Helen Thorpe

So now Tom Tancredo (here in Colorado) is rumbling about a run for governor.

Today (Nov. 14) in Denver a rally was held at the state Capitol and the message was familiar—illegal immigrants must go. (The rally was small. I’m not even sure why it warranted on a spot on the evening news.)

And this week, Lou Dobbs stepped down from his anchor position on CNN. Dobbs had turned his broadcast into a regular diatribe about the broken immigration system.

I hope Dobbs, Tancredo and all those who want a new immigration policy in this country take the time to read Helen Thorpe’s “Just Like Us.”

Before I go too far, here’s full disclosure that Helen Thorpe is a friend.  I watched from a distance during the many years she did the reporting and writing for this book.

I know of no magic fix for the immigration issue.  What I do know is it’s complicated and “Just Like Us” makes that fact clear in leaps and bounds.Just Like Us

“Just Like Us” lives in the streets, classrooms, houses, apartments, dance clubs and restaurants where its four main characters spend their time. It lives in real-world decisions. Two of the four live in the United States without a green card or Social Security number. The third was born in the United States. The fourth owns a green card. As the book begins, the four attend a Denver high school but face varying futures that depend on their status and on the ease at which they move between school, work and home. Their futures depend on personality and pluck, too.

Layered in and around the story of this foursome, as they transition from high school to college and encounter a variety of woes from income to boyfriends, “Just Like Us” covers the major players on the immigration reform debate, most notably the aforementioned Tancredo, a former U.S. Congressman from the Denver suburbs whose relentless effort to tighten immigration policies landed him on the national stage.

As the wife of Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, Thorpe notes her dual roles—as reporter and politician’s wife—but never lets her reporter’s eye or insight fade.  (Thorpe was a well-accomplished author, writer and reporter before she married.)

As she follows the foursome, the sensational murder of an off-duty Denver policeman galvanizes the immigration issue (and the city) when the hunt reveals that the suspect is in the United States illegally and has fled home to Mexico.  Worse, at least politically, is the fact that the suspect had worked in a restaurant previously owned by the mayor, who rode to popularity and election as the quirky owner of popular brewpub.  The suspect landed the job with false identification (the trade in false documents is well established in the book) and the killing and the killer’s existence in the United States become the sad, sensational talk of the town.

Thorpe never shies away from her reporting responsibility and openly details her point of view as she attends the funeral of the slain police officer as the mayor’s wife and then covers the trial of the suspect as a reporter.

Throughout, the writing is impeccable and all the characters and Denver locations come to life. “Against the rusting cars and chain-link fencing, the girls looked like migrating birds that had been blown off course,” she writes of the decked-out girls as they attend a party.

In one of the most colorful and heartfelt chapters, Thorpe travels to Durango, Mexico to visit with the mother of Yadira, one of the four girls. The mother, Alma, had been arrested in Denver for using false papers and she opts to head home after a stint in jail and the courts.  The portrait of yearning and a fractured family, amid poverty, is compelling.

With its detail and the up-close-and-personal approach to reporting, “Just Like Us” shows just how much immigrants—both legal and illegal—are part of the fabric of our communities. Thorpe’s approach is empathetic but only as sentimental as two friends can become. “Just Like Us” puts a vivid, human face on the immigration issue—both those who live the issue on the streets and those trying to solve the matter politically. It will prompt readers to step away from the theoretical, ideological sides of the immigration debate and ponder the issue from the complex perspective from those who straddle multiple worlds as “hybrid creatures” each and every day.


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