Understanding Immigration: A Reading List

—Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia

As we enter a new year, immigration continues to be front and center in many spaces, and not just at the border. In my corner of rural Pennsylvania, counties operate jails that detain young children; law students apply the maze of immigration law to real life lawyering; municipalities embrace immigration as a net good for communities; and residents remain divided about immigrants in America.

Nationally, presidential candidates have taken varying positions on immigration; members of Congress are yet to push meaningful legislative changes pass the finish line; and executive branch officials and the Trump administration have generated directives that affect the daily lives of immigrants. Federal judges have blocked immigration policies that may exceed the limits of the law but the Supreme Court has more than once allowed the administration’s directives effectuate in spite of unsettled or adverse outcomes in litigation challenging these directives.

It all feels overwhelming. As an immigration attorney and law professor, this emotion has been more than just passing. Books provide a way for us to slow down, acquire knowledge and get closer to human experience and suffering. For anyone looking to deepen their understanding of immigration or curious about how we got here and possible solutions, the following books deserve a place on your bookshelf.

Just MercyJust Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Penguin Random House.

Bryan Stevenson wrote this book in 2014 but I read this book for the first time in 2019 (I had/have a long “to read” pile). I was taken by Stevenson’s writing a journey that began as a young law student and continued through adulthood as a death penalty lawyer and law professor. This book is centered on people affected by the criminal justice system. Words will not do justice to the eloquence and vividness with which Stevenson brings the reader and humanizes the stories of his clients. Defendants in immigration “removal” proceedings are tried in a “civil” system but many of the defects in the immigration system bear a resemblance to the criminal justice system. One common defect is with the conditions under which people are jailed and the choice by government actors to detain people in the first place.

SeparatedSeparated: Family and Community in the Aftermath of an Immigration Raid. Johns Hopkins University Press.

William Lopez does a powerful job humanizing the effects of immigration enforcement on families and community. I was fortunate to share a table with him at the Texas Book Festival and later (when reading the book), moved by the way he brought the reader into the minds and hearts of people affected by an immigration raid. He effectively details how the detention and deportation of a single person has lingering effects. As an immigration attorney in a town affected the same way during the Obama administration, I also could relate to many dimensions of immigration enforcement regardless of the administration.

Lives in the BalanceLives in the Balance: Asylum Adjudication in the Department of Homeland Security. New York University Press.

Jaya Ramji-Nogales, Philip C. Schrag, and Andrew Shonoeltz have co-authored two fabulous books about immigration and refugees for NYU Press. I am going to showcase one. During an age the number of interviews being handled by asylum officers has skyrocketed, and media coverage about asylum policy has magnified, Lives in the Balance removes the volatility of asylum and instead uncovers essential information about the “affirmative” asylum process, how asylum officers decide cases, and insights about their backgrounds. I like this book because it is heavy on data but explains this data in a way that is accessible, relevant, and even inspiring.

On My Bookshelf

Migrating to PrisonMigrating to Prison: America’s Obsession with Locking Up Immigrants (César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández) The New Press.

A detailed history of and case for abolishing immigration jails in America

César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández’s new book has already won acclaim from numerous media outlets and physical spaces. He runs an innovative blog called “CrImmigration.” According to The New Press “In Migrating to Prison, leading scholar César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández takes a hard look at the immigration prison system’s origins, how it currently operates, and why. He tackles the emergence of immigration imprisonment in the mid-1980s, with enforcement resources deployed disproportionately against Latinos, and he looks at both the outsized presence of private prisons and how those on the political right continue, disingenuously, to link immigration imprisonment with national security risks and threats to the rule of law.”

Baby JailsBaby Jails: The Fight to End the Incarceration of Refugee Children in America (Philip G. Schrag ) University of California Press.

A chilling chronicle of refugee children in detention with solutions for reform

Philip G. Schrag is a renowned teacher and lawyer at my own alma mater Georgetown Law. From UC Press “Baby Jails is the history of that legal and political struggle. Philip G. Schrag, the director of Georgetown University’s asylum law clinic, takes readers through thirty years of conflict over which refugee advocates resisted the detention of migrant children. The saga began during the Reagan administration when 15-year-old Jenny Lisette Flores languished in a Los Angeles motel that the government had turned into a makeshift jail by draining the swimming pool, barring the windows, and surrounding the building with barbed wire. What became known as the Flores Settlement Agreement was still at issue years later, when the Trump administration resorted to the forced separation of families after the courts would not allow long-term jailing of the children.”

Here We AreHere We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (Aarti Namdev Shahani) Macmillan Publishers.

A compelling memoir from an immigration who fought her father’s detention

Aarti Namdev Shahani is such a well known NPR correspondent but what some new readers may not know is how fierce and amazing she was as an organizer and advocate in fighting to prevent her father’s detention. I had the opportunity to meet her then and many years later at the Texas Book Festival where she showcased this book and told her story. As described by the publisher: “Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares follows the lives of Aarti, the precocious scholarship kid at one of Manhattan’s most elite prep schools, and her dad, the shopkeeper who mistakenly sells watches and calculators to the notorious Cali drug cartel. Together, the two represent the extremes that coexist in our country, even within a single family, and a truth about immigrants that gets lost in the headlines. It isn’t a matter of good or evil; it’s complicated.”

Coming Soon

No Justice in the ShadowsNo Justice in the Shadows (Alina Das) Bold Type Books.

A rich account about the racist history of the immigration system

Alina Das has been a force of nature in the courtroom, classroom, and on the streets as an immigration attorney and advocate. As described by the publisher, her first book “Through the stories of those caught in the system, Das traces the ugly history of immigration policy to explain how the US constructed the idea of the “criminal alien,” effectively dividing immigrants into the categories “good” and “bad,” “deserving” and “undeserving.” As Das argues, we need to confront the cruelty of the machine so that we can build an inclusive immigration policy premised on human dignity and break the cycle once and for all.”

Perchance to DREAMPerchance to DREAM (Michael Olivas) NYU Press.

A comprehensive history about DACA and the DREAM Act

Michael Olivas is a legend in the field of higher education and immigration. He has written so many wonderful books, but Perchance to DREAM is special in so many ways because it binds together so many years of personal insight and history. From NYU Press “Perchance to DREAM is the first comprehensive history of the DREAM Act, which made its initial congressional appearance in 2001, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the discretionary program established by President Obama in 2012 out of Congressional failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform. Michael A. Olivas relates the history of the DREAM Act and DACA over the course of two decades.”

The Battle to Stay in America (Michael Kagan) University of Nevada Press.

A story about immigration enforcement, family, and community

Michael Kagan is an exceptional scholar and lawyer who showcases his first book with a bang, combining the changes in our country nationally with the way immigration has unfolded and in his community. The Battle to Stay in America is the story of a community coming to grips with the federal government’s crackdown on immigrants, and learning how to defend itself. Informative and personal, this is a story about mothers and fathers, lawyers and activists, local police and federal agencies, and a struggle for the identity of a nation, as fought and felt on the front lines in the heart of America.


BannedBeyond DeportationShoba Sivaprasad Wadhia (@shobawadhia) is an immigration attorney and law professor at Penn State Law in University Park. She is the author of Beyond Deportation: The Role of Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Cases and Banned: Immigration Enforcement In The Time of Trump, both available from NYU Press.