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The Undocumented Americans  By  cover art

The Undocumented Americans

By: Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
Narrated by: Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
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Publisher's Summary

National Book Award Finalist

One of the first undocumented immigrants to graduate from Harvard reveals the hidden lives of her fellow undocumented Americans in this deeply personal and groundbreaking portrait of a nation.

"Karla's book sheds light on people's personal experiences and allows their stories to be told and their voices to be heard." (Selena Gomez)

Longlisted for the Porchlight Business Book Award

Named One of the 10 Best Books of the Year by Vulture and One of the Best Books of the Year by:

  • The New York Times Book Review 
  • Time
  • NPR 
  • The New York Public Library 
  • Book Riot 
  • Library Journal 

Writer Karla Cornejo Villavicencio was on DACA when she decided to write about being undocumented for the first time using her own name. It was right after the election of 2016, the day she realized the story she'd tried to steer clear of was the only one she wanted to tell. So she wrote her immigration lawyer's phone number on her hand in Sharpie and embarked on a trip across the country to tell the stories of her fellow undocumented immigrants - and to find the hidden key to her own. 

Looking beyond the flashpoints of the border or the activism of the DREAMers, Cornejo Villavicencio explores the lives of the undocumented - and the mysteries of her own life. She finds the singular, effervescent characters across the nation often reduced in the media to political pawns or nameless laborers. The stories she tells are not deferential or naively inspirational but show the love, magic, heartbreak, insanity, and vulgarity that infuse the day-to-day lives of her subjects. 

In New York, we meet the undocumented workers who were recruited into the federally funded Ground Zero cleanup after 9/11. In Miami, we enter the ubiquitous botanicas, which offer medicinal herbs and potions to those whose status blocks them from any other health-care options. In Flint, Michigan, we learn of demands for state ID in order to receive life-saving clean water. In Connecticut, Cornejo Villavicencio, childless by choice, finds family in two teenage girls whose father is in sanctuary. And through it all we see the author grappling with the biggest questions of love, duty, family, and survival. 

In her incandescent, relentlessly probing voice, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio combines sensitive reporting and powerful personal narratives to bring to light remarkable stories of resilience, madness, and death. Through these stories we come to understand what it truly means to be a stray. An expendable. A hero. An American.

©2020 Karla Cornejo Villavicencio (P)2020 Random House Audio
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History

Critic Reviews

"There’s nothing to do but sit down and read this book. Inside it, I feel deep in being, immersed in a frankness and a swerving bright and revelatory funkiness I’ve not encountered ever before concerning the collective daily life of an undocumented family in America. It’s a radical human story and Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is a great writer." (Eileen Myles) 

"This is the book we've been waiting for. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio offers an unflinching indictment of our current immigration system, one that separates families, inflicts trauma, and every day eats away at people's dignity. At the same time, she writes about migrants in a way they've never been written about before - in all their complexity, messiness, humanity, and beauty. Cornejo Villavicencio understands in her bones that writers cannot give people voices or faces. The Undocumented Americans succeeds precisely because she sees their faces and hears their voices. Deeply personal and so superbly told, this is a work we will be talking about for a long time to come." (Roberto G. Gonzales, author of Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America)

"This valuable and authentic inquiry is powerfully embellished with magical imaginings, as when she envisions a man drowning during Hurricane Sandy’s last moments. [Karla] Cornejo Villavicencio’s unfiltered and vulnerable voice incorporates both explosive profanity and elegiac incantations of despair, as, for example, when she internalizes the hatred toward brown people manifest in the poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s water supply. She gives of herself unstintingly as she speaks with undocumented day laborers, older people working long past retirement age, and a housekeeper who relies on the botanica and voodoo for health care. Cornejo Villavicencio’s challenging and moving testimonio belongs in all collections.”—Booklist (starred review) 

Featured Article: Honoring the Courage and Heart of Displaced Peoples on World Refugee Day


World Refugee Day is a time to celebrate the bravery and strength of those who have had to flee their homes in search of protection. But it's also a day of empathy, of understanding, and of listening, so that we may hear the stories of refugees and the struggles they've had to endure. This collection of biographies and memoirs written by and about refugees offers a window into their lived experiences and an invitation to a greater sense of compassion.

What listeners say about The Undocumented Americans

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Raw, heartbreaking - we can do better by others

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio was featured on This American Life on NPR 04/10/2020, she read an excerpt of this gripping account of her life and it was absolutely heartbreaking and raw. It hurt my heart that someone right here in the USA, right this minute is being treated like garbage, less than. Its disgusting and we are not doing enough. This is not the ideal I was serving during my time in the military. We can do more. We must do more. No one is more entitled to this place than anyone else, all humans have the same birthright.

10 people found this helpful

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Couldn't listen

I was so much looking forward to this. I guess I'll have to get a printed copy. the vocalization was so bad I had my ear next to the speaker and still couldn't understand. it should have been read by a professional. I'm still looking forward to getting it but since I live on the Mexican/Guatemala border a hard copy will be difficult.

9 people found this helpful

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poignant and impossible to forget

it all hit hard. incredible writing, powerful reflections. I took notes. you should too.

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The real deal

Moving, inspiring, catalyzing. This book, it's story, emboldened my activist work on matters of immigration.

4 people found this helpful

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Brilliant, intense, heartbreaking and powerful

Karla wrote her story and her communities stories on her own terms. This is not your typical American Dream or Ivy League story. It is her story of healing, trauma, and survival. It is the story of the people so many refuse to look in the eye and humanize.

3 people found this helpful

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Must Listen

I felt transported into the experience of living in American undocumented.. the fear, the struggle, the dismissal and cruelty and non-recognition one lives. This is a very important work. I loved the authors openness about mental health, and the way they engaged with those whose stories are featured. They were able to capture such intimacy, I love and want to defend every person in this book. I will recommend this book to everyone.

3 people found this helpful

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True depiction of life as an immigrant in America

Eye-openning not-sugar coated documentary of immigrants who have BUILT and continue BUILDING America every single day as they are being told YOU ARE NOT WANTED.

3 people found this helpful

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I really enjoyed the narration.

Hearing Karala read this book with her sorta monotone sass was the whole experience, I had heard some of her interviews prior to listening to this book, and I really appreciated how much she is her authentic self. The content itself was beautifully written these stories need to be heard.

3 people found this helpful

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Could have been better

I haven’t yet finished chapter one but I feel I should leave a review. I bought this audiobook, as someone who was undocumented for few years and worked among undocumented immigrants I know the struggle. And that’s precisely why I wanted to listen to this book. However, and I did read those reviews before, it is true that she reads too fast. She doesn’t pauses while she’s reading so it’s like there’s no emphasis on the things that should have it because she keeps reading lacking emotion. This is my opinion. Having read many books and listened to audiobooks I feel this one lacks the way the story is delivered. In no way minimizes the facts of what undocumented immigrants go through but could have been easier on the person listening.

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awful

This is one of the most disappointing things I have ever read. Not much if any point. Just a lot of cursing, stream of consciousness , and bragging interspersed with random human interest vignettes that are neither interesting nor explored.

1 person found this helpful