...[a] captivating and evocative first book ...Villavicencio aims to tell 'the full story' of what it means to be undocumented in America, in all of its fraughtness and complexity, challenging the usual good and evil categories through a series of memoir-infused reported essays ... Particularly in her depictions of immigrant women, Villavicencio reveals a fullness of character that feels subversive, simply because of how rare it is ... Villavicencio writes chillingly, and fictionally, about undocumented immigrants whose full stories she can never know because they’ve hidden any trace of themselves out of self-protection ... The Undocumented Americans offers little to those who think its subjects put themselves in a vulnerable position and should be punished for breaking the law. But even critics may find it challenging after reading the book to keep their minds from wandering toward the interior details, flattering and unflattering, of people they encounter who lack legal status.
Cornejo Villavicencio is able to inhabit her subject in a way few who get to publish can. (She even turns her limitations into strengths: writing powerfully about the places she can’t go, the situations where she’s out of place, the people who won’t talk to her.) ... The book is beautiful for Cornejo Villavicencio’s sensitivity to character, and for her ability to structure a narrative almost entirely through the people she meets ... Their stories are told with generosity, vigilance, and humor ... fantastical longing is, in fact, commonplace in The Undocumented Americans. It’s the grounds on which the book stakes an alternative claim of belonging for its subjects, one that has nothing to do with citizenship.
Based on fieldwork from Ground Zero to Miami, solidly researched and footnoted, this chronicle is framed by [Villavicencio's] own family’s experience with immigration and the relationships that blossomed between her and her similarly undocumented subjects. This valuable and authentic inquiry is powerfully embellished with magical imaginings ... Villavicencio’s unfiltered and vulnerable voice incorporates both explosive profanity and elegiac incantations of despair ... 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.