As the election season winds down, the rhetoric on immigration policy heats up. Candidates on both sides have their statistics, their anecdotes, their stories of terror and compassion.
For a reasoned, first-hand, street-level view of immigration, there is Daniel Connolly's The Book of Isaias, A Child of Hispanic Immigrants Seeks His Own America (St. Martin's Press). Connolly is a former intern for The Memphis Flyer and a current reporter with The Commercial Appeal. He spent a year with boots on the ground, as it were, in Kingsbury High School for his in-depth research into the lives of children of immigrants.
Connolly grew up in Hickory Hill, and his first exposure to the Hispanic population was with an influx at his family's church. It would plant the seed of interest in immigration stories that has grown during his time as a journalist.
When he decided to write a book, it was a lunch with Mauricio Calvo, executive director of Latino Memphis, in 2010 that set him on the trail of immigrants' children. "That struck me as an interesting angle that I hadn't spent much time reporting on," Connolly said.
At a journalism conference, a reporter spoke about spending a year inside a school. "I didn't know journalists could do that," Connolly said.
He spent the 2012-2013 school year at Kingsbury, saying, "If you want to write about Hispanic life at the high school level in Memphis, that's the best place to go." There, he was immediately taken with one student in particular, Isaias Ramos, a senior whose parents had come to the United States from Hidalgo, Mexico, with their two small sons years before. Another son would be born here. Isaias is presented as a good student and a hard worker who not only keeps up with his schoolwork, but helps his parents with their painting business. But Isaias wants to go to college, and therein lies the problem for the children of undocumented immigrants.
Connolly relies on national and local statistics to paint a picture of immigration in 21st-century America, comparing modern-day immigrant numbers with that of 19th-century Germans (4.3 million), Irish (3.2 million), and Italians (3.8 million). "Between 1965 and 2015, Mexicans arriving in the United States numbered 16.3 million, eclipsing each of the previously mentioned migrations by more than a factor of three," he writes.
Those statistics are rounded out with personal stories of Isaias and his friends, of family dynamics, and teachers striving to help them realize their dreams. This is no cold look at the current situation, but a warm story of struggle and hope. He tells the story of Estevon Odria, who scored a 29 on his ACT and was one of the top five in his class. He spent the summer before Connolly's arrival on scholarship at a summer program at tony Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Estevon encountered a life and culture he'd never experienced before, and his dreams of a good college were set in motion. At home, though, his school struggled with the most basic obstacles such as class scheduling. Connolly writes: "And then Estevon was on a plane back to Memphis and back to Kingsbury High, where hundreds of kids sat in the gym for days, doing nothing. He wished he were somewhere else."
The Book of Isaias is more than a singular look at one undocumented student's desire for college. It's a hard look at the immigration policies of our nation and at the shortcomings of our local school system.
Connolly is a thorough researcher and was given unfettered access by the school system to students, teachers, counselors, and faculty meetings. He spent time at extracurricular activities, family gatherings, and even traveled to Mexico. He did his homework. But he's also a brilliant and empathetic writer, and it is this marriage of research and storytelling that makes The Book of Isaias so compelling.