feelings to the fact that many of our essential workers are carrying us through the pandemic as essential workers, we’ve got a serious dichotomy of perception and reality happening.

A few statistics about the immigrant experience from Colorado, my home state:

  • The foreign born share of all essential workers is 12.9 percent which is higher than then share of the entire labor force (12%) (2020, Center for Migration Studies)
  • There are 4,300 DACA recipients in Colorado working in occupations on the frontlines (i.e. health care, education & food related jobs) (American Progress
  • In Denver, immigrants comprise 23 percent of transportation and warehousing workers  and they make up 23.5 percent of all food sector workers in Denver ( New American Economy )

Educate Yourself

I hear over and over how many people struggle to read statistics and translate them into action to support immigrants. It’s not that people don’t want to help- it’s that they don’t know how.

I totally get that. It’s not like you can just walk into an immigrant community center and start asking questions about someone else’s culture.

But it’s also not enough just to write a check and turn a blind eye either. We need to build community with all those living and working in the United States- regardless of where they are born.

To that end, I am including a list of my favorite immigrant stories, novels (from Ellis Island to San Francisco) and memoirs in the hope that you will find something to read.

But don’t just read and forget. Read these stories. Share them with others. Then allow what you’ve learned to inspire change. One way you can inspire change is to sign a petition asking members of Congress to include immigrants in COVID relief packages. The link to do so is at the bottom of this post!

12 Of My Favorite Books About Immigrants

Here is a list of my absolute favorite immigrants books (in no particular order):

  1. Once I Was You by Maria Hinojosa – This memoir by one of the nation’s most beloved Latina reporters outlines Hinojosa’s experiences from the moment she entered into the United States from Mexico, and shares in-depth reporting on immigration policy in the US over the past 50 years.
  2. Ayiti by Roxane Gay– This collection of fictional short stories outlines the complexities of Haitian culture and religion, beginning with the story of a man and woman who get on a boat headed for the United States.
  3. Almost A Woman by Esmeralda Santiago – This memoir by the author of The House On Mango Street describe’s the author’s experiences in high school in New York City as part of the Puerto Rican American community in the late 50’s and early 60’s.
  4. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – This fictional account of two childhood friends who fall in love and then immigrate to different countries is an award-winning book and an excellent read. A great book club book.
  5. Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson – This memoir by James Beard award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson outlines the struggles of being an immigrant black chef in American kitchens. Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, adopted by Swedes and immigrated to the US where he now resides.
  6. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt – This Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir write of McCourt’s immigration from Ireland to the United States in the early 1930s. The first in a trilogy.
  7. Paper Wife by Laila Ibrahim – I loved this book and it’s free on Kindle Unlimited. Youn Mei Ling’s parents arrange passage for her from China to California to be a”paper wife”- marriage in exchange for American citizenship. Set in 1923, a great historical fiction novel.
  8. Re-Jane by Patricia Park – Jane Re is a Korean American orphan who goes on a reverse immigration exploration of her Korean roots. Lovely, raw, and a really fun read.
  9. Dear America, Notes of An Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas – The author was sent by his mom from the Philipines to live in the United States. He doesn’t find out he’s undocumented until he tries to apply for a driver’s license. This book should be required reading for everyone.
  10. American Like Me- Reflections on Life Between Cultures compiled by American Ferrera – A star-studded collection of essays from the likes of Lin Manuel Miranda, Laurie Hernandez, Padma Lashiki, Roxane Gay and more. Don’t miss this book.
  11. The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea – The groundbreaking report that follows immigrants from Mexico to the United States as they attempt to walk to freedom. This book will open your eyes to the border concerns in a way you won’t forget.
  12. Breaking Through by Francisco Jimenez – This book is appropriate for all ages and simply yet powerfully tells the story of growing up in California as an undocumented immigrant family from California. Now a professor, Jimenez shares his childhood story through his own eyes as a boy living in the 50s.

How You Can Help Immigrants Now

Read and share these facts with others. Then, please take 5 seconds to sign the petition to tell Congress to include immigrants in COVID-19 relief below:

  • COVID-19 has shown us that now more than ever, we are dependent on each other, and whether we’re Black or white, Latino or Asian, native or newcomer, we know it’s time to pull together to demand the testing, treatment and time off we all need to get or stay well. Only by standing united can we ensure our own wellbeing through this outbreak and rewrite the rules to ensure better health for us all for generations to come.
  • Immigrants’ contributions to the economy and society are indispensable during the COVID-19 pandemic. From healthcare to agriculture, Americans, regardless of where we were born, are standing shoulder to shoulder during the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Immigrants are putting their lives on the line to keep our health care system and our economy going, and are essential to America’s recovery. 
  • Immigrant contributions to society and the economy during COVID-19 have been indispensable & the government response should reflect that. 
  • 70% of farmworkers and 40% of food packers are immigrants. They are putting their lives on the line to keep our economy going. Let’s make sure they’re included in the next COVID relief legislation.
  • 1 in 6 nurses and 1 in 4 physicians are immigrants. They are putting their lives on the line daily. 
  • Many low wage workers have no economic choice other than to return to work and feel trapped while fearing for their lives. It’s up to us to make sure they are protected.

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