When author Melissa de la Cruz published “Something in Between,” her young adult novel about an undocumented Filipino-American high school senior, she had no idea that the country was about to embark on a national debate about immigration that would make her work more timely and relevant than ever.
"Something in Between" follows Jasmine de los Santos, a California honor student whose world is shaken to the core after her parents reveal that she, along with the rest of the family, is undocumented.
De la Cruz has been writing YA novels for years, but says creating Jasmine’s story was a particularly personal one for her. Like Jasmine, the author was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a child. While de la Cruz and her family weren't undocumented, she says that she also often experienced restrictions as a teen that her friends with citizenship.
“When I began writing immigration was definitely becoming a big topic,” de la Cruz told NBC News, adding that her publisher had approached her asking if she could do an immigration-themed story.
She said that her own journey to a green card took many years and was delayed because of things like lost files requiring intervention from elected officials. “I told them, ‘I don’t know.’ Because it took so long, I couldn’t do things like go to Europe on a school trip with my friends. I didn’t want to go back to those feelings again.”
In de la Cruz's novel, Jasmine, a straight-A student with a perfect resume, has no clue about her immigration status until she began discussing the college application process and student loans with her family. Distressed and confused, she is unsure about whether or not to confide in her friends and teachers about her status or if she should give up her dreams of college.
“I think people don’t realize that a lot of people are going through life undocumented,” de la Cruz said. “It’s really hard to punish the children because it is not their fault [that they were brought here.]”
According to Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor at UC Riverdale and the director of AAPI Data, Jasmine’s story and her surprise and discovering the truth about her status is an experience shared by many.
“Often, the parents hide their undocumented status from the children,” Ramakrishnan told NBC News. “A common experience in the stories you hear is that the child is trying to get a driver's license or needs to leave the country for a for a school trip or is ready to apply for college [and then discovers their status.]"
Like the fictional de los Santos family in "Something in Between," who originally came to California with valid work visas, most undocumented Asian Americans originally lose their status either through unemployment or an extended stay on a tourist visa.
“Most people who are undocumented are what we call ‘overstayers,’” said Ramakrishnan, noting that this population often goes unnoticed because they don’t fit the picture many envision when they think of undocumented people. “Asians also benefit from the fact that while there are upwards of 1.5 million undocumented Asian Americans, the way profiling works, they are less likely to be deported.”
Throughout “Something in Between,” de la Cruz stresses the anxiety and shame Jasmine experiences as she struggles with whether or not she should reveal her status to her friends and teachers. “They are teenagers, so they want to talk about what’s happening. But even though my family was documented, my parents would say, ‘don’t talk about our status so much’ to me,” de la Cruz recalled. “There is kind of this fear where people are so worried that anything could happen. But it felt liberating to talk about it.”
Ultimately, de la Cruz says she hopes books like hers both make undocumented teens feel less alone and broaden the horizons of other teens. “I am a writer, not a politician,” she said. “But learning about someone else’s plight is never a bad thing.”