Helen Thorpe, critically acclaimed author and the wife of Denver Mayor and gubernatorial candidate John Hickenlooper, did her best to steer away from politics when she addressed the Lakewood chapter of the American Association of University Women Thursday. She almost pulled it off.
Thorpe spoke for an hour at Red Rocks Community College.
Her book Just Like Us chronicles the lives of four girls of Mexican heritage growing up in Denver.
“I wondered what your life would be like if your parents brought you to the United States without documentation,” she said, explaining how she set out to write the book.
The four girls were best friends. Two had no documentation. One had a green card. And one—born in the United States—was a citizen.
Thorpe said the girls really only became aware of the differences in their status as they moved into the later years of high school, when two of them discovered they couldn’t get driver’s licenses, open checking accounts, qualify for in-state tuition in college or apply for student aid.
She said that just at the time when many teenagers begin to struggle with major life decisions, kids who are here without documentation get hit with the fact of how different their lives will be because they lack legal status in this country.
“Most people in our society would agree that we would never wave a magic wand to create this situation, we would never agree that this is a great situation to hand young people,” she said. “They have no choice in their status, but they are personally embarrassed by their status, and these stories are unfolding all the time in our schools.
“Because their parents brought them here when they were three and seven, they have no way to legally change their status as long as they remain on U.S. soil. Immigration laws are pretty strict, and because they entered the U.S. the wrong way, they have no way to become citizens or U.S. residents as long as they remain here. They would have to return to their country of origin to change their status but, because their families have jobs here and are earning money, they are unwilling to go back to Mexico and start over.”
She noted that the parents of these children came here knowing they were breaking the law, but that the children had no say in the matter. “I think the children have a different moral status. They did not choose to come here, but they have spent most of their lives here without legal status.”
Asked what she hoped to accomplish when she wrote the book, she said, “I think that stories are very powerful and can help us understand another person’s life. It is not my role to tell people what to think about immigration, but I did want to tell a story that takes you on a journey. I don’t know that it will change anyone’s political view, but if I can give people more information to help them understand the situations that people are in, that’s a good thing.”
She said she hoped to add nuance to the black and white conversation where people seem reluctant to concede to complexity or share common understandings.
“I’m an expert on these four women; I’m not an expert on immigration law or policy,” she said.
She includes interviews with former Congressman Tom Tancredo in the book, and recounts spending time riding around town in a car with him. She also includes a chapter where the girls attend a speech he gave at the DU campus. Tancredo is now running for governor on the American Constitution Party ticket against Thorpe’s husband, Hickenlooper.
“I thought it was really important to include Tom. He represents a view that is totally opposite of the view these girls have. He speaks for people who feel their wages have been adversely affected by the illegal immigration of people who are willing to work for less money.
“I agree with him that there are many people in this country whose wages have been affected. It is hard to have an honest conversation about immigration if you don’t acknowledge that.
“There are many people who want to say immigration is only wonderful for our country. He is someone who says it is mostly bad. You have to acknowledge that it is both.”
She said she sat down and had coffee with Tancredo after her book came out and gave him a copy with sticky notes highlighting the places he was mentioned.
“I don’t know if he thinks it is terrible or wonderful. He never got back to me,” she said.