13 Films And Books About Immigrants You Should See And Read Right Now

Because their stories are anything but criminal.

With U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids on the rise, immigration offices popping up all over the United States, and more than 15,000 new hires on the way for the Department of Homeland Security's immigration enforcement, it seems the undocumented living among us are making headlines more than ever.

Whether you agree with the new administration's approach to controlling this issue or not, it's important for us to understand all sides of the story. While some are quick to side with the mass raids and deportation of hundreds of thousands of immigrants, new to this country or longtime residents with American children, it's difficult to fully grasp what life is like for them if you've never experienced it firsthand.

What better way to expand your mind than to dive into movies, documentaries, and books detailing the immigrant experience? To help you along, we've chosen stories reflecting what it's truly like to move to a foreign land — not for criminal purposes, but to escape war-torn regions, corrupt governments, and drug cartels, and to find a better life for themselves and their families.


These are the 13 books, movies, and documentaries that everyone should read and see right away:

1. "El Norte" (1983)

The Gregory Nava-directed film follows two teenage siblings, Rosa and Enrique, who manage to escape a brutal massacre by the Guatemalan army against a group of Mayan Indians who were working to improve conditions in their village. Rosa and Enrique know there is no end to the harsh and often violent living conditions in Guatemala, so they decide to find a new life in El Norte (The North ... America). Nava also directed the hit film Selena, starring Jennifer Lopez. 

2. "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents" by Julia Alvarez (1991)

In Julia Alvarez's debut novel, the Dominican-American author tells the tale of living a life at the intersection of two cultures. The García sisters — Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofía — and their family arrive in New York City in 1960 after fleeing their beloved Dominican Republic under the rule of a tyrannical dictator. Their parents try to hold on to their culture while raising the girls in a country far different from anything they've ever known. The book explores that "in between" feeling many immigrants experience when trying to adjust to their new, not always welcoming, home by shedding traces of their past existence. The García sisters did this by getting rid of their Spanish accent and straightening their wear, something they all felt would make them more American.  

3. "Breath, Eyes, Memory" by Edwidge Danticat (1994)

Part of Oprah's Book Club, the novel by the celebrated Haitian author is similar to Alvarez's book, but this time it's a 12-year-old girl from an impoverished village in Haiti, Croix-des-Rosets, who is sent to reunite with the mother she barely knows who lives in New York. Sophie Caco's journey to a new land is anything but a joyful experience. Instead, the young girl has to navigate a world filled with shameful secrets and lies, which only make her feel further away from her homeland.    

4. "Dancer in the Dark" (2000)

The film about a Czech immigrant, played by singer Björk, shows how the working single mother, living in rural America with her son, finds her escape through music. As Selma loses herself in classic Hollywood musicals, she is also losing something else … her vision. Her biggest fear is that her son, Gene, will also face the same ailment if she can't come up with the money to cover the operation that could save his sight. But as an immigrant, working in a factory, Selma's hopes are far-fetched. A false accusation from a hateful neighbor only makes matters worse.

5. "House of Sand and Fog" (2003)

The film based on the 1999 novel about a family of Iranian immigrants in the U.S. in search of a better future. But when their plans of homeownership and the pursuit of the American Dream collide with an American woman named Kathy — who used to live in the home and wants it back — the situation escalates more than anyone imagined. The film also explores how drastically different Massoud Amir Behrani, played by Academy Award-winning actor Ben Kingsley, lives in the United States, where he works in a gas station, compared to his educated, professional life in Iran.  

6. "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Díaz (2007)

Junot Díaz didn't shy away one bit from sharing the story about Dominican immigrant Oscar Wao, who moved to New Jersey shocked to find a world nothing like the Caribbean island he came from. The story is fiction, but touches on the Pulitzer Prize-winning author's real-life immigrant story of when he moved to the United States from Santo Domingo. Oscar is like any other boy in search of himself and the love of his life, but his immigrant status "opens our eyes to an astonishing vision of the contemporary American experience."

7. "Under the Same Moon" (2007)

As Rosario — a Mexican immigrant working illegally in the United States — tries to save enough money to send for her 9-year-old son, Carlitos, her world gets turned upside down. With the fear of deportation looming, Rosario, played by Kate del Castillo, continues working toward her goal. What she doesn't expect is that her son can't wait any longer and takes drastic measures to reunite with his mother.

8. "Girl in Translation" by Jean Kwok (2010)

Chinese immigrant Kimberly Chang and her mother are trying to make sense of their new life in Brooklyn, N.Y. But Kimberly is forced to live a secret double life as a high-achieving scholar by day and Chinatown sweatshop worker by night. Author Jean Kwok's poignant description of Kimberly's struggle to make sense of the two worlds she lives in shows how far she will go to conceal her family's poverty while working toward a financially stable future.

9. "Life of Pi" (2012)

After leaving Pondicherry, India, to move to Montreal, Canada, the Patel family is struck by tragedy. The only survivor is the teenage son, Pi, who is forced to survive against all odds with an unusually dangerous travel companion, a Bengal tiger. The Ang Lee-directed film, based off the book by the same name, is a touching story of immigrant hardship and the willingness to survive by any means necessary.

10. "Americanah" by Chimamanda Adichie

While a young Nigerian immigrant woman named Ifemelu works towards a better education and life in the U.S., she is faced with the harsh reality of what it's like to be Black in America. At the same time, the man she left behind begins his own perilous journey as an undocumented immigrant living in London. Award-winning author Chimamanda Adichie takes readers on a powerful odyssey of race and identity.

11. "Who is Dayani Cristal?" (2014)

One man's unsuccessful trek across the U.S.-Mexico border piques the interest of Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal and director Marc Silver, who retrace the dead migrant's steps to discover his identity in this gripping documentary. The unidentified man's decaying corpse was found under the blistering sun of the Sonoran Desert with the only clue about his life being the tattoo he wears that reads "Dayani Cristal."

12. "Yassin Falafel" (2017)

Yassin Terou arrived in the United States from Syria in 2011 with little to his name. What he did have was the skill to prepare delicious falafel and the determination to make it in a foreign land different from anything he'd ever known.

The documentary Yassin Falafel was produced by Square — a financial services and merchant services aggregator, as well as mobile payment company based in San Francisco — as a way of "chronicling our remarkable sellers and their tireless pursuit of their dreams.

13. "Lion" (2017)

The six-time Oscar-nominated film — including for Best Picture — takes viewers on a sad and dangerous journey with a 5-year-old Indian boy who gets lost on the streets of Calcutta. After a search for his brother and mother proved hopeless, the boy is eventually adopted by a couple in Australia. As an immigrant, he never looked back at his life in India until 25 years later as an adult, when he finally decided to set out in search of finding them again. Lion is highly favored to snag the Best Picture award and more at Sunday's Academy Awards.   

Cover image via YouTube


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